August 02, 2007

More Energy Calculators

There are, of course, a huge number of calculators online that offer visitors the chance to discover just how nasty or nice to the environment our living habits actually are. My beef with these calculators is twofold:
  • They rarely explain the math behind the calculations.
  • They often gloss over many of the ways in which we impact our environment.
I've just stumbled across a calculator that seems to address at least this latter problem. The Personal Environmental Impact Calculator breaks down your energy use into transportation, recycling, water, and energy. It's not exactly the sexiest calculator out there, and there are a few broken links but most of the results are well documented, and provide helpful conservation suggestions and further reading.

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July 07, 2007

What's Your Foodometer Read?

What a great little vid that reveals a whole lot of depth in a wonderful way:

[Via the wonderful Ethicurian]

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July 06, 2007

Yesterday's Technology Today! Beer Bottle Solar Panels

Not everybody gets hot water when they want it. Ma Yanjun, of Shaanxi Province in China, was a farmer with a cold family. So he did the only logical thing one could do in such a situation: he built a solar panel out of beer bottles and affixed it to his roof. Now his family of four can each get a warm shower in the morning.

As The Beer Activist points out, "it's a great example of small-scale sustainable technology." Ma Yanjun managed to solve a pressing problem by using found materials and a little ingenuity. His solar panel depletes no resources, uses "unwaste" that would have otherwise been sent to a landfill, and it has even inspired ten other families in his neighborhood to do the same.

The science behind it is so simple that anyone can make one of these things. I couldn't find a step-by-step tutorial for this particular model online, but I did find instructions for making a hot water heater using reclaimed materials, as well as a great tutorial for a hot air heater. Of course, this might be a little more hands-on than most want to take on, but what a cool excuse to work your way through a case of beer!

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June 18, 2007

Terrorism vs. Climate Change: Americans Reconsider

I just discovered some good news today: Americans are not as ignorant as some make us out to be. How do I know this? Because a full 63% of survey respondents believe that the U.S. "is in as much danger from environmental hazards, such as air pollution and global warming, as it is from terrorists." This is according to a recent survey from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

It's just further proof that public discourse helps to advance critical issues—and that people really don't mind thinking about things in shades beyond black and white. These numbers, however, are set against another set of very telling statistics: Only 50% of respondents say they trust television news and 45% trust newspapers when it comes to environmental coverage. This tells me that a lot of folks out there rely on other means for their environmental information. This isn't just about blogs spreading the word, though; it's about other facets of American culture stepping up and covering this topic. The vast majority of survey respondents trust universities and their scientists aove all others (like industry scientists) for environmental information. Once again, we see the fundamental impact of America's educational insitutions.

Perhaps the most reassuring statistic, though, is that 81% of respondents also agreed they have a "responsibility to help reduce the impacts of global warming." So not only are we thinking more critically about the issues, we're actually starting to recognize that we each have a key role to play in making change.

Download the survey's key findings.

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June 08, 2007

The World Is Your Library

The library is my weakness. As a kid (and bona fide bookworm), I would spend hours buried in the darkest corner I could find reading random book after random book. It was a safe haven for me and to this day I am instantly calmed when I step inside a public house of books.

It's just a plus that libraries are a wonderful way to:
  1. Reduce your dependence on Stuff.
  2. Reduce your paper consumption.
  3. Support your community.
And now I've discovered WorldCat, where I can search libraries all over the globe! Kind of exciting, that.

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May 24, 2007

Dump Your Waste on Students!

I just received a really nice email from the editor of a local book publisher who has found a fantastic, simple, easy, efficient way to get rid of a large portion of the company's waste.

When bringing a book to print, publishers create what they call dummies: mock-ups of a book that demonstrate where everything will go, often with blank pages. These books get tossed in the trash or, less frequently, recycled, once the book goes to print. Weldon Owen is no exception to this practice, and the company was faced with hundreds of dummies piling up and destined for the trash heap.

Cue the editor, who contacted a local parents group to see if they could use these books. The response was incredible:
"Oh. My God...dozens of folks wrote back, saying they'd love to have dummies for schools or summer art programs. I just brought the dummies home (probably 400 or more—once I started getting the avalanche of responses, I sent round an all-company e-mail, asking everyone to clean out their stashes), stacked them in my driveway, and sent an e-mail to all the people who'd responded, saying 'Come and get 'em!' In one weekend, all the dummies were gone, and I got several e-mails from folks asking if there were going to be any more, because their school could use more."
So not only did Weldon Owen get all those useless books off their hands, but they gave a large number of kids art supplies. Talk about two birds with one stone. So if you're a publisher looking to unload a number of dummies, contact teachers and parents groups. And if your a parent who needs some cool blank books for kids, try reaching ou to a local publisher and ask if you can have their dummies.

And here's a list of organizations who take "waste" and use it to make art:
Can't find a materials exchange organization near you? Try contacting your local trash pick-up; often they have recycling and materials reclamation programs that aren't well advertised.

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April 23, 2007

Discover Planet Earth From the Comfort of Your Own Home

Earth Day has come and gone—ours was marked by a massive spring cleaning, which brought many new green housecleaning discoveries. But that icon of edutainment, the Discovery Channel, celebrated differently, by airing a marathon of their new series, Planet Earth. If your officemates are more interested in discussing the Sopranos over the bubbler every Monday, you might not realize that this documentary series is one of the most striking nature shows ever filmed.

Producers and their crew sometimes spent months on a given shot, creeping and hiding to capture many scenes that have never actually been recorded for broadcast. You'll meet animals you've never seen before, view arial shots that make your heartbeat skip and, hopefully, be truly moved by the interconnected nature of the plant and animal species that keep this ball breathing.

My only criticism of the series is the writing. Powerfully narrated by Sigourney Weaver, even she can't elevate the typical, often trite text to anything that comes close to matching the images on screen. That said, the focus is clearly those images: the intense blues and greens and fiery oranges; the textures of sand, sea and scales; the bizarre and yet familiar behavior of species we may never have seen before. I can't even imagine what this program looks like viewed on HDTV.

The final episode, featuring the filmmakers' story, will air this Sunday, April 29. But Discovery will most likely air reruns, and you can purchase the entire series on DVD.

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April 13, 2007

Designers Know Green Is the New Black

I confess: as a graphic designer, I am part of an industry that encourages paper consumption. And as a writer, nothing pleases me more than seeing my words scrolling across the printed page. Is it wrong of me, hypocritical of me, to promote sustainability when I earn my bread and butter in an industry so responsible for waste, energy and water consumptiom, and climate change? Probably.

But I also believe that American business can be one of the most important change-makers we have. Which is why I've just begun a monthly column for the Business of Design Online (BoDo) called "The Sustainable Studio." The column is aimed at design professionals, and explores both the underpinnings and the practicalities of sustainability as it pertains to our offices, our work, our clients and our communities.

My goal is to cut through the standard green rhetoric and make this issue more accessible to my colleagues. Designers are problem solvers by nature, and this is one area that desperately needs our attention.

Designer or not, I'd love to know what you think the first installment of my column. You can also download a press release to use for pimping it out and spreading the word.

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March 13, 2007

Welcome to the World of The Greens

Children are sponges, aren't they? Izz and her older cousin, Dez, are no exceptions. A couple of wacky kids with some wacky friends and some wacky family members, Izz and Dez appear in monthly online episodes, their own blog and some interactive learning games aimed at the tween set. Through it all, they discover what it means to be green and how kids can make an impact on the world around them.

The Greens has some great things going for it, not least of which is the braintrust behind it. Created by WGBH (close to my heart, as a Boston girl born and raised), the entire thing started with—not surprisingly—TED. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is an annual smarty-pants conference in which rich, left-leaning movers and shakers come up with crazy ideas to make the world a better place. Last year, photographer Ed Burtynsky won a wish from the TED community and The Greens were born.

Although the show is quite funny and graphically very engaging, it has some growing and stretching to do. Writing about the environment is tough, even when you're aiming at grown-ups. Making this stuff understandable and attractive to young kids is even tougher. The Greens cleverly rely on plenty of sarcasm and pre-teen angst to earn street cred among their target audience but the incorporation of the actual green stuff can be a little dry. "Ask Hector," a bit in which Izz's buddy advises us on how to save water in just ten words, falls a little flat (it is essentially a list of ten questions with yes or no answers). Contrast that against the engaging interactive quiz game and you can see where the site's strengths and weaknesses lie.

That said, I'm not a kid anymore (I've been told immaturity doesn't count). The little monsters will ultimately be the ones to determine if The Greens are a success or not. And I hope they do; as the group discussed at this year's TED conference, one of the best ways to get mom and dad to change their ways is to convince the kids to do it first (just think about how persistent kids are at getting what they want). If all goes according to plan, each monthly episode of The Greens will continue to make green living fun for kids and their grown-ups.

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February 16, 2007

Kids Think Green is Gross!

We all know that kids are picky eaters, but it turns out that it may have more to do with marketing than with actual taste. According to an article in the Buffalo News, local schoolchildren there turned up their noses when their name brand yogurt was replaced with an organic brand that actually won in blind taste tests with those very same kids. Yogurt sales plummeted more than 50%.

Even before Reagan proposed that ketchup be considered a vegetable, school lunches were barely enough to keep kids full, let alone healthy. Originally intended to affordably feed the nation's hungry students, whose schoolwork and health were suffering from hunger pangs, the national school lunch program fell frighteningly short of its goals. Increasingly, though, city kids are discovering new options that leave their bellies full and their hearts just a little healthier. The question now is, how can we sell our kids on it?

Many of the healthy lunch programs being toyed with these days have goals that go beyond getting kids to simply "eat right." They recognize that children are inundated with advertising these days, and need to be trained to make connections that until now have been deliberately severed: like how the food we put into our bodies affects our state of mind, our ability to function properly and our long-term health. And even how the food choices we make impact the world around us, on both a local level and a global one.

Programs like Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard teach schoolchildren how to grow their own food, thereby making these connections. This is a growing movement, and is largely grassroots in nature. If you have a school-age child, seriously consider whether they are getting the nutrition they need when you send them off each day. Because chances are, they are gulping down sugar-laden sodas, and fat-ridden chips and candy.

If you want your kids to eat something different, try these options:
  • Feed them better at home: According to the Buffalo News report, that is the most effective way to get kids to make better choices when they're on their own.
  • Talk to your school district: Tell your child's educators what you expect of them. Get other parents involved for a stronger influence.
  • Get help: Many organizations work with city school districts to educate kids about nutrition in fun, effective ways. A lot of these even help schools start vegetable gardens and educate the schools themselves on how to serve more nutrutional food. A few programs to get you started include Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard (California), FoodChange (New York), the School Food Trust (U.K.) and Sustainable Food Systems (a consulting firms for schools).
Also check out Two Angry Moms, a documentary about what happens when parents finally get involved in their kids' diet.

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January 18, 2007

Five Minutes to Midnight

Could we be facing immanent nuclear warfare? Last week I mentioned that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a group that includes numerous Nobel winners, were to make a "very important announcement" and yesterday they did. The conclusion: that we have awoken to the dawn of a new nuclear era.

This seemingly dire announcement has been punctuated by the Bulletin's decision to move the Doomsday Clock forward by two minutes, to five minutes to midnight. Contrary to popular assumption, though, the clock is not a gauge of how close we are to nuclear war waged by our world's politicians.

In fact, the clock reflects “basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age, and will continue living, until society adjusts its basic attitudes and institutions.” This subtle difference is an important one, as it stresses the need for a fundamental shift in our way of approaching the way we live in the world. Is it not suprising, then, that the Bulletin also concludes that "the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons."

The full statement is well worth reading. Most fascinating to me is the report's description of how our nation's administration has relaxed its attitudes towards nuclear weapons, embracing this technology to a degree unheard of since WWII, and the direct influence this has had on today's nuclear proliferation.

But it's not all dire doomsday warnings. Even more important than the current "threat level," to borrow the language of the current administration, are the Bulletin's recommendations. Among the very specific steps that can be taken to reduce the nuclear threat are some obvious ones—begin dismantling the 20,000+ nuclear warheads we've got stored everywhere—and some less obvious ones. These include beginning an international discussion about the ramifications of nuclear energy (particularly salient as nuclear becomes more and more attractive as an alternative energy source), and securing current nuclear materials that are, as of now, dangerously insecure.

All of this nuclear talk can seem so distant to those of us who've never had to duck under a desk. But North Korea's recent testing should start bringing these dangers home to us—hopefully not directly, but at least by impacting our actions. So what can you and I do to influence our nation's approach to nuclear weapons?

We can start by educating ourselves (read the news, dispel the myths) and forming an opinion. Then share that opinion with those whose fingers dangle limply over the Big Red Button. Vote, send emails, start conversations with friends and neighbors. Whatever you choose to do, choose something, please. Don't you think it's time to stop letting others make our decisions for us?

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January 12, 2007

Doomsday Draws Near?

Thanks to the folks at Development Crossing, I am now officially scared sh--less.™ They've pointed out a recent Reuters article announcing that the hands of The Doomsday Clock (cue Jaws music) will be moving for the 18th time since 1947. The clock was created by those in the know in response to the (still) rising threat of nuclear proliferation: the idea is that when it hits midnight, you can kiss your ass goodbye.

But the question remains to be answered: when they adjust the clock next Wednesday, will it be moving back or forth, and what time will it be when they're done?

The answer of course, is wait and see. A visit to the clock's creators, the
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, warns simply: "On January 17, at 14:30 GMT (9:30 ET), the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists will launch a new website and make a major announcement."

Who knew scientists could be so...thrilling? Actually, a little digging reveals that the clock is currently set at seven minutes to midnight. You can read a bit more about its current status at their old site, including how North Korea's recent nuclear tests have affected nuclear Doomsday.

Stay tuned for the future of humanity...

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January 11, 2007

Earth & Sky

I don't generally post simply to point you to a particular site, but this one is good: Earth & Sky is a radio series, a website and a blog that "are committed to describing humanity’s work to understand itself and its relationship to the Earth."

It may sound high-minded, but the articles are all peer-reviewed and the blog has some really fascinating entries. Like this one, titled "Nature Provides 'Ecosystem Services':"
Scientists are beginning to focus on the consequences of environmental degradation to human wellbeing. It’s the idea that nature provides goods and services we humans need – like clean water and fertile soil...So the service concept is really important because it links people to these concerns, which have been sort of remote in the past. If you say, “well we’re losing biodiversity,” a lot of people say 'well so what?'"

So what? We'll be singing a different tune when our services get shut off for failure to pay the rent.

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January 03, 2007

Urban Rivers

Work, in Plain English pointed out a remarkable scene recently: a river running through a congested city that actually looks healthy. Penina points out how important it is that an urban river actually engage passers by and should rely on naturally occurring elements to keep it healthy and flowing safely.

City planning in the U.S. should be so good.

Further reading:
More on rivers than you probably want to know.
The abstracted article that inspired Penina's post.

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November 29, 2006

And the Nobel Prize Goes to...Microlending!

I first caught wind of the microlending concept early this year while reading Fast Company's Social Capitalist issue. Several microlenders were mentioned, including Accion and Grameen (whose founder, Muhammad Yunus, has won this year's Nobel Peace Prize), and I was startled by their premise: that poor women make the best loan recipients.

Microlenders loan small amounts of money on what amounts to an honor system to the most impoverished recipients, who in turn use the money as capital for starting businesses. The idea is that these bootstrap loans help stimulate a local economy and reduce poverty, all on the locals' own terms.

And now that my curiosity's been piqued, I seem to be running into the idea everywhere I go. First I catch Yunus making an appearance on the Daily Show with John Stewart a couple of weeks ago, and then I stumble across an interesting summary of his bank's method posted just days earlier. Could this idea be about to explode stateside?

Microlending does have its detractors. Because its success (loan repayment) relies heavily on the ability of the recipient to succeed over the long term, it demands a lot of support and training from the lending institution. After all, recipients are often uneducated, inexperienced in business and disenfranchised at even a local level. If that support's not there, or if any number of other detrimental factors are there, the recipient might easily default or sink deeper in debt.

So will microlending work in the United States? Well, some real challenges will need to be met before Smells Fargo and Crank of America start handing out checks to inner city and rural poor. One of the biggest hindrances is the current availability of "support" in the form of welfare programs and such. Microlending relies on loan recipients being committed to the real risk of having no economic support system to speak of, as this is a determining factor for their business success (see
Using Microenterprise Programs in the Rural United States for a more scholarly explanation).

But perhaps there are similar options. Credit unions come close: they also offer localized loan opportunities, often at better rates and terms than conventional bank loans. Although you typically need to be a member, credit unions are growing exponentially in the U.S. and are now much more accessible than they once were.

Financial self-sufficiency is a fundamental element of modern sustainability: individuals must be able to support themselves financially in order for their local communities to survive, let alone thrive. Credit unions are a strong start, offering great opportunity. But the most successful microlending programs, along with proper training and support systems, might offer a more in-depth solution to a problem that runs deep whether you live in Kansas or Compton.

If you need a loan or other financial services, try looking up your local credit union or visit Accion USA.

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