Friday, February 29, 2008

Green is the New Red!

Well, if I wasn’t aware of this before I sure as hell am now: Green is the new red.

I enrolled in an extension class on “Green Building.” Why, you may wonder. After all, I am one of the seemingly few sane people out here in this neck of the woods. Well, I thought, given the field in which I work, it would look good on the old resumé. And although I tend to be fairly conservative about things, I do, to a certain degree, believe in a lot of what sustainable building SHOULD be about. We do need to be good stewards of the planet—use what we need, not be wantonly wasteful. We should learn to be modest in our resource use, etc. Do we really need 5000 sq.ft. houses with multi-media rooms, and enormous walk-in closets in the guest rooms? (Do you really want you guests staying that long?)


The year long course is structured on around, more or less, around the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification, or, “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” Green Building Rating System™ which is supposed to “encourage and accelerate global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.”


But for those of you who are not familiar with it, it is a sort of benchmarking system for different types of construction projects such as new construction, commercial interiors, core and shell, etc., and addresses six areas of sustainability: site selection, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation in design. The outline of this course echoes that. So the first class was in the area of “site selection.”

What is site selection and what does that have to do with sustainability, and more importantly what does this have to do with green being the new red? Well, I’m a-gitting’ there, just be patient...

Site selection as a sustainable element of construction has to do with choosing to build on a “sustainable” site: remediating a brownfield, not choosing pristine woodlands, not building on prime agricultural land, “smart growth,” building within walking distance of basic services, etc. Because we need to be attentive to the ecological footprint we make on the planet.

Now, let me sidetrack a bit on this ecological footprint thing. Wikipedia defines it as an attempt “to measure human demand on nature [by comparing] human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them. It is an estimate of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate (if possible) the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste, given prevailing technology and current understanding. Using this assessment, it is possible to estimate how many planet Earths it would take to support humanity if everybody lived a given lifestyle.”


Well, if you check it out, in any of a variety of places, your best bet at getting your life down to just the One Earth is if you live in an overcrowded Third World city, with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Hey, Citizens of Decca Living in Poverty! You are oodles more GREEN than I am! Give yourselves a hearty pat on the back!
(And doesn't that just seem like an odd concept...? And for some real fun, try the carbon footprint calculators.)

So, anyhow…

Just to give you a wee bit more background info on this before I launch into the meat of the matter: Some of the issues associated with site selection have to do with population, food resources, and poverty. It is necessary reduce the drain on the planet's resources.

So back to the course…

During the first class on sustainable site selection, we broke off into groups of about 5 to 7 and discussed solving the problems of the world, because, that is what sustainability is all about, right? Since there was such an emphasis on population (and overpopulation) and feeding people, my suggestion was “Soylent Green.” Not one that went over well.* (But it would work!)

What did come out of the various group discussions had a familiar ring to it:

  1. Abolish private ownership of land, buildings. If all land is publically/state controlled, development can be controlled, “smart” development would be the law, and all building would be “green.”
  2. Redistribution of wealth, either forcibly, or through a heave progressive tax structure.
  3. Hold prime agricultural land in trust so that it cannot be sold off by future generations for development.
  4. Confiscation of property in order to ensure that it is “sustainably” developed. (e.g., if owner refuses to xeriscape, or persists in maintaining “non-green” practices associated with the property.)
  5. Establish a “green” economy, and economic structure in which sustainability, carbon footprint, etc., constitute value/worth/productivity benchmarks.
  6. Establish public transit systems that are locally controlled; if possible, “forced” use of public transit by either banning ownership of “gas guzzlers,” high taxes on privately held autos, etc.
  7. Limit commercial and housing development to land already developed, preferably to brownfield,, leaving land for open space, and possible agriculture.
  8. Establishment of a sort of “green” WPA (or NRA, as in FDR): A sort of “army” of “green-collar” people to verify, oversee, install, initiate, mandate, etc., green practices.
  9. Establish small, communally owned agricultural settlements, “victory” gardens, rooftop gardens” wherein food can be grown. Drive population distribution in viable areas that do not encroach on agricultural land; settlement along connective corridors. Establish small communally-owned manufacturing that focuses on recycled products.
  10. Establish an educational system that focuses on “values” education, wherein “values” is defined as living a “green” life: minimal carbon footprint, minimal environmental impact. Development of a (politically correct) kids afterschool activity similar to scouting that has the same focus.

Does any of it some eerily familiar to you? For you lefties, think back to your foreign-smokes-toking, Marx-toting undergraduate days… And let’s get ready to compare that list to the Ten Planks of the Communist Manifesto. Whoo-hoo!:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c


Think back to what I wrote about the Ecological Footprint. After all, for a Marxist, the poor, unwashed, downtrodden laborors of the world were the unsung heros of history. To the “Greenists,” it is essentially the same: the Ecological Footprint is another way to underscore that. (“One Earthers of the world, unite! You have nothing to loose but your chains!”)

One can only imagine how the recent “Focus the Nation” teach-in went on that campus! For some insight at another campus, check out Samantha Stolle's article in the Bucknell Counterweight.

I can only imagine a rally of which Vladimir Ilyich Ulanov would have been quite proud.

* I did find out later that someone else suggested
Soylent Green as well; at least one other person in the class has a sense of humor… Maybe there is some hope for the future…

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Academy Remains True to Form

Well, I knew that Michael Moore's docu-ganda film, “Sicko” was undoubtedly going to be nominated for an Academy Award. And it was; what a surprise! On the up side, it probably will not win. On the down side, another docu-ganda film, “No End in Sight.” (Cinnamon Stillwell addressed the politics of the Academy Awards last year: “Hollywood's Big Ho Hum.”)

So, since it did, I thought I would recycle something I wrote shortly after its release earlier last year. Here ya go!

I now keep hearing this statistic tossed at me all the time, that the US is ranked 37th in healthcare, right there next to Slovenia, and I keep asking, well, what does it mean? Today, I perused the internet, and found it--it comes out of some World Health Organization report. And I STILL have no idea what it means!

Like any overly broad ranking, it means very little. Rankings are an OVER-SIMPLICATION of statistics. (And let me just interject here: “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.”)

It reminds me of the US News and World Report college and university rankings--assigning numbers based on a select set of criteria, which, when added up, essentially amounts to zero, zip, zilch, nothing. And those criteria are chosen, and weighted, based on what the evaluator is looking for. With this WHO ranking, maybe we have really FANTABULOUS medical care, but if someone want us to look bad, they might heavily weigh the analysis so that we would.

For example, we have a lot of land mass that is fairly sparsely populated, and there are people there who travel far for medical care. If you come with a criterion that states: “The percentage of geographic area in which residents must travel 1+ hour(s) to receive medical care,” we'll bomb. (In the interest of full disclosure, this is NOT a statistic I found buried inthe WHO report.)

I notice the countries ranked higher (France, Finland, etc.) tend to have a higher numbers for:
  • General government expenditure on health as % of total expenditure on health. (France at 76 vs 43 for the US).
  • Social security expenditure on health as % of general government expenditure on health (97 vs. 33)
While we have higher numbers for Private prepaid plans as % of private expenditure on health (61 for the US vs. 53 for France.) Do the people who calculate the ranking DEDUCT points for that, or what? And REWARD countries for socialist style medicine? (I'm betting YES!)

How do they interpret in their ranking the fact that as a per capita total expenditure on health (at average exchange rate US$), France spends $2981 while we spend $5711? I'll wager that counts against us! But solving THAT problem is NOT going to be done by going to a single-payer system, to government run healthcare! That number is so high because of a variety of reasons: insane litigation, the fact that the individual consumers generally don't pay (for insurance or for the product/service) and therefore healthcare has little consumer-driven pricing structure; our willingness/eagerness to perform ground-breaking procedures, etc.

Another issue with this is that it compares apples and oranges, and apples and asparagus, and apples and armadillos... There are VERY few countries with which the US can compare in terms of population, land mass, GDP/GNP, etc. It is INSANE to compare us to France: We have a MUCH larger landmass, a MUCH larger population, a far LESS dense population (293 vs. 80 per sq.mi., not too mention that over 90% of France's population is in metropolitan areas.) We have a different system of government and taxes, and while we are much closer culturally with France than we are with, oh, say, Djibouti, we do nonetheless have a very different cultural—and therefore DIFFERENT EXPECTATIONS OF OUR HEALTHCARE SYSTEM.

According to WHO, some of the things that this ranking apparently tried to address included (description are from WHO):
  • Fairness of financial contribution: The measurement is based on the fraction of a household's capacity to spend (income minus food expenditure) that goes on health care (including tax payments, social insurance, private insurance and out of pocket payments). Colombia was the top-rated country in this category, followed by Luxembourg, Belgium, Djibouti, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Japan and Finland.

    Countries judged to have the least fair financing of health systems include Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Brazil, China, Viet Nam, Nepal, Russian Federation, Peru and Cambodia.

    Brazil, a middle-income nation, ranks low in this table because its people make high out-of-pocket payments for health care. This means a substantial number of households pay a large fraction of their income (after paying for food) on health care. In North America, Canada rates as the country with the fairest mechanism for health system finance – ranked at 17-19, while the United States is at 54- 55. Cuba is the highest among Latin American and Caribbean nations at 23-25.
Obviously, the less socialized the medicine, the less likely to come out on top with this statistic. Actually, the U.S. ranking at 54-55 puts us in the mildly socialized level. But of course, this does not take in to account how much of the taxes that people pay go into propping up the socialized medical structure, (not the tax rate of the country.)
  • Overall Level of Health: To assess overall population health and thus to judge how well the objective of good health is being achieved, WHO has chosen to use the measure of disability- adjusted life expectancy (DALE). This has the advantage of being directly comparable to life expectancy and is readily compared across populations. The report provides estimates for all countries of disability- adjusted life expectancy. DALE is estimated to equal or exceed 70 years in 24 countries, and 60 years in over half the Member States of WHO. At the other extreme are 32 countries where disability- adjusted life expectancy is estimated to be less than 40 years.
The United States didn't do too badly in this category, despite the fact that we are apparently such fat slobs, addicated to french fries and burgers, sitting on our fat asses, watching television. We ranked 24th under this system, with an average of 70.0 years of healthy life for babies born in 1999; female babies could expect 72.6 years of healthy life, versus just 67.5 years for male babies. Sure, we rank lower than Australia, (73.2 years); France, (73.1); Sweden, (73.0); Spain, (72.8); Italy, (72.7); Greece, (72.5); Switzerland, (72.5); Monaco, (72.4); and Andorra, (72.3). But then we have a much larger population, a much higher percentage of which is rural. We have a much more heterogeneous poplulation. Large numbers of diverse people living scattered across the geography makes public health more difficult to shove down their throats.
  • Distribution of Health in the Populations: It is not sufficient to protect or improve the average health of the population, if - at the same time - inequality worsens or remains high because the gain accrues disproportionately to those already enjoying better health. The health system also has the responsibility to try to reduce inequalities by prioritizing actions to improve the health of the worse-off, wherever these inequalities are caused by conditions amenable to intervention. The objective of good health is really twofold: the best attainable average level – goodness – and the smallest feasible differences among individuals and groups – fairness. A gain in either one of these, with no change in the other, constitutes an improvement.
I have no idea where the U.S. ranked in this category. If you can find any information about this, please let me know. The link to the report is below.
  • Responsiveness: Responsiveness includes two major components. These are (a) respect for persons (including dignity, confidentiality and autonomy of individuals and families to decide about their own health); and (b) client orientation (including prompt attention, access to social support networks during care, quality of basic amenities and choice of provider).

    The nations with the most responsive health systems are the United States, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Canada, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden. The reason these are all advanced industrial nations is that a number of the elements of responsiveness depend strongly on the availability of resources. In addition, many of these countries were the first to begin addressing the responsiveness of their health systems to people's needs.
Notice where the United States ranks? We are No. 1! This, to me, says more about the state of health care in the United States than any of the other statistical analyses contained in the WHO report.
  • Distribution of Financing: There are good and bad ways to raise the resources for a health system, but they are more or less good primarily as they affect how fairly the financial burden is shared. Fair financing, as the name suggests, is only concerned with distribution. It is not related to the total resource bill, nor to how the funds are used. The objectives of the health system do not include any particular level of total spending, either absolutely or relative to income. This is because, at all levels of spending there are other possible uses for the resources devoted to health. The level of funding to allocate to the health system is a social choice – with no correct answer. Nonetheless, the report suggests that countries spending less than around 60 dollars per person per year on health find that their populations are unable to access health services from an adequately performing health system.

    In order to reflect these attributes, health systems have to carry out certain functions. They build human resources through investment and training, they deliver services, they finance all these activities. They act as the overall stewards of the resources and powers entrusted to them. In focusing on these few universal functions of health systems, the report provides evidence to assist policy-makers as they make choices to improve health system performance.
Well, I think we can guess what this means. It is all about how socialized the financing is, because it is so much more fair to derive a pound of flesh by way of increased tax burden on the “haves” as opposed to the “have nots.” now, don't get me wrong--I do believe that healthcare is not solely the purview of those that can afford it. But, well that is a thought to continue at a later date...

Well, all well and good, I suppose, but they are still reducing a TON of DISPARATE information down to ONE number—and it, in the end, doesn't mean a whole lot. And, of course, the US will come out near the bottom of the top--the statistical analysis is stacked such that we will REGARDLESS OF HOW EXCELLENT HEALTHCARE IS IN THE U.S.! (Like you all hadn't figured THAT out yet!)

For those of you interested in taking a gander at the WHO report yourself (and please do!) here it is: “World Health Organization.”)