Against Idling: Our Pollution, Our Habits, Our Remedies

“Our Pollution, Our Habits, Our Remedies”

Denver: A Top 10 Smoggiest City!

I was astounded to read, a few weeks ago, about a new report which listed Denver as one of the top 10 smoggiest metro areas. With our view of the mountains, blue skies and sunshine, it feels inconceivable! Yet a report by the Frontier Group and the Environment America Research & Policy Center released April 11, 2017, gives the dirty details.  
The Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area was 6th on the list with 176 days of “elevated smog pollution.” 21 of those days were classified as “unhealthy” days for “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (children and older adults) and 153 days were categorized as “moderate” or “acceptable.” The report explains that even minimal exposure to ozone pollution can damage health, and “extended periods of exposure to smog creates a compound effect” — this means that the 153 days of “moderate” pollution can produce an aggregate affect with create health issues. Children and active, outdoors-oriented adults are most at risk.

Smog and Health

What are the health effects of smog (ground-level ozone) and fine-particulate pollution? As the Frontier report explains, smog (ground-level ozone) can cause: 
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • throat irritation
  • a raised risk of infection
  • permanent damage to lung tissue, especially in children
Fine particulate matter causes:
  • similar respiratory harms
  • cardiovascular issues (heart attacks, strokes and congestive heart failure)
  • developmental and neurological damage. 
For children, particulate pollution is linked to: 
  • premature birth
  • higher risk of developing autism
  • stunted lung development
For older people, breathing fine particulates also increases the risk of dementia.


What causes smog and pollution? As you might expect, these are “the byproducts of burning coal, gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels” and so the basic aims for reducing pollution would include energy sources that are based not on fossil fuels but upon clean, renewable sources like wind and solar energy.

One Simple Change We Can Do: Idling our cars

Since most of us do not operate power plants or write energy legislation, we have little direct influence over how our energy is generated. One simple way we can be effective — and this goes for many things related to sustainability — is examine our day-to-day habits. In this arena, we all have the power to make a real change.

Idling our cars is one habit we can reconsider — and reform. “Idling” is when we park our cars — for example, in the carpool lane or outside a store — and leave the engine running.  Sometimes, we cannot help idling — we might be stopped at a traffic signal, or  waiting in a freezing cold environment; but often, we just forget. We’re busy, not thinking — an automatic habit. The first step to arresting an automatic habit is to become conscious and knowledgeable about it. (Hence, this column.)

Idling: Harmful and Wasteful

As the Engines Off, Colorado and the Environmental Defense Fund write, idling is both harmful to our health (and our kids’ health) and wasteful of money and energy.

Idling tailpipes: 
  • emit the same kinds of pollutants as moving cars, harmful for the reasons mentioned above
  • emit a surprising amount of pollution. One minute of idling produces more carbon monoxide than the smoke from three packs of cigarettes. 
  • waste fuel and money, using between 1/5 to 7/10 of a gallon of fuel per hour
  • emit, on average, a pound of carbon dioxide (the primary contributor to global warming) for every 10 minutes of idling.
Idling for No Good Reason: Misconceptions about our Cars

Many think they need to keep their cars running, or “warm them up.” This isn’t true anymore. As Engines Off! and the non-profit The Environmental Media Association (EMA) point out,
  • Modern engines require much less fuel at startup than people think.
  • Idling is harder on the engine than restarting. Frequent restarting causes only about $10 worth of wear-and-tear per year, whereas idling leaves fuel residues that damage engine components and cause higher maintenance costs over time. Ford Motor Company recommends turning the engine off, even for stops of 30 seconds, to save fuel, money, and air quality. They have said, "Frequent restarting has little impact on components that include the battery and starter motor."
  • An idling engine is not operating at its peak temperature, which means that fuel does not undergo complete combustion. This leaves fuel residue that can deposit on spark plugs and increase fuel consumption by up to 5%. 
  • Idling wastes fuel. Idling for a few minutes everyday can cost you several dollars per week – which doesn’t seem like much, but adds up in the long run.
  • Two minutes of idling uses the same amount of gas as 1 mile of driving – according to the Consumer Energy Center. (Nerds who want specific data can find it here.)
Ways to be idle-free
Here are simple tips (courtesy of the EDF) we can stop idling and reduce the pollution we are dumping on people (and kids) trying to breathe:

1. Turn off your ignition if you’re waiting more than 10 seconds. Contrary to popular belief, restarting your car does not burn more fuel than leaving it idling. In fact, idling for just 10 seconds wastes more gas than restarting the engine.
Typical times we idle our cars include:
  • Waiting to pick up passengers (kids at school)
  • Eating/taking break in parking lots (at school, at work, etc.)
  • Waiting at train crossings
  • Talking on cell phone
Try these switch-out behaviors:
  • Get out of the car. Go into a business rather than idling in drive-thru lines at fast food restaurants, banks, Starbucks, etc. by parking and going into the business.  If the you have to do drive-thru, don’t idle if the line is very slow.
  • Avoid jams. Drive to events early to avoid getting stuck in traffic and idling in traffic or parking lots.
  • Work with elected officials to adopt an idling ordinance. For example, the City and County of Denver's Idling Vehicle Ordinance limits idling to five minutes in any one-hour period. (Did you know? Denver Police have the authority to ticket any vehicle immediately if it is left idling unattended, unless the vehicle has a remote starter.)
2. Warm up your engine by driving it, not by idling. Today’s electronic engines do not need to warm up, even in winter. The best way to warm the engine is by easing into your drive and avoiding excessive engine revving. After just a few seconds, your vehicle is safe to drive. The vehicle’s engine warms twice as quickly when driven.

3. Warm up the cabin interior by driving, not idling. Easing into your drive is also the best way to get your vehicle’s heating system delivering warmer air faster. Sitting in an idling car means you are breathing in more of the dirty exhaust that leaks into the car cabin. Any warmth you may get from a car heater is not worth the damage to your health. If parked and waiting, it is healthier to get out of your car and go inside a store or building.

4. Protect your car engine by idling less. Frequent restarts are no longer hard on a car’s engine and battery. The added wear (which amounts to no more than $10 a year) is much less costly than the cost of wasted fuel (which can add up to $70-650 a year, depending on fuel prices, idling habits and vehicle type). Idling actually increases overall engine wear by causing the car to operate for longer than necessary.

A final thought

Personally, I find myself overwhelmed by the environmental challenges we’re all facing — it’s daunting to think about the planet as a whole, and the massive scope and complexity of what technology and industry have created for us to deal with. But what I’m coming to see, more clearly now than ever before, is that the first step is almost always changing the little, everyday ways I live. And the good news is that once a new habit is in place, it’s not even noticeable anymore, and I can get on to changing something else. 

Inch by inch…


EMA: http://www.green4ema.org/about-us/
Energy.gov: https://energy.gov/eere/vehicles/fact-861-february-23-2015-idle-fuel-consumption-selected-gasoline-and-diesel-vehicles
Engines Off! Colorado: http://www.enginesoff.com/1_myths.htm
Environmental Defense Fund: https://www.edf.org/climate/reports/idling
Frontier Group: http://frontiergroup.org/blogs/blog/fg/new-report-pervasive-air-pollution-2015

Westword: http://www.westword.com/news/denver-was-one-of-top-ten-smoggiest-metros-in-2016-according-to-new-report-8961838


Jeff Spiccoli for President!

I think I've got it. Trump's appeal. He embodies, in a politician, the teenager-man that American loves in its movies. He IS The Teenager. Consider the types of things he says: 
"America is a disgrace" 
"I'm just saying what everyone thinks but won't say" 
"Everyone is so biased" 
"I'm really rich" 
"I have a great car" 
"Those people" 
"You have a big problem"

Is he mature? Does he know policy or have solutions? Of course not--he's a teenager. He has emotion, bravado, immaturity, petulance. When other candidates or the media point out that he's not acting like an adult, he berates them for it. And the audience cheers. Because the audience doesn't want to grow up, either. They identify, thinking, "Why not let a teenager run the country? Might be fun."

A while back, there was an article by NYT Film Critic A.O. Scott that got a bunch of press, analyzing how American men in films and television had ceased to be about men who were adults or who were comfortable being adults and how this was mirrored in the culture. Perhaps he was already writing about the 2016 Presidential Campaign. What he wrote about our fictional characters seems to describe, well, the frontrunner of the GOP: 

"We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.” But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly." 

We trend toward words like "egotistical" or "narcissistic" when we analyze Trump. But that doesn't explain his broad appeal, or the media and other candidate's inability to lay a glove on him. The proper word is "teenager." 



Guns as Tools, Choices as Conditioned Behaviors

It's a pretty popular idea that tools are completely neutral and all the will to use them rests in our heads (our wills). But anyone with a smartphone has already experienced the almost compulsive urge to reach for their phone, check it, hold it. (Indeed, surveys done by companies like Nokia find that the #1 thing people do with their phones is fondle them. Seriously.) The point is that tools become an extension of our bodies--we become habituated to having them, using them, expanding our range of options. We choose to live places based on our cars as our imaginative range of “where-I-can-go” becomes based on our walking-extender, our car. 

What this means for guns is that, to the degree we let them, they have become part of our bodies, our habits, our range of choices. They are not separate tools which can can choose to use or not. The choice to avoid the tendencies that come with guns--and the consequences--has to start earlier, with their acquisition. If you don't want to *be* unhealthy, you give yourself a big assist by not buying a lot of junk food--because “you are what you eat.” If you don't want to be a person who responds with deadly force, don't buy a gun--because “you are what you brandish.” And since guns kill other people while potato chips only kill the eater, we have a justification to extend their limitation beyond just ourselves.
One unexpected benefit of this way of seeing things is that it relieves some of the guilt-or-innocence burden on cops. Yes, there are killer-cops out there--cops who enjoy killing with guns, who are “trigger-happy.” I find it hard to accept that is a high percentage, though. What we can understand if we change our view of the line between tools and human choice is that there is a dynamic between “cop” and “gun” that is not simplistically “up to” the cop. Yes, the British police are admirable for not firing their guns or killing people as often as American police; but a bunch of that credit needs to go to the culture in Britain, not to a bunch of super-willpowers dressed up in bobby uniforms. The British just understand tools better than Americans do.



(26 July 1997)

When bricks speak, look out! Because they’ve kept silent so long, they’re bound to be ornery. All that weight. Never a vacation, not even day trips are allowed. But what do they expect? Know what you're signing up for, I say.

It’s no picnic being a brick, but there are some benefits. That’s why they go for it. For one, it’s relaxing; your neighbors, usually other bricks, tend to keep to themselves, so there’s a lot of quiet time. Occasionally, a brick will find that they’ve been placed on a corner--that can be noisy. And cold. But the odds are against that.

What else? No phone calls. Ever. Someday, maybe, but not yet.

What do bricks talk about? Is there a buzz among the brick-elite, the brickolage? Who’s up, who’s down? Whose mortar is firm, whose is crumbling? What do bricks expect? For what do they hope? A good job, nice house, many children, spiritual fulfillment? Well, no. Mostly bricks aim low. Stasis, languor, immobility--these sum it up.


Anakin kills younglings in Star Wars III -- After Newtown, an intolerable cinematic moment

Post-Newtown, it was a bit disturbing to watch Star Wars III (Revenge of the Sith) with my 9 year old and come across the scene in which a 20 year old Anakin Skywalker go into the Jedi pre-school to kill all the "younglings" as his final task before becoming Darth Vader. 


Against the Sunk Costs Argument for MOOC's and the Expansion of Online Education

There was a line in the book Alone Together by Sherry Turkle that encapsulated, roughly, what's at the heart of my concern about MOOC's, online, etc. 

"When we make a job rote, we are more open to having machines do it. But even when people do it, they and the people they serve feel like machines."

What this expresses to me is the fact that there is something very logical (developmentally "next step") about increasing the automated/distanced/impersonal components to our educational strategies. In other words, it's hard to argue against these components because we, ourselves, have made teaching more rote as we've created larger and larger classrooms. 

My resistance stems from the old adages "You can't derive an 'is' from an 'ought'" and "Two wrongs can't make a right." Just because we've moved education beyond further into the mass-production age doesn't make it right. Surely, there is a lot of water under the bridge--and we've built structures and systems (and technology career paths--and exploited adjunct teacher paths) premised on the mass-production approach.  But the mere fact that online/MOOC's helps us accomodate ourselves to some previous (and questionable) decisions--and indeed they help accelerate those decisions--does not constitute an argument for doing them. If they move us further in the wrong direction, then we have reason to question (even, resist) them. And, yes, doing that is an even heavier lift; but it is the right thing to do. And that's a good reason for doing something.

This is not a wholesale argument for or against any specific thing. Rather, it's against the frequently used argument that certain sunk costs commit us to further actions along those lines. My point is simple: the sunk costs argument is false and disreputable and should be discarded.