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.