Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Alien Invasion!

Invasive, alien, exotic, and non-native species. No matter what you call them, invasive species are bad news. They are "plants, animals, or other organisms that are introduced to a given area outside their original range and cause harm in their new home. Because they have no natural enemies to limit their reproduction, they usually spread rampantly. Invasive alien species are recognized as one of the leading threats to biodiversity and impose enormous costs to agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and other human enterprises, as well as to human health."(*1)

I sometimes wonder though, whether or not dedicated naturalists and environmentalists take the issue a bit too far. To anyone who is moderately educated about ecological issues, the spread of alien invasives is of far more concern than the immigration of illegal aliens. Usually in order to be considered an invasive species, the organisms would have to be spread or transplanted by humans (either accidentally or on purpose). But in order to subscribe to that idea, I believe you would also have to subscribe to the idea that man is apart from nature, or not a part of the natural ecosystem. Just because a certain species of ape developed a sentience and got a big ego about it doesn't mean we ever became anything more than just animals surviving in our environment. Sure, there's something different about being man-made, artificial, or synthetic, but that doesn't mean that man himself is different. Therefore if man's actions spread certain other plant and animal species into new ecosystems, is that not natural development? Sure, it will kill off some biodiversity in the short term, but new plants and animals will evolve and keep balance, and every necessary niche will eventually be refilled. Not in our lifetimes probably, but earth has been around a while, and she knows what she's doing. I mean, no plants and animals were here in the beginning, so they all had to have come from somewhere.

Still, I can't argue that invasive species are a good thing. Especially not if you're trying to preserve a "natural" habitat the way that it is or the way that is used to be, however short a time it may have actually remained that way on the geologic time scale. Nature isn't necessarily meant to be preserved, in the way many people think of the term. It's meant to grow, adapt, and evolve. Protected, yes. But not preserved.

The idea of invasive species is based on the idea that native organisms have more value than non-natives. Humans have struggled with this idea from the beginning. Since the inception of western society, humans have thought of themselves as more important than all other species on earth, and as such have assigned a value to others. The term "vermin" (or "varmit" around here), refers to species that are considered pests or nuisances. At one time, and still probably in many areas of the country, predators of big game animals were all considered to be pest species. Before westerners had time to learn about the concept of ecosystems and the idea that all organisms are dependent on each other, they had nearly wiped out all the game predators in the US. Wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, bears... Now in states like Kentucky deer hunting season is crucial, because white tailed deer are ridiculously over-populated and humans are their only natural predators left. I only mention all of this because ecology is still a very young science, and I'm not sure that we always know best.

Regardless, exotic species cause a big headache for the relatively native species. Some of the big ones in the Bluegrass state right now are wintercreeper (a type of ivy), the Emerald Ash Borer beetle, fire ants, zebra mussels, and honeysuckle.

I had no idea honeysuckle wasn't a Kentucky native plant until I was a sophomore in college. Honeysuckle has always been (and remains) one of my favorite plants. The smell of honeysuckle bushes and fresh cut grass are the scents of summer in Kentucky. I have so many memories as a child of sitting in front of honeysuckle bushes and plucking off the flowers, one by one, to suck out the sweet juice of the blossoms. It requires a very special technique in order to get the biggest drop of the "honey". Turns out that honeysuckle actually secretes some sort of chemical into the ground "to inhibit other plant growth, effectively poisoning the soil." (*2) I never would have guessed.

So as much as I may hear friends bitching about it, and see employees at nature centers ripping it up from the roots, if I see honeysuckle growing around my yard, I'm going to let it grow. It deserves to be here every bit as much as I do.

Friday, July 9, 2010


I'm a sucker for science fiction. What other genre explores the human potential so thoroughly and stretches our imagination into the unknown?

"Science fiction is the improbable made possible." --Rod Serling (creator of the Twilight Zone)

And yet sciFi is so underrated in our culture. So many people reject the fundamental theories of science, things like the big bang, evolution, global climate change, even the germ theory of disease. You'd think that a civilization that has made the leap into space would be more receptive to science and logic as a way of life. The same is true of science fiction. In the literary world, it is likewise not taken seriously as a craft, often dismissed as epic space operas, rather than deep symbolic or allegorical social commentary.

Author Kurt Vonnegut made this comment, "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

Scientist Richard Dawkins wrote in his book Unweaving the Rainbow that "the best of science fiction seems to me an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature. More than one reputable scientist has been introduced to what I am calling the spirit of wonder through an early fascination with science fiction."

And sure, there's a plethora of junk sci fi out there too. But the technological and medical advances of today were the science fiction of yesterday.




Star Trek

The Matrix



Ender's Game

Atlas Shrugged

Brave New World

A Wrinkle in Time

The Time Machine

A Handmaid's Tale

A Clockwork Orange

Flowers for Algernon

2001: A Space Odyssey

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Stranger in a Strange Land

Out of the Silent Planet

Slaughterhouse Five

Battlestar Gallactica

Back to the Future

The Twilight Zone

Planet of the Apes

Battlefield Earth

Fahrenheit 451

Jurassic Park

The Jetsons


Star Wars

Dr. Who



The list goes on and on. These stories have shaped and influenced our culture and enchanted the imaginations of our society for generations. Who would have thought 50 years ago that we could sit in a movie theater and watch a film like Avatar in 3D? Truly, the stuff of science fiction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill!

Like everyone else, I'm equally outraged and dumbfounded by the astounding incompetence displayed by BP and the United States government.

My condolences go out to the people who live in the coastal states of the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Disposable Debate

Do cloth diapers or disposable diapers have more impact on the environment? Numerous studies have been done on the issue, and yet it seems as if there is still no conclusive evidence one way other other.

"After a three year, [$360,000] study, the London-based Environmental Agency concluded that disposable diapers have the same environmental impact as reusable diapers when the effect of laundering cloth diapers is taken into account." (*1) But reusable diaper advocates and other organizations such as the Women's Environmental Network objected to the study, saying that the results were skewed in favor of disposable diapers.

Proctor & Gamble, the owner of Pampers and the largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, conducted a study claiming "that laundering a cloth diaper over the course of its lifetime consumes up to six times the water used to manufacture a single disposable diaper." (*1) That may be true, but think how many more disposable diapers one child will need before it gets potty trained.

Using a diaper service uses even less water than parents washing their children's own diapers. But then, it also uses more fuel to transport the clean nappies. The problem with that scenario in America is that the booming disposable industry has lessened the need for diaper services, and many parts of the country don't have the services available to utilize anymore.

I'm pretty biased on this subject, as I was raised on reusable cloth diapers, and will probably do the same for my future hypothetical children. Cloth makes more environmental sense in my mind, especially when using energy efficient washing machines. I just don't see how disposable diapers could ever have less of an impact.

Consider the facts: In the US alone, 18 billion dirty diapers end up in landfills every year, requiring over 82,000 tons of plastic and over 250,000 trees in the production of those diapers, each of which takes approximately 300 years to biodegrade. (*2) That means that since the invention of disposables, none have fully decomposed yet.

Also, health effects are important to consider. The New Parent's Guide claims that "54% of one month old babies using disposable diapers had rashes, 16% having severe rashes....On the other hand, cloth diapers can cause rashes by not being changed enough or properly cleaned and sanitized after becoming soiled." (*3) In addition, "a 2000 German study concluded that boys who wear disposable diapers maintain a higher scrotal temperature than boys wearing cloth diapers, which may cause fertility issues later in life." (*1) And finally, toilet training experts have said that using disposable diapers may postpone a child's potty training. Since disposable diapers are engineered to absorb the wetness and keep the child comfortable, they deincentivize toilet use.

And then, there's always the moral issue. Bob Schildgen (aka "Mr. Green") of the Sierra Club expressed his rather strong opinion, "it just depresses the hell out of me to think that an infant's first ongoing contact with the outside world involves the twisted cult of disposability that bedevils our environment." (*4)

But of course, nothing is ever black and white. There is such a thing as "hybrid" diapers. Called gDiapers, the company claims they are the "best of cloth and disposable." Their biodegradable diapers are "plastic-free, elemental chlorine free, latex free, and perfume free." (*5) They're essentially cloth diapers with pull-out and replaceable disposable parts. But you can buy them in all sorts of colors, so your baby can crawl around in style! And the materials are breathable to reduce the likelihood of diaper rash. The cool part is that the disposable aspects of the diaper can either be thrown away, flushed down the toilet, or composted. And they promise that their used products will break down in 50-150 days. Which, by my calculations, is a lot better than 300 years.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Earth Day : forty years later

The very first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, a historic event which kicked off the modern environmental movement and was one of the factors that inspired the founding of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The idea for Earth Day came from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. He was troubled that the degrading state of the environment was not an issue in national politics, despite the widespread concern of citizens.

In November of 1969, just a few months before Earth Day, the New York Times published a story by Gladwin Hill, in which he reported that "rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam." (*1)

The first Earth Day was a huge success. "20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment....Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values." (*2)

Senator Nelson commented that "Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself." (*1)

But a lot has happened since the inception of Earth Day 40 years ago. Today, being "green" is a fashion statement, not an environmental commitment. And true environmentalists are having a hard time swallowing the idea of Earth Day in it's present context.

Sharon Astyk (author of Depletion and Abundance), earlier today blogged her views on the matter, saying that "I'm a skeptic about Earth Day and Earth Hour and anything that has you be green for a weekend or a day or an hour. Yes, I'm the original poster girl for 'your personal choice makes an impact' - but not one day a year. And yes, teaching kids about the basics of environmentalism is awesome, and having festivals is good. But the truth is that I don't see it sticking. I see Earth Day as the new Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, a Hallmark holiday for us to give lip service to the environment." (*3)

Taking those thoughts one step further, Alex Steffen (executive editor of the online magazine Worldchanging), commented in 2007 that "Earth Day, which every year has become less and less the revolutionary event it once was, seems this year to have entered a new phase of meaninglessness. Indeed, this year it appears to have gone into a form of retrograde motion and move actively away from the concept of comprehensive sustainability that drives all rational environmentalism. In short, Earth Day has served its time, and must go." (*4)

These authors make valid points, and I agree with them for the most part. However, unlike Steffen, I don't think that Earth Day has served it's time. I think the fundamental idea behind Earth Day is still strong, but it somehow got washed into the stagnant puddle of the socio-political river and been buried by the accumulated slime of greenwash over the years. People have forgotten what a powerful impact this day once had on our society, and now see this historic event as a profit-maximizing opportunity. But I'm still young enough to be optimistic, and I have hope that people will overcome the false facade invented by corporate marketing strategists, and find true meaning in the spirit of the day.

The point is, we don't live on this planet for only one day a year, so maybe we should start acting like it.


And since I didn't have a picture in this entry to keep you interested, here's a completely pointless quiz on the history of Earth Day, like the sticker you used to get from the dentists office to keep you coming back.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Plight of the Dandelion

"A weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit. Weeds are people's idea, not nature's." ~Anonymous

Imagine you were a cyanobacteria floating around in the sea billions of years ago. Eventually, you developed into algae. As an algae, you then slowly evolved into a marine plant.

Then, 475 million years ago, you evolved the capacity to live on land. That was a challenging transition to make. You had to overcome dessication and develop structural support against gravity (which is why you probably started out as a bryophyte, like moss). But hey, it was totally worth it. After all, the new frontier was so spacious! The sunlight was unfiltered by water and plankton, the atmopshere had an abundance of CO2, the soil was rich in mineral nutrients, and there were few herbivores and pathogens to threaten your new terrestrial lifestyle. This was prime real estate.

You eventually developed vascular tissue, seeds, and stomata for gas exchange with the environment. You even discovered a way to transport nutrients throughout your body without a pumping heart. Good for you! 140 million years ago, you finally developed into an angiosperm (flowering plant). (*1 : my notes from Dr. Bill Cohen, professor of BIO 152 at the University of Kentucky).

At last, you evolve into a Taraxacum officinale, a common dandelion...only then to be considered a weed and sprayed with pesticide. Your arduous journey has come to an end.

Ever wonder why dandelions are considered to be weeds to begin with? What is a weed? Dictionary.com offers this definition: "a valueless plant growing wild, esp. one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop." But dandelions actually have a lot of values, for humans as well as the ecosystem. Somehow they've gotten a bad reputation over the years, but there's probably a lot about this little flower that most people don't know.

Dandelions are all females. I know traditionally we don't consider plants to have gender, but it's true. Some plants have an ovary, some have sperm, and some plant types have both. Pollen is a type of plant sperm. Pollination (or fertilization) of plants is aided by wind, insects, animals, and water.

But dandelions are asexual. They reproduce through apomixis, meaning that seeds develop without fertilization. There are some asexual animals as well; mostly invertebrates, but also some reptiles. The whiptail lizard, for example, is a completely female species (though for animals it's referred to as parthenogenesis, instead of apomixis). (*2) This creates very limited variability within the species, meaning that all dandelions are genetic clones of the previous generations.

Dandelion, the name, originates from Old French, "dent-de-lion", meaning lion's tooth. The name comes from the jagged edges of the leaves of the plant, not from the flower. (*3)

The entire plant body of the dandelion is edible. "A serving of uncooked dandelion leaves contains 280 percent of an adult's daily requirement of beta carotene as well as more than half the requirement of vitamin C." (*4) And it's a "rich source of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. It's leaves are often used to add flavor to salads, sandwiches, and teas. The roots can be found in some coffee substitutes, and the flowers are used to make certain wines." (*5)

Dandelions have also been used for medical remedies by Native Americans, Chinese, Europeans, and Middle Easterners. They are most commonly used for digestive aids and liver problems, but have also been used to treat skin conditions, heartburn, and upset stomach. (*4) In fact, the name Taraxacum officinale literally means "official remedy for disorders."

So the next time you see a dandelion disrupting the harmony of your perfectly manicured lawn, try to look past the weed and appreciate the wildflower.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Unthink, Rethink.

It's that wonderful time of year when the air is thick with pollen and the scent of freshly cut grass, when I can start rolling down the windows to enjoy the weather while I'm cruising around.

Let's disassemble what I just said, and try to reevaluate in terms of the environment. I mentioned two things: grass, and cars. Both have the potential to be put to better ecological use. "Being green" isn't always the cheapest or most convenient route, but it's always the most rewarding.

the scent of freshly cut grass : Have you ever considered a push reel mower instead of a typical Snapper or John Deere model? In this case, the push reel mower is the cheaper alternative, not only for the equipment itself, but also for all the cash you'll save on maintenance and fuel in the future.

I remember the first time I ever saw a push reel mower in my great-grandpa's garage as a young girl. I had to ask what it was, and when my dad told me, I laughed. I couldn't imagine a time when such ancient equipment was the standard.

But when you think about it, push reel mowers have a ton of advantages, not just as a cost-saver. My parents used to always complain when we lived in a compact subdivision that you could never go outside in the summer without hearing the roar of a lawn mower. Problem solved. Push reels are much quieter than a fuel-based lawn mower. You won't have to worry about little kids running around while you're outside working, so safety is a big plus. It's good exercise. And let's not forget thats it's pollution and maintenance free (other than occasionally sharpening the blades, which is a requirement for all lawn mowers).

Of course, there are serious disadvantages to a push reel. You can't be lazy and allow the grass to grow too long, because the mower will get bogged down. You'll have to commit to mowing the lawn when it needs it, instead of waiting two more weeks. If you have a lot of trees in your yard, you'll also have to rake up twigs beforehand; you can't just plow over them as you would with a mechanical mower. (*1) And of course, there's the feasibility aspect. If you have a large yard, and you don't have an Olympic team of push reels going all at once, it will take all day to mow the lawn. But the same applies for any push mower. Push reels are a fantastic alternative to regular push mowers, not necessarily riding lawn mowers. (Although, in case you were wondering, there is such a thing as a pedal-powered riding mower. I still can't help laughing at the concept, though I admire anyone with stamina enough to purchase one.)

If your bicycle and your push reel mower ever had a baby, it would probably look like this:

start rolling down the windows to enjoy the weather while I'm cruising around : What's more fuel efficient, rolling the windows down, or turning on the a/c? It depends on the aerodynamics of your car and the speed at which you're driving. For example, if your car is shaped like a brick on wheels *coughScionxB*, it's going to have a lot more drag than, say, a sports car. But since I don't know what kind of car you drive, I'm just going to focus on the second factor, which is the speed you're driving. If you're in stop and go traffic or driving at 45 mph and slower, it's best to roll your windows down. "The air conditioner reduces your car's fuel efficiency by up to 10 percent." Adversely, driving "at speeds over 55 mph with the windows down and you'll decrease fuel economy by up to 20 percent or greater."(*2) So 45 mph is generally the agreed upon transition between a/c and natural air.

Apparently there was even a Mythbuster's episode on the topic. The Mythbusters Adam and Jamie calculated the difference between open windows and a/c, based on a computer model. The computer said that the air conditioning was more fuel efficient. They put it to the test by both driving SUVs, Adam's with the windows down, and Jamie's with the a/c running. They both had 5 gallons of gas in their car and both drove at 45 mph. At the end of the race, Jamie's (a/c) car ran out of gas first, and Adam's made an additional 30 laps around the track. (*3)

In order to help our planet, we're going to have to unthink a lot of the standards of the society we grew up with, and start rethinking in terms of sustainability.