Archive for the 'environment' Category

Environmental Film Festival

There is one.  It’s going on starting tonight or possibly last week at places all around DC.  Website is here, and the list of movies (over 150 of them!) is here.  They have a lot on food this year, plus some on Bhutan and water and dirt, and some are documentaries and some have characters and plots and elements of fiction.  You can search what’s playing by day, and so many play each day that if you have an evening to kill you will likely find something interesting.  I’m rather interested in “Last Call For Planet Earth“, which appears to be a series of interviews with architects and planners about how their work relates to the environment.  It’s playing the same day as the Kite Festival on the Mall.  Which is also going on the same time as the Cherry Festival.  DC is going to be crowded, but as long as I get to see hundreds of kites in a blue sky, I don’t care.

March of Time

Hello!  I have been selfish with my time lately, and away from here too often.  Perhaps I have been living alone too long, and my communication skills have deteriorated past the point of blogging.  I’m only taking one easy class this semester, my graduate school applications are all in (I’ll hear back anytime between now and early April), and work is busy, but not that busy.  It’s really just the selfish-about-my-time-thing.  Since I have so much of it back after the stress of last semester, I’m piddling it away on silly things for the sheer joy of having it to waste.

But, I am a month overdue on whatever challenge I was working on, and I’ll have some big life changes soon (this blog possibly won’t be partly Alexandria-related for much longer), and I do like the blogging life, and it has been a nice round two and a half years since I started this, so I have some nostalgia and plans and a few general thoughts to work through.  So!  Onward!

The January Challenge:  Eat all my food.  This was mostly a success.  I learned lots, anyway, like how I should just never, ever, ever buy milk.  No matter how small the carton, it’s not going to be drunk.  I’ve gotten the hang of finishing large bags of greenery, and looking in my fridge and pantry to finish fresh fruit and veggies before I just have cheese and crackers for dinner.  It’s been a good practice to integrate with trying to spend less on food, eat healthier, and prepare more meals for myself.  Not “cook” mind you, just “prepare meals”.

I’ve documented what I learned by creating a chart of “Foods I Eat” and listing foods that I can trust myself to finish all of.  This is helping me edit my grocery lists. For instance, buying avocados and peppers and apples are good, useful choices, but I shouldn’t buy potatoes or onions without a pressing reason, since I’ll probably forget to use them in time.

Forget a February challenge with the snow and such, my challenge was not going insane all alone in my apartment, and that pretty much worked except for a few days in the middle of the snowpocalypse week that were touch-and-go.

March is halfway over, and the challenge for the rest of the month is posting regularly.  Regularly will be defined as posting every other day at least.  This blog keeps me honest about my attempts to live more sustainably, and when I ignore it, my resolve slips.

As for the nostalgia part:  I’ve been writing this blog for two and a half years, during which time I’ve moved thrice (soon to be, er, fource?), switched jobs, begun a career change, and ended a relationship.  The blog is not responsible for all of that, but it helped me organize some thoughts on the career switch.  Following the Eco City Alexandria project got me thinking about planning more seriously.  This blog has changed the way I eat.  I’ve cut meat out almost entirely (though if I am a guest I eat what’s prepared for me, since my vegetarianism is not anyone else’s problem).  (And also sometimes I just want to eat a lamb.)  But I can go weeks happily avoiding meat, and this was inconceivable for me just a year ago.  I’m eating healthier because of it- just paying attention to what I eat causes me to consume more vegetables, which is a thing.

Typing through my environmental worries has also made me much more comfortable about setting my personal goals and boundaries.  There’s still plenty I need to work on- my relationship with water, some of the trash I create, my transportation methods- but I know now what’s easy for me to change, and I’ve changed most of that.  I don’t get a sense of paralyzing environmental guilt in grocery stores anymore when I see plastic packaging.  I’m happy trading off warmer, longer showers in winter for turning the heat lower.  I’m comfortable with my failures at gardening and composting- though I’m ready to try again, with time and hopefully help.  Also charts.

This comfort with my efforts and failures also leads me into ruts, yes, but I can work out of those.  By blogging more.  Starting now.

Solar Homes and Coming Home

I did get to the solar decathlon twice- I’ve posted albums of the trips here and here.  Or maybe you saw the sneaky links at the side?  Maybe.  Germany won- understandable, theirs looked pretty cool, but I was a fan of VT’s, personally, and that’s a lot coming from a UVA grad.  You’ll see interiors and exteriors of both in the second (Day 2) album, and more details are on the Solar Decathlon website.

It’s been a bit of a couple months for sure.  I’ve gotten a lot done, though, apps started for grad school,  got the GRE out of the way Monday, midterms are over, and so I’ll be back here more from now on.  Now I’m feeling golden, or at least bored by working all the time.  Planning a trip to New York in a few weeks in part to check out some green buildings up there, but in the meantime there’s lots going on here to tell you about.  Which I will.  Next time.

Lunk’d!

What the what?  Grow meat in a kitchen gadget?  I can’t tell if this sounds more unappetizing or unlikely.

Via The Economist, a study on how greenhouse gas emissions vary across some major cities.  Cities tend to use resources more efficiently than less-densly populated areas, partly because of access to public transit, but they vary widely in how efficient they are.  This study quantifies ghg emissions for some cities and identifies reasons why some might emit so much more than others.

Environmentalists and the Colombian government try to deal with the legacy of Pablo Escobar’s zoo of invasive hippopotamaii.  Poor Pepe.

Solar is sunk without water.

The EPA is pushing ahead on greenhouse gas regulations (woop woop!), but lawmakers are hoping to forestall their efforts by passing a comprehensive bill.  The Senate put out a version of their plan today, too (the hose got to Waxman Markey in June, remember?).  I just want it to get done well, so coming at it from two sides bodes well.  There is speculation that the EPA’s action will goad Congress to a bill more favorable to reducing emissions, faster, but I have great faith in Congress’s ability to disappoint and prevaricate, so I’m expecting this to be almost as painful a show as healthcare.

Party at the Solar Decathalon!  It’s happening again this year, on the Mall- 20ish solar houses from Universities all over the world will be open for tours and other sorts of envir-oogling.  Catch it October 9th-13th and 15th-18th- all the details are here.  I’m so neglecting my homework for this.

Oh-possums!

Behold:

singing opossums

Now that I have hopefully intrigued and possibly worried you, read on to answer your burning questions!

New Zealand has a opossum problem.  It has a problems with lots of invasives, actually, but I have excellent photos of stuffed opossums and a topical link, so let’s start here.

This is my concise understanding of the problem:  Soon after the primordial ooze dried up into the world, New Zealand said ‘Cheers!’ in a hilarious accent to Pangea and floated off alone.  It spent the next whatever billion years developing an eco-system free of most mammals.  Maybe all land mammals, actually, and only occasionally swim-bys from whales.  But definitely no rats, stoats, weasels, opossums, whatever creepy little things you can think of, or bears or other large scary things*.  The animals left got used to not being hunted- the kiwi is flightless, as are a couple other native birds, because who needs to fly when there’s nothing after you or your eggs?

Anywho people got there, and brought bunches of other mammals with them, some by accident, some on purpose to make the place more ‘home-y’.  And since then, it’s been open season on the unsuspecting indigenous animals.

But why are opossums so bad?  They eat eggs, and procreate quickly, and travel.  They’ve helped wipe out bird populations all over New Zealand.  They’re widely hunted- and drivers are encouraged to aim for them when you see one on the road, opossum roadkill being a sort of public service- but their populations keep growing.

Let’s add another wrinkle (NZ is a very wrinkly country): NZ is pretty concerned about it’s environment.  Active government agencies and task forces figuring it out, cleaning it up, keeping it nice for the tourists and hugely influential agriculture industry and sometimes even to fulfill promises to the tangata whenua.  Environmental debates more closely impact more of the population than here in the US, and it was my impression that they tended to be more active and spirited than they are here (Kiwis, care to comment?  I wasn’t there long and the headlines in the NZ Herald could be misleading me).

So, opossums are a problem (I think they also spread cattle diseases so farmers are all upset about them), hunting’s not enough, and the government has decided to deal with it by still dropping poison all over the landscape from airplanes.  What?  This does not sound caring and thoughtful.  At first!

Their risk analysis shows the destruction done by opossums is more than that done by the poison, referred to as ‘1080’, so they’re going to keep using it despite protests from staff who don’t want to be exposed to all the poisons and other people who, well, don’t want poison all over.  Kills more innocent animals and such who get in it, gets into streams.  The stuff they use does degrade, but it’s pretty potent for a few days.  More info on it is here.

Pretty interesting debate.  Check out all the comments at the NZ Herald on the practice– both for and against, from people much more informed and in-tune with the country’s needs than I am.  I am curious about why they use aerial spraying, though- is it simply more efficient than spreading it in a more localized fashion?  Would local drops raise fewer safety issues?  Or, since the animals need to ingest the poison for it to work, does it have to be coating everything to be effective and so spraying just makes sense all sorts of ways?

Ponder away, if you like, or check out a more entertaining way to get rid of opossums- by selling their carcasses to tourists.  I visited Opossum World in Napier, NZ, in order to see what is billed as their “amazing static display”.  They have a diorama of taxidermy opossums eating the eggs of taxidermy birds- with a system to play the songs of the native birds the opossum endangers, and some other stuffed exhibits on the opossum life cycle, how they’ve killed (lots of old poison cans in that display), and a display of a opossum hunter skinning one while another fiddles on his roof.  Also a quintet of singing opossums on a car (see, brought it back for you).  Not all of it is strictly factual.  But it is certainly amazing: check out my pictures here.  (There are other less dead-opossums related things to do in Napier, too.  Just putting that out there.  You should go.)

In the same shop, you can get all sorts of opossum gifts- they’re commodifying the dead animals by making their fur into yarn for some very warm knits, hats, computer dusters…you name it, they make it from opossum for you.  They even made a moa.  And the opossum/merino blends are in stores all over the country, too, so the more you get your friends and family, the more you help rid the island of a pest.  Except the 1080 helps even more than that.  But it’s a start, and my new mittens are prettier than accidental poisonings.

*I double checked and they had two kinds of mammals, both of which are bats, and despite that Calvin and Hobbes sequence about them not being bugs I had no idea they were really mammals.  Didn’t Susie even say that? Ah, youth.

A Crisis By Any Other Name

Sounds a lot nicer!

NYT article on more effective terminology for environmental issues.  A group called EcoAmerica is trying to figure out how to talk about it to make more people care:

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

“Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.

I’ve been interested in how to relate what good science is, and what it means, to the general public for a very long time.  Back in school, I was in a whole student group dedicated to the problem- Student Pugwash.  The nature of hypothesis and observation and testable results- that’s fun for me.  And ambiguous, which I also find kind of fun, but I get it’s not for everybody.

Facts are a lot more marketable when you can say they’re absolutes, and those are pretty rare if you’re doing science right.  Experts aren’t supposed to be reasonably sure, they’re supposed to absolutely know- or at least act like it on CNN.  But honest scientists will only tell you how certain they are about their facts, and under what conditions.  And when we get to something as big and weird as climate change, which is inconvenient to deal with anyway, talking about the levels of certainty of your results makes the results too easy to dismiss.

I do think scientists should explain their work in terms that the public can understand, after they publish all those fancy papers to impress their peers.  I think that’s a basic responsibility that everyone involved in expanding knowledge has: dissemination, communication.  But that’s not what EcoAmerica is pushing- they want communication without the sticky science.

Ah, but as a dedicated climate warrior, does it matter how EcoAmerica convinces people to believe, as long as they do believe?

Yes.  It fundamentally does.  Because if your only argument is one of feeeeeelings, then it’s easily broken by other feelings.  Like laziness and hunger and boredom.  And frustration-especially frustration.  Galvanizing whatever “undecideds” with patriotic verbage goes nowhere when they face the difficult realities of what the science actually means, how we solve the associated technical problems, and how we structure a political solution to this mess. Then we’re back where we started, only now the folks are frustrated.  We have to give people the reasons and facts they need to make informed and principled decisions- whether they want to make those decisions or not.

EcoAmerica, I applaud your intention of talking effectively to the public about this.  And I get that you feel  handicapped by the abysmal lack of science education in this country.  But give the public some credit- treat them like idiots, and you’ll lose them.  Convince them on a slippery “American ideals” basis (some of us are apparently ok with torture, so maybe that’s not the firmest foundation right now), and they’ll follow you nowhere past the sentiment.  You’ll do better by translating the difficult issues you plan to avoid to those idiots- put it in clear terms, explain what the science means, explain the problems both technological and political that we face- and the idiots will hopefully surprise you.

Easier said than done!  Always sounded that way at Pugwash, too.  But if you in the know don’t try, who will?

Plane Tickets: Putting the Guilt to Use

While sick and babbling at you the other day, I mentioned my tickets to New Zealand.  Not just the ravings of a madwoman:  I have plane tickets to New Zealand.

I’ve always wanted to get out and see the world, but I wanted to pay my own way, and go in as untouristy a manner as possible.  So I waited, saved, and assumed a better time would come along.  It didn’t, but now I have a passport and a twenty-fifth birthday approaching, and it’s now or never.  Well, probably not ‘never’, but definitely later.  I emailed an old friend in NZ for some advice a couple weeks ago, and, having been promised hiking and penguins, bought the tickets Sunday.

Let me digress for a moment to direct you to the new link, Cr!key Creek.  It’s my kiwi friend’s blog on water issues- focus on NZ, but he gets around.  Along with all the other parts of this trip I am completely excited about, hanging out with a  dude who’s done so much work on sustainability ranks pretty high.

But see, now I have a dilemma.  I’m flying halfway across the world twice.  This is a big ol’ suckerpunch to my environmental changes.  According to Terrapass, by flying roundtrip from Washington to Auckland, I’m responsible for 7,120 lbs of carbon emissions.  That’s like driving my car (Civic Hybrid) around for a year (also according to Terrapass).  Actually, hey, I thought it was going to be more like driving a Hummer to the moon.  Not feeling quite so guilty now.

Well, either way, that’s a pretty big negative impact on the environment, which I need to do something about (blog being all about channeling the guilt to environmental use, yup yup).  But what!?

Rhetorical, I’ve already decided what I’m going to do.  But first let’s talk about the “not going” option.

The simplest way to not rack up this carbon guilt is to not go to New Zealand.  Stay home, find some pictures of it online, and email the kiwi when I want to chat.  Going to New Zealand to bum around and walk on mountains is purely a privileged, selfish act.  Money would be better spent donating to local food shelters while I spend the two weeks volunteering to muck out the Anacostia.  This is all true.  But I don’t feel guilty about that at all:  I’m stoked about every part of this trip.

Mine is not an abstemious sustainability.  Perhaps you guessed from the frequent Salvation Army trips.  I want to do as much and live as well (according to my idea of well) as I can with as little as I can manage it on.   I get that lots of environmentalists aren’t comfortable with that balance, and why, but I am. So let’s recap the guilt nuances:  trip to NZ, sweet, impact of ghg emissions, lame sauce.

Here’s how I’m going to use this:  first, I’m going to offset my carbon.  Yup, can’t buy a green conscience, but if I can afford the tickets, I can afford to support serious emissions-reduction programs.  I will look for programs that actively remove emissions and donate enough to cover my flight.  I’ll report back, of course.

Second, my time in NZ will be spent environmentally.  Start with supporting the local economy- no chain hotels or restaurants, no ‘Made in China’ junk for the folks back home.  I’m researching B&B’s to stop in along the way.  I’ll tread lightly on the mountains- pack in, pack out, pat the trees soothingly, etc.  I’ll use public transport as much as possible (apparently they have a great national bus system, so no need to rent a car).

And third, I’m using the promise of this trip as a carrot for my efforts.  Literally.  I’m going vegetarian, starting as soon as I’m done with the Sha Cha chicken delivery leftovers, until I get on the plane.  Doesn’t seem so daunting now- though I will draw a line at pizza (I’ll try for all-veg but if it’s plain cheese or pepperoni only, like I’m locked in a room for 12 hours with nothing but a cheese pizza and a pepperoni pizza, I’m eating the pepperoni, but it’s not going to come to that), and food other people make for me in good faith.  If I go home and Dad cooks me shrimp, I’m having some shrimp.  (Dad cook me veggies.  Mom will help.)  But I promise 98.9% vegetarian intake, at least.  It’ll be easier with a reward at the end.

So that’s how I’m going to deal with that.  For the interactive part of this feature:  whatcha think?

Progress: Traveling, Cleaning Out

I got a passport in January.  Really, personal friends, I did, remember how I’ve been planning to do that for two years, and how I promise to do it every three months ‘for real this time’?  I did it, and I have the paperwork to show for it, and in three weeks I can hop on a plane going anywhere in the world and SPEW CARBON ALL OVER YOU MUAHAHAHAHA.

I am conflicted about that.  I am certain that I want to get out and see the world, and I’m certain that, for my time and resources, airplanes are the most practical methods of transport to a bunch of places, but I’m also certain that airplane rides spew a bunch more greenhouse gases than I’d otherwise be comfy using.

Now, I don’t travel for business (not for lack of wanting, I’m just in the wrong business right now).  And I’m not wealthy, just very ok, so I can’t afford to jet about more than once or twice a year.  I certainly have other spending priorities that will limit my self-financed travels.  I’m not going to be spending all my weekends in Puerto Rico or anything like that.  But V and I want to go visit his family in Norway, and I’d like to go to a friend’s wedding in Oregon, and I didn’t spend 7 years studying Russia with the intention of never visiting there again.  Plus how else will I explore Byzantium, and meet Czech poets, and I want to smell India, and after we visit the Norwegian family we’ll have to visit the Colombian family, and Brazil always sounded nice, and so on.  Oh, then I want to learn to fly myself, because I want to be a pilot even more than I want to ride a motorcycle, and I think if I promise to give up the latter my loved ones will be so grateful I’m not going to kill myself that they’ll support the pilot’s license whole-heartedly.  See, I’ve got dreams.

I should feel guilty about this.  No Impact Man and his commenters certainly have a lot to say about limiting plane trips, and I respect their opinions.  One plane ride is a year of driving, carbon emissions are more harmful higher up in the atmosphere, if everybody in the world flew places we’d be living in The Day After Tomorrow, considering doing that much planet damage just to make yourself happy means you’re a bad environmentalist, etc.  And carbon offsets don’t count.

I dig that.  That’s fine.  But it doesn’t make me think only ever going as far as my hybrid can take me ever is a viable solution.   Flying is occasionally the only way for me to get places I want to go, and until there’s a better way, that’s the one I’ll use.  All that remains is trying to compensate somewhere else for those carbon emissions, and in the interests of that, I’m gonna look into offset or carbon reduction products later, and bike to work now.

As for the cleaning out, both my closet and V’s closet look totally awesome now, and the Salvation Army and Goodwill have many new wares to sell.  I’ll think of a new monthly thing in the next few days.

Have a good Monday!

Suits and Cars

Last week, I received an invitation to have dinner with some nice people from General Motors, and to attend the Media opening of the Washington DC Auto Show.  I am not one to pass up an opportunity of this nature, especially involving a free dinner.  And yes, I think GM just got bailed out once or twice, so thanks, taxpayers, and let me know when I can get you back for your 1/300millionth share of my fish and chips.

It is encouraging to see the auto industry try their darnedest to understand why Americans are upset at them, why we generally consider them incompetent and obstructionist, especially when it comes to green innovations.  Somehow, lobbying against CAFE standards during $4 gas and an environmental crisis then blackmailing the country with the loss of millions of jobs if we don’t give them cash does not breed respect.  By highlighting their environmental progress at the Auto Show this week, especially to interested politicians, they hope to fix that.  I saw a congressperson!  Not sure which one.  Also Colin Powell totally walked right past me.  Closest I’ve ever been to famous, unless you count the time I chatted with Freeman Dyson by a buffet for a half-hour, but that only makes me cool in certain circles.

An entire exhibition floor at the auto show is dedicated to more or less green car models.  Lots of things plug in these days, and if you drive a Prius, you can bump that baby to 120 mpg with a plug-in battery for a $10,000 investment at Fitzgerald Toyota in Gaithersburg, MD.  A few cars weren’t even totally car-like- they had a smart car and a glorified bike-thing, too.  But really, it was mostly just cars running on not-gas, or not-as-much gas.  The larger exhibition hall in the lower level had a Tesla display and a few hybrid models- but mostly conventional gas-powered cars.

By meeting with bloggers, too, these guys are really trying to figure out how their message is going wrong.  The execs described to us their efforts to reach out to consumers, their frustration with the misinformation about the industry out there, and we explained to them how blogs work, and how they might use new media to help themselves out.  There was also an amusing interlude wherein the concept of trolling was explained.  Our generational divides were showing.  But really, there are bigger issues than just their ability to communicate.

It was evident at the car show that the American auto industry is trying it’s best to get alternative fuels out there.  It’s sponsoring competitions, it’s looking into hydrogen and battery technologies and all sorts of new ideas.  I worry, however, that their best attempts at green cars are still too much just cars.  Big hunks of stuff that we’ll sit through traffic jams in, no matter what they burn to go when they can.  We’re at a crossroads here.  We get to redefine transportation now- infrastructure needs and environment and quality of life concerns all indicate that we’re not doing well with a car-based country.  There are better uses for our space than parking lots. I don’t think the auto industry is looking beyond their cars to see how we can link up to the trains or bikes or buses or subways or jetpacks we’ll use to get around more efficiently- for them it’s about autos, it’s not about transportation.

I want to see more imagination in their plans.  I want them to think beyond cars.  I think that will save their industry, and it could literally get us where we need to be in 50 years.

The DC Auto Show is a laudable effort on the industry’s part, but it doesn’t begin to address the deeper issues of what moves us.

I got some cards, and I’ll be sending a few thank-you emails for the chance to chat.  I’m hoping I can get some of the participants here for a little to talk with you all, so tell me what you think of my observations, the car companies, hydrogen, whatever, and we’ll get up a little dialog at least amongst ourselves.

Meanwhile, look like it might be nice enough Friday to bike to work…

Various Links

Pollution is credited with causing a 40% increase in birth defects in China from 2001 to 2005.  And that’s from a government official, too, not just concerned citizens.

Energy utilities in CA find that ranking their customers against each other encourages them to use less energy.

The good folks at Real Climate explain why that report on how global warming is irreversible doesn’t mean we should just give up composting and buying fair trade and such.

That’s all for tonight, but boy do I have interesting news for you Tuesday night!  That is called a “teaser”.


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