Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Playing Footsie

So. Freakin. Cool. Robert Full’s TED talk on “Secrets of Movement” and designing artificial feet for all-terrain robots.

Once again the folks at TED are posting new talks from previous years. I think this completely rocks, for those of us keenly interested, but unable to attend. Unlike some similar conferences (many of which are, I believe, imitators of TED) which make talks available via expensive DVDs, these folks really care about the IDEAS and sharing them. Huzzah!


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Remember when nerds ran through the hallways of MIT chanting “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!”?  OK, I don’t remember directly, as it was rather before I got there, but my realization today was equally shocking.   Environmentalism isn’t sustainable, not the way it’s practiced currently.  Let me tell you how I got there, and how we can work on getting around the problem.

This evening I read a fascinating post dissecting some environmental myths and affordances over at David Reevely’s “EcoLibertarian”.   Reevely, like my spouse, is apparently a WW2 history buff, and found a very cogent (and relevant) analysis of the Allies’ bombing campaign in Richard Overy’s book “Why the Allies Won”.   Overy makes the point that the West’s strong points were in engineering and management, rather than an ability to shove literally millions of men onto the battlefield.  By leveraging those capacities, what looked like wasteful use of materials and energy actually turned out to save lives in the long run and transform the war from a brute-force context to one of capital and logistics.

Fast-forward to the birth of the environmental movement, which, as Reevely points out, arose on quasi-moral grounds, “on the idea that it was intrinsically sinful, in some sense, to consume more than you absolutely needed.”  This was usually expressed as separatism, with individuals and families trying to drop out and provide for all of their own needs.  As Reevely also observes, this meant lifestyle reductions, aka the infamous “do more with less”.

A lot of people still approach environmentalism as “what will I give up today?”   Reevely’s point, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is that there is more to environmentalism than this fundamentally reductionist approach.  Instead of trying to see how many eco-soldiers we can deploy to drop out and give up their goods and services, we should be asking ourselves how to use the momentum, in capital and engineering, that we built up with peak oil in order to create a better way going forward.

A very wise person recently told me that the key to happiness is moving toward pleasure, rather than away from pain.  An endless cycle of giving up things in order to “save the planet” can only go so far.  That’s moving away from pain, not toward something pleasant.   It’s a philosophy that can create some satisfaction, a sense of duty, and a smug “moral high ground”, but it doesn’t inspire or truly lead.   Ironically, a completely reductionist philosophy of environmentalism is ultimately not sustainable!  Dropping out of modern society is of less value, in my opinion, than staying in and calling for moderation and sanity, as well as leading by example.

For my own contribution, here are some approaches to environmentalism that I’ve found valuable in the real world.  I’m still giving up some things, but I’m doing it as part of a managed approach, not as an abnegation of the market system.

  • Using our day-to-day buying power to influence local micro-markets.  Enough of us must have filled out comment cards at Trader Joe’s, as they now have California-produced olive oil along with all the imported stuff.  I still complain about the bottled waters from overseas at least monthly, maybe it will add up to a difference someday.   Talking pleasantly to the folks stocking the produce department sometimes turns up a manager, and we express our appreciation for the local produce being carried, and wish out loud that more things had better area of origin labelling so we could make better choices.  In at least 2 of the 4 stores where I frequently shop, origin info has increased to naming the state, as well as the country.  I’m finding choices I didn’t know I had, e.g. between Tehachapi CA apples and Washington state apples and Australian apples, rather than just Jonathan vs Gala vs Fuji.   BTW, just because it’s not local doesn’t mean it’s bad– for instance, NZ and AU lamb that’s pasture-raised and transported by ship is actually more eco-neutral than local veggies raised with petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation.
  • Making a habit of letting our increasingly-ubiquitous connectivity enable frequent feedback to local, state, and national elected representatives fast and easy.  I keep a letter template on my desktop and laptop computers, and have my senators and representatives, as well as some town and state contacts, in my eFax rolodex.  If I read about something online or in a coffee shop, it’s the work of a few minutes to fire off a polite, focused faxed letter and let my opinion be heard.  Sure, I could email.  But again and again I read that it’s the physical pile of letters and faxes that are weighed more heavily than phone calls and emails, so I’ll spend the piece of paper.  Who knows, they may not even be printing them out.
  • Leveraging the economic and lifestyle surplus of peak-oil-now to invest and invent for future sustainability.  A good example of this is all of us backyard gardeners enjoying a hobby while learning how to actually grow stuff.  It’s a good thing my family doesn’t live or die on the basis of my garden, even though we do pretty well most of the time.   I buy carbon credits for our vehicles, after researching the options, because I want to encourage that practice.   New innovations in manufacturing are letting us build some high-end components like LEDs and solar cells more cleanly and cheaply than ever, but we couldn’t have gotten there without the fuss and waste in the middle.   Increasing numbers of people are finding ways to telecommute part or full time.  Etc.

The overall summary  Don’t drop out and raise llamas in the woods unless you LOVE raising llamas in the woods.     It will just make you bitter, and annoy the llamas.  You want to be Eco, not Emo.   What are you doing to be Eco smarter, not harder?  Y’all are an extremely hoopy set of froods, and smart as new paint– leave a comment and share your approaches, too, please!

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Take a little patch of earth and make it a garden. Even if you only grow one thing. Even if it’s a hardscrabble piece of bare dirt along the side of a wall, or a pot on a balcony, or a milk carton in a windowsill. That’s what I’d like you to come away with, today on Blog Action Day, when we are all talking about the environment. Because WE are an integral part of the environment. Our human actions.

Being involved with maintaining the life of plants will involve you more intimately with the life of the planet. Even better if it’s a plant you can eat, because you won’t want to eat poison and you’ll be more careful about what you use to keep other things from eating that plant.

We started our garden when we moved in, in February 2005. The ground was baked, cracked clay, utterly bare, without even weeds. The previous owner had torn out the dead sod, the lawn that nobody had watered while the place was for sale before he’d bought it. For three and a half years, he never got around to putting in a lawn, a garden, even any ground cover. So the bare ground sat and baked. No worms, no bugs, nothing.

After almost 3 years of hauling in compost, planting, putting down wood chips, letting things go to seed and spread, we now have a little ecosystem all our own. Every year we see new critters not previously encountered. Some of these new neighbors are not so great, like plant-damaging soldier bugs. Others are unexpected delights, like the giant salamanders, the little lizard I saw drinking from a soaker hose, and of course the hummingbird regulars who now understand that peas or beans will be flowering here most of the year (and that our neighbor’s hummie feeder will take care of the wintertime).

We’ve gone from seeing a few bees here or there to hosting a wide array of pollinators: honeybees, to be sure, but also big black carpenter bees, ground-nesting bumblebees, and sleek metallic hoverflies. And we’re still learning.

This year we’re putting in mustard and vetch as a cover crop on some of the beds, with fall-winter fava beans. We’ve established alyssum that self-seeds, and cornflowers, and borage, along with plantings of lavender, to try to provide a year-round supermarket for our native pollinators.

We realized that even after just a couple of years, things don’t grow so spectacularly as they once did– we’ve been putting our virgin clay soil-grown, mineral-rich, organic tomato and bean vines in the city compost bin and getting back lawn-clipping gruel, even if it IS composted. Every eggshell that we’ve thrown in the trash is a bit of calcium that could have been useful in the garden. I have a few dozen eggshells, crushed into the bottom of a clean milk jug, drying, waiting to go into the garden now. The top of the gallon milk jug is a warming cap for a broccoli plant, and will nurture pepper seedlings this spring.

This fall we bought a lightweight ‘leaf shredder’ that uses a modified weed-whacker in a big funnel, and we shredded up our plants at the end of summer and mulched them into the beds. I could bang my head on the wall thinking of the cubic yards of tomato plant, squash vine, bean plants, etc that we’ve stuffed into the city ‘yard waste’ bin and sent away, but at least we’re doing it differently now.

It starts with just a little patch of ground, even a single plant. If you do nothing else for the environment this year, plant a garden. You’ll find out that it was really for you, too.

Yes, these are all photos from our backyard. The one below is what it looked like in November 2005. We’ve come a long way, baby!

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Leo Babauta of the awesome Zen Habits blog has kicked off Blog Action Day with his 50 Simple Steps that anybody can do any day to be kinder and gentler to the environment. How many are part of your standard practice already?

  1. Take a shorter shower.
  2. Use a rag or hand towel instead of napkins or paper towels.
  3. Don't print at least once today.
  4. Carpool once this week.
  5. Turn off the TV for an hour. [Was it on?! I doubt it!]
  6. Turn off the lights when you leave the room (even for a little while). [Hey, I'm a New Englander who grew up in the 70's… does anybody NOT do this one?!]
  7. Use a coffee mug instead of disposable (for takeout/coffeeshop) (Mostly, sometimes I forget to bring it!)
  8. Use CFC light bulbs.
  9. Skip the foil and plastic wrap for reusable food containers.
  10. Inflate your tires.
  11. Clean up (the beach, park, street, etc for a few minutes).
  12. Talk to your kids about the environment.
  13. Reuse printed paper.
  14. Turn down your water heater to 130F.
  15. Plant a tree.
  16. Hang out your clothes. [SRC: ok, technically not, but I'm taking credit because– I read up on energy-saving appliances and found that apparently it's MUCH better over time to use the autodry cycle on your dryer instead of setting it manually to a time and resetting if stuff isn't dry enough; so now we do that. We're not f'ing allowed to have a clothesline here, apparently the yuppies might think “those people” had moved in if there were clotheslines. Grr.]
  17. Buy a manual reel mower or electric mower. [SRC: Better yet, get rid of your lawn, and have a garden instead; we have almost all garden or fixed landscaping (eg, mulch and weedblock around plantings). Our tiny patch of lawn, 2 foot by 10 foot, is small enough to mow with an electric weed whacker.]
  18. Get a low-flow shower head.
  19. Lower your thermostats. [SRC: in the summer, yes; in the winter, not so much, as I'm asthmatic and studies show that one's chance of catching cold or flu go up statistically for every degree below 70F while you sleep. But we have an electric radiator for the bedroom to handle this, and keep the rest of the house chilly.]
  20. Participate or organize a clean-up.
  21. Avoid fast food.
  22. Use acrylic paint (instead of oil-based).
  23. Coat your roof.
  24. Clean your filters.
  25. Telecommute.
  26. Wash clothes in cold water. [SRC: did you know that blood and other protein based stains come out in cold water but SET in warm/hot water?]
  27. Get a low-flow toilet (or make one, by putting spacers in your tank or otherwise adjusting the amount used for flushing).
  28. Buy recycled products.
  29. Recycle.
  30. Buy a smaller car.
  31. Buy a smaller home.
  32. Look for energy efficiency (in appliances).
  33. Water grass early in the morning.
  34. Plant shade trees near your house. [SRC: or, put up lattices and grow summer vines on them, like flowering scarlet runner beans, morning glories, ornamental hyacinth bean, climbing roses, etc. Runner beans or cherry tomatoes will give you a tasty bonus, as well as providing shade.]
  35. Use rechargeable batteries.
  36. Buy used.
  37. Walk instead of drive.
  38. Unplug appliances.
  39. Unload your car of all that stuff you 'forgot'.
  40. Try cycling.
  41. Install a water filter. [SRC: instead of buying bottled water; the amount of fossil fuel used to move filtered water around, and to put plastic around it, is tragic and appalling.]
  42. Use cloth shopping bags.
  43. Mend your stuff.
  44. Compost.
  45. Try mass transit.
  46. Buy in bulk.
  47. Buy durable.
  48. Use your oven less.
  49. Join a local organization.
  50. Join Blog Action Day. [SRC: here unofficially, and officially at My Bay Area Garden.]

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We have to get beyond this obsession with running the cars by other means. The future is not just about motoring. We have to make other arrangements comprehensively for all the major activities of daily life in this nation.

We’ll have to grow our food differently. The ADM/Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial-scale agribusiness will not survive … pouring oil-and-gas-based fertilizers and herbicides on the ground to grow all the cheez doodles and hamburgers. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this.

We will find out the hard way that we can’t afford to dedicate our crop lands to growing grains and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel. A Pennsylvania farmer put it this way to me last month: “It looks like we’re going to take the last six inches of Midwest topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks.” The disruptions to world grain supplies by the ethanol mania are just beginning to thunder through the system. Last months there were riots in Mexico City because so much Mexican corn is now being already being diverted to American ethanol production that poor people living on the economic margins cannot afford to pay for their food staples.

You can see, by the way, how this is a tragic extension of our obsession with running all the cars.

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Dear NRDC,

I often respond to your alerts and emails, but this one is different. I think you are being more than slightly disingenuous here. If the USA suddenly went into compliance with the Kyoto protocol, or even *ceased all* emissions (an impossibility), most reputable climate scientists agree that the results would take 3 – 5 years to take effect. By then, the bears will be GONE.

Instead of trying to use the polar bears as a global warming issue, NRDC and other agencies should be making plans to preserve as many bears as possible in alternate habitats via relocation efforts. The $300,000 you are trying to raise to show commercials could save dozens of live, wild bears that will certainly perish otherwise. It could fund establishment and continuation of a polar bear gene bank, or an analysis of existing captive bear breeding viability and genetic diversity.

Commercials won’t keep the polar bear species alive at this point. Direct action is needed while there’s still a chance at preserving a gene pool sufficient to the task. While curbing global warming is needed to give the bears a habitat to which to return, if we concentrate only on the warming and not on the bears, there will be no population to rehabilitate into the wild.

best regards,
Strata Chalup

PS– Wonder why we’re seeing more and more giant squid and other deep benthic life lately? The beginnings of predicted changes to the deep-water thermohaline cycle could be destroying their habitat, too.

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