Friday, September 26, 2008

Hidden in plain sight

They’re less like National Treasure and more like The History Detectives. Their magic is less epic than cerebral, but they are subtly powerful. They are the fail-safe protection on our governments, enabling citizens to petition their officials for the redress of grievances. They are temples of secrets.
I’d venture to guess that the reader has likely passed their local or state archives or even a branch of the National Archives without realizing it. They are frequently crowded into basements, or are sometimes overshadowed by a single exhibit. Most people don’t have a good sense of what they are or what they’re for.
Archives answer questions. For those who work for the community, they are a means to understand complex issues involving our government or other institutions. Archives contain the reasons and the politics behind the establishment of a park or state forest boundary, document legal battles between citizens and government agencies, record what some parcel of land was really intended for, and chronicle how communities have succeeded or failed when faced with all manner of environmental problems. More generally, archives are home to records of the decisions an institution makes and to the evidence of the actions it takes. Sometimes they’re even a place to make a point.
Archives offer something to people who want to understand the past- their own, their family’s, and their community’s. They contain snapshots of the places people connect with the government- the ubiquitous census records, land patents and deeds, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the oft-overlooked prison records. (Everyone wants to discover that they are descended from royalty. It’s more likely that you’re related to horse thieves and other nogoodniks.) Sometimes, you can even find a picture. These records, together with the recollections of other family members, can help you to uncover where your family is really from, where and how they lived, and even paints a picture of what they wanted out of life. Archives build a human story.
In creating and answering questions with these collections, you’re doing the impossible. You’re creating something of expanding value without expending anything. This value has the potential to grow without limit as you learn more, make new connections, and share all of this with others.
Perhaps the best part about an archive is that you get to touch most if not all of their collections. While museum objects are safely sequestered under glass, archival documents are handed-over by the Hollinger box-full. You can hold in your hands Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sermons, a century-old photograph of the wild mountains that would become Shenandoah National Park, or your grandfather’s enlistment records, revealing that he lied about his age in order to join the Marine Corps. Some archives or manuscript collections contain maps of places you know, made before you knew them, or hand written notes about the way a classic book was originally going to end. Some contain sound recordings and moving pictures. They establish a tangible connection to history and make it relevant to the present.
Obviously, this tip is more complicated than carrying a bandana to reduce the number of paper towels you use or buying local beer to save energy. But, whether you need resources to make your community a better place or you want to put stock in something of enduring value, archives offer a way to be the solution.

Author's note: The people pictured above are committing a crime. They are highlighted here not because I agree with their sentiment (I don’t think there is a constitutional basis for their assertion), but because a friend alerted me that this demonstration was unfolding at the National Archives earlier this week. It seemed fitting to include it.

Image sources:
Anonymous photographer, undisclosed stack location, Washington, DC
Veterans for Peace
National Park Service

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Green Hour 101

Forget the research that shows that people heal faster after surgery when they spend time in the woods, and forget the articles that highlight the link between hours spent inside and childhood obesity, diabetes, and Attention Deficit Disorder. It's common sense that people, especially kids need to spend time outside. It's equally clear that as parents and children become increasingly scheduled into structured activities and spend more and more time in cars communting to those activities, we have a lot of pressures that keep us from spending time outside.
Beyond the health and psychological benefits, spending time outside builds an understanding of how natural systems and processes work. We have a better knowledge of the relationship between plants and insects, the way water conspires with sunlight and wind to create the local weather, and all of the ways people impact their local environments, if we see these things for ourselves.
Parents have some help with this. Largely in response to Richard Louv's 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, people all over the country have been working to address this problem through an initiative called The Green Hour. Obviously, encouraging our children to spend time outside and educating them about nature is a tall order. The Green Hour organization (and several others: National Wildlife Federation, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Take a Child Outside Week) offers some suggestions for how parents and children can experience nature together at their website.
Family walks, free play in a backyard, keeping an outdoor journal, sketchbook, or photoblog are simple ways to get started. You can check out books about bugs or birds from your local library or invest in a magnifying glass so that little ones can investigate lichens and starfish. If you don't know a tiger swallowtail from a mourning cloak, don't worry. You can learn about these things with your kids, and your own interest will encourage them.
There are opportunities for this all over the place. The local playground or the grounds of a public school or library may be bordered with grass and trees. There may be a thicket, a publicly-owned, unimproved no-mans-land, just down the street. Or, you may be fortunate enough to live close to a state or national park or a public beach.
As summer gives way to fall, this is a great time to start getting outside and observing the changes. It also happens to be Take a Child Outside Week (September 24-30) (Who knew?). Climb some trees, write about a preying mantis, watch the red-tailed hawks. Ask questions. Learn.
More to come.

Image sources: E.R. Dunhill

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Creeping Socialism

It would appear that the Bush administration is moving the country closer to socialism. One of the nations largest insurance companies has now been eighty percent nationalized. Since one of the insurance products of AIG is health insurance, it would appear that the Bush Administration is preparing us for socialized medical insurance.

Friday, September 19, 2008

more on that cup of joe

E.R. Dunhill has offered us a great post this morning on the complexities of choosing a container for one's coffee (and I offer a photo of my personal collection of handcrafted pottery coffee mugs, the average age of which is 15 years).

Even more perplexing than the container is coffee itself. There are many good health reasons to avoid caffeine or at least to reduce substantially the amount we ingest. We can sleep better, avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches and migraines, women can avoid breast pain from fibroadenomas, and many people can solve the problem of "overactive bladder" by just cutting out that troublesome caffeine. These and other reasons are why over a decade ago I went from being an eight cup a day coffee/caffeine addict, to being a two cup of decaf a week person -- because after all the smell and taste of coffee is just too, too good to give up completely.

Then there are the environmental and humanitarian issues. Coffee, unless you live in Hawaii, comes from great distances. Unlike winter blueberries from Argentina, of course, coffee can travel by ship rather than plane to its destination, but nonetheless long distance travel in petroleum powered transport is behind every cup of coffee we drink. Coffee has traditionally been grown in partial shade of existing forest, providing an incentive to protect tropical forests. But in recent years, more and more coffee is grown in full-sun, resulting in destruction of forest cover to expand coffee plantations.

There are other issues about human welfare in how coffee plantations are owned and managed. The blurb on my morning coffee says "Coffee grown on farms that meet rigorous social and environmental standards earns the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal. The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity, protect ecosystems and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices, and consumer behavior. Rainforest Alliance certification assures that forests and wildlife habitat are protected, local waterways are kept clean, and farm families have access to education and healthcare."

Certified coffee costs more, but if you make the change to drinking less for health reasons, you can afford to pay a little more for coffee that will be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And if you're not drinking on the run, you can invest in a handcrafted cup from which to drink your occasional cup, thus savoring the process even more.

Reduce, reuse, reuse, reuse, reuse, reuse… recycle

Disposable cups and bottles are everywhere. If you’re in a city or in the suburbs, you can probably find some within a few yards of where you’re reading this. If you live in the country, you doubtless know of a heap of them (along with tires, part of an AC window unit, a broken fishing pole, and a pair of rabbit-ears) at the end of a local road. You've no doubt heard or read the caution that paper cups contribute to cutting trees and that these cups decompose to produce methane in landfills. You've also probably heard that polystyrene foam cups are a bad idea, because they're made from petroleum, they leach toxic chemicals into beverages, they're hard to recycle, and they don't biodegrade for a very, very long time. (Dunkin Donuts: Styrofoam is no good for beverage containers. Welcome to 1989.) Reusable cups can be a good solution to reduce demand for forest products and petroleum, while reducing the solid waste stream.
But be careful. Studies about the life cycle energy costs of reusable cups tell us that this is not a casual investment. That steel cup requires a good deal of energy to manufacture and a little on an ongoing basis to stay clean. One study (whose authors escape me, but rest assured that when I read it, it sounded terribly authoritative) suggests that a reusable steel cup needs around 300 uses to beat the energy usage of an analogous supply of single-use disposible cups. Not until after that magic number, are you enjoying a net-energy savings as compared to paper. If you’re prone to losing things or if the vicissitudes of fashion mean you won’t be caught dead with that steel cup in a year, stick with paper.
Be the solution. In the long run, that reusable cup does prevent waste and save and energy. (It also saves water over paper cups, but keep in mind that it’s saving water at a papermill somewhere, while using water in your neighborhood. This is important if you live somewhere with water issues.) If you have the moxie to invest in a reusable steel cup, E.R. Dunhill suggests a few tips to help you reach that lofty (and terribly authoritative) 300th use:
-Buy a quality cup. Before you purchase, make sure it seems solidly put together. Avoid plastics, because many of them degrade faster than you’d think, especially when filled with hot liquids. Besides, someone is bound to find something else toxic (phthalates, bisphenol A, partially deweaponized poisonium) in whatever polymer you choose. It’s also easier to recycle steel when that cup reaches the end of its usable life span, than a cup that could be made of several different plastics. Pay particular attention to the lid, any places where parts are joined or sealed, and any moving parts. Avoid anything with a spring-loaded closure or with a cumbersome twist-apart lid (for cleaning). These parts seem to fail a lot, and if they break, it’s almost impossible to replace them.
-Buy a container with simple aesthetics. That stencil may be hip now, but know the perils of the insidious hip life cycle: “Hip” downgrades to “popular” to “overdone” to “tacky” – then it gets better for a moment with “ironic” – then back to “tacky” and finally “what were you thinking?”. You can’t count on the possible graduation to “retro” or “vintage”. Instead, be gently boring, like E.R. Dunhill or be prepared to carry your tacky cup with pride.
-Clean your cup regularly. If you decide that your cup has cooties, you’ll stop using it. If your cup contracts cooties because you didn’t clean it regularly, get rid of the cooties and get over it.
-Bring your container with you (or, explain beverage-telekinesis* to me). Keep in mind that you can fill what is sold as a coffee cup with something other than coffee. This revelation makes your reusable cup even more useful.
-Estimate when the cup will reach 300. (No, don’t make a spreadsheet. Just use rough numbers.) If you use it instead of paper twice per week (about 100 times/year), you’ll need to have it at least 3 years. When you arrive upon your magic day, have a celebratory café au lait and blueberry bagel.

*Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill will accept and, as appropriate, publicly display a diagram or other rendering of beverage-telekinesis. Stick-figures, crayons, children’s work, and other tom-foolery are strongly encouraged. Scan it or photograph it and post a link in the comments.
Also, the author will address the other Rs, "repair", "repurpose", and "rebuy" in future posts.

Image: E.R. Dunhill's ca 2002 Einstein Brothers double-walled steel travel mug, used more than 300 times (Courtesy of the author).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Drill pickle

More a matter of politics than government, the Congress is voting on a measure to relax the off-shore drilling ban in place since 1982. Under the measure before lawmakers (as of this morning), drilling would become legal at a distance of 50 miles from shore with the consent of adjacent states, or at 100 miles without such permission. The bill has already passed the House. I'm curious to see how the reader feels.
Is relaxing the drilling ban a good idea? Would lifting it altogether be better? Is the rate at which oil will be extracted too low to bother? Does the value of the oil outweigh the potential damage to fisheries and tourism? Do most people understand the issue? Should people in a landlocked state like Arizona be making this decision for people in a coastal state like Delaware?

Image source: Minerals Management Service

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Number 2: The persimmon

The air turned suddenly cool yesterday and the dogday harvest flies are beginning to pack up. Several days ago, I wrote about having seen school buses out and about. This of course means that we’re now standing with our toes over the edge of fall. As it turns out, it’s also a great time to get out and have fun while serving your community.
Many of us think of conservation efforts (and outdoor activities in general) as something people do in the spring and summer. After all, environmental groups, Boy Scouts, the Izaak Walton League, trail clubs and their ilk tend to mobilize people for Earth Day and in preparation of the high use seasons.
For anyone who lives in the Potomac River watershed fall is also an important time to work for clean drinking water, clean air, and healthy fisheries. Growing Native is a program run by the Potomac Conservancy that offers opportunities to collect native tree seeds for clean water. After adequate time to grow at a state nursery or volunteer grow-out station, seedlings are then planted in area parks, stream-sides, and other sensitive areas in need of more tree cover. Trees help to keep the water entering streams and rivers clean, while reducing air pollution. This in turn makes for more productive fisheries downstream.
Native trees provide a number of advantages. First, their specific water, soil, and light needs are fine-tuned to the area. This means that when planted in appropriate places, native trees often need less maintenance than hybrids or exotics. Second, native trees invite native animals and plants, which need trees for food, habitat, or cover. Encouraging native trees from a variety of sources rather than artificial hybrids or exotics also contributes to a robust genetic database of wild plants that prevents genetic bottle-necking.
If you live in the DC area or anywhere else in the Potomac River watershed, I encourage you to check out the Potomac Conservancy calendar to find a local seed collection event.

Image source: Virginia Tech Department of Forestry, after Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin

Saturday, September 13, 2008

while some folks play hockey...

No, that is not a reference to Governor Palin and her children, but rather a reference to the attempt to revive the controversial "hockey stick" depiction of average global temperatures by Dr. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Mann who first published his "hockey stick" curve in the peer reviewed journal Nature in 1998, published a new study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The new analysis purports to support the findings of a decade ago with additional temperature proxy data.

As it should be in the natural sciences, other climatologists are already examining the data series on which Mann has based this newest study, and asking tough questions about Mann's criteria for including and excluding proxy series, particularly wondering why some (such as a proxy series by Yamal in 2002) that have figured prominently in other research have been excluded from this study. Many kinds of proxy studies using ice cores, tree rings, deep-sea and lake sediment cores, and coral records are used to approximate temperature readings in many geographic regions around the world.

This legitimate and vociferous scientific debate focuses not on the current warming trend, which seems accepted by all participants, but on the degree and extent of warming during the "Medieval Warm Period" which affected Europe between approximately 1100 and 1300 C.E. (Common Era). How warm did it get, and how does that compare to today?

While scientists debate the interpretation of proxies, and how warm the "Medieval Warm Period" actually was, there is another kind of less ambiguous form of evidence from the period, that is of more interest to us who are not professional climatologists. Anthropologist Brian Fagan, has assembled information from written historical sources and archaeological excavations, that chronicle the social, economic and political impacts of the "Medieval Warm Period" around the world in his 2008 book The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Bloomsbury Press). The "great warming" referred to in the title is not the present one, but rather the one between 1100 and 1300.

Fagan looks not only at the agricultural and technological improvements in Europe, but also at the impact of drought in central Eurasia on the western push of the Mongols, the enterprising way in which Moorish traders made drought work for them and their camel caravans, and the impact of mega-drought on the native populations of the American southwest and California coast -- including the abandonment of Chaco Canyon pueblos, and much much more. A fascinating read for those interested in the way in which climate interacts with social structure and technology.

it's always something... Roseanne Rosannadana's grandma always said.

When it comes to making environmentally sound choices in your home, things can get quite complex.

Many people have chosen to go with new, energy efficient, low water use front loading washing machines in recent years, as a way to save money on electricity and water and be environmentally conscious. But it turns out that there's a major drawback to front loading washers and the solution uses more water and electricity.

Because the new front loading washers use less water, and are more tightly sealed, mold and mildew frequently grow in the inner tub, contributing to allergies and bad smells, some of which is transferred to the clothing. Using too much detergent or the wrong kind exacerbates the problem. Front loaders require low sudsing, high efficiency (HE) detergents, which are not as widely available nation wide as traditional detergents. [A quick review of the largest grocery store in my area found only one type of one brand specifically labeled HE].

The problem is prevalent enough to have spawned several class action lawsuits against LG, Whirlpool and Maytag.

An enterprising Minnesota appliance repairman Paul Flynn, has developed a solution "smelly washer" granules. But the catch (from an environmental and cost) perspective is that to be effective the product has to be used at the highest water level setting, and the hottest water temperature (Flynn recommends turning up your water heater to its highest "scalding" setting), at least once a week. While it is unclear from the website whether or not preventing mildew from forming can be done in conjunction with washing a load of clothes (assuming you have one that can be washed in scalding water), removing the problem after it has already occurred requires a machine empty of everything put water.

Suddenly the cost and environmental savings of a newer front loading washer begin to be eroded!

Friday, September 12, 2008


Sometimes being an environmentalist is tough. This conservation measure is not one of those times.
For those of us who like to have a beer at the backyard barbeque, Oktoberfest, while blogging (cheers, Jez), or while watching the game (as does the head of the Antioch College Booster Club), we can have a negative impact on the environment. Beer often travels a long way to get to you: from Germany or Ireland or Holland, or from the Czech Republic. Even some domestic beers (especially high-end, highbrow microbrews with wide distribution) may have a long and convoluted route to your door. In transit, energy is spent moving and to varying degrees, cooling the beer. And sometimes, particularly when we have lots of guests, we don’t recycle those bottles and cans.
Be the solution. If you live near a brew pub, you may have a particularly grand opportunity to reduce waste and use less energy, while keeping the beer flowing. Many small brewers have a variety of quality offerings, including seasonal brews and some unusual options that you can’t find just anywhere. That beer didn’t cross an ocean, but was made down the street, with filtered local water, likely from domestic, if not regional ingredients. You can pop in and fill up a reusable growler with freshly brewed draft beer. E.R. Dunhill happens to tank-up his growler with Czech Lager (2004 and 2007 Gold Medalist, Great American Beer Festival) at his local Gordon Biersch, which makes him miss Prague terribly.
Some friends suggested that a keg (or a half or quarter) is a similarly resource conservative option. (They could not be reached for further comment.) The keg produces less waste than bottles, but keep in mind that all of that heavy beer may still have been shipped a long way, whereas the brewpub suds were made on-site.
Regional or local brews can offer some quick and easy energy savings over long-distance labels, because again, the beer is simply traveling fewer miles between the brewery and your home. And, of course, you can periodically meet the gang at your local brew pub to avoid having to clean your growler.
With perqs like this, who wouldn’t want to be an environmentalist?

Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill encourages readers to “conserve” responsibly.
Also, the photo in this post in no way constitutes an endorsement of Baylor, Brown, or the U of Montana.

Image sources:
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
E.R. Dunhill

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall

The yellow buses have been back out in force for the last few weeks. This inspires me to lob some questions at the reader:
Is the prevailing model for public schools the right one? What can change? What should change? Who should decide what top educational priorities are? Are private schools better? Is home-schooling better? What about unschooling? Should students pay tuition?

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration; ARC Identifier: 541288

Friday, September 5, 2008

Urban buckaroo*

Earlier this summer, I wrote a little on the subject of actions we can take and changes we can make in our local communities and in our own lives to move toward sustainable communities. There’s ample talk on the blog-lines and in the media about energy policy, horizon technologies, innovative markets, and many other visionary solutions. I feel terribly clever when I write about these things, but I don’t know how to make any of them actually happen. Unfortunately, the collective-we would rather watch the house burn down than stop playing with matches. I can however talk about some simple choices just about anyone can make (starting today) to reduce their personal impact on the environment. I fear that the solution isn’t in the hands of business leaders, inventors, and politicians who will solve problems on our behalf. We have to be the solution.
I start with the evergreen issue of paper products. We use paper towels and napkins in droves- something like 3,000 tons per day in the US. And while my local Greenpeacers get the facts wrong, they’re on the right track about one thing: We’re cutting down wild forests for napkins, paper towels, and other disposable paper products. Aside from the more ethereal values, these forests provide clean water, clean air, habitat for game, and carbon sinks. Forests provide valuable services to people. Cutting them for napkins doesn’t seem like a good deal. Moreover, when we pitch our used paper towels, they take up lots of space in landfills, decomposing to produce methane. That’s it for the harangue.
Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to this. It’s easy to use fewer paper towels and napkins. Around the house, the alternatives couldn’t be easier. Invest in some kitchen towels and some sturdy but inexpensive cloth napkins. This isn’t exactly a visionary solution.
The real aha is this: When you’re at the office, on campus, running errands, or just out for fast food, bring a bandana. It’s a paper towel, it’s a napkin. Never again will you wash your hands and then groan because the paper towel dispenser is empty. If you happen to be in a gang, it’s good for that too. (You can showoff your “political gang” with red, blue, or green.)
You can buy bandanas anywhere in any style, often for well-under $2.00 each. It’s still possible to find some made in the USA (sorry to BIA readers in the Chinese textile industry), and if you’re cleverer than I am, you can probably find them made from organic cotton. After the first wash, you can generally toss them in with other laundry, so they don’t add to your water or energy bills.
I’ve brought one to the office every day for the last three years (and have had some of them much longer than that), and I have yet to wear one out or ruin any. This is a cheap, easy way to do something green. Be the solution.

*Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill is aware that one can also be a suburban, rural, campus, wilderness, or any number of other buckaroos, vaqueros, gauchos, gaúchos, or sabaneros (or -as, as appropriate). The author would also like to emphasize that it is not necessary to dress like a cowboy to carry a bandana.

Image sources:
British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range
Texas A&M University

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Gap Widens

From Prometheus,

Every year it gets harder, the rhetoric gets stronger, but the gap widens. When will there be action?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Georgia on my mind

In recent days, we’ve stopped hearing much, if anything about the pseudowar in Georgia. Before Juno MacGuff became center of the media universe, the news seemed to be talking about diplomacy, official actions and reactions of national governments, and troop movements. In the dozen or so articles I’ve read in various publications since the conflict escalated a month ago, I’ve seen little discussion of the petroleum industry and virtually no mention of the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom or the several oil and gas pipeline segments that cross Georgia. This has gotten a little better recently.
For readers unfamiliar with this contentious little piece of the world, Azerbaijan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia happen to be situated in such a way as to allow for the transport of oil and gas from the productive Caspian Sea region to the Black Sea, a major transportation hub to Europe and a petroleum source in its own right. For those who don’t know Caucasian geography nor have a map in front of them, this corridor snubs Russia and its massive gas industry that supplies much of Europe. (A primer on energy in the Causasus region, if you're so inclined)
With this in mind, I put some questions to the reader:
Why is Russia supporting the break-up of Georgia? Is Russian support for the break up of Georgia at all similar to the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein? Is Russian support for an independent South Ossetia materially different from US support for a semi-autonomous Kurdestan? Would anyone care what was going on in Georgia or Iraq, if these countries’ major industries were fruits, nuts, hand-woven rugs, and wool?

Image source: CIA World Factbook