Environment

Our Plastics Problem

plasticsI’ve got a short piece in the current San Francisco magazine, a Q&A with Susan Freinkel, who’s just written a masterful new book on the yin and yang of plastics.

As symbols of our modern age go, you can’t do better than plastic. It has given us conveniences like the sandwich bag and innovations like the iPhone, but it has also exacerbated global warming and created that garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean (and might be messing with our kids’ hormones to boot). In Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), due out in time for Earth Day, San Francisco journalist Susan Freinkel charts our century-long love-hate relationship with petroleum products …

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Wonk Stuff

I’ve got a couple of small pieces in the current issues of California and San Francisco magazines. One is on climate change, the other on health care. Wonky? Sure. But contentiously wonky.

The first, a short profile (.pdf) of former SF environment department director Jared Blumenfeld (who decamped to the EPA last month), is about climate change policy:

While most leaders who confront the climate crisis choose to accentuate the positive aspects of global warming–the “win-win” business opportunities, all the new green jobs and game-changing technologies on the horizon–Blumenfeld spikes the cheerleading with straight talk. He called carbon offsets a “con” when many environmentalists were hyping them as an environmental cure-all, and he is equally dismissive of the magical thinking at the heart of many green-jobs programs. And despite the strides we’ve made in greening our lives, he says, there’s almost no way we’ll be able to change course before the cataclysm hits.

(I went biking with Blumenfeld last year, too. That piece is here.)

The second is a review of Thomas Goetz’ new book, The Decision Tree, which posits a brighter future for our health care–not through legislative reform but through technology. Color me unconvinced.

Given the circuslike debate on Capitol Hill, you might have abandoned all hope of seeing our dysfunctional healthcare system improved. Thomas Goetz hasn’t. The executive editor of Wired (he also has a master’s in public health from UC Berke­ley) posits a hopeful future, one that combines “the lessons of technology and the rigor of public health” to person­alize and improve our health­care: Online tracking software and social networking will help us take advantage of an ever expanding stream of health data, DNA testing will offer snapshots of our genetic pre­dis­positions, and doctors will be able to detect disease before it strikes–or at least manage it better once it does. Goetz lays out the benefits of this more engaged approach in clear, commonsensical prose. But many of his fixes depend on Herculean efforts by tech-savvy patients, and it’s hard to see how they translate to the unwired bulk of our citizenry. Moreover, he barely mentions the pernicious “fee for service” model that rewards doctors not for fostering good health but for ordering expensive tests and procedures–a widespread practice that stands in the way of many of his preventive-care prescriptions. “Change is hard,” Goetz notes. That’s an understatement. While laudable, the sol­­utions he offers here feel less like revolutions than like workarounds.

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Ironing Out the Carbon Crisis

This month’s San Francisco magazine runs my small contribution to the debate over geoengineering. Despite the complicated name, geoengineering is at bottom a simple idea: it attempts to right our climate wrongs not by cutting carbon emissions but by manipulating the earth’s atmosphere via technological fixes. Long a favorite of green-hating rightwingers who didn’t want to modify their lifestyles, the field has edged into the mainstream as it’s become increasingly clear that the world isn’t likely to change its carbon-heavy ways anytime soon (witness the squabbling in Copenhagen). Researchers have proposed a welter of different approaches, ranging from the merely implausible-sounding (planting farmland with carbon-sucking minerals) to the downright Strangeloveian (launching fleets of tiny mirrors into space to block solar rays).

I write about a San Francisco startup, Climos, that wants to seed the Southern Ocean with iron, which is supposed to help pull carbon from the air. There’s plenty of promise, but the questions are legion. A few of them: Can it work? Is it safe? And even if we can cut carbon by messing with the atmosphere, should we? After all, messing with the atmosphere is how we got into this situation in the first place. As you’ll see in the piece, though, it seems worth trying to me. And as the years pass without any real global emissions cuts, geoengineering’s appeal is only likely to grow.

“You never want to be a company that succeeds because things are going terribly,” Dan Whaley says of his South Park startup’s apocalypse-ready product. “But here we are.” Whaley’s company, Climos, is peddling an idea that is elegantly simple in its outline, fiendishly complex in its details, and, at least at first blush, batshit crazy: It aims to fight global warming by seeding the ocean with iron.

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Danger Ahead

Out this week, my piece on the policies and politics of being green in San Francisco, a Sisyphean task even in this most environmentally minded of cities.

Such is the current character of San Francisco that it’s possible to construct a social schedule composed almost entirely of “eco-drinks” mixers, a latter-day cultural marker that combines earnest environmental talk, a full bar, and a certain amount of networking and/or cruising, depending on your interests. Sometimes there are DJs spinning house music; sometimes there’s a group circle in which everyone joins hands and declares what he or she is passion­­­­­ate about; sometimes people just get drunk…

Also, my review of Stephen Elliott’s excellent new book, The Adderall Diaries:

If you followed the 2008 trial of Hans Reiser, the Oakland software guru who murdered his Russian wife, you might have been struck by Reiser’s sense of victimhood—he really seemed to believe that he was the one who’d been wronged. San Francisco writer Stephen Elliott gets into Reiser’s head in this fearless memoir/true-crime hybrid, but it’s only partly about the homicidal programmer. Elliott is most interested in the stories we construct to govern our lives—“how we order and interpret what we believe to be true,” as he puts it—and what happens when those stories break down, as Reiser’s nerdy alpha-dog self-image did when his wife left him, with disastrous consequences. Elliott examines his own life in sharp vignettes that ping from Chicago group homes to San Fernando Valley porn shoots to dot-com-era San Francisco. He scours his troubled past—drugs, homelessness, a horrific family life—for clues to his calmer but still troubled present, which includes bouts of depression, Adderall addiction, and a toxic relationship with his abusive father, who may or may not have killed someone himself. People are mysteries, though, and Elliott (thankfully) doesn’t offer up the certainties of most true-crime lit, even to explain his own actions. “How little we know about ourselves,” he writes, but he deserves kudos for this skillful attempt at making sense of his own history.

A lot of my recent stuff isn’t online and I’m too lazy to scan it, but the city did me a favor and posted my piece (.pdf) on biking with Jared Blumenfeld, who runs the department of environment. He was serving as interim Parks and Rec chief at the time, and leading bike tours around SF. I tagged along one day for a trip to Mclaren Park, a massive chunk of greenspace straddling the freeways down on the southern edge of the city. It’s mostly known for the body dumpings that turn up within its borders on a semi-regular basis, but it’s a beautiful place, too.

South of Bernal Hill, the traffic thinned and the group began to climb up into a land of steep, winding streets with names unfamiliar to most San Franciscans, past rows of boxy, sun-baked houses and curbs lined with big-rimmed Buicks.


Out on the margins here, park care tended toward entropy. At a reservoir further up the hill, Blumenfeld watched a woman repeatedly toss a tennis ball into the water for a brown Labrador. “That dog is pissing in our drinking water,” he noted in a deadpan voice.

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