Archive for November, 2009

The Green Man Says: Day of Action

Ten years after the Seattle WTO riots, Monday, November 30 was again a date of protest, as activist groups across the nation organized and took action as a prologue to the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen.  In the Commonwealth, students made plans to call attention to issues of coal-fired power plants, mountaintop removal mining, and other unsustainable practices on their campuses.  An independent group of students planned a series of “banner drops” on Transy’s campus as part of this national event, only to have the banners removed within mere minutes of being unfurled.  Apparently,  the Administration found accusations of “greenwashing” and Dr. Seuss’s Lorax to be a serious threat to campus wellbeing, and called the Physical Plant to yank them down.

The very fact that a banner quoting Dr. Seuss (“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,/nothing is going to get better – It’s not.”) was almost-immediately ripped down is very telling; it’s almost a microcosm of the issues surrounding the environmental movement.  I really don’t think any of these students were looking for trouble or wanting to cause a fuss; instead, they were just trying a more visible way to get the attention of the campus community, because apparently, nothing else seems to be working.  Giving people food for thought–as these banners were meant to do–can help change opinions, but how is this to happen if said banners are quickly removed?

In the end, it all comes down to the status quo.  Old, tried-and-true institutions (the coal industry, for example, though there are many others) got where they are today by avoiding change, for fear of being inconvenienced or reasons of economy.  In a conversation with Fareed Zakaria earlier this year, Thomas Friedman (author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded) remarked that, instead of a supposed “green revolution”, “We’re having a green party. … You’ll know the green revolution is happening when you see some bodies—corporate bodies—along the side of the road: companies that didn’t change and therefore died.”

In a recent Newsweek article (“The Plan That Saved The Planet”), Al Gore urged us to give our answer to environmental issues“—not in words but in actions.”  On November 30, a handful of Transy students decided to do the same; hanging some sheets from windows and trees to send a message for just a few minutes to say, “We know what’s going on.  Most of you may be apathetic or slaves to the status quo, but some of us want to see some change around here.”

And as an aside, pointing the finger of greenwashing at the administration (as one of the dreadful banners did) is completely justified—making a big deal about sustainability initiatives while at the same time demonstrating an irrational fear of fallen leaves requiring the daily use of gas-powered leafblowers? Yeah, that’s greenwashing.

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Like Tyler says, even a soufflé looks pumped.

part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written, reprinted from the TU Rambler.

November, 2009.
Most pharmaceutical ads I see usually say something about only being effective when combined with “proper diet and exercise.”  But what does that mean?  Last week we talked about eating healthy; this week, let’s talk about exercise.  Our culture seems to have an obsession with “getting ripped”, which I’m pretty sure is the male equivalent of girls starving themselves trying to look like Kate Moss, but instead we have protein shake-chugging guys going to the gym trying to look like men, at least the way a sculptor or an art director or Mtv says men should look.  But really, there’s no reason to try to become Ahnold Schwarzenegger.  When in life are you ever going to need to lift 400 pounds?

Like I said last week, if you want to see human beings at their height of physical fitness, you have to turn the clock back about 20,000 years.  If the lifestyles of modern-day hunter-gatherers are any indication, your ancestors were way more fit than you.  How’s this for analogy: Paleo-man is to ‘carved out of wood’ as you are to white bread.  Modern man is a flabby, out-of-shape wimp.  “But,” you protest, “I spend fifteen hours a week in the gym pumping iron and running on an elliptical machine!  Surely that makes me better than some hairy Ice Age brute.”

Yes, perhaps you are more outwardly muscular than Mr. Cro-Magnon Man.  But look at modern hunter-gatherers living on the savannah: none of them look like Kimbo Slice, or even Mr. T.  There is more to being healthy, fit, and trim than counting repetitions and bulking up and drinking Gatorade.  Our ancestors didn’t pencil in a block of time each day for ‘workout’.  Bushmen get their exercise in the course of their normal day, chasing gazelle, climbing trees, throwing spears or shooting a bow-and-arrow (chances are so did your great-great-grandfather, who probably had to chop wood, make tools, and plow his fields by hand).  While I’d like to be as hale as the former, I could happily settle for the latter.

Here’s a novel idea: instead of buying a Bowflex, buy (or even make!) a bow and learn to shoot it;  master some stairs instead of hopping on the Stairmaster; don’t run laps around the track, map out a route and take a jog around town (you might even take a bag and pick up trash along the way).

Human beings weren’t meant to get their exercise the way most people do now: under florescent lights, hooked up to a machine (identical to the one next to it), in front of a window, unable to feel the wind or the sun on your face.  We evolved in an ever-changing landscape, not separate from it.  A change of scenery can transform exercise from drudgery to fun, but the scene out the window of the [campus Athletic Center] rarely changes.

The Green Man Says: YOU are built to be a hunter-gatherer.

part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written, reprinted from the TU Rambler.

November, 2009.
This week, let’s talk about food.  Most “go green how-to” articles will tell you to shop locally at farmer’s markets, to choose organic, pesticide-free produce, and eat ethically-raised, free-range meat.  This is fine, but for a poor college student, it’s Expensive!  Yes, pesticides in food are bad, but I believe that what are even worse are the foods and drinks which are essentially nothing but chemicals.  Don’t even get me started on corn syrup.  Have you looked at an ingredients list recently?  A box of my roommate’s chicken-flavored pasta and rice has almost the same things in it as a pouch of instant vegetable soup.  What the heck are thiamine mononirate or disodium inosinate or maltodextrin?  The reason these exist is preservation: our current industrial food system means that food packaged in California might be shipped to Maine, where it may sit on the shelf for months; the mysterious additives ensure a long shelf-life.

As an Anthropology student, I’ve a whole lot of my time at Transy talking about pre-agricultural societies.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that humans have never been healthier than we were about 20 or 30,000 years ago.  After that, we discovered agriculture, and it all starts to go downhill.  You see, back in our good ol’ hunter-gatherer days, our diet was varied, we got plenty of exercise, and we sure weren’t eating corn or bread.  Take a look at The Food Pyramid (the 1992 one most of us grew up with, the one with horizontal layers, not that weird new one where everything radiates from the top).  According to it, the foundation of our diet should be “6-11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta”: these didn’t exist until humans settled down, started farming, and built cities.  The switch to agriculture led to nutrient deficiency and modern diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity (not to mention social stratification, organized religion, and state warfare).

So what can you do?  I’m not saying that you should immediately revert to a hunter-gatherer diet (but if you want to try, get ahold of me and we’ll talk), and I’m definitely not advocating the status-quo diet of soda and Doritos.  But start small—cut out the Twinkies and Gatorade.  Try eating in the style of our ancestors, snacking on fruits, nuts and berries throughout the day, with one big, varied supper at night.  Fiber and meat are great; a bit of dairy (another post-agriculture invention) now and then is good; even Ramen is fine, but pitch the flavor packet and throw the noodles in a hearty stew of meats and vegetables.

There’s a very different way of thinking that comes along with a healthy hundred thousand-year old way of eating.  You start to feel more HUMAN.

The Green Man Says: Carbon Offsets

part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written, reprinted from the TU Rambler.

November, 2009.
This week, I want to talk about a cool, new, hypocritical way to go “green”: carbon offsets!

Let’s say you are a successful businessman who flies 10,000 miles a year. Picking up a magazine (which all seem to be chock-full of “going green” articles these days), you read how air travel is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. “Oh no!” you exclaim, suddenly concerned for the fate of the planet. “My actions are a cause of major, climate-changing pollution! What can I do about it?” At this point you really have two choices.

One: you could change your ways. This will probably inconvenience you a bit, but since the alternative is to continue turning the earth into a big polluted dustball, you should toughen up and learn to live with it.

Two: You can buy carbon offsets (because uncontrolled consumption and spending got us to where we are now, it must be the way to save us, too)! When you buy a carbon offset, you basically pay somebody else to do something that will make up for the pollution you are going to create. For example, instead of keeping your thermostat at 68° (which would prevent a whopping 1400 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere) you can pay some firm to build a wind turbine that will produce enough clean energy to counteract the pollution you create by being too lazy to change your comfortable way of life.

Because the modern “go green” trend is based on guilt (people should feel bad for hurting the earth), carbon offsetting is essentially a twenty-first century version of selling Indulgences. For those of you who slept through Western Civ, this was a practice common in the medieval catholic church: pay the bishop (or, in this case, the carbon offset firm) the appointed amount, and your sins will be wiped away; leaving you free to return to your old ways with a clean conscience. This was a big part of the corruption which led to Luther’s Reformation, and that corruption (now cleverly disguised via “greenwashing”) is still around. Case in point: Al Gore (patron saint of modern environmentalists) owns his own carbon-credit business (ambiguous named “Generation Investment Management”). When Gore isn’t warning us about the dangers of ManBearPig, he’s making a big deal about offsetting his mansion’s energy costs. And since he does it through a company he owns, he essentially pays himself.

Here’s a novel idea: instead of passing the buck to someone else to clean up your (carbon footprint) mess, do some real good and make some changes in your life. Yeah, you might be inconvenienced, but that’s the kind of change that’s needed if we want to see a true green revolution.

 

The Green Man Says: If it’s not far, don’t take the car!

part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written, reprinted from the TU Rambler.

October, 2009.
Just because the weather is getting chilly doesn’t mean that we should stop thinking about efficient, eco-friendly ways to get from A to B, and this week I’d like to talk about the perfect zero-emission form of transportation that every college student should be using: bicycling!

Cycling is great because it packs a double whammy: good for the planet also means good for us too—a bicycle uses no gas and burns only calories. It’s also helpful for the community, lessening traffic congestion, as well as improving public health. Not convinced yet? A few years ago, UK did a study on cycling: for students who lived less than five miles away from campus, door-to-door travel time from dorm to classroom was significantly shorter for those who biked, compared to those who had to drive the same distance.

The amount of energy saved by cycling instead of driving is also impressive. Consider this: if each of the 250,000 people in Lexington biked (instead of drove) just a single two-mile round trip per week, we would collectively save 3000 dollars worth of gasoline, and prevent 460 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere.

So with all these advantages in mind, there’s really no reason to not be cycling as much as possible. Transy’s central location in Lexington means that nearly everything you could ever want is no more than twenty-five minutes away by bike. For example: if you need groceries, look at all the possibilities: Dollar Tree (.9 mi); Sav-a-lot (1.1); Wal-Mart (1.7); “Ghetto Kroger”(Old Paris Rd—1.9); UK Kroger (Euclid—2.2); “Nice Kroger” (Bryant Station—2.5). Lexington currently boasts 22 miles of bike lanes and 27 miles of roads with paved shoulders, plus an additional 16 miles of bike lanes are in the works.

You might think that starting cycling would be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, you can go out and buy a brand-new, top-of-the-line machine for many hundreds of dollars, but craigslist is a great resource for second-hand things: my friend found an old road bike for less than fifty bucks a few weeks ago. And if you plan on riding regularly, it’s a good idea to get some good accessories (lights, rack, panniers, fenders, etc) for your bike; luckily, Lexington has a number of locally-owned bike shops (Pedal Power on Maxwell is great) within walking distance.

As for designing bike routes to use, I’ll just say that Google is your friend.

The Green Man Says: H2O

part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written for the TU Rambler; reprinted here in full (instead of the trimmed-down snippet of drivel they published under my name).

September, 2009.
Let’s talk about water.

We can’t live without it; it quenches thirst better than Gatorade, and apparently, it’s on the moon.  For most of us living in the First World, it also comes out of the tap for free.  And yet, for some reason or another, lots of people insist on buying bottled water.  I’m sorry, but am I missing something here?  You pay money…for something that you could get for free…that you can only use once. Meanwhile, people in Fiji live under a military dictatorship, suffering from typhoid and without access to clean drinking water.

This really puzzles me.  Fiji Water sells for almost three times as much as regular bottled water, is now our country’s #1 imported water, and yet is considered by many to be a “green” bottled water because the company that owns it contributes to liberal and progressive causes (like, for example, John McCain).

Fiji Water is put into heavy bottles (fresh-made with Chinese plastic) in a diesel-fueled factory in a town where the water is considered “unfit for human consumption”.  Bottled water is wasteful enough, but the very fact that this “green” water has to come across the ocean on a gas-guzzling cargo ship makes this a huge steaming pile of hypocrisy. Maybe politicians who are having trouble ending our addiction to foreign oil should start smaller and instead try ending our addiction to overpriced, greenwashed bottled water.

So, you might ask, how can we help solve the bottled water problem?  It’s simple—don’t buy it.  Ask your grandparents how they got through their days without their bottle of Evian or Aquafina or Fiji.  They didn’t, because such a thing would be totally preposterous to them, and it should be to us, too.  Buy a reusable Nalgene bottle from the campus bookstore, and then go over to the water fountain or the faucet (last I checked, every building on campus had running water; just be grateful you don’t have to pump it by hand), and fill ‘er up!  Commit to using your reusable bottle, and start making sustainability the new standard.

The Green Man Says: Life As We Knew It

part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written, reprinted from the TU Rambler.

May, 2009.

(This conclusion to “The Green Man Says”, Vol I comes hot on the heels of The Swine Flu and associated Chicken Little-esque pandemic paranoia.)

When I went home for Mayterm break last month, my librarian mom was reading a book called Life As We Knew It, which deals with the chaos that ensues when the moon’s orbit changes; narrated by a 16-year old girl, it’s basically Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging meets “The Day After Tomorrow”.  As someone interested in end-of-the-world scenarios, survival, and the estranged relationship between modern civilization and the natural world, this book seemed right up my alley, and I flew through it in about four long sittings.
While I’m sure it’s fine reading for the target audience of middle school girls, readers looking for an insight on survival strategies or the future of the human race would be sorely disappointed.  Up until the lunar cataclysm, the main character’s family makes absolutely no preparations; they spend the book living off a supply of canned goods bought in a panic after the disaster; and while the mother does try to grow a food garden, she only starts after the proverbial shit has hit the fan.
However, the author—whether or not she meant to—does show the reader the extent to which most people are painfully dependent on the infrastructure of our ‘civilization’ and disconnected from the natural world.  As a species, we Homo sapiens lived in kinship with nature for 100,000 years; now, as a consequence of shortsightedness and poor decisions stemming from our separation from nature (which only really began in the last 200 years or so) we might not survive another hundred years.
My main complaint with Life As We Knew It is this: the character and her family spend most of their time huddled inside their house waiting to be saved, believing that their world will eventually be getting back to normal, and they are completely unable to imagine a different, better world; they are content to live by the rules and norms of the ‘old’ one.  The late Michael Crichton once wrote that the only difference between a bear and a human is imagination; at this critical point in our species’ history, it is imperative now that we work to imagine a new future for ourselves, one that is actually sustainable*, because the present system—rooted in petroleum, consumption, and convenience—certainly isn’t.
“Get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, the times they are a-changing”.

*(For the inquisitive reader, looking for specifics, I point to the concept of Permaculture, which is probably the best middle ground between the two extremes of Primitivism (the Project Mayhem-style, all-out destruction of civilization) and the dead-end that, unless we make some big changes, is where we’re headed now).