Monday, December 3, 2007


We've now made it into the winter. I don't know f this qualifies as the first snow. We had a dusting a week or so ago that stuck in places for a few hours, but not everywhere. Last nights accumulation was enough to bring out the plows, but I don't think we even got an inch.

The snow coincided with the first night we had our new programmable thermostat. I bought it last weekend, but didn't find the time and motivation to install it until yesterday. It took all of 15 minutes. That includes looking for a screwdriver. The unit cost $25 bucks and will turn the heat up in th morning, down in the middle of the day, back up in the evening and down again over night. We've been trying to do it manually, but we keep forgetting to turn the thing down at night. If you don't have a programmable thermostat yet, I recommend getting one.

The best part was having the heat on when I was trying to get out of bed. The floor was already warm. It was great.

Next up: insulation. It turns out neither the roof, the attic floor, or the basement ceiling are insulated. We must be wasting huge amounts of heat. I think the roof is the biggest problem and we are going to try to get that done in the next couple of weeks.

I'm not sure about the basement floor. It's not as cold down there since it is half buried, but it's only half buried. Also the heater and ducts create some ambient heat that comes up through the floor. You can easily find the ducts by feeling for the temperature differences in the floor. I think I should finish weather stripping the doors first. That will probably make a bigger difference.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Rough Guide

I just bought a copy of The Rough Guide to Shopping With a Conscience. I had been looking at it, thinking it would be good to have on hand as a sort of reference, and I needed one more thing to get free shipping from Amazon. When it showed up, we wife remarked that it may have been better to borrow a copy from the library rather than kill a tree for a book on how to shop greener. She has a point.

She's actually proven to be a better at some aspects of personal conservation than I am. She's not quite as motivated as Ia m by the bigger plight of the global environment, but she's better at seeing the cost of day to day things. I had assumed that I'd be the advocate of all things green in this new endeavor, but she's been doing more than her share so far. And I still haven't gotten a compost bin set up. I'll do it tomorrow. Really.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Food energy

As I've mentioned before, I've been wrestling with the best way to buy food. What is more important? Local, organic, something else? Apparently my kitchen is where I should focus my efforts. According (supposedly, some very light digging failed to turn up the actual study) to researchers at the University of Michigan, home food preparation and refrigeration is the biggest resource hog in the food chain. Transportation ranks fourth. Maybe the PM of New Zealand has a point, but then, local food doesn't need to be packaged nearly as much, so perhaps the transportation and packaging sectors should be merged.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The Uxbridge mill fire a couple days ago makes every small town in New England with an old mill building a bit nervous. Especially towns like Hopedale, where the building is vacant. The Milford Daily News reports that the Draper Mill's owner has put in some effort to minimize risks.

Corn based ethanol

Environmental groups finally seem to be speaking out against corn-based ethanol. I guess they finally feel that the alternative fuels movement has enough momentum that it's safe to start picking off the bad ideas. Corn just doesn't have the energy content to be effective. Generous estimates say you get about 1 and 1/3 times the energy from corn based ethanol compared to the (non-solar) energy that goes into producing it. In the process you lose a bunch of food.

But it's not all bad that there has been a big push for corn-based ethanol. It's going to push the development of infrastructure and ethanol burning engines. This should further spur the development of cellulosic ethanol, and when that arrives, we will be ready to take advantage of it.

Keep in mind, though, that alternative auto fuels are only a part of the solution to the energy problem, with is only part the large global issues we are facing.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Public health and the environment

Living on Earth last we re-aired an old episode that I had not heard. It opened with an interview of Dr Richard Jackson of UC Berkeley and formerly the CDC. He sounds like quite an impressive person. He has been working hard his entire carrier to understand and manage the effects of environmental pollutants on public health. the topic was perchlorates in ground water interrupting thyroid activity. When asked what at-risk individuals (reproductive age women, in this case) can do, he gave a multi-part answer: First, pressure your local government to make sure you water meets the standards and pressure the government to increase the standards. Second, make sure you get some iodized salt every day, and third, (if you are pregnant) take pre-natal vitamins.

I thought this interview was worth noting because this man is clearly committed to this cause and his patients, and is passionate about public health, but he provided practical advice for listeners and a rational analysis of the situation. I was impressed.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

And the green grass grows all around, all around

I've now heard twice that everyone is wrong about watering lawns. Apparently, according to some research in Michigan (or was it Minnesota?), if you sprinkle a little water on your lawn in the heat of the day every day, you get a greener lawn with half the water than if you soak the roots twice a week at night.

Now I have to figure out how to avoid the evil eye from the neighbors if I implement this plan.

The Environment Repot

Now that I'm back to work, I'm listening to my iPod regularly again. I've hacked iTunes with a network of smart playlists to get a randomized playlist that is a mix of my favorite songs that I haven't heard recently, a few songs I haven't rated yet, and a smattering of podcasts.

My podcast list is evolving slowly. I started with all the science shows I could find and added some short general news clips for variety. A lot of the science shows were redundant, just different people's views on the same headlines. I really like "This Week in Science" from Davis. The hosts are a good mix of intelligent and funny and aren't afraid to get into their personal opinions, and can do so without preaching. I also like "Living on Earth" which gets more into environmental issues. Both are great shows, but both shows are way too long. TWIS usually does an interview in the second half-hour that I usually skip. I like their take on the headlines better. Both shows have been dropped from my regular listening because I just don't have that kind of time.

The Environment Report is my top science/environment podcast. Usually about 20 minutes long, they do 3 to 4 stories that are always well researched and produced. The journalists are easy to understand and always engaging. Good stuff.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Saving the world

Climate change as a political issue seems to have reached a tipping point before it reached a real tipping point. It remains to be seen if we've gotten there in time. At the moment, there is lots of rhetoric and small-time action. Some individuals and companies are taking it upon themselves to "green" their lives and operations. Many world leaders are talking about emissions goals for 10 to 50 years from now.

This is all very nice (and I'm part of it), but it's not going to solve much. Many journalists and bloggers are pointing this out. My composting toilet will be cool, but it's not going to solve anything on a global scale. I can make my house zero-energy and low-water, but there Earth will still boil over. Many leaders are trying to leave the climate change solution up to individuals and corporations. While many are answering the call, it's not enough.

But many authors worry that green consumers are assuaging their conscience with organic cotton and carbon offsets for their SUV and leaving it at that. While the recycled plastic decks aren't going to save the planet, they are being noticed by businesses and politicians. At the moment the green-product marketplace is probably still minuscule compared to the rest of the economy. But a conversation has begun.

What's important now is that all of us who realize the need for change continue to speak out, both with our voices and out pocket books. We need to remind our leaders that this is a real problem. We need to remind manufacturers that we care enough to pay a little bit extra. I also think it's important to convince our peers that they should pitch in as well.

I think this is missed in the media. The crazies get covered (and have their place). The 50 mile diet families and the like get lots of buzz and start conversations. But one of my goals is to make modest changes and demonstrate to friends and neighbors that drastically reducing your impact does not mean drastically changing your life.

When I mentioned the composting toilet plan to my mother-in-law, I got quite a look. I can argue the evidence till I turn blue, but seeing it in action will have a much better effect.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Moved in

... almost.

M is out buying a kitchen table now and we still need shelves. It's hard to find book when their in boxes stacked in the closet. Coming in to all this, I was excited to get my hands dirty and build some things. Then reality set in an I realized that with a new job and the baby, I just don't have that kind of time. So far, I built a shelf. It's a nice shelf, but not two weeks worth of nice. I need to have a realistic time frame in mind for future projects and prioritize a little.

I'm starting with shelves. There's lots of junk in the basement that needs to be off the ground in case of flooding and the attic is a mess. Then I can get into the fun stuff. I want to build a compost tumbler. They seem to cost more than $200 to buy and I should be able to build one for $20 if I can find a good container to start with. I'm not sure where to find old steel drums, but a Gatorade cooler would work, too.

We've decided to leave the kitchen alone for now. That leaves finishing the attic and adding a half bath as the big projects. The plumbing is going to be tricky for the bathroom, so we're contemplating a composting toilet. I thought that would be a harder sell, but M was on board at the first mention. I had a whole spiel prepared.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

My mamma likes Obama

This is horribly off-topic, but too funny not to pass on. The 8th graders at Frick Middle School in Oakland presented their year-end projects last night. They were tasked to research past reform movements and leaders and then pick a current problem and propose a solution.

One student's solution was to elect Barrack Obama to lead us in a new direction. He even came up with a slogan: "Tell your mamma to vote for Obama"

I think he should print up some bumper stickers and sell them.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

In the balance

In the current hype about global warming. Many issues are getting rolled into one and some are getting overlooked. Global warming is one side-effect of non-sustainable resource use. Of course it is a huge issue and needs to be dealt with, but there are many issues that are all interconnected and I think it's important to keep in mind all of the challenges, not just the popular ones.

Environmental public health is another huge concern. This was bigger back in the 70's when Earth Day started, and is still important despite fading from the headlines. Biodiversity loss is another concern, but unlike the first two issues, is harder to make an economic case for. Although, I believe biodiversity is important, there is not a straight line from biodiversity to our continued survival. Resource usage and waste are issues that go well beyond global warming and energy use. Water is going to be a big issue in the future. The American dream includes a big lawn, even in places where the water has to travel hundreds of miles to get there. Food is also going to be a problem as more farmland gets turned residential (or even into energy crops).

These issues are all inter-related and good solutions will help alleviate many of these problems at once. However, we have to be mindful of solutions to one problem that make others worse. Currently, there is concern that diverting corn to auto fuel is a waste of good food. This is probably true since corn is a relatively poor source of ethanol. The reason it's popular is that the technology is ready to go. Cellulosic ethanol should be much more efficiently produced once we figure it out. But do we use corn in the meantime to get the infrastructure up and running or do we use the funds currently going to corn to fund research in to better technologies. And in either case, how do we make sure that food doesn't get diverted from those who can't pay as much? This will also lead to more monoculture agriculture, which impacts biodiversity.

There is a lot to think about when trying to save the planet, but in the end any action is good. We just need to make the extra effort to find good solutions.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Trader Joe's veggies

TJs is one of the things that will ease the transition to life in New England. In the winter, (and fall and spring) when good local produce is hard to come by, they will still have their great frozen goods. Another post will discuss the trade offs involved in getting good produce. Local is always good, but setting up a climate controlled greenhouse to grow strawberries in Massachusetts in winter will possibly use more energy than growing them in Chile and shipping them en masse. New Zealand makes this argument about their sheep. The third option is to freeze or can local produce in season. Canned is likely the best option from an energy standpoint, but it doesn't taste as good. Freezing takes energy to maintain, but not only do folks like TJs do it better than I can, but their (I'm guessing here) large scale freezers are probably more efficient than the little thing above my fridge.

On a slightly related note, I've always thought it was odd that TJs wrapped all their fresh veggies in so much plastic. It seems like such a waste and put a ding in my glowing image of them. I just noticed the other day that the plastic is made from corn and is compostable. Cool. I am definitely setting up a compost heap in the new place. I want to take and old oil drum and turn it into a rotating composter.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

DIY soda water

M saw in the Berkeley Parents Network advice emails a thread about making your own soda water to reduce the number of plastic bottles. I will definitely have to look into this once we've moved. It sounds like you buy CO2 cartridges and a special bottle. I'm guessing the cartridges are re-usable.

In looking for ways to green my life, I'm trying to start with the worst offenders. The first thing to minimize the non-recyclable and non-compostable trash. Soda bottles are recyclable, so they would be lower priority, but if this also saves us money (this stuff adds up and we are addicted to it), then it may be an early move. I'll post the details when I have a plan.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) use much less energy than incandescent bulbs to make a similar amount of light. These bulbs are touted as an easy way to reduce energy consumption and quickly put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. They have some well known problems: they warm up slowly, give lower quality light, are more expensive, and contain mercury. None of these are show stoppers. The latest bulbs warm up in seconds and they are getting cheaper. They also last longer. Recycling bulbs properly (mostly) mitigates the dangers of the mercury. These are all reasonable sacrifices for saving the planet.

Many governments are considering laws to ban incandescent bulbs. This is just plain ridiculous. While well intentioned, this is not the way to go about solving our problems. Even if CFLs were the perfect replacement for incandescents, it would be a questionable move. However the issue is not that clear cut. When you look at it more closely.

First, the higher cost corresponds to the increased resources and energy required to make these bulbs. Second, people are not recycling these bulbs consistently. I just recently found out that I needed to. (Of course, none have burnt out since then). Third, these bulbs are more sensitive to conditions and are not well suited to some uses (outdoor, refrigerators, ...). Again, I'm not sure these reasons are show stoppers either, but they certainly suggest that an outright ban on incandescents might be unwise.

The argument is also made that CFL bulbs must be left on continuously to achieve the lifetimes touted by manufacturers. I'm not sure I buy this for two reasons. First, I have seen no data and the argument seems to only appear when people are making the case for keeping incandescents. Second, I'd bet incandescents have the same problem.

Don't get me wrong. I think incandescent bulbs should get phased out. However, I think in the long term, LEDs will provide the answer. Even more efficient and longer lasting than CFLs, they also give a better quality of light. I want to build one of these.

For now, though, I don't have an answer. I'll try to do some research on CFLs before we move into the new place. I don't want to go buy a house full of CFLs to find out I wasted my money, but I don't want to waste energy on incandescents because I bought into the establishment FUD. I'll look into it and post more later.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Alternative Engery is not Sutainability

Last month, the journal Science devoted an entire issue to "Sustainability and Energy." The issue's opening essay begins with:
Perhaps the greatest challenge in realizing a sustainable future is energy consumption.
The rest of the issue deals with alternative energy sources (mostly solar, bio-, and nuclear) and carbon sequestration. These are an important part of sustainability and climate change in particular, but these energy sources are all finite. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy won't run out, but there is a maximum that can be collected, whether through photovoltaics or bio-fuels.

Energy consumption must be reduced. If not, then, when oil does run out, no amount of fancy engineering will be able to fill the gap with solar. Nuclear would then be necessary. The only true solution is to find lower energy ways to operate. This will and must take many different forms. From more efficient machines to better distribution of resources to fewer luxuries.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Factory Heating

A couple weeks ago, Living on Earth covered the ongoing restoration and reuse of an enormous old factory building in Lawrence, MA. Sounds like Lawrence faced, on a larger scale, a similar situation to the one Hopedale is in now. The old mill in Lawrence is being, re-used as office space. I worked in a restored red-brick mill in Cambridge a few years back. It was a really nice space to be in. These buildings generally have large windows and lots of red brick. In the hands of a good architect, it's hard to go wrong aesthetically.

What's important in restoring these buildings is to try to preserve the sense of community that still exists in these towns. Turning the Draper building into office space just moves Hopedale closer to being another suburb of Boston, albeit with nice architecture. To be fair, architecture can give life to an otherwise boring place, but the town has much more going for them in terms of history and local culture.

The Lawrence mill is having a huge geothermal heating and cooling system installed. This is an extremely efficient way to climate control a space and efficiency is critical for a gigantic old building. The LOE coverage does not draw a clear line between this kind of geothermal installation and one that would actually generate electricity. he one in Lawrence still requires an electric pump to transfer the heat. The distinction is the same as between solar water heaters and photovoltaic solar panels. in both cases the former reduces overall energy costs, but does not produce usable power. They are also generally cheaper. When I was growing up in Texas, the electric company was advertising heat pumps, which I gathered were just smaller versions of what's going in at the Lawrence mill. I'm a bit surprised that such a system is still newsworthy.

Energy use should be significant portion of any plan to restore the Draper Building. Poorly implemented, it could be a huge energy hog. It's a large, old building. Done well, it could be an example of good design. I would argue for some sort of green certification. Maybe a green roof could be used to reduce heating/cooling costs. The dam that creates the Hopedale Pond is on one wall of the factory (it's an old mill), and could be used to power the pumps in a geothermal heating/cooling system.

Ending Trash

WorldChanging pointed me to a Fortune Magazine article on trash. Garbage is a big problem when thinking about sustainability. If you create waste that is not recycled or reused, then your processes are not sustainable. It seems some cities and businesses are making great strides towards reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. There is apparently a company in Tennessee that turns plastic hangers from WalMart into resin pellets that get used by manufacturers to make molded plastics. Paper recycled in San Francisco becomes packaging for goods made in China.

This is something everyone should think about. Every community and business should figure out how to keep their waste and byproducts from ending up in landfills and other dumps. If your town doesn't have compost service, start your own and lobby your local leaders. Also important is that the infrastructure is built up so that using recycled materials is more economical than digging them out of the earth. It may make sense to throw some incentives in (although I am generally very wary of incentives). It's also important to consider your trash when buying things. Try to avoid styrofoam when possible. Look out for plastics that are difficult to recycle.

I've started watching what we throw away here. A huge part of our garbage is food scraps. Berkeley is finally starting a composting program next year. We'll be gone before then, but I plan to set my own bin up when we move into our new place. Plastics that Berkeley doesn't recycle are probably next. I try to be careful what we purchase, but it's hard to always be vigilant. If we were charged by weight or volume for our garbage, I'm sure I'd think more about it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Draper building

The Draper building is a large, decrepit factory in the middle of Hopedale. Closed since the 1980's, it's been partially demolished, but still physically dominates the town. It is currently owned by a more-or-less anonymous developer. The town has put together a committee to explore possibilities for re-using the site.

I think this is a really interesting project with amazing potential. It is getting underway just as sustainability and green construction are going mainstream. This Old House is building a green house in Austin. Corporations are installing green roofs on new buildings. Also, developers and planners are starting to come up with promising ideas for fostering healthier communities through design.

The town has a history of emphasizing education, community well-being, and the environment only slightly derailed by a century of factory life. The space is big enough to have residences, office space, community services, and anything else that might make sense. It's centrally located in the most densely populated area in town. The surviving structures are the red brick kind that look great when renovated.

The reuse of the Draper building will be a major theme of this site, but I won't pretend that I can come up with the best plan. I want to start by researching the history and the current stake holders. What were the ideals of the original utopian community? How did the Draper corporation behave as a corporate citizen? Who lives here now? Who owns the building now? What other developments have they been involved in? What has the reuse committee done so far?

I also hope to profile similar projects elsewhere and reflect on what Hopedale might learn from them. I don't think this situation is uncommon in New England.

The Earth Is Ajar

I (will) use "sustainable" and "green" frequently in this blog. Even though I am a bit wary of them because they seem to be buzzwords at this point and will no doubt be stale far too soon. However, they concisely convey the idea of intelligent, thoughtful use of resources, a practice that will always be important even if the language changes.

The Earth is a closed system. Nearly. It's an open system but mostly in some trivial or negligible ways. Energy comes in from the sun at a fixed rate and is radiated as thermal energy. And only the occasional small probe clears our gravitational well. All the physical resources we'll ever have are already on the planet and the sun won't get any brighter.

While we haven't run out of land yet and there is still oil in the ground, these resources will eventually run out. The population is growing. Quickly. Energy use is growing. Quickly. People need land to live on. People need food to eat. Farmers need land to grow food. Everyone needs energy. Alternative energy is great. Global warming is a big deal. But even if we somehow manage to cease all CO2 output and undo a century of damage without changing energy usage, we will still have serious problems in the future.

Technology is seen as a cure-all by many. It will, of course, be a huge help. But complex natural systems are not linear. When you push an ecosystem to the brink and it collapses, you can't just back up to the point of collapse and expect everything to go back to normal. In engineering terms, this is called hysteresis. It will be much more cost effective to solve these problems before they assert themselves.

Life on earth is a billion years old because systems evolved to recycle every last scrap of anything. We won't make it another hundred unless we follow suit. It is inevitable that solutions to these problems will be turn up eventually, humans are too resilient to be killed off entirely. We're like roaches in that regard. But unless we are proactive about finding the answers, billions of people will suffer or die before the answers find us.


The other day a friend of mine stopped by Whole Foods for something small. When she answered "Neither" to the standard "Paper or plastic?" query, the cashier stopped and said, enthusiastically, "Right answer!" They are a little over the top at the Berkeley Whole Foods.

We usually go with plastic. I need bags to pick up after the dog, anyway. So, I might as well use the shopping bags. Every once in a while I'll get paper so I have something to put the recycling in. Unfortunately, the little bits of plastic that pop out of the handle of those bags started turning up in the nursery, on the baby's toys, and on the baby. Not good. In fact, that's very, very bad. So, no more plastic. But there are not that many uses for paper bags, so it's time to go canvas. I always meant to, I just never bothered to take them with me.

It's funny what it takes to motivate change sometimes.

Not all that evil

It's getting harder and harder to hate WalMart. At least as an environmentalist. They've jumped on the organic foods bandwagon and in doing so helped put organics on the map. They've made a commitment to greening their operations. Most recently, they've announced a program to illuminate the environmental impact of consumer electronics. This is really promising, and I hope that something similar becomes standard. It would be great to see the electronics industry start to go green.

There are still some good reasons to hate WalMart (working conditions, suburban sprawl, homogenization of culture, and so forth), but they have the power to effect real change. We should expect the same of all the other major corporations. Not just their competitors, but other corporations, particularly those whose brand is their most valuable asset. At the moment, it seems like pressuring corporations to change is likely to be as effective as writing a letter to your representatives. So do both.


Unless something goes horribly wrong, I will own (jointly) my first house by the end of May. For a number of reasons, we have chosen to move to my wife's home town of Hopedale, MA. I'm excited about this move for a number of reasons. And not just that we're buying our own house.

Hopedale has an interesting history that still influences the town today. Founded as a utopian socialist commune in the 1840's, it eventually transitioned into a model factory town dominated by the Draper Corporation. Closed in the 1980's the Draper factory still lies vacant in the center of town. The town recently formed a committee to find a new use for the dormant building. It is an interesting time for the town as the reuse of the Draper property will redefine the identity of the town for at least the next few decades.

Meanwhile, I'm getting my hands on a one hundred plus year old house. It needs some cosmetic work, which I'm excited to get into; but I am more looking forward to the chance to apply sustainable thinking to my own house. I can't do anything drastic, but there are many mall ways to green a house that don't involve rebuilding from the ground up.

Here I will post ideas I have for both these projects and my thoughts about sustainability in general. I am not a planning expert or architect; I have very little experience building anything or working on a house; and I have no real experience with green design. However I have some theoretical training in ecology and complex systems that is crying out to be put to some practical use.