Greenwash Your Conscience: New Stadium Boondoggle Edition

January 16th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink


On Wednesday night, Mother Jones ran a piece on the cautionary tale that both the City and County of St. Louis are living out following the loss of their NFL franchise. Combined, they’re saddled with another $60 million or so in bond repayments for a mid-’90s stadium deal that bought them a two-decade tease from the Rams, who are now headed back to Proximate-L.A. after the NFL and their homebred owner decided a 20 year-old stadium qualifies as an antiquated, dilapidated piece of crap.

Commenting on the MoJo story, a colleague and I had the following exchange:

Plenty has been made of the social injustice and economic lunacy that propels the patently extortive practice of gifting public funds to billionaires for stadium projects — in fact, google the title phrase “stadium boondoggle” to find everyone from from Reason to John Oliver to Ron Paul to The Japan Times serving up the truth. But what gets less attention is the monumental immorality of forcing obsolescence onto perfectly functional facilities well in advance of their end of design life and especially to do so, as is often the case, under the pretense of going green.

As I mentioned in my comment above, the Rams situation is hardly anomalous. Time will tell what awaits St. Louis’s vacant dome, outside of some NCAA tourney games, Disney On Ice shows, a GnR reunion tour stop (speculative), and perhaps a future archaeological dig to unearth a buried time capsule, but its primary use has been stripped away after just 21 football seasons and replicated some 2,000 miles westward. A more certain fate awaits Atlanta’s two largest sports venues, which will both be leveled come 2017 when the Braves and Falcons abandon two stadia (h/t Stan Kroenke, Linguist) a combined 41 years old. Oh, the waste.

But! One of the successors will be LEED certified. This is good, right? Well according to the U.S. Green Building Council:

Owners of green buildings reported that their ROI improved by 19.2% on average for existing building green projects and 9.9% on average for new projects.

If I’m interpreting that right, it means that a retrofit or replacement on an old, energy-guzzling geezer of a building will lower energy costs by something like 20% while a new building built by LEED standards will be 10% more energy efficient than one built by standard building code. The former is probably more applicable because we’re considering replacing an oldish facility (at least by energy efficiency standards) with a new one, and it’s also the figure that skews against my bias. So 20% it is. Woo LEED!

But of course, lots of the energy use in a building’s life cycle is embodied in its construction and materials. How much? Well it’s varied and complicated, and it’s unclear how well estimates for typical buildings would scale up to a stadium. But, without knowing the material specifications for the Georgia Dome, a somewhat reasonable guess seems to be ten years worth of energy use embedded in the stadium’s coming of existence.

Simply put, if standard annual energy usage is x, the LEED-certified energy usage is 0.8x, and the embodied energy is 10x. That means (ignoring all other confounders for a minute), the net energy savings of new facility versus the old would be 0.2x per year. Assuming 10x worth of embedded energy to compensate for, the new facility would have to last 50 years to reach the break-even point on life-cycle energy use.

Of course, most pro sports venues aren’t LEED certified. Soldier Field, which already had a 79-year run before a LEED-certified alien spaceship touched down on it in 2003, is evidently the only other NFL stadium that is. But what about all the other eco-friendly measures employed by modern venues? Well here’s a characteristic hack-piece (originally from the Wall Street Journal, which I don’t have a subscription to) touting, for instance, how much the Vikings love the earth as evidenced by their low-flow shower heads in the practice facility. With 53 players at 2.3 gallons per minute, IT’S NOT EVEN WORTH DOING THIS CALCULATION. However, the greenest team according to the article (and not just their helmets hohoho!) is the Eagles, whose home stadium is 30% powered by wind and solar [citation needed], but the obvious follow-up question remains: how much of this benefit is wiped away by energy-consuming amenities that never would have existed at old Veteran’s Stadium? Until I can provide answers, my conditional, very reserved kudos go out to the Eagles; that gentle thud you hear is Jeffrey Lurie patting himself on the back.

Let’s go back to picking on Atlanta, shall we?

While Turner Field was designed from the ground up with the Braves in mind, Plant said that it requires higher capital maintenance costs because it was value engineered for the 1996 Summer Olympics. This has led to higher capital maintenance costs in the long run. Plant estimates that capital maintenance costs at the new stadium will be no more than $80 million after 30 years – less than half of the $150 million in capital maintenance needed for Turner Field after 17 years. […] Turner Field is 0.75 miles (1.21 km) from the nearest Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train station. Although MARTA runs a shuttle service on game days, the Braves claim that fans have been unwilling to come to games in recent years due to metro Atlanta’s infamous congestion.

Meanwhile, SunTrust Park

will also include a 90-feet-wide canopy horseshoeing around the stadium’s top and air conditioning on every level to ensure that fans remain cool on hot summer days.

So there you have it — an MLB team is retiring a 19 year-old facility because of some traffic gridlock and lazy fans and maybe also because it was built too cheaply to begin with on account of the ultimate big city vanity project, hosting the Olympics, and is now promising large discretionary energy expenditures to spare fans from the distress of sitting in heat… AT A BASEBALL GAME.

And then there’s Milwaukee, a place dear to my heart. Deadspin had an excellent piece recently on the chicanery involved in their new arena deal to replace the Bradley Center, which, at just 28 years old, is incredibly the oldest NBA stadium still in use. Now I personally know a bit about the Bradley Center. I go there three or four times per year to see my beloved Marquette Golden Eagles née Warriors (though they’ll always be The Gold to me) play basketball and lose on Senior Day. The BC, to my mind, is a perfectly nice place. There are doors, working heat, even escalators! The concessions are plentiful; the stairs are structurally sound; and when you stand up from your seat, it recoils back into a folded-up position on its own — like magic! It doesn’t look or feel rundown; overall it’s a normal, modern-like facility that’s nowhere near ready for a major remodel, much less a wrecking ball.

When the new arena was under consideration, Marquette University was asked for its endorsement, which it dutifully provided. There was no financial contribution or commitment, and in exchange, the men’s basketball program will get to free-ride on the deal to further recruiting advantage and prestige once the arena is built. Go, Gold, go. But my naive hope had been that the school, founded as it was on Jesuit principles — stewardship in the community, urban values, solidarity with the poor, etc. — would take a stand for the greater good over private gain. So when Coach Wojo and the university president both came out with statements praising the arena proposal and regurgitating claptrap about the (phantom) spillover benefits to the community, I had no choice but to scream “this is what I think of your school!” as I fed my diploma to a wood chipper. Okay, I didn’t destroy my diploma, but I was (and still am) quite pissed and a bit ashamed of the school for its support, even if it was only symbolic and made no difference in the fate of the stadium deal.

Consider that the Montreal Forum and Boston Garden lasted over 70 years serving effectively the same purpose. Several college football stadiums date back to the post-Great War boom, and on the baseball side, Wrigley and Fenway have eclipsed the century mark. Whenever these old stadiums finally do meet the wrecking ball, fans protest, and then they cry, and then they scramble to buy up every last brick, chair, hardwood panel, and chunk of sod auctionable, and then start living out their remaining years in a state of unrelenting nostalgia for the old digs because attachment is stronger than the allure of modernness, despite the fleeting new-stadium attendance bump and the counter-claims of stadium pushers, and for some people, the indignity of urinating in a steel trough is just part of what makes the game day experience unique. (It’s also space efficient, okay?)

If the Bucks had started this season 24-0, Milwaukeeans would come watch them play in a vacant warehouse with pullout bleachers. But as with every stadium proposal in the last decade, Milwaukee is selling theirs with the old “not just an arena but an entertainment mecca!” trope as though the one-block radius around the new facility will be a nightly Mardi Gras and not just a couple open memorabilia shops and shlocky theme restaurants during the offseason and as if Milwaukee doesn’t already have a thriving downtown. In the end, it’s just another transparent oversell trying to quash the reality that the city has no need for the new arena, even if inaction would have ultimately led to the Bucks’ relocation.

What’s surprising to me, given how rotten we know these stadium deals are, is the lack of civil disobedience. Why don’t we see massive public protests disrupting the demolition and construction of these venues? After all, almost everyone living in these cities has something to lose. Stadium subsidies rob public money from social services, infrastructure, and all sorts of other potential beneficial uses like, say, actual energy efficiency initiatives and green streetscapes. They’re entirely that much more galling when slapped with an eco-conscious veneer, as though the whole scam is just a way of doing Mother Earth a solid.

Every time a TV broadcast flaunts the shiny, greenwashed amenities of some team’s new facility during its first nationally televised game, I want to vomit and never watch sports again. But of course I know I’ll never have that kind of will power. Nobody does, and every billionaire-friendly Big City Boss is gleefully aware of that fact because, no matter how much we may try to fight it, professional sports are and will continue to be the Major American City’s ultimate smokescreen for pillaging the wow, did you see that catch?!?

Greenwash Your Conscience: Pricey Credentialing Institutions Edition

April 23rd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Hey, you know what American universities need? That’s right—another dubious ranking system to game in their favor:

This week the Princeton Review, the test prep firm and creator of popular college guides, and the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington, released their second annual listing of the 311 greenest colleges in the country.

Ok, so not quite new. I just didn’t hear about it last year.

The statistics and summaries have plenty of interesting tidbits. Who knew that 94 percent of the electricity used by Bates College, in Lewiston, Me., came from renewable sources? Or that 35 percent of the food served at Harvard is produced locally?

Uh oh. The words “offsetting behavior” creep into mind.

Schools included in the guide scored high on Princeton Review’s “green rating” system, which weighs a variety of criteria, including transportation and construction policies, energy consumption, recycling and waste diversion, environmental studies offerings, greenhouse gas reporting and climate change initiatives.

Sounds about as objective as the coaches’ poll and sophisticated as the RPI. What would Ken Pomeroy say?

Yet one useful figure is missing — the green rating for each school. As a result, figuring out exactly where various schools fall along the guide’s sustainability spectrum is impossible.

Frightening lack of transparency! Well, I’d have to think Tulane is #1. The Green Wave? You can’t compete with that.

Greenwash Your Conscience: Marginally Relevant Communication Mode Edition

April 22nd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

I enjoy this one, if for no other reason than it reminds me of those great Conan O’Brien bits:

The Postal Service is doing its part to “Go Green” by providing you with eco-friendly mailing materials and stamps. […] As part of our Go Green commitment, we’ve designed a series of 16 Forever stamps showing what each of us can do to promote the health of our environment.

A better way to “Go Green” might be a national junk mail refusal list, a la the no-call list, but no—I’m sure the billing supervisor at my condo association is totally gonna go plant a tree when he sees that stamp.

Greenwash Your Conscience: Counterintuition Edition

April 22nd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

This news (term used loosely)

As recession gripped the country, the consumer’s love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars, faded like a bad infatuation.

…is good news if the actual habitability of our planet concerns you, insofar that any reduction in sales of consumer goods—whether “green”, “premium”, “select’, or equally hollow tag graces the package—is good news. Better news would be that it indicates a broader rejection of overserved, thrice-sterilized existence, but that would be like asking for world peace.

Thank God for the FDA

April 15th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

In the comments to my post on reaching in toilets, Nate said:

It falls back on the human tendency toward dualism, to assign everything with “essences.” A toilet, in our minds, is ESSENTIALLY unclean. And it’s this same “malfunction” of the brain that allows us to see people as more than meat machines. […] You rely too much on logic, not enough on instinct. Your genes will not be selected for. You’re an evolutionary failure.

Add to that: I looooooove bitter foods. Yeesh… Evolutionary failure indeed. It’s a wonder I haven’t tripped into a volcano by now.

On a somewhat related thought: It seems like people who claim sensitivity to things like radiation and aspartame are usually ridiculed as hypochondriacs and wackos. Shouldn’t we give them a little more respect? Just because most of us haven’t developed acute reactions to “man-made” carcinogens, we don’t need to resent those that have. After all—it’s their genes that might save our species!

Worst state fair ever

April 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s almost Earth Day!

Round up the family, Earthlings, and come to the National Mall this weekend to celebrate one of the all-time greatest planets with

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Marcus McNeill of the San Diego Chargers, Madeiu Williams of the Minnesota Vikings, and Olympic Track Star Michael Walton

…and while you’re there, be sure not to miss

the eyebrow raising database that shows how close your house is to a Superfund site!

Superfund? SuperFUN.

FEATURING: a special performance by “Earth’s Natural Force kid rappers”!

And be sure to compete with your friends in the “lung capacity challenge” which—whoa!—“plots a graph” of your score! (But please, kids—no wagering ;).)

Plus: dozens of other games* and prizes, like Chinese finger traps made from recycled CAA violation notices (only 10,000 tickets) and a chance to win a romantic boat cruise down Love Canal!

Don’t be an Earth Day Scrooge! Come celebrate your favorite planet with the government agency that started it all! You won’t want to miss it!!!!!

*Tony Hayward dunk tank cancelled due to liability concerns

Greenwash Your Conscience: Stupid Minimalist Lowercase Font Edition

April 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Correct me if I’m mistaken, marketing people and graphic designers, but the trend of minimalist, all-lowercase fonts on products and logos is, in my casual observation, still going strong. Running on, oh, ten years at least, it shows no sign of ending.

My question: Where is the backlash, and how long will it take to get here?

I understand why the trend of stupid, minimalist, all-lowercase fonts came to be. The biggest factor, of course, was the internet boom. Our name is lowercase in the URL; why not the logo too? Word-of-mouth spreads by “web chat” these days. Capitalization and grammar? So passé! They would only make us look stuffy and self-conscious.

But nobody types URLs anymore. Most of us have long reconciled the tension between informal txt-speak and hardcover syntax, and we’ve learned to accept both the lolkittens and Punctilious Peters who choose to live at the extremes. So isn’t it time for branding to readjust too?

If stupid, phony, fake-minimalist, all-lowercase (SPFMAL) fonts were only an aesthetic nuisance, I would consider it too trivial for virtual ink. But it’s in the fake minimalism that this stale trend has real consequence.

Consider how often you see greenwashed products with SPFMAL fonts. It’s rare that you see one that doesn’t, despite the fact they nearly always clash with the product’s primary logo. Here are a few examples from the first page of Google Image search results:

pure and natural

environmentally friendly


green works

natural bamboo

I could also mention the BP logo, but honestly, don’t we already pile up on them enough?

What irritates me about this sort of branding is not just that it creates the fraudulent perception of a minimalist existence but that it creates the fraudulent perception of the possibility of a minimalist existence. Or at least, a minimalist existence that any of us or our familiar institutions could possibly fit into.

Either way, SPFMAL fonts are emblematic of the broader minimalistic lie—this idea that we can be gentle, breezy, light-as-a-feather. Ethereal. We cannot. We have things to say, places to go, cravings to tackle, babies to make. We’re loud, messy, wasteful, heavy, sweaty, angry, verbose, and self-aware. That is humanity.

So please, quit lying to yourself. You are not a butterfly. You’re a human being. Cool it with the minimalist, lowercase fonts already. k?

[Footnote: While I was writing this, “Helplessness Blues” by the Fleet Foxes came on the radio. How ridiculously appropriate. If you’ve ever heard this song this band, you know what I mean.]

Black magic

April 5th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

When I learn about scientific concepts that I can’t intuitively grasp, I often become obsessed. I marvel at them; I fear them. Until I can hold something in my fingers or see it in a proof, it’s pure black magic. Right now, for obvious reasons, I’m obsessed with nuclear energy and radiation. I’m desperately trying to understand it, to make it tangible.

No luck so far, but I do have some links.

For the techno-utopian in you, here are two recent ones that made me optimistic:

From Fast Company, Will green nukes save the world?

From George Manbiot, Going Critical

As someone who would rather not see an energy apocalypse in my lifetime, I wish I’d stopped there. But of all the nuclear-related material I’ve read in the last few weeks, nothing has captivated my imagination and that obsessive curiosity like the series of posts on Three Mile Island written by Aaron Datesman at A Tiny Revolution. (The two most recent posts are here and here, and you can track the background on Three Mile Island starting at this post and working backwards.)

Because ATR is not what you’d call a science blog, I wanted to brush it off as conspiracy-laden paranoia from a tinfoil hat alarmist, but the arguments are too compelling. What tickles my intuitive sensibilities most are his appeals to the sheer number of uncertainties involved—wind currents, morbidity rates, the mechanisms by which cancer affects the human body—factors with huge individual unknowns, empirically difficult to measure, all stacked together in an attempt to form a single coherent picture.

Such groupings are rarely coherent and often pure chicanery. On its face, the idea that radiation diffuses in a moving atmosphere of multiple strata and pockets of moisture similar to the way light diffuses in an empty room seems preposterous, as does the idea that radiation dosage accumulates in the human body the way water fills a bucket.

But really, what do I know about nuclear power? Absolutely nothing. If you care, read up, and draw your own conclusions. Like I said, I have no clarity to offer, and it seems a very rare few actually do.

Sandwich in a can

February 4th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

Look—I’m as big a sucker for doomsdayism as you’ll ever meet, but even I can raise an eyebrow when I read a sentence like…

We are in fact witnessing a severe collapse of creativity and innovation in spite of the newest apps on your phone.

Hmm. Ok. And the evidence?

The first mechanical computers go back to the 1600s and savants such as Blaise Pascal and Gottfried von Leibnitz. Indeed, the cryptology and mathematics involved are older yet, since the binary number system used for computers originates with the ancient Indian mathematician Pingala. The 1800s saw the rise of punch-card computers and the first modern electrical computers were designed by Alan Turing in 1936 and built during the Second World War. This is old stuff.

[Current band] is totally unoriginal and derivative. They’re just rehashing [classic ’60s album] with melodies pulled straight from [style of ethnic folk music], repackaged with an [’80s genre] aesthetic. There’s nothing unique at all about it.”

The Internet is from the 1960s, the cellphone is from 1973, the first satellite was put into orbit in 1957, the details of which were put forth by Clarke in a Wireless World article in 1945, but Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had already calculated the necessary orbital speeds in 1903. The first heart transplant was in 1967 and the first kidney transplant in 1953. The list of technology goes on and on: television, radio, nuclear reactors, cars, refrigeration, rail, internal combustion, reinforced concrete, aeroplanes, industrialized agriculture, robots, windmills, solar panels, in vitro fertilization, and so on. These were all invented in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, one would be hard pressed to suggest a single innovation from the last 30 years that has changed, improved or eased everyday life for ordinary people in a radical way, such as those mentioned here.

Isn’t that sort of… self-refuting? Like, the very nature of innovationas these conveniently-cited historical examples showis that it takes time—say, 30 years, give or take—for truly groundbreaking technologies to take hold in any sort of practical, scalable, marketable, useful-to-your-grandma form. But that doesn’t mean progress is dead. Unless…

innovation peaked in 1873 and that within a few years, the rate of contemporary innovation will drop to levels not seen since the Middle Ages.

Have you ever heard the saying, “Sometimes precision is the enemy of credibility”? I don’t know if anyone’s actually ever said that, but this would be a great example. I shouldn’t mock the research or the conclusion; I’m sure it’s far more thorough, thoughtful, substantive, useful, valuable, etc. than anything I’ll ever produce in my lifetime, but… but…

“We are at an estimated 85% of the economic limit of technology, and it is projected that we will reach 90% in 2018 and 95% in 2038.”

How do I take that seriously?

Don’t get me wrong. I wanna believe the human race is spiraling toward catastrophe as badly as the next guy, but you have to give me something solid to work with!

On a related note

February 1st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Can’t we make it through one extreme weather event without some yahoo spinning it into a lecture on peak oil or climate change? I mean, enough already… Yeesh!