We’re number 49!

According to this year’s  Environmental Performance Index by Yale and Columbia Universities, the United States is the 49th most environmental country on the planet.    This puts us smack in the middle of environmental performance world wide.  Not a comfortable place.

The top countries are:

The worst performers?  In from least to, well, less least they are: Iraq, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Yemen, Kuwait, India, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Libya, Eritrea, and Tajikistan.

The Map available from the main Environmental Performance Index Website.  the map shows a clear trend of the Americas, Europe, and Southeast Asia doing well – and the rest of the world lagging behind.

How did we get beaten?

Much of the top 10 have been constant performers: Iceland, Switzerland, France, Costa Rica, Austria, Britain and New Zealand.  Switzerland and Latvia have enacted policies to improve air quality and fight climate change.  Costa Rica wrote environmental protection into their constitution.  Norway and Luxemborg were noted for good environmental governance.  In comparison, most of the countries at the bottom of the pack are plagued by bad governance.

I teach the divisions (and similarities) between the developed and developing worlds.  Last week, we examined the correlation between rising energy use, rising standards of living, and falling population growth.  Realistically, as other countries develop, they will use more energy and likely pollute more unless there is a massive technology transfer from the developed world.  In order to have that transfer, the US (among others) needs to innovate and keep their own energy use down.

Image from the United Nations Developmemt Programme’s 2004 World Energy Assessment.

In short, I’m still rooting for Team USA.  I hate it when we’re 4th in any international contest, let alone 49th.  We can do better than that, let’s goooooooooooo USA!  And get real with some sustainability measures.

Weekly heroes: Find it, re imagine it, and sell it edition

This week’s thanks goes out to all the crafters who find someone’s trash (old license plates, cards, t-shirts, etc.) and are able to look at it with insight and imagination, turn it around in their brain and hands, and make something else out of it.  Ultra-small business hold great hope for an economy on a humane scale.

My favorite item made by one of these creators is pictured below, a headband made by L.M. Lowell from 2bLovedAgain.  It’s two t-shirt sleeves sewn together and decorated and I use it at least once a week – for over two years now.  Pretty good for some old junk.

Another favorite set of heroes are Sally and Laurie Pillman at Garden Glitz.  They find old plates, cups, saucers, etc. and re-purpose them into flowers, birds, insects, and toadstools.  These beauties are now all over town – my neighbor’s flower stares across the driveway at my husband’s bird-feeding cup.

These creators have learned to use their imaginations to have fun – and in the process help recreate a society with a smaller waste stream that consequently uses less energy.  They also take a hobby and expand it into an ultra-small business, which may one day grow larger and do some good for the economy.

Me?  My calling is to make art from old bottle caps.  I’ll keep you updated as this gets going.

A tip of the had also goes farmer’s markets, craft shows, Etsy, and all those who create markets for these ultra-small business people.

What risk is enough?

Nulear power arises as a major example of the risk calculation.  Odds are that a nuclear power plant will work forever without any extreme or catastrophic incidents.  However, if something goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong as we have seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi.  Today, the plant is surrounded by The Zone, just like in the Russian movie “The Stalker“.

Image from the Stalker

What lesser risks are still acceptable from our power generation?  I’m ready to cede migratory bird puree as a necessary evil – are you?  (I say this largely because more birds have been killed by coal-fired power plants – and cats – than any wind turbines.)   The textbook I assigned my class has a large graphic that measures the environmental impact of various side effects of energy generation from various fuel sources against the severity and likelihood of problems happening (1).  For coal, global climate change impacts rise to the top of the pack as being both very severe and highly likely.  However, the effects of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other discharges are marked as having very marginal effects in neurological health, particularly among children.  However, these effects are highly likely, especially for fish-eaters, and we know how to fix them.

The chart above says don’t eat any caught fish other than mackerel.   Most bought fish look low in mercury, but you should limit your consumption to less than once per week for the first 6.  

We may have to balance these problems when we have limited money and time to fix the problems – but this balance makes me very uneasy.  For coal, I know the authors are trying to bring attention to impacts that are often ignored because of the very high costs for their remedy.  However, it minimizes very real effects that we can (and should) fix right now.  How do we create a fair, just, and reasonable list of priorities to tackle the work that lies before us?

What we do right now is place the burden on the individual.  I need to research and see how much of which kind of fish I’m comfortable eating.  If I own crop or forest land, I have to budget for productivity losses caused by ozone.  I plan my vacation to avoid polluted places like the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I hope I have enough money and power to avoid living near the power plant with its noise, ugliness, and damage to household items through particulates.

Somehow, this individual maximum-utility balancing doesn’t seem to make much sense – it misses the larger scale.  We rely too much on individual change when only societal change can make a difference.

(1) Lee, R. (2002) Environmental impacts of energy use, Chapter 3 in Energy: Science, Policy, andthe Pursuit of Sustainability, Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr and Randall Baker (eds.) Washington, DC: Island Press.

Dividuals

We all here about the role of individuals in our society – heck, individualism is supposed to be part of the American way as we each step out to make our own lives in the big world.  However, that got me thinking that if I am an INdividual, then there must be an opposite, a dividual.

There is: a dividual is a person who contains within him or herself the community to which they belong.  So, the separate parts of us are individual, but the joined parts of us are dividual.  We lean on each other and they lean on us and this means something deep inside of us.  A dividual is something that is cut into small pieces and shared among everyone.  And dividual keeps popping up on my spell check, which troubles me because we all know the first word and the separate part of ourselves, but not the second part and the joined part of our selves.  Dividual used to be a word that was utilized by our society regularly, which tells me that the concept was used more back then as well.

Dividualism is a sustainable concept.  We all take part in the same environment, the same community.  We share the good things and bad things that happen through it.  I cannot back out on receiving my dividual share of air pollution, not even if I wanted to.  But, I also have a dividual share of a warm spring day and the song of robins.  Mostly, the word dividual tells me to share, to perform the acts that make me dividual, that strengthen and improve my ties to others – and with that improve our environment and our community.

Thrift and / or green = good

In class, we talked about how many people don’t take environmental actions because they don’t think about it.  Often this is tied to not really knowing how things worked.  One student said his sister complained about the rising price of gas, but didn’t know that gas came from oil – and how she didn’t know electricity came from outside the house.  As an environmental educator, this makes me roll my eyes and groan, but, the rest of our discussion gave me hope.

People all over America are turning off lights when they leave the room.  Some do this for environmental reasons such as climate change 0r knowing that the electricity you use is tied to mountaintop removal mining.  Others do it from thriftiness, tied to parents actions or high electricity prices.  These turn-off-the-lights people may never agree on any political or economic topic – but they agree to turn off the lights, and that is a good thing.

Should you turn off the lights when you are not using them?  Yes!

When?

While you are at it, here are a few other basic, every time items that people can agree on (thrift plus green equals good):

Image from Power Generation, Inc. 

Efficiency: The #2 Goal

We need to make an energy transition.  We are locked into using growing amounts of dirty fossil fuels in increasingly growing quantities.  The top solution for this is conservation (using less): unplug your electronic photo frame which costs $9/year to operate, don’t fly,turn down your thermostat.  That, however, is a hard sell – and most people don’t want to change their lifestyles.  So that leads us to #2 – efficient energy use.

An efficient system is one that gets more work out of the same (or lesser) amount of energy.  The perfect example of this is the compact fluorescent lightbulb.  Less electricity is used by the bulb, but more light comes out – because less is lost as heat.  (If you want to see energy lost as heat, just try to change an incandescent bulb with your bear hands – or play with an Easy Bake Oven, where the lightbulb makes the heat.)

Our world has been very inefficient about energy.  Oil and coal have been cheap, so no one has had any reason to spend a lot of money engineering new products.

Cars:

We have a lot of room to gain efficiency with our cars.  The internal combustion is only about 10-25% efficient.  That means that out of every dollar you put into you are in gas, you only get out 25 cents worth of movement.  The rest is degraded into unusable forms of energy like heat, friction, and engine inefficiencies.

Image from Green Car Congress

Some of these problems are inexpensive to change – better tire design, lighter cars (of that 25%, most moves the car and less moves you). and aerodynamic designs.  American car and heavy equipment makers are working on advanced combustion and exhaust energy recovery.

Houses:

Your home is an energy machine that is certainly running very inefficiently.  After you go through the house and figure out what you can unplug – the next step is to make it a more efficient machine.  (Best unplug – sorry – the beer fridge.)  Over half energy is used by heating and cooling (see below) and that is were most of the easiest fixes are.  You can do your own home energy audit, or pay someone else to do it.  Here are instructions.

Image from the US Dept. of Energy

Only after that should you look at the more expensive changes such as buying new equipment.  It’s not perfect, but the Energy Star labeling program is a good guide here.

The important thing to hold in mind here is that you are trying to get more work out of your existing systems for less money (or, if the system is really losing money, to replace it).  Often, people think that energy efficiency improvement always means buying expensive new items.  It doesn’t.  For the most part it means tinkering with what you already have.

An additional benefit of efficiency, is that since you use less energy for what you are already doing, you can continue existing energy use for high-value activities.  This lessens drastic changes that many foresee as part of our energy transition.  But only if we, as a society, create and enable these sustainability changes as soon as possible.

But remember: efficiency has to be #2.  Conservation – or reduction of use – has much better potential for all of us.

Image from Motifake

Betty White v. Chuck Norris

Everyone knows that Betty White is a fantastic woman and a wonderful actress.  She is also a great environmentalist.   Last year, she made a calendar (below) the proceeds of which went to the Morris Animal Foundation.

Betty always wanted to be a forest ranger when she was a girl, but couldn’t because they didn’t allow women rangers then.  Now, the U.S. Forest Service has named her an honorary U.S. Forest Ranger.

White is saving the saiga antelope in Kazakhstan.

White has written a book about animals at the zoo.

What has done a pile of amazing things – so, of course, my question is how does she stand up to Chuck Norris?  (I invite you to play along here)

When Norris does a push-up, he pushes down the earth.  When White does a push-up, the earth rises to meet her.

Norris got to the end of the bottomless pit, and White was waiting for him there.

Multiple people have died because Chuck Norris gave them the finger.  Betty White is far to refined to have to use a rude gesture to get her way.

Norris isn’t allowed on airplanes because his fists are deadly weapons.  White  isn’t allowed on airplanes because her brain is a deadly weapon.

Chuck Norris has already been to Mars; that’s why there are no signs of life there.  And that’s why they are sending Betty White there next.

When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.  Then the Boogey man calls Betty White and she makes sure everything is ok.

Norris doesn’t believe in Germany.  Germany believes in White.

The chief export is Norris is pain.  The chief export of White is muffins.

When she heard Norris once kicked a baby elephant into puberty,  Betty White – who loves all creatures –  dressed Norris up as a giant peanut as punishment.  And let the adult elephants have at him.