Archive for the ‘The Green Man Says Vol 1’ Category

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).

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

April, 2009.
This week I want to talk about an issue that is near and dear to the hearts of college students everywhere: parties.  And since Transy is a de facto wet campus, I want to discuss the ubiquitous red Solo Cup, and the eco-conscious choices we can make when we party.
Perfect examples of the modern unsustainable mindset of convenience and disposability, Solo cups are made of #5 polypropylene plastic, which cannot even be recycled in most places, including Lexington.  Manufacturing these cups in a factory in Illinois requires a huge amount of fossil fuel energy and even more energy is required to transport them to your local Liquor Barn.
However, (despite what you may have heard) both glass bottles and aluminum cans are recyclable in Lexington.  In addition, the energy it takes to produce one new 12-oz aluminum can is enough to make about two new 12-oz glass bottles (Plus, I think properly-chilled drinks in glass bottles stay colder longer than those in cans).  If you’re given the choice between a Solo cup and a can or bottle of beer, pick the recyclable option.  And if you have a choice between a sixer of bottles or cans, opt for the glass bottles.
And there’s yet another—and even more eco-friendly—option out there: B.Y.O.C. (that’s bring your own cup)!  Back in the day (before Solo cups were introduced in the 70s) folks would show up to a party with their own personal drinking container to fill up at the keg (or bathtub, if you like the hooch); nowadays, you could do the same thing with a Nalgene bottle (BPA free, of course).  This is also a convenient solution for the awkward question of “which cup is mine?”  Another alternative—which most people would never dare to consider—is to simply wash and reuse your Solo cups for the next party or game of Beer-Pong).
In the end, of course, this all comes down to choosing to move away from the status quo of unsustainability and convenience.  If we want to see a change in consciousness of our society, we have to push overconsumption and wastefulness out of the mainstream, and start making sustainable practices the new standard.

(Not surprisingly, this is the only one of my columns to elicit even a single response from the student body, and I’ve actually heard from about 3-4 students complementing me on this article.  However, I find it somewhat troubling that the article which students respond to is the one dealing not with reducing water wastage, chemical-free living, or even the extinction of our species, but with how to get drunk in an eco-friendlier way.)

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

April, 2009.
Because this Saturday (April 11) marks the seasonal return of the Lexington Farmer’s Market (downtown in the park at Cheapside), this week I’m going to talk about food.
You might think that this really only applies to folks who aren’t on the meal-plan, but it’s still good advice for the rest of you to keep in mind.

Some of you might be not even be aware that your food choices have a huge effect on the planet, but believe me, they do.  Right now, our food choices rival transportation as the human activity with the greatest impact on the environment.

So, you ask, what’s causing all the problems?  The short answer is: industrial farming practices…this means meat and pesticides.

Much of the meat we buy at the supermarket is grown in ‘factory farms’, where animals are pumped full of drugs and hormones (cows, pigs, and chickens get 70% of all antimicrobial drugs in the US) and fattened up on an almost-all-corn-or-soybean diet (consider that 95% of the world’s soybean harvest is eaten by animals, not people!).  Animal rights aside (I’ll let the Bambi-lovers at PETA deal with that) this system of farming is very inefficient: it takes about 33% more fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of beef than would a calorie of a potato.  Eating lower on the food chain is much more energy-efficient…that’s what The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is all about.

Growing plants isn’t much better; farmers spray their crops with nasty herbicides (to kill weeds) and pesticides (to kill bugs) that get washed off into the groundwater; it doesn’t help that some of these chemicals are known carcinogens—anyone remember DDT?

Besides the chemicals used, there’s an even bigger side effect of large-scale farming: international food trade and the glut of heavily-processed and packaged foods has distanced most people from what they eat, both geographically and psychologically.  People think that food just magically appears on the supermarket shelf, instead of being driven or flown thousands of miles to get there.

So as an eater, what can you do?  The three biggest changes you can make:

1) Re-evaluate your consumption of meat.

2) Select food produced without agrochemicals.

3) Buy locally grown food.

The latter two can easily be accomplished by walking down to the Farmer’s Market.  You’ll help support the local economy, burn some calories (instead of gasoline), eat healthier, and help farmers get a fair price for their products.

As for myself, I don’t eat meat because I’m a poor college student.  But the next time I get a hankerin’ for some animal protein, I’m going after one of these tame city squirrels.

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

March, 2009.
This week, I want to talk about electricity.  [March 28] from 8:30 to 9:30 was the second annual “Earth Hour”—60 minutes when people around the world turned off their lights to raise awareness for climate change and energy consumption—so I figure it’s as good a time as any.

To begin, let’s start with lightbulbs. The incandescent bulbs that many people still use work by pumping electricity (itself produced by burning coal or other fossil fuels) through a loop of tungsten, which heats up until it glows white-hot and produces the light that you read by. The main problem with incandescent bulbs (besides the dirty fuel we burn to power them) is their energy efficiency (or lack thereof). You see, when that loop of tungsten lights up, it throws off an awful lot of heat, and most of that heat just floats away, never to be seen again. However, thanks to modern science, there is an alternative: the CFL (compact florescent lightbulb). These twisty-looking bulbs are way more energy-efficient than incandescents, which means that they last longer (so you don’t have to buy them as often) and produce the same amount of light for much less energy (which means less coal to burn). And no, they don’t make that sickly green color or annoying buzz that regular florescent tubes do.* So that’s another plus.

So with all these benefits, you may be asking ‘what’s the catch?’ Normally, the catch would be the price; a CFL often costs three times as much as an incandescent bulb. However, the energy savings mean that they quickly pay for themselves. Like other energy-saving devices, CFLs are a sound investment.

Lightbulbs aren’t the only source of energy waste, though. It seems that every gadget we buy—iPods, cell phones, CrackBerrys, laptop computers—has its own charger. The problem is that many of these chargers continue to draw “phantom power” when we leave them plugged in (this, apparently, is due to the capacitors, transformers, and other gizmos inside them, which I don’t pretend to understand). In fact, as much as 10% of home electricity is wasted by turned-off-but-still-plugged-in electronic devices. The solution? Show those machines who’s boss and stop the waste at the source! Plug all your gadgets into a powerstrip, and then, when you’re not using them, use one switch to turn them all off at once!

*(Aside from their longer life, why anyone would want to use regular florescent lights anyway is totally beyond me. That greenish glow isn’t flattering to anybody. Like the late, great George Carlin said, “Didya ever notice how awful your face looks in a mirror in a restroom that has florescent lights? Every cut, scrape, scratch, scar, scab, bruise, boil, bump, pimple, zit, wart, welt and abscess you’ve had since birth all seem to come back at the same time! And all you can think is: “I gotta get the fuck outta here!””)

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

March, 2009.
I’m willing to bet that most people never think twice about the various substances they expose themselves to on a daily basis.  Have you ever tried reading the ingredients list on a bottle of shampoo or shower soap?  I don’t want to scare anybody, but I did some research on some of the chemicals used, and it turns out that there’s some really intimidating stuff in there.  For example, Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid tetrasodium salt (Tetrasodium EDTA, for short)—while not believed to have carcinogenic or mutagenic effects—“may be toxic to upper respiratory tract, skin, eyes” and “can produce target organs damage” as a result of “repeated or prolonged exposure”, which sounds an awful lot like science-speak for shampooing your hair everyday.
Polyquaternium 7 is another chemical used in many of the various goops we use to keep ourselves smelling clean.  While this ingredient doesn’t seem to have any obvious toxicity issues and is supposed to be biodegradable, then why is it advised to “Prevent surface contamination of soil, ground & surface water”, and “Avoid disposing to drainage systems and into the environment”?  I feel we are not getting the full picture.  (If you’re curious about chemicals in the products you use, I encourage you to do your own research; search for a MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet).
So if the hygiene products we are exposed to on a daily basis may not be the best things for the health of the environment or ourselves, what can we do? Luckily, there are alternative products out there.  If you walk down Limestone to Sqecial Media, you will find a great selection of all-natural hygiene products like soaps and shampoo (plus, you will be supporting local business!).
While it may be true that environmentalists like knowing which ingredients in your shampoo will kill you, choosing alternative products doesn’t mean you are restricted to the three traditional earth-friendly smells: lavender, patchouli, and “natural”.  Natural products have a wide variety of fragrances, and best of all you can always be sure what they will smell like—you won’t find any ambiguous, faux-natural names like “Ocean Breeze” or “Spring Rain”.
Feeling really adventurous? You can even go one step further, and do away with commercial products altogether.  Try a baking-soda-paste for shampoo and rinse with apple cider vinegar—you may smell a bit like a potato chip but your hair will be much healthier.

The Green Man Says: Powershift 09

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

2 March 2009.
As part of TU’s delegation to the 2009 PowerShift conference, I spent the last several days in our nation’s capitol, an experience which has illuminated much for me.
The city seems to consist entirely of white marble neoclassical buildings and brings to mind imperial Rome—which was built by architects who believed their monuments would last forever, only to have their empire fall within a few hundred years.  Such is our similar position: our current (I would like to say previous) unsustainable way of life, in which we see our species as immortal and believe that the world’s seemingly infinite resources are ours for the taking, can only end with our own destruction.  While exploring the National Mall, a friend and I wondered what would linger in a thousand years after humans check out.  Not much, we hoped; toppled columns and ruins among a young forest; the remains of the Washington Monument leaning at a 45-degree angle.

While I heard many speakers this weekend discuss a better (and very achievable) more sustainable future—one brought about by nonviolent action and progressive legislation, powered by clean and renewable energy, and which justly incorporates marginalized groups—I heard no-one mention what I believe to be the key in the whole issue—the modern disconnect from the natural world; it seemed to me that we are attempting to fix the symptoms, and not the root problem.

One of PowerShift’s keynote speakers, Van Jones (named a TIME 2008 Environmental Hero), explained that focusing on just fixing our energy issues wouldn’t necessarily ensure survival for our world; we’ll just have solar tanks and geothermal fighter jets.  Climate change is not, he said, just a technological, political, legislative, or business challenge; it’s a moral challenge.

I was reminded of what Erik Reece (a professor at University of Kentucky) wrote in the conclusion to his 2006 book Lost Mountain:

“While [the] sense of kinship among all living things can be explained through molecular biology, it will only be a force for change, a moral force, if it is understood by the individual.  No one wants to be told what to do: turn off lights, drive less, recycle.  But if a desire to change the way one consumes limited resources comes out of an inner conviction, a deep feeling of conscience, then it is not too late for a real transformation of our culture.”

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

February, 2009.
When you’ve finished with your shower (hopefully shortened), you step inside your room and realize it’s freezing cold; most people will immediately crank that heater up as high as it will go.  Or, perhaps you’ve had the heater blasting all night long, but the room still feels cold.  There are two reasons for this, and both are easily solvable.  The first: you are still dripping water from your shower, and everything feels colder when you’re soaking wet.  The solution is simple: dry off as well as you can in the shower.
The second reason is a little more complicated.  You see, your room is a concrete box with—unless you live in Thomson—old single-pane windows; this means that outside air is probably flowing in and leaving your room cold.  Luckily insulating your dorm is actually very easy to do, and there are a few different ways to go about it, depending on your situation.
If the cold air is coming in from under the windows (or from the sides if your windows are Clayvis-style), then the simplest fix is to use “rope caulking”: basically, long tubes of foam in varying widths that you can jam under the window to keep out cold air drafts.  (You can also cut it up for homemade Nerf darts.)  It’s very cheap—walk down to Chevy Chase Hardware and buy about 30 feet for around $5.
If you’re like me and have very old windows, the problem might be that cold air is coming in from around the glass panes themselves.  If this is the case, you may want to insulate the entire window unit.  However, if you have a hairdryer (guys, borrow one from a girl) you can do it yourself with a kit: tape clear plastic sheeting over the window and shrink-wrap it to fit with a hairdryer.  If you don’t feel like buying a kit, I guess you could go all DIY and duct tape some cut-up shopping bags over the windows, but unless you’re going for the ‘hobo chic’ look, I don’t recommend it.
Weatherproofing your dorm really pays off in the long run: if your room stays warm longer, you don’t have to turn on the heater as often, and therefore burn less fossil fuels to run the heater.  Lowering the thermostat by just two degrees has significant savings: if everybody in America did this, we’d save over $100 billion in energy costs.