Monthly Archives: July 2013

Sustainable Neighborhoods

Please read this article: How to Design our Neighborhoods for Happiness.

This article talks about developing relationships with the people around us, but it’s also very pertinent for sustainable living. It talks about community spaces for increasing interactions with your neighbors – which can also be used for community gardens, community composting, etc, which can also increase the self-sufficiency of the people living there.

Another thing mentioned in this article is smaller streets, and ensuring sidewalk space. I would add bicycle lanes. If my time in the Netherlands has taught me anything, it’s that bicycling can be a very fun and safe alternative to fossil-fuel-consuming cars, but it’s not reasonable to ask people to ride their bicycles everywhere with the current infrastructure and attitudes in the US. It’s just not safe enough. Designing or re-designing neighborhoods to be safe and inclusive for bicycles will help make communities happier, healthier and more sustainable.

The last point in the article is possibly the most important. Having a sense of community increases your ability to organize effectively to implement change. This is badly needed.

Also check out the Piscataquis Village Project in my awesome home state: Maine. It’s a clear and unique vision for a car-free village that focuses on community.

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Why Meat is Not Sustainable

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” ~ Albert Einstein.

There are many reasons people decide to go pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan, often having something to do with health or cruelty to animals. Legitimate reasons, to be sure, but they’re not what pushed me over the fence. It was realizing how grossly unsustainable it is to raise livestock for human consumption, especially with the number of people currently living on earth and the current practices that are employed by the vast majority of cattle farmers.

Cattle are definitely the worst offenders. Producing 1 kg of beef (a/b 2.2 lbs) emits greenhouse gases that equal about 34.6 kg (76.3 lbs) worth of global warming potential. Think of every cow as an extra car on the road driving about 7,800 miles per year. There are approximately 1.4 billion cattle in the world, 25-30% of which are dairy cows.

That’s a hell of a contribution to global warming, and that doesn’t include the other forms of environmental damage that result, like deforestation for the purpose of creating pastures. That also doesn’t include the contributions from other livestock, like sheep, goats, and pigs. The more you reduce the amount of meat and dairy in your diet,  the more you will reduce your personal carbon footprint.

Grapes to the rescue?

We need to work out other ways to reduce the impact of livestock on the environment, and more widely implement those we have. Grape marc is a by-product of wine-making. It’s the parts of the grape left over after pressing out the juice. It’s high in both dietary fat and tannins, both of which reduce the amount of methane a cow produces. When a study was done in Australia, it was found that feeding marc to dairy cows reduced their methane output by 20%. There were other benefits, too, such as reducing the concentration of saturated fatty acids, and increasing linoleic acid which is known to fight cancer, heart disease and arthritis. All that needs to be done for this to work is to create a supply chain between vintners and cattle farmers. It would at least be a start.

It’s also possible to use the manure from the cows to produce electricity, as pointed out by erisa1602 in a comment on my composting post. It strikes me that, as a society, we really need to work on interdisciplinarianism, cross-pollination of ideas, and plain old working together to create better solutions.

Full disclosure

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I am not a vegetarian. I’m actually a pescatarian, though I don’t eat seafood as often as I’d like and I’ve reduced my dairy intake to almost nil these days, almost by accident. One of the things you can do to decrease your meat consumption is to replace some of it with seafood, which doesn’t have as devastating an effect on the environment, if you choose responsibly. The Blue Ocean Institute has a fantastic resource to help you make sustainable seafood choices, while warning you of fish that may contain levels of mercury or PCBs.

It comes down to simple choices, every day, that can make very real differences – instead of making meat lasagna, make eggplant lasagna. Have a bbq with veggie burgers and veggie hot dogs. They’re way better for you anyway, and if you get the right brands they taste really good. There are also serious health benefits to lessening or eliminating meat consumption. I highly recommend looking into the China Study.

It’s hard to change your habits and your lifestyle patterns, but it’s so vital to the future of us all that we each try our best to contribute as little as possible to global warming. For most of us, that does mean we have to make changes. We can no longer afford to think, or eat, selfishly. It’s not sustainable.

Hormones – how they’re related to sustainability

Did you know plants have hormones? We hear about hormones all the time with reference to people – they’re those things that make teenagers and pregnant women crazy. They’re responsible for inducing and regulating a lot of physiological processes, and not just in humans. All multi-cellular organisms on this planet produce hormones. It’s part of how things grow – you and trees both get bigger, in very distinct ways of course, because of hormones.

Hormones are essentially chemicals that are produced in the body and bind with receptors in cells. It takes only tiny amounts of these chemicals to be effective, as each has a unique chemical structure designed to produce specific results. In short, living things regulate their systems with internally-produced chemicals. The natural process can be interrupted by exposure to other chemicals that trick the cell’s receptors into thinking that it received the hormone, or that somehow block the reception of the natural hormone.

For example, people with type-1 diabetes don’t produce enough of the hormone insulin. They can take insulin shots to help make up for this lack, so all the receptors that require insulin will receive it. Another example is the phytoestrogen (plant estrogen) in soy milk. It mimics the human estrogen hormone and interacts with the receptors for estrogen. For some people, that’s a good thing.

Danger, danger, danger

safety-44441_640Where we start getting into trouble is with the chemical soup that’s in our food supply, our air and water, and, by extension, in us. But it doesn’t end there, because we’re spraying these chemical insecticides and herbicides all over the place. Since all plants and animals produce hormones, they’re potentially in danger as well. It’s not well-understood how all the various chemicals we’re continuously exposed to are affecting us physiologically, but the evidence is slowly mounting.

A study of 268 men who had presented themselves to an infertility clinic in Massachusetts showed a direct relationship between levels of testosterone and the amount of insecticide present in their urine. (The insecticides present in these men are mostly manufactured and sold by Dow, known by the trademark names Dursban, Lorsban, as well as the trademark Sevin made by Bayer.)

Widespread insecticide spraying was our answer to west nile virus in many cities across the US, and many cities use insecticides in their parks.

Monsanto’s at it again

Case in point:

cow-35561_640Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) is a genetically-engineered hormone manufactured by Monsanto. It’s similar to a natural hormone found in cows that spurs them to produce milk. The problem is that giving milk-cows enough of this hormone to turn them into cash-cows doesn’t come without side effects.

Cows that are injected with the GE hormone rBGH have a greatly increased (79%) susceptibility to udder infections, called mastitis, leading to increases of bacteria and somatic cells (pus) in the milk (and, yes, there’s a legally allowable limit of pus in milk). Eeewww. And that’s only the part that affects milk-drinkers. The poor cows also get digestive problems and lesions on their knees and hooves. Then there are the antibiotics that are used to treat the mastitis. Yes, you end up drinking those, too. rBGH benefits Monsanto and no one but Monsanto.

Bees

You probably know that we’ve just managed to devastate bee populations with insecticides. What you might not know is that what’s actually killing them is a manufactured hormone that’s part of the chemical make-up of the insecticides. Even less-than-lethal doses severely damage a bee’s ability to navigate, communicate, forage, and work communally.

Disruption of the natural hormonal systems in human populations can cause asthma, cancerous tumors, birth defects, diabetes, obesity, developmental disorders, infertility, etc. And what about the dangers to other living things that rely on hormones? We cannot possibly know the extent to which the introduction of so many different chemical compounds will act on the hormone balances of other species, including plants. Sadly, we may be about to find out.

Sustainable Education

Diminishing returns

I’m not just talking about a curriculum that includes educating students about sustainability, though that’s also important. I’m talking about the system of educational diminishing returns that we’re seeing, especially in the United States. I’ve got a family full of teachers, so I’ve been exposed to the particular challenges they face for my whole life, and I’ve seen first-hand the disgusting lack of support for all teachers, but more specifically for teachers that work with the students that need the most support – children with behavioral disorders, learning styles that are at odds with the current system, language impairments, math-based learning disorders, physical disabilities, and developmental disorders. The recent U.S. Education Sequester has made things worse, disproportionately so for the teachers and kids in special & alternative education programs. Let’s face it – even with the current economic difficulties, this is an incredibly wealthy country. We’re just not using the power of our wealth to back the right horse. And if we don’t start changing things when we can, I think it will eventually lead to a situation where we don’t have the wealth or the skill-set that makes change like this potentially so easy to implement.

Education refugees

knowledge-1052011_640Because of the diminishing returns that are being seen by all students, more of us are looking outside our borders to pursue higher education. “The number of U.S. students at Canadian colleges rose 50 percent in a decade.” And that’s just Canada, one of our closest neighbors. Lots of us are going to other countries where we can get an excellent education for half the cost, or less. I’m an education refugee myself, and I’m in the Netherlands. I took my brains and my work ethic and moved them overseas. Not because I don’t love my country, but because it doesn’t love me. It loves big agra and big pharma and a big military. It certainly wasn’t the easier choice in the short-term, but it’s the more sustainable choice for me, for many reasons, one being that I no longer need a car; I go everywhere by bicycle, train or bus, greatly reducing my personal carbon footprint. Another thing that makes it a more sustainable choice is that I don’t have the crippling student loans I would have had otherwise. I still needed student loans, and they’re still through the US federal government, who’s robbing me blind on interest, but it’s tens of thousands less than it could have been.

learn-793095_640There’s another way to read ‘education refugees.’ Current and potential teachers are making other choices for careers. When I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher because of the inherent ability of the profession to inspire future generations, and the massive contributions teachers make to the general good of society. But that ability is being eroded by increasingly bad policies, like the rise in emphasis on standardized testing which forces them to ‘teach to the test’ instead of accenting critical thinking, research, and interactive learning, all of which engage students. Also eroding that ability is decreasing federal funding. Schools are closing, kids are being shuffled around, teachers are losing their jobs, and the ones remaining have bigger class sizes, more work, and mountains of stress. This is a downward spiral – by nature not sustainable.

Back to being green

Of course, this all has serious ramifications for the overall sustainability movement as well. Everything’s related. If we aren’t inspiring and educating people to be good critical thinkers and inventors, we’ll have a hard time coming up with new technologies that will help move us away from dependence on fossil fuels. Research and development are vital to this process. For example, biotecture wouldn’t be feasible without a really good understanding of how different materials interact with heat, and how to use that knowledge to increase the self-sufficiency of buildings. We’re actually holding back our own scientific development, and increasing the overall danger to the entire world, and that’s just unforgivable.

Recipe for Sustainable Stew

This weeClagett_Farm_CSA_Week_11k’s writing challenge is “A Pinch of You.” Since my purpose in starting this blog was to strew around all the useful, helpful and important information that I have learned and will learn about living sustainably, it seemed like an instructive exercise to think about the actual recipe for a sustainable life. It’s simpler than you might think, really. I mean, it’s no souffle; more like a stew. You have some work to do initially, but then you can just leave it in the crockpot and it’ll be one of the most amazing things you’ve ever tasted, if you get your seasonings right.

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra-virgin moral fortitude, plus more to drizzle
3 tablespoons sustainable transportation
2 cups all-purpose renewable energy
2 to 3 pounds decentralized government, cut into bite-sized pieces
sustainable use of ocean and land resources
1 bottle unadulterated spring water
8 fresh sprigs natural, sustainable healthcare
non-GMO gardens, to taste
non-GMO food forests, to taste
1/4 teaspoon sustainable investment
1 tablespoon non-violence
2 1/2 cups NGOs and NPOs, mixed
9 small millionaires, scrubbed clean and sectioned
1/2 pound green architecture, peeled and sliced
2 cups frozen water, one for each pole
Scientific Discovery, recipe follows, for garnish
Space Exploration, recipe follows, for serving

Directions

Preheat a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat with the moral fortitude and renewable energy.

While the pan is heating, arrange the renewable energy on a large dish. Season the decentralized government with some sustainable use of ocean and land resources and then toss in the renewable energy to coat. Shake off the excess renewable energy and set aside. Add the decentralized government, in a single layer, to the hot pan, being careful not to over-crowd the pan. You might have to work in batches. Thoroughly monitor all of the governments on all sides.

Add the spring water to the pan and bring to a simmer while you scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, being sure to loosen up all those vital flavors stuck to the bottom in order to incorporate them into the overall flavor of the stew. Once the mixture has gotten hot, add the sustainable health care, gardens, food forests, sustainable investment, NGOs and NPOs, clean and sectioned millionaires, green architecture and frozen water for the poles. Bring the mixture up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered until the liquids start to thicken. Cover and cook on low heat.

To serve, place the stew in a big, round, blue and green container, drizzle with moral fortitude and add a dollop of Scientific Discovery. Right before serving add a slice of Space Exploration, half-way submerged in the stew.

Scientific Discovery:
1 cup funding for excellent school systems
1 tablespoon students ready-to-learn
passionate teachers
interesting learning materials
role models, to sprinkle as garnish

Combine funding, students ready-to-learn, and a drizzle of passionate teachers in a small classroom and mix until thoroughly combined. Season with interesting learning materials. Add a dollop of the mixture on top of the stew and garnish with role models.

Space Exploration:
1 NASA
1 pound scientists and engineers, mixed
2 cups public interest
4 cups government funding

Put a sheet pan in the oven so that it gets good and hot.

Place NASA on the hot sheet pan. Drizzle  with the scientists and engineers. Rub NASA with public interest, sprinkle with government funding, and serve with the stew.

Special instructions:

Under no circumstances should you include GMOs, for-profit education systems, massive fossil-fuel extraction and use, greedy corporations, money-grubbing politicians, weapons of mass destruction, or widespread use of chemicals in the food and water supplies. These will ruin all the hard work you did to make your stew.

Biotecture

Earthships: hokey name, rad idea

The idea is this (quoted directly from their website):  to have a home that “causes no conflict, no stress, no depletion, no trauma to the planet earth. Just as the human body is a result of the various systems that support it – (circulatory systems, nervous systems, respiratory systems, etc…) so must the Earthship be a product of the systems that support it. In view of this, we have made the Earthship systems both understandable and available to the common everyday human. Systems are generally 25 percent of the construction cost of a home, providing little to no utility bills every month.”

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They’re built entirely from natural and recycled materials, including dirt, tires, and glass bottles. They collect and filter rainwater, making it potable. Electricity is supplied by solar and wind power. There are built-in greenhouses to grow food year-round, and other plants help out with certain aspects of home maintenance. They’re not expensive to build and cost almost nothing to live in.

Probably the most interesting thing about the design is the way the walls are built and how efficient they are at maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature regardless of what’s going on outside. Large, south-facing windows allow the sun to come in and hit the ‘thermal mass’ i.e. the structure of the house, which is composed of car tires filled with compacted dirt. They act like a heat sink, trapping heat, and releasing it slowly if the air cools, reabsorbing it if it gets hot again, keeping your home at a happy 70 degrees (21 C). And you don’t need a team of experts. You can do it yourself. Pretty damn cool, huh?

The other half of the equation

The environment isn’t the only consideration when we talk about sustainability. The way we live our lives should also be psychologically sustainable, not just for you personally, but in a way that doesn’t have a negative effect on future generations. Too many people work jobs they don’t enjoy, or work 2 jobs just to be able to afford all the bills. As a society, we lose out on what those people would have had to offer if they were relaxed and inspired instead of stressed and run-down.

The focus of earthships is really on living in symbiosis with the natural environment, but think of the effects that this kind of architectural ideology would also have on the inhabitants. Parent’s would have more time to teach and support their kids. Without having to worry about where food is coming from or who’s paying the bills, you have a greatly increased ability to engage in projects and activities that interest you and that could be of benefit to society as a whole. These homes bring their inhabitants self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency brings self-determination. And that’s something we’ve lost hold of and NEED to get back for ourselves. These buildings do that for you by being “radically sustainable.”

Just to be clear, this isn’t where you go out in the desert or the woods, build yourself a hut with sticks and hunt your dinner. You have modern appliances and comforts, you just do it in a way that’s sustainable and doesn’t require your participation in global destruction on a massive scale.

And what are the sacrifices you have to make? You can’t use more energy than you can produce, but you already know, deep down, that you really shouldn’t be watching Jersey Shore, anyway. If you’re thinking about building your own home, this is definitely something to consider.

Safe Seeds

Make sure your garden is GMO-free

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You might think that if you’re growing veggies in your own garden at home that means you’re not in danger of using GM seeds or supporting their corporate parents via profit-margins. Unfortunately, if we dig a little deeper, we find out that it’s not quite so simple. Companies like Monsanto are interested in profit, which means they aren’t just selling GM seeds. They want to control as much of the market as possible, so they also gain your unwitting support by selling standard seeds.

We use the expression garden-variety to mean bland, boring, average. Heirloom crops are anything but. They’ve been naturally honed over generations to produce plants that are ideally suited to their native environments, that have the most exciting flavors and, frankly, they look pretty cool.

One of the first things you notice about heirloom crops, before you even have a chance to taste them, is their incredible variety and vibrancy. They’re exciting, they dress up your garden and your plate, but they’re important for a very different reason:

Science

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You can tell what nutrients are in fruits and vegetables based on their color. That’s why it’s important to ‘taste the rainbow’ (not the sugar-filled one). Eating a large variety of different-colored fruits and veggies is a great way to ensure that you and your family are getting the nutrition you need. Here’s a basic guide to see which colors indicate which nutrients, and what they do for your body.

Now tell me you’d rather eat one of those anemic tomatoes from the grocery store than that beautiful ‘Black from Tula’ in the image above. Want your kids to be more into veggies? Go heirloom, and make sure they participate in the growing process, too. If they feel like an important part of the process, they’ll be more interested in the results.

Even if you only have a window sill available, you can still take advantage of your space. Try out heirloom herbs. They are said to have more potent flavors than those grown in large-scale agriculture. It’ll do wonders for your pesto. You can also get flower seeds, so if you don’t have a vegetable patch, find some organic heirloom flowers to grow in your home.

PatatesNeed another reason to start growing heirloom crops? How about we start with biodiversity? Most of us have heard of Ireland’s potato famine. A large percentage of the potatoes being grown in Ireland at that time were of a single variety. The lack of genetic diversity in Ireland’s potatoes was one reason why the potato blight had such devastating effects there, but less severe effects in other European countries that were also affected by the disease. Heirloom seeds come from varieties that have been around for a long time and help increase resiliency. Strength in adversity through diversity. If drought or disease kill some, others will survive.

What’s in a seed?

A much more interesting question than “what’s in a name?” One of the things you find when you unpack a seed is self-sufficiency. If you want to decrease your dependence on food sources that you can’t trust and that have decidedly myopic policies, growing heirloom fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers is key. When you buy seeds from places like the Seed Saver’s Exchange, a non-profit organization by the way, you’re not investing in a greedy corporation, you’re investing in a group of people with a measurable degree of moral fortitude. You’re investing in sustainability. You’re investing in yourself and your family.

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