It's the Environment, Stupid.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Holidays flow into the water

The holiday spirit reached far and wide this season.

University of Washington researchers found elevated levels of cinnamon and vanilla in the Puget Sound. The AP article from Yahoo says that these baking ingredients that have made it into the waterways shouldn't harm marine life, however it does go to show that what you pour down the drain will make its way into the ecosystem (as with previous findings of levels of medications/painkillers and caffeine in waters in the PacNW and other parts of the world.)

While it is a bit amusing that researchers have tested for these baking ingredients in area waters, imagine what else they could find co-mingling with the fish from everyday household water waste, industrial effluents, and stormwater runoff...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

We killed the baiji

There are some that say species extinction is a natural process, an evolutionary fate that some creatures can not escape. The baiji dolphin may be the latest casualty in this 'process'. But according to Dr. Robert L. Pitman in a New York Times commentary article, the dolphin is an indication that our ecosystems are failing.

Dr. Pitman studies marine mammals and recently returned from an expedition to the Yangtze River to find the baiji.
"The whole river ecosystem is going down the tubes in the name of rampant economic development. There is a huge environmental debt accruing on the Yangtze, and baiji was perhaps just the first installment.

Globally, scientists have been warning for some time of an impending anthropogenic mass extinction worldwide. Previous bouts of human-caused extinctions were due mainly to directed take: humans hunting for food. What we are seeing now is probably the first large animal that has ever gone extinct merely as an indirect consequence of human activity: a victim of market forces and our collective lifestyle.

Nobody eats baiji and no tourists pay to see it — there were no reasons to take it deliberately, but there was no economic reason to save it, either. It is gone because too many people got too efficient at catching fish in the river and it was incidental bycatch. And it is perhaps a view of the future for much of the rest of the world and an indication that the predicted mass extinction is arriving on schedule

I'm not sure that anyone besides ecologists, biologists and other enviro-minded folk are clued into how important animals and plants and ecosystems are to our survival. The modern environmental movement has shifted away from the conservationist mindset to a responsible-consumerist framework, and I'm not sure that alone will be enough to save habitats on the brink of destruction. In the quest for global economic equity (poverty reduction) and the elusive emission reduction goals, there really must be more of a consideration and effort on an international level for preservation and restoration, because we're not only destroying the ability for animals to live, but we are also compromising our own health and safety.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The aftermath of the pac-nw storm

I got the low down from my mom on the storm in the greater Seattle area with severe rain and high powered winds that knocked down trees and cut power to nearly 700,000 homes and businesses for much of last weekend. This type of weather is not unusual for this time of year. I remember several turkey days and x-mas days past that we didn't have power due to a blasted winter storm. Although the fierce storm that hit last weekend is ranked up there with one of the worst in recent history.

From reading several newspaper articles and speaking to a few friends and family who survived this one, we (as urban/suburban Americans) don't seem to know how to cope without power. We don't understand how the grids work or that people are working around the clock to repair downed lines and blown transformers. Most people just complain that they can't do their christmas shopping, and can't get their coffee or fuel (I was told that quite a few folks found pockets of powered up neighborhoods and waited in line at gas stations for 2 hours, and waited another 2 hours for their coffee at Starbucks.) There was an article in the Seattle-PI today about how the power outtage was Seattle City Light's fault because they don't keep up with tree trimming, and the utility came under fire for sending people home early despite storm warnings. (anyone else having con-ed flash backs?)

Now I know it is a serious situation, especially for children and the elderly. There were nearly 10 deaths attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning because people were running generators inside their homes or garages with the windows sealed up tight. Some people are still without power. But there seems to be little talk (in all this talk) about the increased severity of winter storms, or the fact that Seattle's eastside is considerably more built up than ever before (thus more property and goods that are vulnerable to damage), not to mention the trees that have been left standing (and not cut down for further developement) are taller because they've been allowed to continue living.

Undergound power lines and (selective) tree cutting should be considered to prevent damage in the event of future storms, but there should also be more planning for increased storm water management to reduce flood water damage, better sub-urban and ex-urban planning, mandatory high performance building standards so homes don't get as cold in the winter (or as hot in the summer) and the state/public utilities (or even private enterprises) should look at the potential for distributed power generation that could serve to alleviate some of the 'inconveniences' of disrupted power supply. These are the type of actions I mean when I speak of adapting for future calamaties, things that are preventive rather than reactionary. While we can't prepare for the unknown, we can take certain precautions so we're not completely caught off guard for the next big storm.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Powering down the festivity

I know there are displays of light far more elaborate and energy sucking than this one, but these folks are down the street from me. I walk by this blazing bright festivity nearly every night on my way home - except the other night, I returned late-ish and the lights were off. So kudos to my neighbors who cut the power to Santa's winter wonder-light-land after bedtime.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Taking lead off the endangered species list

The EPA is considering removing health standards for lead from air polllution.

Toxic substances are not like wild animals - you can't just take one off the list when its numbers are under control. The proposal to stop considering lead a toxic substance is just plain stupid. It's not like we need to take things off the toxic air pollutants list to make room for more. If anything every chemical substance should start out on the list until it is deemed non-toxic, and as far as I know lead is still lead no matter what list it is on. Recategorizing the stuff won't change its elemental properties or its effects on people and the environment.

If you'd like to tell the EPA to keep lead on the list click here to send a letter through Environmental Action.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holiday Card Giving Dilemma

I've had a few friends ask me for my address so they can send me an x-mas card. Their requests are often followed up with an apology for even sending me a card at all - they assume I'll think sending cards is evil, a waste of paper, an un-eco-friendly thing to do. I assure them that there is nothing wrong with spreading a little holiday joy via USPS and proceed to tell them about grow-a-note cards that when planted planted sprout up as wildflowers (available at several retailers online including Green Field Paper Company and KidBean.)

For more holiday card giving options Jasmine over at Worsted Witch has a few suggestions, as does Mark at 3r living blog. And for a few tips on what to do with those holiday cards you've amassed post-holiday season check out Ideal Bite.

Personally I usually forego the card giving thing simply because I have a tendency to procrastinate/and or forget and end up running out of time. This year, however, I bought a box of 100% post-consumer recycled content cards (from 3r living). I will probably send them out tomorrow....

Thursday, December 14, 2006

India's emissions cause no harm

India seems to be buying in to the US administration's counterspin on the whole global warming thing. I mean, sure you could jump to other conclusions from this Reuters headline: "India says its carbon emissions not harming the world."

They're using the old I'm-a-developing-country-and-can-pollute- as-you-did-and-cutting-back-will-harm-our-economic-development excuse. India's Environment Minister A. Raja is quoted in the article as saying, "India is very little in terms of emissions and we are not the biggest polluters when compared to the developed nations."

That is just the wrong attitude to take. For now, yes, the big ol' CO2 emitter, otherwise known as the US, needs to step up on a national level (2008 is getting closer every day) and lead the way in the next round of international talks on the matter. But if we (the global 'we') just sit back and let China and India continue on the old-school-technology-pollute-then-clean-up-later development track, while letting the US slide on taking any responsibility in the mean time, we (the global 'we' again) are screwed.

While I'd like to be optomistic on what's going to happen beyond Kyoto in 2012, if the current stance/attitudes prevail we're going to be stuck at an impass yet again without any real action taking place. Hopefully by that time the greater (global) public will be better informed about the issue and be concerned about their own good enough demand more from government officials.

Starbucks made me feel less guilty

I don't really like to broadcast the fact that I stop in to Starbucks every now and then. But this morning I did - mainly because I needed coffee, it was on the way, they take credit cards for purchases under five bucks, and the coffee at the bodega nearby sucks. I do have organic, fair trade coffee at home that I could have made in my french press before leaving the house, and I also have a blue, stainless steel 'commuter' mug I normally take with me everywhere that would've saved on the disposable red, holiday cup, but I was in a rush to get out the door, my mug wasn't washed (excuses, excuses...)

I spent a good three years of my life working for the coffee giant, and at one point was in charge of the paper order for my store (cups etc). We'd go through A LOT of tall (12oz) cups (this was in the days before the 20-ouncer), not to mention the associated plastic lids and scores of napkins. Given the number of Starbucks in the US (and the world) the amount of paper cups, napkins and sleeves (those things designed to go around the cup to keep your hand from burning, reducing the need for a double cup) used daily is mind blowing.

So, as I topped off my (non-fairtraded) coffee with a little (hormone laden) milk, and vowed (again) to remember to bring my personal mug next time, the message on the sleeve caught my eye, "First ever 10% post-consumer fiber cup. 60% post-consumer fiber sleeve."

Wow. "First ever" is a big claim, and I'm sure I have read about this somewhere before, more than likely in one of those full page NY Times ads. But there was more, "Starbucks is committed to reducing our environmental impact through increased use of recycled post-consumer materials. Help us help the planet." And on the cup itself, "Made with 10% post-consumer recycled fiber." The good green vibe didn't stop there, even the napkins had a little message, "Less napkins. More plants. More Planet. Less Napkins."

Making disposable items less bad is okay in my book and Starbucks is big enough to make changes on a large scale that can affect such industries so that other disposable cup purchasers can easily follow suit. But even if the skeptics are right and it is merely a PR ploy to get consumers to associate Starbucks as an enviro-friendly company, it does serve an educational purpose. Who knows, if every customer reads the cup/sleeve/napkin they take away, there's a possibility they might look for this label on other products they purchase.

I will bring my own mug next time, but this time I guess I carried a little less shame/guilt for supporting Starbucks and perpetuating the disposable culture knowing that a little post-consumer fiber was involved.

For more on the grand Starbucks debate check out green LA girl, who also did a little coffee tasting review for (I think it was) GOOD magazine.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Emissions, emissions, emissions

I assume I'm one of many who will comment on the article on the front of the NYTimes business section: "The Cost of an Overheated Planet". The message: reduce emissions... or else.

Overall the article has an optimistic tone. It lays the case for businesses taking the initiative to reduce their emissions, coupled with the need for increased market based mechanisms and cap and trade policies to make this easier, and for R&D into that futuristic-magic-unknown technology that will save us.

It also breaks down the economics of the problem - costs of reducing emissions (one percent of the global economy each year for the next 50 years.) And globally speaking, after describing all of the pending U.S. legislation on climate change/emission reduction policies, the article points a finger at China and India - if the U.S. gets on board then so should the rest of the world.

The end quote comes from executive director of the national comission on energy policy, Jason Grumet "The ecological and economic imperitive is to start now." Yes it is, however, I think we've been saying that since the UNFCC (The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - the document that was spit out in 1992 at the earth summit in Rio, that informed the Kyoto Protocol.)

While I am supportive of all of the mainstream press and political attention global warming is getting these days, I must reiterate that the focus needs to widen beyond the we-must-reduce-CO2-at-any-cost. We're banking solely on carbon sequestration and nuclear power for our "clean" future and we're losing sight of not only the negative externalities of relying on these technologies, but also we're not doing much at implementing precautionary, adaptive measures we're going to need in order to deal with the gradually changing conditions of our world.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The climate change solution - adapt

Lloyds of London has a new report, "Adapt or Bust" (via Climate Change Action). The content and recommendations are similar to that of a report put out a couple of months ago by the Alianz Group and the World Wildlife Federation, which focused on the risks and liabilities that the insurance industry will face due to a projected increase of weather related catastrophes.

The Lloyds report was a little more overt than the Alianz/WWF report in suggesting that the insurance industry needs to revise policies and coverage appropriately and to partner with businesses to reduce the anticipated future risks of climate change. However, the thing I like about these reports 1) they accept climate change science and that it is a real, occuring phenomena; 2) reducing emissions is NOT the end goal; 3) the message is we must adapt... or else.

Taking this stance on climate change is a view not commonly heard - if at all - in the mainstream media. Al Gore's recent press blitz promoting the DVD release of "An Inconvenient Truth" was commendable. (If Oprah's on the climate change bandwagon you know America will follow.) But talking about emission reductions, carbon offsets and changing our lightbulbs will not lessen the impacts of global warming. These efforts will help reduce (in theory) the level of GHG in our atmosphere, but it will take time to see any real change, especially given the current political/business reluctance to make any real emission reductions over the next 20 years, the expected population growth and projected incrase of energy/fuel usage over that same time, and the century long persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere. Reducing emissions alone will not protect us from the climate "anomalies" that are increasingly plaguing the globe.

What can help people deal with extreme heat or cold, droughts or flooding, and other weather related catasrophes will be things like smarter spatial and city planning (building, transportation etc.), research and development of alternative energies and more effective water use strategies, and mandating high performance building standards (several of these are mentioned in the Allianz/WWF report). These types of things must be considered and practiced if we are really going to lessen the impacts of climate change.

The insurance companies realize this, and while their motives are focused on reducing their loss on payouts rather than reducing the amount of human suffering, smarter, adaptive focused policies must become more of a part of the greater climate change dialogue....or else.

(This is a recurring theme in my blog - here's some past posts about the whole act/re-act/adapt stuff here, here, here, and here.)

Friday, December 08, 2006

NRDC Green Office Tour

I had the opportunity this week to tour the Natural Resources Defense Council offices in NYC. (Actually, anyone can take a tour, just call ahead to schedule.)

NRDC has been around since the 1970's working on environmental litigation and policy from resource conservation, to energy, to pollution. Their NYC offices have been green before one could certify oneself green, mainly because they saw the benefits of savings on their utility bills.

Having office space in an existing building can pose problems to those wanting to 'green' up their space, as it is often difficult to have control over certain features of the building, such as heating, cooling and ventilation systems or how the building is situated on the site or within surrounding areas.

However there are things that can be done to maximize the efficiency of the space, as NRDC as proven. They occupy the top four floors and created an internal staircase to create additonal light and openness within the office. They also replaced all of the exterior windows with high-performance, floor to ceiling windows to maximize the daylight coming in. Most of the perimeter offices have windows facing in so that daylight gets to the interior spaces and other workareas. All of their lighting systems are either on motion sensor or are separated out for maximum control over usage. Carpet and other insulation is used to help maintain and regulate the temperature and the levels are set for maximum comfort level during the work day.

Aside from the structural features, the NRDC office has centralized some of their internal printing capabilities to minimize on waste and duplicate services. They properly dispose of toner cartridges and computer monitors and other items. They have recycling and composting in their kitchens and paper recycling at each desk.

NRDC recently renovated one of their floors to include many more green features and materials, such as motion sensored faucets with temperature control and low flush toilets with multiple flush options (although without proper signage, as my tour guide noted, it wasn't clear how one could fully take advantage of the features of the technology.)

The NRDC offices across the country are also very green - in fact the San Francisco location scored a LEED Platinum rating.

Check out:
Other green office tours I've taken - Cook + Fox
The green office lens

photo from

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thoughtful graffiti

I was up around 24th st and 7th Ave this afternoon and saw some graffiti I could not only read but could identify with.

This time of year I think even more about the over-consumption habits of Americans and try to avoid the gift-giving-just-because-it-is-expected frame of mind as much as possible. There are lots of great gifts out there that don't produce waste or contribute to pollution or climate change - and those are the best gifts to give and receive. Which isn't to say don't consume, but when you consume, consume responsibly.

3r Living's Mark Caserta has a few tips on green holiday giving today at the 3r blog.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Variety goes green, your entertainment news hub, has a special section devoted to GREEN. There are just so many celebs out there doing good they've now got a venue devoted to 'em. This green thing must be catching on...

via Ecorazzi

Blogs of note

Blogging time has been short lately - but I've still been trying to make the rounds. Here's a few that I've recently added to my blogroll.

Green Buildings NYC - Great updates on green building news in NYC and elsewhere.

Green Girls Global - A few folks that are carrying on from where City Hippy left off.

Jetson Green - Green building, development, pre-fab and lots more

Check them out.