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EcoFacts: The Economics of Water

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

waterAn email arrived a few days ago announcing the proposed water rate increases in Santa Barbara, the revenue from which would be used to help manage our ever dwindling water supplies, and possibly reactivate a very expensive desalinisation plant that was never put into use. Much has been written on the City’s water situation with Cachuma’s level being around 28% and Gibraltar’s even lower. But, if people are paying an extra $15 or $20 a month (not including Montecito here) will they change their water use ways and conserve considerably more? Still though, water remains one of the lowest utility bills, even as its importance is rising fast due to drought, flooding and climate change. A survey of 30 cities in the U.S. shows that water prices have increased 33% since 2010, even in places where rain is plentiful, but infrastructure maintenance is not. And flooding does not bring water to drink.

Also in this past week at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, global elite have been meeting to discuss the world’s greatest challenges. “For the first time, water crises took the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s 10th global risk report, an annual survey of nearly 900 leaders in politics, business, and civic life about the world’s most critical issues. Water ranked third a year ago.” This was in the Societal Risk category. In the Environmental Risk category, extreme weather events was first.

All to say, that more focus on the subject is needed in the world’s richest places, and in its poorest, where access to clean water can be a day’s work. The comfortable have long taken it for granted because it seemed plentiful, and its price supported that view. It does always seem to end up being about economics.


EcoFacts: Cutting the Grease

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

It all comes out in the wash. Meaning either that everything will be okay in the end, or that the truth will eventually become clear . In our modern world, it also points to the fact that all of those magic liquids and powders and sprays we use to wash our clothes, dishes, cars, surfaces, ends up in our bodies, or others.

ewg2The Environmental Working Group is a champion for learning about the relative safety of products we use. Their consumer guides and databases are readily available, including Skin Deep for personal care products and their Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Products are rated with regard to their effects on asthma, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer, and environmental factors, including aquatic toxicity. Actual ingredients are rated.

Take laundry detergents. All Tide products fail – some are graded D but most get Fs, including their “Clean Breeze” and their “Tide 2X Ultra Pure Essentials with Baking Soda”. Same with Cheer, Fab, ALL, Trader Joe’s and some avowedly green cleaners. Dreft is advertised as for babies 0-18 months, and fails, due to chemicals of high concern for developmental toxicity! Hooray for Martha Stewart though, whose own brand gets an A.

The EPA also has a good page that discusses key characteristics of ingredients in detergents, those being surfactants, builders, bleaches, colorants, brighteners and solvents. But they left out fragrances, the most mysterious and often dangerous substances. And here is Grist’s latest word on the subject, although they offer many!

In the end, with all of that wash water flowing into our lakes and oceans, and even though petrochemicals have suddenly gotten much cheaper, plant based ingredients will probably always be more healthful for us and the fish.


EcoFacts: Fueling Our Future‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsSpeaking of bright energy futures, we have an organization here in S.B. that is devoted to this goal. The name is surprising - the World Business Academy. The clincher is its defining caption and descriptor “Taking Responsibility for the Whole“.

Business is the most powerful voice on the planet, says Matt Renner, executive director, “the Academy has been working at the intersection of business and consciousness for 27 years.” The founding president, Rinaldo Brutoco, is a businessman, through and through. When he began this work, sustainability was not an issue in the business world. But change was clearly in the air. Another founder wrote back then “the modern world is undergoing a period of fundamental transformation… the role of business in that transformation is absolutely crucial.”

Certainly this transformation is multi-faceted – economic, political, environmental. But I recently joined this organization, because other than population, energy is our greatest environmental concern, and humanity’s future depends on its relationship to the stuff. Will it be burn, baby, burn until we can no longer, or a whole new paradigm? The latter, we hope, and this organization is working towards that. Business has greater sway on government than individuals, and more than any other entity needs fuel for its engines – safe, clean fuel would be better, yes? And like government, it has both a moral and ethical responsibility towards the people it serves.

Through its work with the California Public Utilities Commission, the World Business Academy helped to close San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Diego and is now working to shut down California’s last one, a disaster waiting to happen on earthquake faults just north of us – Diablo Canyon.

Microgrids are another of its goals. More on that cool subject, later.

The safe, clean fuels of the future? Some are as yet unknown, but fortunately for us, water, wind, sunshine and hydrogen abound.


EcoFacts: Sunny Energy Outlook in 2015

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

For ecofacts 10th year, we begin with good news in the energy realm boding well for 2015.

A glut in the oil markets mean less profitable production. How’s that Keystone pipeline looking now?

Gas-price-down-arrow8Humorous perspective I thought, in a headline from USA TODAY: Oil prices fall 46% in 2014, worst since 2008 Terrible, isn’t it? And so gasoline and heating oil prices are down – for drivers that’s $500-600 for a year, average.

Most of us heat with natural gas and much of our electricity comes from it as well. Those prices dropped 32% in 2014, due to some extent to fracking, and new drilling for it now becomes less profitable, being more expensive than conventional. And though Santa Barbara voted its ban down, two other counties did vote to ban it, along with New York and many other places.

In June the EPA vowed by 2030 to “cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels, which is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year” and will decrease rates of asthma and premature death.

Solar now costs less than buying electricity from the utilities in California and Deutsche Bank predicts in 2 years this will be true in practically every state. Electric heating and cooking will becoming more attractive, requiring less fracked gas!

Energy storage is an issue for wind and solar, other than rooftop grid connected solar, and battery costs are going down by 15% each year. “Citigroup last week cited $230/kWh as the key mark where battery storage wins out over conventional generation and puts the fossil fuel incumbents into terminal decline.” This will happen within two or three years.

Speaking of batteries, the Tesla S is among the best selling luxury cars in U.S. (no.1 best in 2013), and it costs $5 for a charge to go over 200 miles. Rich, cool people get to spend even less to drive. I drove one once (albeit very briefly), and it was indeed spectacular.

I also got lucky and tried a hydrogen fuel cell car, similar – extremely quiet and smooth, fast acceleration. Now if hydrogen can be produced with little or no fossil fuels, like our local Hypersolar is working on… then YES! much better than electric. Here is a well researched bit on that technology.

Happy New Year, dear ecofacts readers!


EcoFacts: Lunar Happenings

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Last Sunday brought us the winter solstice – the shortest day ushering in the winter, and the southernmost sunrise and sunset in our northern hemisphere skies. As the new moon corresponded closely with the solstice we also had very high and low tides here is Santa Barbara and great beach walks for the holiday time.

Low TideTides are at their greatest range with new moons and full moons. From new moon to full is 14 3/4 days. With such a great effect on our large bodies of water, how about us living creatures, also sustained by water?

A wise older friend of mine suggested planting while the moon was waxing. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, root vegetables should be planted during the waning of the moon, and above ground fruits and veggies should be planted during the waxing of the moon. These guides are based on the gravitational pull of moisture in the soil.

Activities of sea creatures are at least affected by the light of the moon if not the tides. At fish markets on an island of the Phillippines, reef fish are plentiful during the new moon, and not at all during the full, when they retreat into the reefs.

Some experience that our appetites and cravings are greater when the moon waxes, and that dieting or fasting is easier as it wanes.

My neighbor is an emergency room nurse and agrees with the common understanding among hospital workers that full moons are not good times for the ER. And though studies have refuted this “lunatic” connection, the nurses have their own experiences to gird them.

One correlation that has recently been proven is with our sleep. Participants in a study unaffected by amount of light from the moon or knowledge of its phase slept less AND less deeply during the full moon.

Here’s to greater connections between us and the natural world, and explorations thereof, in 2015!


EcoFacts: Good Eco Cheer

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Re: The state of the world. There is actually some news to celebrate, while chatting with friends and family over drinks and good food this holiday season….or at least inwardly one can be glad.

The race to get as much oil and gas from the ground as possible has slowed considerably, thanks to plunging energy prices, and in some cases, concerns about fracking. In New York State, Governor Cuomo has banned fracking following reports from state health officials, one of whom summed it up by saying that he would not want his family living nearby fracking operations. As for the other kind of gas, everyone who drives received a raise for the holiday season, spending less on it for their daily and holiday travels..

Could it be the first time in human history? This month, virtually all of the governments in the world came together, after 36 straight hours of negotiations, to strike a deal – the Lima Accord. The entire world is now on board to lower emissions from burning fossil fuels, in an effort to stave off the worst effects of climate change, understanding that the costs are both human and economic. (Could any costs be just one?)

Last month, the U.S. and China, the worlds’ biggest emitters, made a separate joint agreement to cut their emissions in the coming decades.

In one year – 2012-2013 – global renewable energy capacity (not including hydro) grew 17%. Countries with renewable energy policy targets grew from 48 to 144 in ten years. In the same period, annual new investment in renewables soared, from $40 billion to $214 billion.

bikesharePublic bike sharing programs have nearly doubled in the past three years, and are now in over 700 cities. The two largest are in China, pictured right.

In Paris, Mayor Ann Hidalgo is planning to clean up the air and traffic congestion by banning diesel vehicles from the city center and limiting four central districts of the city to bikes and pedestrians. Whoa! I suppose some negotiations will be in the works there.

Here’s to a changing world!


EcoFacts: Christmas and our National Character

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

holidays$In one sense, the Christmas season gives us another definition of “purchasing power”, as it is, after all, a season of giving and sharing, a time when we think more of others. If we get a charge buying things and spending money, the pleasure is even greater doing this for family, friends, and charity. And the big boost to our market economy can’t be ignored, the workings of which are viewed as “stores sell the products that people want to buy and, in turn, companies produce items that stores want to stock”. Sales get a huge boost in these weeks, and as we’ve been taught all along, this is very beneficial for our economy. In fact for a century or more it has been considered patriotic to spend our money as much as possible, more than to save it.

Business Week says today “Americans brimmed with confidence in early December as they shopped for holiday gifts, signaling retailers will see sales continue to accelerate heading into 2015.” Hooray! In this way we learn that brimming with confidence means buying lots of stuff. Successful people do this.

David M. Potter, an historian writing in his book People of Plenty 60 years ago, told of how the tremendous abundance of resources (seemingly limitless) in this country led to its economic abundance, and then our culture’s orientation towards consumption. This was transformed by the rise of marketing, what was then called advertising, which he ranked with education and religion as American institutions that have most shaped our national character. In order for companies to grow, society had to learn “to crave these goods or to regard them as necessities.” Producers of similar products all want to grow indefinitely and so must distinguish their goods and brands “if not on essential grounds then on trivial ones” to assure their place in the market.

Has ecofacts gone too far afield? No, because economics require resources and hence determine our connection, or lack thereof, to the planet, whether as individuals or as a society. No worries though, I’ll move on to more useful topics…. hopefully. Meanwhile, MERRY GIVING!

*Charles Wheelan – Naked Economics


EcoFacts: Enough!

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

It’s holiday time. Abundant food, drink, things purchased, and then the requisite abundance of waste that follows.

Americans have the highest calorie intake in the world, not surprising, at 3770 per day, but it is only 110 more per day than bread-pasta-gelato loving Italians. This number is a bit misleading, though, because it includes waste, as they can only count what is produced, or what we buy, not what we actually eat. A restaurant has stats on the number of meals served, but only the garbage bill to indicate what is scraped off the plates. I have so often eaten more than I wanted because of not wanting to waste it, then realized one day that those extra bites simply became a different kind of waste in my body. I so wish more restaurants would offer different sized servings. A cool place I went to years ago in the Hague offered small, medium and large plates of each of their menu items. Loved that.
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EcoFacts: Layers of Abundance

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

The nature of abundance vs. scarcity is fascinating to me, and this time of year brings it to the fore, when giving and receiving are in focus. Decisions to buy things or services as gifts, and for whom, the temptations to buy for myself, when I need nothing. Materially, I have a bit of scarcity mentality, realizing this when I feel I must be sure to have more than just enough of something, which can lead to waste. Having to go to the store once instead of twice could be part of it, but certainly not all. It seems I am always seeking a state of abundance….on some level or other.

Santa Barbara Farmers Market by Bill Heller

And yet it surrounds me, I already have it. My life is full of abundance – I can eat, usually, when I like, and eat until I’m full if I wish, and good, clean wholesome food of all kinds, and fresh fruits and vegetables abound here. The farmer’s market is certainly a local symbol of abundance. I live in a place of abundant beauty and get to experience it daily. I have lots of good work, friends and family, I have good health.

There are such layers of abundance, perceived and actual, personal and societal, material and spiritual. They are all sought after. And, there is the calmness of enough. Good health is the most important thing we seek and yet we cannot really apply abundance to it. We either have it or it is lacking. Healthy enough to enjoy life is what we seek there. After that, love is the next most important part of life, and abundance we seek there too, but it cannot be forced, only allowed. It flows freely when the sources are there, and we have enough.

If only we could have more rain….or enough, anyway.

(Santa Barbara Farmers Market photo by Bill Heller)


EcoFacts: Waste as a Cultural Signifier‏

Weekly column by Barbra Hirsch

Eco FactsAs we approach Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I hope to explore our notions of abundance and waste. Just a little bit!

The word waste plays a huge role in recent human civilization. It is meaning-full – as a noun – trash or garbage, or a failed opportunity; and as a verb, to squander or destroy. Archeologists and anthropologists of the future will find much to say about human civilization in the last century or so by our garbage, our landfills, our wasteful use of resources and perhaps our wasted human potential seen in retrospect.

How was it that in the last century, we, especially in this huge nation, became a society of wasters? Those who were born before the Depression had a different idea of the use of goods, water and energy. I am grateful for my mother’s influence on me in these ways. Her parents lost their wealth in the crash and then struggled for the rest of their lives. Everything had its own inherent value, like a piece of clothing passed down again and again, Things were used until their useful life was over, and then they were often turned into something else, because what went into them often still had some value.

The decades after WWII brought such material wealth with it, and with it came waste. As things were mass produced and dropped in price, their value dropped too, waste became much more justifiable. Our resources in this great land were so plentiful, seemingly endless, and their cost low, so the waste could happen in industry and production just as easily as in the home. Everything came easily. Easy come easy go.The landfills were far from our homes so we need not be reminded by the amount and contents of our trash. And things became a much bigger part of our lives.

We have come to be defined by our possessions. Whether or not we are materially wealthy, buying things has become a chief form of entertainment. We have been surrounded by abundance and now our closets, garages, storage units and landfills are full. But as Thanksgiving approaches we usually realize that most of what we have to be grateful for is not the stuff in our closets.