Sunday, January 29, 2006

Practical Advice

I changed the template on my blog. I like this layout better, and I find the light green to be easy on the eyes. The other color scheme was hip but it got to be too dark for me.

I just finished The Consumers' Guide To Effective Environmental Choices from The Union Of Concerned Scientists. I found it at the local library and it's an excellent resource. (Scroll down on that page, and you'll see a summary of the book and a pdf of Chapter 1.)

The authors take raw scientific data, analyze the results, and present them in a coherent way, without talking down to the layperson. Clearly, they intend to convince as many Americans as possible to make the environmental decisions that will have the most impact. One of their tactics is asserting that we shouldn't sweat the "small stuff" (like paper vs. plastic or cloth vs. disposable), so that people won't get discouraged or feel overwhelmed. They're not saying these aren't important issues, but that the difference between the choices isn't all that much in terms of impact. They look at all our activities from this perspective - so if you're going to either give up driving or give up buying some knickknacks, please give up the driving. Of course, I say give up both. And cloth is the answer to paper or plastic. But I seem extreme to most people I know. That aside, I truly appreciate this book. It's well written and the authors make no bones about the dire environmental consequences of the typical American lifestyle. In the epilogue, they offer a interesting history lesson about the birth and explosion of American consumerism.

The book was published in 1999. I wonder what the authors would say today. It seems like a lot of things have changed in the last seven years ... but I only recently started listening.

Here's their list, in alphabetical order, of the leading consumption-related environmental problems:

Air pollution
Global warming
Habitat alteration
Water pollution

Concentrating on those categories, they rate a myriad of consumer products and activities according to their damage to the environment, and assess the results in terms of what individuals can do, and what we should encourage our policymakers to do.

Here are their "Priority Actions for American Consumers":

1. Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive.
2. Think twice before purchasing another car.
3. Choose a fuel-efficient, low-polluting car.
4. Set concrete goals for reducing your travel.
5. Whenever practical, walk, bicycle, or take public transportation.
6. Eat less meat.
7. Buy certified organic products.
Household Operations
8. Choose your home carefully.
9. Reduce the environmental costs of heating and hot water.
10. Install efficient lighting and appliances.
11. Choose an electricity supplier offering renewable energy.

The authors stress the environmental destruction caused by fossil fuels and the consumption of meat, beef and pork in particular. I already knew that meat was bad for the environment and that animals live and die in horrific conditions, but I'm further convinced by the raw numbers in this book. Sometimes I miss eating meat. But based on what I've learned, it's not good for the environment or my state of mind. As for fossil fuels, that's a no-brainer. But our society is so dependent on them, it's going to take a major paradigm shift before a new culture begins to emerge. Who's with me?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Children, Growth, and Extinction

When I was taking care of my nieces for a week recently, I couldn't help but examine how I (and the media) influenced them as little consumers. The 2-year-old seems to fly under the radar by still having one foot in babyhood. The 4-year-old, however, with her bright and curious mind, is ripe for the messages of wanting and consuming. It would be nearly impossible to shield her from a culture of stuff and prevent her desiring things. Her parents are committed to buying secondhand for toys and clothes, which is great, and of course she doesn't know the difference. Something new to her is something new, period. But she is beginning to exhibit a consumeristic side. One instance occurred while we were watching a children's video. She likes to watch the previews; rarely do my attempts to surreptitiously fast forward through them escape her vigilant eye. One preview was an advertisement for a computer game related to the movie we were watching ... her eyes brightened and she exclaimed, "Look at that game! We should get that for our computer! We need that game!" Naturally my heart sank a little. The period of innocence before our materialistic society turns us into buying and wasting machines, is so painfully short. We're not greedy in our heart of hearts, I truly believe ... but we are simply incapable of resisting such bombardment from the media, and we have a powerful urge to fit in with everyone else. As children, we don't yet have the information and ability for abstract thought that enables us to see the more sinister purpose behind these messages and products - to make rich companies richer, at all environmental and cultural costs. I offer these questions to earth-conscious parents: How do you address these issues? Do you allow television and movies in the home, or must these mediums be avoided in order to raise children who are less swayed by materialism? Do your children feel "different" from their peers? How do you reconcile your own desire for stuff with your desire to set a good example?

T. (my other half) and I attended a community meeting the other night, held by a group called Citizens Against Sprawl / Save Downtown Ellensburg. Wal-Mart wants to build a major retail center at one of two freeway interchanges a couple miles outside of town, and the townsfolk are concerned, naturally, about how this will impact Ellensburg and its businesses. It's obvious to all of us that despite claims to the contrary by the plan's proponents, this will not draw more business to Ellensburg, but will have the opposite effect. Wal-Mart is all about cheap one-stop shopping, and there's nothing to encourage customers to travel a couple more miles into town. Also, a big store like Wal-Mart will attract other businesses to build adjacent to it; so even the employees of the store won't travel into Ellensburg to eat lunch or do their own shopping ... they'll stay right there at that major interchange, which will have become a strip mall when it's all said and done.

There was a lot of talk at the meeting about growth: how growth is inevitable, how we must "own" the change that will inevitably come, how we must expand as a town and attract tourists and businesses, while maintaining our historical charm and appearance. This is where I get confused. Is it necessary for a town, or any place for that matter, to grow? If you have a community committed to maintaining the town exactly how it is, with the exception of changes that lessen environmental impact and encourage sustainability, isn't that enough? Or do inflation and the larger economy dictate that we must always be growing economically, generating increasing revenue? Building more businesses? I don't know enough about it. I do know that "no growth" is a radical enough idea that I don't dare bring it up at these meetings. I'm sure it would seem especially outlandish coming from some young chick who's only been in town a few months (I'm not that young really, but T. and I were among the youngest there). Does anyone out there have some insight for me on this? Capitalism is based on unchecked and infinite growth, which, as far as I can tell, is a doomed proposition. There is no bottomless well of resources, so at some point (now, I hope) we must decide we've got plenty, or more than plenty, and find a way to reduce our impact. At the meeting, folks kept talking about keeping growth in the town, building up instead of out, encouraging local business and light industry, etc. But no one asked, why do we have to build or grow at all?

I just finished an article in the 1/9/06 New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert, entitled "Butterfly Lessons," about the impact of global warming on butterflies in particular, but a number of other species as well. It's not an encouraging article in the least, and though I've read so many things about extinction, it never fails to pierce my heart to the core. Extinction is a natural process that would happen over time with or without human influence, but the rate at which it currently occurs and the causes of it are truly heartbreaking. The most frightening prospect of all, is that we don't even know (or care?) what we are destroying. Two quotes that struck me:

"Over the past two million years, even as the temperature of the earth has swung wildly, it has always remained within certain limits: the planet has often been colder than today, but rarely warmer, and then only slightly. If the earth continues to warm at the current rate, then by the end of this century temperatures will push beyond the 'envelope' of natural climate variability."

"A few years ago, nineteen biologists from around the world set out to give, in their words, a 'first pass' estimate of the extinction risk posed by global warming. They assembled data on eleven hundred species of plants and animals from sample regions covering roughly a fifth of the earth's surface. Then they established the species' current ranges, based on climate variables such as temperature and rainfall. Finally, they calculated how much of the species' 'climate envelope' would be left under different warming scenarios. The results of this effort were published in Nature in 2004. [I believe this is the article.] Using a mid-range projection of temperature rise, the biologists concluded that, if the species in the sample regions could be assumed to be highly mobile, then fully fifteen percent of them would be 'committed to extinction' by the middle of this century, and, if they proved to be basically stationary, an extraordinary thirty-seven percent of them would be."

Food for thought. Every tiny percentage of greenhouse gases we save by walking instead of driving, or hanging clothes on a clothesline, or reusing a cloth napkin instead of purchasing paper towels, gives us a little bit more time to figure this out.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Oughtness

I've been asked by others, and struggled with the question myself, why I continue to do and say what I do, in the face of what appears to be unstoppable environmental destruction. How do I enjoy happiness and peace when I am constantly reminded of my impact and the impact of those around me?

The other night I caught a PBS documentary on Martin Luther King, Jr., and was incredibly moved by some of his words from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1964.

Here's what moved me so:

"I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. ...

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day ... nonviolent redemptive good will be proclaimed the rule of the land."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Stuff ... and Day 3

I'm on the third day of taking care of my nieces (2 and 4) while their parents are out of town. Grandma came over to help out and asked me if there's anything I'd like to get done while she watches the girls ... immediately I requested uninterrupted time on the computer! I don't know how you bloggers who are parents find the time to do it! I can barely find time to shower, dress, or feed myself. There always seems to be something that needs doing. I still make sure to take the time to just hang out with them too. Yesterday I had a long session in the rocking chair with the 2-year-old. I know she misses Mommy ... but hugs from Aunt Burrito (as I am known) help a little bit.

Anyway. I've recently finished a book entitled Stuff, by John C. Ryan and Allan Thein Durning. It's not new - it was published in 1997 - but it's absolutely relevant to what I'm trying to understand about consumerism and the environment. It follows a "day in the life of an average North American" and explores the "secret lives" of a few choice items: coffee, a newspaper, a t-shirt, shoes, a bike (and a car), a computer, and a fast food meal. There's some useful and extremely disturbing information to be had. For the purposes of this blog I will choose one item and list a few of the highlights of that item's journey. I paraphrase from the book below.

The T-Shirt

The polyester in the cotton/poly blend started as a few tablespoons of petroleum, derived from deep underground in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The drill found the petroleum deposit with the help of "drilling muds" (diesel fuel, heavy metals, and water) which flushed away rock deposits and cooled the drill bit. Pumps brought the oil and gas to the surface, leaking some crude oil and drilling muds into the soil. An oil refinery in CuraƧao, Netherlands washed and processed the oil into various grades of fuels and raw materials for petrochemicals like ethylene and xylene, used to make polyester. A plant in Delaware used catalysts to convert these substances into PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is one of the most common petrochemicals, found in clothing and a variety of plastic products. In 1994 the U.S. produced more than 64 billion pounds of plastics (more than 250 lbs. per person) ... and almost a third of this became packaging. At the Delaware plant, the PET resin was drawn apart to form polyester fiber, while tiny amounts of catalysts and other toxic compounds escaped into the air.

The two ounces of cotton in the shirt came from 14 square feet of cropland in Mississippi. Aldicarb, one of the most toxic U.S. pesticides, was applied to the plants while the wind carried some of the pesticide and soil into the air and nearby streams. Cotton accounts for 10% of the world's annual pesticide consumption. The cotton seed was also dipped in a fungicide. As the seeds germinated, a tractor with a spray rig was used to douse the field with a soil steriland to kill off everything but the cotton plants. Five more times before harvesting, pesticides will be sprayed, mostly organophosphates, which damage the human nervous system. Cotton also requires heavy irrigation, because of poor water runoff in soil where beneficial organisms like earthworms have been exterminated. Finally, a defoliant was sprayed to prevent the leaves from staining the white cotton bolls, and a large diesel-run stripper will picked the cotton. A cotton gin separated the fibers, and the leftover seeds were used to make cooking oil and feed livestock. A textile mill in North Carolina carded and blended the fibers with polyester, and spun them into yarn, treated with polystyrene to make for easier handling.

Another textile mill knitted the yarn into fabric, which was then washed, bleached, dyed, and finished with industrial chemicals, including chlorine, chromium, and formaldehyde. Cotton resists coloring, so one-third of the dyes didn't take and were carried off in the wastewater. Textile dyes are regulated as hazardous substances by the EPA.

The fabric was shipped to Honduras, where women in a Taiwanese-owned factory cut and sewed the shirt for about 30 cents an hour. The shirt was mounted on a cardboard sheet (pinewood pulp from Georgia), wrapped in a polyethylene bag (Mexico), and stacked in a corrugated box (Maine). The box went by freighter to Baltimore, train to San Francisco, and truck to Seattle, where our imagined consumer resides. Just one session of washing and drying the shirt, using a conventional washer/dryer and detergent, will demand 1/10 of the energy used to manufacture the shirt. Laundering will also create the vast majority of solid waste in the shirt's lifetime.


So - you get the idea. This is just bare-bones information presented here ... you could expand your question to ask, what about all the parts the go into the equipment used to treat, harvest, process, and deliver? What about the chlorine, and effects of other chemicals? The authors are aware of this and include what they feel will present the broadest picture, but without creating a book too large to lift.

Stuff is informative and interesting. It's short and a quick read. I was disappointed that the authors attempted to "lighten up" some of the text with jokes ... because I find it all far from funny, and I want the hard core facts with no sugar coating. Near the beginning of the book, the authors warn readers: "Reviewers of early drafts reported feeling overwhelmed and depressed after learning the true stories of how things are made ... so we lightened the text: editing out technical details and highlighting alternatives, fun trivia, and even a joke or two." At the end of each chapter is a "What to Do" section ... which I appreciate, but I think they could have gone further with their suggestions. For instance, in the t-shirt chapter, I would have made this suggestion: DON'T BUY A SHIRT, even a used one, unless you have weighed the decision heavily and decided you really need it. If you already have a couple of t-shirts, I can't think of a single logical reason you'd need another.

Happy shopping!