bare feet in the sand

the beauty of nature in a consumer economy


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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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National Geographic

I would like to encourage everyone to read the cover article on sea level rise in National Geographic.  I particularly enjoyed all the graphics and pictures.  There are links across the top and down the side which I would highly recommend clicking on.

Rising Seas


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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.

recycling

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


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Energy Efficient Homes

One of the things I want to do with my blog is help the average person (if there is such a thing) know how to be more eco-friendly and energy efficient.  Not everyone wants to go out of their way, but there are still small things we can do.  There are also bigger things we can do, especially if we own a home.  I do not – I’m a renter with no control over the fact that my windows don’t always shut properly.  My parents do own a home.  They have recently decided to make some changes and I think they are worth sharing.

The first thing they did was put solar panels on their roof.  It was something they had thought about because of the established technology that gives clean, efficient energy.  However, they had found out that it cost $40,000 to put them on.  A friend of theirs got some help and put them on for half that, but it was still too much.  Then Vivint Solar came to their door with a proposal which they accepted.  Two of their friends who lived in the area (including an engineer who looked at the schematics) had already had the solar panel installed.  The basis for the deal is that Vivint Solar is ‘renting the roof’, and so there is no upfront cost.  My parents get a percentage of the electricity generate by the solar panels and the rest Vivint Solar sells to NStar (or whatever energy company who is the energy provider).  Their bill to Vivint Solar fluctuates based on the amount generated and the amount used but has been about $60-80.  Their electric bill used to be about $200/month.  This summer they have been paying nothing or a few dollars to NStar.  They expect to pay more in the winter, but it should still be about half of what they were paying before.  It seems like a good deal economically as well as environmentally.

Their next step is changing their heating and cooling system so that they are much less dependent on oil.  This proposal came from Next Step Living.  My parents knew nothing about this, but are interested in helping the environment and this proposal also came with no upfront costs.  Two of their friends also have this technology in their homes.  It is a Total Climate Control system made by Fujitsu that works with condensers outside of the house.  Each room gets a heating and cooling unit or a vent in the ceiling from a unit in the attic, each of which has an individual thermostat.  The oil system stays in place because the system doesn’t work when the temperature gets too cold (as in -5 degrees Fahrenheit).  Before it is installed an energy audit is required.  My parents had Next Step Living do it.  They were given a list of suggestions and free energy efficient lightbulbs.  They are only paying $500 of the cost of implementing the suggestions.  In terms of the money, Next Step Living works with Commerce Bank, NStar and MassSave, and my parents are securing a zero interest loan of about $23,000.  It will take them about 7 years to repay after which they will own the system and not have to pay.  It means that instead of paying $340/month for oil, they will pay whatever small amount they use when it gets really cold in the winter and $274/month to repay the loan for those 7 years.


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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