fuel efficiency of electric vs. gas cars

I’ve been considering whether to buy an electric car as my next vehicle.  I found this detailed analysis at Do The Math really interesting and useful.  Key points:

On the surface, electric cars are a lot more efficient than gas-powered cars.

The MPG equivalent of [the Volt, Leaf, and Tesla energy consumption] is approximately 80, 110, and 170, respectively. All are much better deals than gasoline cars deliver, primarily because the electrical drive system is far more efficient than the typical 20% gasoline engine.

However, when charging a car like the Leaf, the source of the electricity is important.

Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.

On the other hand, this doesn’t automatically translate to “don’t buy electric”:

I’m not saying that transitioning to electric or hybrid cars is not a good idea. I think it’s animperative, if we want maintain a car culture, given that fossil fuel supplies are going to decline eventually, starting with oil. Obviously, if your power comes from hydroelectric, solar, wind, or even nuclear, you don’t have the same concerns. Also, emissions controls (for things other than CO2) are vastly better for fossil-fuel power plants than for automobiles, so electric cars are less polluting. But if your priority is either reduced resource consumption or climate change and CO2 reduction, let’s focus on getting electricity from carbon-free sources before transforming our fleet of cars to electric—or at least accomplish the two in tandem.

I’ll post more if I find more good resources comparing environmental impact of different car types.  And I suspect I’ll also be sharing more from Do The Math — it looks like my kind of blog.

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donations links roundup

GiveWell’s new list of top-rated charities is out.

Freakonomics recently had a podcast called What Makes a Donor Donate? (link includes podcast and transcript.)  It’s short and full of interesting (and sometimes counterintuitive) facts about the effectiveness of seed money, matching donations, raffles, and letting donors opt out of future solicitations.

For those who want to dig deeper, John List, one of the guests of the Freakonomics podcast, studies the economics of charitable giving.  He has a set of research papers full of empirical evidence about various fundraising tactics.  These publications look both interesting and useful for those trying to effectively raise money for a cause.

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End of the year charitable donations

We’ve made a number of posts on the topic of charitable giving in the past.  Since many charitable donations happen toward the end of the year, I will be posting a few additional guidelines and suggestions to keep in mind for those donating soon.  Most of today’s guidelines come via GiveWell, and are most helpful for people still trying to decide where to allocate some of their charitable funds (though some of the information will be helpful for everyone).

The more I read about GiveWell, the more impressed by them — they investigate relatively few charities, but their investigations are extremely in depth, and give a thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of the organization as well as other important factors (e.g., whether or not the organization currently needs money).  They are very transparent about their methods, as well.  The downside is that they address only a few types of charities, currently.

GiveWell has a Giving 101 guide to making wise contributions.  They also have a list of top-rated charities (about to change in December — the top-rated charities on the current list no longer need short-term funding, so keep watching for the updated list) and a list of celebrated charities they don’t recommend, with explanations of their rationale for each.

The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy presents empirical evidence about social programs that work.  Some of these interventions are not connected to specific charitable organizations or programs, but many of them are.

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Occupy Wall Street: long-term goals

In the previous post, I discussed media coverage of OWS and other protester attempts to raise awareness.  But my biggest question is, what do the OWS protesters actually plan to do with the attention and emotion they’ve generated?

Different protesters have different ideas, as covered in NPR’s Planet Money (among many other sources).  For some, the protests themselves are the point — they want to engage members of the public in conversations about the economy, let the world know they’re angry, and in some cases generate ideas for reform.  Many believe strongly in the participatory democracy and consensus decision making of the nightly meetings in NYC (Planet Money, around the 6:30 mark).  Some of them seem to want to change government to make it more like this process.  Others want to change the values that govern society to mirror those of the protesters, so that people care about each other more and want to distribute wealth more evenly.  It is unclear how to go about accomplishing either of these large, vague goals.

Some argue that vagueness is a good thing right now, and that concrete legislative demands will transform the beginnings of a potentially powerful movement into weak laws. Others, like Andrew Smith (Planet Money, 10:00), claim that effectiveness itself is undesirable and will disenfranchise people.  I’m not sure what these protesters are hoping will come of them demonstrations, honestly.

Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges, on the other hand, claims that the protesters want regulation of the financial sector and prosecution of members of Goldman Sachs and other institutions responsible for the financial crisis.  (The CBC anchor’s attack on him and the protesters is pretty amazing to watch — including a debate about whether the term “nutcase” or “nutbar” was used — and CBC later offered an apology.)  I believe that is true, in many cases.  I have also seen some other specific suggestions for regulatory demands made multiple times: End corporate personhood. Limit or end corporate contributions to political campaigns. Regulate lobbyists.  Make the bailed out banks pay back the funds the government gave them. Change individual and corporate tax structure.  Support trade unions.  Increase support for the unemployed.  Increase Medicare and Social Security.

I have, so far, seen only a few calls for individual action outside of protesting.  People are being asked to participate in Bank Transfer Day, and transfer their money from a bank to a credit union by November 5.  Additionally, there’s the Occupy The Boardroom movement, encouraging people to voice their discontent to specific members of Wall Street via email.  That seems potentially amusing and good for blowing off steam — but I’m pretty sure The Boardroom is pretty good at ignoring unwanted items in its inbox.

Has anyone else seen any other specific calls to do something beyond the scope of protesting?  Also, if anyone has any analyses of the likely effects of Bank Transfer Day, I’d love to read them and post more on that topic.

It will be interesting to watch where the protests go from here, and whether OWS leads to a more effective long-term movement.  (Despite the protesters who claim effectiveness to be beside the point or counterproductive, I am clearly biased toward effective actions.)  On The Media interviewed Michael Kazin (around the 7 min mark), historian and specialist in social movements, about what it would take for that to happen:

For it to become a movement, it has to become organized, it has to have recognizable spokespeople, it has to have a strategy and not just a set of protest tactics…. It needs to last longer…, get alliances — not just with some labor unions, but with, perhaps, immigrant groups, perhaps with some people in the left-wing Democratic Party. It needs to do what the civil rights movement did, what the anti-war movement did in the 1960s, what the labor movement did in the 1930s, which is to appear to be the voice of people who have not really had a voice about their discontent, their anger with what’s happened to the American economy….

I think at this stage being a little inchoate, being a little incoherent even, but being very clear about what you’re against more than what you’re for, enables lots of people to take part with their own reasons….  At this stage what they’re doing is very effective [because the coverage itself helps to generate more interest].  If it continues to go on, people in the media will say, ‘Well, you did this for two months.  What are you gonna do next?’


[See also Part 1 and Part 2.]

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Occupy Wall Street: raising awareness

One major goal of protests is to raise public awareness of a cause.  In order to do that, generally protesters hope to generate a lot of media coverage.

OWS has certainly been garnering a lot of attention from the press lately.  It took a while for that to happen, however.  Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight analyzes the amount of media coverage over time and concludes that

the protests in Manhattan…and in other parts of the country, have found two ways to draw attention to their cause. First, keep at it. Second, wait for confrontations with the police.

One of the points covered by my previous protest post was that most modern protests lack the longevity of famed effective U.S. movements like the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.  However, with many people unemployed for a long time and angry about it, there is a large base of protesters able to participate in a more sustained effort (though not all of the OWS demonstrators unemployed).

Police brutality and protester staying power may have driven publicity.  But what kind of publicity is it?  Much of the coverage has been critical,  primarily pointing out the lack of organization or coherent message and the off-putting (to some) hippyish appearance of the protesters.  Even some more neutral coverage from sources such as NPR’s On The Media or Planet Money has set out to try to identify protester demands — and hasn’t ended up able to attribute any clear, united purpose to the protesters.

Some protesters argue that reform of Wall Street and Congress isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s hard to generate a list of pithy slogans and demands for such a big problem (one protester interviewed by On The Media emphasizes this point).  Many protesters view the media attention as a positive thing, even if it focuses largely on the incoherency of the protests.  But does this coverage raise public awareness of anything more specific than, “There are people who are angry?”

One thing that I have noticed is that, as the duration of the protests increases, there have been at least a few more educational pieces about the U.S. economic situation in the media.  Some of these pieces explain why protesters are angry and what they’re up against (sometimes with helpful charts and statistics about the American economic situation).  In addition, the viral campaign, We are the 99%, may be helping to engage more of the public and cause more people to feel angry about the status quo.

So, media coverage and viral campaigns may be starting to increase awareness of issues like income inequality, corporate profits vs. individual wages, and unemployment.  I think a lot of people probably were aware to some extent of these issues (especially unemployment), but perhaps that understanding is being fleshed out with more statistics and historical context.  (I’m curious to find out whether that’s the case — I hope some surveys are being done to compare public knowledge of these issues before/early on in OWS vs. after the protests have been going for a while).

The real question, for me, is what do the protesters actually plan to do with the attention, emotion, and engagement they’ve generated?  As I’ve already mentioned, there isn’t one coherent plan.  In my next entry, I’ll be looking at various proposals for action.

Edit:  see also Part 1 in this series and Part 3.

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Occupy Wall Street

I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations with a great deal of interest. Last time I covered protest marches, commenter InfoHedon posed a prescient hypothetical:

[I]magine a protest over the banks being bailed out and being rewarded for their lending practices. A protest could provide information on how to change banks and provide protesters with signs showing the local bank or credit union they’re choosing instead. This says that not only are the protesters angry and in number, but they’re also pissed off enough to take meaningful action.

Over a year later, this situation is a lot less hypothetical.  However, for the most part, OWS is being portrayed as having few clear demands and leading to little concrete action outside of the protests themselves.  So, are these protests effective?  Previously, I suggested a number of ways in which protests could have an effect:

  1. bring isolated people together so that they can then organize to take further action,
  2. energize and galvanize people to take that further action…,
  3. provide publicity for a cause,
  4. cause embarrassment and PR headaches for organizations on the other side of the issue, thus pressuring them to change,
  5. and/or publicize alternatives to the current model of doing things.

I also discussed the danger that protesters may feel like attending the demonstration is, in itself, sufficient action.

I will be revisiting the issue of effective protests with OWS in mind, and trying to assess what the demonstrations are actually achieving.  I plan to post on (at least) two topics: raising public awareness of the issues and initiating further action.  If you have any specific thoughts or questions about OWS, I’d love to hear them.

Edit: See also: Part 2 and Part 3 in the series.

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volunteering for city government

Until my mother served on the Redmond Arts Commission (RAC), it never occurred to me that you could volunteer to serve as part of your city government.  But if you have a passion for any of a number of topics such as arts, parks, bicycling or walking, disability access, or local youth, you can have a large impact on local decisions in that area by doing just that.

Many cities, like Redmond, WA, have a number of existing commissions and advisory boards or committees.  These groups advise the elected city officials, but they also often have some autonomy and an independent budget.  For instance, the RAC sponsors and promotes local arts events, buys art for display in the city, creates online and print materials to inform the community about local art, and advises the city on arts education and other topics.  While my mother was a member of the RAC, their biggest accomplishments included creating and implementing a visual arts curriculum for the local school district (the schools offered no such instruction previously), and working with the Parks Department to create a small park and firefighter statue outside the Redmond Fire Department.  My mother reports that the RAC had nearly complete autonomy to make art decisions for the city as long as they stayed within their budget.

The application process to become a commissioner/board member and the term length vary by city.  In many cities, you can fill out an application form found online.  You may then be interviewed by current commissioners, members of other commissions that you will be working with, other city officials, and/or the mayor.  If you are a good fit (often meaning that your skills or background are sufficiently different from those of the current members), they will appoint you to serve a term (e.g., 6 years, for the RAC).

Before applying, cities recommend that you attend at least one meeting of the group that you want to serve on and read minutes of previous meetings.  Also, talk to current or past commissioners about their duties and the time commitment involved.  The city of Seattle indicates that board service requires an average of 10-15 hours a month.

If you are interested in advising the city on a topic for which there is currently no board or commission, you may be able to create an advisory group.  My mother reports:

When some citizens in Sammamish [a city neighboring Redmond]…wanted an Arts Commission, they went to their council and asked about establishing one. The council asked that citizens form an Arts Task Force to study the matter and make a recommendation. The task force’s recommendation was accepted and Sammamish started an Arts Commission.

Check out your city’s website and look at the list of boards and commissions if you’re thinking about getting involved.  If you want to make a difference that you can see in your daily life, volunteering at the city level is a great way to do it.

Note: Thanks to my mom, Jill Schmidt, for all the useful information that went into this post.  :)

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Solicitation: guest posts and ideas

Do you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered on Effectivism — something involving activism, volunteering, environmentalism, etc.?  Please leave suggestions here.

Also, if you or someone you know would be interested in researching and writing a guest post on a topic you’d like to see covered, please let me know in the comments or by email.

I have a number of posts in the works, but I’d be happy if others want to chip in and help address topics they care about.

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Link roundup

Trying something different from the normal, more extensively researched style.  Should link roundups become a regular feature?  Do you have any suggested links?

Greener Choices – A site from the publishers of Consumer Reports which is chock-full of information about environmentally friendly purchases and habits.  They’re very focused on quantifying impact and offer useful side-by-side comparisons and calculators.

Guide to food labels – What do food labels really mean?  Which ones are regulated?  Greener Choices also offers an Eco-labels center addressing overlapping issues.

Khan Academy and education reform – the online math-focused education website, Khan Academy, is radically changing the way some classes are taught and some students are learning.  Can this technology revolutionize education?  When, how, and for whom?

A Lever Long Enough covered innovative and effective ways to spread e-books and literacy across the world.

Charity rating systems still coming up short – I’ve written previously about problems with rating charities.  A recent scandal demonstrates how different rating methods currently used remain insufficient.

How to stop solicitations by mail – giving anonymously is not the only solution.

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how to buy a greener book

What has a lower carbon footprint — buying a book from a local store or ordering it online?  What about buying your books via a Kindle or other e-reader?

Amazon, the leading online seller of books, has been very coy about revealing their carbon footprint (although they point out lots of things they do to make their deliveries more environmentally friendly).  However, the findings from a case study of Buy.com may provide insights into the eco-friendliness of e-commerce more broadly.  The study finds — perhaps surprisingly — that shopping online is often more energy efficient than shopping locally.

On average, shopping online was 30% more energy efficient than shopping locally, but there was a large amount of uncertainty and variability in many of the numbers that went into that analysis.  By varying several of the largest contributing factors, shopping locally can easily end up being the greener option.  In particular:

  • Shipping express or otherwise getting an item via air delivery increases the e-commerce carbon footprint dramatically.
  • By far the largest source of CO2 in local purchases is the customers driving to and from the store.  Short driving distance, high fuel efficiency, or alternate forms of transit can all shift the balance in favor of shopping locally.
  • On the e-commerce side, two potentially large but highly variable factors are the carbon footprint of the product packaging (which Amazon has made efforts to reduce) and the efficiency of the delivery from the local distribution center to the customer’s house.  For instance, having electric or hybrid delivery trucks and efficient scheduling can greatly improve the eco-friendliness of e-commerce.

Of course, there are other reasons besides carbon footprint that may also influence your decision to shop locally vs. online.

What about owning a Kindle or other e-reader?  Obviously, buying an electronic copy of a book eliminates most of the sources of energy expended in buying a print book locally or online.  However, a lot of energy goes into building an e-reader, and also into disposing of old ones.  They take energy to run, as well.  How does all of that compare to the carbon footprint of buying print books?

One well-publicized report by CleanTech concluded that buying your books on a Kindle is more energy efficient than buying (new) books in print, so long as you read 23 books or more per year.  However, Eco-Libris has critiqued this analysis, pointing out that there is too much uncertainty about Amazon’s carbon footprint to know how many books are needed to make a Kindle the greener option.

Eco-Libris also has an extensive collection of articles and other reference material addressing the environmental impact of e-readers more broadly.  While there’s no conclusive answer about the relative greenness of e-books vs. paper books, it clearly makes a huge difference how much you read and whether you buy your paper books new or used.  Unless you are a voracious buyer of books and/or periodicals, it looks like you should not consider the environmental impact as an argument in favor of buying an e-reader.

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