I recently finished a book call The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. It won the Pulitzer, among other awards, which might not mean a lot, but it is a fantastic book. It traces the history of mass extinctions on the planet (the most famous and possibly dramatic being the end of the dinosaurs). I didn’t know before reading this book that there have been five such mass extinctions, although I had heard that some scientists now think we are living through (and possibly creating) a mass extinction. I liked this book for many reasons. Kolbert talks about the historical extinctions as well as the one currently ongoing. In fact, the book starts with a discussion of how many frog species are dying. She beautifully weaves the past and the present together. While the book can be considered alarming it didn’t leave me feeling guilty or terrified. Interestingly, it also doesn’t paint scientists in the best light, especially those in the past who refused to accept new theories. While the subject may sound technical and dry, I enthusiastically recommend this book to everyone who is interested in the natural world.
Last August I moved to the Philadelphia area in order to go to grad school. I am going to get a Masters in Environmental Science. But this blog post isn’t going to be about that. This post is about what I learned about living sustainably as I moved into my own apartment.
My apartment, like most places in the U.S., has single stream recycling. My goal was going to be to limit the amount of things I put in the trash, as well as the amount of things that go into recycling. I have handkerchiefs around the house to use and wash, and tissues only when I really need to blow my nose. But the truth is a lot of goes into the trash and recycling is food packaging. And I haven’t solved that.
However, there are certain items in the kitchen that generally go into the trash and then into a landfill I can reduce my use of. Paper towels is one of them, so I went out and bought small cloths and use them instead. In August I came with two rolls of paper towels (bathroom cleaning, cleaning up after my cat) and I’m proud to say I’ve used less than half of one roll.
Finally, I’ve worked hard to reduce my use of food storage that goes into the trash. I have yet to buy ziploc bags and I do have plastic tupperware and I also keep jars and other containers that I can reuse from items I purchase. I have also bought beeswax food wraps which do a good job of keeping produce fresh and covering bowls in the fridge. (Not a complete substitute for aluminum foil which can go in the oven, but close.) I also use reusable ties and clips. Maybe it’s time to look at your kitchen and see what you can replace with reusable items?
I realize that I may be a little late to the party since all the buzz about this documentary occurred last year. But I finally got around to watching it and I’m glad I did. The personal story made me feel very invested in their discoveries. I will say that it is not a cheery film, but that seems to be impossible when talking about the massive coral die-offs in the last twenty years. Coral bleaching has been in the news recently. Unfortunately, in 2017, the year after the filming, there was another massive bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. This is an article about it from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: Yale Environment 360.
I did learn some things from the documentary. I learned how bad the bleaching in Florida is. That somehow hasn’t really made it into the news. And my mother, who watched it with me, learned a lot about coral itself. (I happen to have studied coral as an intern at the New England Aquarium.)
Finally, there were some important points made that I’m going to make here as well. Corals are like the trees in a forest (such a great analogy!). When they die, they take away an entire ecosystem. The fish and turtles and sharks leave too. Reefs are nurseries for a lot of fish, so even those fish species who don’t live there might have trouble without a place for their young to grow up. Coral reefs also protect shores from storm surge, so protecting them helps humans as well.
I belong to a group called Women Working for Oceans. The mission is education and advocacy in partnership with the New England Aquarium. I went to a members only event this week. It was a Seagrass Restoration event in Essex, Massachusetts. We were led by two guest experts, Dr. Alyssa Novak from Boston University, and Peter Phippen from MassBays Natural Estuaries Program.
The first thing that happened when we arrived was that we were taken by boat out into Essex Bay and deposited on what was essentially a sand bar. Once there we met Alyssa who first explained to us how we were going to be replanting eel grass in the bay. This involved standing in knee high water, leaning over to dig a small hole, burying a small amount of root and then adding an iron staple on top. We asked her about the metal staple; apparently in calm water bamboo is used which decomposes relatively easily, but in this bay the water is too strong. The staple will rust and give iron to the plant. And since they work there a lot they do find them and reuse them as much as possible. Eelgrass provides food and shelter for many organisms in the bay, as described by Save the Bay.
While we were doing that Peter went out and brought back the crab traps that they had set out. So as the tide made our little sand bar smaller and smaller we moved on to the crabs. We had mostly caught rock crabs and green crabs. We counted the rock crabs, and then let them go. But the green crabs are an invasive species. We counted them, measured them, checked their sex and then put them in a big bag. They were going to be given to someone who uses them in cooking. All in all, not a bad day’s work.
It has been a while since I’ve written anything and that’s because I’ve been struggling a little bit with my environmentalism. I had always thought I was better off leaving politics to someone who likes people better. I prefer animals. I never thought of myself as an activist. Like a lot of people, I was shocked by the election in November and my concern has not lessened over the past few months. I’ve started to realize that maybe this democracy needs more participation from people like me. I didn’t want this blog to be political, but it seems that environmentalism can no longer be entirely apolitical. While my goal is still to bring you information and make you aware of things you can do in your life, I am not going to shy away from politics. For instance, I believe strongly that we need clean water, clean air and clean soil and that the Environmental Protection Agency has played and needs to play a huge role in protecting those things.
I recently attended a wonderful event at the New England Aquarium. It was co-hosted by Women Working for Oceans, W2O, a group I recently discovered and am excited about. The event started with a display in the lobby showing the finalists’ designs for how Boston can build its waterfront to be resilient to sea level rise and storms. Some of the designs were really creative – things I never would have thought of. Then we went into the IMAX. The speaker who was the most interesting to me was Ellen Douglas. She talked about Hurricane Sandy. I didn’t realize that things could have been so much worse if it had just hit at high tide instead of low tide. Here is a map of the difference the tide can make.
Ellen Douglas is the main author on a a report called “Preparing for the Rising Tide.” After talking about the past, she moved on to the future. She talked about the projections of what will happen with sea level rise in Boston. She showed maps of what areas will flood and how often. These maps are similar to the one above that shows the flood depths. Then she showed ideas of flood walls – some that are benches until needed, berms, things that would help in the next storm. I’ve read a bunch about sea level rise but it somehow seemed even more real when looking at pictures and maps of a place I know. The second speaker was Robbin Peach from Massport. It was good to hear how much has been going into protecting the transportation infrastructure in Boston. Do you know if your city is prepared for the next big storm and sea level rise?
I think everyone finds it challenging to be truly environmental during the holiday season. We light fires, cut down trees, wrap presents in paper and go shopping. I have started making gifts for my friends – this year, flavored olive oil in a reusable bottle. My family still gets whatever they want – although I’m always more inclined to buy useful things. But the season is over, the trees and boxes have been put on the curb and taken away. I wanted to make new year’s resolutions this year, but the ones I could think of were the classics – save money, exercise more, keep a journal. And they’re all unlikely to stick for more than a couple of months. So I heard several people suggest that resolutions aren’t the way to go. One person suggested trying to think of a word that you want to describe your life for this year and use that word as inspiration whenever you need it. One person suggested thinking of small things that you can do often that added up could make a difference – for instance, take the stairs instead of the elevator. I think that’s how I feel about working to become more environmental. Maybe this year is the year to bring bags or recycle paper bags when grocery shopping. Since I think it’s important, periodically I’m going to keep suggesting small ways to make a difference. I’m going to keep reading (mangroves is the next topic) and trying to keep up with everything that’s going on.
I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about how I want to make a difference to the environment. Little things that we do everyday are certainly a part of it. Being aware of the impact we have is important and I will continue to write about various ways to do that. But I’m beginning to think that my road to feeling like I’m making a difference lies in a new career. And that new career has to do with the ocean. In fact, I’m back to where I started. I began writing this blog because I was looking into environmental issues and wanted to share what I was discovering. My first post was about my love for the beach which is where my concern for the environment started.
The beach is what I want to study, or rather coastal ecosystems. They are being broadly affected by humans – fishing and littering, by climate change – warming oceans, rising sea levels and they are some of the most beautiful places on Earth. I think I can find a way to help. I’m looking into programs in marine biology. It’s quite a change from theater, but it means a lot to me and interests me. I read a book recently that inspired me. It is called The Death and Life of Monterey Bay and I would recommend it to everyone and anyone. It chronicles all the ways that humans hurt the ecosystem of the bay, but then also tells the story of how the bay has been restored. Change is possible. A lot of what I’ve read has only spoken of the problems that exist, and maybe hypothetical ideas on what to do about them. Monterey Bay is a success story. I hope similar successes can happen elsewhere.
I was so surprised to find out that even food and other compostable items don’t decompose when put in a landfill (see my post on Garbology by Edward Humes). Since then I’ve been thinking that there must be an easy way to compost. This was brought home to me in my visit to New York City this past weekend. I went to see the tennis at the U.S. Open but found myself thinking about compost. At the U.S. Open itself, there were compost bins next to the recycling and trash bins. In the ladies’ room, the only bin by the sinks was composting because the paper towels were compostable. That made me think that the napkin I threw in the trash was probably also compostable. The U.S. Open also had signs on the beds of flowers saying that they used the compost from last year to make this year’s Open pretty.
The other place I went while in NYC was the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They had a composting exhibit that made it seem really easy. It also showed that you can grow things in a compost pile before it is done composting.
I then looked into what someone would need to do in order to compost their food waste. Obviously, if you have a yard and/or a garden, you can make compost piles outside. But if you don’t have a place to do it outside, there are still things you can do. Here are two sites I found about composting in a yard: Planet Natural and EarthEasy. Basically, it works better if you have a bin and make sure you have a balance of different materials. Moisture and the occasional stir helps too. If you don’t have a yard, there are buckets you can buy (like this one at the Container Store) that can stand by your sink. Having charcoal filters in it is an expense but helps with the odor. A lot of towns, at this point, have places you can drop off your scraps, and so do some grocery stores like Whole Foods. This is the site for Cambridge, MA. They point out several things – you can freeze the scraps to avoid odor, you can buy compostable bags so you don’t have to dump it when you drop it off. It turns out there is a lot of information out there and a lot of relatively simple ways to create useful compost and keep food scraps out of landfills. I hope this inspires you to find the easiest way for you to compost.
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.