Bossy Uncle Sam

It turns out people don’t like being told what to do. That, in a nutshell, is what I learned yesterday in Olympia.

tony homes

…Okay, that sounds worse than it is. Perhaps I should start from the beginning. House Bill 1085 is currently making its way through the 65th Legislature of the State of Washington. It’s known by some as the “Tiny Homes Bill,” others as the “Mother-in-law Bill,” and still others as the “Micro-housing Bill.” In reality, HB 1085 removes a state-mandated restriction upon the minimum required size of single-family residences. Great idea, right? Well, HB 1085 has hasn’t made it out of the House…in 4 years.

In the span of a ten minute discussion with Representative Brian Blake, Aberdeen Democrat and author of HB 1085, I learned more about the fickle intricacies of politics than any high school civics class could cover. Having served since 2002, Rep. Blake has authored bills, voted for and against them, and sat on dozens of committees to revise and re-write them. HB 1085, though, is a thorn in his side. Over the course of four years, he’s heard dozens of concerns from colleagues and constituents alike: the need for regulation to ensure healthy living conditions and structural integrity of tiny homes, the fear of promoting population growth in “already overpopulated” areas, the ownership of liability…this goes on. He’s faced resistance from large cities and rural counties alike, all with different concerns about removing the residential size restriction. What started as a bid to allow folks in rural Grays Harbor County build small homes on large lots has turned into a state-wide war over housing codes. But it has also taught us a lot. In 2014, Seattle representatives ensured the bill went nowhere because their constituents were worried about a tiny home free-for-all. In 2015, the bill was re-written to exclude major metropolitan areas, but that also missed the mark. The came Representative Blake’s revelation: leave police powers to the local authorities.shared-responsibilities

Where a local government is no longer restricted by binding state codes, they are
empowered to tailor regulation to their respective constituents. By authoring the bill to be permissive rather than binding – to eliminate the state mandate, without requiring localities to adjust their codes – we accomplish just that.

So, HB 1085. Do you like the idea of tiny homes? Think micro-housing is a solution to Seattle’s housing crisis? Call your representative about HB 1085. It’s still alive, and rallying support is the first step towards a very real solution.

Perhaps more importantly – want to sell someone on an idea? Make it their idea. Discuss the why’s. Address the concerns. Share the responsibility to find a solution. And ultimately, lead them to draw their own conclusions (– your conclusions). Responsibility is a powerful thing, but knowing when to abdicate it can be truly transformational.


US Waste Factory, Colorado Springs, CO

Meal time at the US Air Force Academy’s Mitchell Hall is a sight to behold. 400 tables served in less than 5 minutes, family style and with more than enough food to go around. A sea of 4000 cadets, in and out in less than 30 minutes: a gracefully-choreographed tradition and marvel of efficiency. For an outsider, it is a fascinating and remarkable system – until it’s time to clear the tables.

mitchesI think it’d be conservative to estimate that nearly as much is thrown away as is eaten – every meal, three times a day, seven days a week, 46 weeks a year. Leftovers, table scraps, drinks, even all condiments, are tossed in the trash during the momentously efficient clean-up drill. In many ways, it makes perfect sense: the hardly-touched jar of salsa is no longer sanitary and the mostly-full milk carton has been sitting out for nearly 45 minutes. What could be done with 1000 leftover dinner rolls and 800 chicken breasts, anyway? There is no recycling for bottles or jars, no compost for food scraps – only trash for food and packaging alike. Incredibly efficient. And an incredible waste.

How difficult would it be to institute recycling capabilities? On the scale that Mitchell Hall produces recyclable materials, it’s highly likely that such a program could run a profit. Compost? A straightforward on-site lifecycle with benefits ranging from landscaping fertilizer to reduced waste transportation costs. There are so many options to reduce waste – to offer none is not only irresponsible, but sets a lasting precedent for our nation’s developing leaders.

I can’t help but lament how the Armed Force community in general tends to be overtly wasteful. Everything is budget-driven, and our priorities are elsewhere: there is simply little effort to minimize use of resources or ecological impact. This case is merely one small example, but one that could be so easily mitigated.

Executive Order 13693, issued in March 2015, gave the DOD (Department of Defense) a nudge in the right direction. The order calls for specified increases in renewable energy use and waste reduction, among other initiatives [1]. Thus far, no strides have been made to develop strategy or policy to meet the requirements [2]. Other federal initiatives, such as the 2005 Energy Policy Act and publications of the EPA and Department of Energy, carry similar intent – but their influence is limited to their enforcement.

What can you do? Call your federal legislators (find your Representative or Senator) and call-now-2tell them about your concerns. Let them know that you are dissatisfied with the progress we’ve made, that renewable energy and recycling/composting infrastructure are important to growth, and that federal agencies must be held to established standards. Whether you’re motivated by lunch at the Academy or other federal shortcomings isn’t important – in the end it is our responsibility to hold our government accountable for what we believe to be right.

[1] “EO 13693,” 18 August 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 28 February 2017].
[2] Lepore, Brain. “DOD Efforts Regarding Net Zero Goals,” US Government Accountability Office. 12 January 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 28 February 2017].

The Brown Side of Cruising

Last year, the cruise ship industry released more than one billion gallons of untreated sewage into the world’s oceans [1]. That’s the equivalent of 19 backyard swimming pools full of human excretion – every day. And in International Waters, that’s perfectly legal.

cruiseMany nations take it upon themselves to restrict sewage dumping in their respective waters. For instance, US federal law prohibits dumping of untreated sewage within three miles of shore [2]. Beyond that point, ships are in International Waters and under no specific jurisdiction. MARPOL 73/78, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, first sought to limit dumping of oils and hazardous wastes, though has since been amended to include sewage and plastic wastes. MARPOL now echoes US law banning untreated discharge within three miles of nearest land, though allows discharge further out, so long as the “Effluent does not produce visible floating solids nor cause discoloration of the surrounding water” [3]. Full MARPOL text available here.

It doesn’t take a scientist to recognize that the continued, large-volume release of raw sewage might negatively impact the world’s oceans. A 1990’s NOAA-commissioned study of a 106-mile “dump site” off the coast of New York confirmed the fears of ecologists worldwide. It was found that not only does the particulate matter released during deep-water dumping eventually reside on the ocean floor, but it causes a significant re-structuring of the deep-sea ecosystem for hundreds of miles around the dump site [4]. Bottom line, it’s bad – but with most ships registered under other flags and operating in International Waters, it’s also out of our direct control.

Thankfully, there is much power in consumer choice. Independent energy-starrating systems have proven to be a successful marketing tactic across many industries. An obvious driver of consumer choice, dozens of ratings – Energy Star, LEED, even “Dolphin Safe” tuna – have helped industries reach new customer bases by promoting long-term thinking and wholistic product awareness. Even Seattle Public Utilities has seen positive results, as customers reduce their respective energy usage 2-3% in response to stratification amongst their neighbors: a simple smiley or frowny face [5].


Therein lies the solution: a rating system. It would seem a safe assumption that much of the American population would take issue with promoting widespread fouling of the oceans. Therefore, if we create a widely-applicable and recognizable system to stratify cruise lines according to their respective environmental impacts, we can make a significant impact on the industry as a whole. While cruising is an international industry worth over $37 billion, nearly half of the passengers are US citizens [6]. The impact of a successful rating system certainly won’t be limited to American travelers, but even starting at a domestic level, we can make a huge difference.


[1] Keever, Marcie. “Cruise Ship Sewage,” The New York Times. 29 June 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[2] “Regulation of Ship Pollution in the United States,” Wikipedia. 21 February 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[3] “MARPOL 73/78,” Wikipedia. 21 February 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[4] Collie, Marsha and Russo, Julie. “Deep Sea Biodiversity and the Impacts of Ocean Dumping,” NOAA Undersea Research Program. 30 June 2000. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 21 February 2017].
[5] Sutter, John. “Energy Efficiency – With a Digital Smile,” CNN. 3 December 2010. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].
[6] Kennedy, Sarah. “2016 Cruise Industry Outlook,” CLIA. 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 21 February 2017].

Who Needs LEED?

Which would you prefer: money or bragging rights? This is essentially the question that plagues environmental regulators around the world, as politicians bicker about taxes and incentives, the resulting cost to industry, and – in some countries – the merits of climate change science. As a result, environmental consciousness is effectively regulated on an industry-by-industry basis and with varying degrees of 400x300_carbon_taxsuccess. The US government
provides incentives for citizens to invest in solar and electric cars, yet subsidizes the oil and gas industry to the tune of $35.6 billion/year – nearly 2.5 times what it invests in alternative energy exploration. In the construction industry, many independent rating systems exist – LEED, Green Globes, GBI, and Greenroads, to name a few – yet incentives for green development are effectively limited to positive publicity. What if there was a simple method to create a better incentive for environmental consciousness, with minimal adverse effect to existing industry?

The concept of a carbon tax, or an additional cost levied on fossil fuels to mitigate environmental impacts, is not new and has been adopted in more than a dozen countries around the world. It’s simple. It’s effective. So why not base our entire sales tax structure solely upon environmental impact?

The chief advantage of an environment-based sales tax is quite simply the proven effectiveness of up-front costs. Whereas post-purchase incentives such as mail-in rebates and the plastic “bottle bill” taxes meet only minimal success, implementing a front-end tax motivates the purchaser to shop alternatives, which in turn will provide incentives for manufacturers and distributors to reduce their use of environmentally harmful materials and practices. In short, an all-inclusive environmental impact tax on all goods will prove far more effective than our current attempts at promoting green industry through industry-specific tax breaks.

So the question of the day: how does one go about basing an entire sales tax on environmental impact alone? It sounds complicated in theory, but is relatively simple in practice: Step 1 – We would first need to establish a standardized and universally-accepted method to quantify the environmental impact of any given material. This could be in the form of an impact study or even life-cycle cost analysis. Step 2 – We then simply tax products based upon their composition: polyethylene plastics see a certain tax per unit weight, Styrofoam another. In this way, goods are taxed according to their respective environmental impacts – an all-inclusive system offering the simplicity and effectiveness of a carbon tax, and without the rigidity of direct regulation.        picture1

The global stage has proven the effectiveness of a carbon tax as the most flexible and cost-
effective method to drive positive change. Companies are free to make decisions based upon their own economic pursuits – some will pursue green technology while others will pay the price not to do so. Additionally, regulatory and maintenance costs are relatively minimal for such a simple system. Ultimately, such a program would drastically reduce consumer use of environmentally detrimental goods as manufacturers reconsider their use of harmful materials and processes. In a world where we hope to reduce our global impact, an all-inclusive tax on environmental impact is the most effective, cost-efficient, flexible, and straightforward way to catalyze a change in thinking.

Resiliency: The Crystal Ball of Risk Mitigation

At nearly 110 pages long, Seattle’s Hazard Mitigation Plan is insufficient. It identifies all predictable major hazards, highlights risk, and provides plans for response and mitigation. It’s been approved by FEMA, and has been updated and improved many times. But it doesn’t prepare us for an unpredictable future.

Formed as part of President Carter’s 1973 Reorganization Plan, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides disaster relief and risk mitigation assistance to qualified recipients. Specifically, a FEMA-approved Hazard Mitigation Plan is a prerequisite to receive federal dollars for risk mitigation projects and certain non-emergency disaster assistance. For this reason, nearly every significant settlement across the US maintains some semblance of a Hazard Mitigation Plan. However, these plans address risk – not resilience.

History has often shown the perils of addressing only singular risk. In 1953, a massive wind storm on the North Sea combined forces with a full moon to overpower dikes along the Rhine delta and swamp the entirety of Zeeland, swallowing up homes, schools, and hospitals, and claiming more than 1800 lives. Soon afterwards, construction of the Delta Works – a massive series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers –  was begun to ensure no such tragedy would ever happen again. The unprecedented project effectively shortens the Dutch coastline and was regarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.” However, as evidenced by the French Maginot Line at the start of World War Two, risk is not unidimensional. In 1993 and 1995, above-average snowfall in the Alps met heavy rainfall in the lowland and the Rhine River overflowed: Zeeland flooded once again, leading to the evacuation of 250,000 people and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The Dutch had taken measures to protect themselves from the sea, only to be “attacked” by behind.


Where risk mitigation requires straightforward, specific cause-and-effect response, resilience is much more involved. Had the storm of 1953 occurred again in the 1990’s, Zeeland would have escaped unscathed. But the Delta Works were designed for protection from the sea – planners failed to consider the effects of alternate hazards. To be truly resilient is to maintain status quo despite changing factors. Resiliency focuses not on specific hazards but upon safeguarding assets, requiring a flexible response to variable risk. This is where our current hazard mitigation plans fall short.

For decades, Hazard Mitigation Plans have adhered almost exclusively to a vulnerability-based approach:

  • Identify hazards
  • Quantify resultant risk
  • Plan response
  • Mitigate, where possible

This approach is highly effective against each hazard, provided that the event occurs in the manner anticipated. However, preparation and response is highly hazard-specific – which certainly wouldn’t be an issue if we had the foresight and resources to identify and plan for every possible hazard…

In recent years, community planning and disaster response specialists have developed an alternate approach to hazard mitigation planning: one based upon assets. Such an approach begins with the products and services crucial to daily life – take medical care, for example. Where traditional vulnerability-based analysis would identify a hazard and assign quantifiable risk to our medical care system, the primary goal of this asset-based approach is to find other ways to meet the needs of that asset in the face of changing conditions. In other words, how can we continue to offer medical care despite unavailability of certain resources (clinics, power sources, etc.)? The same thought process can be applied to nearly every asset, from communications networks to centers of community and worship, and prepares us to meet the needs of each of these assets in the face of changing conditions. This is textbook resiliency.

By requiring planners to consider key assets in addition to risks, communities are prepared to face a wider array of hazards: identifying and planning to maintain key assets increases a community resilience against even unforeseeable events. Certainly, this asset-based approach is intended to supplement – not replace – our current vulnerability-based plans. In doing so, we will be better prepared to face a wider array of hazards and find additional value in our existing infrastructure. It would be relatively straightforward for FEMA to leverage this requirement upon Hazard Mitigation Plans…time and money well spent.

Don’t Call it “Climate Change”

When I sat down to dinner with a friend of a friend, I anticipated a philosophical and engaging discussion about politics and life. I did not expect a debate about the merits of climate research, especially coming from a nationally-recognized leader of an Arctic Maritime Research Facility in Alaska – a global warming skeptic in the scientific fields. A mathematician by education, he argued that we could draw no definitive conclusion with merely “half of the equation,” that “so many unquantified variables exist” that doing so would be premature and irresponsible. As an engineer, I found this logic to be fascinating. Sure we only have part of the equation…but isn’t that sufficient? Elementary thermodynamics dictates that the atmosphere must be warming…doesn’t it?

I won’t pretend to be an expert, but looking at global warming in terms of net energy emc22
makes for a convincing “partial” equation. Broken down, the simplicity is surprisingly compelling: Combustion of carbon compounds releases carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased nearly 150 parts per million since the pre-Industrial era. Last year, humans released more than 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Like any atmospheric gas with more than two atoms, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which absorbs outgoing infrared energy.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So when infrared energy is absorbed into the atmosphere, the atmospheric energy content increases in the form of heat. With the introduction of increased energy into the atmosphere, more energy is a hand for each of the many meteorological cycles: each a function of convection in the atmosphere. Naturally occurring processes simply happen faster and to a greater degree: Windy areas will get more wind. Hurricanes will be both bigger and more frequent. Melting ice caps will melt faster. The world’s weather is caused by the movement of heat – a movement now only increasing.


So perhaps we don’t need the other half of the equation. There are almost certainly other sources of carbon dioxide. The apparent increase in global temperature may well be within an expected margin of error. But we agree that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are increasing. We agree that the Laws of Thermodynamics are indeed laws. You cannot manage what you do not measure, but in a closed system, there is then one possible conclusion: the atmosphere is warming. This is a simple cause and effect relationship.

Don’t call it climate change. Climate is a long-term pattern of weather, usually over a 30-year time span. Last year was the warmest on record, but it’s true: climate trends fall within a margin of error. Nonetheless, the globe is warming: we have an empirical equation and real-world results that suggest the same. Maybe, just maybe, if we look at the current predicament as a result of undeniable truths – namely the conservation of energy – we’ll agree that scientists really are close enough for all practical purposes.

Confidence: Irrational Trust?

The very nature of confidence implies that human feeling transcends rational
thought. More specifically, we rely on confidence to make nearly every decision we face. Where it is impossible to quantify the probabilities of all possible outcomes, we make a selection because we have a history, because we’re familiar, or because we’re following our gut. Do you buy the same brand of mayonnaise at the grocery store or do you try a new variety each time? That’s easy – you buy the same one because you picture2know you like it. Why take a chance? In the same way, we decide where to live, how to interact, and what to invest, not because we have all the information but because we have some degree of confidence in our choice.

Uncle Sam expends an extraordinary amount of resources to enable economic growth: we seek to optimize unemployment and interest rates, regulate business enterprise, and manage spending to stimulate investment. In reality though, this is only one small piece of a successful economy. We cannot possibly accrue all the data we need to make purely rational decisions, so rely on confidence to cover the deficit. To truly maximize the potential for growth, we must achieve consumer confidence. No prospector would make an investment without believing themselves protected from consumer fraud, nor would a business owner build capability or a consumer make a purchase without the confidence that he or she will be able to reap the benefits. You wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t some degree of confidence you might gain something from it.

The true priority of our government, then, is to inspire this irrational feeling of trust. Whether that be through healthcare availability, consumer protection regulation, or law enforcement, our animal spirits require confidence: a subjective and arbitrary feeling that investing in our world is in our best interest. Political and economic beliefs aside, there can be no economic growth where there exists no public trust. A deliberate investment in the social capital of mankind is therefore necessary to maximize global economic potential, not because we lack data, but because our decisions are far more than simply rational.