Friday, October 31, 2008

(I will follow)

I set out to write about traveling on foot rather than by car. I had in my head the benefits to personal health and finance that come from walking the quarter-mile errand or parking once at the sprawling shopping center and walking from shop to shop. There is of course the environmental benefit that this practice uses less fuel, which reduces impacts from producing, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. And, there is a diagonal benefit for those people who would otherwise drive to a gym and spend time walking in place.
However, my son’s recent fascination with fallen leaves, a phenomenon he experiences now for the first time, uncovers some of the less tangible and perhaps more valuable benefits of walking. Walking takes us steps away from the built environment, and steps closer to our natural environment.
Thoreau writes in Walking, in his charmingly confrontational style,
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.
Pirsig follows a related train of though in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when he describes how different it is to travel on a bike, exposed to the elements and part of the landscape, as opposed to traveling by car, where the real world is something separate and framed like an image on television.
I think Thoreau misses (or more likely avoids) the truth that people are part of both nature and society. However, focusing on the former, he offers important insight. Hidden in buildings, riding in cars, squeezed between earphones, and blocked from the real world by television, it’s no wonder we as a society don’t understand environmental problems or why they are fundamentally important to people. The world around us changes year by year, season by season, day by day, and minute by minute. But we set the thermostat to the same number, year round. We buy grapes in the dead of winter from the same shelf we do in the height of summer, oblivious to the convoluted feat of international trade that makes this possible. We turn the tap, unaware of whether the reservoir is ready to spill its banks, or if it has receded to leave expanses of dry mud. Distracted by a television, we don’t know if the geese have yet passed for the season, or that the Eastern bluebird has come back from the edge.
Even if only for a moment, taking a step out the door pushes away the curtain of our ignorance. Walking through the neighborhood reveals some sliver of all of the natural systems upon which our lives are built. A walk in a nearby wood or farm field is an opportunity to learn. The conscious walk makes clear the habits of water and wind and begins to explain the riddles of thistle and finch.
Save some gas, open your eyes, be the solution, walk away, walk away.

Image source: ER Dunhill

The great pumpkin

Halloween was a big event at my house when I was growing up. My mother donned a tall black hat and a black cape and became a witch, attended by our two black cats. My brother and I would, weeks in advance, sketch plans for our costumes with particular attention to the faces, and get to work repairing or building moulds and pouring liquid latex. This would yield flexible scars, open wounds, heavy brows and jaws, and other ghastly bits. On the big night, we'd adhere this stuff to our faces and hands, cover it with grease paint in some putrid color, don meticulously-torn clothing amended with dirt and charcoal dust, and tour the neighborhood as zombies or ghouls.
This holiday seems to be in a state of flux, with communities pushing trick-or-treating toward more convenient days and times, many communities doing away with it all together, and people instead attending parties here and there.
I’ll put some questions to the reader and ask, “How can one be the solution for Halloween?” What are some easy ways that people can green all of the accoutrements of this most excellent holiday?

Image source: Some flickr page that I randomly looted

Monday, October 27, 2008

Redress of grievances

As the Washington Post and several other newspapers reported Thursday, the Maryland State Police recently distributed letters to 3 members of the nonprofit group, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, indicating that the state had maintained records and gathered intelligence on those 3 individuals as suspected terrorists.
This organization seeks to educate citizens and advocate for clean energy in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It’s based just a short Metrorail ride from my home in the MD suburbs of DC. And while I’ve never been affiliated with the group, I have known several people, mostly high schoolers in need of service learning hours, who have volunteered with them. CCAN describes itself:
“The Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is the first grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to fighting global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Our mission is to educate and mobilize citizens of this region in a way that fosters a rapid societal switch to clean energy and energy-efficient products, thus joining similar efforts worldwide to halt the dangerous trend of global warming.”
A nonprofit group with an office in Takoma Park, MD, which recruits volunteers to write letters to the editor, send postcard mailers, hold peaceable rallies at the Statehouse during critical votes, or pass-out fliers about wind turbines and light bulbs, doesn’t seem like a terrorist breeding ground to me. Even recognizing that members of the organization engaged in an act of civil disobedience (several members were given citations for laying in a roadway to block access to a coal-fired power plant in MD), this is not the kind of organization that engages in monkeywrenching, let alone violent terrorism. The CCAN members on the list as potential violent terrorists have no criminal records.
I’m generally concerned that the state government seems to be indulging in the fiction that environmentalism is somehow intrinsically linked to terrorism. It’s not. That’s worth restating, in no uncertain terms: Environmentalism is not a fringe or radical movement and it is not a front for vandalism or domestic terrorism. Suggestion to the contrary is not only profoundly ignorant, but insults thousands of Marylanders who work or volunteer their time to improve their communities.
I’m concerned that the actions of the Maryland State Police may not have been this general or accidental. Among the Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s platforms has been opposition to the Inter-County Connector, a planned multibillion-dollar stretch of highway in the Washington, DC area. Pushing the ICC through was among the central platforms of Maryland’s former governor, who was in office during the period that the CCAN members were labeled suspected terrorists. This concern over abuses of power becomes more pronounced, in light of similar listing and surveillance of members of other groups that opposed the governor’s politics, such as anti-death penalty, anti-war, and pro-choice groups. The appearance that politics may have been the motivation behind black-listing these individuals is troubling.
I remind my government:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The right to peaceable assembly, the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and freedom from unreasonable searches are outlined in the US Constitution. I believe Maryland’s government owes its citizens an explanation.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

So, where does that leave us?

Prometheus has a very thought provoking post up on Europe's approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert climate change. Many climate change activists have pointed to Europe as a "laboratory" for climate change policy methods in much the same way that the US views the states (e.g. California passing a low Carbon Fuel Standard).

Yet, while the EU has taken a much more proactive stance against climate change than the US, results have been mixed thus far. The first graph shows change in emissions on a per capita basis, while the second shows total emissions, beginning in 1997.

In both cases, it is apparent that many European countries are not necessarily halting their share of emissions. In fact, many countries seem to be having a difficult time stabilizing their emission output. Even so, these graphs don't tell the whole story.

I think it is obvious that it is very difficult to create a portfolio of policies that reduce emissions while paying head to entrenched politicians and economic feasibility. It is so difficult that my entire thesis is based entirely on this issue. Yet, President Bush or no President Bush, the discussion on how to reduce emissions would still be filled with grandiose speeches of how much a lie global warming is or how those that want to reduce emissions are communists. It would still be filled with deal making and consensus policies. The policy levers used by the US may still not be "ideal" or those used by Europe. Behind the scenes, though, there is a much different narrative.

First, many European countries are taking the initiative to embrace alternative forms of energy. For instance, Germany is becoming the world capital of solar energy, even though it gets as much sun as say, Rochester, NY. Also, many of these countries will have an easier time to reduce emissions due to their smaller share of total global emissions. The US represents almost one quarter of global emissions - with those produce by just our passenger vehicles representing almost 5% themselves.

The focus on the US and its inaction is merited in that our path to a sustainable emissions level is much more difficult than most of these European countries. So, where does that leave us now?

So, what is it?

I heard a college kid explain to her father that "...sustainability is just another term for environmentalism", as I rode home on the Metro yesterday evening. The word "sustainability" has been bandied about here and there, especially since the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development dispersed the idea in 2002. But, it seems that lots of people still don't get it.
So, what is sustainability? Is it purely an environmental idea, as our student suggests? Have sustainable ways of life ever existed? Do any exist now? If we were to shift our current way of life to a sustainable one, who would win and who would lose?

Image source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On walking and chewing gum

For a number of reasons, environmental issues have enjoyed a central place in policy debates and decisions, elections, business, and the public consciousness for the last few years. With troubling economic changes afoot, particularly in the financial and housing sectors, will the environment again retire to obscurity? Should leaders and communities shift their focus away from environmental issues?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Tragedy of the Community: An Uprising

I remember a few summer ago, sitting at a table eating breakfast with a group of Ph.D's before a day of talks from science policy professionals. I was the only undergraduate student present and largely remained quiet, choosing to listen and learn. In this particular morning I was feeling a little spirited and began a discussion on where and how society needs to move forward. I presented my opinion that some sort of radical movement needs to occur in order to truly mitigate climate change, make the economy more just, and so forth. The looks I received were, at the time, terrifying to me. They were followed by a backlash of how naive I was, in much the same, stuffy, elite tone of voice that should be expected of upper echelon academics.

I'll never forget that moment. Fast forward to what has occurred since then and I wish I could see them all to smile and say, "told ya so."

It seems to me and a growing number of other (well respected) thinkers, that the United States is on the cusp of a new, progressive movement. This movement began at the grassroots level and manifested itself in the netroots. It continued at the local government level as voters looked past the superficial arguments (see previous post) and started voting for progressive candidates in both primary and general elections. More and more candidates and issues oriented groups have continued the discussion on corporate greed, climate change, an unjust economy, and universal health care. A wave of progressive thinkers are beginning to fill the halls of our policy making institutions.

Coupled with an unpopular war, financial meltdown, housing crisis, credit crunch, and increasingly negative natural disasters, many in the U.S. who previously were "unwilling" to act are saying enough. An uprising has been born.

The public trust in both the private and governmental sector are at record lows. Polls show wide agreement on the need for action on a suite of issues that have been unattended to for well over a decade. Jobs are being lost, retirement accounts purged, and debt is skyrocketing, so voters are say enough of the politics as usual - this year is different.

The tragedy of the community - where broad, yet important issues have gone largely untouched due to large swaths of the population being unwilling to act - is gaining attention. Comparable uprisings occurred in much the same manner in 1932 and 1980 - bringing about long lasting changes to both liberal and conservative ideologies, so this isn't a new phenomenon.

As the media solely focuses on the Presidential election, it is important to note that the U.S.'s citizens are speaking...albeit finally. So, while the result of the election is far from certain, there are greater forces at work here. Incumbent politicians aren't safe. Corporate bosses won't be given a free ride. Important issues will no longer be brushed aside for political gamesmanship. Bill McKibben pointed out the need to mobilize the communities to move the country and world forward and it looks like it may be coming soon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wolf pack

OK, that was a dirty trick. This has nothing to do with wolves and everything to do with packs. I simply wrote “wolf”, because they’re inherently cool, like ninjas, spy-planes, and most dinosaurs*.
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, under a rock, with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, you’re aware that those plastic bags that they hand out- well basically everywhere- clutter roadsides, streams, and parks, get stuck in trees, and fill landfills. You may have also heard that some cities and communities are so tired of dealing with them that they’re banning them from grocery stores and drugstores. IKEA and other retailers have begun charging for them, while others plan to discontinue using them altogether.
Be the solution. You, the clever Blue Island Almanack reader, can sidestep all of this bureaucratic mayhem, duck the recurring charges, and reduce the stream of trash moving into landfills and everywhere else by carrying your own bag.
Skirts, you’re way ahead of me on this one. Cats, fear not: I’m not talking about toting the ridiculous “European men’s carryall” of Seinfeld and Friends fame. Lots of vendors offer backpacks, rucksacks, knapsacks, and courier bags that are amply manly. (If you’re still a little worried, you can grow out your beard, talk loudly about contact sports, or smoke a Stogie or a pipe while you carry it.) You can compound your positive impacts by buying your reusable bag from a vendor that offers environmentally-friendly or fair-trade models.
In addition to carrying any carefully chosen odds-and-ends you buy while you’re out, this is a great way to bring along your other reusables: your Ka-Bar hobo set (or titanium spork, or lacquered chopsticks), your travel mug or water bottle, and your cloth napkin.
When you inevitably become the owner of a plastic bag or two, remember that they can be reused and recycled.

*Author's note: Leptoceratops is an example of a tragically uncool dinosaur.

Image sources:
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Simple Shoes

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I wrote some time ago about the beginnings of a green ministry at my church and promised that I’d address this again in the future. On Saturday, this green ministry quietly began, as I led a group of 17 volunteers on a seed collection in suburban Maryland. The ministry will officially kick-off in the spring, with a four-week Sunday school class on stewardship beginning Earth Day Sunday and with more events. We’ll focus on learning about and showing appreciation for our gifts and we’ll work to serve others.
For now, I’m finding kindred spirits in the congregation and building interest and buzz. I’m connecting the dots that working for a healthy environment is among Christians’ responsibilities: The Father gave His people this duty in Genesis. Beyond this, we should take care of a gift for which we are grateful, especially a gift in which the Maker has expressed such pride. Moving ahead to the teachings of Christ, we see a charge to care for the physical needs of others.
This weekend, we put this theology into practice. In two hours, we learned about watersheds and native trees, and served our community by collecting seeds that will soon become seedlings. These seedlings will grow to become trees, perhaps part of a new forest. They will make for cleaner streams and rivers, improve drinking-water quality, feed and shelter local wildlife, and support the men and women who earn a living harvesting crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Not bad for two hours spent with friends on a beautiful fall day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

just an observation

One year ago, on October 9, 2008, the New York Stock Exchange -- Dow Jones Industrial Average reached its all time high closing price of 14,164.53.

Today, the New York Stock Exchange closed at 9,447.11, a decline of 4,717.42 points in one year, or a loss of 33.3 percent – one third of its value over the past year!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Tragedy of the Community

The Blue Island Almanack represents an intersection of different views, disciplines, and issues. The central theme - Earth - may be the only common characteristic that unarguably binds us all. With this in mind, I provide the final paragraph of the book "Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben.

"It's extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know. But our current economies are changing the physical world in horrifying ways. It's our greatest challenge - the only real question of our time - to see whether we can transform those economies enough to prevent some damage and to help us cope with what we can't prevent. To see if we can manage to mobilize the wealth of our communities to make the transition tolerable, even sweet, instead of tragic."
It provides the dichotomy we all - each of the four authors and those that provide discussion - stumble around. On one hand, the actions of 6 billion people on Earth are harming the land we walk on, the air we breath, the food we eat, the water we drink, the economies that provide a standard of living, and the communities we grow in. On the other hand, the actions of 6 billion people on Earth provide some shelter to live in, clean air in some locations to breath, food to some, clean enough water to drink, economies that provide a good standard of living to some, and moderately stable communities to live in.

The tragedy of this dichotomy can be stated two fold. First, that the total community of 6 billion people, with combined wealth and effort, are incapable of fulfilling basic requirements of living to all its people. Or second, that the total community of 6 billion people, with combined wealth and effort, are unwilling of fulfilling basic requirements of living to all its people.

It is a sad story and while I did not necessarily set this post up as a debate, I hope that it provides a context for the discussions we have had or are going to have. When reading through the comments directed at whether there is an issue (e.g. climate change) or what to do about it (e.g. environment, economy, etc.), the arguments for inaction or action are normally the same.

A persons cultural values (e.g. racism), religious values (e.g. evangelical), economic standing (e.g. upper class), familial upbringing (e.g. broken home), political leanings (e.g. liberal), educational status (e.g. Professor), and living environment (e.g. inner city) all are given as fundamental reasons why or why not issues should be dealt with. It seems that, often times, we stray from the underpinning reasons for the things we, as communities, do (e.g. providing housing, jobs, food, health care, etc.). Empirically, it comes down to our capability or willingness to act, nothing less and nothing more.

On climate change, where do you fall? Poverty? Financial deregulation? Federal funding of basic research and development? Abortion? Gay marriage? Universal health care? Foreign aid?

Friday, October 3, 2008

...Which they ate with a runcible spoon

The setting: It was an evening meeting of my city’s environment commission to review zoning changes. This was one of those grueling three-hour meetings that you just have to power-through, but at least the city provided us with some dinner from a local restaurant.
The players: Environmental activists, all. Two LEED-certified architects. A former environmental engineer and an environmental lawyer. Two green business gurus, a GIS expert, and one E.R. Dunhill.
The problem: As I looked around the table I noticed that we were all using plastic forks and knives, the ubiquitous accoutrements of carry-out cuisine. By the end of the evening, we would generate a heap of plastic and Styrofoam waste. There was no need for this and it just didn’t seem right.

The solution: I’d love to be able to write that the next day I happened to be leaving on a backpacking trip, and just happened upon the thing. Or perhaps I could recount that it was handed down from heaven, like Jean d’Arc’s sword. Instead, the mundane truth (the one that fits with things like three-hour zoning meetings) is that the image of my Ka-Bar Hobo Set simply appeared in my mind the moment I saw the plastic fork problem. I’ve carried the thing to every dinner meeting we’ve had since, not to mention a number of other occasions that would have otherwise produced more plastic.
For those unfamiliar with this marvel of technology, it’s essentially a pocket knife that includes a detachable folding fork and spoon. Campers have used them for eons, and something like them has been standard issue in armies from here to Timbuktu. It’s portable, reusable, and many models will go right into your dishwasher. Most importantly, it doesn’t produce recurring plastic trash.
It’s also not alone in the pantheon of quirky cutlery. We all remember the humble spork from elementary school. As it happens, Brunton makes a titanium version for grown-up backpackers, but there’s no reason that it can't follow you to work or campus. A friend of mine who taught in Australia for a while also tells of the Splayd, which is simply a Down Under variation on this theme. (You don’t have to turn upside-down to use it.)
If you’re not sure about carrying some weird piece of cutlery, if you’re just not ready to help me pretend that this is normal, you can always bring a plain old fork or spoon (or both) with you. The goal here is simply to reduce waste, particularly plastics, which are made from petroleum and don’t biodegrade for many human lifetimes. There’s no need to produce all of this trash when there are easy alternatives. Be the solution.

Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill is aware that “runcible” is a nonsense word and does not constitute orthodox nomenclature for sporks, splayds, or other hybrid utensils. However, since “spork” and “splayd” aren’t exactly the King’s English, the author doesn’t really care.
Also, E.R. Dunhill’s city government now primarily uses disposable cutlery made from potato starch, which is compostable. More on that in the future.

Image sources:
E.R. Dunhill

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Longhorns and snakeheads and bees- Oh my

Over the weekend, I found a moment to peruse the Sant Ocean Hall online exhibit on the National Museum of Natural History website. I'm thinking ahead to some opportunities to get the little one to an exhibit that will catch his attention. I happened upon a page about the rapa whelk, a fairly recent exotic pest (some might say a menace) in the Chesapeake Bay region. It's been in various conservation groups' publications for a while.
What in the heck is a rapa whelk? It's a type of marine snail that has some nifty adaptations that allow it to spread itself around very quickly. Unfortunately, it's not from around here. It hails from Asia, almost certainly arrived in the bilge water of ships, preys on clams and oysters, and is a threat to the local marine snails. This presents yet another problem for the region's shellfish industry, not to mention the already badly degraded Chesapeake Bay ecology.
The rapa whelk is what's known as an invasive exotic species. This isn't a new idea. You've probably heard of many others, perhaps without realizing it: The fire ant, the Asian long-horned beetle, the gypsie moth, the zebra mussel, the European house sparrow, &c. This short list is merely the tip of the iceberg.
There are others that don't get peoples' hackles up, though: The honey bee, chickory, and the cattle egret, for instance. These pollinate many of our crops, make a proper cup of coffee for folks in New Orleans, and get rid of some of the fire ants that wouldn't have been here in the first place if we hadn't been so careless. (And, while we're at it, basically everything we eat comes from somewhere other than here.) These species are our friends, right?
I put some questions to the reader: Is it worth the effort to try to stop exotic species from invading new areas or to drive them out before they take hold? Is it appropriate to get rid of exotics that have been in an area for a long time? Does the usefulness or harm of the new species weigh on this? Should we hesitate to introduce an exotic crop? Should we simply accept that people will change the biosphere and make do with those changes?

Image source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Sant Ocean Hall