reflecting on coal cars

I was standing on the platform at King Street Metro Station, in that state of mental detachment and disattenuation familiar to transit users, when a freight train rumbled by on the neighboring tracks. Boxcars gave way to open top coal cars, one after another after another after another after another, headed south. It was one of those recently Hades-hot days in Washington, when the grid is groaning under the strain of the air conditioners. I started to wonder about the relationship between a single coal car and the average American house. How many coal cars, or what percentage of one, is necessary to power the average house? For a day? A year?

I have absolutely no idea what the answer is. I could, I suppose, find the data, do a bit of number crunching on my own and come up with an estimate. I could then spout that little factoid every chance I got, even yelling it through the open doors of over-cooled shoe stores. But what made it powerful as an act of my imagination was that I pictured it: I pictured a coal car in every driveway, maybe two in the long curving McDriveways of McMansions, and wondered if the aesthetic consequences might be a motivator for change. Neighborhoods regularly ban boats, RV’s and trucks from driveways as being aesthetically unacceptable. What would the taste police at the Homes at Rocky Rill Overlook Brookside Crest Riding Ridge have to say about a coal car in every driveway? How many might there be in front of multi-family housing? More or less per occupant? What if you added an oil tanker truck to account for the car(s)? What would our cities and towns look like if we could see, really see?

My next project at the National Building Museum is just getting started. Sort of Green Community meets Tools of the Imagination, it will be about seeing information, using visual metaphors and metonymies like the coal car to show connections, correlations, and causations. Aristotle described metaphor as that rhetorical figure that places things before our eyes, makes the invisible visible. He would have had a field day with geospatial technologies and infographics. While we have unprecedented tools to show, rather than tell, these technologies are answering ancient desires: to know the relationship of what to where, of when to whom, or how many. This will be our research for the next year +, so Gang Green will get a bit of a tune up and re-positioning to serve that project. So, stay tuned...and if you know the answer to the coal car question, don’t tell me. Show me.


Close the Door...one more time

Similes lie in a melted heap at my feet: It’s as hot as...what? I don’t know what? Hell? Too hackneyed, and besides, who’s been there to confirm? Washington’s sweaty professionals drip down the sidewalks carrying their suit jackets on one finger, like St Bartholomew carrying his flayed skin, as the sign of their martyrdom. We discover new sweat glands we didn’t know we had and turn our stinging eyes to the thermostat.

We all know that we’re loading the grid past the breaking point. (If this is news to you, check out the masterful Joel Achenbach’s grid-egesis in National Geographic this month) Pepco tries to warn us to run energy-intensive appliances at night when demand for AC is lower. I wonder if anyone is listening.

A little less than years ago I launched this blog with an opening post called “Close the Door” in which I revealed not only my shoe buying preferences but my seething irritation with a certain store’s profligate habit of propping its doors open even while the AC was running. Later, I like to think because of me and other like-minded consumers, this store and its innumerable branches in weirdly close proximity, put a sticker on their doors proudly announcing the policy to keep the doors shut when the AC was on. I was so happy I bought a pair of shoes.

Those stickers are long gone now, and they, Carbon One Shoes, are back to their old ways. I could launch into another rant—it’s tempting—and threaten to keep my credit card holstered—which I will—but clearly something just isn’t getting through. As I and others have repeatedly said before, technology is not really the difficult part of the sustainability problematic. People are. We are the problem.

What causes this behavior? What makes someone, either management or staff, decide that it’s a good idea to prop open a door and let cool air billow into the street to dissipate into nothingness? It’s a kind of blindness, I think, the willful not-seeing of the privileged end user, who enjoys the final breath that began with the removal of a mountain top in West Virginia, its detritus shoved unceremoniously into a stream valley to cloud the waters kill the fish, so the coal can give up its dirty energy, spitting out greenhouse gases and poison, send the power through miles of shorn landscape so someone can press a button on the wall and say, gosh, it’s a little warm in here, let’s crank the AC and open the door. Yeah, that’s a great idea.