Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Organically Grown, Naturally Better

            While walking down the grocery store isles, my eyes are inundated with images of cows in pastures and red barns amid green grassy fields. But are these images testament to the truth behind where our food comes from? Absolutely not. Most big meat producers house hundreds of cattle in a single pen, the grass long gone from over grazing. The cows we eat have been trained to eat corn, since it is a cheap commodity, being subsidized by the government. Chickens are held in pens where most of them will never experience what it is like to spread out their wings, as the space provided doesn't allow it. Cases appear regularly in court from small towns or neighborhoods being plagued by the horrid smell and soiled water that flows from over-crowded pigpens and into their back yards. Even farmers of our vegetables cause problems when they plant vast fields with only one plant species, degrading the soil and making it easy for insects to take advantage of a delicious meal. Pesticides have been developed to deal with the bugs, and fertilizers to aid the overused soil, but what effect do these chemicals have on our foods? Better yet, how are they affecting the environment where the foods are being grown? The food production system in place in our country right now is certainly flawed. We have developed methods of growing mass amounts of food at low costs to the consumers, but with high externalities. By externalities, I mean factors that are being paid for in some way, but not by the money used to purchase the product.
            Many of these externalities involve environmental issues that are often dealt with using tax dollars. In the end, we are still paying these costs. We are also paying them with our health. With so many chemicals, toxins, and hormones running through the foods we put into our bodies how can we expect to have good health? The chemicals introduced to crops also seep into our water sources. I work at an Environmental Testing Laboratory, and one of our clients continually deals with the presence of cyanide in their drinking water. Why? Old farmers used to put cyanide on their cows to kill the pests that would bother them. This was almost 50 years ago and yet this city is still plagued with the task of trying to ensure safe drinking water for its residents when its natural sources are filled with a powerful toxin.
There are many issues surrounding our food systems and many ways that we can respond to them, but one of the best ones is to invest our money into something better. When I was teaching in Arkansas, we called it "voting with your dollar." While not always a perfect solution to every ethical food issue, buying organic can certainly ensure that the environment is being saved from additional chemicals and toxins. Better yet, you are being saved from these.
            Unlike traditional agriculture, organic farming involves using methods that will allow for healthy plant growth without artificial chemicals. Compost materials are often used to enrich the soil and varied methods of planting specific plants in specific patterns can actually combat many pest issues. The soil remains much healthier, and oftentimes the foods taste amazingly better. I have never had a watermelon so sweet as the one I picked from the organic farm in Arkansas.
            With all of these benefits, why isn't everyone buying organic? It's simple. The traditional farming methods are still significantly cheaper for the consumer. Although they cost more in externalities, those costs don't show up at the cash register, making traditional foods much more inviting. Getting involved with a CSA, or community supported agriculture group, is a good way to get good foods for less. With these groups, each member pays a set amount up front and then receives a basket of foods each week with a share of whatever plants were successfully harvested at the farm that week. Usually, granted cooperative weather, you get about 1.5 times as much food as what you would get for the same price in a grocery store. And even better than just being organic, it is locally grown. No pollutants are emitted from shipping and your food is as fresh as it could possibly be. While CSAs aren't available to everyone, I suggest visiting to see what is available in your community. While shopping organic can often add a few expenses to the grocery list, I believe that with a slight restructuring of our budgets to really represent what is important, we can afford to buy what is better for everyone. Rather than buying that big screen TV, take an investment in your world and in your health, and try something organically grown. Your planet will thank you for it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"We share the earth not only with our fellow human beings, but with all the other creatures."
 - The Dalai Lama

Today's post is going to be a bit atypical from my normal entries. Usually I like to highlight actions that we can each take in our everyday lives in order to help conserve our planets natural resources, but today I want to step back for a moment and consider what's at stake if we don't start taking care of our planet. Living in our concrete villages in middle of towns and cities, seemingly separate from the natural world, it's very easy to forget about all of the amazing species that share our planet with us. While taking care of our home is important to secure the future of our own species, it is also imperative to the future of these incredible forms of life:

Some of these are cuter than others, but I think it would be difficult for anyone to contest that each of these species represents a beautiful contribution to the diversity and wonder that we have here on Earth. These animals, the anglerfish, kiwi, bumblebee bat, echidna, and dugong, all have one thing in common: they are endangered. There are so few of them left on our planet that they have been listed on an official register of animals that could potentially disappear entirely within the next few years.
Today's post is not one to liven the spirits. As many of my professors have explained on the first day of classes, the information that follows is not that which will make you feel warm and fuzzy. Hopefully, though, as you read the next few paragraphs where I share with you the facts behind why we absolutely must start caring more for our precious planet, you will begin to feel a drive. You will begin to feel something burning within you, telling you that you must incite change, so that your children and your children's children can enjoy the wonders of our diverse planet while also having a good place to live.

It is currently estimated that "Of the 40,168 species that the 10,000 scientists in the World Conservation Union have assessed, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction." ( environment/animal-extinction--the-greatest-threat-to-mankind-397939.html) Granted great extinctions have occurred before in the history of our small planet, five different times to be exact, the difference between these past extinctions and the present one lies in one major factor: human influence.
Studies of past great extinctions show that a major climatic change, or possibly the affects of events such as an asteroid hitting the planet, have caused vast numbers of species to die out. Natural speciation then occurs, in which new species emerge out of the ones that survived. In about 10 million years the level of biodiversity seen before the catastrophic event begins to resurface. This is the natural way, but there is nothing natural about the current die-out that we are seeing. Habitat devastation, poisonous chemicals, monoculture crops, and invasive species are just a few of the human-induced obstacles that earth's life forms must contend with today. Once this great extinction takes full affect, will the species left behind be able to survive long enough for speciation to take place? If our current patterns of natural resource use and development continue, there will be no natural environment left for the animals to use in 1000 years, much less 10 million.
What humans too often fail to realize is that the earth's plants and animals are more than just things to be mused at through the bars of zoo cages. They are integral parts of the natural system that provide very real and necessary benefits to human life. Without scavengers, who would clean up the carcasses of deceased animals? We could just leave them there to rot, but would we not then contend with diseases born from the remains? Without the roots of plants holding the earth together, would not all the soil wash away with the rain? Where then would we grow our crops? And how could we protect our homes from becoming engulfed in flowing earth? We already have this problem, as the waves of the ocean take with it sand, loosened by the removal of the plants that used to grow there. Snakes help to control bug populations, bees fertilize our plants, worms provide nutrition to help our food to grow. There is an endless list of tragedies that we will experience should the diversity currently present on our planet continue to be devastated by our human activities.
As I watch shows such as PlanetEarth, or scan through National Geographic magazines featuring articles about so many incredible creatures, I can't help but to think about what an amazing gift we have been given. How foolish we are to be abusing what we have been blessed with. The following link will take you to a blog page that features some amazing photos of some of our planets most incredible species, including many that are listed as endangered.
As you look through these photos, think about the many services that animals provide for us as well as the right that they have to be living here on this planet, just like we do. Ultimately, it's not just about saving our own futures; it's about theirs as well.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Drip, Drip, Drop

Two summers ago, I spent three months working at an education center in Arkansas, where I led classes on sustainability, world poverty, and of course, caring for the environment. One of my favorite activities in the later of these classes was called "A Drop in the Bucket." I would start with 1 liter of water measured into a graduated cylinder. "If this represents all the water on our planet," I would say, "then this represents the amount of fresh water that we have. The rest of what is left is salt water." From the 1 liter I would pour out 30 mL, about the amount that would fit in a travel-sized shampoo container. To the rest of the water, I would add a few sprinkles of salt. "Now," I would say, "this isn't all water that we can use. Some of it is unavailable to us because it is frozen in glaciers and ice caps." From the 30 mL of water, I would pour out another 15 mL, and to what was remaining in the second container, I would add a piece of ice. "This represents the fresh, unfrozen water on our planet," I would say, pointing to the un-iced 15 mLs. "This is the water that naturally would be available for humans to use," I would say, pointing to the little bit that was my final 15 mLs. "The sad truth though, is that almost half of this water is polluted beyond use. Without the infrastructure to clean it up, we have this much water to use," and at this point I would pour a mere 7 mL of water out of the final cup and into a bucket.
We use water for almost everything we do. We cook with it, wash with it, bathe in it, drink it. Water is absolutely essential to life. By essential, I mean that over 50% of our human bodies are pure water. In fact, a person without water will die long than one deprived of food. So if our resources are limited, as we have just demonstrated, it would only follow that we should be adamant about protecting the resources that we do have. But we don't! Over half of the water that is available to us (water that is both fresh and unfrozen) is polluted. With technology, we have been able to pump water to the surface from the water table underground, but over pumping has caused a great amount of sediment to enter the water table and it has allowed for salt water to enter into otherwise freshwater systems that have been emptied out. The only other solution lies right at our fingertips: conservation. Conservation right in our own homes and everyday lives.
Concepts such as shortening showers and fixing leaky pipes seem obvious enough, but there are many less known ways to save water that can subtract gallons seemingly overnight. Watering your lawn and gardens is necessary if you want to keep things looking nice, but watering in the heat of the afternoon isn't going to do much good. The water will evaporate before the plants have a chance to soak it in. Watering in the evening or very early morning is a better idea. An even more earth-conscious approach would be to choose plants that are native to the environment of your area. These plants will be naturally adapted to the water availability there and will require significantly less watering from an unnatural source. Also, don't over-fertilize your lawn. This will cause the plants to become "thirsty" requiring much more water to keep them alive.
If you have a garden, think about trying to catch rainwater off of your roof or the garden shed to use for watering the plants. Putting a piece of screening over the top of a bucket can even keep leaves and sticks out for you, while catching the water that you can use later on. When I was in Arkansas, some super-savvy volunteers even fashioned a spigot on the lower bit of the bucket so that we didn't have to scoop the water out, but rather could pour it from the bottom. I've also known of several people that would save the water from water glasses that their guests had finished with and would later use it to water their indoor plants.
Installing low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads may be a bit of an investment at first, but these technologies will quickly pay for themselves and the water that they save is quite significant. Turning off the faucet is another amazingly simple way to cut gallons. While brushing your teeth, sudsing up with soap, or even gurgling with mouthwash, the water does not need to be running. Turning off the faucet, even for a few brief seconds while you finish what you are doing can save enormous amounts over time.
It's important to remember that no idea is too small. When using water as much as we humans do, even small acts will add up over time. And if we are all being water-conscious together, they will add up faster than you might think. This precious resource is one to be cherished and not taken advantage of, because while it will always be on our planet, it may not always be in a form that we can use it. Ultimately, what is at stake here is a great giver of life for people across the globe. Drip, drip, let's get that faucet fixed.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Talk About It, Worry About It, Or Do Something About It

If you're anything like me you've heard over and over again how much energy the sun is producing and how if only we could harvest that energy we could stop depending on coal and oil. But the thing is, while I can write my local senator, protest mountain top removal, even stand in front of the White House with picket signs, I cannot make my energy needs go away, nor can I single-handedly change the energy grid of our nation. What I can do is be as energy efficient as I possibly can in my own little apartment. It seems like so little, but if every household were to take on the challenge of being as energy-conscious as possible, we would see a very different landscape on the mountaintops of Appalachia*.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), residential buildings use about 20% of the energy consumed in the U.S. Saving energy here is the start to making our country more energy conscious. If everyone were to conserve at home, the ideas would begin to trickle up into the business sector as well. But is my proposal realistic? What are the chances of its actually being adopted? If everyone were to adopt the energy-conscious lifestyle in their homes, the ideas would start to spread elsewhere as the same people buying the houses and renting apartments in our country that are also running the businesses here.
One of the best ways to be sustainable with your energy usage is to purchase solar panels. This technology simply captures the energy from the sun, creating no destruction to the planet at all. The reason solar panels aren't more popular than they are is that they are a large upfront investment. If you plan to live in your home for a long period of time however, they can actually pay themselves off within 10 years, and they can last for many years past that. I live in an apartment complex where installing a solar panel is not an option, but there is another completely sustainable way that I can help with our current energy crisis: use less energy!
Turning the lights off when you leave the room, running the dishwasher only when it is completely full, and turning the AC up a few degrees are all common ways to cut back on energy consumption. There are a few less obvious ways that we can implement as well. One of my favorites is coordinating laundry days. It takes a significant amount of energy to heat up the dryer, and if my 3 roommates and I all do our laundry at separate times, we have to heat up the dryer 4 separate times. If we coordinate, and all do our laundry on the same day, we can simply take one load out of the dryer, add another, and keep reusing the already-heated dryer. In doing this we only have to heat the dryer up once. Even better than this though, would be using a hanging line rather than the dryer at all.
In our modern society, it is certainly commonplace to have electronics present in every room of the house. While it seems obvious enough to turn off these electronics when we're not using them, most of us don't grant a second glance at the small lights these electronics keep on even when they are in "off" mode. These are called phantom users because the energy they are using adds up quickly and most of the time it goes completely unnoticed. The best way to deal with these phantom users is to invest in a few power strips. These strips have a switch that when flipped off, stops the energy flow at the source, turning phantom users off. Completely off.
Living in the hot state of Florida, I certainly know of the temptation to turn the thermostat down as far as it will go in the middle of the summer. It's important not to give in to temptations such as these, however. In my apartment, I try to keep the thermostat no lower than 76 degrees. Installing ceiling fans would be a good way to keep the rooms cooler without using so much AC. Another important thing to remember is that turning the AC higher or even off when you leave for 8 hours or more saves a significant amount of energy. With good insulation, your home should hold in some of the cool air so that it isn't too uncomfortable when you return home. Closing your blinds while you are gone can help with this process too as it will keep the sun from pouring in and heating up the rooms.
There are many habits that we can adopt to help lower our energy consumption, and here I have only outlined a few. This week I challenge you to brainstorm a few more and try to adopt them into your lifestyle. Once you do these things for a few weeks they start to become a habit and you won't even notice you're doing it anymore, except maybe when the electric bill comes in surprisingly low.

*The United States uses coal for about 50% of our energy needs. Mountaintop removal is one of the most efficient but destructive ways of obtaining coal and in the United States the Appalachian region is the hub of this practice. The photo below shows you the span of the Appalachian region and I have included a link to an article that does a great job of outlining the many issues associated with mountaintop removal. While this article was written in 2006, most everything outlined has remained relatively unchanged.