Friday, August 31, 2007

Buying a Prius vs. keeping the old car

I've spontaneously had the "buy new Prius vs. keep old car" discussion with a number of different friends now, so I decided to gather a bit of information on it. The question I'm mainly concerned with is whether the energy savings of driving a Prius outweighs the energy cost of manufacturing it.

The "Hey Mr. Green" advice column and mailbag from Sierra magazine claim that the energy required to manufacture a new car is equivalent to 1000 gallons of gasoline and that a Prius recoups its energy outlay in about 50K miles, but the author doesn't cite much in the way of sources.

An advice column from Wired says essentially the same thing as Sierra. The Wired author also makes the case that buying a hybrid supports the growth of clean tech, and helps build the perception of hybrids as a mainstream car (as opposed to an elite treehugger yuppie car :)

I admit I didn't spend much time googling, but I was a bit disappointed not to find a more detailed lifecycle analysis of the Prius and its manufacturing costs. However, I did find a high-level comparative lifecycle analysis of the Prius published by the Rocky Mountain Institute as a rebuttal to the controversial CNW study that claimed that a Prius has a greater environmental cost than a Hummer.

According to the EPA, a 2007 Prius gets 46 mpg and my 1999 Civic with 58K miles on it gets 27 mpg. Assuming that the energy cost of manufacturing the Prius is indeed equivalent to 1000 gallons of gasoline, I calculated that at my current rate of driving, it would take nine years for me to recoup the energy costs of a new Prius. Moreover, in the last 5 months I have been averaging about 180 miles a month. This glacial pace of driving is not going to last forever, but if it did, it would take 30 years to recoup the costs! As Mr. Green from Sierra magazine says, "If you don't drive much, it may be better to keep the old car". I think this speaks volumes about "just driving less" as being the ultimate fuel efficiency strategy.

CO2 for transportation: crunching my personal numbers

I had an email exchange with my friend V. about my blog entry on environmental awareness in Australia, and it inspired me to do a mini-research project: I calculated, from scratch, the carbon dioxide emissions for different modes of transportation that I use. There are lots of carbon footprint calculators on the web that purport to do this, but they are not always transparent about their methodology. Also, by doing the calculation myself, I can tailor it to real-life transportation scenarios that I have used in everyday life. The results are given in pounds of CO2 per mile per passenger:

Transportation ModeVehicleCO2 emissions (lb/mi/passenger)Scenario
Car1999 Honda Civic DX0.145-0.725Personal driving, 1-5 passengers.
BusNew Flyer D60LF Bus0.29-0.58VTA Route 22 on El Camino, Stanford to Sunnyvale. Extended-length bus at 25%-50% capacity.
AirBoeing 747-4000.365United Airlines flight 870, Sydney to San Francisco. Long-haul flight at full capacity.
What I learned from doing this:

We always hear about how bad air travel is for the environment. Surprisingly, it turns out that a car carrying two people emits about the same amount of CO2 per passenger-mile as a full 747 on a long-haul flight...however, the real impact of air travel is due to the distances traveled. The distances involved in flying are so much greater than those for driving - by flying roundtrip to Australia, I traveled more than double the miles I'll probably drive this entire year. According to the climate calculator at, short-haul flights emit more CO2 per passenger-mile than long-haul flights, but of course they also cover less total distance.

Passenger occupancy matters. As seen from the table, solo driving is not very good per passenger-mile, but once you start to pack people into your car, things start looking better. The same goes for the bus - if it's pretty empty, it's not much better than taking your car. This has implications for transit policy.

To sum up my learnings, measuring emissions in pounds CO2 per mile per passenger is a useful yardstick for apples-to-apples comparisons, but to understand total CO2 emissions, one must also compare and take into account the distances involved. Also, passenger occupancy can make all the difference in whether mass transit is better than driving.

I wanted to crunch numbers for some other modes of transportation, but either couldn't find data or ran out of steam. My spouse was curious about the numbers for Caltrain, motorcycles, and motorized bikes, but I think I'll leave that as an exercise for him :) Also, I wanted to do regular-size buses and Amtrak trains, but was unable to find good source data after Googling for a few hours. For a ballpark figure for buses, though, the Milwaukee County Transit System states that the average diesel-fueled bus in their fleet gets 4.5 mpg. Diesel has an emissions factor of 22.384 lb/gal, so assuming there are 15 people on the bus, you'd get 22.384 lb/gal ÷ 4.5 mpg ÷ 15 passengers = 0.33 pounds per passenger per mile.

Wikipedia has a table comparing fuel efficiency for different transportation modes. However, with all the different vehicles using different fuels and different assumptions (like driving traffic patterns and passenger loads) and then translating all of that into CO2 emissions, I wouldn't buy into that table unless I'd scrutinized how they came up with their numbers.

The gory details of the car, bus, and plane calculations follow.

Personal driving:
1999 Honda Civic DX Automatic Transmission

Combined fuel efficiency:27 mpg a
CO2 emissions factor:19.564 lb/gal b

CO2 per mile per passenger (1 passenger) = 19.564 lb/gal ÷ 27 mpg ÷ 1 passenger = 0.725 pounds per mile per passenger

CO2 per mile per passenger (5 passengers) = 19.564 lb/gal ÷ 27 mpg ÷ 5 passengers = 0.145 pounds per mile per passenger

VTA Route 22 on El Camino, Stanford to Sunnyvale:
New Flyer D60LF Bus c

Seats:62 d
Passenger load factor:0.25-0.50 g
Fuel efficiency:2.50 mpg e
Fuel type:Diesel f
CO2 emissions factor:22.384 lb/gal b

CO2 per mile per passenger (0.25 load factor) = 22.384 lb/gal ÷ 2.50 mpg ÷ (62 seats × 0.25 load factor) = 0.58 pounds per mile per passenger

CO2 per mile per passenger (0.5 load factor) = 22.384 lb/gal ÷ 2.50 mpg ÷ (62 seats × 0.5 load factor) = 0.29 pounds per mile per passenger

United Airlines flight 870, Sydney to San Francisco:
Boeing 747-400

Passengers (3-class configuration):416 h
Maximum fuel capacity:216,840 L h
Maximum range:13,450 km h
Fuel type:Jet A-1 i
Fuel density at 15 °C (60 °F):0.775-0.840 kg/L i
CO2 emissions factor:3.16 j

Maximum total CO2 emitted = 216,840 L × 0.840 kg/L k × 2.204623 lb/kg × 3.16 = 1,268,937.118 pounds

Maximum distance traveled = 13,460 km × 0.6213712 mi/km = 8363.656 miles

CO2 per mile per passenger (at full capacity) = 1,268,937.118 lb ÷ 8363.656 mi ÷ 416 passengers = 0.365 pounds per mile per passenger

a Fuel Economy Guide, US EPA
b Fuel and Energy Source Codes and Emission Coefficients, US Department of Energy
c Leon Norrington, New Flyer Articulated Coaches, VTA Information Bus Enthusiasts Stop
d Diesel Vehicle Specifications, New Flyer
e Table 8, King County Metro Transit Hybrid Articulated Buses: Final Evaluation Results, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, US Department of Energy
f Appendix G, FY 2006-2015 Short Range Transit Plan, Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority
g Load factor range of 0.25-0.5 is a guesstimate based on my own personal observations.
h Technical Characteristics - Boeing 747-400, Boeing
i Jet fuel, Wikipedia
j Fuel Efficiency, International Air Transport Association
k Using the maximum density value for the most conservative estimate.

Monday, August 27, 2007

SF Bay Area Nonprofit Boot Camp 2007

My friend P. and I attended SF Bay Area Nonprofit Boot Camp 2007 this month. This was an awesome event, highly recommended to would-be nonprofit workers/founders. It's incredibly well-run on a shoestring, so they can make it affordable ($50) to people who are just getting started.

Nonprofit Boot Camp puts a lot of its content and resources online: SF Bay Area Nonprofit Boot Camp discussion groups (including special groups for post-conference follow-up discussions), notes and videos from workshops (videos will be posted a month after the event), Flickr photo pool. Notes and podcasts from the 2006 Boot Camp are also online.

Since it's also a networking event, I brought along copies of my résumé and also created a "business card", shown above. The card is a bit busy, but it's a starting point and I kind of like it. I created another version of my résumé that leaves out the heavy technical details of my past employment and includes a list of my nonprofit areas of interest. I managed to hand out one résumé and a few business cards.

Event highlights:

Welcome & Morning Keynote: The conference opened with an exciting Brazilian drum performance. Darian Heyman, ED of the Craigslist Foundation gave an excellent welcome speech with three main ideas: 1) Pick big problems; 2) Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate; and 3) less is more. Ami Dar, ED of gave an incredible, pithy keynote titled "Everything I've learned in 10 years, in 20 minutes". Everyone new to the nonprofit sector (and those who have been in it for a while) should check out this speech - it contains an incredible amount of wisdom distilled into a brief presentation.

Links to notes on sessions I attended:Lunch: We met Angie and Erin from the Stepping Stones Project, a nonprofit that creates "meaningful rites of passage for youth as they transition from childhood towards adulthood." I learned some lessons from them about the challenges of nonprofit leadership transitions. Often, a visionary founder gets the most fulfillment out of bringing their idea into fruition; they may be less interested in the ongoing operations, so they move on once their org is established. But the emotional dynamics and power dynamics of being a founder and (later on) letting go can be difficult, even with a mentoring/transition process.

During lunch, we also met Kathy Chism, founder of Dream One World, a nonprofit that does lots of grassroots assistance projects like supplying a Peruvian village with locally-sourced alpaca blankets during an extreme winter and assisting children on Grand Bahama Island whose homes were ravaged by hurricanes. Dream One World is Kathy's dream, and she makes many personal, financial, and even health sacrifices to achieve it, working two full-time jobs to earn a living while also running the organization. She's looking for an angel to write a $100K check and grow the organization! For fundraising, she had success with fundraising scratch cards. One of her recent interests is "shop shifting" - getting people to shop consciously in terms of patronizing stores that give a significant percentage of revenues to charity (not just nominal amounts, like eScrip). I gave her a Wallet Buddy from New American Dream, since some of the questions on it have commonalities with "shop shifting".

Afternoon Keynote: Given by Aimee Allison. She told a bit of her life story, and it was encouraging to hear about someone wearing so many hats during their lifetime, from combat medic to peace activist! She's had difficult periods of nonprofit involvement, such as when she was a program manager for a nonprofit where she loved the mission work, but the work environment/conditions and organizational politics were miserable. She's had to be adaptable. She urged us to reconsider what it means to be in it for the long haul: your social change efforts may not bear visible fruit until the lifetimes of your children/grandchildren.

Facilitated Networking: Great format; small discussion groups of conference attendees based on interest area. My interest area was Technology, but I wish I could have also participated in the discussions around Environment, Art & Culture, Social Justice, and Volunteers. In my group, I met Jennifer G. who does web design for Emeryville Taiko on a volunteer basis and has also done some work for San Jose Jazz. She uses HTML, Dreamweaver, and something called Smarty, and she recommended learning about the first two if I want to do web development. Her $$$ job is web design for a real estate company, and (like me and a lot of us) she's trying to figure out the whole "nonprofit + making a living" thing. I also met Bill, ED of Many Hands, an org that sends volunteer teams to locations around the globe for local projects. His org runs on a shoestring; he can't even afford to hire an offshore contractor from India, so Bill wears the techie hat. Both Jennifer and Bill could use help with their current non-profit web projects; I should consider doing pro bono work with their orgs or similar orgs to build my portfolio. I also met a nice woman from SF Dykes on Bikes (and yes, she looked the part, and that was cool). She recommended that I check out CharityFocus, which has listings for both unpaid and paid positions at nonprofits.

Info Booths: I cruised the info booths at the conference and stopped at the following booths:
  • Nonprofit Technology Network - For career-changers like me, they suggested checking out their webinars for self-learning. They also recommended using their local groups and affinity groups to query for job leads, contribute answers to people's tech questions (to establish my reputation/expertise), and find out if there's interest in an NTEN get-together in Silicon Valley. (They have a happy hour in the city with 10-20 attendees, but nothing in the South Bay so far.)
  • TechSoup - dropped off a résumé
  • CompassPoint - picked up a copy of their workshop schedule. I'd like to attend their workshop Switching Sectors: Preparing Your Leap from Profit to Nonprofit next time it's offered; it's only $35.
  • Dreamfish - customized social networking website for individuals/orgs involved in nonprofits/activism. They are still a new effort; I asked for the two-minute overview, but was still unclear what they offer that's different from other social networks, or even whether they're for-profit or non-profit.
  • Young Nonprofit Professionals Network - didn't get to talk to their booth staff, so I'll check out their website. Looks like a professional society.

Self-Reflections at Boot Camp:
  • For me, it's not about the work, it's about the cause. I'd rather do non-tech work for the specific cause I want to champion, than do tech work for a cause that I like but am not as passionate about.
  • However...I need to consider what kinds of jobs/organizations I'm open to working for, in the course of "paying my dues" in the nonprofit sector.
  • I'm a good information broker - I acquire tons of information in my activist areas of expertise and connect it to the people who most need/want it. I should consider a nonprofit job that utilizes this skill of mine.
  • I need an elevator pitch, or (dare I say it) a sound bite to describe to others, in a sentence, what I'm interested in doing.
  • I should bring my list informational interview questions to events like these. If I run into a subject expert, it will help me pick their brains more effectively.
Follow-up steps:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Slogging through piano practice

I just slogged through a piano practice session. I lapsed for a few weeks this summer, but have been back on track for the last week. Currently working on:

Schaum Book D: #11 and #12, kiddie versions of pieces by Rachmaninoff and Grieg. Despite the significant dumbing down of the excerpts, I am struggling…the Grieg is definitely nowhere near “vivace”. This is where persistence comes into play. I play the problem passage slowly 10x with the left hand, 10x with the right hand, 10x with both hands, then maybe try it a little faster, then move to the next problem passage, then repeat the whole process the next day, then the day after that…

Dozen a Day, Book 3: Group II, Exercise #5. Good news is, I finished the Group I exercises since the last time I posted about piano. Group II has a lot of block chords, so every day I play the exercises in a different key so my fingers can get used to different chords and inversions in different keys. I think it’s helping.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Environmental awareness in Australia: some observations

Traveling in Australia was a good opportunity to learn how another country in the developed world is responding to the environmental challenges of our times. These are some of the impressions I gathered about how their society is addressing the issues.


On transit: Melbourne has a very convenient, privately-run tram system. There are even two free trams that circle the city, serving tourists and downtown workers. There are also commuter trains and buses, although one Melburnian I met thought poorly of the bus service. The downtown area is walkable for a reasonably mobile, active person--it reminds me a bit of Boston in this regard. At Tullamarine Airport the high-capacity, convenient, efficiently-run, and relatively inexpensive Skybus Super Shuttle will take you between the airport and your hotel's front door.

Bike lanes in Melbourne are colored bright green:

Photo courtesy of mchampse at Flickr

Very occasionally I would see a short concrete barrier, either curb-height or waist-height, between the bike and car lanes. Once, I saw a bike lane marked on a (wide) sidewalk. Cyclists do have a presence on the city streets, and they seem to make out ok, although I did witness one minor cyclist-driver altercation. I was surprised to see the kinds of public places where people would park their bikes; they must not have as much bike theft as other cities.

Central Canberra seems more spread out than central Melbourne. It's a newer city. The suburban sprawl seems more visible (especially when you're viewing it from the observation deck at Telstra Tower, I guess). I did meet two researchers at Australian National University who commuted by bike from their suburb; their rides were less than 30 minutes.

While in Oz, I may have spotted a few Toyota Prii, but more noticeable to me was higher percentage of small cars on the road. By "small", I mean bigger than a Mini-Cooper but smaller than a hatchback. I even saw a billboard advertising the teeny-tiny Smart Cars made by Mercedes-Benz. Any of these small-ish cars would be great to drive on Aussie roads, especially since some highways have narrow lanes, and there are fewer big, intimidating SUVs to share the road with (although SUVs are still present).

Our rental cars were small four-door sedans (Corolla-size). You can rent even smaller cars (and they are cheaper), but they are manual transmission, which neither of us can drive. The average gas price in Melbourne works out to about USD $4.02/gallon.

In Far North Queensland, many locals (and tour operators, and car-renting tourists) drive Land Rover-type 4WD vehicles because the highway and rainforest roads are largely muddy and unpaved north of Cape Tribulation. Taking the car ferry across the Daintree River north towards Cape Trib is like entering an alternate tourist dimension: after that point, it seems like the only vehicles you see on the the Captain Cook Highway are tour buses and tourist rental cars. I have mixed feelings about the tour buses. On the one hand, it's like mass transit for travelers. On the other hand, it makes the sensitive rainforest ecosystem accessible to larger volumes of tourists. Also, I have a personal dislike of the tour bus experience (drive, stop for 15 minutes, take some pictures...repeat ad nauseum).


Australia is much more diligent about water conservation. Of course, most of the center of the country is inhospitable desert, but a more recent and pressing concern is the current drought in the eastern states. It's the worst on historical record. Many water conservation measures are being taken. Low-water-use toilets are used universally in Australia. They have a "half-flush" button and a "full-flush" button, and they also flush differently--the water gets poured/dumped into the bowl rather than swirling around from the rim.

One of the rainforest park facilities we used had a composting toilet. All in all, Aussie toilets are great--they're a real piece of water-saving engineering, and if I were building/remodeling a bathroom, I'd get one (the manufacturer, Caroma, exports to the U.S.)

The hospitality industry is also trying to save water. Like in the U.S., some hotels only change sheets/towels on days that you request it, to avoid laundry-related water usage. The tropical Daintree area is not affected by the drought; nevertheless, the Epiphyte B&B where we stayed used a rainwater cistern for its water supply, and requested that guests be conscious of their water usage.

Recycling and Waste Reduction

Incredibly, everybody, but everybody in Melbourne carries around these reusable green cloth bags and uses them for shopping instead of plastic bags:

It's downright heartening. There is even a official government campaign in the state of Victoria to "Just Say No" to plastic bags:

Finding recycling bins while traveling in Australia was hit-or-miss. A few public places had them, many didn't. At the Cairns airport, not only did I not find any recycling bins, I could hardly find any regular trash cans (or "rubbish bins" in Australian). Maybe they aren't provided because they're a "security risk". Or perhaps they are trying to reduce waste and janitorial costs by having air passengers follow the "pack it in, pack it out" philosophy?!?

Energy and Efficiency

One disappointing observation I made was the low adoption rate of energy-efficient compact fluorecent lights (CFLs) at the places I visited. Most establishments were still using incandescents.

The one exception was the Epiphyte B&B; I think they were using regular fluorescent lights (and actually a lot of candles, too, which conserved electricity while adding ambience). They have a strong motivation: the B&B is run on solar energy collected from solar panels on the roof and stored in a battery bank on-site. They ask guests not to use high-wattage personal appliances like hair dryers to avoid draining the batteries.

Magellan Observatory, where we stayed for a weekend, also runs on solar and green power. The observatory itself, including the telescopes, run on power from solar panels on the observatory roof, which were installed by the eco-friendly proprietor. The cottage where we slept uses grid power, but the proprietor has elected to enroll in a plan with his utility company where he can pay a small amount more for electricity from renewable sources.

Housing and Development

Surprisingly, while driving past the outer fringes of some metropolitan area (either Melbourne or Canberra, can't remember), I saw a housing development with the biggest McMansions I have ever seen, bar none! Bigger than any I've seen in an American city. Each house looked like its own little office building. I only saw one development like this, though.

In Queensland, Cairns is built up like a little Miami, but towns further up the coast have more restrictive development codes. For example, in Port Douglas they don't permit buildings to be taller than the palm trees, and there is a no-development zone along the shore that is a few hundred meters wide. Also a factor is that the government owns much of the shoreline.

Central Melbourne has a fair amount of high-density housing. It's a built-out city with a long history, so no surprises there.


The level of availability of organic foods in Melbourne didn't seem much different from home. Interestingly, I once ordered ginger ale at a restaurant, and it turned out to be organic. It wasn't specially labelled on the menu, and I didn't have to request it specifically; it just was. So that was a little bonus. It was really good ginger ale, too; you could taste the fresh ginger. (They call it "ginger beer" but it's nonalcoholic.)

I spotted a "Slow Food" banner on the back of a Melbourne tram--but on closer inspection, it turned out to be an advertisement for some convenience food being marketed as "just like" home-cooked, slow food. However, there is a Slow Food chapter in Melbourne which purports to be the largest in the world.

Our B&B hosts in Queensland got a real kick out of serving us tropical fruits that were grown locally. I'm sure part of it was the pride and pleasure of introducing newcomers to a staggering array of exotic fruits and literally giving them a taste of the local heritage. Whether food miles and the Eat Local movement had any influence, who knows. All I know is 1) it's kind of neat to see the banana plantations and other tropical fruit plantations growing by the highway; 2) passionfruit, golden kiwis, custard apples, and lady-finger bananas are all very yummy; and 3) speaking as a North American, it is an rare gastronomic delight to eat fresh tropical fruits that just came off the tree a few hours ago, as opposed to sitting on a container ship for days beforehand.

Habitat and Wildlife Preservation

Aussies seem to take the preservation of their wildlife and natural habitats pretty seriously. Australia is indeed like a parallel universe with respect to its flora and fauna; evolution in isolated conditions has resulted in strange and unique wildlife. Aussies are aware of this rich biological heritage and other natural treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage rainforests. They are also aware of episodes during colonial times and also more recently when introduced species wreaked ecological havoc (rabbits, foxes, cane toads). They have also seen many of their unique species go extinct due to human activity and even deliberate extermination (the Tasmanian tiger).

Steps are being taken, such as designating species as protected or endangered, restricting development in some areas, and enacting other policies. One of my blog readers commented that Aussies have the most stringent regulations for development and water. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, the rainforest in Daintree National Park is so strictly protected that the park actually has very few trails and is mostly inaccessible. Even the various private owners of the surrounding land seem to do a good job caring for the piece of rainforest that they own, often maintaining it as a private preserve and conducting tours.

Like many other nations in the developed world, though, Australian efforts towards wildlife and habitat conservation have to contend against factors that accelerate habitat destruction, such as population growth in some areas, urban sprawl, and pressure from increased tourism.

Speaking of tourism, eco-tourism is big here--I saw lots of evidence around the Daintree area and Great Barrier Reef. However, it was unclear to me whether "eco-tourism" here refers to tourism operations conducted in as green and environmentally-sensitive manner as possible, or if it just means any tourist activity related to the outdoors/nature/wildlife. Given the number of venues being marketed as "eco-tourism", I suspect it's often just the latter.

The Great Barrier Reef is an interesting case study in the complex issues of eco-tourism. Consider the snorkeling outfit we went with, Wavelength Reef Tours. They bill themselves as an Advanced Eco Accredited Tour Operator, whether or not that actually means anything--I haven't researched who does the accrediting and how. They participate in a program called Reef Watch, a community environmental monitoring project. They educate their passengers about the reef's ecology and how it is affected by global warming, e.g. coral bleaching. And yet with the sheer numbers of people who visit the reef, it's hard to believe that Wavelength together with all of the other tour boats are not having a collective impact, possibly negative, on the reef. It seems hard if not impossible to run a zero-impact tour operation: you are bringing large numbers of people out on the reef to interact with its ecosystem, you are burning fossil fuel to get out to the reef (if on a motorized boat) and for people to fly into the area to visit the reef (including myself, I know). But when talking to the boat crew, it's also clear that the reef is important to them, and not just economically. There is something special and wonderful to them about getting to go out on the reef every day, becoming intimately familiar with its wonders, and then sharing those wonders with newcomers. There is a very real and sincere concern on their part about the ultimate fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

Media and Public Opinion

I read an issue of Melbourne's daily paper, The Age, and noticed that a few of the editorials and letters to the editor were taking potshots at the concept of global warming. That was just one day's opinion section, though; I can't say it was a representative sample of the population at large.

When it comes to sustainability, the city of Melbourne seems to experience the same contradictions that I see at home and in other metropolitan areas in the U.S. On the one hand, people carry cloth shopping bags and ride the trams, and there are highly visible public campaigns about water conservation and other environmental issues. On the other hand, I think I read a statistic somewhere that claimed that only 10% of Melbourne workers commute by a method other than car.

A couple of the innkeepers at the places we stayed at were really on the sustainability bandwagon. Both of them were living in less-populated, rural areas, if that is of any significance. The owner of the Magellan Observatory mentioned that he would like to solarize the rest of the buildings once he's saved enough money. He also provides a recycling bin in the cottage and requests that guests sort out their recycling. He does not feel that the current political group holding power in the Australian government is doing enough to address sustainability. At the solar-powered, rainwater-supplied Epiphyte B&B, our host informed us that that the actual owner of the B&B is currently away at university in Adelaide. He is pursuing advanced studies in international relations, with an eye toward working for an NGO.

Tourism and Travel

Our trip gave me a chance to reflect on my own choices and experiences as a traveler. Of course, the major choice for me, given the extremely CO2-intensive nature of flying, was whether to go to Australia in the first place. I chose to go because I didn't feel like I could pass up this opportunity. A self-interested choice; not something I can justify from an environmental standpoint. My spouse is making a conscious effort to minimizing flying by being more selective about which conferences and business trips he really needs to make. Fortunately, he is at a point in his career where he can afford to be a bit more selective. However, the Melbourne conference was deemed necessary, and so I tagged along.

I've been asked whether I purchased carbon offsets for flying. This may come as a surprise, but I am lukewarm about offsets as they exist today. I was soured by my initial experience with the offset market. A few years ago, I read the fine print on a brochure from NativeEnergy and realized that what they were offering at that time was not an actual, measurable reduction in CO2, but a chance to donate money to their for-profit company in order to finance a wind energy project that may or may not get built at some unspecified time in the future. I'm all for renewable energy, but I hate deceptive marketing. NativeEnergy folks, if you're trying to raise capital for a wind energy project, just call it "wind energy capital investment". Don't call it an "offset" unless you're ready to tell me exactly how much carbon is offset when I write the check. And while you're at it, consider calling your "donors" investors and paying them a return, especially if you're for-profit! (end rant) Anyway, my doubts about the current offset market are eloquently summarized by this letter to Co-op America and this article. I'll continue to reevaluate the market as it evolves, but for now, I am not sufficiently convinced about offsets.

Although jet fuel consumption is the biggie, I did observe some other opportunties for greening air travel in small ways. For example, I had never stopped to think about how much trash is generated on a long-haul flight, what with all the meals and beverages multiplied by the number of passengers on a 747. Maybe I should start bringing a travel mug on board, and write a letter to United asking them to switch to compostable tableware and food service containers.

Airports could get into the act, too, since their food service operations are a large source of disposable plates, napkins, cups, etc. Surprisingly, though, I noticed that a few restaurants and cafés at Australian airports did use real china. In particular, cafés were most likely to do this; I suspect it's due to the strong "coffee culture" there.

Moving on to ground transportation...I actually looked into renting a Prius. For a Prius, Budget was asking more than double the rate of an economy car. No thanks! We opted for a small car with good mileage instead. I think they must just keep a handful of Prii in their fleet and charge through the nose for them.

And as for sea transportation in the Great Barrier Reef: if I had to do it over, I'd consider taking a sailboat instead of a motorized boat, to reduce fuel consumption. And I'd rent a wetsuit for comfort and to avoid sloshing as much sunscreen off of my skin and into the ocean. I enjoyed my visit to the Great Barrier Reef immensely, but in the bigger picture, it's yet another choice that I can't necessarily justify from an environmental perspective. For one thing, it is a sensitive ecosystem that receives a huge volume of visitors. For another thing, the irony of emitting coral-bleaching CO2 while flying to Australia to see the colorful corals is not lost on me.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Back from Australia, part 3

And now for the final installment of our travelogue. We booked a day tour on the Wavelength snorkeling boat to see the Great Barrier Reef and it was incredible.

We snorkeled at three sites on the outer reef: Ray Ban on middle Opal Reef, Long Bommie on a satellite reef off of Opal Reef, and Turtle Bay on a satellite reef off of Tongue Reef. Ray Ban is warmer and relatively shallow, up to 20 feet deep, so the sandy floor still gets enough sunlight to be a lighter shade of blue. The coral formations there are like an open maze. Long Bommie is a tall, isolated tower of coral in cooler, deeper waters. Snorkelling around it takes about 30-45 minutes and is like surveying a mountain from above. On one side of the bommie, the water is deep enough that you can't see the ocean floor. Turtle Bay has coral mazes intermixed with wide open spaces with a clear view to the ocean floor. Sea turtles like to frequent this area, hence the name.

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef was amazing. As I get older, fewer experiences really rekindle my sense of wonder; but this was one of them. It was like flying over a totally foreign three-dimensional landscape brimming with bizarre and colorful life. I had no previous frame of reference for what I was seeing.

It was also a bit scary navigating around the coral formations. Not only can they be injured when touched, but they can also injure you by scratching or stinging. The currents, while gentle, may push you into the coral if you're not attentive. Also, if you're swimming above a wide expanse of flat-topped coral reef close to the surface, there's the possibility (especially at low tide) that the top of the reef may get closer and closer to the surface until the sharp corals are almost right up under your body. You don't want this scraping up against your stomach:

Blue staghorn coral

During the course of the day, we saw lots of colorful coral and fish, sea stars (including a neat blue one), giant clams, a lagoon ray, a sea turtle, and (from the boat) a humpback whale.

One humorous highlight of our tour was the reef ecology presentation during lunch. It was given by the crew's marine biologist, a young woman with a thick New Zealand accent who talked at about 100 miles per hour. I think the content of the talk may have been good, but I only understood about three out of every five words :)

The day after visiting the reef, we drove up the coast in our rental car to the Daintree Rainforest area. Perhaps this is a good time to expound upon the joys of driving in Australia. For starters, you drive on the left side and the driver's seat is on the right side, so...
  • The controls are a mirror image, so whenever you try to signal a turn, you end up turning on the windshield wipers instead.

  • You reach for the gear shift with your right hand...and it's not there. (Do this multiple times for good measure.)

  • You keep drifting to the left edge of the lane because your brain is used to the driver's vantage point being further to the left than it actually is.

  • And even if you're walking, not driving, you keep looking in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic whenever you cross the street.
Also, the lanes on the highways seem narrower. And, roundabouts! We had to get used to negotiating them because they are a lot more common in Australia, used in many places where American road planners would use a four-way intersection or highway exit instead.

Our first stop in the Daintree area was Mossman Gorge, where we went on a guided rainforest walk with a member of the Kuku Yalanji aboriginal tribe through private land on their reservation. We also trekked on the Mossman Gorge walking track at Daintree National Park.

Mossman River Gorge

Rainforest trees often have buttressed roots

Strangler fig vines strangling a tree

Strangler fig vines strangling me

At the end of the track, an ice cream truck awaits in the parking lot, serving up dipped cones garnished with a strange candy bar called Flake to hungry hikers.

Also waiting in the parking lot are the bush turkeys, which look like smaller regular turkeys, but their fan of tail feathers is oriented sideways like a fish's tail (an adaptation that allows them to run through the dense brush). The bush turkeys cast a speculative eye at our ice cream cones as we ate them in the parking lot.

One notable aspect about visiting Daintree National Park (a designated World Heritage Site) is that the rainforest is so strictly protected that the park actually has very few trails, probably no more than a few miles total. However, many private property owners who own nearby land operate walking tours through their property. They seem to do a good job of preserving the rainforest on their land; I'm not sure if this is because of land use regulations, the economic benefits to their tour operations, or some other reason.

The next day was our last in the Daintree area. We walked the Dubuji Boardwalk and saw coastal rainforest, big mangroves, noisy scrub fowl, and a few butterflies. We gawked at bugs, dead and alive, at the Daintree Entomological Museum. We took a detour to the Daintree Ice Cream Company and sampled ice cream flavors made from local tropical fruits: passionfruit, yellow sapote, macadamia nut, and wattle seed. (Golden wattle is a kind of acacia tree endemic to Australia; the ice cream tastes like coffee.)

While driving along the highway, my spouse caught a glimpse of a spectacular electric blue Ulysses Butterfly. They look like this:

All too soon, our trip concluded; we flew from Cairns to Sydney that evening, continuing to San Francisco the next day. And this travelogue concludes with a short lesson in Aussie slang. Everyone in the States knows about "G'day mate" and "barbie", and some may be aware of a few Aussie English usages that fall oddly on the American ear: "petrol" for gas, "lift" for elevator, "car park" for parking lot, "hiring" a car instead of renting it. But here are some especially fun words I added to my vocabulary:
  • "dodgy" - questionable; flaky; sketchy; unreliable; suspect

  • "daggy" - corny, cheesy, tasteless, or unfashionable

  • "yabbies" - small freshwater crayfish endemic to South Eastern Australia (seen on a restaurant menu)

  • ...and my favorite Aussie slang: "budgie smugglers" - a Speedo (it helps to know that a budgie is a small pet bird like a parakeet)
Lots more pics of our trip posted on Flickr!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Back from Australia, part 2

Our Australian saga continues. No trip to a foreign land would be complete without a few bizarre/surreal experiences, and we had three musical ones during our Melbourne stay:
  1. Eating breakfast at the elegant winery while "Heart of Glass" was blaring on the dining room radio. Sorry, breakfast is just too early for Blondie.

  2. Being subjected to an easy-listening instrumental version of "YMCA" on the Melbourne airport shuttle bus. It's just not the same without the lyrics!

  3. We went to the open-air Queen Victoria Market for lunch (souvlaki on thick Turkish pide bread, delish!). On our way to the food court, we saw kids riding around on camels--apparently camels were historically used for transport in the Outback, therefore you can now have your photo taken with them in the middle of Melbourne. As if that weren't strange enough, while we were eating lunch, we were suddenly surrounded by people in navy blue sweaters and kilts who started playing bagpipes really loudly. This turned out to be the official state police highland pipe band, giving a performance. This was followed by none other than...the official state police rock band, Code One, rocking out in uniform. And just when we thought it couldn't get any weirder, the rock band and the bagpipe band played a few numbers...together. The Victoria police force has a 24-piece swing band too, but they weren't one of the acts that day :)

The second week we left Melbourne for Cairns (pronounced "cans"). This part of Australia is in the tropics. It's humid here and much warmer, and the native vegetation is lush green rainforest that just gets thicker the further north you go. Quite a bit of rainforest has been cleared for agriculture since colonial times, and you see many plantations of sugarcane, bananas, and other exotic tropical fruits. Tourism is also big here because of the rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns has Miami-style development; other cities and towns further north are less populated and/or have policies in place to limit the visual impact of resorts and other tourism-related development.

Our first day in Cairns commenced with a very touristy itinerary: riding the Kuranda Scenic Railway up through rainforest-covered mountains to Kuranda Village, visiting the village for a few hours, then taking the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway back down.

All three of these attractions are major tourist traps; Kuranda Village is practically one giant gift shop. Skyrail is particularly egregious, as you have to go through a gift shop to board it, and another one to exit it. Disney Australia at its finest. But I cannot deny that it was a pretty neat experience to see the rainforest at ground level from a train and then see above the rainforest canopy from the Skyrail.

And Kuranda did have one big draw for us--the chance to cuddle a koala bear at Kuranda Koala Gardens.

This is Sienna, a two-year-old female koala. Despite the menacing-looking claws, she is quite gentle and calm and very soft.

We fed and petted kangaroos and wallabies, too.

One wallaby had a joey in the pouch that stuck its head out for a little while, but then it hid again.

After visiting Kuranda, we drove up the coast on the Captain Cook Highway for an hour to get to Port Douglas. The Captain Cook Highway reminds me of California's Highway 1, but with rainforest vegetation. You wind up and down mountains and hug the coast, with constant spectacular views of white sand beaches to the east. Upon arriving at Port Douglas, we checked into a B&B that had tree frogs and geckos hanging around the courtyard. Geckos are pretty small, but did you know that they make these really loud, bird-like chirping noises? Loud enough to wake you up at night.

To be time, the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park