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? 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.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Coke Side of Life

Living in a country where I can buy bottled water in bulk at any local gas station or grocery, or even simply turn on a faucet in the comfort of my home, I literally have control of clean water at my fingertips. So it's hard for me to grasp the concept that one in five people on the planet don't have access to safe drinking water (that's 20% of the world's population).

Of course, some areas are hit harder than others. A country like India, for example, with a population of over 1.1 billion people (a number that increases by 18 million each year), has very scarce water resources. (*1) So that's why when a major American company like Coca Cola hosts 13 bottling and manufacturing plants within the country, it sparks an international controversy.

Coca Cola "uses about 300 billion liters of water a year," (*2) and only 37% of that water actually goes into the product. The other 63% of the water is used for cleaning bottles, machinery, and other equipment, which later gets discarded as wastewater. (*3) In India, that wastewater is polluting the soil and remaining groundwater around the plant facilities. And in a country where 70% of the people still make livings based on agriculture, it's causing a huge problem not only for the safety and sanitation of the people, but also for their economy.

Many of the state governments in India have challenged the company in the High Court, not only for it's crimes against the land, but also for it's crimes against the people. Scientists have found that coke products sold within the country have traces of DDT and other pesticides. (DDT was outlawed in the United States in 1972, as a direct result of the publicity received from Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, in which she argued that DDT could cause cancer in humans and was also killing off other forms of wildlife like birds, unbeknownst to the farmers who were using it.) In November 2004, the High Court decreed "that all soft drinks in the state must state the level of pesticides on the product label, in addition to the ingredients." (*4)

The Indian people have been protesting the company's actions for years. "In September 2003, over 500 people marched to the Coca-Cola factory gates and were physically attacked and beaten by police and private security guards." (*5)

So how has Coke responded to the international controversy? In May of 2006, the Chairman and CEO of the company at the time E. Neville Isdell, made a speech to address such issues, and stated "the last thing we would ever do is spend millions of dollars to build a plant that would run itself dry." (*6)

A lot of people are enraged by the company's history of apparent apathy to the issue. Groups like Coke Justice and Killer Coke have been up in arms, trying to organize people to ban the beverage from businesses and college campuses around the world.

But there may be some hope for the company yet. In July of 2008, Muhtar Kent was appointed new Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, and since then the company has "pledged to be 100% water neutral by 2020, meaning that it will return as much water to the system as it takes." The wastewater will also be recycled and treated before returned to the ecosystem. (*7) In a speech he made in March of 2009, Kent stated "We can't sit back and watch the water of the world continue to drain into a nonreturnable abyss." (*8) And in November 2009 Kent even made a trip to the Arctic to see the dwindling habitat of the polar bears, an animal that has been the face of Coke for many years.

So should you boycott this bubbly beverage? Hopefully you won't have to, because the company is finally making responsible decisions, but it's still hard to tell this early the game.


Regardless, you may want to think twice before the next time you pop open a soda of any kind, simply for health reasons. Ever wonder what makes it so bubbly to begin with? Carbonic acid, or H2CO3. That's the same chemical that eventually wears down solid rocks like limestone and creates underground caves. Not to mention the fact that soda generally has a pH around 2.5. That number may just be chemical mumbo-jumbo to most, but considering the fact that "battery acid has a pH of 1 and pure water has a pH level of 7" and that "a pH below 4...will kill most fish," it's not something to be taken lightly. (*9)

Friday, April 2, 2010

It's electric! (boogie woogie, woogie)

Starting in 2011, Chevrolet will be introducing their newest vehicle, an alleged electric car called the Volt. It's advertised as getting up to 40 miles per charge, and after the battery runs out, it's gas engine will create it's own electricity, allowing the Volt to drive for much longer than it's battery life. (*1) Hmm...that sounds somewhat like a hybrid. Nice try Chevy, but Nissan showed you up.

Chevy Volt

The new Nissan Leaf, to start mass production in 2012 (though some will be on the road by the end of this year), is a gas-free, oil-free, completely electric car. No emissions, because it doesn't even have a tailpipe. It has a range of 100 miles per it's not necessarily the type of car you'd want to take on a road trip, but it's perfect for commuting or just cruisin' around town. The Leaf boasts to be "partially made from recycled material, and is designed to be almost fully recyclable by the end of it's life." (*2) Of course, who knows what percentage "partially" really equates to, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since they're making an effort.

Nissan Leaf

(Note: this picture is a model that they took on tour, the ones for sale won't have the big "zero emissions" decal on the side.)

With a standard home charging unit of 220V, the battery can fully recharge in 4-8 hours. So you can plug it in at night and be ready to go in the morning, just like most people do with their cell phones. The battery is expected to last 5-10 years. The car also uses no energy to idle, so you won't be running down the battery while you wait at stoplights. It's got all the features you'd want on a normal car...heat and a/c, radio, a USB hookup for iPods and MP3 players, etc. Nissan also claims that the Leaf "handles and accelerates like a V6 car and has a top speed of up to 90 mph." (*2)

The Nissan Leaf is priced at $32,780, but with "the federal tax credit of $7,500 the price drops to a very affordable $25,280." (*3) Affordable, that is, if you're not a poor college student buried under an ever increasing mountain of student loans, like myself. (I'm just hoping my poor old '98 Pontiac Sunfire with over 215,000 miles will hang on for just a little bit longer.) But back to the point, the Leaf is basically the same price as any new car nowadays. Plus, you can feel good about owning one. Sure, the power from your car will still probably come from fossil fuel guzzling power plants, but electric is still cleaner than burning gas, and eventually the grid will switch over to more sustainable forms of energy. And there are other benefits: electric cars will reduce dependence on foreign oil, and many states offer additional incentives on top of the federal cut, including things like being able to drive in the carpool lane (even if you're the only one in the car!).

Of course, the one major disadvantage to owning a practical electric car like the Nissan Leaf is knowing that your car will never be as badass as the Tesla Roadster. (What, you didn't know there were electric sports cars?) The Roadster can do zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, 125 miles per hour, and can run 236 miles on one charge. Plus, it's a convertible. Unfortunately, market price for the Tesla is around $101,500. (*4) So for the majority of us, keep dreaming. In the meantime, go buy yourself an affordable electric car. Or at the very least, get rid of your Hummer.

Tesla Roadster

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New Mother Nature

Over the last few years, eco-mania has swept the nation, and businesses from all industries have hopped on the bandwagon, slapping "green" labels on anything that's not nailed down (and some things that are). How can consumers who want to be environmentally friendly tell which companies' products are sincere, and which ones are just a bunch of greenwash to promote sales?

Why have some people started claiming that global warming is out of control and the greenhouse effect will soon make life uninhabitable on earth, while others deny that global warming even exists?

Why does any of it matter?

It matters because we are all global citizens. Though I may be a proud Kentucky girl, the truth is that all of humanity inhabits this one small blue planet; the third rock from the Sun (which isn't even a particularly impressive star when considering the zillions out there in the universe). And even though I may never have been to China before, that doesn't mean that the carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants in that country don't have any effect on the air I breathe, and vice versa. How do you think ash fall from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state ended up in Oklahoma? Same principle.

When you think about it, our planet is a pretty swell place to live. It's full of beauty and diversity. The Earth is so unique, in fact, that it's the only one known to support life. How bizarre is that? And when something is the only one of it's kind (sort of like Tigger), it is considered to be endangered. Logically, when something is endangered, it needs to be protected...and thus, the birth of the concept for conservation (the word conserve comes from the Latin term "conservare," literally meaning "to protect").

So, is global warming real? Yes and no. "Global warming" is a very misleading phrase that the media latched onto and ran with. I try to abstain from using the expression in general (though it occasionally slips out). Science shows that throughout Earth's history, there are times of global cooling (a.k.a. ice ages, or glaciations) and times of global warming (interglacial periods, like the one we're living in). There have been as many as five major ice ages throughout Earth's history, so it's safe to say our planet has been around the block a few times. It's a process called climate change. So yes, we are in a period of global warming. Is it a human generated effect, as some would have you believe? Of course not. But then again, you can't industrialize an entire civilization, pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for over a century, and expect not to have any adverse effects. We're not the cause, but we are contributors, and it's important to realize that.

How do I have any authority on the matter? Well, I'm an environmental science major. This is what I do. I'm working hard to pay my tuition so that I can have the opportunity to learn about these kinds of things. I chose to devote my career to this kind of work because I want my great great grandchildren to be able to enjoy the same quality of life that we all experience be able to know nature first hand, and not have to read about it in a book. That's why I take classes in things like water resources, ecosystem restoration, land planning, forestry, soil science, renewable energy, sustainable food production, and wildlife management.

Okay, enough rambling. What's the purpose of this blog? Simply this: to find the real science behind all the bullshit, and share it with others. I'll be updating quite often to let my readers know what's going on within the environmental movement, and report breaking news from the front lines of the green revolution.

Tune in next time.