11 March 2022

War Wounds the Grandchildren

I read the headline and scrolled past the photo in the news this morning, of a Ukrainian family killed by a Russian mortar, because I knew it would hit me too hard, but then I started reading the article and started sobbing anyway.

The traumas of war last for generations. The Syrians, the Palestinians, the Iraqis, the Ukrainians, and the Russian soldiers will live with this for the rest of their lives, and pass it on to children and grandchildren. 

I know this because my mother was born in East Prussia in 1939. Her father was a soldier who served throughout World War II (yes, on the German side) and was killed in March 1945. She and her family fled East Prussian for what became West Germany in late 1944, spending time in a refugee camp, traveling by horse-drawn carriage (because the army had appropriated all the motor vehicles), at night, when they were less likely to be bombed or shot. 

The stories have been spilling out of the various siblings and cousins recently. One lives in Australia now, two in the US, others in Frankfurt and Munich, but in their minds they are back in early childhood, recalling the bombings and gunfire and fear. 

Children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors know this story well. 

So much fear. 

Fear passed to me as a child by my mother's stories. Fear passed another generation to my son, who as a first-year college student is worried for his friends doing ROTC, and even that he might get called to fight. Fear passed through my mother's stories, and also undoubtedly from me directly, though I couldn't tell you exactly how. 

And the wounds of the war going on in Ukraine right now will be carried into the future by the children. 

A million children are among those who have fled the country. They may return, they may have to make lives elsewhere. 

Either way, they will be scarred, and so will their children, and their children's children.

07 November 2021

Improve NJ Transit, Practically for Free

I sent a letter to NJ Governor Phil Murphy. Go here if you want to send one too.

03 November 2021

Chocolate, Coffee, and Sustainability

Chocolate and coffee are harmful to humans and to the environment in several ways.

Industrial-scale farmers clear forests to plant the trees and shrubs that are the source of coffee and cacao beans. The resulting habitat loss contributes to species extinction, and the loss of trees means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Roasting the beans, manufacturing chocolate bars, and shipping the end products also releases a lot of CO2.

There's a good run-down of the evils of chocolate here, and of coffee, here.

According to Our World in Data, carbon dioxide emissions per kilogram of chocolate and coffee are comparable to those of cheese and shrimp: not as bad as beef and lamb, but many times higher than the carbon footprints of lentils and soy beans.

Go here for a larger version of the chart.

So if you're paying attention to the ecological impacts of your diet, coffee and chocolate are up there, pound for pound. 

As you can see from the chart above, net emissions of tree nuts are about three-tenths of a kilogram of CO2 per kilo of nuts, because the trees themselves take up CO2 as they grow. (On the other hand, they need a lot of water, and farmers in drought-prone places like California probably shouldn't be growing them.) Apples net 0.4 kg of CO2 per kilo, peas 0.9, tomatoes 1.4, and cane sugar 3 kg of CO2 per kilogram consumed. 

But there's a big difference in the quantities consumed. On average, Americans consume nearly 10 pounds of coffee per year and more than 11 pounds of chocolate

That compares to a total of well over 200 pounds per person of meat: in 2020, we averaged almost 100 pounds of chicken, almost 60 pounds of beef, and just over 50 pounds of pork. On top of that, we ate around 16 pounds of fish.

If you're wondering, we ate, on average, 145 pounds of vegetables in 2020. And we consume, on average, just over 150 pounds of sugar every year. 

So the carbon footprint of our sugar turns out to be higher, in the aggregate, than the impact of our coffee and chocolate, which in turn is far lower than the total average carbon footprint of the meat we collectively eat.

In terms of individual choices, it's is environmentally sound to limit consumption of coffee and chocolate, and certainly to seek out shade-grown and fair trade varieties. 

But you'll have a bigger impact if you trade in your gas guzzler for an electric car, put solar panels on the roof of your house, fly as little as possible, and vote for lawmakers who will fund public transportation and renewable energy.

26 October 2021

Yet Another Reason to Lay off Shopping

Americans have been shopping to an unprecendented extent, and that's backing up ports and supply chains over and above anything else going on. 

But hang on, which Americans? The wealthiest 20 percent, of course. People whose income barely covered the basics before the Covid disruptions are also the hardest hit by losing income as a result of illness, job loss, and let's face it, deaths in their families.

A ship bigger than the Empire State Building docked in New York City a few months ago

For my part, I've been buying more books than usual, and they're arriving more slowly than they used to. I can live with that. 

I made the commitment in September of 2019 to stop buying new clothing, and with exceptions like socks, shoes and underwear, I've been doing a fairly decent job of sticking with it. I really should start counting non-thrifted purchases to keep myself honest. I buy most of my clothing from thrift stores, including the online giant ThredUP.

Recently, I mail-ordered a few items, and they took weeks longer to arrive than I expected based on pre-Covid norms. 

But the Atlantic points out that all these back-ups are also putting pressure on the hardest-hit Americans, maybe a quarter or half of us scraping by on not much more than minimum wage, lacking in health insurance, often food insecure.

It's those families, and their kids, that are missing out on school lunches and having trouble getting their hands on needed medications. 

And whose stuff gets shipped faster depends on who can pay more for shipping. It becomes a self-fulfilling loop. Amanda Mull writes:

Over time, it's [shopping has] become an expression of personal identity, a form of entertainment, and a way in which some believe they can effectively participate in politics—people rush to buy from or boycott companies on the basis of their public stances on social issues, and brands have begun to run extensive get-out-the-vote campaigns among their customers.

Reading that article this morning made me think about how many things I buy, and how many of them I don't, in fact, need. Need in the sense of basics: food, shelter, enough clothing to keep warm and comfortable (but not necessarily look extra sharp at work).

Meanwhile, we are learning that recycling isn't the solution. Water bottles can be pretty readily recycled, but there are dozens of different kinds of plastic, and 90 percent of it ends up in the trash. Plastic can't actually be recycled; it can only be "downcycled" into increasingly less reusable materials.

Fast fashion -- cheap clothing that's only worn a few times, is "destroying the planet," according to the not very environmentally forward-thinking New York Times

Amanda Mull's article in the Atlantic made me stop and think again, and re-commit myself to buying less stuff. Just ... everywhere. All the time. Probably even books.

How about you?

06 May 2021

Climate Change: What Can We Do? Political Action

"It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” -- Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

Do something. Start with a place that’s comfortable for you, and then challenge yourself to do more over time. Don’t do nothing. Climate change can feel so big that it’s impossible for individuals to have any impact. But as the BBC reports, Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, has studied non-violent protest movements and discovered that it takes only 3.5% of the population to change the world. More from the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe emphasizes the importance of talking to people: friends, family members, co-workers. Conversations about climate change and possible solutions are crucial to changing culture.

Join your local Environmental Commission, or another organization devoted to action and education around climate issues, and volunteer for local events and activities. If your town doesn’t have an Environmental Commission, start going to Town Council meetings and speaking up. If you have the organizational skills, start an environmental commission. If you don’t, persuade someone else to do it. 

Call and write letters to local and state politicians. You’ll be able to make more of an impact at the local level than nationwide. A lot of important environmental initiatives, like plastic bag bans and improved bike lanes, start local.

If you have a retirement fund, disinvest from fossil fuels. Switch to a green portfolio. 

The Rainforest Action Network publishes a list of banks that fund fossil fuels. If your bank is on the list, consider moving your savings and checking accounts to a different bank. Or start a petition to get your bank to divest from fossil fuels.

On a personal level, here's a list of actions individuals can undertake to reduce their own carbon footprint, as well as a catalogue of resources to help you stay educated as the climate scientists learn more and the engineers come up with better solutions.

What Can We Do about Climate Change? Resources

I recently taught a continuing education course on "Understanding Climate Change." The big thing that the students wanted to know was, "what can we do?" 

Do something political even though the problem seems vast. Climate anxiety and depression are real. You'll feel better if you're taking some kind of action, and if you're in contact with like-minded people.

If you want a deep dive into the science of climate change, Oregon State University publishes an open-access textbook, from which this graphic illustrating climate processes and human influences is drawn.

If you are curious about your individual or household carbon footprint, and what elements of your life are some of the biggest contributors, the Global Footprint Network calculator will give you a quick estimate. If you want more detail and have the patience to enter details about your monthly energy bills, you can get a more accurate picture from the Carbon Footprint calculator.

Everything about climate change, and solutions to it, is in rapid flux, between the impacts of increasing global warming to the technologies available to use less energy. Stay informed by reading websites and subscribing to newsletters.

  • Green America provides resources on climate, food, finance, labor, social justice, and green living.
  • Tree Hugger has sections on news, environment business and policy, home and garden, science, animals, culture, design, and “clean beauty.”
  • Earth Talk gives resources for individuals and educators

You can also curate your social media to get the latest information about climate science and solutions: subscribe to relevant Facebook groups, follow climate scientists on Twitter, Instagram, and/or YouTube.

If you're interested in gardening to support the ecosystem, you might start by reading Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard just published in 2020 by Douglas Tallamy. Buy a copy from Bookshop to support independent bookstores. 

  • National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder will help you find plants that are native to your area and will support the widest range of bees, butterflies, and insects to help the entire ecosystem recover
  • New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Invasive Species Fact Sheets has information about plant species and insects that are not native to New Jersey and should be eradicated
  • Identifying and Removing Aggressive Invasive Species contains photos and descriptions of additional invasive species not listed by the NJDEP.
  • See where people have switched to species that support biodiversity, possibly right in your neighborhood. After you’ve switched your yard over from grass and ornamentals to pollinator-friendly native species, upload your information to Homegrown National Park.

To learn more about solutions, go back to the Footprint Calculator, where you can find a quick overview of solutions in the areas of urban planning, renewable energy, population issues, food (impacts of individual foods, food waste), and the planet (conservation and restoration).

Project Drawdown is a collective of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who have ranked the top 100 solutions for individuals, corporations, and government, in the sectors of electricity; food, agriculture, and land use; industry; transportation; buildings; health and education; land sinks; coastal and ocean sinks; and engineered sinks. To limit increased temperature to 2º C, the single most impactful solution is to reduce food waste.

Finally, here's a quick list of a lot of the things we can do as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. 

Green Your Life (Radical and Non-Radical Versions)

We all need to make fundamental changes to the ways we live, shop, and vote. Many state and local governments are on board, as well as the new presidential administration, but we need to push politicians to do more. We can influence corporate behavior through our shopping habits. And there are a lot of things we can do as individuals that, if many people did, would make big differences.

The Short List
  1. Go vegan
  2. Don't fly
  3. Don't waste food, and don't buy any food with packaging
  4. Kill your car, and use feet, bike, and ground-based public transit instead
  5. Kill your lawn, and replace it with native shrubs and trees that support the ecosystem
  6. Don’t buy new things
  7. Install solar panels on your roof
  8. Refuse consumer culture
  9. Have fewer kids
  10. Get involved with your local environmental group
  11. Talk to friends and family members about what you're doing

I know, I know. That's a pretty extremist list. I'm not there yet, myself.

I still own a car. I have put 50,000 miles on it in the past five years. I moved to a suburban community where it's a lot harder to buy groceries without driving. But I'm working on it.

I have not figured out how to buy food without packaging. But I am making efforts toward less packaging -- dry beans instead of canned, vegetables that aren't wrapped in plastic, and come home in my own reusable bags, home made cashew yogurt and hummus instead of buying them in plastic tubs. I'm committed to buying my clothing used, and my last two electronics purchases were refurbished, but I'm still working on shoes. The list goes on.

The above list is aspirational. I'm working toward it. The ways our communities and infrastructures are organized makes some of these things very difficult.

So here's a list of smaller ideas. Pick something that will be relatively easy for you, so you can get started with success. Find a way to make it a habit. Then pick another. In five years, you'll have changed your life.

Along the way, talk to people about what you're doing, and why. Become an activist, even if it's on a small scale.

The Non-Radical Version
  1. Drive less
  2. Eat less lamb, beef, and cheese, and more plant protein
  3. Say no to fast fashion
  4. Take ground transportation instead of a short haul flight
  5. Move to a smaller home
  6. Downsize to a smaller car
  7. Go for a hybrid, or a plug-in electric car
  8. Take the train instead of driving, and definitely instead of flying
  9. Combine errands instead of making individual trips by car
  10. Call your elected representatives and tell them you support a carbon tax
  11. Postpone a purchase, and think about if you really need it
  12. Repair something instead of buying new
  13. Compost
  14. Recycle
  15. Eschew excess packaging
  16. Bar soap instead of liquid (see above)
  17. Turn off the tap
  18. And extra lights
  19. Add insulation
  20. Call your town administrator and advocate for laws favoring native, non-invasive plants
  21. In the winter: put on a sweater and turn down the heat
  22. Summer: drink ice water, use a fan instead of, or in addition to, air conditioning
  23. Haunt thrift shops: buy used instead of new (clothing, household items, and more)
  24. Vote for mass transit
  25. Be obsessive about food waste
  26. Make sure your car and your a/c units aren't leaking refrigerant
  27. Get off junk mail lists (both snail and email)
  28. Don't buy anything packed in styrofoam
  29. Get a reusable coffee cup
  30. Drink shade grown, bird friendly coffee (and tea and chocolate)
  31. And other organic foods -- they might be healthier for you, and they're definitely healthier for farms workers as well as for bugs, birds, and other critters all up and down the food chain
  32. Stop drinking bottled water
  33. While you're at it, give up soda -- it's not doing you or the environment any good
  34. When you need to replace an appliance, get an energy efficient one
  35. Get your community to invest in good sidewalks and bike lanes
  36. Vote for renewable energy
  37. Eat local food as much as possible
  38. Persuade your school, workplace, religious institution, and other places you spend time to adopt environment friendly policies
  39. Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth or washing dishes
  40. Take shorter showers
  41. FINALLY: Keep educating yourself about environmental issues, and keep finding ways to make change. Here's a list of resources.