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EcoFacts: The Sun and Us

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

The sun marks our days, it brings us joy and beauty, gives us vitamin D, and in the last few decades, worry.

sunAlthough it is a primary source of all life, some of its radiation – UV, ultraviolet – can be harmful at high levels to many life forms (PDF). In the 70s it became understood that certain common chemicals (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer, which absorbed some of this UV radiation. Regulations were enacted to slow and cease production of these, resulting in a gradual regeneration, in the last few decades, of this beneficial layer, although not to its previous levels.

UV radiation that is not absorbed in the atmosphere (including by ozone) is highest when the sun is high in the sky. When lower, the angle is more dramatic, the pathway longer and there is more atmosphere to absorb it. It is also increased by reflection, which occurs with snowy and sandy surfaces.

More vitamin D is produced when the sun is high in the summer months. For those who might enjoy nude sunbathing, it takes 1 minute of 100% body exposure for our bodies to produce sufficient amounts of Vitamin D. For the rest of us,10 minutes of 10% exposure suffices.

Incidence of cataracts have increased along with UV radiation, and, of course, skin cancers, which have increased dramatically in the last few decades because of the ozone layer, but not coincidentally also due to the tremendous rise in tanning salons over the same period. Those who use them have a much greater risk of getting skin cancer.

Next up: sunscreens.

EcoFacts: Moral Grounds

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Discussions around the globe have been sparked by the Pope’s much anticipated book length document on climate change: On Care for our Common Home

Other spiritual leaders are responding:

The ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual problem… The proper relationship between humanity and the earth or its natural environment has broken with a fall, both outwardly and within us…” (John Zizioulas)

“We are — as never before — in a position to choose charity over greed and frugality over wastefulness in order to affirm our moral commitment to our neighbor and our respect for the Earth. Basic human rights such as access to safe water, clean air and sufficient food should be available to everyone without distinction or discrimination…” Easter Orthodox Church and Anglican Communion)

pope-environmentIs there a moral imperative to live responsibly, in general, and with regard to our environment? The reason so many in the developed world do not, I believe, is that modern life encourages this disconnect, with the drive toward maximum convenience in the shortest time, and immediate gratification. Really, who would not want these when offered them?  The harsh realities behind many of the sources of our needs and pleasures do not invite consideration, we are asked to look the other way.  And, the economic reality is that resources are too cheap for us to be frugal with them.  It’ll be a rough road to a better world.

EcoFacts: The Flow of Oil

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

SB-Oil-Spill-oily-beachWhen the inevitable oil spills occur, it is the thick black stuff flowing onto the ground and waters that gets our attention, and those heart wrenching images of beaches lined with the stuff, of the dead and dying sea mammals and birds.

We hear little about the associated substances in that oil flowing through the pipelines that are dangerous and harmful.  In the last weeks here in Santa Barbara, good people wanted to rush in and help – one figures, so what if we get some oil on us?  At a meeting of the World Business Academy (renewable energy focused) last night, we heard from Becca Claassen, a local community activist, who was a mile from the spill site and felt extreme toxic effects for two days, just from breathing the fumes.  I was on a train going North a couple of weeks ago, and got a closeup view of the cleanup and staging grounds, and the hundreds of people wearing hazmat suits. Here is story from the front lines of the cleanup.

Much of the crude oil that is extracted is too thick to flow through pipelines and requires diluting agents called diluents. As with fracking, oil and gas companies want to keep the nature of these agents proprietary information, but they include benzene, toluene and xylene and are highly toxic, often carcinogenic.

Reports of these substances at and near spill sites and associated health warnings are numerous. Waters near the Refugio spill are currently being tested. Check soon, for the results.

EcoFacts: Santa Barbara Drinking Water

Column by Barbara Hirsch
My journey to find drinking water that I can really enjoy:

faucetIf it isn’t obvious, I cannot buy water in plastic bottles unless forced to, not liking plastic or BPA or the business of it. I do not like the taste of Santa Barbara tap water, nor do I like its chlorine. I admit to buying water from the corner market water dispensers in my 3 gallon glass bottles. But I live in droughtland and have learned a few things, way too late, about that water. Having had some good tasting filtered tap water at a super eco friend’s place, I decided to make the change, but how best? The research began.

Concerns in water are these: mineral content, pH, pathogens, chlorine, fluoride, pesticides, arsenic, lead, mercury, chemicals and more.

Municipal water systems generally produce safe drinking water, usually with the help of chlorine, as does ours here in SB. But we don’t have heavy industry and crop spraying affecting our rain, lake and groundwater as some areas do.

Reverse osmosis (RO) water is what you get from those big dispensers where zillions fill their 1 or 5 gallon bottles. Also those under the counter home systems that have two to four cartridges which are not recyclable and need regular replacing. These systems waste from 1 to 10 gallons for every gallon we drink !!!. They do remove most contaminants, but the good things in tap water – minerals – are also removed, and the water becomes more acidic. Demineralized acidic water is unhealthful. If we’re to drink many glasses of it daily, that is just silly.

The simpler carbon filter systems – faucet or pitcher, like Brita – improve the water, but the filters must be replaced frequently and unless you want to send them in for recycling, think about the number of them in the landfill!

I recently decided that I had to go the filtered tap route – without RO.  I’ve purchased a Berkey gravity fed system that is so effective at purification, it can actually purify pond water, but leaves the minerals in. The filters can be used for thousands of gallons of water. So if our city water system gives out for some catastrophic reason or other, you can all come on over, just bring your pond.

EcoFacts: Good Not Bad

bagsColumn by Barbara Hirsch

I saw a Whole Foods bag that said “Buy Goods, Not Bads” and was struck by this truly great marketing slogan. In a few words, it wants people to see how their market is different from regular supermarkets. But it could also have a greater impact. If focused upon, it might actually cause a pause… in the normal flow of buying, while walking down the aisle of a store, a questioning.

Most certainly, Whole Foods does not only sell products that are good from an objective environmental or social set of standards, that would be impossible in this age. The difference is that shoppers there are more critical than average and hold the business to a higher standard. And they are willing to pay the price for it. Whole Foods and other natural foods stores must deliberate, must be more conscious of the products they offer.

The term “goods”, meaning moveable property, merchandise or wares, comes from an era (13th c.) when most everything that was purchased or traded was needed, e.g. a tool or warmer clothing. Population and technology were such that things could be mined, grown and harvested at a scale that didn’t cause massive environmental degradation. Chemistry (from 17th c. alchemy, natural physical process) was not a world of constant creation of new substances, and production thereof without regard to short or long term effects on health.

About that supermarket aisle –  walk down one and look for foods that are not unhealthfully processed, that do not have ingredients you cannot understand, that do not have unrecyclable packaging. The meat and fish aisle has little flesh of animals that were raised humanely, or caught sustainably and without tremendous loss of other lives (bycatch).  The produce aisle is virtually all grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, much is from across the globe and not particularly fresh. The dry goods aisle is filled with cleaning agents, bug killers and myriad other things whose use and disposal endanger our soil and water, also papers with little recycled content, and plastic things of every shape and use that could be around for centuries and yet are constantly replaced, etc., etc.

The term “consumer” in the 15th c. meant “one who squanders or wastes”.  Funny, it still does. Only now it is us all. So buying more consciously can only be a good thing, yes?

The Pope and Environmental Action

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

2015055818cardinalPope Francis’ closest adviser castigated conservative climate change skeptics in the United States Tuesday, blaming capitalism for their views. Speaking with journalists, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga criticized certain “movements” in the United States that have preemptively come out in opposition to Francis’s planned encyclical on climate change. “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits”…

Pope Francis and the Vatican will soon publish an encyclical that he hopes will have influence on the upcoming U.N. climate meeting in Paris. Here are some of his words.

“Safeguard Creation,” he said. “Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”

The consequences of climate change represent “a serious ethical and moral responsibility” and that the time for action is running out.

“Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude,” Francis said. “It is man who continuously slaps down nature.”I think man has gone too far… Thank God that today there are voices that are speaking out about this.

From a statement by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“The massive fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system deeply disrupts the Earth’s climate and acidifies the world’s oceans. The warming and associated extreme weather will reach unprecedented levels in our children’s life times and 40% of the world’s poor, who have a minimal role in generating global pollution, are likely to suffer the most.”

“Human action which is not respectful of nature becomes a boomerang for human beings that creates inequality and extends what Pope Francis has termed “the globalization of indifference” and the “economy of exclusion”…

EcoFacts: A Look at Nepal

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Coat_of_arms_of_NepalThe country of Nepal takes up an area of between Iowa and Illinois in size, and has a population of around 30 million people, with an average density of over 500 per square mile, however much of the country is mountainous.  There is one good road from India to the Kathmandu valley. More than a third of Nepalese live more than two hours’ walk from an all season road, as most roads are not useable during the rainy season.

Ecoregions and climates vary greatly from tropical to the rock and ice of  high mountains.

Nepal is bordered by India in the south, and Tibet (China) in the north.

80% of the population is Hindu, 10% Buddhist.

About half the population has access to electricity, most energy needs are supplied by wood and ag waste. Fossil fuels make up only 12% of energy sources. Deforestation has been rampant but community forestry is helping to change this trend.

Fertility rate has trended downward, is lower in urban areas than rural, and averages 2.4 children per woman. 

“Nepal is one of the few countries in Asia to abolish the death penalty and the first country in Asia to rule in favor of same sex marriage.”

More than 2/3 of the people rely on farming, only 21% of the country is arable. Rice and other cereal grains are the staple crops.

Besides the thousands of lives and homes lost, the ancient temples, the earthquake has killed livestock, ruined crops and threatens the coming planting season.

A poor country has been made poorer.

*Thanks to Wikipedia

EcoFacts: Two Glimpses of Farming

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

strawberries3Santa Barbara County’s top crop in 2013 was strawberries, their commercial value being nearly three times that of the next one – wine grapes. Delicious sweetness and intoxicating pleasure, these crops give us a snapshot of our region and its small farms, including the people who pick the fruits. Strawberries and wine grapes are economically robust despite the current drought. (Strawberries require much water while grapes are far more drought tolerant.) Many who partake of these can afford organic, and fortunately we have many local farmers who want to fulfill that need. For the rest, pesticide use on strawberries has increased in California in the last few years. A new regulation will limit one of them.
Continue reading…

EcoFacts: Juicy Flesh, Butter on Our Toast‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

No one wants their meat bony and dry, at least the animals themselves and those who eat them don’t. The point being, in the words of a favorite eco writer –  “It takes a lot of water to grow and feed a large mammal, and yet more water to cut it up into small pieces and clean up the mess.” Besides beef and pork, the raising and processing of our poultry and of our dairy cattle for our milk, butter and cheese are also water intensive. Growing alfalfa here uses more water than cash crop almonds, and most of it goes to dairy cows.

ecocattleHow much water? California, behind only Texas, uses between 100 and 250 million gallons of water PER DAY of freshwater withdrawals for livestock production – 47% of all water used in California. In short, most of all of the water used in agriculture in the state is for meat and dairy.  A pound of beef took at least 1600 gallons of water, some estimates run much higher. A half pound burger required the equivalent of tens of showers (at 2-4 gallons per minute).

21% of the country’s milk comes from California and dairy farmers are struggling in this drought. Estimates do vary but some say it takes 109 gallons of water to produce one stick of butter, 683 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. (Soy or coconut milk wins in the milk category, using the least.)

Clearly vegetarians and vegans win with their water footprints.

Thanks to reader Susan for inspiring this research!

EcoFacts: Almonds and Economies‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

I sat this morning happily eating a dish of local almonds and strawberries with some (not local) cereal, coconut and soy milk, and was grateful to have been able to speak to Nate, of Fat Uncle Farms where my almonds came from. Since almonds are a huge product of California AG and use lots of water in a drought stricken state, they’ve been a controversial item in the news lately. Nate’s family relies on these bits of goodness for their living, and he is a cool and articulate guy. As one who is truly knowledgeable, he made it clear to me that this is indeed a complex subject. And so here I am trying to express a nut’s worth of it here.

almondsThere are basically two types of irrigation used for almonds, etc., flood and drip. Flood, as its name would express, uses much more water than drip, which is an expensive system that bigger farms have come to employ, to save on water bills, a good thing. There can be a positive side to the flood type though, and that is that it goes into the ground and recharges acquifers, the water is not “used up”. If there are no bad things in that water, e.g. pesticides and chemical fertilizers, we get it back.

Most of California’s almonds are exported, 80% of the world’s supply comes from California. It is a lucrative cash crop for the state. This gives the big growers more political clout and subsidies, but can also make them less responsive to local conditions. A farmer who sells his goods locally, like Fat Uncle, is perhaps more aware of any local, social and climate repercussions of their activities. Water prices will go up, and the almonds will cost more, people will make that connection. Right now, all almond farmers are risking that they will continue to be profitable, meaning that they will be able to get the water they need, and that is between nature and the state’s water infrastructure and regulations to determine.