The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy
by Susan Holloway | Bio
NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone. EFM Notebook Index
It’s comparatively hard to get people to worry about, for example, the devastating drop in dung beetles in the Mediterranean countries. (Wait a second…a quick internet search shows I may not be right about dung beetles. They have a lot of fans out there.)
But there are many reasons to worry about cute as well as noncute insects. Without an abundant and diverse population of insects neither we nor the charismatic vertebrates will survive either. The loss of a gnat deprives a bird of food, which is then not available to pollinate the plants needed to feed the antelope that is in turn a source of food for the gorgeous cheetah. It’s the circle of life, people!
Abundance vs. Diversity
Data emerging from studies world-wide suggests that warnings of an insect apocalypse are no exaggeration. For instance, a comprehensive research review published in 2019 by Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys estimated that more than 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. And the overall number of insects is also dropping, at a rate of 2.5% per year.
Factors Associated with Insect Declines (Source: Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys)
Most highly successful species are generalists in the sense that they will eat anything. I am looking at you, cockroaches and opossums! Meanwhile, those with more specific dietary preferences are much more vulnerable if their sole food source is not available.
The most powerful driver of insect decline is habitat destruction caused by intensive agriculture, urbanization, and deforestation as well as pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers.
These same factors are also contributing to a global decline in biodiversity, of which the insect apocalypse is one important part.
Learning to Share in Urban Spaces: A Conversation with Dr. Paul da Silva
Paul began our conversation by introducing me to the concept of “spare or share,” a debate among environmentalists as to whether it is more important to spare large tracts of land for nature’s exclusive use, or to share with nature by finding ways to integrate biodiversity conservation into human landscapes.
Entomologists like E. O. Wilson have long advised that we spare 50 percent of the earth’s land surface for pristine nature, finding ways to manage agricultural activities and urban development in the remaining half.
However, strong arguments for sharing have been made by others, including Kremen and Merenlender at UC Berkeley, who favor “working lands” conservation. They argue for the establishment of buffer zones surrounding open space to protect habitat and resources for some species while facilitating dispersal and climate change adaptation for others.
Expanding our Horizons
How can we create effective ways of sharing space in the urban and suburban landscapes in Marin and throughout the Bay Area? Paul da Silva is particularly adamant that we include as many native plants in our gardens and public spaces as possible in order to support insect diversity.
Why has this goal been harder to achieve than you might have thought? Paul identifies one stumbling block, noting that we humans are generalists and that makes it hard for us to realize that many of our local insects need specific native plants in order to survive.
Also, in Marin we can grow a huge variety of gorgeous plants from all over the world. I admit that I am very partial to Japanese gardens and have definitely strayed from a steady diet of Manzanita! But the more I have learned about the native options, the more able I am to create an interesting garden from ecologically supportive plants.
Looking at the Lawn
Paul suggests that we reflect on the following goals before putting in a lawn: How desirable is the aesthetic look of a homogenous green lawn? Do we want the space to hold up to a lot of foot traffic? How prepared are we to put in the time and costs associated with mowing, fertilizing, watering, and weeding? And how important are the environmental goals of avoiding pesticides, enhancing biological diversity, maximizing carbon sequestration, and increasing soil permeability?
Then, having identified our goals, how do we figure out what to actually do? To help us take this next step, Paul has developed a taxonomy of ten types of lawn or lawn substitute. Each contains a particular grouping of plants that meets a particular constellation of goals. Here are four types that are most consistent with the goals pertaining to enhanced diversity and that require relatively little maintenance.
Creeping thyme and Clover
Paul’s lawn matrix really helped me think through my options as I continue to transition toward using native plants in my yard. Click here if you want the details.
Last Thoughts on Biodiversity
The webinar, Birds and Bees of Mt. Tam, featured two great talks, one by Renee Cormier, avian ecologist at Point Blue and the other by Gretchen LeBuhn, professor in the Department of Biology at San Francisco State. Both scientists described their own recent research to document the abundance and diversity of species in various regions and ecosystems within Marin.Some highlights from their talks:
Contact One Tam to access the video from this webinar, which was held on February 11. You may have to become a member first, but that’s not a bad idea either!
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to Dr. Paul Da Silva for sharing his ideas for enhancing biodiversity here in Marin.
Banner photo credit: Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image.
Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!
Answer: They are all pollinators, and absolutely essential to the survival of plants throughout the world.
In this post I focus on butterflies, particularly the Western Monarch. You may already know that the Western Monarch is on the brink of disappearing. The situation in Marin is particularly dire. An article in the Point Reyes Light recently reported on local efforts spearheaded by Mia Monroe and Morgan Patton to count the Monarchs at Marin overwintering sites: “So far this year, 150 monarchs were counted in Bolinas, five in Stinson Beach and two in Muir Beach.” In contrast, 22,253 Monarchs were counted in Bolinas, for example, in 2015.
Monroe and Patton cite a variety of general causes for the butterfly’s decline, including climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss. In Northern California, these environmental threats were compounded in the last two years by unusually hot and windy weather accompanied by massive wildfires. The result is a near total absence of Western Monarchs on our coast.
The Life of a Female Monarch
To understand how to revive the Monarch it is a good idea to know something about the life cycle of these creatures. Let’s start with the birth of a baby Monarch (I know, that sounds like the first line of a BBC documentary on the royal family).
Summoning her energy, the female Monarch lays 300-500 eggs on the leaves of a milkweed plant, attaching each precious bundle to the leaf with a bit of glue she secretes. After anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae. The green and black striped babies eat milkweed and nothing else for about two weeks. Then they spin a chrysalis to protect themselves while they transform in a week or two into an adult butterfly.
But the caterpillars aren’t just getting plump during their two weeks of munching on milkweed. In fact, the milkweed contains toxins that caterpillars are able to store in their bodies. These toxins render the adult butterflies poisonous to birds and other predators, who associate the distinctive orange and black color pattern with mortal danger and therefore leave the butterflies alone.
If adult Monarchs emerge in the spring or early summer, they disperse throughout the Western US to go through successive breeding generations. But if they’re born in the later summer or fall, they head toward warmer climes. Monarchs in the Western states generally migrate to the coast, while those east of the Rockies often fly all the way to Mexico to overwinter. For more information on this amazing journey, check out the website of the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to pollinator conservation.
How to Help the Western Monarch
Activists nominated the Monarch to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2020. The US Fish and Wildlife Service affirmed that protected status was warranted but did not take action at this time. However, there are a number of other national, state, and local groups dedicated to saving the Monarch. For example, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has established a Western Monarch Working Group to promote “unified, ecosystem-based management approaches at the landscape-level” to the protection of the Monarch.
Individual citizens have an important role to play as well. In the Point Reyes Light article referenced above, Morgan Patton of the Environmental Action Committee of Marin (EAC) has noted that, “One of the most important things to emphasize is that individual actions for habitat support are just as important as large-scale habitat restoration. They are primarily migrating through private property, and the action people take in their own gardens has an impact.”
If you want to learn more about the current status of the Western Monarch and what you can do to help, take a look at the EAC website. Or you can investigate the possibility of becoming a “Monarch Waystation” by planting milkweed, monitoring visitations, and reporting your observations to a portal that aggregates the data across all contributors.
On the Somewhat Brighter Side: Other Butterflies in Marin
Compared to the plight of the Monarch, many species of butterfly are doing relatively well. Marin County is home to more than 70 butterfly species, and all of them would love to stop by your yard for a sip of nectar.
Coastal Green Hairstreak
The best plants for butterflies are California natives. Having evolved together, native plants can provide native butterflies the nectar they need to thrive and the leaves required by their larvae. Butterflies are picky about where they lay their eggs because, as we saw in the case of the Monarch, caterpillars can eat only certain plants.
Another reason to look for native plants is that when non-natives travel across state boundaries they are treated with pesticides. These toxins persist as the plant grows and can be ingested by pollinators.
What inspired me about Insight Garden Program was it was a safe place where I learned to meditate and discover my reconnection to nature and the gardens. This has allowed me to successfully transition to a stable job and be present with my family and community in a way that I never have before. I have a different way of being in the world and the space that I hold in it.
-Bilial Coleman, IGP graduate
It’s one thing to encourage privileged citizens of the Bay Area to establish pollinator gardens. But what about residents who do not have space to plant a garden, who may have had little opportunity to learn about horticulture, or who are living with pressing financial concerns?
In the course of my research for this post, I came across two inspiring programs that seek to support environmental as well as social and criminal justice for residents of marginalized communities in the Bay Area.
In 2002, Beth Waitkus founded the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison. Waitkus and her colleagues developed a curriculum focused on vocational gardening and landscaping training. In 2003, IGP built a 1,600 square foot native plant and flower garden in the prison yard. In addition to learning about horticulture, IGP participants learn strategies to reconnect to the self, the community, and the natural world. The IGP program calls this an “inner” and “outer” gardening approach. The IGP program is now being implemented in eleven prisons in California as well as in a number of other institutions throughout the US.
Planting Justice is another impressive local program focused on environmental, social, and criminal justice. Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders co-founded the organization with four programs in mind: landscaping, education, grassroots fundraising and urban farming training. Their program draws on the permaculture model of sustainable design.
Planting Justice also runs a large organic nursery in Oakland, with proceeds benefiting local communities and formerly incarcerated citizens. They are oriented toward mail order business, and their extensive stock is truly impressive, with many varieties of rare and heirloom plants. They are also developing a retail-oriented site in El Sobrante, where customers will be able to obtain high quality organic plants as well as support formerly incarcerated individuals’ successful transition to life in their community.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks to Christopher Jadallah for sharing his knowledge of pollinators, and for introducing me to the Insight Garden Program.
As this post comes out, appalling political events are taking place across the country. Nevertheless, I continue to hope and believe that the incoming government will be far more proactive than the outgoing one on environmental issues.
The events of the last years, months, and days have shown me how important it is to advocate for environmental and social justice. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the EFM and for your interest in the Notebook.
Banner photo credit: Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image.
Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!
With all the pandemic and political madness, why should you take an interest in bees? Because they are totally cool, essential to our survival, and in dire need of our help. Let’s get our bee-related synapses firing with a pop quiz!
1. We’ll start with an easy one…Which of the following is a bee?
Answer: Did you pick the fuzzy one? Good job!
Answer: Thousands! This surprised me…
3. Which of the following insects are experiencing huge die-offs?
b. Bees, yellow jackets, and wasps
c. None of the above
Answer: The bee population is plummeting, but yellow jackets and wasps are doing fine, which doesn’t seem fair.
4. What can you do to support the bee community? a. Establish pollinator plants in your yard
b. Encourage elected officials to consider the needs of pollinators when landscaping public areas
c. Remove and relocate unwanted bee colonies humanely
d. Count bees as a citizen scientist
e. All of the above
Answer: These are all good ideas. Read on for the details!
What Be a Bee?
The kind of bee you may be most familiar with is the honey bee, which was imported from Europe in the middle of the 17th century. There are also thousands of species of wild native bees, one of which is the bumble bee. To keep things simple, I will focus mainly on the honey bee and the bumble bee.
You can probably tell them apart. The round fuzzy bumble bee has two sets of wings. The smaller, thinner honey bee has one set of wings and its head is more separate from its body.
These two kinds of bees are quite different in terms of their behavior. Honey bees are very social and live with thousands of friends and family members. Honey bees use caves, rock cavities and hollow trees as natural nesting sites, and of course they are also kept by bee keepers.
Queen honey bee surrounded by attendants. Sorry Slim Harpo and the Rolling Stones, but there is no such thing as a “king bee.”
Bumble bees are also social, but their hives are usually limited to a few hundred individuals. They build nests in burrows or holes in the ground. Most other types of native bees are solitary, but like bumble bees they frequently nest in the ground.
How do these bees stack up in terms of their performance as pollinators? Domesticated honey bees are invaluable to American agriculture. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops….About one-third of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops pollinated by honey bees.”
The crazy thing is that honey bees are not THAT great at pollinating compared to many native bees. For instance, contrast the honey bee with the more patient, focused bumble bee. Bumble bees don’t dash around responding to signals from each other like honey bees do; rather, they quickly and efficiently remove the pollen from a single area. And because they are relatively large they can carry heavier loads than the honey bee. They are also better at learning how to extract pollen from different flowers, so they are good at cross-pollination. And they are more resistant than the relatively flimsy honey bee to cold weather, rain, and limited light conditions.
Even though honey bees get most of the attention, native bees are also useful for pollinating crops. They have a special way of vibrating their bodies to break pollen free as they gather it. This “buzz pollination” makes them particularly good at collecting pollen from greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, whose anthers release pollen when vibrated.
Threats to Bees
Honey bees are also succumbing to mites, fungi, viruses, and bacterial diseases. Pesticides are a huge problem, particularly neionicotinoids, a type of systemic insecticide that is applied to seeds but which remains active throughout the plant’s lifecycle. Bees who ingest the pollen or nectar of treated plants can develop a neurological disorder that leaves them disoriented and confused. Yet another problem is that floral diversity has been reduced as farms are increasingly planted with a single crop.
Native bees, which often share habitat with honey bees, are under stress from many of the same environmental threats. For instance, recent research has shown that bumble bees are particularly vulnerable to global warming. Because they are large and covered with hair, they stay comfortably warm in cold weather but are miserable when it is hot.
Scientists, government officials, and environmental activists are addressing the plight of the native bees but the situation is extremely dire, and some species have already become extinct.
Native plant garden in Pt. Reyes Station
What Can YOU Do?
Plant a bee-friendly garden
If you have some garden space, whether it is big or small, you can put in some plants to support honey bees and native bees. Basically, they need flowers that provide nectar (sugar and amino acids) and pollen (protein).
Here are some things to think about in terms of food...
1. Plant in groups to increase pollination efficiency. If a pollinator can visit the same type of flower over and over, it doesn’t have to relearn how to enter the flower and can transfer pollen to the same species more efficiently.
2. Plant with bloom season in mind, providing food from early spring to late fall.
3. Select plants of different heights with flowers of varying colors and scents.
Bees also need a variety of options for protection and nesting…
A few other things to keep in mind...
Consider the area outside your own property boundaries. Maybe you can get together with your neighbors to coordinate plantings in the strips between the sidewalk and road.
Also, it’s essential to avoid pesticides!!
Nurseries that specialize in native California plants include Annie’s Annuals and Perennials in Richmond and O’Donnells Nursery in Fairfax. You can find plant lists and other information on the website of the California Native Plant Society’s Marin Chapter. Or visit botanical gardens like the one above the UC Berkeley campus or the Marin Art and Garden Center.
Given how beneficial bees are, and how threatened, most people want to support them if possible. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to remove them. Honey bees and most native bees should not be exterminated; rather, you can hire a beekeeper to relocate them.
A couple years ago I hired a specialist, Chris Conrad, to remove two beehives, located in a soffit below my roof. Chris carefully vacuumed the adult bees out of the hive and into the lower section of a special box. He removed the honeycomb with its baby bee residents and attached it to a frame inserted into the upper section of the box. Then he allowed the vacuumed bees to join the young ones on the frame. He relocated the bees to his bee yard along with the honeycomb and honey they needed to re-establish the colony.
If you want to relocate the bees elsewhere on your property, Chris will bring them back after they’ve had a few weeks to regroup in his yard.
Citizen Science: Counting Bees!
The bee count will run through 2023, and the program encourages participants to sign up at its website or send an email to email@example.com. Volunteers will be given an app to upload photos and basic information about the location where the photos were taken. Scientists will identify the bees in the photos and record the information for their database.
The program is based in part on similar efforts to track bird populations. You may have heard of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which relies on nearly 300 “citizen scientists,” volunteers who count migrating hawks and other raptors as they stream over the Marin Headlands in the fall.
Support Local Efforts to Create Public Space for Pollinators
Many of you have probably driven along Redhill Avenue and seen the new median strip that was installed recently, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor. The other day I went over to take a closer look at the plantings.
A primary goal of the project was to design a median that retains stormwater in order to decrease the amount flowing into neighboring creeks. The median strip is bisected lengthwise by a “river” of multicolored stones varying from one to three or four inches in diameter. The stone river is dotted with beautiful boulders covered with lichen and moss. An array of mostly native shrubs and grasses is artfully scattered beside the stones, with a diversity of plant texture, color, and size. Medium size trees including Japanese maples and Western Strawberry trees provide additional interest. So cool! You can find the plant list on the town of San Anselmo website. This is a great example of an attractive public space that provides essential food and nesting space for bees and other pollinators.
Heading to San Anselmo on Red Hill median
of texture and color
Plenty of color even in winter
Convenient landing pad for a hungry bee
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.
Did you know that 9% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector? But environmentalists, scientists, and farmers are identifying farming techniques that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it, not just offsetting agricultural emissions but also drawing down excess CO2 created by other activities.
A Very Brief History of Agriculture in the United States
Corn and other crops were cultivated by Indigenous peoples in North America for more than 7,000 years before the arrival of the first English settlers. This agricultural knowledge was passed along in the 1600s when the Wampanoag native residents taught the English colonists how to clear land, till fields, and grow the corn that was crucial to their initial survival.
While the agricultural practices of the Native peoples were sustainable for thousands of years preceding the colonists’ arrival, the adoption of new farming methods by subsequent waves of settlers changed the ecological context considerably. During the 1800’s, many practices intended to increase crop yield became widespread including fertilization, use of pesticides, irrigation, and the use of gas-powered tractors. While these developments increased productivity, they also damaged the health of the soil. Moreover, destruction of vast areas of grassland in the Midwest eventually led to the catastrophic loss of topsoil during the drought and subsequent dust storms of the 1930s.
The Chemistry-Phobe’s Guide to Carbon
I tend to zone out when anyone talks about chemicals. I admit that Chemistry was my least favorite class in school. I developed a huge mental block concerning the term for the basic unit of measurement in chemistry: “mole.” And believe me it’s hard to succeed in chemistry class if you keep picturing the wrong kind of mole. But bear with me, we can do this.
According to UC Davis researcher Jessica Chiartas, “The soil represents a huge mass of natural resource under our feet. If we’re only thinking about farming the surface of it, we’re missing an opportunity. Carbon is like a second crop.” Why is she so excited about carbon?
Carbon is a chemical element like hydrogen or nitrogen. It is a basic building block of biomolecules and is found in all organic matter. Carbon exists on Earth in solid, dissolved and gaseous forms.
Under the earth’s surface, carbon is stored in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas as well as in some kinds of rocks. When fossil fuels are burned, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere as a gas (carbon dioxide or CO2), where it traps heat and contributes to global warming. Decomposing organic matter on the surface of the earth also releases CO2 into the air.
Now take a look at the ocean. The ocean is a carbon sink (or repository) because it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. However, this absorption also makes the water more acidic. The amount of damage done depends on the balance of these conflicting processes.
Now let’s get to the sequestration of CO2 in biomass (i.e., plants, trees, and algae). You may or may not remember that photosynthesis is the process of using light energy from the sun along with CO2 and water in the atmosphere to make food for plants, trees, and algae. When the greenery dies, the constituent carbon becomes part of the soil.
We can support this sequestration process by improving the health of the soil used in agriculture. When soil is healthy, plants grow to their maximum productivity and are thus better able to absorb and sequester carbon so that it doesn’t go back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.
How Can Farmers Give a Boost to Carbon Sequestration?
Farmers are uniquely positioned to assist in drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere. I was surprised to learn that plants are better suited for this sequestration than trees. Unlike trees, plants sequester most of their carbon underground. Even if the plant burns, the carbon stays fixed in the roots and soil. So, while forests have the ability to store more carbon, grasslands are more resilient in unstable conditions created by climate change.
For this reason, scientists and farmers are becoming more and more excited about the possibilities of soil-based carbon sequestration.
After all, 40% of land in the United States is farmland...an abundant storage area for carbon!
Effective Practices for Creating Healthy Soil
Conventional agricultural practices typically involve stripping the soil of all plants other than the primary cash crop, usually with the assistance of pesticides and aggressive tillage. The alternative is to encourage the growth of diverse plant life in addition to the primary crop. Here are several ways to do that.
Cover cropping. Cover cropping refers to seeding fields between harvests. Cover crops may include either a single species or a mix of seasonal grasses and other plants. As explained by the Fibershed Carbon Farming Education program, the roots from the cover keep the topsoil in place and aerate the soil as they penetrate it, helping the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive. This healthy soil also promotes the abundant growth of the primary cash crop.
Planting windbreaks. Planting native trees and shrubs creates a barrier to prevent the wind from drying out the soil and blowing it around. They also provide wildlife habitat and resources for bees and other pollinators.
Rotational grazing. After crops have been harvested, farmers can allow animals to graze in the fields in order to remove some of the dried-out, dying remnants and allow weeds and other green plants to emerge. These little green interlopers reduce fire risk and increase carbon sequestration.
Opportunities for Change
Here in California, several important programs have been developed to assist farmers and ranchers develop a plan for enhancing the potential of their land to sequester carbon. One of these is the Healthy Soils Initiative, which helps farmers increase carbon sequestration by supporting their efforts to improve plant health and crop yields, increase water retention by the soil, and prevent erosion.
Another important initiative is the Carbon Farming Network. The Network is a coalition of support organizations and land trusts along with 41 of California’s 96 Regional Conservation Districts. These districts work with farmers, ranchers, and foresters to maximize carbon storage in soils by implementing regenerative land management practices based on local conditions. The Network sponsors trainings and workshops to share information and facilitate peer-to-peer learning among its practitioner members. They are particularly attuned to the needs of farmers from marginalized groups, including women and people of color. The Network has facilitated the completion of 57 carbon farm plans to date, encompassing approximately 46,000 acres across the state.
What Can You Do?
Consider patronizing businesses that follow the sustainable farming practices associated with healthy soil. One sterling example is Coyuchi, a purveyor of organic bedding, towels, and apparel that supports regional farms and ranches. Based in Point Reyes, Coyuchi has partnered with Fibershed to support “carbon farming practices that actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, creating climate beneficial fibers.”
Another choice you can make is to buy organic dairy products from local farms. Orchard Valley operates as a collective of small farms across the country. Long committed to sustainability and high animal care standards, they recently secured funding to help member dairies develop methods to increase carbon sequestration and reduce green-house gas emissions. Straus Family Creamery is located in the town of Marshall on the site of a dairy farm established by Bill and Ellen Straus in the 1940s. In the 1980s, their son Albert Straus converted the farm to an all-organic operation and founded the first 100% certified organic creamery in the country. Today, products from the Creamery all come from the Straus farm itself or one of 12 other organic, family-owned farms located in Northern California. I myself am extremely partial to their whole milk Greek yogurt!
Click on this "buy direct" link supplied by Soil Centric to purchase from other producers that use regenerative farming and grazing practices.
One final note: Recently the EFM sponsored a webinar on Healthy Soils as part of the Forum 2020 program. I was educated and inspired by the presentations. Thanks so much to presenters Renata Brillinger of CALCAN, Cynthia Daley of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, and Jeff Creque of the Carbon Cycle Institute, to moderator Diana Conlon of Soil Centric, and to emcee Anne-Christine Strugnell of the EFM for their fascinating insights into the issues and solutions in this important area. Please contact Kim Rago at email@example.com if you are interested in viewing a video of the webinar.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As usual, thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.
Pandemic notwithstanding, most of us will engage in some amount of festive cooking, home decorating, gift giving, and celebration in the next two months. We all have an opportunity to make some consumer choices to lighten the impact of our merrymaking on the environment. Here are some ideas!
Not all candles are created equal
Let’s start with the humble candle. Until I did the research for this installment of the Notebook, I had never realized that inexpensive candles are made from paraffin wax, a petroleum by-product. They are chockful of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde that are released into the air along with smoke and carbon dioxide as the candle burns.
Beeswax candles are a far better choice than those made from paraffin. They don’t emit any smoke or toxins and they are made from a renewable resource. They are easy to find in stores and online, but if you are feeling crafty you can also make your own. Beeswax is hard to infuse with scent but you can always stick cloves in an orange if you want your home to smell nice!
You have another option that is a bit more complicated: candles made from soybeans or palm oil. Soy and palm oil plantations, while providing employment for many, have caused the deforestation of millions of acres in Indonesia and other countries. However, candles made from them can be eco-friendly if sourced from sustainable, traceable crops. You’d need to do some research to verify the origins of the product.
The Lowdown on Gift Wrap
Americans spend a lot of money on gift wrap, which accounts for roughly 10% of the US paper market revenue. And half of the 4.6 million pounds of gift wrap produced each year ends up in landfills. Not to mention that approximately 38,000 miles worth of ribbon is also purchased during the holiday season.
Some types of wrapping paper may be considered recyclable by some hauling services, but Marin Sanitary Service is not one of them. They advise customers to put all wrapping paper in the landfill cart. Other haulers may accept unlaminated wrapping paper for recycling; however, paper that is metallic, has glitter on it, or has a texture is rarely if ever considered recyclable.
Also, resist the temptation to burn your wrapping paper in the fireplace. Many of us did this in the olden days. But we now know that wrapping paper releases noxious smoke containing dioxins and heavy metals when it is burned.
Alternatives to Traditional Gift Wrapping
Gift-givers may want to consider alternatives to wrapping paper. Here are a few unusual ways to wrap a gift:
The Christmas Tree Conundrum
Some argue that artificial trees are better for the environment than natural ones because the consumer can reuse them every year. However, artificial trees are made of non-renewable plastics and petroleum-based products. They take five times more energy to produce than natural ones. Eventually they are thrown into landfills. And the analyses I’ve seen indicate that you’d have to reuse your artificial tree for about 20 years before it is more sustainable than a real one.
In contrast, natural trees are a renewable resource. It takes about seven years to grow a six-foot Christmas tree, and during that time it is acting as a carbon sink, trapping carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most sustainable solution is to buy a live tree and plant it in a pot, thereby allowing you to reuse it in subsequent years. However, most people buy cut trees from lots. One heartening point is that trees harvested on Christmas tree farms are not cut to the ground. The technique is more akin heavy pruning. The farmer lops off the top for sale but allows the rest of the tree to continue growing for another year.
Your tree can also be put to good use after its holiday service is over. Most communities have curbside collection services for Christmas trees, or you can drop your tree off at a collection site. According to the Marin Sanitary Service, “Some of the holiday trees are ground up and used as mulch or further composted to create soil amendment. Other trees are chipped and used as a biomass fuel source at a Co-Generation power plant. These trees replace traditional fossil fuel sources like coal and are considered a carbon neutral fuel source.”
Carbon Offsets: A Gift to the Planet
One other thing to bear in mind is the emissions caused by frequent flying during the holidays (at least, pre-pandemic). Overall, flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 — a figure expected to grow more than threefold by 2050.
Carbon offsets offer a way for consumers to balance out their pollution by investing in projects that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If you’re taking a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, for example, you can purchase a carbon offset to account for the specific environmental impact of your voyage. The projects you will be investing in range from planting trees to improved forest management to working with farmers and ranchers to avoid practices that generate methane gas.
Purchasing a carbon offset is not expensive — likely less than $10 for an SF to Chicago flight. Click here to find out more about how to buy them.
Getting Down to the Essentials…
The seven principlesof Kwanzaa
Eschewing elaborate gifts and fancy holiday decorations is not just about environmental sustainability but also presents an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human connection and commitment to higher ideals during this important time of the year.
In 1965, many children watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time. As Charlie bumbles his way to the truth about the holiday, he inspires his friends to abandon gaudy (dog)house decorations (Snoopy), long lists of desired gifts (Sally), and self-aggrandizing entertainment plans (Lucy). When Lucy sends Charlie and Linus to get a "great big, shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink," Charlie picks the only natural tree, a sorry-looking twig too weak to hold up a single ornament. But as Charlie’s friends gather to nurture the twig it transforms into a brilliant, beautiful tree. Fifty-five years later, this simple show and its message of unity, purpose, and faith continue to inspire us.
This year has been deeply unsettling for numerous reasons, and many of us may be feeling off-kilter, anxious, bereft, and even traumatized. But the symbols of the upcoming holidays can help us remember the pleasure, meaning, and fulfillment to be found in acknowledging and celebrating our deep connection to each other and to our planet.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. I wish you happiness and good health as we sort through the remaining political and medical challenges coming our way! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: email@example.com.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at www.wildflowerbook.com. Visit www.winterbadger.com to see more birds and other images.
Rebecca Burgess and the Search for a Natural Blue Dye
Textile artist and environmental activist Rebecca Burgess traces her thinking about sustainable garments to the summer of 1998 when she was teaching a class at UC Davis on textiledyeing. She and her students had to don the equivalent of hazmat suits to protect their skin, eyes, and lungs from the toxic chemicals in the synthetic dyes, which they then poured down the drain when the dyeing process was completed. Her concerns about the environmental and health impact of these practices prompted her to embark on an intense study of plant-based dyeing in indigenous communities in the US as well as village-based textile cooperatives in a variety of other countries.
In 2009, Burgess challenged herself to create a homegrown personal wardrobe based entirely on local resources. A core objective of this year-long experiment was to develop plant-based dyes in a variety of colors. She had no problem sourcing local plants to create green, pink, orange, yellow, and brown dye, including Toyon, coffeeberry, and hinsii walnuts.
My interest piqued by Rebecca’s quest, I decided to learn more about the history of indigo dyeing, and find out the current status of natural indigo production.
Indigo: Early Days
The first thing I learned is that people of the world really like to dye their clothing. The earliest known dyed fibers were found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia; these fibers are estimated to be 36,000 years old. Indigo dye, in particular, has been used throughout the world for a good 5,000 years.
Japan is particularly well known for its indigo textiles. The art of indigo dyeing flourished during the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period from 1603 to 1867. During that time, people in the lower classes were banned from wearing silk and they turned to cotton fabrics, which took indigo dye very well. Regions where the indigo plant was plentiful became wealthy, and indigo artisans perfected their patterns, hues and skills. One particularly beautiful Japanese textile that is made with indigo is called kasuri, which is called ikat in other parts of Asia. I really love double ikat weavings, a process in which the warp and weft threads are meticulously tie-dyed to form distinctive patterns when they are woven together.
When it comes to indigo, nothing says success like the American invention of blue jeans. But how did indigo come to the US, and when was it first used to dye a pair of jeans?
From West Africa to South Carolina
I was surprised to learn that indigo came to the US as a by-product of the slave trade. Beginning around the fourteenth century, Africans began creating indigo in the dye pits of Kano in northern Nigeria. Textiles, and those made from indigo in particular, held significant cultural and economic value in many West African communities, particularly for women. In Ghana, Mali, The Gambia and Nigeria, textile artists created beautiful batik and stitched resist techniques using fabric dyed with indigo.
In the 1700s, slave traders bringing their human cargo to the Southeastern coast of the US also introduced knowledge about indigo and its value. Indigo plants began to be cultivated in South Carolina and for a time were one of the most lucrative crops produced in the region.
In the Lowcountry area of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, enslaved people from a variety of West African communities lived in relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations. They were thus able to retain many aspects of their varied linguistic and cultural heritage, including a belief in the power of blue to offer protection from harm. Early inhabitants of this area used indigo to dye fabric for garments and other household uses.
The economics of indigo dyeing began to change in the mid-1800s, when a German chemist named Adolf von Baeyer succeeded in determining the structure of indigo. Shortly thereafter other German scientists developed a way of synthesizing it. There can be no doubt that the advent of synthetic dye was a boon to the modern textile industry.
Blue Jeans: From Natural to Synthetic Indigo and Back?
Readers from the Bay Area may know that blue jeans were “invented” in San Francisco by Levi Strauss, a German-born immigrant who came to New York in 1847 to work in his family’s dry goods business. In 1854, he opened a West Coast branch of the company in San Francisco, which was expanding rapidly as a result of the Gold Rush. Together with Jacob Davis, Strauss obtained a patent for work pants with copper rivets to reinforce points of stress such as the pocket corners. The men settled on denim, a fabric first developed in France for work clothes, as the most suitable fabric for their new pants. They used natural indigo dye to create the now iconic jeans color.
The company eventually switched to synthetic dye, along with rival brands that started springing up in the early part of the 20th century. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide.
Given the huge amount of water and many toxic chemicals use to create all these blue jeans, is there a way to meander back to the days of natural indigo? Basically the answer seems to be…yes!
For consumers willing to spend more money for higher-end garments made with indigo, it might be of interest to take a look at Japanese jeans. As many of the American brands increasingly chose to outsource their work overseas, a number of Japanese jean producers decided to keep things local, refining their craft and sometimes continuing to use vintage looms and old techniques. The result is a high quality denim fabric that is only half the width of the rolls produced by newer machines but one with a more durable finished edge. Some denim brands, such as Japan Blue, still choose to dye the cotton by hand using the leaves from the indigo plant for their most premium jeans. However, these jeans tend to be pricey…a pair will most likely set you back around $180.
American brands are also experimenting with less harmful ways of creating blue jeans. For instance, Wrangler is now using a new foam-based process called “Indigood” to transfer indigo to the fabric without using so much water. The company also notes that they obtain recycled denim from pre-consumer denim waste and break down the fibers to produce recycled cotton which is then spun into new yarn. And the other good news is that Wrangler has kept prices low on their jeans.
Patagonia has also made a commitment to sustainability. Their denim garments are made from organic cotton, grown without the use of GMO seeds or harmful fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Like Wrangler, they are also using an innovative dyeing process to reduce the use of water, electricity and chemicals. Less carbon dioxide is also produced, compared with traditional dyeing methods that make use of synthetic dyes.
While the specific claims of Wrangler and Patagonia are somewhat hard to verify, I have hope that their efforts represent a move in the right direction.
I also recommend that you watch "Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo," an independent, feature-length documentary by Mary Lance about the history, culture, and revival of indigo. Lance focuses on people around the globe who are using indigo in projects intended to improve life in their communities, preserve cultural integrity, and nurture the environment.
If you love indigo textiles, read Indigo: The Color that Changed the World” by Catherine LeGrand. This beautiful book, published in 2013, explores the production of indigo textiles throughout the world, with lots of photographs and drawing that provide close-ups of patterns and textiles.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. Don’t forget to vote if you haven’t already done so! firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the midst of the political upheaval and myriad other crises we are currently experiencing, the need for a rational, science-based approach to health and climate issues has never been greater. In this installment of the Notebook I help you understand how to scrutinize and evaluate arguments about the environment so that you can be an informed consumer of all the information we are inundated with on a daily basis.
These days, being able to think critically is particularly crucial because we are increasingly exposed to corporate greenwashing, a type of marketing spin in which deceptive claims are made to persuade the consumer that an organization’s products and policies are environmentally friendly even though they are largely or totally harmful. Over the last two decades, corporate greenwashing has become very sophisticated, but you can learn how to pierce below the surface of their claims!
What is Critical Thinking?
By Alf van Beem - Own work, CC0
You need to have critical thinking skills in order to evaluate whether
or not the writer of an article you
are reading has used critical thinking
in the process of composing the article! Recursive? Yes! Important?
Critical thinking refers to a process of being receptive and curious while also remaining skeptical as you evaluate and analyze new information from all angles. If I am reading an article about climate change, for example, I need to learn something about the authors of the article. What are their motives? What is their expertise? I should also evaluate the evidence for their assertions. Is the argument based on actual data or on anecdotes and opinion? I need to study whether they are conducting a careful analysis. Are they offering convincing ideas or just manipulating my emotions? How clear and logical is their thinking? Do the conclusions follow from the evidence?
Critical thinking is something that all humans are equipped to do. Based on pioneering work by Jean Piaget, psychologists have shown that children develop the capability for logical reasoning by adolescence. For example, while young children need to see physical objects in order to line them up from tallest to shortest, teenagers can use inference to answer a question like the following: “If Kelly is taller than Ali and Ali is taller than Jo, who is the tallest?” Piaget’s argument was that the ability to think logically and critically is biologically programmed and that, barring terrible deprivation, it will be attained by everyone.
Threats to Critical Thinking
More recently, behavioral economists and social psychologists have highlighted the human tendency to use cognitive shortcuts in reasoning about everyday matters. Sometimes the shortcuts are reasonable timesavers that result in accurate understanding but in other cases they can produce biased or illogical results. Here are four cognitive shortcuts that are particularly likely to trip us up when we think about environmental issues.
Number 1: We are more persuaded by vivid anecdotes and examples than by statistical information.
Examples and anecdotes tend to make a big impression on us, particularly if they strike an emotional chord or refer to something we have experienced personally. We respond less immediately and viscerally to statistics, even though data from a large group is much more likely to provide valid information than a single example. For instance, if my friend crashes her car, I may decide against buying one of that make and model, even if Consumer Reports has conducted a thorough analysis and gives it a big thumbs up.
So beware of writers who rely on examples and anecdotes to make their case. And when you are the one trying to present an argument be sure to use the best evidence available. It’s fine to use examples to illustrate a point, but the example needs to be backed up by deeper evidence.
Number 2: We may reject valid information just because it does not fit in with our prior beliefs and understandings.
We like to think of ourselves as logical people whose ideas and values all add up to something consistent. When someone points out a contradiction between what we say and what we do, we feel very uncomfortable. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance.
For instance, I have read a lot about plastic pollution. I am very convinced of the seriousness of the problem. I certainly want to reduce my own plastic consumption. Indeed, I have started chipping away at the problem, and am happy to report that and am happy to report that I can’t remember the last time I bought a roll of Saran Wrap. But during the pandemic I have been ordering groceries to be delivered, and they come in a lot of plastic packaging. I try to find ways to reduce the stressful feeling created by the inconsistency between my beliefs and behavior, such as vowing to shop exclusively at the farmers’ market as soon as the pandemic is over.
So examine your own responses to new information with curiosity and skepticism! If you detect a tendency to resist new information that might be valuable and important, encourage yourself to explore the contradictions.
Number 3: We tend to mistake simple patterns of association as being evidence of cause and effect.
Sometimes it can be OK to look at correlations for some evidence of causation. But the key is to have a good theoretical reason to support the notion of causation. Theory focuses your interpretation of correlations on sensible rather than arbitrary hypotheses.
For example, suppose the number of coal-burning plants is correlated with the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and with increasing air and sea temperatures. We can confidently point to the causal role of coal if we have good information about the type of gases emitted by burning coal and understand how these gases prevent atmospheric heat from escaping into space.
Number 4. If we establish that something is a cause of something else, we often jump to the conclusion that it is the only cause, or the most important cause.
Sometimes it’s hard to consider all the contributors to a complex and multidimensional problem. For instance, it has been established that the presence of lead in children’s bodies causes cognitive deficiencies. And we also know that many children in low-income communities have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. But it would be overly simplistic to say that low school achievement in these neighborhoods can be solved by removing all the lead paint (although removal would certainly be a good start, and the ethically responsible thing to do).
This oversimplifying phenomenon is clearly illustrated in efforts by the petrochemical industry to persuade consumers that plastic pollution is caused by inefficient recycling and that if we ramp up our recycling capability we will all be fine. Recent reports suggest that the plastic industry officials are engaging in critical thinking – they themselves do not believe recycling to be a viable solution! But they continue to promote it anyway as they seek to offset their profit loss from decreasing use of oil and gas with increased sale of plastic. In this case the industry is trying to take advantage of consumers’ tendency to feel satisfied with addressing a single cause of a complicated problem and distract them from other serious contributors.
How Do Emotions Enter the Picture?
I would argue that our emotions are frenemies with respect to our attempts to engage in critical thinking. We are emotional creatures and obviously not all emotions are bad – but we have to be aware of how they come into play when we are trying to engage in critical thinking.
But sometimes we should set emotions aside and focus on the evidence and analysis of the issues. And we should remember that saving only the cute animals is not really the solution.
Another way in which emotions can enter the critical thinking process is via the phenomenon of tribalism.
Humans are in some sense pack animals. We unconsciously favor those most like us, those who belong to our group or tribe. Tribalism strengthens social cohesion and increases our propensity to sacrifice for the common good. However, tribalism can be maladaptive when it causes out-group stigmatism. And when there is a perception of insufficient or unequal distribution of resources, between-group hostility can easily arise.
Several points about tribalism are relevant for environmental advocates. First, we can resist tribalism when it undermines the formation of broad coalitions in finding solutions to our climate crisis. We should reject attempts by government leaders to stoke hostility among groups for political gain.
Also, we can be aware of the complex way in which tribalism has shaped our current media landscape. Social media platforms and cable channels have greatly exacerbated the tribalism in the ways that we consume news. We all select news outlets that we generally trust and respect. However, it is important to remain vigilant even with sources that we think are generally reputable. There can be strong disagreements among generally like-minded people, and it might take careful thinking to sift through the arguments carefully in such cases. Controversies regarding the culling of tule elk on Point Reyes and on the use of rodenticide in controlling house mice on the Farallon Islands are two cases in point.
Thank you for paying attention to this very important and challenging topic. No doubt we will need all our critical thinking skills as we continue to wrestle with our political and environmental challenges. I wish you happiness and good health in the coming days and will be back in touch with a new Notebook post in two email@example.com
Textiles: The Stealth Polluter?
Pollution from textiles tends to remain somewhat outside of the environmentalist spotlight compared to other problems. But in fact the production of textiles is very resource intensive and contributes significantly to the degradation of our environment.
Most sources agree that the most environmentally sustainable fabrics are organic cotton, linen made from flax, wool, and silk (as well as the lesser known hemp, jute, and ramie). These natural textiles are all biodegradable, typically within a year. The exception is silk, which is the most tough, and doesn’t begin to biodegrade for approximately four years.
And the bad choices?
Conventional (i.e., nonorganic) cotton seems to have earned first place in the textile hall of shame. Pesticides are poisoning workers and wreaking havoc on the planet. Cotton is grown on 2.5% of arable land in the world but uses 6% of pesticides, including one particularly toxic one that is a nerve gas.
So far so bad, but also, unlike cotton and flax, nylon takes natural dyes poorly, and the chemical dyes that are used contribute to water pollution. And it is of course completely nonbiodegradable. It sheds fibers when it is washed, contributing to the microplastic pollution in our waterways.
OK, but what about recyling nylon? Many people throw out used clothing, but it can obviously be used by someone else, or it can be shredded for insulation, for example. Additionally, some clothing designers are experimenting with recycled nylon textile to create new products.
As a bamboo lover I am eager to believe that fabric made from bamboo would be fabulous. Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing crop requiring no chemical fertilization or pesticides and a fraction of the water used by cotton. Bamboo can be grown and harvested in a short amount of time and does not need replanting (as you know if you’ve ever tried to get rid of it from your yard).
Chemicals are used to turn cellulose from the bamboo into fiber, including sulfur, nitrous oxide, carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide, all toxic pollutants. This water intensive processing also results in water discharge that is also highly polluting if untreated. Moreover, nearly all bamboo textile is produced in China, where the energy needed to produce bamboo mostly comes from burning coal.
Textile artist and environmentalist Summer Edwards votes for organic cotton over bamboo in the textile sustainability smackdown. But she recognizes that bamboo may be “a first baby step in the progression towards stronger environmental practices in the fashion industry” and she concludes that it “lies somewhere in the middle on the continuum between unsustainable and sustainable textiles.” In terms of textiles, I am transferring my affection from bamboo to flax, which is sustainable as well as beautiful.
Tencel is viewed by most designers as one of the most environmentally friendly semi-synthetic textiles. Tencel is a brand name for lyocell, a cellulose fiber made with wood chips that are washed (sometimes with bleach) and then mixed with a solvent made from petrochemicals. The company that holds the patent for Tencel uses a closed loop production process meaning that the solvent is reused and not discarded. The resulting fibers are woven into cloth. Lyocell requires less dye than cotton.
Most sources I consulted were happy about the sustainability of Tencel, with two caveats. The first caveat is that a great deal of tree material is wasted in the production of this fabric. If trees for Tencel production are not grown sustainably, production of this material could have a negative environmental impact. And second, most Tencel is now produced in China, and it is not always possible to ascertain that producers follow the sustainable closed-loop extraction model.
It can be difficult for consumers to know the full story behind a particular item made of supposedly “sustainable” fabric. But it’s worth making the effort.
To find other clothing companies with a focus on environmental sustainability and fair labor practices check out the Toxic Textiles Scorecard developed by Green America. They evaluated 14 major American apparel companies. The top-ranked companies on their scorecard are Target, North Face, Nike, Gap, and Anne Taylor.
Read this article in the Atlantic about the edgy work being done by Modern Meadow, a company that biofabricates leather from a strain of yeast to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives traditional leather its strength and stretch.
Find out how to reuse and repurpose textiles. For instance, join the folks who wrap gifts in textiles called furoshiki, following the practice common among the Japanese.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Golden Gate Bridge during the daytime…this is not normal!
I have tried to counter my pessimistic ruminations by taking baby steps toward the goal of environmental sustainability. Here are a few things that have given me a sense of happiness and purpose in the last week or so.
Positive step one
On September 9th I attended a webinar on e-vehicles sponsored by Drive Clean Bay Area. The presenters, including EFM Graduate Annika Osborn, provided a helpful overview of the new models. They touched on the environmental benefits of e-vehicles and addressed some potential concerns, including “range anxiety.” I appreciated hearing about all the rebates and discounts available for those who purchase e-vehicles.
Communities of color cause less air pollutionbut suffer from it more
The webinar also took on the issue of socioeconomic and racial inequities in air pollution and indicated the responsibility of privileged community members to address them.
Go their website (drivecleanbayarea.org) and download their informative guide to buying and driving an e-vehicle or sign up for a webinar. The lease on my current gas guzzler ends in a month, and I am committed to replacing it with an e-vehicle.
Positive step two
I got a subscription for Bite toothpaste bits. The bits come in a refillable glass jar packed in cardboard. No plastic tube that will never biodegrade, and no chemicals in the toothpaste. Each bit is approximately the size of a fat aspirin and they foam up quite nicely once you start brushing.
Did you know that the ancient Egyptians invented toothpaste? Read more at https://www.realmofhistory.com/2018/04/09/oldest-recipe-toothpaste-ancient-egypt/
Have you ever tried to do the wash in high heels?
Positive step three
More on the domestic household products front…I started using a new laundry detergent called “ECOSNext.” It is basically a cardboard box full of rectangular sheets that melt in water. One sheet per laundry load. No harmful chemicals in the product and no plastic container. Woohoo! I learned about the company in a webinar sponsored by the Center for Environmental Health, a great local organization dedicated to addressing the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products. One of the webinar presenters was Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, president and CEO of Ecos. As a company, Ecos has achieved carbon neutrality, water neutrality and TRUE Platinum Zero Waste certification.
Positive step four
With less than two months until the election, I made several financial contributions to organizations helping elect leaders who will address climate change and social injustice.
The organization “Vote Save America” has a very informative website with everything you need to know about registering to vote and supporting get-out the vote efforts: (https://votesaveamerica.com/be-a-voter/).
Voter suppression, lack of community resources, inflexible work schedules — all of these rob voters of their voice. Black, brown, indigenous, and other marginalized communities continue to be the victims of targeted voter disenfranchisement efforts.
The two most important things we can all do: 1) be sure to vote in November (or earlier, preferably!); 2) do everything possible to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to do the same.
Moving forward with happiness and purpose
An article I read recently on “The World Counts” website made the point that we are destroying the planet in the process of trying to achieve meaning and purpose through consumption. They provide a thoughtful exploration of other ways we can live truly meaningful and purposeful lives. Here’s the link if you want to read more: https://www.theworldcounts.com/happiness.
I also liked this thought from an article in the Greater Good Magazine, a publication of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:
Having more agency means taking responsibility for your life. The next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that doesn’t feel quite right, don’t ignore it and reflexively press on. Exercise the discipline to stop, pay attention, and work on finding a better path for yourself. By practicing more agency, you’ll have more influence over your life and greater impact on the lives of others.
To check out other interesting articles from the GGSC: greatergood.berkeley.edu.
As I write, fires continue to encircle the Bay Area, consuming thousands of acres of open space and threatening homes and businesses. Last weekend, the forecast for more lightning motivated me to pack an emergency evacuation bag for the first time in my life. Underlying my procrastination has been resistance to being instructed to pack “essential” items. I look around my house and wonder which if any of my possessions is important, much less essential?
With all this existential angst rattling around my brain, I decided to ask my friends and former students about the items considered essential by their family members, either now or in past generations. I was especially curious to learn about cultural patterns…how have people in different countries created artifacts to address practical problems and to nurture their spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic cravings?
I paid particular attention to objects that sustain rather than damage the environment. As readers of the Notebook know, I am not a fan of the widespread use of plastic in contemporary society. The cost of the plastics revolution to our environment is very high. And we produce over 300 million pounds of it every year! So I wanted to think about essential items from our cultural communities that may offer alternatives to consuming plastic.
I heard from people who traced their cultural heritage to Egypt, Latvia, China, Japan, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Catalonia, Denmark, and India. Thanks very much to all of you for sharing your ideas with me. I learned so much! Let’s pick a few examples and see what lessons they hold for contemporary inhabitants of Marin County.
Back to Basics
Miwok tribal member with basket
For thousands of years humans have made objects from natural materials. They have used soil and sand, plants and metal to create containers, fabric, and tools as well as art. Until recently, these objects were long lasting and environmentally sustainable.
Here in the Marin and Sonoma area, the Coastal Miwok people lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. What were the items they considered essential and what were they made of? For the Miwok and other native tribal people in California, tule was a highly significant material for creating important objects. Once abundant along the margins of the bay, in the delta, and in the seasonal wetlands of the Central Valley, tule was used to make houses, clothing, mats, baskets, and tools. The Coastal Miwok also used tule to make rafts called tule balsas, or sákas.
Learning about the daily life of the Coastal Miwok people provides a valuable opportunity for reflection about the meaning and purpose of objects in our own lives and may prompt us to renew our dedication to reducing our own consumption.
Appreciating the Value of Mud
Until I conducted the research for this post, I never thought of storing and schlepping one’s stuff around as fundamental aspects of the human condition. But many of the objects we humans produce are designed to do just that. One such item is the olla, a clay vessel for storing water or food. The term “olla” was first used in ancient Rome, spread to various regions in Europe as well as the Middle East, and eventually made it to the Americas.
In Spain, ollas have been used since the Middle Ages to make stews such as olla podrida. In Catalonia a type of olla called a tupí was traditionally used as a container to make fermented cheese. The olla also has a long history in Egypt, where they were used mostly for water storage.
Present Day Use of Ollas
Clearly, ceramics are still very much in use for storing and serving food. Ollas themselves are not well suited to contemporary life as they are heavy, breakable, and hard to clean. However, I was surprised to learn that they are in use here in the US to irrigate plants. The olla is buried amidst the plants with the neck extending above the soil, and filled with water, which seeps out slowly through the clay walls.
And let’s not forget one of the most important features of mud – it is extremely fun to play in if you are a child. We can buy a plastic water table for children or we can give them access to some dirt or sand and a hose.
More Containers: Bamboo and Straw
For centuries, bamboo and straw baskets have been used in many countries for a wide range of purposes, including storage baskets, winnowing fans, eel and fish traps, bird cages, pack baskets, child carriers, and grain scoops, as well as many other other fishing, farming and household containers and tools. These products are not only useful but are often very beautiful as well.
Bamboo is unquestionably an important and effective alternative to plastic in terms of common household products. A glance at the internet reveals a vast array of useful bamboo products out there, from chopsticks to drinks trays and food steamers. You can even get sunglasses, watches, and “Q-tips” made from bamboo. Here’s one source of information about bamboo products: https://www.ambientbp.com/blog/must-have-bamboo-items-sustainable-home. But don’t forget about reducing your overall consumption even if your purchases are “green.” I don’t need to get bamboo Q-tips just because they exist.
The Metal Lunchbox: More than a Place to Store Food
Metal isn’t the first thing to come to mind when I think about environmental sustainability, but I can see how it has a place. Its durability is a huge asset as long as the owner is willing to hang on to the item for the decades that it will continue to exist. One common household object constructed from metal is the lunch box. Perhaps the most iconic example is the tiffin box from India. Tiffin boxes feature multiple individual food compartments that are stacked on top of each other and secured with an outer clip.
In India, the popularity of tiffin boxes can be traced to the growing number of urban residents commuting from home to office at the end of the 19th century. Many did not have time to return home for lunch, nor were they interested in paying for restaurant meals. Their lunchtime problem was resolved in 1890, when a company began picking up tiffin boxes at workers’ homes and delivering them to the workplace. Tiffin delivery services remain very popular today. In Mumbai, for example, over 200,000 tiffins with home-cooked lunches are delivered every day. The tiffin box is an example of a tradition that remained relevant when it was adapted to contemporary needs.
As Milan was growing into an industrial center during the 1950s, factory workers also began bringing their lunches to work in metal containers. The lunch box, or schiscetta, was not used by white-collar employees at that time, and was somewhat stigmatized by its association with the humble worker. However, bringing one’s lunch to work has recently been reconceptualized as cool and trendy among young Italian professionals, and signals a person who is lively, health-oriented, and international-minded. Commenting on the recent appropriation of the traditional schiscetta by young urban professionals, one Italian writer mused, “macrobiotic food in place of fresh pasta in a schiscetta….It is as surreal as seeing a farmer out jogging.” Again, as we saw with the Indian tiffin box, sustainable practices can survive if they are adapted to features of the contemporary context.
Can Metal Replace Some Plastic Toys?
Many toys sold these days are marketed as educational or developmentally stimulating for children. As a developmental psychologist, I don’t think the activities afforded by elaborate plastic activity centers, for example, are more supportive of children’s learning than activities based on simple natural materials. For example, most toddlers like to bang with spoons on metal pots and pans because it gives them a chance to explore the basic principle of cause-and-effect. What is more exciting than realizing you can create a loud noise by smacking a mixing bowl with a spoon? Considering the health and environmental drawbacks of plastic toys, it is worth considering these old-fashioned alternatives.
What Else Can We Do?
This worldwide tour of common household objects reminds us that our “essential” items used to be made from renewable materials like straw and bamboo, or they were made from brass and aluminum and would last for decades. And it reminds us that some of our contemporary needs can be met by considering environmentally sustainable solutions developed in the past, especially if we find new ways to interpret and use them.
If you want to reconsider and reduce your consumption, here are a few ideas (other than the obvious one, which is to buy less stuff):
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