Archive for October, 2007

Joyfully in the Company of Charismatic Wildlife

That’s where Newt Gingrich says he got his inspiration for his green leanings in his book A Contract with the Earth. He’s launching the PR blitz this week, and you can catch him on the more conservative news outlets Wednesday night and Thursday morning. I am all for Mr. Gingrich propounding a conservative green ideology. His traditional constituency is not exactly known for their involvement in the fight on global warming, except for the fight on if it exists. A Pew study shows that Republicans are vastly more likely to think that global warming, man-made or not (most think definitely not), isn’t a serious problem. If Gingrich can present the problem and propose a solution that will be palatable to his people, “the other half” of the country could be engaged in this debate. Their input on all this is crucial to creating any workable solution.

Though I haven’t read the book to appreciate all it’s subtleties yet, in excerpts he espouses bi-partisan action on the environment. Then on his book website he attacks liberals for being so bossy about the environment that annoyed conservatives ignore the problem just as a reflex. Yes, he directly blamed liberals for why conservatives ignore this problem.

He supports economic development along with environmental protection, and wants to use tax incentives and prizes to encourage development on green technologies. We’ll get tax credits for energy savings and tax credits for efficient cars and tax credits for renewable energy! And we’ll develop the oil fields (very, very efficiently and cleanly, of course) in Alaska, since this is a good source of clean energy? Actually I’m confused on that point. But it is sure that Newt proposes that Government is not allowed to do anything like regulate emissions or make rules on pollution or anything- they can define what a “healthy environment” is though, and businesses and private groups will decide how to meet those standards on their own.

So that’s his plan, and bits of it are a pretty good idea. I’m absolutely not convinced businesses and corporations, who have incredibly large economic incentives to continue doing business exactly the way they’re doing it, will go pro-efficiency and rah-rah-sustainability for a bit of a tax break. That’s going to have to be a massive tax break. And even then the government will probably need to issue minimum standards, check their progress, and issue compliance deadlines for it to be acted upon. Environmentalism without requirements for compliance is just rhetoric.

My favorite quote from his page on “Energy and the Environment”:

It is clearly possible to combine human progress with biodiversity. There are more trees in Georgia today than there were in 1900 or 1940. The very increase in wealth in America made it possible in 1895 to found the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) and save the American bison from extinction…The greatest dangers to biodiversity on the planet today are poor people cutting down tropical forests for money and killing endangered species for meat. Wealthy people can afford to protect the forests and protect endangered species.

I wouldn’t say a close shave with the bison absolves the enormous species loss of the 20th century, and it’s a shame that the unruly poor are working so hard to destroy the rest. I’m hoping this is just an unresearched paragraph and an incomplete thought on the relationship between poverty and the environment, but it did allow me a bitter chuckle today. offered a review and comparison of Gingrich’s plan (most of which is already espoused by those nagging green liberals) back when the book was first announced.

Behind the Label

Disclaimer: I know this is long, but there’s a lot of organic ground to cover. Consider it a Sunday special, and read it at your leisure, or in chunks.

The USDA develops standards for labeling organic food, and products that contain at least 95% Organic Peanut Butter Labelorganic materials qualify for their organic seal. 70% organic ingredients allows manufacturers to say “made with organic products” on the label, and anything less occasions only an organic tag on the proper ingredients in the information panel. Tags like “all-natural” aren’t regulated. Sounds straightforward, and if you like shopping for organics with confidence in a label, stop reading right here. For an exercise in making tough decisions in the grocery, ask what the USDA means by the term “organic”. Now the fun will begin! They mean:

Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Also, they

must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.

More info on their organics regulations can be found here. So. “Not commercially available in organic form”, hunh? “Approved on the National List?”

It’s heartening that when the label says 100% Organic, it has to mean that (except for added water and salt). One-ingredient foods like vegetables are thus simple to buy “organic”. But the “Organic” USDA label doesn’t mean that the food doesn’t contain non-organic foods. According to the Seattle Times, the USDA has proposed a list of 38 approved non-organic foodstuffs allowed in foods labeled organic. Consumer advocates and organic food advocates are mad about this, of course. The USDA shouldn’t allow non-organic food into foods labeled organic. Truth-in-advertising laws seem to make that pretty clear: why not just let these foods be labeled the same way foods with 70-94% organic ingredients are? Why do they get 5% non-organic content “free”? Part of the reason these new “standards” are being pushed is because of the rise of large-scale organic farming: so many agribusinesses want a piece of the significant and growing organic action that they want to earn the organic label. Just, not always by actually farming completely organically, which would require transition costs and can offer a smaller yield (when compared to produce and animals hyped up on steroids and chemicals). For the sake of fairness, I’m going to try and imagine the valid reasons these agribusinessmen have for pushing weakened organic standards. 95% organic is better than 0% organic, and a favorable label allows their partially good efforts to reach a broader market place, which is nice for them. But they still don’t need to mislead consumers about what’s in their food. Farming, and the food produced by it, is either organic or it is not. Mostly organic stuff should be labeled as such.

The USDA group regulating these labels- the National Organics Program- has 9 staff members and a1.5 million dollar budget. An article from the NY Times explores the difficulty of an understaffed and under-budgeted program that controls standards for the 14 billion dollars of organic foods that consumers buy yearly.

One last wrinkle for today: What’s better, buying local, or buying organic? An article from culinate, a sustainable foodie magazine, discusses the growth of Big Organics, their impact on the the USDA labels and standards, and contends that foods should be judged not only by organic standards, but also by how far they come to you (ridding you of shipping guilt, and ensuring freshness). Maybe local is better all-around than organic, if you have to choose- supports small businesses, wastes less in shipping, and it can taste good (fresher, bumped around less). The British Organic industry is dealing with the import of organically farmed foods by air freight from other continents. African farmers who grow organic foods for international markets get paid better than they could otherwise, but the environmental cost of shipping would seem to negate the good qualities of the food in Britain. Africans are being encouraged to build up their own organic businesses for their home markets, but for now they can still ship their food to Britain.

Ok, now that organic labels are thoroughly confusing and the decision calculus of buying organic has been altered, how do we buy food? Is the paradigm of all-local, all-organic food- which would limit our access to things like pineapples and durians, and all fruits out of local season- the desirable outcome? Will the environmental cost of shipping food come down so that we may comfortably eat organics from exotic places? My head is spinning, but until I have better choices, the farmer’s market and local produce stores will have precedent over shipped organics, and shipped organics will take precedent over shipped non-organics. Thoughts on all this are welcome- does knowledge of the organic labeling change your organic decisions? Where do you find local and organic produce? Do the more lax 95% organic/5% non-organic- labeled as organic standards have any benefits for the consumer, or non-sneaky, non-lazy advantages for agribusinesses?

Progress: Plastic Confessions

After collecting my plastics for aplastic collection week, I find myself feeling a little appalled and very guilty- the hallmark of a budding ecoworrier. Here is my bagful. In it are three general categories of plastic bits. The first is food related: baggies for vegetables, a bread bag, a seal from my spinach dip, frozen food packaging, and styrofoam takeout containers. The second is cleaner and un-food related: wrapping from my cutting mat and new knife, shrink wrap from sundries, and price stickers. The third is plastic caps from bottles and a peanut butter jar. The only thing I feel positive about this plastic week is my record in refusing plastic carrying bags. I collected only 2, both with the takeout containers (from delicious little counters, but so much styrofoam! Can I bring my own food container to restaurants?) since the service was quick enough that I couldn’t object to the bag before another customer was being served: I need more refusal practice. A new larger, stronger tote bag aided this lack of grocery/shopping bags.

So, what to do with this sack of guilt? The dirty and sticky plastic I will have to toss. The clean plastics are a different thing. I can’t think of a sure way to recycle them. None have recycling marks, and none look like anything that Alexandria (or anywhere else nearby, fellow guerilla recyclers) recycles. The bread bags, grocery bags, and some of the shrink wrap is strong but pliable enough to be turned into yarn, which is good, since I can use yarn. The vegetable bags might be yarnable, but they aren’t very strong, so I’ll have to be especially careful with them. The rest of the clean plastics, and the remnants of the yarn plastic, come to a smaller but significant pile, and I’m going to experiment with them. My hypothesis is, I can use them for floor pillow and seat cushion stuffing: shred them into long and thin pieces, and maybe they’ll have enough loft together to sit on. I’ll report back on the tests and results of this scientific endeavor.

I’d also like to reduce my rate of plastic acquisition- I only need so many pillows. But given the number of useful objects that come wrapped in plastic for hygiene reasons, this is going to be difficult. And here the guilt needs to settle in and transform to a reasonable attempt at change: I will never, without leading an uncomfortable and awkward life, be completely free of plastic wraps. That will not be my goal. I will aim to reuse almost all of it that I must purchase, however, and investigate ways to buy foods in recyclable packaging- breads in paper, vegetables in a reusable sack (perhaps at a farmer’s market?), and avoid to every extent possible the unnecessary plastic wrapping.

The guilt says: How dare you! Totally eschewing plastic is more important than you being comfortable and able to participate fully in life! I say back, the total avoidance of plastic will require me to stop participating in my design and drafting classes (the materials are specific and often shrink wrapped) and require me to drive all about to find edible unwrapped items. Plastics can accomplish great things- notably the dissemination of many cheeses- and sparing use and careful reuse balance a healthy life. So there, guilt.

Recycling in the Twilight Zone

How naive of me to assume recycling was a straightforward and simple process! Instructions: 1) wash your glass, metal, paper, and plastics, 2) dump them in the right bin, 3) feel accomplished. Except that’s not it. Regulations at the Alexandria recycling website have some pretty odd restrictions on the glass, metal, papers, and plastic that aren’t acceptable for recycling in this county. Most notably, aluminum foil doesn’t make the cut. Now, cue the creepy theme music: Arlington VA also does not recycle aluminum foil, but Bowie, MD does, along with Kensington, MD. Statewise divide, maybe, but Alexandria recycling is taken to recycling centers in MD to be sorted and processed. Whoa! What’s the deal? Also, in Alexandria all manner of plastic bottles with necks may be recycled, whereas in Arlington only plastic types 1 and 2 (check the number inside the arrow triangle) are eligible. The restriction on plastic to necks-only seems uniform- so your hummus and spinach dip containers are no good. (Fortunately, they can be reused for Tupperware once you rinse them out, but if one likes spinach dip then one best prepare for an overabundance of Tupperware. Sure saves doing dishes though!)

This sort of regional divide must give rise to guerrilla recycling tactics: MD folks, I’ll be sneaking my foils into your recycling containers, and Arlington folk, I would be happy to get your non #1 and #2 plastic bottles (but not their caps, those aren’t allowed anywhere I saw) to where they belong. If you haven’t yet, check out your local recycling rules. If not linked here, they can usually be found somewhere near your country trash web pages. If something you think ought to be recycled isn’t covered in your county, check surrounding counties, or states. Then, get a ninja mask (recycled from Halloween?!) and dump responsibly away.

Solar on Parade

Solar DecathlonWell, it’s less a parade than a squat, but however you trumpet it the Solar Decathlon has it’s competition homes on display this week, through Saturday. You can tour the homes, which are built by students from the US and a few international teams. Awards are given for architecture and a bunch of other measures of efficiency and usability. The overall winner will be announced today, but the homes will be open for tours through Saturday. Lectures on how homeowners can take advantage of solar technologies and other “green renovations” are also going on all day Saturday. ICincinnati Solar House visited last weekend, and was most interested by the range of styles each team used in their home. Some looked like traditional ranch homes with a solar panel plunked on top, one appeared to have been eaten entirely by solar panels, and a few looked like shoe boxes with Colorado Solar Housefunny attachments. My favorites were from Colorado (left), Cincinnati (right), and Texas A&M: pictures of each home labeled by school are online, and team overviews and links to other team websites are also at the Decathlon homepage. Right now the team from Maryland is 1st in overall standings, but who knows what drama could occur by this evening! Anything under the sun, that’s what. The Decathlon homepage also includes tons of links to basic information (check under the “Teachers” heading) about solar and other renewable energies, and a link for “Consumers” if you’re interested in finding out ways to actually use some of the solutions on your own home. It’ll be a nice weekend, so check it out in person if you get a chance.

The lectures and informational materials are great, but they’re mostly directed at people with homes. For us renters, there are a few feasible, portable solar options. The Solio is a portable device charger with 4 (4!) color options, and the Eclipse line of bags will carry your stuff and charge it too- one of their bags was reviewed in Wired. I can’t personally recommend any of these products, but they sure look cool, and they get pretty good reviews. And Christmas/Eid/Diwali/Hanukkah/Festivus is sneaking up and all…

A Person with a Bike: Is it Enough?

I’ll declare it official. I rode in today, did not injure myself in the slightest, and figured out what all those gears are for: now, I am a person with a bike. My nice Biking Person even fully secured my crate, so I’m in business! Specifically, the business of riding my bike around for no money. I’ll keep it up- and declare a new (goal for the month) now. I’m going to work on cutting down on plastics: getting and using my own grocery bags, examining food packaging, finding recycling options, perhaps even committing some crafts- whatever I can think of (or YOU can think of. Tell me! I’ll do it!) to not have to throw away plastic stuff this month. I use the term “month” loosely, of course. I am aiming for “life” here- but I’ll start with this month.

This week, The Economist’s environmental topics column green.view is on the Prince of Monaco and his environmental efforts (one example: environmental taxes on the annual yacht show: oh, the life!). But he is being criticized for not having done more already. Skeptical Columnists: “If you care so much about the environment, Prince Albert, why aren’t you offsetting the entire country’s carbon outputs and being the first country to go carbon neutral? Kvetch Moan Judge.” Can princes, or even people, who care about the environmental impacts of their actions still do non-environmental things? Or do they have to abandon all unsustainable ways of life immediately and huddle in fields for warmth, moving every 15 minutes so as to not disturb the plants beneath? I bet you know what I think the answer is. An earlier green.view presents the arguments of the people who think that population reduction is the only way to save the planet. Scary, hunh! Both of these columns go on to point out that a balance between humans and nature must be struck (and that rising population is not tied to increased environmental destruction, so we don’t need to kill anyone off). Moderation is a good answer- it’s worked since at least the Greeks. Our current mode of life is unsustainable, yes. Changing our lifestyles and developing the technologies that reduce our impacts on the earth is going to take time, and much more combined effort than Monaco raising yacht taxes.

Some groups are encouraging lifestyle changes by taxing each other, and trading their own carbon credits in groups of 15 or so. It’s a start. People are encouraged by group meetings, “confession”, and occasionally fines to keep their emissions below a certain level, and to reduce them steadily. So yes, Skeptical Columnists, we’re not all sustainable yet, but take a (short) cold shower and change out your own lightbulbs (CFLS, please!). Then start encouraging concrete, discrete changes, lead by example, laud good faith efforts, and stop throwing the first stone at your own glass house because of the log in your eye. And Monaco will get there.

One last thing: Monaco can’t be the first carbon neutral country, since The Vatican already is. Thanks to a donation from Hungary, their carbon emissions for the next few years will be offset with the planting of a forest. The Pope is teaching respect for the environment as a gift from God. He’s also focusing attention on the issue since environmental changes disproportionately impact the world’s poor: his efforts are paying off in the Philippines. Talk about leading by example.

Progress: Biking to Work

I secured the crate on my bike today, and packed up to bike to work. I got a little lost, dropped my milk crate, found my milk crate, found myself, got really sore legs, almost got hit by a car, was blinded by the morning sun, and My Bike, Bike Friendswhanged my ankle so hard on a pedal while walking my bike that I limped until lunch. And it was all fantastic! No, seriously. I’m starting to understand Biking Persons better. The views from a bike are much better than from the bus, the air is much fresher, there are way more creepy tunnels and underpasses to zoom through, and a lot of people are out walking adorable dogs, so you can say good morning to them and be very pleased you’re not picking up dog doo at 7am. At work, my bike looked very fetching parked with all its new bike friends.

TunnelA view from my route: this is my creepy tunnel. And that is inside my creepy tunnel. It’s one of manyInside tunnels on the path, but it’s definitely the creepiest. But it’s cool, Mom! The path is well-marked and safe. I learned that a) my bike needs a few adjustments; b) I am out of shape to an Escheresque degree; and c) my milk crate has too many degrees of freedom with it’s current 1-bungee attachment. These are all easily fixed, and I’m very happy with the project: it’s wonderful to get home after work and feel the deserved dual exhaustions of a long workday and a good workout. Also, it turns out that my gel seat pad is strong evidence for the benevolence of God.

I also made it to Politics and Prose tonight, saw part of the talk, and picked up Break Through. Nordhaus, or perhaps Shellenberger, told me that they were under the impression that the book was printed on recycled paper. I didn’t press the non-toxic ink point. These guys talked a lot about Big Things, and sweeping cultural change, and massive economic restructuring, and other Important Stuff, but this book is not about what ordinary people can do to live a sustainable life, except I guess become lobbyists for their movement. I’ll let you know if it’s worth a gander once I read it.

Gore and more

We’ll find out in a few hours if Al Gore wins a Nobel, but today his movie An Inconvenient Truth was approved for use in school science classes in Britain. Kind of. After a challenge by a school official, judges ruled that the movie could be shown, but only if 9 factual errors in the movie were explained to students. Apparently the number of polar bear drowning studies is smaller than Gore thought, which seems to be actually good news for people who like large white things that are cute from far away but will eat you if you try to pet them. Polar bears are still in big trouble, but not enough trouble yet for the British court to verify Gore’s prognosis. I saw Gore’s film, and I really appreciated it, but the criticisms of it being “one-sided” are true. Gore himself says he didn’t include views from the handful of scientists who don’t think humans are changing the earth’s climate in order to present a clear picture of the dangers we find ourselves in. Bravo to Al Gore for staying on the appropriate message, boo to people who use the nature of scientific doubt as a justification for not paying attention to global warming, and bravo to Britain for questioning authority and giving its kids some real science behind the PowerPoint slides. What we know about global warming changes weekly, and that new information should be reflected in teaching people about it.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch: I’m planning my first biking in to work tomorrow- I haven’t tried it yet due to wanting the bus ride to finish the most incredible book (Love in the Time of Cholera by Garcia Marquez. Read it because it’s worth every word.)  After work I will be attending the Politics and Prose book talk for Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book, Break Through- the one about how we need a Manhattan Project to build a big old Green Tech bomb to drop on the scourge of Carbon Emissions, and how environmentalists like our own Mr. Gore are chaining themselves to the wrong political tree.  Should be quite fascinating, and I will of course report back on how all that goes.

Progress: Biking

I bought a bike Friday from Phoenix Bikes, which is a non-profit organization that takes old and donated bikes and repairs them for resale. Plus they teach kids how to repair and ride bikes, which is wholesome and commendable. It’s located in Arlington behind the Barcroft Park recreation center. My bike is a Peugeot, Bike probably a model from the 1970s, and a good friend who is one of those biking people helped me pick it out, and gave invaluable advice on alterations and necessary accessories. The first lesson I learned about bike-buying was this, actually: Find someone nice who is a Biking Person and ask them. S/he will be able to tell you what to look for in a bike, and the stuff you will need along with your bike. S/he might also be able to fix your bike for you if it breaks, which is crucial. The second thing I learned about bike buying is that it’s probably going to cost more than you think, especially if you want to ride at all after dark. The Peugeot was an incredible $75, though most of the other adult bikes at Phoenix- and they had a great selection of bikes in really good shape- were from $125-175. For a more general comparison, in Spokes (a fancy bike-stuff store with several locations in Nova) I didn’t see a bike under $350 (though I didn’t look hard), and Wal-mart sells bikes for around $150.

Once you’ve got a bike, you’ll need a helmet (around $40 at the bike store, around $20 at Wal-mart). After that, gear is partially optional. Head and tail lights and reflectors are a good idea, and necessary after dark. Since I’ll be using the bike to commute, I also need a lock- on loan from my friend now- and a pack big enough for my lunch and a change of clothes, since I’ll be showering at work. Given the frequency of the commute, I’ll also need more exercise clothing, so that myMilk Crate cycling is not entirely laundry-dependent. In terms of luxuries, I sprang for a gel seat pad, because bike seats, especially old French ones, are tortuous. My bike came with a rack (which I considered a necessity), and I’ll be attaching a milk crate to it with a bungee cord, to make an ultra-stylish lunch/grocery carrier. So I got my set-up for ~$200, and the only other things I have left to buy are my own lock, a few clothes, and a car carrier for my bike, in case of not biking. Some of the items I got I could have gotten for less, and some aren’t entirely necessary, so a good kit could end up being ~$200 total if you prioritize and shop around.

The next step is to actually ride the thing, which I am looking forward to now that I have that gel pad. Alexandria has an extensive map of local bike paths, and one of them just happens to run right from my apartment complex to right near my office. From one jog along it, I remember it has a long creepy tunnel and a small ford.

The last thing I learned about bike-buying is that it’s difficult to get bike stuff from a Biking Person. This Biking Person will assume that you are a Biking Person yourself, when in reality, you may just want to be a person with a bike. Having my Biking Person friend around was a huge help, since he could deal with the other Biking Person in their code language, and explain it to me. I went to the bike shop all by myself, but I did feel intimidated by the Biking salesPersons, at least until I found my gel seat pad. Then I knew everything would be ok.

Plastic, please

Ahh, the flimsy plastic grocery bag! Since 1999’s American Beauty, it has been renowned as a symbol of the magic found in everyday litter. Whether dancing along the sidewalk, impaling itself in your favorite oak tree, or choking adorable sea otters, the sight of that mystical, mischievous little petroleum byproduct always fills me with a sense of wonder. Refusing these plastic bags at the grocery store in favor of stronger, longer lasting, and reusable fabric bags is the latest way environmentalists want us to clean up. Poor, maligned flimsy plastic bag. This opinion piece from the NYT catalogs a host of reasons Americans don’t want to give up the bag yet-reusing them as trash bags, not wanting to stop the eager bagger, forgetting their other bags- and makes an uncomfortable point.

Plastic bags are a small part of the picture…But you think, if we can’t change our behavior to deal with this one, we can’t change our behavior to deal with anything.

Other countries around the world are dealing with the grocery bag issue- with more or less success. Apparently Ugandans like their bags as much as we do. Ireland’s government is taxing each bag, leading to a 90% reduction in their use, and Bombay banned them outright in 2001. Some local governments in American have banned the bag, notably in San Francisco, but the vast majority of the country isn’t bound by the hemp rope of hippie rule, so we may forget our own shopping bags at home and use as many of the little non-biodegradable sacks as we please.

Don’t feel too intensely guilty at still taking the bags. You can recycle them after use- most Giant grocery stores in this area have bins to collect them for you. And, if you’re at all artistic, or know anyone who is, it’s a cinch to convert your bags into yarn and crochet them, or make your friend crochet them, into various items. That site has some pretty awesome sea monsters. Be all ironic and crochet your plastic bags into a larger, cooler, better plastic grocery bag. Some helpful tips for working with the plastic yarn are here, as well as link to finished projects and crocheting instructions. I’ve made a few balls of the yarn, and I’m working on crocheting a square that doesn’t look like a triangle. I’ll post pictures when I succeed, or just distribute the wobbly fruits of my labor to loving relatives.

If all that recycling and crocheting sounds like a hassle, though, practice what Reagan preached, and just say no. The baggers may stare, progressive grocery stores may give you a discount, and you’ll need either large pockets or an empty purse, but I promise that soon you’ll wonder why your plastic dvd case in plastic shrink wrap needs that third layer of plastic baggie, and carrying an extra bag into the grocery store will be second nature.

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