Seeing the Light

To be an environmental activist these days and keep your balance, you have to be, or be willing to become, bipolar.  It also helps to be relentlessly interested in the subject, even if it can be the love that dare not speak its name in some circles.

So, it’s nearly the end of 2013 and rather than look back in anguish, though there are reasons for that, I want to look forward with hope, in the Emily Dickinson, thing-with-feathers, sense.  I had a short list of items for the year’s thumbs up column, but knew there were many I had overlooked.  And that’s how I stumbled upon to my delight, and I trust to yours.

Founded in 1999 by Rhett Butler (he credits the name to his parents’ sense of humor and a brief family connection to Clark Gable), Mongabay is one of those sources that are so rich and thorough about its subject – The Rainforest and its inhabitants – you wonder how you have not encountered it before.  And there I did find a list of Top Ten Happy  Environmental Stories of 2013.  Enjoy and cheer for them all! Not the least because not one of them includes mention of the ubiquitous Pope Francis, leaving that for me.  Read on.

1. Warren Buffet is investing big in wind energy.  I’ve been an admirer of Buffet for some time, because he is a member of the 1% who refuses to live or behave like one in his personal life.  And for his smart investments, this being one of them.  Kudos to the State of Iowa, too.

2. China’s solar boom – competition will drive innovation and lower prices.  I live in a state that gets enough sunshine in a year to fuel itself and sell the extra to, um, Bellingham, WA.  Here’s China, with terrible pollution problems thanks to its race to the top, doing something different that will change the game. Another culture and continent: Scotland’s energy now 40% renewables.  We can do this.


3. Pope Francis gets it.  From the many examples of the style and substance of his radical leadership, let me chose his phone call to Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, in which the Pope said: There is much need for people and organizations that encourage the cultivation and protection of Creation. Cultivating and protecting Creation is an instruction from God given not just at the start of history (see Genesis 2:15), but to each of us, in order to responsibly make the world grow, transforming it into a place habitable for everyone.

4. While I’m on the subject, Slow Food International did some amazing work during 2013, including a new partnership with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) in support of small farmers.  This is the kind of leadership we need.   Join Slow Food and The American Farmland Trust in this country.  Make a donation and get your own No Farms, No Food bumper sticker.

5. Rob Hopkins is no jetsetter, but his US tour gave Transition USA a big boost, practical in some places (here’s his Letter#5 from Milwaukee to sample) and inspirational for those of us who could not catch up with his schedule.  Keep up with the work of Transition, including training and stimulating teleclasses, here.

6. How many ___ does it take to change a light bulb?  Ask no more.  As of January, your little hoard of 60- and 40-watt bulbs will become the relics they deserve to be.  We owe this phase out, which will reportedly save Americans $13 billion on their annual energy bills, to none other than George W. Bush’s Energy Independence and National Security Act of 2007.   OK, it’s more symbolic than substantive, but any sign of sanity from any quarter gets my attention.  Curl up with the new technology.  You have to start somewhere.

The EV: What’s Not to Like?

Today’s Smart Planet has a take on the EV, which prompts me to reflect on the joys of the Nissan Leaf which we have been driving for a year, and mull about what the future of EV’s could look like.

Eight reasons I love my Leaf:

1. A driving range of 60-69 miles makes you more mindful of your driving habits, and that spills over into other driving you may do with a conventional vehicle.  Fewer trips by planning ahead vs. many short hops means less wear and tear on another energy system: You.

2. The Leaf is very quiet.  In an increasingly noisy world, this is a gift.  The sound system is superb.

3. No oil, so no oil changes, in fact, maintenance is minimal.

4. The Leaf’s dashboard is loaded!   You may be stumped by some of it, but chances are your grandchildren or other young people you know won’t be.   What an opportunity or some instruction and intergenerational bonding.

5. You are not ‘burning’ anything waiting at a light, stop sign, in backed-up traffic, drive-through banking, or car pool.   Zero emission means just that.

6. Next to a free hug, it is a great conversation starter with perfect strangers.  “Really, you plug it in at night, that’s it?”  Next question: effect on the utility bill.  A: Negligible.

7. Looks like a SUV — hatchback and fold-down seats — so you can haul stuff like four dining chairs or several bags of compost.  Not to mention seating for three adults.

8. Although the Leaf handles like a luxury car and is loaded with navigation features, it has frugal, battery-conserving touches like manual seat adjustments.  Makes me nostalgic for my 1972 VW Beetle (and my 1972 self).


Currently, the Nissan Leaf is an attention-getting solo act in our neighborhood, although there has been a proliferation of the 2013 Prius as more folks take advantage of year-end deals.    All good.

On the Walk for Our Grandchildren, we met a couple of dedicated environmentalists who had driven their Chevy Volt from Virginia to D.C., and had mastered the art of the dual fuel.  In their opinion, the Volt was the car of the future.   They may be right.  From the wonderful folks who tried to Kill the EV, comes the latest word on a Volt with a 200-mile range, all electric.   This is encouraging news because Nissan only sold 15,000 Leafs in the U.S.  in 2013, I suspect largely due to its limited driving range. Competition should improve both those numbers.

As a Leaf fan, I’m glad to see that The City of West Palm Beach has added free charging stations at the Clematis Street garage, to support the fleet of Leafs on order, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.   Charge your EV while you shop or dine.  What a concept!  Will more retailers like more environmentally-savvy Kohl’s get on board?  I’m betting on it.


An interesting word I’m betting we’ll be hearing a lot more.   Merriam Webster definition: A secondary or unintended consequence <pollution and other externalities of manufacturing>.

Externalities are not necessarily negative, though the current usage implies that they are.  Example: today the Supreme Court will hear a case about air pollution caused by burning coal for electricity generation blowing across state lines.  Who pays, is the issue.  The underlying idea is that with an externality, neither the cost (or benefit, for that matter) is accounted for in the event, whatever it might be.  So if you are barbecuing in your yard (in the example from Marketplace) and the smoke drifts across into your asthmatic neighbor’s yard, who is responsible for the harm done?  It’s akin to the irrational notion that in the interdependent web of life that is our world, there is such a thing as ‘away.’

No-Away In terms of our current food system, unaccounted for costs include everything from the impacts on the environment (transportation, farming methods), to waste (1/3 of all food), to the healthcare impacts from poor nutrition, e.g. the obesity epidemic that comes from a diet high in cheap fats and sugars, that is, processed and fast food and sodas.

If these externalities were included in the actual cost of our food, we might be surprised to find that local, organic and sustainably-farmed food is actually cheaper.  What are the chances externalities will become part of the business equation any time soon?  It may be trending, but I’m not holding my breath.  However,  a new report from Harvard School of Public Health, see the article in Smart Planet, indicates we don’t have to wait for the powers that be to act in our behalf.  It found that although a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts costs more than one based on processed foods, the difference is about $1.50.  The difference in your well-being: beyond calculation.

For an even more complete discussion on this important topic, check out: How Different Would the World Be If We Paid the True Cost of Food and Farming.


A New Take On Giving

Trust Center for a New American Dream to come up with a new take on giving just in time for the holidays.  It’s called So Kind, the Alternative Gift Registry, and I love, love, love it!  Anyone can create a registry for any occasion and samples include a wedding registry and baby shower.  Most of the gifts are not stuff, no surprise.  It works a little like a time bank in the sense that you can make requests and/or offer gifts.  The best kinds of gifts are enjoyed by both giver and receiver, right?

christmas_gift_187449I’ll admit I get nostalgic for Christmases past when my children were little and contented with one or two well-chosen items.  I even liked assembling those sleds and other things with many moveable parts — an evening of playing Santa’s Elf, sipping a glass of good Cabernet, after the children were tucked away.   Of course, the boxes were often more interesting and conducive to creative play than the toy — wagon, doll house, etc. they held — and although I haven’t taken a poll on this, I suspect that may still be true.   I’m no cultural historian, so I can’t put my finger on exactly when things got out of hand with holiday gift-giving, both in terms of the duration of the retailing season leading up to Christmas Day itself, and the outsize expectations to which we have become conditioned.  Cars?  Really?

All I want for Christmas this year is to disappoint a few Big Box stores, and to reward people who think out of the box about where we are going as a consumer culture.  Recently, Transition founder, Rob Hopkins announced that he quit Amazon (they didn’t make it easy).  His thoughtful, timely essay about what this means is just such a gift.  It came one day after 60 Minutes (and Panorama in the UK) did reports on how Amazon operates and its plans for the future, e.g. 30 minute delivery of your package by drones.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think the money we’re spending on these clever solutions to very trivial ‘problems’ could be better spent elsewhere.  An end to hunger and homelessness?  Relief work around the globe?   If you are of like-mind, you might consider this a good time to make gifts in a friend’s name to Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health or Doctors Without Borders (USA)*, to name just two necessary organizations.  These are also gift alternatives that will keep on giving when the last bit of tinsel has been vacuumed off the carpet.

*Both are highly rated by Charity Navigator, which could also use your support.