Friday, December 9, 2011

Calling Out Their Lies

Every now and then a real hero comes along who refuses to cave in the face of unreasonable authority and sets an example for the rest of us who are too cowardly or indifferent to fight for justice. In this case, the hero of the hour is 21-year-old Abigail Borah, who publicly called out the lies of the United States government at a recent climate conference in Durban, South Africa.

As you may recall, in 1997 the United States government almost single handedly derailed the Kyoto Protocols, the United Nations climate agreement, that might have decreased the amount of carbon in the world's atmosphere. Since 1997, our government--whether led by Republicans or Democrats--has done all it could to dismiss the threat of climate changes, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

At the Durban conference, Todd Stern, the Obama administration's duplicitous negotiator, was doing his damnedest to show the world that the United States would continue to equivocate on this issue. That's when Ms. Borah, a representative of the International Youth Climate Movement, stood up and courageously interrupted the proceedings.

"I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America," Ms. Borah proclaimed, "because my negotiators cannot." She then went on to do what should have been done by the Obama administration representative and called for "a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty" on climate change.

Occupy Wall Street has revealed that, if there is to be any change for justice in the United States, it is going to have to come from young Americans who are willing to fight for those causes that the rest of us are not. Now this inspiring young student from Middleburg College has shown that the same is true in the international arena as well. The wrinkled generations--and I count myself, unfortunately, as part of this group--have failed the world and have condemned future generations to live on a planet that may very well prove inhospitable to them. It is our greed, selfishness, and apathy that has caused the world's problems; and now we need a new generation free of wrinkles to lead the world back on the right path.

Just as I'm proud of the young men and women of Occupy Wall Street for the work that they've been doing to highlight the problem of economic inequality, I am also damn proud of this young woman for speaking out loudly, clearly, and compassionately about the issue of climate change. It gives me some small hope for the future of our planet.

I strongly encourage you to listen to what she has to say:

Friday, November 25, 2011

A New Kind of Corporate Model

I hate Black Friday. I hate how it turns our holiday season into an excuse for conspicuous consumption. I hate the kind of people who would spend all night hanging out at some stupid mall in the hopes of getting a sale on some idiotic item that they probably didn't need anyway. But most of all I hate what the consumeristic mindset represented by this day has done to our planet--a planet, basically, that we are destroying in our never-ending lust to acquire more and more stuff.

That's why I was so delighted to wake up this morning and find this ad from Patagonia staring me right in the face.

Patagonia, in case you don't know, is a fairly high-end American outdoorsy clothing store, that probably has been doing fairly well during the recent economic crisis, because its clothing items appeal to the kinds of affluent individuals who can easily afford to buy them. They didn't need to run this ad, but they did it anyway, and, for that, I think they deserve no small amount of credit.

The "Don't Buy This Jacket" ad is part of Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative that encourages consumers not to buy things they don't need, to keep the items they buy for as long as possible, to repair them when they are are broken, and to recycle items that are hopelessly worn out, rather than just throwing them out.

Why is Patagonia going through all this bother when a campaign like this probably won't increase their sales in the short-term significantly? I'm going to give the company the benefit of the doubt and assume that, unlike at most American companies, the people who run Patagonia actually give a damn about the future of the planet. Maybe they have children or grandchildren and don't like the idea of bequeathing them a planet that will be much less hospitable than the one we are already inhabiting.

I'd also like to think that maybe Patagonia is on to something that other American and multinational companies just don't get--namely, that the pursuit of short-term profits at all costs is not a sustainable business model. In a time when many people, including those who make a decent living, can no longer afford to squander their resources on crap they really don't need, it may be time for companies to start producing items that are so well-made that they can be used year-in and year-out without replacement, and to charge prices that reflect the high-quality of this craftsmanship.

Ultimately, this sort of business model would be good for the consumer (less money spent over the long-haul), good for businesses (they still would make a decent profit from selling fewer items at a higher cost), and good for the planet (less crap in our landfills).

Of course, a consumption tax would also have the same benefits, but without insuring that the items produced would ultimately be of a high quality. Besides, no one in government today has balls to propose anything even remotely like a consumption tax. So until we have a third party that actually is beholden to the interests of the American public, we need to speak as consumers with every purchase that we make, rewarding businesses like Patagonia that try to do the right thing for the planet and punishing those that don't.

I don't need to buy a winter coat any time soon: the two I have are about 10 years old and doing just fine, thank you. But when I finally break down and decide to buy a new coat, you can be well-assured that I will check out what Patagonia has to offer...specifically because of this campaign.

Perhaps you should consider doing the same.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ultimate Invasive Species

Imagine a species that is so fecund that it spreads to every habitable corner of its ecosystem. Then imagine that same species as it voraciously consumes all of the natural resources within its own ecosystem to the point where many of these resources are in danger of immanent collapse.

Then go one step further: imagine this same species—the ultimate carnivore—as it preys on all the other inhabitants of its ecosystem, threatening the very extinction of many of these species.

If such a predator was, let’s say, the Asian carp, there would be no end to discussion about how to limit its spread and manage the harm that it is causing to the Mississippi and potentially to the Great Lakes region. In fact, we would declare war on the Asian carp, calling it an invasive species, and investing as many resources as necessary to reducing its numbers. We’d have a national program of carp birth control with the sole aim of correcting some of the damage that this insidious predator has already inflicted upon the fragile ecosystem of the Mississippi.

In fact, we already have such a plan to deal with the Asian carp, and there is very little outcry about it, because we all recognize this creature for what it is—an obnoxious invasive predator that must be stopped at all costs.

But there’s another invasive species that’s even more obnoxious than the Asian carp, because it threatens, not just a specific habitat, but the continued existence of all life on this planet. If you haven’t guessed by now, the species that I’m talking about is none other than our own human species.

And our species has just reached a dubious milestone. This week the United Nations estimates that humans will reach the seven billion mark. And what does this landmark mean for the planet, you might ask? As the Center for Biological Diversity writes, "The human race is not only the most populous large mammal on Earth but the most populous large mammal that has ever existed. Providing for the needs and wants of this many people — especially those in high-consumption, developed countries — has pushed homo sapiens to absorb 50 percent of the planet’s freshwater and develop 50 percent of its landmass. As a result, other species are running out of places to live.”

Human population in fact has doubled during the last 50 years, leaping from three billion in 1950 to six billion today. The problem gets even worse when one considers that by the end of the century, the human race is predicted to add two billion more members to it’s ranks. That’s nine billion people on a planet that can barely sustain the seven billion inhabitants we already have.

And what does this projection mean for the future of our planet? It means more ecological stress, more deforestation, more mass species extinctions, more global warming, more pollution, more disease, and more famine. Life
, in short, by the end of this century, will not only be far less habitable for other species, it will become far less hospitable for our own as well. It’s already estimated that approximately 900 million people around the world experience food insecurity or chronic malnourishment. That number will only get worse as our human population increases.

So what do we do to solve this problem—if, indeed, it can be solved at all at this point? Economic development and the education of women have already done a considerable amount to reduce population rates in the developed world, and there’s some evidence that programs like these are having some positive effects in the developing world as well. But that’s simply not good enough at this point.

Along with economic development and education, therefore, we also need a global population control program that includes access to birth control and support services for women around the world. And more than that, we need a cultural shift whereby we begin to see the wanton procreation of our species as the ultimate sin.

“More trees, fewer people,” should be our new mantra. And those who opt not to have children at all, for whatever, reason, should be celebrated and become role models for the rest of us. We might even consider giving tax breaks to those noble souls who are helping to solve this problem of overpopulation by refraining from spawning offspring—gays and lesbians, clergy, and young couples who simply opt not to have kids.

This may sound a bit extreme, but is it any more extreme than simply standing by while our species destroys what is left of the planet? Is it any more extreme than condemning future generations to a continually declining level of existence in which there will likely be global wars fought to control things we now take for granted, like water?

The Center for Biological Diversity is trying to do its part through a condom campaign aimed at making people aware of the ultimate costs of our profligate population growth. I think this campaign should be supported morally and economically. The Pope may not approve of this kind of campaign, but, in fact, he’s already doing his part at population control. Now, the rest of us need to start doing ours.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

If You Eat Their Food, It Will Kill You!

Apparently, Big Ag is unhappy with the way it's being portrayed in the media. It seems that the Egg Board, the National Milk Producers Federation, and the National Pork Board have started a new public relations campaign, called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, to convince Americans that their nasty, animal and planet-killing food is safe to eat.

Don't believe a word they say. All you have to do is watch 15 minutes of the fabulous film, Food Inc., to know that these gross bastards couldn't give a rat's ass about food safety, animal welfare, or the future of the planet. All they care about is their fat, filthy profits and will do anything to maximize them. If children happen to die as a result of eating the crap that corporate farms and feedlots produce, so be. We wouldn't want anything to stand in the way of share-holders profits, now would we?

Watch Food Inc., read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Inform yourself about what the greedy multinational corporations are doing to our food supply. And then take steps to change your own eating patterns by going vegetarian, eating local and (ideally) organic, and checking out your local farmers markets. It may cost you a bit more to eat each week, but the life of your health is certainly worth it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Consumerism

Here's a video I found of my old pal, Dr. Mike Russo, Director of the Molloy College Center for Social and Ethical Concerns, talking about the American consumerist mentality:



Russo, of course, is correct in his identification of consumerism as a moral evil, but he's probably a bit too optimistic about voluntary simplicity as the solution to this problem. I honestly don't think that we Americans will ever get over our lust to consume....Not until the inevitable economic collapse occurs, that is!

Our So-Called Environmental President

Obama with EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson

Yesterday, the Obama Administration, in a deluded effort to appease conservatives and business interests, rejected a well-considered proposal from the E.P.A. to reduce emissions from smog polluting chemicals. The E.P.A, following the recommendations of it's scientific advisers, had proposed lowering the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 60-70 parts per billion. Ozone at its current levels has been linked with many major health care problems, including heart disease, asthma, and lung disorders. But who cares if small children can't breathe any more in the inner city without the help of inhalers...at least general Electric will be happy!

This latest decision comes on the heals of several others from the Obama administration that make you wonder how committed this so-called environmental President is to the environment. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has:

1) given Royal Dutch Shell the approval to drill for oil in the Arctic.
2) approved a 1,700 mile pipeline from Alberta to Texas.
3) has approved even more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, despite the fact that cleanup from the last oil spill there has not even been completed.

This sort of pandering to conservatives is foolish for two reasons: First, Republicans will never give Obama credit for anything, so the attempt to appease them by weakening environmental rules is a waste of time. And second, Obama stands a very good chance of alienating his own base, which is made up of people who strongly support much stricter environmental standards.

Perhaps it's time for the Green Party to run another candidate for President in 2012. The Green Party in Germany has shown that it can win elections when it runs candidates who have consistent and firm positions on environmental issues. Now, Americans, according to recent polls, feel as strongly about environmental protections as Germans do. So let's at least give them a candidate for President in 2012 who is really committed to reducing carbon emissions, investing in alternative energy sources, cleaning up our air and water, and ending the strangle-hold that Big Oil and Big Gas have over our economy. That candidate, sadly, doesn't appear to be Barack Obama.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lesson From Irene

The approach of Hurricane Irene, which is supposed to hit the New York area in less than 12 hours, has led to an unprecedented evacuation of New Yorkers from low-lying shore areas. If the storm causes the kind of damage that experts are predicting, it could cause more than 500 million dollars in damages to homes located in oceanfront communities.

Now all of us who live on Long Island knew that it was only a matter of time before the next big one hit our area. And yet in the past forty years the number of homes built on the South Shore has doubled. I’ll pass over the fact that these homes are being built on one of nature’s most fragile ecosystem, because quiet frankly this fact is obviously lost on the kind of people who feel compelled to live on the beach. I’ll also pass over the fact that, in many cases, the often opulent homes of selfish individuals who live on beaches or barrier islands only continue to exist at all because of the millions of dollars that taxpayers like myself are contributing for “beach front restoration” (aka, keeping rich idiot’s homes from washing away into the sea).

The question now is what becomes of the homes that are damaged or destroyed as a result of this hurricane? Perhaps it’s time to realize that the very idea that people can “own” a piece of the shoreline is foolish and na├»ve. Shore erosion—particularly on barrier islands—is a fact of nature, and can’t be stopped no matter how many tons of sand the Army Corps of Engineers plops down. If climatologists predictions are true—and there’s no reason for me to think they’re not—then global warming trends will probably lead to even more severe hurricanes in the future along the East Coast, and will further accelerate beach erosion. These beachfront homes, then, will inevitably be destroyed by nature no matter what we do or how much money we spend to protect them.

So why exactly are we protecting them? Perhaps it is time to heed the warnings of Mother Nature and allow the entire Atlantic shoreline to be returned to its natural state—or at least as much as is possible at this point. The worst thing we could do is to allow people to rebuild in costal areas after their homes have been destroyed. That’s just prolonging the inevitable.

I know that there are those who would argue that it is unfair to make people abandon the wonderful lives that they have created for themselves in beachfront communities. My argument would be that they shouldn’t have been living there in the first place. Anyone with the smallest shred of common sense knows that it is foolish to build a palace on shifting sand. If people choose to ignore this time-tested proverb, then that is entirely their problem. The rest of us certainly shouldn’t be forced to subsidize their foolishness.

I can imagine a time when, after all the ugly seaside mcmansions and mcbungalos have been torn down, we will be left with 2,069 miles of reclaimed coastline, running all the way from Maine to Florida. People will be able to swim, bask in the sun, play in the sand, but they won’t ever again be allowed to build on our beaches. And this, I believe, is a dream that is well worth fighting for.

Friday, August 19, 2011

One Small Step for the Planet: Part 1

Planting a Zoyzia Lawn

As I mentioned
in my previous post, one simple thing that we can all do to live more sustainably is to replace a water-guzzling, pesticide-dependent lawn with a much more earth-friendly zoysia lawn. Zoysia is a creeping grass originally from Asia that is extremely heat-resistant, and therefore needs much less watering in the summer than other types of grass; zoyzia also creates a thick mat of grass that crowds out weeds, so you don't have to use pesticides or much fertilizer on it once it is established. The only downside about zoyzia is that it goes dormant during the coldest months of winter in the north and turns brown. The upside is that, after a few years, you get a virtually indestructible lawn that is relatively care-free. The hotter it gets, the better zoysia likes it. It's a win-win: you get a plush green lawn that is the envy of all your neighbors and at the same time you are doing something fabulous for the environment.

To begin transforming your lawn into a zoysia lawn, the first thing you need to do is get some plugs to transplant. You can either "borrow" these from a neighbor's lawn (just cut a small two inch circle of sod from the lawn; it will fill back in in no time) or buy some sod. I get mine from Zoysia Farm Nursery in Maryland. I don't know if their sod is better or worse than any other nursery's, but it seems to do the trick for me. Once the sod comes, all you need to do is cut it into 2 or 3 inch plugs. I used to use a scissor to do this, but an old garden knife seems to work even easier for me. When you have your plug, dig a hole in the ground, insert the plug with a bit of grass sticking out of the ground (this is important!), and give it a firm press so that the roots make contact with the soil. If you water properly, your plugs will turn green in a few weeks and will slowly begin to take over your lawn. That's really all there is to it.It takes a few years for zoysia grass to crowd out Kentucky blue grass, fescues, perennial rye grass, and other sort of mamby-pamb types of grass. But once it's established, you are left with a lawn that requires very little care. And even better, it is a renewal resource: you can take plugs or springs from your existing lawn and use them else where or give them to envious neighbors!

Planting a zoysia lawn may not win you any environment awards, but it's one small step that all of us can take to try to live more sustainably. I can already see a difference with the zoysia lawn that I've established: I use absolutely no pesticides on it, almost no fertilizer, and do a fraction of the watering that I used to.

Maybe I do deserve that environmental award, after all!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lawn Dilemma

I live in surburban Long Island, and that basically means that I am expected to maintain my lawn according to the exacting standards of my meticulous neighbors--a lawn, in other words, that is plush, green, and free of unsightly weeds and crabgrass. And that is no small feat when temperatures on the Island reach 100 degrees in July and August as they are often known to do. When that happens my beautiful grass dies, but ugly weeds and crabgrass seem to thrive. It's almost as though they're mocking me by grown to epic heights, while the grass that I had struggled so hard to establish in June withers away.

Perhaps there's not much we can do about dead lawn patches in the heat of summer (other than keeping the sprinkler on all the time, which is no real solution), but don't pesticides at least off us the opportunity to get back at those ungodly weeds? Pesticides are indeed an easy way to ensure a weed free lawn, but at a huge ecological cost. They leach into our groundwater, kill helpful organisims in the soil, and may be responsible for the astronomical rates of breast cancer in places like Long Island.

So does this mean that we basically have to give up on a weed-free lawn. Not exactly. Ed Thompson, founder of the Molloy College Sustainability Institute, believes that the same results can be achieved without having to poison ourselves. Here's what he has to say:




Of course, there are other viable options as well. A friend of my, Kathy Reba, has been trying for years to convince me to get rid of my lawn entirely. "Why don't you just plant perennials in place of a lawn?" she is always suggesting. While this might be an option in some places, my neighbors in Nassau County might look askew at such a development.

A better option for me--and something I've been working on for the past two years--is to replace my regular lawn with a zoysia lawn, which requires much less water and care. A zoysia lawn also stands up much better than traditional lawns to the punishing heat of summer, and is so dense a turf that no pesticides are usually needed on it.

But more on the zoysia issue later....

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Story of Stuff


According to the EPA, Americans generate 236 million tons of garbage each year. 164 million tons of garbage eventually end up in landfills, including...

26,800,000 tons of food
8,550,000 tons of furniture and furnishings
6,330,000 tons of clothing and footwear
5,190,000 tons of glass beer and soda bottles
4,200,000 tons of plastic wrap and bags
3,650,000 tons of junk mail
3,470,000 tons of diapers
3,160,000 tons of office paper
3,070,000 tons of tires
2,820,000 tons of carpets and rugs
2,230,000 tons of newspapers
2,060,000 tons of appliances
1,520,000 tons of magazines
1,170,000 tons of wine and liquor bottles
970,000 tons of paper plates and cups
840,000 tons of books
830,000 tons of beer and soda cans
780,000 tons of towels, sheets, and pillowcases
540,000 tons of telephone directories
450,000 tons of milk cartons
160,000 tons of lead-acid (car) batteries

Fortunately
for the rest of us, there is someone out there who is tackling the problem of our human waste in a way that is both informative and engaging. This modern visionary is Annie Leonard, who several years ago began to do an extensive study of what happens to all the stuff we buy and then dispose of. The results of this personal odyssey were captured by Leonard in her animated documentary, The Story of Stuff.

Now Leonard has gone one step further by taking the basic ideas that she developed in her film and writing one of the most illuminating books that I have read in recent years--also entitled The Story of Stuff. What separates Leonard from many other environmental activists is that she never seems to have an ax to grind. Leonard simply lays out the steps involved in the production and disposal of our human stuff and explains in an objective and fairly dispassionate way what the consequences of this system are.

Leonard's documentary and book should be considered required reading for anyone who is concerned about the future of our planet.....Just be sure to get the book from your public library instead of buying it, so you don't unintentionally commit eco-hypocrisy!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Problem with Fluorescent Bulbs


According to the EPA, "If every American home replaced just one light bulb with a [compact fluorescent bulb], we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars." Fluorescent bulbs also use about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer.

Over the past two years, I have begun to replace all of the standard light bulbs in my house with fluorescent bulbs. I like to think that this simple change is as good for the planet as it is good for my wallet. There's no doubt that I'm probably saving some money over the long run by using fluorescents, even though they cost about about 10 times the amount of standard bulbs.

My problem with fluorescent bulbs is that they contain on average about 20 milligrams of mercury. That's enough mercury to contaminate 20 million acres of water. If this mercury somehow ends up in the food chain, it can cause severve damage to the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver.

None of this would matter if people using fluorescent bulbs actually recycled them, but in fact only about 25% of the 700 million florescent bulbs being sold each year are recycled by consumers. The rest go into the garbage and then into landfills, where they have the potential to wreak havoc on the environment and on human health.

My question: are fluorescent bulbs really all they are hyped-up to be? Sure they save energy, but at what ecological cost?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Less War, More Cool Eco Stuff

By several estimates, our military adventures in Iraq and Afganistan will cost the American tax payer 1.3 trillion dollars by the end of 2011. It strikes me that this money could probably be put to much better use than extirminating human life.

There is no end to the good that intelligent and resourceful people could accomplish if all the money that we are currently squandering in Iraq and Afganistan were suddenly used to solve some of the grave social, enocomic and enviromental problems currently plaguing our society. Imagine if all that money we are spending in Iraq was used instead to develop alternative renewable sources of energy that could reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Or if these funds were used to develop fuel cell technology for automobiles. Or if the trillion dollars was used to provide a finanacial incentive for families to install solar paneling on their homes. Imagine the enormous good that could come from using the precious dollars of the American taxpayers for programs that might actually benefit themselves and their children.

But this is mere speculation. The military industrial complex has always been looking for ways to get the taxpayer to foot the bill for monstrous weapons that can more efficently kill those who are unable to protect themselves against us. And there is nobody in our government who is so much as wispering about this nefarious connection between bloated corporate profits and our need for endless war.

But just in case you were wondering what specifically could be accomplished if the war in Iraq was suddenly to end tomorrow, you may want to check out the fabulous program developed by the National Priorities Program. You will probably cry when you see the possibilities that will never materialize thanks to this war, but perhaps, at least, your tears may ultimately prove redemptive.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

No Animals Died to Make This Breakfast

Who says that you need to kill a cow, butcher a pig, or abuse a chicken to have a healthy and filling breakfast? Forget the bacon and eggs. There are tons of wonderful breakfasts that you can eat if you follow a vegan diet. Here are just a few of the options:

Muesli -- a really healthy breakfast meal that can be sweetened using assorted dried fruits. I also throw in some almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and ground flax seed to boost the amount of healthy fats and protein.

Homemade Granola -- ususally not as healthy as muslie, because of all the fat and sugar needed to get the oats to stick together, but certainly better than bacon and eggs -- recipe

Multigrain Pancakes -- recipe

Tofu Scramble -- like scrambled eggs, but with...tofu! ChooseVeg has a great video that shows you how to make this great meal.

Vegan French Toast -- You can make traditional or banana vegan french toast, and it tastes just as good without the milk and eggs.

Barley or Wheatberry Porridge. It was a good enough breakfast for folks in the Middle Ages, so it should do the trick for you as well. Just cook the barley or wheat berries according to the instructions on the packet. During the last five minutes of cooking add soymilk, honey (not technically vegan, I know), cinnamon, raisins or other dried fruits and crushed walnuts/almonds.

Eating a healthy breakfast consisting of whole grains, some protein (e.g., tofu or soy milk) and some healthy fats (e.g., nuts or seeds) is a great way to start off your day and give you the energy you need to be productive. Any of the breakfasts described above will be a whole-lot healthier for you than some damned McMuffin, omelettes, or any of the other animal-based breakfasts that many American's eat. You'll be helping your heart and waistline at the same time you are saving the lives of animals. A win-win situation for all involved--except for factory farmers, that is).

For a more extensive list of vegan breakfast options check out ChooseVeg.com's helpful website.

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