Archive for the ‘Sustainable’ Category

Why technology and energy efficiency will not save the planet

Greener than a Prius?

Let’s play a quick game of word association! I say ‘green car,’ you think:

a) Prius
b) Chevy Volt
c) Nissan Leaf
d) Model-T

David Owen, author of  The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, would go with D. His theory is that technological advances, including the ones that increase efficiency, actually tend to increase consumption. And also, good intentions don’t count for much. Case in point: New York City has a lower per capita impact than Portland because of high density living (shared utilities, no yards, less space = less stuff, really good, highly used public transportation). Your average NYC dweller might not care about vermicomposting, but probably has a lower impact than a treehugger living in suburban California. Feel-good vibes or not, the bottom line matters.

Let’s go back to the car thing for a minute. So, we have it on pretty good evidence that two things that effectively reduce driving are fuel prices and inconvenience (traffic, lack of parking). Getting a hybrid actually reduces your fuel price and, if you’re in an area where hybrids can use the carpool lane, makes it more convenient to drive.  Does getting a hybrid encourage you to drive more and offset your saved emissions? Or alternately, does the money you save get spent pursuing some other form of consumption? Same thing for air conditioning, solar power, EnergyStar televisions…If our technology is getting more efficient all the time, why are our emissions not heading satisfactorily south?

It’s a provocative question. David Owen suggests that looking to technology to save us might just be ass-backwards. For example, he thinks that a car that would cut down on emissions far more effectively than a Prius would be the following:

Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.

In other words, something kinda like a Model-T. Paired with today’s gas prices. And with most of the lanes on our highways closed and parking lots turned into high density housing. If this were the only car available, would you drive it? Or would you start looking for ways to live, work, and play closer to home? (This, more than just the emissions, is why cars make such a difference in our lives.) What if Australia were still a two year journey with 50% mortality away? Would you not cross it (and all other far away locations) off the list for your next holiday?

Neither galloping technological advances nor efficiency provides an incentive to reduce energy useQuite the opposite. Owen suggests that we need, if not mandated energy inefficiency that acts as a deterrent to the whole high-consumption structure of western civilization, then at least energy efficiency combined with enforced caps on how much we can use.

One problem is that the environmental movement emphasizes making small, voluntary changes. At the same time, technological advance makes it cheaper and easier for us to consume more, so it often comes down to individual willpower. Do I have the willpower to never fly for another holiday? Do I have the willpower to not drive my car, to not hit the button that turns on the AC on a hot day, to not take hot showers, to not use the electricity my condo is wired with, to not upgrade my 5 year old phone, to not replace my laptop? Even knowing the high environmental impact of each of these activities, I don’t think I do — at least not all the time. But a century or less ago, people did without these things and still had fulfilling, interesting lives. The more technology lowers the price of admission for all of these things, the more they start seeming like necessities rather than luxuries, the more the energy we use on them feels like a necessary expenditure.

One other interesting idea in Conundrum is how good intentions aren’t enough. It’s easy for us to point a finger at corporations for the planetary damage they cause, but how willing are we to make the type of big, infrastructure changes in our own lives that would make an effective difference? I’m not talking about changing a light bulb; I’m talking about the stuff that really matters personally and on a gut level: where we live, what we eat, how many children we have. Owen argues persuasively that high density living is the lowest impact option, while moving out to the country is essentially extending suburban sprawl. How ready am I to give up my dream of a cabin in the woods for the sake of being greener? I’m not.  Given how huffy people become when anyone suggests adopting a primarily vegan diet or having fewer kids, I’m skeptical that we will voluntarily make these types of changes on a species level.

No one likes to talk about sacrifice, and I don’t think self-sacrifice is going to be effective on the scale we need anyway. But something’s going to give eventually if we don’t want to live on a dead planet: maybe our free market economy, maybe our personal freedom to make unsustainable choices.

I guess my question is: at what point will sustainability become more important than my individual freedom to screw up the planet to the fullest extent of my financial limits? Would you support restrictions that sharply limited the amount of water, electricity, gasoline, and other resources you (and everyone else) could use — all in the name of sustainability?

Photo by Bill McChesney

Guest post: Integrated Pest Management 101

This is a guest post by Kelly Tooker, a Master Gardener and environmental educator. I had never heard of Integrated Pest Management before, but it addresses a lot of my concerns with both conventional and organic farming. Kel explains the principles of this system below and how to apply them. I love the way IPM uses just enough force — and the right type of it — to address pests intelligently and sustainably. 

Integrated Pest Management, often just called IPM, is a pest management technique used in the garden and greenhouse to manage insects, rodents and weeds. While IPM is a highly successful pest management practice, it is unfortunately not that popular in the main stream because it does not involve the purchase of gallons of commercial pesticides and herbicides a year, and it also involves a little research and knowledge. But I think you can do this, I think you are up for the challenge.

Chemical-based pesticides emerged in the post World War II 1940s as chemical companies diversified their technology and moved away from products like mustard gas. Like much of our technology, these chemical agents were originally derived for other purposes and were hailed as the answer to increasing productivity and feeding the world. This ushered in a long era of pest control through eradication.

We now know that this approach has been harmful to a wide range of “non-target organisms,” including humans, animals, fish, birds and beneficial insects. We now recognize that gardens are complex and interdependent systems, ecosystems. When you plant your garden you need to not only plan a design that is aesthetically pleasing, but also a system that supports the health of each plant and a balanced interaction among the inhabitants. Integrated Pest Management builds upon this knowledge and chemicals are employed as a last resort.

So, how do you go about this balanced, safety-conscious approach? You learn the tenants of IPM to prevent problems from arising, and when they do arise, you integrate several techniques to reduce the chemical impact to tolerable levels.

Now I will pause here for the reader who does not think that this applies to them because they only use ORGANIC pesticides. Whether synthetic or organic, all pesticides interact with the targeted ecosystem. Many organic pesticides can be more harmful than synthetic options, especially if the user is not trained to understand proper application rates. As an agricultural teacher there were many organic options that I did not use because my classes included young females of childbearing years and teenagers with sensitive endocrine systems. A chemical is a chemical. The term organic simply means that it is or once was living. If you learn to properly use IPM you will reduce your chemical use, hopefully to none.

IPM begins with CULTURAL controls. Start by choosing good healthy plants that are native or adapted to your climate and garden. Select varieties that are resistant to disease and pests in your area. Properly care for the plants and practice good garden hygiene. Regularly monitor your garden and check trouble spots, an ounce or preventative care will minimize damages. Your goal is to create a healthy interdependent ecosystem.

Keep in mind that a truly pest free garden does not exist. You must learn to accept some damage to fruit, flower or foliage and know that sometimes it is better to remove a diseased plant. Learn to identify which insects are harmful and which are beneficial. Understand that birds eat insects and provide shelter for these willing garden helpers. This is where it takes a little bit of research and knowledge, but I have never known a gardener or passionate eco-type to shy away from knowledge. For weed control consider dense planting and ground covers.

Next, you will use PHYSICAL controls. These are nontoxic techniques such as handpicking slugs, snails, caterpillars and other pests. Soft bodied insects can be sprayed with water to knock them from plants and kill them. Prune diseased parts from a plant and properly dispose of the cuttings. Protect early season fruits and vegetables using screens, frames or row covers so that insects cannot lay eggs. Use traps such as blue and yellow sticky traps. Pheromone traps are also available. This is where we all become armchair entomologists. For weed control consider a cover or mulch vegetable beds over the winter.

BIOLOGICAL controls will be familiar to many of you. These are controls that rely on living organisms such as beneficial insects. A popular biological control is the purchase of ladybugs. However, I will encourage you to plant flowers and plants that are source foods for these insects and draw them into your habitat. If you create a balanced habitat you will find that within 3 years you will have an army of beneficial insects assisting you. Please remember that spiders and ground beetles are beneficial insects.

And finally, should you ever need to resort to this step, CHEMICAL controls. Always select the least toxic option first. Natural, or organic, pesticides are products whose ingredients originate in a plant, animal or mineral. The term natural or organic does not mean “harmless.” When using any pesticide read the label carefully. I do not use Neem oil, a popular “organic” pesticide because it is harmful to non-target insects including bees and lady beetles and is toxic to fish. It also should not be used if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.

Integrated Pest Management is a BIG topic and there is a lot more to be said than can be explained in just this one short article. I invite you to follow along as I discuss these practices further, through my own trials and experiments, in

What do you think of Integrated Pest Management? Would you (or do you already) use it in your garden?

About the Author:

Kel is a Master Gardener, Master Composter/ Recycler, and Naturally Beautiful Backyards Host Gardener. She has lived in USDA Zone 8 (Western Garden Zone 6) for most of her life and just recently relocated to Zone 5!

Kel began gardening in 2004. Her first gardening project was to establish a butterfly habitat garden and multi-use space for a young family. Her next project was the development of an urban pollinator habitat and a 10 month edible garden. Future entries will chronicle a 7,000 sq ft lot in a historical district.

Kel continues to pursue educational opportunities and holds an Organic Gardening certificate from OSU Extension. She has worked as an environmental educator in a range of positions including curriculum development and career & technical training at the high school level. She writes about a wide range of environmental topics.

Kel posts regularly as MonkeyDragon on and Tweets @Kelsgarden.

Photo by Steve Wilson

Would you eat a GMO heirloom tomato?

Brandywine tomatoes are practically the poster child for organic, heirloom produce. Knobbly, warty, and deeply flavored, they’re a far cry from perfectly round red tomatoes. At $3/lb at the farmers’ market, Brandywines are also pretty pricy.

Want to know why you have to pay so much? Brandywines are prone to nematodes, microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes from the roots up. Farmers lose a lot more of their Brandywines to disease than more modern, disease-resistant hybrids. And because they harvest less, more land and water go into producing each pound of these heirloom tomatoes. In using more natural resources than hybrids, these organic, heirloom tomatoes might actually have a larger footprint than their conventional or hybrid counterparts.

Here’s the thing: with our existing technology, we could introduce better disease resistance simply by moving a disease resistant gene from a different type of tomato into the Brandywine, in basically an accelerated version of what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. No interspecies genes, no genes from viruses or bacteria, nothing that we don’t already eat whenever we eat a non-heirloom tomato. A GMO Brandywine could use water and space more effectively and require fewer or no pesticides.

Would you eat this hypothetical GMO heirloom tomato? What if it could be shown to be lower impact than its unmodified cultivar? What if it were clearly labeled?

…and what if you didn’t instinctively flinch at the idea of GMO and everything it stood for?

I’m currently reading Josh Schonwald’s The Taste of Tomorrow, which has a provocative chapter questioning whether the schism between organic and GMO is more ideological than rational. I’m discovering that my problem with GMO is not about the actual science at all: it’s about Monsanto’s business practices, lobbying, and seed patenting. No, I don’t think making farmers dependent on a corporation is a good idea. Yes, I think the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that ruled that genes could be patented was a disaster.

But as far as actual genetic modification goes, I’m neutral. It’s a different, and potentially complementary, approach to solving the same problems organic farmers face: disease prevention, yield, nutrition. I’m intrigued by Vitamin A fortified golden rice that could help prevent blindness in some of the poorest areas on the planet. In China, a form of cotton has been genetically modified to contain bacteria that acts as a natural pesticide. It’s helped to reduce pesticide use by 80%. That’s a lot of pesticides that didn’t go into our ground, air, and water. In Hawaii, after ringspot virus devastated papaya trees, scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed a disease resistant GMO papaya variety, released the seeds to farmers for free, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the livelihoods of many small farmers.

Of course there are concerns with GMOs.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about long term effects on human and planetary health, the development of resistance to GMO, monocropping. Like you, I’m upset about the corporatization of food and Monsanto’s monopolistic policies. Although GMO produce goes through rigorous testing, we don’t always know what to test for, and it’s possible, even likely, that there will be results we could not have predicted. Increased production, for example, often triggers an increase in population/consumption (why hello, industrial animal farming), and we’re still biological creatures, after all. Increasing efficiency while decreasing consumption is the hardest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

But nor is organic always synonymous with sustainability. Organic tomatoes imported from Mexico are sucking local water tables dry. The organic strawberries at the farmers’ market are still spayed with pesticides that are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic counterparts. We usually think of biodegrading as a good process, but some organic pesticides degrade into toxic chemicals. Is a water-hungry, disease-prone organic plant really ‘greener’ than a GMO with higher yields that requires fewer pesticides? I don’t know.

Everything’s a compromise. Call me a bad greenie for breaking with the ‘organic = good, GMO = bad’ binary, but here’s what I think: Wrenching humanity off its current course of self-destruction and on to a more sustainable path is a big, messy, complicated problem. And ignoring potential solutions just because we’re ideologically — not rationally — opposed may not be helpful in finding solutions. It’s possible we’ll need GMO technology when the climate starts changing too quickly for our old plants and ways of agriculture. It’s possible GMO and organic could complement each other for more sustainable agriculture and stable food supplies. One thing is clear: we can’t go backwards.

What do you think about GMOs? Would you eat a GMO Brandywine?

Photo by Amanda Quintana-Bowles 

Everything you wanted to know about cloth pads (and then some)

Custom Mimi's Dreams Starter Package "The Mini"In high school, I didn’t daydream about being smarter or more popular. I daydreamed about being completely asexual: physical androgyny of the tall, elegant, sculpted variety. In short, I wanted to be an elf — with none of the inconveniences and embarrassments of being merely human and female. Let’s just say that I’m still not on good terms with my uterus, an utterly pointless expenditure of resources as far as I’m concerned. But if being physically insubstantial is the greenest way to go, it’s not one that’s available to me or to anyone else I know.

I’ve noticed that a lot of women who are otherwise interested in going green draw the line at reusable menstrual products, which seem to provoke a knee-jerk ‘eeew’ reaction. I get it.  It’s one thing to roll up a used pad and throw it away, and quite another to rinse it out and reuse it. Cloth pads require a certain lack of squeamishness. (It’s one of my theories that our alienation from our own bodies and resulting squeamishness are bad for the environment.) But speaking as someone who is still recovering from a serious case of squeam, I can also say that they’re better in a lot of ways than disposable pads. I wanted to address some of the common questions that come up about cloth pads in case you’ve been hesitating about trying them. These are my personal opinions; there are no affiliate links of any kind below.

Why quit disposable pads and tampons?
Take your pick: there are environmental, health, and financial reasons to choose reusable pads or menstrual cups. One source estimates that the average woman throws away 250-300 pounds of used menstrual products in her lifetime. Unless you buy organic cotton pads and tampons, they can contain pesticides, petrochemical products, and/or irritating synthetic chemicals. Tampons can cause toxic shock syndrome, which I was surprised to learn can be deadly even if you use tampons according to the instructions. (Learn more about TSS at And finally, there’s the cost factor. Even if you only spend $5 a month on pads or tampons, that’s $60 a year for approximately 35 years — $2,100 is a low estimate.

Which works better, cups or cloth pads?
I don’t know, since I haven’t tried the most popular cup, the Diva Cup. I find tampons uncomfortable, and disposable Instead cups give me mild cramps and a feeling of continuous pressure, so I opted for cloth pads. Cups are probably a better choice for athletes and anyone unwilling to rinse out cloth pads.

How many do I need?
It depends on how often you’re willing to do laundry. I’d say the minimum is probably three — one to wear, one in the wash, and one clean one to change into. Since cloth pads can take a while to dry, especially in a bathroom, having a few more is convenient. You can fold up one for your purse; no one will recognize that those small rectangles of fabric are pads.

Don’t cloth pads leak?
They can, but it takes some doing. Some companies offer cloth pads lined with waterproof fabric, but mine are just backed with water resistant polar fleece. I haven’t had significant leakage issues, and I rarely use anything heavier than the pantiliner.

Aren’t they bulkier than my ultra thins?
Yep. A little. Most cloth pads have terry cloth or flannel cores for absorbency, and they can be a little thicker than ultra thin disposables. I think mine are between 1/8 and 1/4 of an inch thick. But they don’t crinkle when you move and they don’t feel as hot or sticky as disposables. It’s a tradeoff.

How do I clean cloth pads?
I give mine a quick rinse in the sink and then stick them into a small container of cool water (changed daily, sometimes with soap or some hydrogen peroxide) until laundry day. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to stain much, if at all. If you’re especially non-squeamish, the soaking water — as long as there isn’t too much soap in it — can be used to fertilize your plants.

How high is the ick factor?
It’s really not that bad. I hate the iron-y smell of blood, so rinsing out cloth pads is a little unpleasant. But in the end, blood is just blood. We’re filled with the stuff. Deal with it.

How do I store used pads until I can soak them? 
Most cloth pads have snaps, so you can fold them up into tidy little rectangles (back side facing out!) and stick them in your purse until you get home. They might stain a little if you can’t get them in water for hours, but soap and hydrogen peroxide really do work wonders.

How long do cloth pads last?
Years? I’ve had mine for about a year, and they’ve held up beautifully through multiple washings, wringings, and even a dryer cycle or two when I needed them right away. I expect them to last several years more.

Where can I get them?
Some Whole Foods now carry GladRags (expensive by my standards), but the internet is still probably the best way to get cloth pads. Some other companies include Luna Pads and Party in my Pants. I haven’t tried too many brands because I got lucky with the ones I bought from Mimi’s Dreams on Etsy — they’re affordable, well made, and totally comfortable. Also, you can choose from lots of cute prints, and the shop owner Hope is a wonderful person to deal with. I totally recommend one of her $25 starter packs.

Can I make my own cloth pads instead?
Absolutely. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, they’re not difficult to make using cloth and old towels you have lying around. You can make a pattern using a disposable pad, or check out some of these patterns and ideas. I was going to offer you a tutorial, but my project got derailed by having a foster cat in the room with the sewing machine.

And that’s about it for the whole cloth pad experience. Not that scary, right? Have you tried cloth pads or menstrual cups? What do you think? If you haven’t, what’s holding you back?

Journey to a Sustainable Economy: The Triple Bottom Line

(Hey there. I’m in Hawaii and am officially disconnecting for about a week and a half. In the meantime, here’s a great post from Lynn Fang at Upcycled Love. Thanks so much, Lynn! If you haven’t checked out Lynn’s blog, you totally should.)

How will we really create a sustainable society? It’s a question that most people would prefer to hide from. But why is that? Is it because we feel we have little power to change things?

What if we could see a way forward? Would it seem less daunting? Most of us can see that business and government are the ones to blame for this mess, so we feel powerless in their control. Businesses exist to make money – profit is their bottom line, and as one policy student explained to me, governments exist to take power and control over its people. It seems like the average person can do very little to change this state of affairs, when the very definition of business and government do not operate in our favor.

But what if we changed the operating definition of business and government? What if the purpose of business was to create better livelihoods, to support our basic needs and fulfill our personal dreams? What if the purpose of government wasn’t to take power, and was instead to support and nurture its people?

Of course, it would be difficult to change any mind deeply entrenched in the antequated establishment. It is up to a new generation of businesspeople and policymakers to create a new system.

What if businesses supported the health of people and planet with equal fervor as its goal to maximize profits? This is the triple bottom line: businesses supporting people, planet, and profit. There are many companies who now support this view, as evidenced by a burgeoning market for sustainably sourced products.

Interface is the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet tiles and is also a leader in sustainable industry. Its founder and former CEO, Ray Anderson, read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and felt so guilty for extracting natural resources, that he changed the course of his business. Now, Interface embraces the triple bottom line, using sustainably sourced materials whenever possible, and respecting workers’ rights at the same time. They have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, their waste by 66%, and are on track towards zero waste. They call this Mission Zero, a journey towards zero ecological footprint. They have consulted with biomimicry experts and studied geckos‘ feet for a more eco-friendly glue. They even want to become petroleum-independent, a daunting feat for a carpet company that depends on synthetic nylon for yarn.

Ray Anderson now speaks to people all over the world about sustainable industry, and has inspired many companies to begin considering their social and environmental impact. Interface also has a consulting arm, InterfaceRAISE, that works with other corporations to improve their efforts in sustainability while enhancing their competitiveness.

Business gives us energy, computers, food, clothing, homes, transportation, and everything else we need to live comfortable lives. They are the greatest source of social and environmental damage, and so it seems they should also be the solution. Businesses that choose to faithfully embrace the triple bottom line are the ones that can lead us to the sustainable society of our future.

Inspiration: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, by Ray Anderson

What do you think? Do you believe businesses could possibly embrace the triple bottom line? Do you believe this is enough to move us forward?

Lynn_thumb.jpgAuthor bio: Lynn Fang is an eco-conscious writer who likes to wonder about how we can really create the sustainable society of the future. She writes about conscious living, sustainability, and social change at Upcycled Love. Follow her on Twitter at @UpcycledLove

Thoughts on Honey & Sustainable Sweeteners

Sugar is hell on the environment, and we eat far too much of it. Even though the familiar white and pink bag looks totally innocuous, sugar (according to a 2004 WWF study) is responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop (yes! more than palm!). It’s a water and chemical intensive crop, and processing it produces yet more chemical waste, often in fragile and threatened equatorial regions. Even if you buy fair trade, organic sugar, you’re doing a good bit of environmental damage for something that we don’t even need in our diets.

There are plenty of other alternative sweeteners, but some of them are highly processed (high fructose corn syrup and synthetic low calorie sweeteners like Splenda), some of them taste kind of funny (stevia), and none of them are local to me (brown rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar, maple syrup).

And then there’s honey. The beekeeper at my local farmers’ market is a brusque woman with a perennially bruised thumbnail and a talent for winding honey samples around toothpicks without so much as a drip. Her wares range from pale gold (alfalfa) to warm amber (wildflower) to dark brown (tarweed). And the flavors vary, too — the fragrant neroli-laced scent of orange blossom, the toasted marshmallow sweetness of meadowfoam. If you’ve only had commercially produced honey, you are seriously missing out.

Honey is the only sweetener that is produced within 30 miles of me. I can talk to a local, independent farmer (she says her honeybees aren’t experiencing colony collapse, incidentally) and support my local economy. And although I still use a little sugar for baking, honey is my sweetener of choice for just about everything else.

You might be turned off by the details of how honey is produced, but I think it’s fascinating. Honeybees collect nectar and regurgitate it in a half-digested form. Then worker bees fan the stuff to evaporate the water content. The remaining substance is a very shelf-stable form of food for the bees over the winter and in times of low food. Beekeepers encourage their bees to produce more honey than they need and collect the excess, making sure to leave enough for their hives. (Starving your hives is not a good business practice.) Honey is naturally antibacterial and can be used for everything from treating allergy symptoms to soothing dry, irritated skin. 

Of course, there are ethical questions about eating honey. It might be an environmentally sound option, but is it right to exploit bees and take their food?  

Maybe not, but it might be the lesser of two evils. It’s important to first realize that honey is actually something of a byproduct. Our agricultural system heavily depends on semi-domesticated bees to pollinate crops — most nuts, most stone fruits, berries, melons, some vegetables. Commercial beekeepers make more of their money renting out their hives to farmers than from selling honey. And while we used to have lots of native pollinators, habitat destruction has forced us to rely on honeybees for pollination. Even a strict plant-based diet involves the systemic exploitation of honeybees.

That in itself is not a good reason to exploit honeybees further. But ultimately, it comes down to a choice. Choose local honey, and you can visit the farm, support an independent farmer in your community, see how the bees and human workers are treated, and make a good guess at how the total carbon footprint involved in producing and transporting the honey. Choose another sweetener, and everything is suddenly much more opaque — from the location and size of the farm, to how it’s processed, and the total impact on local biodiversity, economy, and workers.

Do you eat honey? Do environmental considerations influence your choice of sweetener?

Why you shouldn’t tell an environmentalist to ‘choose life’

Over the weekend, I saw two things that really pissed me off:


Hi. I’m one of those nutty left wing liberals you fear hate. And I’d like to remind you of a couple things. You’re telling us to choose life, yet most of us (death choosers?) are passionately against the death sentence. Most of us are anti-war, especially unnecessary wars that have cost us obscene amounts of life, energy, and money. Plenty of us are vegetarians or vegans because we don’t limit the definition or value of life to humans. I’d say that pretty much all of us are interested in preserving life where it has connections and quality, even when that means prioritizing the lives of adult women over a small cluster of fertilized cells.

From an environmental perspective, we’re not talking about a couple of babies versus a couple of trees. Environmentalism is about choosing life over increasing ocean acifidication, loss of habitat, fresh water shortages, and massive extinctions of both plants and animals. (And hey — we’re on the food chain, too. Being at the top just means being the last to starve.) We choose to preserve the life of our planet because our own species, as well as every other species, depends wholly upon it.

For us, choosing life means caring about things beyond our immedate lives and species. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that a growing human population is not going to be compatible with a future world that we want to live in, maybe even a future world we can all live in. Contraception and education, and to a lesser extent the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, are necessary components to our long term ability to live sustainably and thrive on this planet.

Treehuggers choose life all the time, every day, in everything we do to lead greener and lower impact lives. We just do it on a larger, longer, and perhaps less anthropocentric scale than you do. (And what do you do to choose life, other than take away reproductive rights from women?)

Tell us to choose life? I don’t think it means what you think it means.

The Sustainability Thought Experiment

This post is an idea that formed at the intersection of two unconnected thoughts. The first came from a dialogue with some animal rights vegans, which led me to realize that I will never be an animal rights activist. While  I think the baseline for all our interactions with other animals should be respect and appreciation, sustainability comes first for me. I happen to live in one of the most fertile places in the world where a local, nutritionally complete, plant-based diet is very possible. But where weather and soil conditions are less optimal, I’m willing to accept that small scale, subsistence local animal agriculture could make more sense — from a sustainability perspective — than importing from other continents the variety and quantity of plant foods necessary to make up a balanced diet. (See more on the local vs. vegan debate at Treehugger.)  

The other seed for this post was an article about spam sushi (“Global is the New Local“) and its offhanded remark that  “the organic/local food movement is exacerbating African food shortages.” I’m not sure if the author was quoting an actual study or just conjecturing, but either way, it made me think: what if one of the costs of sustainability were our ability to help needy people around the world? We would have less surplus food to go around, to start with. But also, given the tendency of populations to grow when more food is available, can we align helping famine-stricken lands that cannot support their own people with our ultimate goal of a sustainable, smaller global population? Is human compassion unsustainable?

We know what the price of unsustainability is, and it makes plenty of sense to put sustainability first, full stop.  But just what are the costs of sustainability? Are we prepared to pay them? If our world governments were in consensus and had the power to impose global laws on all of us in order to achieve sustainability fast, these things (among many others) would probably be on the chopping block:

  • Economic growth based on capitalism. A sustainable world would involve significantly less manufacturing, less consumerism, and fewer jobs in fewer sectors. Work in manufacturing, sales, marketing, or publicity? Your job probably wouldn’t make the cut.
  • Human reproductive rights. We’ve shown that we can’t voluntarily maintain a stable and sustainable global population size. Even if it were to stabilize, I doubt anyone can claim that 7 billion people is a sustainable population size. Estimates suggest that an optimal human population would be 2 billion or under.  First to go: your right to have more than one child.
  • Cheap, plentiful food. Our current agricultural system, with it pesticides, monocropping, and massive scale developed because it was efficient, productive, and cheap (if you discounted its long term and less visible costs.). Recent UK studies have found organic farms to be about half as productive, hectare for hectare, than conventional farms. Could we feed the world on sustainably grown, organic food? I don’t know. Maybe?
  • Individual rights to resources. A sustainable world would probably mean fairly stringent restrictions on the amount of water, gasoline, and electricity we use. The amount of rubbish we generate, maybe the amount of stuff we buy or even how much we eat. It would no longer be about how much you could afford, but how much the planet could.
  • Decimation of global trade. The price of our cheap chocolate, coffee, tea, palm oil, and bananas is monocropping and habitat destruction in the third world. To say nothing of the fuel it consumes getting here. Putting sustainability first might mean that most farmers go back to traditional crops and subsistence farming. Maybe some fair trade, sustainably farmed products, but not in the quantities we’ve gotten used to, not at the prices we’ve been paying.

Is a sustainable world worth giving up chocolate for? Of course it is. (Expect much whining and dismay, though.) But more seriously, sustainability would almost certainly come into conflict with other values we treasure —  individual freedom, free market economies, human rights, and democracy — all in the name of a greater good we won’t be around to see. All of these are things we’ve valued for far longer than we’ve even thought about sustainability. No other animal on Earth is likely to have given sustainability much thought. Either there’s food, or there isn’t, and either there are predators, or there aren’t. Maybe some species have worried about overreaching their immediate resources, but humans are the only ones in danger of overreaching the planet. But as we’ve seen, the rational realization that our existence on the planet is not sustainable fails to curb our wiring as biological creatures to expand and procreate.

It’s kind of sad that enforced, global sustainability (the only type likely to make a real difference) could only happen in a fascist world. Don’t worry too much about this; it doesn’t look like we’re taking the path of drastic, timely, global action.  But maybe our failure to grasp sustainability isn’t because we’re [merely] too stupid, or selfish, or greedy. Maybe it’s because we’re just too human.

10 Things the US Should Import from the UK

I’m back from an idyllic holiday in the UK (yes, I blew my carbon footprint for the year) in which Kevin and I meandered around the River Wear eating wild blackberries, pondered sheep genetics and cloud formation as our train flew past verdant pastureland, read a whole lot of Alexander McCall Smith, gathered sea glass from an almost deserted northern beach, went on ghost walks with self-deprecating former thespians, and did, as they say, a whole lot of nothing. Good holiday.

I’ve spent almost two years of my life in England at this point, and I feel a lot of affection for this country that I don’t belong to. On this last trip, I was surprised to see how much it’s changed to become more sustainable and socially responsible. The challenges it faces are different, and in some ways easier, than the ones a country as big as the US faces. But I think its example is well worth aspiring to — especially because all of these green things are mainstream in a way they still aren’t in the US. Here are some of my favorites.

  1. All outlets — including the ones in Durham Castle — are equipped with switches. No more plugging and unplugging: flip a switch, and poof! No more phantom electricity drain.
  2. Lots of pride in locally grown, British food. At the supermarket, produce from Britain is clearly marked (and if you missed the text, the bins are lined with the Brittanica flag), and at various not particularly green eateries, we were offered local yogurt, free range local eggs, and even chips made with 100% British potatoes. Local free range beef and sausage, too, though we didn’t eat them. By the way, free range eggs are the norm rather than the exception in the UK: Even McDonald’s uses freerange eggs (and beef) in the UK.
  3. Lots of concern over fairtrade. The UK still imports a lot of food — not only because it doesn’t produce enough food to feed its entire population, but also because you can’t grow tea, coffee, cacao, grapes, or bananas in its climate — but I’m amazed at the emphasis it places on fair trade. Major companies have hopped on board, so you can get 50% fair trade (working on 100%) tea from PG Tips at the train station, fair trade certified Kit Kats, fair trade bananas from a very small city centre Tesco Express (average non-green grocery store), and so on. In the UK, fair trade is actually pretty mainstream.
  4. Comprehensive public transportation. Kevin and I are terrified to drive in the UK, so we didn’t even look into renting a car. Instead, we took trains and buses and did a whole lot of walking. Although it can’t get you everywhere, public transportation covers most of the bases and gets you close enough to your destination so you can walk the rest. It’s not particularly cheap, mind you — our second biggest expense after lodging was train fare — but the fact that we travelled all over the country on public transportation is still pretty impressive. Another bonus: all that walking kept off the weight from our rather less admirable diets while there. (Note to self: chips are not supposed to be a dinner entree.) 
  5. Pop-up toilet paper dispensers. This is genius. Kind of like those disinfecting wipes you no longer use (right?), exactly one sheet pops up and tears off at a time. The sheet is a fairly generous size, about 1.5 sheets of toilet paper, and more than enough for most, er, jobs. And the single sheet dispenser discourages mindless waste, which is always good.
  6. No plastic bags unless you ask for them. No weird looks if you want to carry out your groceries without one, no weird looks if you have a bright red reusable with a funny print on it.
  7. Smaller portion sizes. Americans waste a whole lot of food just because serving sizes are gigantic (and face it, some things really don’t taste good as leftovers). Restaurants in England serve smaller meals that are a better reflection of what the average person can finish in one sitting.
  8. A culture of line drying. Kevin and I passed almost as many clotheslines as we did sheep on our many train journeys, and from previous conversations with flatmates and such, I learned that most households in the UK do not have dryers. And if a country as damp as England can get its clothes dry without a dryer, those of us in California have no excuses whatsoever.
  9. Building reusing. Castle Durham, where we stayed part of the time, is a Norman castle started in the 11th century that is still a fully functional castle that serves as dormitory housing for University College students. It’s been cabled for electricity, heating, and now internet. 15-30% of what’s in our landfills is actually construction materials, so why not reuse and maintain old buildings rather than knock them down and build ugly new ones?
  10. FSC certified books and packaging. I was surprised to the Forest Stewardship Council logo on the back of a book at Waterstone’s. But it’s such a good idea. There is no excuse not to use recycled paper wherever we can. After all, who really needs a mass market paperback made of virgin forest?

The Scoop on [More] Sustainable Kitty Litter

Blind foster kitty extraordinaireMeet Brie. She falls in the 10% of things in my life that aren’t particularly green and I refuse to feel guilty about (see previous entry). This photo was taken during the year she spent in a cage at a no-kill cat shelter waiting for a home. Brie is blind and had never been socialized, so she was a bit of a hard sell. I felt bad for this grumpy, unadoptable cat, so I took her home. She’s now a very happy and affectionate kitty, and I’m grateful to have her in my life.

Anyway, even if having a carnivorous domestic animal can never be environmentally friendly, I’m still always looking for ways to lower her impact. Probably the most effective — buying grass-fed, sustainably raised meat and making my own cat food — really grosses me out as a vegetarian. I’ll get there one day. Maybe.

But there was something I knew I could totally do right now, and that was to stop using clay based kitty litter. Conventional bentonite-based kitty litter is strip-mined — not a byproduct of some other activity. The US Bureau of Mines estimates that about 1.5 million metric tons of clay were mined to make the absorbent type of cat litter alone in 1994. It contributes to mountain top loss, is not renewable, and doesn’t biodegrade.

From a cat health perspective, the silica dust in clay cat litters can cause lung and internal damage to our furry friends, to say nothing of the synthetic chemicals and fragrances added. Yuck. So I regretfully bid farewell to Everclean and ventured into more sustainable kitty litter. Thus far, I’ve tried two: World’s Best Cat Litter and Feline Pine (scoopable). Honestly? Neither works as well as clay litter, and both cost more, but I do think they are viable options for a healthier cat and planet.

World’s Best Cat Litter: whole kernel corn based litter, slightly larger granules than clay, light grain-y scent. $8/7lb

I gradually mixed World’s Best in with my Everclean, and at first, all seemed well. Clumping power was good, smell was under control, kitty had no objections to the change. Tracking wasn’t too bad, either, considering Brie likes to dig.  However, by the time we were done changing over (2-3 weeks), the smell was starting to be pretty offensive. It’s exactly what you think moldy corn and kitty fecal matter would smell like together, even with daily scoopings, even with new litter added. If you were willing to dump out all the litter every week or two and start with new stuff, I think World’s Best would work very well. However, at a dollar or more per pound, it’s going to be pricey.

Pros: clumping, low tracking, company donates to pet charities
Cons: Smell, price

***Update: Drew, from WBL, was awesome enough to send me a bag of the multi-cat formula to try. I was happier with the odor control, and the clumping was great, especially after months of using Feline Pine. I’ve had good results mixing the two. Target now carries both Feline Pine and World’s Best Litter.

Feline Pine (scoopable formula): a pine sawdust litter from scrap lumber that has been heated and had the wood oil removed. Available in pellet and scoopable varieties, $5/4lbs (lightweight, so more volume). Coarse sawdust texture, very light natural pine scent.

I started off by mixing scoopable Feline Pine into my now-mephitic corn litter, but soon realized that I just needed to start over. I took the chance that Brie would be OK with a faster switch (she was), so I scrubbed her box and filled it just with Feline Pine. The reduction in odor was amazing. However, the texture is fluffy, so it doesn’t scoop particularly well. If you give the scoop a vigorous shake to get loose litter through the holes, clumps are likely to fall apart on you. (Best technique: scoop under visible areas of wet and shake gently, if at all.) I’m realizing that all biodegradable litters are subject to bacteria, so you’ll still want to change your entire box every two weeks or so. Because it’s so light, however, it works out to be quite a bit cheaper than World’s Best.

Pros: odor control, price, easy to carry up apartment stairs
Cons: tracking, scoopability

The good news is that both of these companies offer full rebates for first time users on their sites. I know for a fact World’s Best honors rebates; I haven’t tried Feline Pine’s. This review was not sponsored by either; it’s just my own experiences using them. What have yours been with [more] sustainable kitty litters?

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