Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Water, Water, Everywhere: $50 per gallon and up

Hey all.

Family stuff is happening these days, so I'm not able to keep up here as I once was, but I have been following the rapid approach of World Water Day, which occurs this Sunday, March 22. To that end, I thought I might link you all to some articles around the web that might give you a broader understanding of the problems involved in water rights and water availability throughout the world.

  • CHILE: Why "Free-Market" Water Rights Just Don't Work
    An article about the water struggles in Quillaqua, Chile by The New York Times illustrates how badly wrong a water rights policy can go.
  • CANADA: No Princes in the Water Rights Game Either
    Now, you'd think that a country with a fairly solid human rights record (in the main--I know no one's perfect) would be a little quicker to agree that clean water is a basic human right. Not so much. Luckily, you can tell the government just what you think of that.
  • AFRICA: Coca Cola Equals Fresh Water?
    The Coca Cola Company has pledged $30 million dollars to fresh water projects in Africa. Now if they could just stop wasting the world's water by bottling it and shipping it across the globe.
  • USA: We Solve Our Problems on Film
    The Environmental Protection Agency is running a contest for films that will inspire the nation's people to protect our lakes and wetlands.
For more information about water rights, check out:So that's it for today. Go drink a little tap water out of a real glass, would you?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Next Charging Station: 3000 Miles, or 300 Feet?

So, I've been reading a bit lately about alternative fuels and how exactly we can get them to where we need them. It's a huge issue, and one which can and should be tackled in the current push to rescue our economy.

See, here's the deal: It's always sunny in California. Rivers run hard in the Rockies. The windy plains are exactly that. Which is great--we can have solar power and hydroelectric power and wind power--heck, there are even fantastic places to harness geothermal power here in the United States. It's a big country after all.

Which of course, is the problem. The US doesn't have one power grid, we have several. So solar energy just can't get from the sunny valleys of the West to the dreary North very easily. Or at all, in some cases. What is needed in this country is a unified smart grid.

Now you've heard me talk about smart grids before. They are designed so that it is easy and efficient for energy to travel the length and breadth of the grid, making sure that all the places in between can get the energy they need--or give the energy they have, if that's the situation.

This can be done. It's going to take a lot of manhours (which, you know, means more jobs) and a lot of science and engineering and materials production (again, more jobs) to accomplish it, but it's possible. Just ask the Repower America group.

So, say we have this wonderful smart grid with its fancy smart meters. Say that photovoltaic power gets more inexpensive and we can all afford a couple of PV sheets on our roofs. We make more power than we use, we get a kickback, we don't make more power than we need, the grid provides it the same way it's always done--except of course that the power might be coming from across the country instead of across the state.

Wonderful for homes. Equally wonderful for cars running on electric power, especially if the newest version of fast-charge batteries become a reality. But really, all of this is only wonderful if we have a station every single place it's needed. Which could be in your home.

Take people who are being given the chance to own the first run of the BMW MINI E electric car. As lucky bum Stefano Paris tells us over at Revenge of the Electric Car, the requirements for getting one are pretty rigorous. One very important part of the puzzle, of course, is where you're going to park and charge the little electric monster. BMW is going to great strides to make sure that the first run of its electric cars don't meet the same fate as earlier versions. (See the movie Who Killed the Electric Car if you want to be outraged at how this technological innovation was squandered in the twentieth century.)

Or what about hydrogen fuel cell cars like the Chevy Equinox FC? Hydrogen-powered cars only work if there's hydrogen to be had. To which end, California has been planning an alternative fuel highway for a few years now. Their plan was to have it completed by some time next year, but it looks like it might take another five at least.

Which matters not at all if we can't get the cars on the road.

Why blather about all of this? Because we need to come up with solutions for these problems. Maybe.... Maybe neighborhoods go in on hydrogen fueling stations--buy it as a community and the community reaps the benefits and profits, instead of the oil companies. Maybe the same happens with solar-powered recharging stations. Imagine a whole neighborhood with one central parking lot, filled with recharging stations powered in part by the sun.

Really, it's all a question of rethinking the way we get resources. Do the oil companies have to turn into hydrogen fueling companies? Isn't there some other way--some more local and more personal way--to get what we need?

What do you think? Any ideas?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It's Tuesday--DO SOMETHING!

Yes, all, it's Tuesday, that day when I look for things for us all to do. Things that will help the planet and our society and our fellow people.

And today, I'm going to ignore all of that and focus on what we can do for ourselves.

My life right now is very stressful, as I'm sure all our lives are. It's hard to work enough hours because there's not enough work to go around. It's hard to watch friends struggle with their own financial woes. It's hard to go through each day when what you hear all the time is how bad everything is. So today, let's focus on what we can do for ourselves to reduce the stress.

  • Go for a walk. Even if it's raining. Just go outside and walk around the block or the property or the neighborhood. Physical exercise, even low-impact, low-aerobic exercise like leisure walking, increases our sense of well-being. It also leads to lovely things like running into a neighbor you haven't seen in a while or coming upon a breathtaking scene you wouldn't have found, but for your little walk.
  • Turn off the TV. Give yourself one hour in the evening without media. No TV, no radio, no newspaper. Just hang out with your partner or your pet or yourself and listen to the traffic outside. Read a book. Knit. Anything that doesn't involve the roller coaster of stress that is our current world.
  • Cook a good meal. Stop by the grocery store on your way home and pick up some favorites. Focusing on the fun and peace of it, cook yourself a nice dinner.
  • Invite a friend. Invite a friend to take that walk or indulge in that media-free hour or eat that lovely home-cooked dinner. Friends and family are stress-relievers. And if yours aren't? Don't invite those ones.
  • Pray, meditate, or just spend some time in the dark. Whatever your religion (or lack thereof) or your life view, ten minutes of alone time can do wonders. Sit in a comfortable spot, close your eyes, and engage in whatever meditative practice works for you. Pray the rosary, use a focus and breathe rhythmically, practice transcendental meditation--anything to give yourself ten minutes of peace and contemplation.
There you go! Some things to do this week that help the planet by helping you keep your sanity. And they're zero carbon and easy on the purse, too!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Stealing from His College Fund to Pay for His Future

No, this isn't the story of how I robbed my child's 529 so I could buy him a hockey kit in the hopes that he'd one day become a famous NHL player (although I'd totally do that). This is the story of a walk to the train station that I took this week.

On my way to work, I always have a buck in my pocket for my paper guy. He hangs out outside my coffee house and sells the local homeless newspaper. Now, I don't like newspapers. I don't like the extra paper waste or the fact that I only ever want to read a few pages anyway, and then I grump at the wad of stuff I have to carry around until I find a recycling bin.

But this guy is great. He's cleaned up his life (he went sober on his birthday one year, making the anniversary an easy one to remember) and he works for a living. But that living isn't much--I've never asked him if he's still homeless, but that's not really my business anyway. He's doing his job and he's lucky to have one (as am I).

So one day, after weeks of him greeting me happily and shooting the occasional breeze, I said to him "I don't want a paper, but I'll buy one off you anyway." I gave him a dollar and I let him resell the paper I just bought.

Yes, I do realize that what I did was just give him a dollar (which didn't make it back to the paper, and frankly, wasn't supposed to), but it was the thought of the thing. I didn't want the paper, but I wanted him to get paid--for being a genuinely cheery person, if nothing else.

I "buy a paper" from him fairly often. I also give money to other people who ask for it when I have an extra buck. It's not hugely often because I always give dollars, never coins--loose change, I keep for my son's college fund.

When I was younger, I asked my family for money for Christmas one year. It was to buy my own new shiny computer. Imagine my surprise when my eldest brother gave me a gigantic pink piggy bank. Now, this could have been the sort of gift that says "stop begging money off the rest of us and save it yourself, Peace," but it was stuffed with a $50 bill, so I didn't complain.

I did, however, keep the pig. Have for 25 years. And I use it--I usually collect a couple hundred dollars of spare change in a year, which is a nice wad to use for a birthday dinner and whatever I'm into at the time. But once we started trying to build a family, that pig became ourchildren's college fund pig. All spare change goes into the pig and, once a year the pig donates its innards to a savings account that is never touched.

So any spare change is our son's, and we joke that, when we spend change, we're stealing from his college fund. Except that, a few days ago, it was amazingly windy and cold and just miserable. And there was a guy outside of one of the convenience stores I pass by on my way to work. And I didn't have a dollar, but I did have about 75 cents in change. I dropped my son's college fund into a street guy's paper cup.

Am I a bad parent? Well, probably, but not because I gave away that money. One problem I find with the world--especially in big cities, for some reason--is that everyone thinks everyone else is out for something. Everyone's got an angle, right? That homeless guy? Probably not homeless at all. And if he is, he's probably only using the money to get high or something.

I don't think that's always true (I'm not naive enough to think it's never true). I think sometimes, people are just down on their luck. And if you have 75 cents, is it that bad a thing to give it to them?

What does this have to do with my son's future? I think respect for everyone is one of the most useful lessons we can impart to our children. I think that meeting someone's eyes when they ask you for money--even if you quietly say "I'm sorry, I have nothing to give"--is an act of respect that teaches a child a lesson. Homeless people are invisible and rudely ignored and so are small children in trouble and women being beaten and countries full of people being murdered by their own governments. It's a brutal fact of life and it just shouldn't have to be.

So maybe, just maybe, tossing 75 cents to an invisible man and thanking him for his "God bless you" as I walk away isn't stealing from my son's college fund at all--it's just making a down payment on a more compassionate, respectful, visible world for him and his children.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cats and the Environment I: The Litter Question

I was talking to my boss last week about her cats. It was originally a discussion about the composter I want to buy (which she has and likes [though she says it does smell a bit when you open it]), but grew into a discussion of recycling here in the office and at home and that led to the thing I do that annoys me most, ecologically speaking: throwing out the cat litter.

We have two cats, both indoor-exclusive, and we live in a condo high-rise with some very strict rules. One of them is that you must not toss bags of kitty litter down the trash chute. (That's pretty common sense, actually--bags do not stay intact while hurtling 30 floors through a small tube to their death in the garbage room, no matter what anyone tells you. Litter Bomb? No thanks.) The building's answer is to do a daily trash run: kitty litter bags are left in the trash room on our floor and maintenance comes by in the freight elevator and adds it to the pile of kitty litter bags they already have. It cuts down on the possibility of a litter bomb, so this rule, too, is all to the good.

Not to the good? I cannot reuse plastic grocery sacks to bag the litter. And it must be double bagged. So I end up spending extra money to buy small trash bags and then double wrap the kitty litter to ensure that it never ever sees a molecule of oxygen with which to decompose.

Annoying. And again, I mention that we have two cats. Who create a lot of smelly litter. In a high-rise building with decent but not brilliant cross-ventilation, I have to scoop the litter boxes (plural) every single day and still there is the problem of a teensy bit of stink in my oh-so-sensitive nose. Baking soda mixed into the litter helps, but the odor isn't the only problem.

I have allergies. Big, bad, killer allergies. And every single day, scooping that clay clumping litter is killing my lungs a little bit more. Yes, I know that there has never been a clinical study that shows that clumping litter is dangerous for anyone's health (but I kind of think that's just because they haven't bothered to study it), but the fact remains that I kick up an awful lot of dust scooping those things out and that does my allergies no good at all--can't imagine burying in the dust is great for the cats, come to think of it.

And the creation of the litter does no good to the earth, either. Conventional cat litters use clay, which is usually found some 30-40 feet underground on clay-containing mountainsides. Easiest way to get to it? Skim off the 30-40 feet of topsoil and growth above it and collect the clay. The result is a lopped-off mountainside (we had one where I was a kid--they're finally rehabilitating it now, decades later) that increases flood damage for the land below it and is generally an ecological disaster. It is so time for a change.

At first blush, biodegradable cat litters look like a fine idea. They are often made from things like leftover pine branches after a tree has been felled by the lumber companies or from corn husks and cobs left over from grain extraction (not 100% green, but at least it uses up the stuff no one wants). They rarely have anything chemical added to them and are, by all accounts, very good at controlling odors. And they biodegrade! They break down when you're done with them! Sounds perfect.

In actual fact, they are brilliant for people who have outside composters or large compost heaps that generate enough heat to kill all the bacteria that teem through feline waste. For someone like me--who will be double-bagging the dang stuff in air-blocking plastic, so it can be thrown in a landfill, which is, itself, an almost completely anaerobic environment--biodegradable litter only provides me with a product that was slightly less earth-killing to produce.

Flushable litters offer a good solution for me. There are a number of organic and/or natural brands out there, with varying textures, so moving your cat from one cat litter to another might be a little easier if the two feel basically the same. They don't really cost any more than the clays and might actually be more cost effective because you use less of them (supposedly--we'll see what happens in Chez Peaceable).

The basic truth is that I don't have a properly ventilated space for a certified animal-waste-processing composter (they suggest these only be placed outside because they smell regardless), and I'm sick to death of A) having to take my litter out to the trash room at a specific time to make sure it doesn't smell up the hall while it's waiting to be picked up, and B) throwing away hundreds of pounds of earth-damaging clay litter. I'm just starting my first foray into trying to get my older cat to use it. This should be fun.

NOTE FOR OWNERS OF OUTDOOR CATS: If you have an indoor-outdoor or outdoor-exclusive cat, your animal may be exposed to toxoplasmosis, a parasite which is not fun--it is the reason why pregnant women are told not to clean cat boxes, because the risk to the fetus if the mother contracts toxo is very, very high.

For this reason, you should probably find a different way to dispose of your kitty litter than flushing it down the toilet. Regional water treatment plants don't screen for toxo and it could end up in the water supply or, more likely, in the lakes, rivers, and oceans. Composting is the best bet there, as the heat of composting should kill off the parasite. Also, taking your cat to the vet and having them tested for toxo periodically is a healthy thing to do anyway. If you or your partner is pregnant or plans to become pregnant, for the love of the unborn babies, please test your cat for toxo. Birth defects are bad.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It's Tuesday! DO SOMETHING!

Hey all!

Tuesday again, and I'm actually around to do my Do Something segment. I've been seeing a lot of ads for fundraising walks lately, so I thought they were the thing to focus on today. After all, a fundraising walk increases the sense of community within a culture, increases the walkers' health and well-being, and raises funds for important health-related causes. Here's a few near and dear to my heart:

  • March of Dimes March for Babies
    The loss of an infant or unborn child is devastating for the entire family, and the discovery that a living child has a birth defect that will challenge her for the rest of her life is equally tragic. All too often, however, miscarriages, stillbirths, and neonatal deaths are swept under the rug, and families raising children with birth defects are left to fend for themselves. Help the parents of all of these children by donating to a run in your area or by running yourself and raising money for the cause. March of Dimes started as a push to cure polio, but today, its reach is far wider. Infant and prenatal care affects us all, whether we have children or not.
  • The Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk
    For years, the Susan G. Komen Foundation for a Cure has been doing fundraising walks to provide treatment for underserved communities and to fund research into new treatments and possible cures for breast cancer. Again, whether you know someone with breast cancer or not, it is a disease that the society as a whole is impacted by every day, monetarily, spiritually, and socially. And the chance to walk 60 miles in 3 days with a bunch of crazy cancer survivors? Priceless!
  • American Lung Association Stair Climbs
    Got a free Sunday morning? Why not hike to the top of the Hancock Center in Chicago? Or the AON Center in LA? All to benefit a good cause, of course--lung disease research. No, the ALA isn't all about lung cancer. It's about asthma (which is heavily impacted by indoor air conditions and outdoor pollution) and allergies (which are impacted by chemical exposure and environmental damage) and various other lung diseases which are afflicting a greater and greater number of people every year. As a former smoker, I'm kind of attached to the ALA--they may have to save me from my past sins one day, so I'd better give them money now.
  • AIDS Marathon
    The AIDS Marathon foundation will train you to run a marathon (or a half-marathon) and give you a chance to raise money for AIDS research and treatment at the same time. I admit I've never thought of running a marathon, and likely never will, but the idea, if you're game, is to train for it and run it for the AIDS research community.
  • The Walk to Defeat ALS
    The ALS Association raises money for research into a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease). This disease is a particular cause for a friend of mine, so I sock away a little money in my budget to donate to the walk every year.
So, that's my list for the day. I have to set up my March for Babies site soon and start hitting all my friends up for a little money. It's amazing how much you can raise just by asking for five or ten dollars from a bunch of coworkers and friends.

Give it a try--you might earn a free t-shirt and sunny day of walking with a whole bunch of newly-met friends.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

40 Days of Mindfullness

My life is a little crazy busy at the moment, but I watched our president on Tuesday night, and one of the things he said struck me as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I agree that we need to concentrate far more on our children's educations and on healthcare for all of us. I agree that we need to help people climb out of the problems that they have--financially, socially, physically, educationally--and improve the life of each and every citizen of not just the country but the planet. I think he's got some great ideas that warm the cockles of my heart.

But then he said this: "...the flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy."

Why? Why does it have to be that way?

I understand that 99% of us cannot afford to buy a house with the money we have on hand, and I agree that probably 50% of us can't buy a car outright either (at least not without jeopardizing other bills and life requirements). That's investment, as far as I'm concerned. Credit, to my mind, is something that you get because you can't afford what you want, not what you need. If I really want an iPod but don't have the money to buy it outright, putting it on a credit card is no investment of any kind, as it provides no usable equity (though it does make it easier to listen to the presidential address podcasts).

So credit is one thing and investment another. You should have what you can afford and save for what you can't.

It's unfair, however, to expect that to actually be the case. Our capitalist economy has been built on spending money whether you have it or not, and the industries we have are simply designed to work on money that is loaned: You loan the bank money by opening a savings account; the bank loans Bob money, and Bob pays Jimmy (who employs Ken and John) and buys materials (which employs some other people) and eventually gets paid off by Max (who borrowed his own money) and pays off the bank which then pays you off in the form of interest.

So, I guess credit is the lifeblood of our economy, but coming to that realization requires me to rethink my definition of "credit" to include investments like those described above. Is it possible to live without credit (using my original meaning) and still get what you need? Yes. It just requires that we all rethink what the definition of "need" is, as well.

A human being needs, minimally, food, water, shelter, and clothing. Which sounds pretty minimal indeed. But if I go to Spago and eat foie grae and oysters, wash it down with imported bottled water from Italy, go home to sleep at my penthouse apartment in Central Park West, and wear Armani while doing it, I've got the basics, haven't I?

There are people in the world who need those particular basics. If you're not one of them, you must just not be watching the right TV shows, because all the admen are telling us daily that that or something like it is what we need to have.

I'm not saying you have to give up your iPod (you'll pry mine from very angry hands), but I do think we should all spend a little time finding out what the definition of need is.

For Christians, the season of Lent has just started--40 days of reflection and penance. Instead of just celebrating this Lent as a Christian holy season, where the most many of us will do is eat fish on Fridays, I'm going to invite anyone and everyone of every faith and none to join me and give up thoughtless spending for the next 40 days (or thereabouts).

Here's how I, personally, am going to work it:

  • I am going to try not to eat out for the entire 40 days. If I do eat out, I will consider the source of the food, the plates I eat with, and the social and emotional benefit I get.
  • I will try to spend the least amount of money on my food and minimize the packaging with which I'm willing to deal (luckily, lots and lots of things come in bulk now).
  • I will not buy anything on impulse--each magazine, candy bar, and online music purchase will be considered and acquired in a mindful way.
  • I will keep track of each and every cent I spend, without guilt or remorse for the entire 40 days. Easter week, I can take a look and see if I can find places to cut more out of the needless acquiring.
So? Who's with me?