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EcoFacts: Surfing Sustainability

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Sustainable_Surf_logo_stacked_300x300_400x400Surfers are certainly passionate about the ocean environment, and riding the waves is pretty darn clean fun. But what do they ride? Generally boards made of oil derived chemicals – foam cores, fiberglass and resins – polluting and toxic in their manufacture. And what do they wear? Neoprene wetsuits, also a synthetic petro product, which can be bought from China for a buck a yard. One wonders about the conditions at those factories, like so many others.

The main maker of the boards’ foam cores for decades – Clark Foam – was shut down by the EPA in 2005, being unable to comply with various regulations, including its use of a carcinogenic chemical. Time magazine called it “Surfing’s Sudden Wipeout“, and it began a shift in the production of surfboards, including to more eco-friendly types.

surfNow, with the help of non profits like Sustainable Surf’s Ecoboard Project, some boards, at least, are being made more environmentally sound with recycled foam cores, and bio-resins. Wood boards have also made a come back from the ancient Hawaiian sport, wood being sustainably grown or reclaimed, and with old fashioned finishes such as linseed oil. Among these makers are a local fellow - John Birchim – who builds them lovingly here in SB. A small company in Maine made the NY Times doing the same thing, or you can buy kits from them to make them yourself.

One of the coolest pieces of news on this front is in the wetsuits realm, a replacement for neoprene: Patagonia’s partnership with a company that makes natural rubber – get this – from desert grown plants in Arizona! The stuff is Yulex from Guayule plants.

Also thanks to Patagonia and the Waste to Waves project, people can drop off styrofoam at collection points (including Ventura) to be used in the making of surfboards. There is no styrofoam recycling in SB County, so I sure am glad to know this!


EcoFacts: MENA, Water & Energy

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

The Middle East – MENA (Middle East North Africa) is a unique region in the world’s energy and water nexus. It is loaded with fossil fuel, holding nearly 60% of the world’s oil reserves, and nearly 45% of its natural gas reserves. Fuel rich and water poor, it is home to 6.3% of the world’s population and has access to only 1.4% of the globe’s fresh water supply. 14 of the world’s 20 most water scarce countries are in this region.

mit_solar_powered_desalination_system_jbq98How, you might wonder, could they be interested in renewable energy, even if it is really sunny there? In fact they are developing solar potential rapidly. Most of their electricity is from petroleum and some of their cities are the most polluted in the world. And then there is the water – these countries generate over half of the desal water on the planet and that water is costly, using more than ten times more energy (and their precious export resource, fossil fuels) than needed for pumping well water, and their aquifers are running dry.

The World Bank has produced a 200 page report on Renewable Energy Desalination in MENA that emphasizes the necessity of this work for future stability of the region. A Spanish energy company is developing the world’s largest solar operated desal plant in Saudi Arabia. This news comes from “b green”, a business publication in the Middle East. Practically all of the renewable energy powered desalination is already in this part of the world, but is currently a very small percentage.

Let’s hope this type of investment in the future spreads to other parched coastal areas, like oh… California, perhaps?


EcoFacts: Rethinking Progress‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Progress is a process that leads to something better.
For a nation, economic growth has always meant progress.

This model has been one of take-make-dispose.
It is linear and finite, like the resources that feed it.
We have progressed to now.
We buy electronic devices, and myriad things in complex packaging,
and then throw them away, out of our vision.
But there is no away. Just here.

The ingredients of all things are natural or technical.
In the natural world the demise of things becomes food for new life.
And so it must be in the next human world, in our circular economy,
where all things will become feedstock for new things.
Based again on nature’s model, we can thrive.
Davos Facade


EcoFacts: The Power of Film

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch (Bill Heller photo)

Our International Film Festival always brings gems from so many realms, literal and figurative.

On one day this past week I was lucky to attend two that were each mind blowing, one from its sheer astonishing beauty, and the other, from the power of its information delivery.

Fabien Cousteau,  Celine Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau,  Mimi dJean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean in 3D uses technology that allow us to see the tiniest and most beautiful forms of marine life and to feel as if we are there under the surface with him. These visceral, multi dimensional images, a wonderful narrative and a compelling soundtrack all coalesced to give us an awe inspiring hour, making me grateful to be alive in this wondrous world.  Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, whose purpose this film expresses with such magnificence, is based in Santa Barbara.

In the Austrian film ENERGIZED, the depths and breadth of global forces of the business of energy production are plumbed to powerful effect. The film is packed with personal stories of people in the crux of these matters, images that speak volumes, and information gushing like oil. I found myself wishing I could see this film again, long before it ended!

From my own perspective I can only wish that others could see these. It seems as if the world would then be a better place. What could be better for our hearts and minds than the awesome beauty of nature and a better understanding of it? It would then follow, of ourselves.


Ecofacts:Climate Change, Both Kinds

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

govactionA poll just out shows that the great majority of Americans support government action to curb global warming.  83%, including 61% of Republicans, agree that global warming will be a serious problem in the future if nothing is done to reduce emissions. Nearly half of Republicans are more likely to support a candidate who will work towards this, also half of Republicans believe that these actions would hurt the economy. Those are the same people who don’t seem to care about all of the jobs alternative energy is creating.

The Keystone Pipeline, just voted for by the Republican controlled Senate would, in Jon Stewart’s carefully chosen words bring us “somewhere between millions of jobs and 35″. (The pipeline construction jobs are temporary, the number remaining after that is in question.) The photovoltaic industry added almost 50% more jobs than oil and gas extraction did last year. Costs of solar power have dropped so much as to be competitive with, or lower than, cheap fracked gas, coal or nuclear.

A nuclear plant coming online at the end of the year in Tennessee will have cost up to $4.5 billion to build for 1150mw, a solar farm going up in Nevada will cost $1 Billion for 250 mw. Do the math and consider: nuclear waste vs. none.

Coal states resist alternative energy, but solar panels on one fifth of Kentucky’s mine scoured mountaintops would supply the whole state with electricity! That’s 190 square miles worth of land that has been stripped of its life.

The times they are a changin’ around here.


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!