Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The World Without Us

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Last night I was far too distracted to write a book review, but I do want to get back into the habit of writing them.  This week’s book is The World Without Us, by Alan Weissman.  As suggested by the title, the book explores what would happen to the Earth if humans simply disappeared one day (whether abducted by aliens, taken in the rapture, or killed by a highly specific virus that left everything else on earth alone).  How long would our creations last?  Would the damage that we’ve done to the environment be healed, or would our chemical and nuclear facilities wreak even more havoc left untended?

Weissman uses these questions as launching points to explore a range of phenomena, from the Korean DMZ as wildlife refuge, to vast underground cities in Turkey, to the dead zone at Chernobyl, to the question of why there are almost no mega-fauna left anyplace on earth but Africa.  (Weissman’s answer is that African megafauna learned early to be wary of humans, while the great animals in other parts of the world were taken by surprise by the dangerousness of these apparently helpless primates.  As I write this, I’m not sure why Asian elephants and tigers are an exception to that rule.)

The wide range of topics in the book are both a strength and a weakness.  Weissman’s conclusion is that almost all traces of humans (except for bronze statues and radioactivity) will be erased, given enough time.  But because he jumps from issue to issue, having read the book, I still don’t have a specific sense of what the world would look like in 5 years, 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years.

It’s hard to read the book, and not be horrified by some of the things that we’re doing to the earth — driving species to extinction, filling the oceans with plastic, changing the very climate.  But it doesn’t point to obvious solutions, and can leave you with a sense that nothing we do at this point can fix things very much.

kill a catalog, save a tree

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

The holidays are still 2+ months away, and we’re already drowning in catalogs.  It’s clutter that we don’t need, and it’s bad for the environment.

I went to the Direct Marketing Association website and asked to be taken off their lists.  (They charge you $1 for the privilege, which ticks me off.)  That helps with the random catalogs from companies I’ve never heard of, but doesn’t stop catalogs that you’ve bought from in the past.  The problem is that I do like ordering from companies like LL Bean and Oriental Trading Company, but I do so from their website, and I don’t need (or want) to get a monthly catalog from them.  So I’ve been calling one or two companies a day and asking them to take me off their lists.

In general, the process has been pretty painless.  But Lilian Vernon was sufficiently annoying that it makes me far less likely to order from them in the future.  You call, and get an electronic voice that asks you what you want to do.  Then it asks you to read it your customer number off the catalog.  Then it asks you to confirm that your address is… (whatever they have in the system.)  Only then does it connect you to a live operator… who proceeds to ask for your customer number again, and for you to repeat your address to her.

Update: Via Aggregating the Fascinating, I found Catalog Choice, a free online site to submit requests to be removed from a catalog.

Poverty and cars

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Via Laura at 11d, I read this thread on cities vs. suburbs at Matthew Yglesias’ blogOne comment jumped out at me:

"What’s with this "suburbia is cheaper" claim? Where I live, suburbia is
more expensive (which is why low income people live in cities and older

I’m not sure overall which is cheaper.  It’s certainly true that far-out suburbs are cheaper than close-in suburbs (at least in the DC area, I think elsewhere too.)   That’s why Prince William county just passed a harsh anti-illegal immigrant measure — lots of immigrants have moved there, because a bunch of people can share a house for a lot less than renting small apartments close in.  And there’s lots of evidence that everything from food to bank fees to insurance costs more for residents of poor inner city neighborhoods.

So why don’t more poor people move to the suburbs?  The US Department of Housing and Urban Development did an experiment called Moving to Opportunity where people who lived in public housing were divided into 3 groups, one that was offered Section 8 housing vouchers that could be used anywhere they chose, one that was offered special vouchers that could only be used in low-poverty neighborhoods, and one that was not offered vouchers, but continued to live in public housing.  This was a voluntary program, so everyone in it had said that they wanted to move.  One of the interesting findings is that the majority of the people who used the unrestricted vouchers moved into neighborhoods that were still high poverty — not as high as the public housing they came from, but still more than 20 percent.

Under the voucher program, what you pay is based on your income, not the rent, and you can rent any house up to what HUD calls the "fair market rent" for the metro area.  So why did the voucher recipients stay in high poverty neighborhoods?  If the researchers asked this, I haven’t found the report that says it.  But I can take some guesses: Because those are the neighborhoods that they knew, where their friends and family lived, where they knew how to navigate the transportation system and which grocery store had the best deals.  Because landlords discriminated against them — or because they were afraid that they might.  Because they didn’t have cars, and the upfront cost of buying a car is obvious, while the added costs of buying food in inner-city neighborhoods is hidden.

All this is mostly a long way of saying that I’m not sure that the fact that poor people live in inner cities proves that they’re cheaper than suburbs.

So, Yglesias argues that the suburbs are only so cheap because the roads and other infrastructure are so heavily subsidized.  Lisa Margonelli says that it’s a myth that people will drive less if gas prices get high enough.  She argues that high gas prices have hit the poor the most.  I think this is probably right — if people’s driving
is responsive to gas prices, it’s clearly only in the very long run, as
people choose where to work and live.  Somewhat less plausibly, Richard Brodsky claims that Bloomberg’s proposed congestion pricing plan for driving in Manhattan would be regressive, hurting poor and middle-income drivers the most.  I’m pretty dubious about the idea that many poor New Yorkers own cars.

But outside of New York, I think the evidence is overwhelming that helping low-income families own cars is a highly cost-effective anti-poverty strategy.  (We’ve actually just donated our old car to Vehicles for Change, an organization that does this.)  It opens up a world of job opportunities, lets people shop at lower-cost stores, go to church and doctor’s offices and more.  In an ideal world, you could do all these things by public transportation, but in most of the US you can’t. 

So, how do we help the environment without penalizing low-income families?  I still think that some version of Pay at the Pump auto insurance would be a good thing.  It would convert a big part of the fixed cost of owning a car into a variable cost of driving it, so would both make car ownership more affordable for the poor, and discourage driving at the margin.  School reform isn’t usually thought of as part of an environmental agenda, but if you could improve urban schools to the point that they seemed like a reasonable alternative for families who have options, more of them would choose to live in cities.

Commuting choices

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

We’ve been in the new house for almost a month now.  We still have a bunch of boxes to unpack, only one room that’s been painted, and a list of things to do that seems to gets longer rather than shorter with time, but it’s starting to feel like home.  I like everything about the house except my commute.

I’m still trying to sort out the options.  The fastest way to get to work is probably to drive.  But it’s bad for the environment, it stresses me out, and parking downtown is expensive.  If I could find a carpool, that would be a clear-cut winner, but so far, I haven’t been able to find anyone who is interested via the neighborhood list-serve.

I tried taking the metro to the bus one evening, and I’m pretty sure that’s not a viable option.  The main problem is that the bus I need only comes every half an hour, so I’d either have to give up another 10+ minutes to the lead time I need to be sure that I don’t
miss it, or risk having to sit around the Pentagon bus terminal for another half an hour.  And it’s a long ride.

Today’s experiment was walking home from the metro station.  It’s a long walk — about 4 miles — but the exercise is good for me and most of the walk is quite pleasant.  But if I’m going to do that, I need to figure out a way to get across routes 50 and 7 that doesn’t require walking through the middle of Seven Corners, which is about as pedestrian unfriendly an area as humanly possible.  If I figure out a route that makes sense, biking to the metro might also be a reasonable possibility.

What I’ve mostly been doing so far is driving to a metro station and leaving my car there.  Since D is finishing the school year at his old school, I’ve been generally driving him to school and parking in our old neighborhood — but that only works as long as I still have the Alexandria parking sticker on my car.   Once I’m not driving D to school, I’d be willing to park at the metro station near us, except that it generally fills up by 8 am.  And my understanding is that there’s a waiting list for the privilege of paying for a guaranteed slot.  One of my friends says that I can park in her neighborhood without a sticker, so I may try that.

The Post had an article this weekend about people who were responding to the high gas prices by telecommuting, one or more days a week.  This makes a lot of sense — it’s one of the few ways that people can really cut down on their commute in the short run, since most people can’t move or change jobs on short notice.  I’m definitely hoping to telecommute at least once a week — my organization is pretty open to it. (One of my coworkers actually lives in Colorado.)

I think I’m in paradox of choice mode here.  When I lived near the metro, I took it to work without thinking about it, and didn’t really pay attention to the semi-regular delays and overcrowding.  And if I lived out in the boonies, I suspect that I’d just drive and not worry about it.  But because I have choices, I’m aware of the downsides of all the possibilities, and keep looking for the perfect one.

TBR: The Way We Eat

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

Today’s book is The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.  I requested it from the library after reading the interview with Singer that I discussed last month.  It’s an exploration of the ethics of food, focusing mostly on reducing unnecessary animal suffering and environmental impacts.  Singer and Mason organize their discussion around the diets of three American families: one that shops at Walmart and eats whatever is cheap, convenient and tastes good, one that shops at places like Trader Joes and Whole Foods and tries to make generally ethical choices around food even if it means paying more, and one that follows a vegan diet.

The basic argument behind The Way We Eat is that mass-produced food, especially meat, milk and eggs, is incredibly cheap because the price doesn’t reflect the real costs, both in animal welfare, and in environmental damage.  Singer and Mason don’t think it’s inherently wrong to kill an animal for food, but say that if we have to pay 10 cents an egg more in order to allow the chickens to have the room to turn around and access to grass, we ought to be willing to pay that price.  (More formally, they argue that it is "speciesist" to refuse to take animal quality of life and suffering seriously.)

Overall, I found the book interesting and readable.  (I was a little nervous, since I’ve tried reading one of Singer’s other books and found it inpenetrable.)  Singer’s much less of a moral absolutist in this book than I was expecting. He makes a strong case for avoiding the products of factory farms, but recognizes that it may be more important in a specific case to eat your grandmother’s cooking than to maintain a purist stance.  He doesn’t think that the benefits of genetically modified foods are worth the risks in developed countries, but notes that the calculus may be different in places where starvation is a real threat.  (Although he fails to acknowledge the political problems in trying to explain why GM food is good enough for Africans if it’s not good enough for Europeans.) 

Singer and Mason are also willing to zing some of their allies.  They suggest that it would be a good thing if we could grow cloned meat in vats, since it presumably wouldn’t have any ability to suffer, a suggestion that I think would give most environmentalists the queasies.  As noted in the Salon interview, Singer’s not a big fan of the Eat Local movement, arguing that it may be more sustainable to buy food from far away that is transported by ship and rail than local food that is trucked to market.  And they note that improved taste may be a good thing, but it is not an ethical requirement.

So, has reading this book changed my eating habits?  The sections that made the most impact on me were the discussion of mass poultry production. (I was already more or less aware of the issues in beef slaughterhouses, from Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation, and I don’t eat pork for other reasons.)  Right after reading that section, I walked through the meat aisle at Shopper’s Food Warehouse and found it hard to pick up my usual pack of boneless chicken breasts.  So I left with mushrooms and bok choy, but no meat for the moo shu chicken I was thinking of making.

Later in the week, I made it over to Whole Foods (for the first time in the several months since it opened near me) and started looking at the prices.  I couldn’t bring myself to pay over $4 a pound for chicken that we wouldn’t be able to taste very much of over the sauce, so instead I bought a small package of beef.  I think the beef was slightly more per pound than the chicken, but it wasn’t as proportionately more expensive than I’m used to paying for beef, if that makes sense.  If I were to commit to buying only non-factory farmed meat, I definitely think the costs would help push me toward using less of it.  Which Singer and Mason would approve of, of course.

Citizens and consumers

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

This post started bouncing around in my head in response to Andrea’s comments on my post about Eating local and the environment.  And then she posted a long piece today in which she amplified her frustration at with the idea that we’re going to change the world through consumer activism.  So you might want to stop over there first.  But the key paragraph (I think) in her essay is this:

Being a good consumer is a minuscule part of the overall puzzle. Helping to make the world a better place, if that’s something you want to do, is not something you can buy. (I find it so depressing that even activism these days has become a shopping spree, something you do so you can get the t-shirt or the mug or the plastic bracelet, another opportunity to aquire more meaningless stuff we don’t need, as if the whole idea of doing something that won’t add to our collections is simply incomprehensible. Do we really need to be bought off with another cotton shopping bag?) You have to be a citizen.

I think Andrea’s over-emphasizing the contrast between being a citizen and a consumer, and under-emphasizing the contrast between acting on your own and trying to engage others, regardless of whether you’re acting as a citizen or a consumer.  Going by yourself into the voting booth on election day and voting for the candidate of your choice is as symbolic — and practically ineffective — as choosing to buy a locally grown heirloom tomato instead of one that’s been genetically engineered for pest resistance and durability and shipped across the country.  Except that the locally grown tomato probably tastes good.  Both activities are only likely to change the world if you convince a bunch of other people to do them too.

Without dismissing the importance of political action, I actually think collective consumer action is more likely to have an impact, at least in the short-run, and at least in the U.S.  Because having 20 percent of the public support the environment in the voting booth gets you a lot of speeches in the Congressional Record, and that’s about it.  The system is so winner-take-all that even a substantial minority has very little opportunity to move public policy.  But if you changed the consumption patterns of 20 percent of the public, that’s a pretty big niche market.

And I believe that shifts in demand do change what’s available, even in the housing market.  At least in the Washington DC area, they’re literally pulling down small older houses to put up bigger ones — McMansions, as they’re not so fondly referred to.  And, from everything I’ve read, the consumer pressure on McDonalds to improve the way the cows/beef it buys was treated had a dramatic impact on the entire slaughterhouse industry in the US. 

A while back, landismom had a post in which she explained that the essence of political organizing is giving people Anger, Hope, and a Plan.  Andrea’s worried that people aren’t angry enough.  I think there’s a real risk of pushing people right past anger and into despair, which is as much the enemy of action as indifference.

How do I put this?  If Andrea is right, and a sustainable environment really requires North Americans to voluntarily (either as individuals, or by voting in governments that would mandate it) reduce our consumption by more than 50 percent before we have no choice about it, then I hope the cockroaches learn to write poetry.  I recognize that pretty much everything that we can do as consumers is an exercise in slowing down our race to the brink, rather than in changing the overall trajectory.  But if it buys us just a few more decades between when we (as a society) recognize that our current path is unsustainable and when it’s too late to do anything about it, that could make all the difference.

Eating local, and the environment

Monday, May 8th, 2006

I noticed over at Life Begins at 30 that they’re doing the Eat Local challenge again.  Their goal is, for the month of May, as much as possible, to eat only locally grown foods.  The idea of eating food that is fresher, that hasn’t been bred for maximum durability, that you know where it comes from, is very appealing.  Of course, it’s a lot more appealing in May than in November, at least in these climes.  (There’s a great Margaret Atwood story in which the protagonist worries that her lover, a Canadian opposed to NAFTA, will "smell the kiwi on her breath" in winter.)

And then I read this article at Mother Jones about one of the advocates of local food, Joel Salatin.  I was somewhat bemused by the idea that he made Michael Pollan drive to Swoope, Virginia in order to buy one of his chickens.  I’m sure it was a delicious chicken, and Pollan learned something from the trip, but the gas consumed driving down there almost certainly outweighed any environmental benefits.

Last week was T’s birthday, and by trash day we had quite an impressive and slightly appalling pile of boxes from Amazon and other stores to put out on the curb.  But would it have been any better for the environment for me to drive around to half a dozen stores looking for things rather than having the UPS guy able to deliver everyone’s packages in one trip?  I’m not sure, and I don’t know how to figure it out.

Susan at Crunchy Granola had a post recently in which she asked her readers what each of us are doing to balance our needs with those of the planet.  It reminded me of a book I read a while back, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  This book argues that there’s a handful of decisions that we make that really matter from an environmental point of view — especially where we live, how much we drive, and how much meat we eat — and that we should pay attention to these choices and not sweat the small stuff. 

The price of gas

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

Like almost everyone in the US who drives a gasoline-fueled car, I’ve been suffering from sticker shock when I buy gas lately.  The last time I filled up, I paid $2.49 a gallon, after driving past two stations at $2.69 and $2.83.

Unlike almost everyone in the US who drives a gasoline-fueled car, I don’t think the government should be doing something about it.  If anything, I think gas should probably be more expensive.  I don’t think people are ever going to take conservation seriously until it hits them in the wallet, and for both environmental and geopolitical reasons (e.g. not wanting to be dependent on oil-producing nations), I think it’s important that we consume less fossil fuels.

There’s very little evidence that people have started to change their driving patterns in response to the increased cost of gas.  At least in the short-run, fuel consumption is not very sensitive to price (e.g. it’s what economists call inelastic).  At the margin, people may do less leisure driving, but the cost of gas is still a pretty small fraction of the cost of a trip.  And driving is still cheap compared to train and plane tickets, at least for a family.  It’s going to cost us about $100 in gas to drive the minivan to NYC this weekend, but train tickets for the boys and me would be around $250, and that’s with N. riding for free.  And while I love taking the metro to work (I can read!), for most people, public transit is inconvenient if available at all; as Brett at DadTalk wrote: "despite a frugal streak that runs miles deep, I’m going to continue driving to work just to steal a few extra minutes each day with my family.

The big changes that people can make in response to higher fuel costs — buying more efficient cars, choosing houses closer to work or on public transit routes — all only happen over time, and if people think that gas prices are going to stay high.  And I don’t think people have gotten there yet.

I also worry a lot about the impact of higher gas costs on low-income families, for whom an extra $10 or so is a big hit on their budget, and means that they’ll have to cut back somewhere else.  I think any proposal to increase the price of gas needs to address this issue, and cushion the blow.  One intriguing possibility is Pay at the Pump car insurance, where the price of no-fault car insurance is built into the cost of gasoline.  It simultaneously ensures that everyone is covered and changes one of the major costs of car use from a fixed cost to one that varies with the distance you drive.  It would simultaneously promote conservation and make car ownership a lot more accessible to poor families.

And yes, in spite of my environmental leanings, I think making car ownership a possibility for poor families is generally a good thing.  Many jobs are inaccessible without a car.  Groceries are more expensive at the stores you can reach without a car.  And commutes by public transit often stretch to 2 or more hours a day, especially when you need to take a child to day care or school en route.  A bunch of welfare to work programs have tried to create specialized van routes to bring workers to remote jobs, but my sense in most cases is that it’s cheaper and more helpful to just buy people reliable used cars.