Category Archives: Green Living

Are these apps changing our lives?

Hello! I’ve been writing a lot lately about how new apps and the proliferation of smart phones are changing our lives. Since I’ve neglected this blog for way too many months, I wanted to bring you up to date with some of these recent articles.

capbikeshareLast week, the Washington City Paper ran my cover story on the “sharing economy.” In a departure from my usual third-person style, I was able to call on couple of years of personal experiences as a “collaborative consumer” for this story. I also talked to other people using D.C.’s car and bike shares, Airbnb and eatFeastly hosts, and interviewed pundits who say the burgeoning “sharing economy” is ushering in big changes in the way we live.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Sharing enthusiasts see a future with less pollution, inefficiency, and injustice—not to mention fewer cars. But sharing services aren’t always green (you can, after all, share a private jet). They seem more likely—not less—to accentuate class differences and perpetuate the same bad behavior on commercial, labor, and environmental fronts that everything that came before them did. And while sharing depends on high-tech social media and smartphone apps, in many ways the collaborative world harkens back to the past: to barter systems; the hyper-localism of preautomobile societies; and the almost small-town importance of reputation, which will increasingly follow us around as “data exhaust” that could replace the credit rating. Still, the changes afoot are propelled by decidedly 21st century realities: population growth, booming cities, rising costs, and shrinking personal space.

READ THE STORY

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Earlier in February, the Washington Post published my latest story on “geomedicine,” an emerging field in which doctors and other caregivers use mapping tools and “Big Data” to gain insights into their patients’ lives so they can offer better treatment and advice.

The story features Asthmapolis, a company that makes a new asthma inhaler that has a GIS sensor for mapping the patient’s every puff. Other experiments in “geomedicine” are using social medial platforms to share information, not just about illnesses, but about environmental exposures, as well as mapping farmers’ markets, healthy eateries, parks and other recreational outlets. It’s proponents say the geo-mapping can help us understand the environmental factors driving an individual’s health problems and then map out ways to address them.

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ItalyTrashScientific researchers are also using geographical information and mapping to delve more deeply into the precise origins of illnesses and how environmental factors play a role in health. Italian researchers, for instances, have linked skyrocketing cancer rates, birth defects and other illnesses in communities outside of Naples to mafia-related dumping of industrial waste in an area that has come to be known as “the triangle of death.”

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The Potomac: America’s most beleaguered river, new report

The Potomac is the nation’s most imperiled river, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit group, American Rivers.

Pescados by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo)
Creative Commons license

The river, which supplies drinking water to five million people in the Greater Washington region, suffers from a bad case of  runoff from laws and factory farms, alike. those woes have turned the Potomac into a spawning ground for so-called “intersex fish” – male fish born with ovaries. Yikes! Scientists have linked the chemicals in lawn fertilizer and “chicken litter” (manure produced in large quantities at the region’s poultry farms) that get washed into the waterways where they wreak havoc of fish reproduction and create habitat-crippling dead zones bereft of oxygen, among other things.

The Washington Post today notes that U.S. Congress has failed to act despite growing evidence that what’s happening to the fish may be a disturbing sign of the human health implications. In fact, sentiment on Capitol Hill is moving in the other direction with Republicans periodically launching attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act, reporter Darryl Fears notes, quoting environmentalists.

The landmark federal law, which turns 40-years-old this year, has led to major improvements in the health of the nation’s waterways, experts say. At the time of its passage in 1972, some U.S. rivers were such reeking open sewers that they sometimes caught fire. Nevertheless, the Potomac is one of ten that continue face the most serious ongoing problems.

Besides the Potomac, today’s top ten list, of sorts, includes the following:

  • Green River (which runs through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado)
  • Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
  • Missouri River (nine states in the central United States)
  • Hoback River (Wyoming)
  •  Grand River (Ohio)
  • Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Crystal River (Colorado)
  •  Coal River (West Virginia)
  •  Kansas River (Kansas)

End of Landfills?

Calgary's Spy Hill landfill. Photo by D'Arcy Norman. Creative commons license.

After reading one too many reports about corporations going “zero waste,” I began to wonder what this means for landfills. Could we really be headed toward a world without trash dumps and Superfund sites?

Considering that there’s possibly as much as 30 tons of industrial trash for every ton of municipal solid waste, we are talking a lot of trash; though corporations have even trashed the word and now consider their castoffs the fodder of new “profit centers.” But what happens to these newly branded “resources” after they’ve been “reduced, reused or recycled”?  I learned it’s far from a straightforward question. Read the story on Alternet.org.

Is climate change causing more weather extremes?

Earlier this year I had an assignment investigating the links between climate change and weather. In the course of the reporting I talked to a Yale pollster who says last year’s extraordinary weather — dry and drought-like or rainy and flooded  in most places — has done more to convince people that the climate is indeed changing than any number of increasingly urgent reports like this one from the OECD.

For the story, I spoke with climate scientists too, and learned about efforts to better pinpoint when rising global temperatures play a role in a particular extreme of weather. It’s a still evolving area of science. Controversy rages.  Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has perhaps most riled his colleagues — not to mention climate change contrarians and non-believers — by suggesting that today global warming should be considered a factor in all weather.  Not all climate scientists agree — one even called it a “crap idea” in a major UK newspaper! But Trenberth hasn’t backed off. He elaborates on the idea in a new article due out this spring.

You can read all about this (and much more!) in my just published cover story in E Magazine. There’s also a sidebar on the impact to harvests and water supplies if the world remains on its current trajectory toward 10+ degrees Fahrenheit of warming.

If you still have time, check out my piece on Italy’s growing woes with the “ecomafia.”

The Climate Two Step

More caution needed on climate change, scientists say.

If news were like music that sets the tempo of public opinion, the latest spate of climate change headlines is tapping out something like a two-step. One step closer to certainty, then the music reels toward denialism; Inspiring, if brief, performances by grassroots activists, flanked by the chorus line of corporate sponsorships and murky backroom dealings.

Last week the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a report linking extreme weather to climate change and urged governments around the world to step up their efforts for dealing with “climate extremes.” The same day U.S. Congress  killed plans for a national climate agency.

Months of protesting the Keystone pipeline led to a postponement that could provide bureaucratic deathblow to the project. But it turns out that defeating the pipeline will not keep the Canadian tar sands from flowing to refineries via other routes, including the millions of miles of existing U.S. pipelines that already transport — and sometimes spill — the particularly gooey and toxic fossil fuel.

The Sierra Club‘s longtime leader Carl Pope has finally stepped down amid what the Los Angeles Times said was “discontent that the group founded by 19th century wilderness evangelist John Muir has compromised its core principles.” Pope’s replacement, Michael Brune, declared “done” the $1.3 million sponsorship deal Pope had championed with the makers of Clorox  bleach. Brune vowed to never again risk sullying the venerable institution’s reputation by shilling for another corporate polluter. Having been one of those who criticized the Sierra Club’s Clorox deal, it’s good to see the new leadership heeding concerns about greenwashing. But virtually all of the the country’s other flagship environmental groups are beholden to corporate “sponsors” and “partners” today, as the recent greenwashing scandals involving  World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Foundation and their corporate sponsor, the Coke-a-Cola Co, atest.

GMOs + CAFOs attemp a makeover

Photo by Graham Boyle

Check out the GMO corn-fish car built by members of Washington’s intrepid artist/activist collective DC51. These local talents supply the visuals for a wide variety of environmental and human rights marches here in the nation’s capital. Usually, they silkscreen posters, banners and the occasional limited edition T-shirt. This repurposed sedan takes art-for-the-revolution to a new level. But the car is not just cute; It’s meant call attention to concerns about farmed fish raised on GMO corn.  It’s also road worthy. The corn-fish navigated the interstate highway system last month to attend a New York City protest of genetically modified organisms such as lab-altered corn and soybeans used not just to feed the fishes but in so many of the foods we find in the supermarket.

My new blog post on the E Magazine site discusses current efforts to makeover GMOs and frankenfish, among other parts of our industrial food system. here’s an excerpt:

October is proving a busy month for the country’s old guard food industries. After a decade of books and documentaries exposing the more unsavory aspects of how our food is produced, Big Ag and consumer brand companies are striking back with campaigns aimed at quelling the country’s growing disaffection with CAFO-raised beef, fake “fruit” snacks and sugary cereals.

In Washington, D.C., in recent weeks, members of the food and advertising industries urged Congress to dump a planned update to federal nutritional guidelines on foods marketed to kids. The draft rules, announced last April
 by the Interagency Working Group, made up of representatives from the Food and drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are aimed at combating child obesity.

Read the rest of this post on the E site.

Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.

Affordablity theme big in this year’s Solar Decathlon

Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Creative Commons license

In this year’s Solar Decathlon  wrapped up earlier this month with 19 homes – more than half of which cost less than $300,000 to build. Affordability was one of the 10 categories on which the homes are judged this year in the biannual competition pitting universities from around the United States and a few foreign countries. The new cost/affordability bar, which replaced the lighting contest, inspired the student designers to drive down the cost considerably. According to the event’s sponsor, U.S. Department of Energy, this year’s houses were about 33 percent cheaper this year than those that competed two years ago.  “Solar for less” was just one of the industry trends reflected in this year’s entries.

Read my story in Architecture Week.

Maryland student’s tribute to the Chesapeake wins Solar Decathlon

U of Md's WaterShed home at the Solar Decathlon

WaterShed is the 2011 Solar Decathlon winner

WaterShed, the lushly landscaped energy self-sufficient home built by a team from University of Maryland won first place in this year’s Solar Decathlon, which wrapped yesterday on the National Mall. The nearly 900-square-foot home, complete with rain garden, beat out 18 other entries from universities around the U.S., Belgium, Canada, China and New Zealand.

As the name suggests, the Solar Decathlon is all about building the best dwelling that can be fully powered by the sun, but this year several teams tackled two other issues of increasing concern to commercial builders of “green” homes: air quality and water conservation. In fact, both Team Maryland and the team from Purdue University, which took second place, showcased their original inventions in the air quality arena.
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Big Ag + Us

After coasting for decades on the popularity of all that is “fast” or frozen, the food industry was caught off guard a decade ago by the unsavory revelations in the bestselling book “Fast Food Nation.” It maintained deer-in-the-headlights stance through an onslaught of books and documentaries extolling Big AGs many failings.

All that muckraking nurtured today’s vibrant farmers markets movement and locavor initiatives, and started a  transformative national conversation about where our food comes from and how it’s made. None of this benefitted big food companies, however.

Now the industry is hoping to change to subject. According to news stories this week, a recently formed umbrella group with a folksy-sounding name is taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, with public relations campaign meant to reassert industry’s influence over public opinion …  or as executives at the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance told the New York Times, they hope to “reshape the dialogue”.

“There is a feeling across the board in agriculture that Americans have concerns about the food supply, and those are best addressed by farmers,” Chris Galen, a founding member of the alliance said to the Times.

The only thing is the “farmers” represented by the group include agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and DuPont. According to the story, members of smaller, organic and natural farming operations and food processors are skeptical that the $11 million campaign aims to do more than restore credibility to industrial agriculture.

Maybe you think that no amount of PR spin could make you forget that the cows that end up on the dinner menu are fed ground-up chicken and pig parts that, in turn, were fattened on such delicacies as brain, bones and spinal cords.

Then, again, you might be wrong. These sorts of PR campaigns have succeeded before in making public opinion on hot button issues and may very well get us to forget that we abhor CAFOs or Frankenfish.

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