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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.

EcoFacts: Good Wood Governing

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

newnatreslogoSo now that Republicans have much more control around the country than they have had for a long while, it will be interesting to watch both the constructive and dismantling forces at work, since generally this party supports efforts to build business and wealth, and cutting regulations that might infringe upon those efforts. Not there will be massive change. People tend to resist that.

Speaking of constructive, logging makes a great metaphor for these forces and their relationship to resources. Cut down forests to sell the wood, construct buildings, furniture and make paper, or burn it for fuel. Take what can be taken if there is a demand for the stuff, the greater the demand, the more money can be made. And it’s not as if all that has been taken and used has been needed, as the inclination to waste has probably increased in parallel to corporate growth and marketing in the last century.

The U.S is the largest consumer of wood products, both domestic and imported. In the U.S. – “Since 1600, 90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away. Virtually all of this happened before this past century (see maps) when regulations began to preserve it. “Most of the remaining old-growth forests in the lower 48 states and Alaska are on public lands. In the Pacific Northwest about 80% of this forestland is slated for logging.”

I guess we can thank government and regulation for those public lands, and a famous Republican from a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt, an original American conservationist who started the Forestry Service and of our natural resources stated “I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” In short, sustainable forestry.

To many now, it appears that forest management means cutting restrictions on logging. This, from a just re-elected member of congress, and much more if you follow the link “The U.S. Forest Service was designed to protect our forests for the next generation and preserve it for our kids to enjoy. Instead what they continue to do is hold our forests hostage”…..meaning not allow them to be cut down.

The committee above created the “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” (H.R. 1526) which passed in the Republican majority House a year ago, has progressed no further, yet. All of the cosponsors of the bill were Republican and among the biggest supporters were the American Loggers Council.

Ecofacts: Down to Earth

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

rain-grondThis morning I was wishing for rain here in Southern Cal. and thinking about concrete…. I suddenly realized, this is not an oxymoron!  The connection is ground.

I heard the depressing news the other day, that China has poured more concrete in the last 6 years than we in the U.S. have in 300. That is one hell of a lot of concrete, whose emissions are as much as 10% of global CO2. –  there is the mining and trucking of ingredients, the firing up of the kiln that cooks the limestone into the cement that binds the concrete (2700 degrees), then the mixing, the carrying of the weighty stuff, etc.. The rest of that story was how scientists were working on greener cement by making it stronger, with less energy intensive ingredients. Not much glory in researching cement, until your work impacts the global environment, that is!
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EcoFacts: the Three

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

All of us living creatures are sustained by food, water and air. And we determine the quality of these, little us (really big 7 billion strong us) , in one way or another. We seem so small and insignificant, but as an engaged citizenry – no, we are not. Unengaged, we give the power to others to decide things for us.

UnclesamwantyouThe food writer, Mark Bittman, wrote recently: “To a large extent, you can fix the food system in your world today. Three entities are involved in creating our food choices: business (everything from farmers to PepsiCo), government (elected and appointed officials and their respective organizations) and the one with the greatest leverage, the one that you control: you.”

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EcoFacts: Frack Away?

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

No-fracking-logoSteadily increasing attention on fracking, and regulation thereof, can ONLY be a good thing. This “less conventional” method and associated ones for extracting oil and natural gas was employed for many years with little notice. In the last 15 years, the amount of gas obtained here in the U.S. from fracking has gone from 1% to 25%, much higher by some estimates. Of oil, the increase has been similarly astronomic. The coming election will see initiatives around the country to regulate these methods, including Measure P in Santa Barbara.

Arguments in favor of these methods are energy independence and jobs/economy. However, the funders of the campaigns for fracking are primarily oil/energy companies, not citizens. it is clear that profits are the first and foremost argument in favor, unless you believe these companies are working above all for the greater good.

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EcoFacts: Lighting the Way

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

blauwe_ledNobel prizes were awarded this week to the inventors of blue LEDs, including Shuji Nakamura, a professor here at UCSB. You may ask what the significance is. Red and green LEDs were invented in the 60s. It took until the 90s for these fellows to create higher energy blue light from a light emitting diode, which, when combined with red and green form white, enabling multi colored and white lighting. Then came the screen technology we use daily in our phones, computers, tvs, etc.. and, those LED lightbulbs, which are even more efficient than CFL bulbs, don’t have any mercury in them, and can last for decades.

The costs of these bulbs, like the screens that proceeded them, have been dropping, making them more economically viable for us, but also for those who have been previously without any form of electric light. Using so much less power, they can easily be powered by solar.

I have been enjoying a small lightweight solar powered LED lamp for my work, and lights for my bike. I don’t need to buy batteries for them and the bulbs will last for thousands of hours. But think of what these devices can do for people who have been using kerosene lamps, buying the kerosene and breathing the fumes. A third of all people have either no or limited access to electricity. LED technology is a boon in these regions, as it is for everyone.

If all lighting in the U.S. was replaced with LED forms, electricity consumption would drop 20%, the amount produced by nuclear power plants, or by half of all coal used today.

The timing of this Nobel is pretty cool, too. This year, old fashioned incandescent bulbs of the 40 and 60 watt variety will no longer be manufactured, following the demise of the 100 and 75 watt varieties. I miss that light a bit, but its time has clearly passed. For beautiful warm light, we’ll just have to go outside.