Monday, April 28, 2008

Please don’t throw away your incandescent bulbs

I recently heard a well-meaning and very enthusiastic college student advise passersby to “Throw away those old bulbs! CFLs are good for the planet!” She made this declaration from behind a table containing a display about bulbs and she handed out coupons to encourage people to make the switch. I’ve read and heard this advice before, but I caution readers to stay their hands and keep their incandescent bulbs.
If you’re like most people, you don’t buy light bulbs one at a time. You probably have a few sitting in a closet somewhere, waiting to replace burned-out bulbs as they expire. You also likely have a bunch of them in sockets around your home. This collection of incandescent bulbs is full of embodied energy, a kind environmental sunk-cost.
Embodied energy exists in everything that has already been manufactured or built- houses, cars, televisions, bicycles, &c, and obviously, incandescent light bulbs. Energy was spent in extracting all of the raw materials, in processing those into the inputs that make the product, in actually manufacturing the product, and in getting it from the place of manufacture to the consumer, likely with some stops along the way. Like time, there’s no way to get energy back, once it’s been spent.
Since those incandescent bulbs, whether in the light socket or in the recycling bin, have already spent a considerable amount of energy, it’s an unnecessary waste of energy to simply pitch them. Instead, let them live out their short lives, and replace them with something better when they go out.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Climate Change -- not just a liberal issue

The new WE coalition, is highlighting the non-partisan nature of dealing with climate change in a new series of television spots and articles on-line. The most recent spot features both Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich urging Americans to take action to combat climate change.

The WE site has a very interesting detailed article about Gingrich, his most recent book Contract with Earth, and his involvement with environmental issues. It's worth a read.

Friday, April 11, 2008

An iconic image of rural poverty

This photo was taken by Dorothea Lange on April 11, 1940. The caption reads "Edison, Kern County, California. Young migratory mother, originally from Texas. On the day before the photograph was made she and her husband traveled 35 miles each way to pick peas. They worked 5 hours each and together earned $2.25. They have two young children... Live in auto camp. " The photo is one of a series taken for an agricultural "Community Stability and Instability" study by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Taken by Dorothea Lange and Irving Rusinow, the photographs are a record of pre-World War II rural life and social institutions. Of particular interests are images of African Americans in Alabama and Georgia and migrant laborers hired to work in cotton fields in Arizona and California.

Image and text source: National Archives and Records Administration; ARC Identifier 521780

Friday, April 4, 2008


Can democracy work as a system of government in every culture or every country? Do democratic countries have a responsibility to encourage democratization, or to subvert nondemocratic governments? Should democracies allow monarchies, theocracies, and other autocratic or otherwise repressive regimes to continue without interference when it’s in our economic best-interest? Can the ideal of individual rights and self-determination be upheld if democracy is foisted upon a state that has never wanted it?

Image source: Composite of images in CIA World Factbook

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Wild bread

As readers of the bygone Influence Machine may recall, I’m fond of baking. Since the birth of my son three weeks ago, I’ve taken a renewed interest in this pursuit (though my wife is likely to call it an obsession). Baking seems a particularly domestic, civilized thing to do: Tolkien used Gollum’s aversion to bread as a symbol of his loss of humanity, and in The Stolen Child, a wild little puck uses a confession about stolen biscuits to cement his “return” to home and family. A home full of the scents of bread rising and baking feels like a good place for a child to start his life.
Somehow, my efforts to bake a proper sourdough have been fruitless. (Although, I have gotten great results with Mark Bittman’s semi-sourdough recipe, as my picture of sourdough baguette with Nutella attests.) I wondered over and over why this has been. Then, it came to me. Pure sourdough rises (and is distinctively sour) because there’s no packaged yeast or other leaveners added. Instead, all of the leavening comes from wild-caught bacteria and yeast. But, the use of vintage wood floors instead of carpet in most of my house and my fastidious (OK, Howard Hughes-esque) use of HEPA filters in my home’s air handler mean that there isn’t much outside dust to be found. The out-of-doors isn’t much help right now, anyway: The air is cold and dry, and I’ve raked-up all of the leaves that would otherwise make a productive home for all manner of bacteria and fungi. And, of course, this time of year my house is fairly cool. As in so many other areas of life, the natural environment plays a central role, and I simply wasn’t recognizing where it fits-in.
Everything that people do is played-out in the setting of the environment. Obviously, all of the raw material that goes into everything from cheeseburgers to apartment buildings must either be grown or mined, and all of the waste produced in making, using, and disposing of those things must go somewhere. Beyond this, natural systems provide a wealth of critically important services that are largely invisible. Plants and blue-green algae ingest tons of carbon dioxide and produce tons of oxygen everyday. Upland forests and streamside thickets cleanse runoff and support healthy populations of fish and other animals. Soil bacteria turn noxious waste into valuable nutrients. Missing the circular connections between environment and economy can have larger consequences than lackluster bread. Think Dust Bowl, the Maya, and Centralia, Pennsylvania.
I begin to see again that I need to pay better attention.

Image source: E.R. Dunhill