Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't waste your willpower

Fad diets fizzle when you run out of willpower. The solution isn't to get more willpower, instead it's to use what you have in focused bursts to build a system so that you won't relapse when your willpower fades again.

Any scheme that relies on the continuous application of willpower simply won't work. Human willpower is limited, and the easy way out has a tug that is hard to escape.

Instead, magnify the effect of the willpower by changing the system. If you want to eat better, rather than using that willpower to eat something healthy right now, use the willpower in a focused burst to make healthy lunches for all week. That makes meeting your goal the easy thing to do. Just grab the lunch and go. You've done all the work. You know it's good for you, but more importantly, it sets up the conditions for success. You're more likely to stick with it.

Suppose you want to reduce how much you spend on gasoline. You can't control the cost of fuel, so instead you need to control your consumption. Trading in your guzzler for a sipper would be step in the right direction, but then when gas prices go up you're still stuck paying for gas.

Even if you buy the sipper you will still be stuck with the same commute that was taking up your time and racking up your gas bill.

A more radical solution would involve moving somewhere where you don't need to drive. You'd eliminate the gas costs, as well as all the other costs of owning a vehicle.

Another perk to going car-free is that you'd be able to walk or bike to work, and get the health benefits of that incidental physical activity. It doesn't feel like exercising when it's simply how you get where you're going, but the benefits are the same.

Whatever your goals, use your moments of willpower to set up a system where accomplishing your goals is the default option and achieve them with ease.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ecosystem Services

We live on a generous planet. Nature provides all sorts of services to us that we don't pay for, and often take for granted.

Some of these ecosystem services are easy to spot. Nature does a great job of cleaning air and water. The water that flows through hydroelectric dams is the same water that evaporated from the oceans and flew through the sky to get back to the watershed. It finds its way back into the rivers, and we can turn it into electricity again. Nobody paid to pump it back up the hill. The water also managed to irrigate the areas on which it fell, for free, without any human infrastructure. It would cost us a lot to water the forests.

Clean water flowing in nature seems free, but if we had to replace it with water we cleaned ourselves it would be far more expensive. For example, when New York was dealing with water quality issues it faced the prospect of a $6-8 billion water filtration plant. They opted instead to spend $1-1.5 billion cleaning up the watershed. This gave them the clean water they needed and saved $4.5 - 7 billion. Plus, they saved the $300 million annually that they would have spent operating the water treatment plant.

Here in Canada, the temperature does a good job of helping to control pests. Cold winters make this part of the world unsuitable for some of the nastier bugs. This protects us from the disease tropical bugs can spread. As global temperature rises, we start to lose this defense.

Imagine how much it would cost to have crops manually pollinated. The bees do it for free. They may seem like pests, but they're an integral part of our food chain. A healthy ecosystem provides these services at no charge.

At least, you don't have to pay for them. You see, nature doesn't care about the money. It's not worried about its quarterly profit and loss statements. It would be satisfied with a little respect and appreciation from us, because for nature, maximizing shareholder value means maintaining the system that cares for every living thing. That includes the people, but not just the people.

It's easy to take for granted how much nature does for us. Ecological services are irreplaceable, and the system provides the basis for continued life on this planet. The bill isn't coming in the mail, but if we don't take care of the system that takes care of us, we'll end up in ecological bankruptcy. That's the sort that can't be fixed by any bailout.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Build Mine to Last

Just get a new one. That's what we usually do when something breaks. Overseas manufacturing is so cheap and local skilled labour is so expensive that when things break, it very often makes more sense to replace it than it does to repair it.

Even worse, it seems that for business that this is good way to make money.

For example, you can make more money selling five toasters that last four years each than you can selling one toaster that lasts 20 years. Once you, as a businessman, sell that high quality toaster, you lose that person as a customer, because their toasting needs will be met for a long time. Selling disposable toasters to repeat customers becomes a predictable revenue stream.

So even though everyone would rather have the good toaster, the company that makes the lousy ones survives. Eventually the company selling good toasters runs out of people to sell them to.

The obvious advantage of the disposable toaster is that it's cheap. As humans, we tend to make decisions on the basis of how much it costs right now. It's hard for us, when buying toaster number one, to think about the displaced cost of toasters two through five in the next few years.

With the quality toaster you don't get the feel good benefit of saving money by not buying the second one. The toaster just endures. It calmly continues to cook, just like when you purchased it those many years ago. By not buying that second (or fifth) toaster, you actually save the money, but it doesn't feel like saving. The numbers don't actually show up anywhere.

At least that's how it should work. We are in danger of losing our local self-reliance with respect to appliance repair. If few appliances are repaired, then that job disappears. If we lose the ability to maintain our appliances, and cheap overseas manufacturing and shipping disappear, we could be left with a bunch of expired toasters.

Being able to produce and repair things ourselves is a skill we shouldn't let slip. Local appliance repair means local jobs, and the money stays in the community. Just getting a new one, though expedient, means the money goes elsewhere.

Demand quality products that are built to last. You get what you pay for, but remember to appreciate it when your toaster stands the test of time.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lunar Lessons: Ready for More

It's been 40 years since we first landed on the moon. More importantly it's been about 37 years since we last landed there. It's time to go back and this time to stay. Not because it's easy, because it's hard. We need the lesson.

When President Kennedy declared that they were going to the moon, they didn't know how they were going to do it. They worked hard, they figured it out, and between the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs they learned a lot.

The technology developed for the moon program didn't just stay in the moon program. It percolated into society in the form of inventions and products that didn't exist before. For instance: Wireless headsets, cordless tools (Black and Decker developed a cordless drill for the Apollo program), memory foam and freeze dried food were all developed to help man land on the moon.

Innovations that we would need to survive long-term on the moon would do more to teach us how to live sustainably than many of the research projects that are going on now. The problem of how to live up there is so hard that it would make us stretch to figure out how to do it, but it would teach us many valuable lessons. These will be things we're not expecting, but things we need to know.

In deciding how to allocate resources in the interest of sustainability, a human colony on the moon certainly makes more sense than spending, for instance, $2 Billion researching Carbon Capture and Storage. That sort of research, even if successful, would keep us addicted to Tar Sands energy, but make us feel slightly less bad about the landscape destruction and carbon intensity of the that dirty fuel.

Going to the moon, combined with the hardcore 'this is all we have' technology that we've learned in developing the international space station will teach us how to live sustainably on earth. For example, water recycling technologies developed for the moon could provide technology to drastically reduce human water consumption. Energy supplies on the moon would be limited, and the energy conservation techniques would be important to long term survival there.

A return to the moon could teach us a lot about how to live on earth.