Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review for Plastic Free by Beth Terry

Practical Advice Delivered Without Smugness

I picked up a copy of Plastic Free at a screening of Bag It last week. I’m not a documentary buff and didn’t think this one was particularly compelling, but I had the pleasure of meeting Beth Terry of MyPlasticFreeLife. She answered questions about plastic after the film in the same friendly, unassuming, and thoughtful way that characterizes her blog. Plastic Free is pretty much what you would expect it to be: a guide to why plastics should be avoided and how to do it. Most of the information is practical, with lots of useful tips derived from personal experience, lists of actionable content, and interviews with activists. There are also some thoughtful meditations on burn out, whether individual actions matter, funny anecdotes (my favorite involves red wine in a Kleen Kanteen), and more.

I’ll admit right now that I have zero intention of gnawing on neem sticks for toothbrushes, and while I am deeply concerned about the environment, do not see plastic as the most pressing issue. I’ve already switched to reusable bags, water bottles, food storage, and bulk bins, but my life will never be plastic free — and I’m OK with that. Wherever you are in your green journey, Beth provides great tips and motivation to keep pushing yourself a little further.

Chapters cover subjects like plastic bags, disposable water bottles, grocery shopping, recycling, eating out, cleaning, and personal care. Some of it won’t be new if you’ve already made the switch, some of it won’t be relevant depending on your lifestyle (I skipped the entire section on diapers, thankyouverymuch), but it’s all quite readable and you’re likely to learn something new or pick up a good tip. For me, the section on recycling plastics was particularly eye-opening. That little triangle you thought meant something was recyclable actually doesn’t mean anything, and I am finding myself looking aghast at my yogurt tub and a lot of other things that I thought were being tidily recycled. The author also discusses bio-plastics and silicone.

Plastic Free obviously has a lot of thought put into it. Every time I thought of an objection, Beth magically anticipated and addressed it — from the way plastic is really more symbolic of our wasteful lives than anything else, to the fact that reusable bags are frequently made out of oil-based fabrics like nylon or polyester, to the bigger lifestyle and ethical changes that going plastic free entails. Yet it’s not didactic, smug, judgy, or simplistic, and that is quite an achievement.

Where Plastic Free loses me a bit is the science. There are a lot of ‘may’ and ‘can’ statements about plastic toxicity that have not achieved general scientific consensus. For example, Beth writes that “endocrine disruptors may actually have an increased effect in very small doses” and then cites an article that analyzes an EPA study in which the panel of toxicologists actually “is not persuaded that a low dose effect of BPA has been conclusively established as a general or reproducible finding.” Something we should do more research into? Definitely. But we just don’t know enough yet. I’m also slightly leery of citing the EWG, which 79% of toxicologists in a survey conducted by the Society of Toxicology say overstates chemical dangers. Although I’m a cautious person by nature, I don’t embrace the Precautionary Principle to the same extent as Beth does, or recognize a binary between safe or dangerous, since the same substance can be either depending on the circumstances. Based on the available evidence, I’m likely to continue using my Teflon pan for omelets. And just as factual nitpicking, toxoplasmosis in otters is linked to fresh water run off rather than municipal sewage systems, so keeping your cats indoors is a lot more critical than not flushing litter down the toilet.

But it’s not a science book, and even though I don’t find my health risks from plastic particularly alarming, Plastic Free offers plenty of environmental reasons to avoid plastic. I’m feeling inspired to take the Show Your Plastic Challenge and remember to bring my own take out containers.

Good read. Thank you, Beth.

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Why Trees Matter

If you turn your head to the side and squint, ash tree bark kind of looks like ocean waves at sunset.

On Friday, the city cut down the healthy 50 year old ash tree outside my bedroom window. The reasons cited: streetlight and minor pavement damage. I’m no Julia Butterfly Hill, but when the notice first went up, I complained to the proper authorities, who assured me that the site would be re-evaluated. That was the last I heard when the men with the saws came. For six hours, the  roar of the chainsaw ground through my bones. All day, I felt cold, queasy, and thoroughly ashamed at my species. What  kind of society values a streetlight and concrete over a beautiful, mature, living tree?

Part of it was the timing. I’m currently reading The Man Who Planted Trees by Jim Robbins, which is about David Milarch‘s quest to preserve and clone the trees most likely to survive in an inhospitable future.  I had just read this stunning figure: as of 2010, about 8 million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine in the US and 43 million acres in Canada have been killed by bark beetles. I can’t even imagine what 51 million acres looks like. Milder temperatures caused by climate change have extended the destructive beetles’ season from two weeks to six months, broadened their range, and increased their victims from mature trees only to saplings. There’s even some evidence that pine beetles are starting to attack other tree species. And warmer weather often means dryer conditions, which stress already vulnerable trees. The bottom line? 6.3 measly degrees is going to make a huge difference for trees. How much, we don’t really know — there’s an overwhelming lack of information when it comes to tree research.

Even if we stopped logging right now (78% of our ancient forests around the world have already been cut down), our trees would still be in trouble from climate change. As the author says, “The only thing harder on trees than beetles, it seems, is people.” Ouch.

If you consider yourself a tree person or even someone moderately invested in the future of humanity and this planet, you should be deeply concerned about a future with fewer or no trees. Trees matter. I’ve come up with an idiosyncratic and incomplete list of why. (Many are taken from Robbins’s book, which I recommend.)

  1. Trees have a net cooling effect in city as well as forest settings. According to the USDA, “the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-sized air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.” Unfortunately, warmer conditions under climate change kill trees, and losing trees leads to warmer conditions, and there you have it — a positive feedback loop and a perfect recipe for climate destabilization.
  2. Massive flooding in Thailand, China, and Pakistan has been partially linked to deforestation.  Trees ameliorate flooding, absorbing and slowing waterflow, protecting river banks against erosion and run-off, and replenishing water tables. Clear cutting these natural barriers aggravates flooding.
  3. Many trees are considered keystone or umbrella species that an ecosystem would collapse without. Protecting, say my beautiful coast redwoods, protects a vast array of animals and plants that redwoods support.
  4. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Duh. According to the USDA and the Arbor Day Foundation, “an acre of forest absorbs 6 tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.” I wonder what our current forest / human ratio is?
  5. Trees can lower energy bills. Plant them strategically to produce shade and reduce wind. According to Dr. McPherson of the Center for Urban Research, planting one tree on the west side of your house will yield about 12% energy savings in 15 years. (Yes, it takes a while. But as the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.)
  6. Trees scrub our world clean of toxic substances. They can clean up toxic waste better and cheaper than conventional cleanup. It’s called phytoremediation. The roots absorb and break down substances like ammonium, nitrogen, pesticides, and nitrogen run-off from farms that cause dead zones. They can even deal with things conventional methods can’t extract, like pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors. One willow can process 15 gallons of waste a day.
  7. Seeing trees makes humans less crazy. Going for a walk in the woods helps kids with ADD concentrate and increases anti-cancer proteins in cells. Proximity to green space reduces the rate of anxiety disorders. Even having a home view of trees cuts down on aggressive conflicts with family members. How do they do it? One theory is that tree gives off a chemical cocktail as an aerosol.
  8. Civilizations that cut down all their trees collapse. This is Jared Diamond’s theory, not mine, but he provides so much proof in Collapse that it’s hard to disagree with his central thesis that misusing our natural resources predictably comes around to bite us in the ass. Money is not edible. To paraphrase Diamond, “being rich just means being the last to starve.”

Trees plainly deserve more attention in the green conversation than they’ve been getting — more research money and energy, too. When I read my Twitter feed and come across yet more articles on miniscule impacts to human health (chemical x is linked to cancer / asthma / infertility / whatever human ailment), I just want to shout, “Hey! Other species besides humans matter!” And then I grumble in my head about why we’re wasting so much energy and money investigating infertility when, at 7 billion people + and rising, infertility is clearly not a major problem humans are facing. But I digress.

While writing this entry, I’ve decided that my next move is to harangue the city arborist again.  If the city budget won’t stretch to replace my cherished street tree, I’ll pay for it myself. It’ll be worth it, emotionally as well as ecologically.

When’s the last time you thought about trees? Did I miss anything major on my list of why we should give a damn about them? (Maybe just the fact that they’re beautiful and fascinating and we don’t really know that much about them?)

Photo credit: Redwood Canopy by Tolomea

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 

Rawlicious Review & Basically Green Smoothie Recipe

Raw food is based on the idea that eating plants, lots of them, minimally heated, is good for you. No argument from me there. However, a lot of raw food books also assume that you have 1)  a dehydrator, food processor, power blender, and juicer; 2) unlimited time; and 3) unlimited money for ingredients so obscure that even Whole Foods doesn’t have them.

Uh…no. So I was intrigued by Rawlicious, which claims to be accessible even to the non-hardcore raw dilettante.  Talia over at North Atlantic Books kindly sent me a review copy. Written by South African raw food chefs Peter and Beryn Daniel, it’s an appealing  introduction to eating raw (all, mostly, or partly) with basics on sprouting, juicing, nut milks, and raw nutrition. There are over 140 recipes that range from the truly simple (salads, smoothies, juices) to the fairly elaborate (raw pizza, anyone?), and almost all of them are accompanied by gorgeous full color photos.

You won’t be able to make all the recipes in Rawlicious if you don’t have the standard set of raw cooking appliances, but you can make many of them with nothing more than a hard-working home blender and a good vegetable knife. I did.  And while some recipes call for superfoods like spirulina and maca, most of the ingredients are available in a well-stocked supermarket.  

I started with the juicing section, using my blender instead of a macerating juicer. The authors don’t assume that dark green juice is immediately palatable, so they offer a series of progressively darker green juices. I have to admit I stopped at the first one because it tasted so good and lent itself to so many delicious variations. Here’s the recipe — bet you have everything on hand already.

***

Basically Green
Makes 1 generous cup, dilute with the same quantity of water to make 2 cups.
2 apples
1/2 cucumber
2 celery stalks
1/2 lemon

Juice all the ingredients and dilute with water.

From Rawlicious: Delicious Raw Recipes for Radiant Health by Peter Daniel and Beryn Daniel, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2011 by Peter Daniel and Beryn Daniel. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

***

I can never resist the temptation to meddle with a recipe. I enjoyed the  light, clean flavors the first time I made it in my blender; the next time, I cut down on the celery and added a dollop of raw honey to sweeten it up. The time after that, I dumped in a cup of berries and a kale leaf and left out the celery altogether. It was terrific. I’ve always been afraid of putting leafy greens in a beverage, but I couldn’t even taste the kale. This juice has become my favorite way to get at least 3/5 of my daily servings of fruit and vegetables in one easy go. It’s a breakfast or light meal several times a week for me now.

Raw cashew cheese. Why yes, I made the bowl.

What really surprised me was how easy raw food can be to make. Nut-based cheesecake, which always seemed like it would be complicated, came together in a snap in my blender. I fed it to non-vegetarians, and we all enjoyed the thick, rich texture and mild flavor. Even simpler was an instant cashew ‘cheese’ sauce that made a tasty dip for [non-raw] crackers and would probably be great on a vegan burrito. Many of the techniques and basic recipes in Rawlicious lend themselves to improvisation.

The only recipe I didn’t care for was the raw leek and broccoli soup. Raw soups use warm water, but they don’t have the comfort food feel of a steaming hot bowl of cooked soup. Also, raw leeks are hot, even mixed in with other things.

I didn’t get into the gourmet section — that’s best left to raw food enthusiasts with dehydrators and lots of time — but the recipes I did try were enjoyable, and there are lots of salads and smoothies I want to try once spring produce has arrived in earnest.  Just looking through the photos of vibrant food makes me hungry. If you’re at all curious about raw, Rawlicious is a wonderfully friendly and unassuming resource.

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