bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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Garbology by Edward Humes

I have been doing two completely incompatible things for the last month.  I have been packing up all my stuff and moving it into storage.  And I’ve been reading about American’s love affair with garbage, waste and consumerism in Garbology by Edward Humes.  I should start by saying that I have a lot of stuff and that I love shopping.  But I have come to the realization that short term retail therapy does not translate to long term happiness.  That’s not to say I’ll never do retail therapy again.  I’m sure I will.  It just means that I’m trying to be more aware of what I buy, how useful it is, and how long it’s likely to take before I put it in the garbage.  Waste as a vain attempt to be happier doesn’t make sense.

Edward Humes’ book is great.  He clearly feels that our garbage system and our consumer culture are problems that need solutions, but a lot of the book talks about people who are working to find those solutions rather than blaming anyone for the system as it is.  I am like most Americans who don’t really think about their trash beyond which day I need to put the bin on the curb.  I try to recycle as much as I can.  But I was aware that landfills are where most of our garbage ends up.  Considering it’s a daily part of my life, that’s not knowing much.  On average, according to Edward Humes, each American will generate about 102 tons of trash.  I know that a ton is big and so 102 tons is huge, but I found it hard to conceptualize.  So here’s a way to think about it:

elephant and car This elephant weights 6 tons.  So we produce trash the weight (not the size) of 17 of those elephants.  You can imagine, considering the weight of paper and thin plastic, that the actual size of all of that trash is much, much larger than 17 elephants.

There is a lot I want to say about trash based on Humes’ book, but I don’t want to bore you and I don’t want to lecture you.  So I’m going to make a few, succinct points that I hope will keep you thinking about your trash, how much it is, and where it ends up.

 

A lot of trash, and especially plastic, ends up in the ocean.  The biggest spot is in the Pacific and most people have heard about that.  What we haven’t heard is that plastic breaks down into tiny little pieces that are now all over the ocean and the beaches of the world.  Pieces tiny enough for even the smallest fish to ingest.

While we usually feel like we’re doing a good thing when we recycle, most recycled goods spend a lot of energy being moved from place to place to a recycling center which uses energy to recycle – mostly are downcycled into materials of lower value that can’t be recycled again.

Trash in landfills that can decompose, doesn’t.  Food, yard waste, and things that I don’t feel bad about throwing in the trash, actually last a long time in a landfill.  They might decompose if exposed to sun and wind, but trapped in the middle of tons of trash, they last decades.

 

I’m going to follow up this post with one that includes suggestions from the book, and a few from me, about how to create less waste and maybe put a dent in your 102-ton legacy.

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Is Suburbia Sustainable?

In my continuing love affair with my library, I recently took out a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.  I did not read the entire book because it goes into technical details about urban design and planning.  It did make me think and made me want to share what I’ve been thinking about.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston on a street with no sidewalk but plenty of trees.  Most of what they talk about directly relates to my home town.  I rarely used public transportation except on the rare occasions I went into Boston – which required a drive to the closest subway station.  There is a bus that goes from that subway station, passes not too far from the house and continues to the center of town.  I knew no one who used it.  It is a town build around people who have children, yards for them to play in, and drive everywhere.  I am sure the carbon footprint of the average resident is high.  My parents’ neighborhood used to be farmland and was built into a neighborhood after WWII, a time when many similar suburbs were being constructed.  Not much has changed, except some additions to houses.  Some new families have moved in, but many of the residents are ‘aging in place’ including my parents.  I now live in Cambridge, but work at my old high school.  Not much seems to have changed for the high schoolers growing up there now.  They can’t wait to get their license and partly depend on each other to drive them around.  This dependence on cars, or at least gasoline cars, is not sustainable if we want to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.

There are other ways in which the culture of suburbs doesn’t make as much sense as it used to.  For a long time, each generation was expected to be more educated, get a better job, earn a higher wage, live in a bigger house.  This was the American dream.  It doesn’t apply as well as it used to.  More and more households don’t involve 2 parents, 2.5 children, a dog and a picket fence.  Single parents, couples with no children and various alternative families are more and more common.  Bigger houses surrounded by yards and swing sets may not be what they need.  Wages are increasing, but the lower wage jobs aren’t increasing as fast as the higher wage jobs creating greater income disparity and leaving the poor behind.  Living near where you work may be more important to these people, as well as having easy (and no car necessary) access to shopping centers.  This would mean having housing options for janitors, secretaries, CEOs and managers with or without families all in the same area.  That’s not really how suburbs were built, but maybe it’s time to change.

Changing suburbs could decrease our reliance on cars.  Heating smaller houses could help cut our fossil fuel consumption.  Consolidating workplaces, shopping centers, cutting down on the amount of acres per house could allow us to have bigger parks and wooded areas.  It’s possible to imagine a greener, healthier, happy kind of town.  Change, however, is inevitably slow, painful and difficult.  People don’t like the idea of altering their way of life or the way of life they have dreamed of for their children.  But it’s something to think about.


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The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding

I finally finished The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding although it took me a long time.  I’m not sure why it took me so long.  It’s a very interesting book with a lot to say about the impact of climate change on other aspects of our world.  It’s subtitle is Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.

I have never really understood economics.  I felt like I was beginning to by listening more to NPR, especially Marketplace.  One of the things they always talk about is how many jobs have been added each month.  I always wondered where those jobs were coming from and if they could possibly be permanent jobs.  How many more things are there for people to do that aren’t being done?  It turns out this is a good question and not purely economic ignorance on my part.  Paul Gilding says that to get as close as possible to zero unemployment people need to work less so that more people can work.  This will only work if our economy is no longer based on growth – on everyone having more money to spend it on more things.  This is a growth economy.

Paul Gilding argues that our economy, a growth economy, cannot be sustainable.  The Earth and its resources are finite.  The idea that everyone should earn more and spend more and have more things doesn’t work.  He says we need – and are going to be forced to switch to – a sustainable economy.  The good news is that there is evidence that the richer you are – and the more stuff you have – doesn’t make you happier.  So quality of life may actually improve in a sustainable economy rather than a growth economy.  I found this hard to accept at first.  I think more money will make me happier, but apparently that’s because I haven’t reached the income where I don’t have to worry about making it every month.  Once you’re not concerned about money on a regular basis and are able to spend money on leisure activities, having more money no longer matters to your happiness.

Paul Gilding goes through what he expects will happen as our economy can no longer grow and the climate crisis gets worse.  He thinks that a crisis or catastrophe will occur and suddenly the world will be forced to confront climate change.  We will finally be forced to act.  He titled this chapter The One-Degree War.  This one degree of global warming means the Co2 concentration needs to be about 350 parts per million.  (This number has been advocated by many people, including scientists.)  Gilding claims that although it seems unrealistic now, once the world is mobilized people all over will find ways to make it happen.  Despite what may seem like a doomsday message – our economy is unsustainable and we are headed for a crisis – he remains optimistic mostly because he believes in the creativity and intelligence of people.


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Sustainable Design and water conservation

I wanted to write one more post about water conservation and what I learned while I was in Europe.  As I was thinking about the article, I went to the library and got out a book that gave me even more ideas.  The book was Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide by David Bergman, which is a bit technical but very interesting.

There are some simple things we can do in our own homes to make them more eco-friendly.  I mentioned in my post about my parents’ house that they put in energy efficient lightbulbs.  Turning air conditioning units to a few degrees warmer and turning off lights help lower energy consumption as well.  There are also more complicated things we can do without rebuilding.  These include adding insulation (in my parents house their pipes freeze in the winter if they don’t leave the taps running which is a terrible waste) and putting in low flow toilets.  What I noticed in Europe was that almost all the toilets, public and private, had two flush buttons.  I was never one to go with “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”  because I couldn’t get over the gross factor.  I just didn’t want urine sitting there for any length of time.  But with a dual-flush system, you can minimize water usage for urine while not risking clogging the toilets all the time.  The other big difference in European bathrooms is the lack of stable shower heads.  Both of the bathrooms in the apartments I stayed in required me to hold the shower head.  It turns out I used a lot less water and got just as clean.

To get back to the book, there were two mentions of Europe in the book that I thought I would highlight.  I don’t know if you are familiar with Material Safety Data Sheets, but I have seen them a lot in theater.  They are published for all materials and contain all known hazardous ingredients and any other safety information.  In the U.S. apparently the hazard has to be recognized by the government (well-established with evidence) before it needs to be included.  Apparently in general Europe doesn’t wait for conclusive evidence and errs on the side of caution.  Practical for safety, but less practical for the bottom line.  The other mention of Europe was the Passive House movement, which apparently started as the Passivhaus movement in Germany.  The idea behind it is to build houses that don’t require as much energy rather than trying to using alternative energy sources.

The last month has made me think I should move to Europe.


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High Tide on Main Street by John Englander

I read this book based on a recommendation of another blogger and I am so glad I did.  One of the best things about it is the amount of charts, graphs and pictures that are used.  It is particularly helpful when he shows graphs of long periods of times and then blows up the more recent past to show the effects that recent greenhouse gas emissions have had.  I realize that I was already a believer, but it does seem to prove that humans are changing the atmosphere and sea level.

This book has a lot of science in it, but it was still incredibly readable.  I am not someone who enjoys reading science textbooks, or even scientific studies.  John Englander has made the science understandable and easy to digest.  There were plenty of things I wasn’t aware of – like the cycle of ice ages and how we are actually due to start the cooling phase heading toward another ice age.  The sea level is at the high point with less water trapped in ice sheets.  It looks like this started to happen in the past centuries but something (humans) changed the course of history.  (Not to sound too dramatic.)

Did you know?  Sharps Island off Maryland sunk into the Chesapeake Bay in 1962?  Apparently due to sea level rise, erosion and sinking land.  Holland Island, also in the Chesapeake, disappeared in 2010.  Or how about this?  “At our current rate of carbon emissions, we will increase carbon dioxide levels… roughly 20,000 times faster than at any time in the last 540 million years.  Temperatures… are now rising about 55 times faster than they did even during the most recent cycle of glacial melting.”

Englander also talks about the impacts of sea level rise.  Here is a website that models sea level rise on the coastline of the U.S.: Climate Central.  The NOAA also has one.  He goes through various cities and talks about what they would face and how much of their population would be effected.  It is worth noting that along with changes in shoreline, the water table will rise with sea level and so many inland areas will also be affected.

Here are a couple more links from the book that I thought were interesting:

climatescoreboard.org

skepticalscience.com


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Overheated by Andrew Guzman

The subtitle for this book is The Human Cost of Climate Change.  It paints a scary picture of what the world will look like in fifty years and a hundred years.  It also makes a compelling argument for why we can’t afford to ignore what is happening.  The book assumes that there will be a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature by 2100.  This is on the low end of the temperature rise that can be expected.  It’s smart in that it allows the author to avoid being considered too alarmist and it turns out even a 2 degree rise would be horrific.  I think everyone should read this book.  Rather than write a true review, I would like to highlight some of the author’s major points.

I knew that the Industrial Revolution was the beginning of humanity’s love affair with releasing greenhouse gases (GHGs, the most important of which is carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.  What I didn’t realize was that the Earth didn’t start warming immediately.  It wasn’t until the 197os and 80s that it started and it started slowly.  This delay means that even if we stop releasing GHGs entirely right now the Earth would still warm for a while.

One of the major human impacts of climate change will be the displacement of people.  People will be forced out of their homes for a variety of reasons; rising oceans will force people away from the coast, higher temperatures will cause droughts and widening deserts, glaciers melting will cause floods in one season and droughts in another.  Glaciers store water and release it into rivers as they melt.  Melting too fast or disappearing and melting not at all creates floods, droughts and then a lack of water.  Hurricanes and other major weather events will get worse because warm ocean water fuels hurricanes.  These displaced people will live in refugee camps and overcrowded cities that will have poor sanitary conditions and people packed together breed disease.

The politics involved in global warming are complicated to say the least.  But certain things are relatively clear.  Rivers don’t pay attention to political boundaries and the need for water will cause conflict.  For example, Turkey puts a dam on the Euphrates River and Syria and Iraq have a lot less water to work with.  Tens of thousands and maybe millions of people moving to other countries when their countries are no longer habitable will also cause political tension.

What you don’t want to know:  There are island nations, including the Maldives and Tuvalu, who will disappear under the sea even if we start cutting GHG emissions right now.  “The level of GHGs today is higher than at any point in at least 650,000 years and is currently rising more than fifty times as fast as what would be caused by natural fluctuations.”  “The best information we have from still-earlier periods suggests that you would have to go back at least 15 million years to find another time with concentration levels [of CO2] as high as today’s.  During that period, temperatures were much warmer than they are today, sea levels were 20 to 35 meters higher, and no permanent ice cap existed in the Arctic.”  “Every year, a part of Nigeria about the size of Rhode Island turns to desert.  Across the continent, the Sahara is spreading southward at a rate of more than three miles a year.”  “Between the mid-1970s and the year 2000, for example, climate change caused the annual loss of more than 150,000 lives….”


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Climate Myths by John J. Berger

I recently read Climate Myths by John J. Berger.  I was hoping to learn more about the science of climate change and what, if any, controversies still exist in the scientific community.  Perhaps my expectations were faulty, but I was sorely disappointed by the book.  The first (and very significant) portion of the book is dedicated to the various organizations that have gone out of their way to dispute climate change and how serious it is.  He mentions organizations that don’t exist anymore, which may be interested to a researcher but seem to have no relevance for me.  What was helpful was his discussion of certain more prominent climate deniers and why their credentials make them less credible than climate scientists who all agree on global warming and its impacts.  However, I didn’t like how far he goes in disparaging some of the organizations, even comparing them to Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communism in the 1950s.

I was disheartened to learn about how the media has helped these organizations and climate deniers by giving them as much air time as the thousands of scientists who agree on the gravity of global warming.  One of Berger’s examples was The Wall Street Journal, and here is an article I found: No Need to Panic About Global Warming.  If you look at the sixteen scientists who signed the articles very few, if any, are on the cutting edge of climate science.

Another reason for my reading the book was to feel more prepared to refute in conversation those who might be on the fence about global warming.  The second (and much shorter) part of the book is helpful for that.  He goes through the various ‘myths’ and why they are flawed.  I was very glad to find out about the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change (IPCC) that operates under the U.N.  American politics being what they are, this seems like a good place to point people.

I hope to find books that I feel more ready to recommend.  This one is helpful only if you’re specifically interested in the organizations (past and present) who have made enough of American doubt climate change so that politicians are unable to make any progress.