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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.

EcoFacts: Musings…

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

It is not a facts day. I’ve been thinking about “connection”, and how the uses of this word have evolved in recent history, and in my own….

I ride my bike and walk quite a bit and so very often I connect with people on the street whom I know, but frequently also with strangers. A hello and smile from a stranger always gives me a big lift, and it happens quite often, this warmth and very real connection in the human community and in my own. I also connect with people’s pets, yards, flowers (yes, their scents) trees, fleeting bits of conversations as people walk by. I feel the weather, changes in the light and breeze, clouds passing. I am closer to the community or “the land” even if it is the suburban or urban version of the romantic ideal.

This rarely happens when one is driving a car, at least in an urban environment. It is one reason I think, why drivers so often have little patience with bikes and pedestrians. There is little empathy there, as they are in an entirely different world, their own encapsulated world, windows rolled up, radio playing, and that possibly not-felt-enough tremendous power and heft of the vehicle that one is controlling is hopefully the main focus. And so easy it is to lose sight of the scope of the awesome responsibility that is ours in driving them. I realize that drivers do connect with other drivers in order to negotiate the roads – the vehicular community.

My sister once suggested that as buildings grew taller, people lost more connection with the environment. Imagine the difference between living in an apartment on the 3rd (or 23rd) floor and living in a small house with a large patio or lanai. Same with cars. As they got bigger and faster and fuel cheaper, they enveloped us, further isolating us from subtle sounds and smells, the pleasures of observation that require slowness in our experience.

People are connecting with an addictive fervor via social media Facebook, twitter, etc and by texting. Some are talking on their cell phones, but even that audio is so poor, it means much less of a real connection is had between the two talking than landline phones afford. Inflections and tone – at least – are lost, words or phrases even.

I wonder when this pendulum will change direction. In the U.S. there seems to be more of an interest in pedestrian infrastructures, farmer’s markets, community happenings, local economies. How is that connected to further exploration of virtual realities and cyber connections in the human experience? Will kids ever being playing outdoors more than with their screens again? Will the outdoors be a fit place for them?

EcoFacts: Climate CHANGE Climate

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

A globally coordinated day of action last weekend mobilized thousands in Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Melbourne, Jakarta – in 162 or more countries – with the People’s Climate March in New York City being the centerpiece. An estimated 300,000 – 400,000 people showed up. This was planned to be shortly before the U.N. Climate Summit, where the need for action was evident in the meeting of government leaders and 200 CEOs. The UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon stated “climate change is the defining issue of our times.” The World Bank also announced that more than 1,000 businesses — along with 73 countries and 22 states, provinces and cities — have expressed their support for carbon pricing. Not to mention the announcement of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund selling $50 billion US worth of fossil fuel assets in an effort to fight global warming.

In London an estimated 40,000 people marched, and the news from there as reported on the Islam Channel offers a thoughtful and refreshing perspective. Besides CO2 emissions, the report begins to explore the massive change needed economically, and even more fundamentally in our way of life, if the necessary work to avoid climate catastrophe is to happen. “The earth has a fever… shall we treat it with antibiotics or try to understand the sources of its illness?”

Here, from one of the marchers in London- “We are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and the last that can do anything about it.” Aye, there’s the rub. Massive change does not happen quickly. Is the tipping point near?

Ecofacts: Nuts for Coconuts‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Coconut_Water (1)Coconut water is a perfect symbol for the confluence of globalization and marketing, for the internet-viral speeds of health claims, for our thirst for convenient and healthy alternatives to soda and tasty alternatives to water.

So recently, it was a rare thing here in the U.S., on the mainland anyway. Within a decade or so, cans, bottles and tetrapaks of it seem to be everywhere. And where does it all come from? Imagine a couple or more coconuts’ worth of water in every one of those cans sold, and that a tree only produces 50 fruits in a year. What, are coconut palms taking over large swaths of previously forested lands? Well at least that’s not happening yet. In fact much of the water comes from small growers in places like Indonesia and the Phillippines, and previously, the water was wasted while getting to the meat, which is used for the shredded stuff, coconut milk and oil. It has not been an economic boom for those farmers though, until more fair trade practices take hold.

As for health, suffice to say that coconut water’s well hyped nutritional claims are not nature’s answer to all of our bodily problems. More importantly, what we westerners drink is not the same as a freshly hacked coconut with a straw in it. Rather, it has usually been reconstituted or pasteurized, removing some of the original nutrients. But it sure does taste good. Too bad about all that packaging, all of those single use, disposed of containers, and those thousands of miles worth of shipping to get it to our lips, to quench our thirsts.

Below’s a video about the tremendous reliance on the tree and its fruit, having been used for food and shelter for millennia.

EcoFacts: What We Drink

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Although soda sales are down in the U.S., they are still rising, globally. More interesting is that while soda sales in general are down 3% and have been declining for nearly two decades, diet Coke and Pepsi are down much more – 7% here in the U.S.. Bottled water, energy drinks and ready to drink coffee and tea sales are up.  People are becoming slightly more health conscious, or speedy. Maybe smarter too, as they are also drinking Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Smartwater.

Of Coca‑Cola alone, there are 1.9 billion servings sold every day, around the world, that’s one per person for more than a quarter of the global population, daily. Pretty incredible numbers, for something that is, in the balance, not healthy for us or the planet.

cokelifeSome may welcome Coke’s new product Coca-Cola Life, a lower calorie, stevia sweetened alternative. In any case, you can bet that the soft drink companies will be rising to whatever challenges consumers give them (or appearing to anyway), whether it’s diet, health, water needs or environment. PepsCo and Coke’s plant based plastic bottles rest probably more in the appearances category.

Speaking of water needs, another Coke plant was closed in India recently, for extracting too much water and leaving polluted effluents in its wake. Plenty of the refreshing beverage is still being bottled there though, 57 more plants are in India, and more than 900 exist around the world. In some of those places, one might have to choose a bottle of soda over the unsafe water, just for something to drink.

The manufacturing of the containers alone – whether plastic, glass or aluminum – uses lots more water than the container contains, so this remains a consideration with sustainability issues for these corporations, and especially for the possibility of a future where clean water can be drunk by all.