01 March 2020

Reduce your Carbon Footprint for Lent

The suggestion comes around every year that instead of giving something up for Lent, folks should use the season to declutter their homes, finding one item per day to give away.

The problem is, we're drowning in excess stuff. Decluttering, whether to spark joy or find God, doesn't address the problem of how we got all that stuff.

I'm going to suggest, instead, taking action to reduce your carbon footprint for the days of Lent.

Instead of giving things away for Lent, we could give up buying things. Give up a category, like clothing, and make the things you have in your home work for a few weeks longer.

Or give up food waste. Or plastic supermarket bags. Or single-use plastic packaging.

Or give up beef, as the meat that's highest in emissions, and for the 40 days of the holiday eat only fish and fowl. Or reduce the quantity of meat you eat rather than the kinds.

In the solar year, Lent crosses the last few weeks of winter and the first few weeks of spring, a time when many of us are waiting eagerly for light and warmth, the change of season that will bring more light and enable more outdoor time and allow us to manufacture more vitamin D as we shed winter layers and take a big breath of relief that the dark cold of winter is over

For our ancestors, it was the hungry time, when stores of late summer and fall crops like potatoes and apples were running out and the spring lettuces and early berries had yet to grow.

Giving up a category of food as a religious exercise was a way to give meaning to the season's privations.Today, though, while poverty is an entrenched and serious problem, it doesn't follow the solar seasons the way it used to.

Today, referigeration and global shipping allow us access to wide varieties of foods year-round -- so much so that if you didn't grow up in a rural community, you might not actually know what foods are seasonally available in your local area.

Lent is a short time frame during which you can try out an action that will reduce your carbon footprint, and see if it will work for you in the longer term.

What do you think?

09 February 2020

Circular Economies

To slow the release of carbon into the atmosphere, we can turn to renewable energy and biodegradable packaging, but to stop it, we need to return to a circular economy, with localized nodes all over the world.

Our current global and local economies depend on "natural resources" and "human resources" with the assumption that these are limitless, that the earth possesses or will continue to generate enough raw materials for the endless production and transport of new goods. In fact, many of our global industries depend not just on stable markets, but continuously growing ones, for financial stability. We have now reached the point where this will no longer allow for environmental sustainability.

In order to reach a point of truly circular economy, we need to reuse, recycle, compost, or burn (as fuel) everything we produce. And we're doing a terrible job at that.

While glass and metals can readily be recycled and similar products created, with less energy output than refining new materials, recycling plastic is much more difficult. Plastic, once produced, can't be melted down and re-used in the same form.

Water bottles (#1 plastic), for instance, can be made into fleece sweaters, but not into new plastic water bottles. There's a problem, though: every time you launder that fleece, you release microplastics into your town sewer system, and they end up in the ocean where they're killing wildlife.

Here's a table from Oxford University that summarizes how plastics are generally recycled by communities:

Go here for the full-size image

It turns out, though, that the situation isn't quite as dire, in theory: Plastics labeled  #2, #3, #4, and #5 can be turned into plastic wood. The town of Long Branch started a program last year to recycle plastic bags and wrappers (#4). They promised a park bench after 500 pounds of packaging was collected, and this January, the first bench was installed near Lake Takanassee.


Meanwhile, the town of Middletown, NJ recently opened a styrofoam recycling center, open to residents of the entire county. It only collects styrofoam used in packaging and shipping, not food-grade products, so you still need to get a reusable mug for your Dunkin Donuts coffee, and avoid take-out that's packaged in styrofoam.

There's a breakdown, however, been theory and practice. Between 1950 and 2015, the amount of plastic products produced annually rose almost 200-fold, from 2 million metric tons per year to 381 million metric tons, and only 9 percent of that was recycled.

We need to do better, and when it comes to plastics we need to address this in several different ways.

Governments need to enact carbon taxes to encourage corporate and individual consumers to use less carbon, by making it more expensive.

Producers of plastic products need to do a better job of making containers out of more easily recyclable products when possible, researching and developing biodegradable containers, and avoiding excess packaging.

Consumers need to send a message through individual purchases and buying habits that we don't want plastic. We need to:

  • stop buying bottled water and other products packaged in single-use plastics
  • refuse excess packaging, for instance when we buy loose produce
  • advocate with local and state governments to enact plastic bag bans, and meanwhile make the choice to use reusable bags for our shopping
  • boycott Dunkin Donuts and other corporations that still use styrofoam instead of paper hot drink cups, and tell them why
... and more. Those are starting points, not end points. We need to move to an economy where everything we produce can be repurposed in some way. It's going to take imagination and persistence. If we don't do it voluntarily, the effects of climate crisis will force the issue.

05 January 2020

Biking in New York

After a bad crash almost three years ago, I've been biking in New York again. Some things have changed, some things have not.

Unchanged: pedestrians. They step into the street without paying attention, they walk in the bike lane, they text and walk, they behave with complete unpredictability. I appreciate the anarchy on a philosophical level, but on a practical level I’d like them to acquire some level of self-preservation.

Changed: a flashy new protected two-way bike lane on 20th Street, between 1st Avenue and the East River. That used to be the scariest part of my ride, with unprotected bike lanes going both directions on a two-way street, constantly blocked by parked and stopped cars, an access road on the other side of a sidewalk, and parked cars that made it really hard to know where the next 2000-pound barrel of death might come from.

Changed: protected on-way lanes on some of the cross streets, with plastic bollards to keep the cars out AND no line of parked cars, so you can actually see the traffic.

Unchanged: construction projects that block the bike lane, forcing cyclists out into the stream of motorized traffic streaming down the avenues.

Unchanged: drivers that use the bike lane as a stopping zone, loading zone, unloading zone, delivery zone, temporary parking. Whatever. Sometimes, every block has an obstruction in the bike lane.

Unchanged: the “protected” bike lanes on the avenues with a line of parked cars that make it so you can’t see the traffic, you don’t know if a driver is going to open a door into your path, and if a pedestrian steps in front of you, your options are to slam on the brakes or hit a parked car. Sometiems both.

Changed: the sheer numbers of cyclists. There are more of them than ever. This provides a certain amount of protection by sheer numbers, because drivers know to look for us. But New Yorkers being New Yorkers, it also means a net increase in chaos, with more people riding against traffic in one-way bike lanes.

Unchanged: the city still doesn't have an infrastructure or a culture that prioritizes anything other than motor vehicles. Vision Zero is still a dream.

02 January 2020

More Biking in the New Year

I teach a couple of classes in which I ask students to undertake a semester-long personal project where they commit to some small change that will benefit the environment. I generally make my own commitment as well, and write about it in the same on-line discussion board where the students write about theirs.

My point: we can’t stop climate change, but we can make it less bad. It’s going to take efforts on the parts of individuals, corporations, AND governments. It’s our problem, not somebody else’s.

In the Fall, I told my Humans and the Environment students that I was going to do my grocery shopping by bike.

I failed spectacularly. I made it to the supermarket twice all semester.

When I’ve lived in Cambridge, I’ve done all of my shopping by bike, regardless of weather conditions. I didn’t have a car, so I had no choice. I shopped once or twice a month at the big supermarket on the other side of town, on weekends at the farm stand, and at the small shop in the center of town when I needed something quick.


And when living in NYC, I’ve always done all of my shopping on foot or by bike. Parking, at both ends, is just too much of a hassle.

But having a car in New Jersey, and the presence of ample free parking everywhere, made it too easy to drive.

I’ll pat myself on the back for this: even though it wasn’t an articulated goal, I always managed to bike to the gym when I wasn’t already on campus for teaching and meetings. I also either walked or biked to work almost every single day, except for the weeks when I had walking pneumonia.

This spring, I’ll try again to add grocery shopping into the biking mix.

Problem in the fall: I didn’t make my goal concrete enough, and I didn’t give myself time to get up to speed. Plan for spring: In January, I’ll aim for at least one trip to the supermarket by bike, in February, at least two, in March, at least three, and thereafter, four per month (or once a week).

Problem in the fall: I didn’t commit to times or days when I was going to shop by bike. Solution: I’ll pick the days and plan ahead to make sure I have the time and equipment.

Problem in the fall: I didn’t plan ahead. I’d be at the end of the work day and realize I was missing a key ingredient for dinner. Plan: always bike to work with an empty pannier, locks, and lights so I can ride by the supermarket on the way home.

Also, I’ll be more careful about planning menus at the beginning of the week and buying groceries that will support them, rather than buying a bunch of random stuff that looks good and assuming it will come together.

Problem in the fall: I didn’t pick specific stores that I was going to bike to. Proposed solution: plan one trip to the health food store, one trip to each of the two closest supermarkets, and one trip to the farmer’s market. Figure out what I can do comfortably, and then do it.

Wish me luck. Hold me accountable. And tell me what you’re doing this year to make a difference.


20 November 2019

Green Holiday Gift Guide

The holidays are hard on the environment. In the US, people generate 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day -- including uneaten food, giftwrap, packaging, decorations, and last year's phones and computers. Then there are the unwanted gifts that people don't know what to do with, many of which also end up in the trash.

It's time to rethink gift-giving. Regifting can be a positive thing. An older family member who was downsizing gave me a lovely wooden salad bowl one year. It became a treasure. If you're just passing on something that the recipient won't want and can't use, it's not going to be appreciated, but regifting can be done thoughtfully and tactfully.

It's time to rethink giftwrap. My family has a long history of wrapping gifts in paper tied with ribbon, no tape used, that can then easily be saved for another year. We also cut taped paper and re-use that. One year, my mother sewed a bunch of cloth gift bags. I usually use gift bags with tissue paper -- with a little care, endlessly reusable.

But with those caveats, we want to give gifts to our loved ones. So, a few thoughts.

Don't go overboard. I'll admit, I like to have a little gift for my son for every day of Hanukah. One day it might be the skateboard or commuter bag he's had his eye on. Another day it might be a shirt or a hoodie I think he'll like. Other days, it will be a snack or treat of some sort. But I try to keep most of it low-key, and a combination of food he'll enjoy, clothes he can wear, and stuff he's been wanting. 

I know some folks appreciate it more than others, but I often make a charitable donation in lieu of a physical gift. Planned Parenthood, Heifer International, and the Sierra Club are some of the organizations I've supported in this way, but that's something that has to be personalized to both giver and recipient.

Another alternative is to give green products, and this is also a way to communicate with friends and family members about why you're doing this. You might give shade grown coffee, responsibly sourced tea, or ethically grown chocolate, with an explanation of what fair trade and environmentally responsible farming practices mean. 

If you're going to buy someone clothing, save up for a quality piece that will last, both in terms of construction and fashion, and look for a company with policies friendly to both labor and environment

Beware of green-washing. Overconsumption is a major driver of climate crisis, and even "green" products have production and transportation related emissions.

And don't forget folks who can't afford to give their families gifts. Consider making a donation to an organization that helps poor people at the holidays. And then vote in politicians who will raise the minimum wage and enact single-payer health insurance and make other inroads into the American scourge of poverty.

Just keep thinking. The holidays are stressful for all kinds of reasons. But try to keep environmental issues in sight as well. Other ideas? Please post in the comments, and I'll update.

03 November 2019

Mitigation, or Retreat?

Climate crisis is driven by the drive for constantly expanding profits and markets and the assumption that the earth’s resources are limitless. This letter is being sent to California homeowners in areas at risk of fire:


This is ugly, and represents the market- and profit-driven expectations of capitalism taken to their extremes. The insurance industry is refusing to insure those who need it most. The fires are caused in the immediate sense by greedy power-company executives who chose profits over equipment maintenance, but the droughts promoted by human activities over recent decades created the conditions that enable them.

But we are not going to be able to stop drought and flooding and other effects of climate change, and in some cases we are going to need to retreat from areas that we have destroyed or placed at high risk of fire and flood. If the insurance companies drive this because they are accurately assessing risk when no one else is, it’s tragic in the short term but may help us find a way forward in the medium and long terms. Which is, literally, cruel irony.

03 October 2019

Action at Different Scales

Yesterday, I sat in a faculty meeting concerning the fate of our first year seminar (it lost) while fighting the urge to jump up and point out that it was 94 degrees outside, demolishing the previous record for October 2 in our coastal town, which will surely be threatened in coming decades by rising seas.

I went home and sat outside my house in the remnants of the day’s heat. I read the day’s news out of Washington, pondering what looks like the collapse of the American experiment in democracy, and scrolled social media posts about the explosion in medieval studies, with senior scholars (white and privileged) ignoring or outright denying the need for changes in how we teach and talk about our discipline given its roots in British imperial expansionism and its current appeal to white supremacists.

I heard squealing. Two squirrels were fighting, and when I got up to investigate, the larger squirrel fled, leaving the smaller one nearly unconscious.

My partner wrapped the little guy in a piece of old towel and deposited her / him in the crotch of a tree to recover. When we investigated an hour or so later, she looked brighter of eye, but frightened by flashlight-wielding humans. By morning she was gone. The scrap of towel was undisturbed, and we hoped she had scurried away under her own power, rather than being taken by a hunter seeking weakened prey, or a scavenger.

In the face of what looks like impending global catastrophe on both climatological and political grounds, it seems ridiculous to worry about squirrels or professors fighting for territory. It seems pointless to plant a few flowers to support the local monarch butterfly population when global systems appear to be on the verge of collapse.

But I think it’s precisely because catastrophe seems so imminent that it’s important to keep attending to the small things. Being able to hold in mind and heart the fate of the smallest beings keeps me from getting lost in the whirlwind of terrifying global events. Helps keep me from losing faith in the possibilities for positive change. Maybe, too, it keeps me human.

I didn’t get a photo of the little squirrel. But here’s a chipmunk that visited my back yard a few weeks ago. Stay grounded, y’all.