bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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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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Much Ado About Nothing and its trash

The play is over.  The performances went really well and I’m very proud of all the students involved.  The day after the last performance we had strike.  We took down the entire set in less than five hours.  Unfortunately, it goes faster the more you throw away.  Taking things apart and storing them takes more time, more effort.  Of course, I would happily take that time and effort except I don’t have storage space.  The set looked like this:

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 The dumpsters at the end of strike looked like this:

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A lot of materials went to a trash dump at the end of the day.  And yes, I feel badly about it.  I hope that thinking about the environmental impact through this process will mean that future shows will end up with less in the trash.


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Environmental Theater

As an industry, set design has not historically been very environmentally friendly.  It’s been built on the principle of using wood to build things that will be used for a very limited period of time and then probably thrown away.  Storage space and expense is always a problem, no matter where you are, and especially in cities which is where theater has usually flourished.  It is certainly not the priority at a school, such as the high school where I work.  I have one room, one hallway and one closet.  The room is storage and a wood shop, the hallway is for lighting equipment, and the closet is for paint since it has a paint sink.  Below is a picture of what I currently have to work with.

tech room

I have 12 flats (as in wall units), 16 platforms, 14 chairs, 7 stools and 3 tables.  All made entirely of wood, screws and nails.  I also have about 25 sheets of wood and 70 sticks of wood.

I designed a set for Much Ado About Nothing with no thought to what I have.  (Something I hope to change in the future.)  That doesn’t mean that I can’t use any of it.  In fact, I’m going to do my best to buy as little new wood as possible.  We kill enough trees with the amount of paper from scripts and set plans and notes.

There are people out there who make theater with a lot of thought to their environmental impact.  Look at this list of topics that was at the World Stage Design conference this year:  WSD2013


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Living with an environmental conscience

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post.  But I haven’t forgotten.  I have been thinking and reading as always.  I’m currently in the middle of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.  It’s a seminal book and I had never read it.  It is amazingly thorough and I am learning a lot about the complexities of ecology.  I am also finding it thoroughly depressing.  It is only in the last six months or so that I have been really learning and thinking about environmental issues.  I have been reading a lot of blogs, news reports and books.  I have tried to notice every time I do something that impacts the environment.  The result is that I am overwhelmed.  I am overwhelmed by the amount of problems.  I am overwhelmed by the idea that anything I can do will not be enough.  But I haven’t decided that I am not going to let it defeat me.  I am going to do two things.

The first is more immediate.  I am going to go with the idea that what I do can make a difference.  I am currently the technical director at a high school.  For the fall play we are doing Much Ado About Nothing.  I am the set designer, lighting designer and technical director (with help with a large group of students).  I have decided to keep track of the materials as specifically as I can without going too far out of my way.  I am going to write several blog posts as I go about it, so I will leave the details to later.

The second thing I am going to do is keep searching for a career that helps the Earth.  I get busy with my current job and reading and writing this blog and a million other things that I do every day.  But I do want to make a difference and I have to figure out how to build a life that involves doing that.


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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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Recycling in Germany

This is my second post about my trip to Germany.  I went with my family and we rented an apartment.  It was wonderful to have our own kitchen (unlike in a hotel) and it meant that I felt more like part of the regular life of Germany.  This includes small things that they do to lesson their environmental impact.  Things I think the U.S., or at least Boston, could learn from.  On the very first day, my family ran across an example of this in the supermarket.  In grocery stores, nobody bags your items.  In fact, there are no bags except the flimsy plastic kind for produce.  Paper or plastic isn’t a question.  You better have your own bag, or of course you buy a reusable one.  This extends to other types of shopping.  In the U.S. when you buy something the cashier generally puts it right into a bag.  Not in Germany.  If it seems likely you need one, they ask.

There was also curbside pickup of compost, which does exist in some places in the U.S., but not where I live.  The recycling was also split up curbside into plastic, paper and glass.  I even saw glass bins that split up clear from colored glass.

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I wanted to talk briefly about bicycling.  There were bikes everywhere and no one in the cities where helmets.  The only helmets I saw were on people on good road bikes going on obviously long rides in the country.  Part of it is must be that they are simply not afraid of being hit by cars.  This is clearly true in pedestrian zones (that mostly include bikes) and also the bike lane system is phenomenal.  In Austria, most of the bike lanes weren’t even part of the car lane.  They were more attached to the sidewalk.  Believe me when I saw the bike lanes (or lack thereof) and the drivers in Cambridge mean I’m always going to be wearing a helmet.  bike lane


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Germany’s Solar Power

I just came back from two weeks in Europe.  It was the first time I was there while keenly aware of renewable energy and our environmental impact.  I spent a majority of the time in Germany and was very impressed with what I saw.  I drove through most of Bavaria (or Bayern).  Almost every town, no matter how small, had at least one house or barn with solar panels on its roof.  Driving along the autobahn I saw several solar panel farms.  I did not go out of my way and yet I saw solar energy everywhere.  If a roof wasn’t at a good angle, the solar panels were tilted on top of the roof.  You can see examples in the pictures below.  Even as I was working on creating this post, I came across an article on Treehugger (one of my favorite sites) about Germany’s solar power.  Their pictures are of better quality and look like what I saw while I was there.  I was very glad to know that what I saw was being used.  solar panels