Stimulating the Local Economy with My Stomach

At every downturn in the economic cycle, consumers look to save money by cutting back on expenses. I include myself in this group of penny pinchers but I believe I have formed a habit that will outlast any recession. This summer I began to do my weekly shopping at the local farmers market three blocks from my house. What began as a cheap and fast way to get my groceries turned into an exercise in economics.

With the government spending billions of dollars in an effort to end a recession, I decided to do my part. By spending my weekly grocery money at the local farmer’s market I keep my money in the hands of my fellow community members. Farmers who sell their crops to industrial food suppliers earn pennies on the dollar from the products sold containing their crops. In contrast, farmers who sell their crops at farmers markets keep 90 cents of every dollar. The financial hardships that small, organic, and sustainable farmers perpetually endure are often masked in the media by stories of massive government subsidies and the rising cost of crops. Despite the seemingly prosperous status of the farming industry, the media coverage mostly reflects the large industrial farming system that mass-produces meat and other “food” products. These industrial farming operations have taken over our food system and are running small family farms out of business. By spending my grocery money at the farmer’s market, I encourage a healthier, more sustainable food system that also supports my local community.

In addition to keeping my money in my community, buying my food from my local farmers market reduces my carbon footprint. The average American meal travels over 1,500 miles before it reaches the dinner table. And 40% of the fruit in our grocery stores in shipped in from overseas. That is an incredible amount of resources to bring something to my table that can be grown just as well down the street. By simply buying my food from my local farmers market I support a sense of collegiality and partnership with my neighbors that contributes to a healthier, more prosperous community while rejecting the industrial food supply and its reliance on an unsustainable system of growth and transportation.

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Published in: on October 30, 2009 at 12:36 pm Comments Off on Stimulating the Local Economy with My Stomach

“Kill Me, or Else You are a Murderer.” – Kafka’s Last Words

Although it has been a crime punishable by up to fourteen years in prison to assist in the suicide of another in England since the passing of the 1961 Suicide Act, it is no secret that violators of the law often go unpunished – even when their role in the suicide is public knowledge.  But, until recently, there has been no official word on what distinguishes those cases that are prosecuted from those cases that are not, leaving those who do provide such assistance uncertain of what consequences, if any, will follow.

Clarification was finally delivered thanks to a hard-fought and drawn out legal battle waged by a middle aged woman with multiple sclerosis named Debbie Purdy.  Debbie wants to have the option of choosing a quick and painless suicide before her disease has a chance to finish the work it has started.  Like many in England who face the same choice, she intends to travel to Switzerland when she is ready, the only country where it is legal to assist both citizens and foreigners with suicide.  Her concern, however, is that if she waits until she cannot travel on her own, and her husband helps her get there, that upon returning he might face criminal charges.  So she petitioned the courts for an answer.

Finally, after several losses in lower courts, Debbie succeeded in getting the Law Lords to order England’s top Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to clarify when his office will and when it will not enforce the Suicide Act.  In response, Starmer released a statement listing those things that are taken into consideration when determining whether to prosecute a case, such as whether the deceased was terminally ill and had clearly expressed a wish to die, and whether the person assisting was acting out of compassion.

The release of these criteria by Starmer was largely publicized as a relaxation of the law; what is interesting, however, is that the law itself hasn’t changed.  In fact, numerous attempts to change the law by members of parliament have failed, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown has promised to block any future attempts to amend the law.  All that has happened is that the office charged with enforcing the law has essentially refused to do so in cases where people are acting out of compassion.

This situation is, in some respects, symptomatic of the tension between the right to die movement and societies that are not prepared to discard their inherited moral disapprobation of the very idea of suicide – a moral qualm that isn’t quite as universal and immemorial as many might assume.

The very word “suicide” tends to evoke strong emotional reactions- and for good reason: Too often suicide is sought as an answer to the kind of despair that could equally well be solved with the passage of time coupled with the love and support of family, friends, and, perhaps, mental health professionals.  (more…)

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm Comments Off on “Kill Me, or Else You are a Murderer.” – Kafka’s Last Words

Gym Membership: Good for You, Bad for the Environment?

While many Americans’ resolutions have come and gone, there will always be some who stick with the resolution to be healthier. With healthcare costs and unemployment up, many citizens are taking their health into their own hands, looking to benefit their wallets and their waists. While most are well intentioned, what some exercisers don’t realize is that by going to the gym and jumping on a piece of exercise equipment they may be helping their bodies but harming the environment.

Many exercisers find that running on a treadmill is easier, and therefore more preferable, than running outdoors. With predictable indoor weather, no wind resistance or the need for SPF, treadmills can be an easy first step for those who are just beginning their quest for health and aren’t looking for too much planning. Those who face seasonal allergies or live in cold temperatures seem to have no option but to remain indoors for their workouts. There is also a sense of encouragement from joining a gym. By getting on the treadmill at their local club, they are now a part of a group who strive to be healthy. While the treadmills these gym-goers choose appear to be rather simple machines that wouldn’t require high amounts of power, one treadmill can burn the equivalent of fifteen 75-Watt light bulbs while in use. Most people would never want to have five lights on in their house, let alone fifteen, yet most people have no problem using a treadmill.

While most treadmills are not constantly running, treadmills and other equipment still use energy while in standby mode. Some local gyms are also crowded enough that their machines are in almost constant use, burning large amounts of energy. The temperature raises in the gym, causing the use of fans and air conditioning in addition to the level that it is constantly running at. The lights at most gyms are consistently on and using electricity, even if no one is working out. The soda vending machine alone at your local gym can use about 10 times the amount of a home refrigerator. When you begin to add all of the costs together, our gyms are slowly leaving a large carbon footprint on the Earth.

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Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 10:34 am Comments Off on Gym Membership: Good for You, Bad for the Environment?

Breaking Ground on the New Green Deal

Guest post by Prof. Erin Ryan, Associate Professor of Law at William & Mary

Reluctant members of Congress, listen up. You’ve tried bailing out the past. It’s time to bail in the future.

Now that we’ve pumped trillions into failing industries that drove economic growth on little more than a ponzi scheme, it’s time to invest in an economic engine that will propel us toward real progress–creating 

real jobs and alleviating real problems. Recognizing the stakes for our economy, security, and leadership in the world, President Obama campaigned (and won) on a promise to invest $150 billion in a clean-energy economy. Now that his stimulus proposal follows through with billions for electricity industry remodeling and private investment in renewables, it’s time to fall in. The stimulus package you are holding hostage is the down-payment on a new deal with the American public that finally takes on the Gordian knot of climate, energy, and environment. Don’t blow this for us.

Like the old New Deal, this new Green Deal will rescue the free-falling economy by investing in infrastructure that creates jobs and repositions American industry toward new kinds of growth. In the 1930s, FDR built a national network of roads, bridges, and parks, connecting producers and consumers, enhancing national security, and protecting natural resources. Today’s mission is exactly the same, but this time the infrastructure that can accomplish it will enable alternative energy generation, storage, and transmission. Sure, you could pass tax cuts instead, but if they don’t work, we’re left with a fistful of nothing. Investing in infrastructure gets people hired to build it, and the worst case scenario at the end of the day is a tangible bedrock for future economic growth.

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Published in: on February 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm Comments Off on Breaking Ground on the New Green Deal

Blocking of Coal Plant License Could Lead to Saving Our Coral Reefs

A recent decision by The Environmental Appeals Board blocked the EPA from issuing a license for a new coal plant addition in Vernal, Utah, near Salt Lake City. This one decision may seem insignificant on the surface, but it could be the first in a chain of events that could lead to more solar and wind power, as well as salvation for marine life, particularly coral reefs.

The Appeals Board reversed the EPA’s earlier decision to grant a permit to Bonanza Coal Power Plant after a Petition for Review was filed by lawyers of the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates, and Environmental Defense. The original permit did not contain any requirements regarding carbon dioxide emissions, despite the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA (PDF) that granted power to the EPA to make decisions and regulations regarding carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. In its decision on Thursday, the board sent the permit back to the local EPA office for review. The office must consider whether the Bonanza plant must follow the strictest guidelines for carbon dioxide emissions, and explain its decision thoroughly. The decision also warned the EPA that it needs to consider a nationwide standard for CO2 emissions.

The Bonanza plant is not the only plant that will be affected by this decision. “[T]his is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding,” the board wrote. The decision effectively placed over 100 coal plants in question, including two others in Utah: the 270-megawatt Sevier Power coal-fired plant proposed for Sigurd (who’s state license is currently being reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court) and the 900-megawatt Unit 3 of the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta (sent for review to the Utah Air Quality Board).

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Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 10:42 am Comments Off on Blocking of Coal Plant License Could Lead to Saving Our Coral Reefs

The Latest Victim of Economic Downturn: Climate Change Policy

In the last several weeks, the American media has been inundated with worries about recent economic problems.  President Bush and both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, have focused on the effects of the economy on the housing market, spending, taxes, and other domestic issues.  However, the worldwide economic downturn has a much wider impact:  regional and global agreements on climate change may suffer.

Throughout 2007, the European Union took numerous steps toward a regional agreement that would both fulfill and extend beyond the promises made in the Kyoto Protocol.  In December 2007, for instance, the European Commission proposed binding limits on automobile emissions that would impose fines on automobile manufacturers who failed to reduce tailpipe emissions.  The European Union considered this reduction to be one step toward becoming the world leader in cutting carbon emissions.

Following the strong statement in support of taking direct action against carbon emissions, in July 2008, the Group of 8 pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by fifty percent by 2050The G8 further agreed that developing nations, such as China and India, would be included in any future climate change treaty.  At the time of the July 2008 meeting, Jose Manuel, the president of the European Commission, stated that these agreements represented the growing understanding of the importance of protecting the environment, and claimed that there was a strong economic case for dealing with climate change.

Unfortunately, while acting against greenhouse emissions was seen as economically responsible less than six months ago, some European countries now believe that protecting the environment will create an unreasonable economic burden.  The European Union hoped to finalize an agreement to reduce emissions by twenty percent from 1990 levels by 2020, which far exceeds the promises required under the Kyoto Protocol.  During this week’s Summit meeting of the European Union’s heads of state, several Eastern European countries and Italy worried that they might not be able to afford to cut greenhouse gas emissions as much as planned.  On Thursday, the countries with the greatest worries about the plan won a huge battle: the right for any one of the 27 members of European Union to veto the plan.  Additionally, the group refused to set December as the goal for completing negotiations.

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Published in: on October 17, 2008 at 5:04 pm Comments Off on The Latest Victim of Economic Downturn: Climate Change Policy

AC/DC

Nikola Tesla

Improving energy efficiency in America is not just a matter of individual habit changes or policy shifts toward renewable sources. Our power grid is not currently equipped to handle the kind of energy innovations that could make us better, faster, stronger.

We’re still operating with a power grid conceived 100 years ago and based on power sharing in small regions. A member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently likened our power grid to interstate roads. What we have is a two laner with occasional stop lights. What we need is an LA-esque eight lane superhighway (without the congestion). Such a superhighway could efficiently deliver solar, wind, geothermal, and other types of renewable energy across the lower 48.

AC/DC

Energy policy makers may also have to revisit the War of Currents, an epic battle between AC and DC in which Nikola Tesla (Wizard of the West ) and Thomas Edison (Wizard of Menlo Park) determined the electrical fate of the country. We currently use AC power lines, which allow energy to dissipate over long distances. If we beefed up our transmission and added DC lines, the power grid could more easily send wind energy from the southwest all the way to the east coast. These efforts may take decades, but they will be worth it. It’s a long way to the top, so let’s rock and roll. (more…)

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 5:55 pm Comments Off on AC/DC

Wall-E and Green Energy

You will never hear this writer smack-talking Wall-E.

For those of you who don’t know, Wall-E is about a robot on planet Earth who is tasked with cleaning up all the garbage that has piled up over the ages. In the film, human beings became so enamored of a company called BNL, a sort of perverse parody of Wal-Mart, that they let the company take over their lives. They purchased everything BNL had to sell, even when they didn’t need any of it, until there was no more room on the planet for people because of all the garbage they had created. So, all the humans climbed on to a giant spaceship and left Earth on a BNL cruise. This cruise was supposed to last for five years, while a bunch of robots like Wall-E cleaned everything up and made the planet hospitable to human existence once again.

Fast forward 700 years. Wall-E is the only robot left, the garbage is still everywhere, and the humans have yet to return. As it turns out, the humans have gotten so used to their life of leisure up in space, where they zip about the ship in flying recliners while sipping their meals out of cups, that they have become obese, unable to walk, and hyper-focused on the screens positioned in front of them at all times. BNL has become more than a store, of course – it has become a government and a way of life.

This plot line is not the main reason why I love this movie, by the way. The main story is that Wall-E, ever so lonely after 700 years alone, falls for a pretty  young droid named Eve who has been tasked with finding evidence that plants can grow on Earth. He follows her up to space intent on getting her to hold hands with him, all the while playing clips from Hello Dolly because, well, that’s his favorite musical. I know, it sounds like a Flaming Lips song.

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Published in: on August 12, 2008 at 9:50 pm Comments Off on Wall-E and Green Energy

The Silver Lining That Glows in the Dark

As lawmakers search for ways to reduce our national carbon dioxide output, some far out suggestions for cooling the planet have popped up. Have you heard about the sun shade proposal? We would launch a huge sheet of trillions of reflectors into space, giving the Earth some quality shade time. How about the one where we build a volcano that shoots sulfur into the air? Or the one where we build a forest of artificial trees that suck more CO2 out of the air than natural trees? Compared to these, building more nuclear power plants sounds downright sane.

It is true that nuclear power is cleaner in some respects than, say, coal power. But even though nuclear power production is better for our air, its byproducts have the potential to cause us serious problems in the future. Right now, the hot button issue in the nuclear industry is low-level radioactive waste. This is the stuff that power plants and some medical facilities use in their day to day operations, like tools, clothing, and test tubes. These random pieces of radioactive detritus can take up to 500 years to lose their radioactivity.

Right now, low level radioactive waste can either be stored where it’s produced, or shipped to a licensed disposal facility. Here’s the catch– America only has three of these facilities, and one of them just closed. Until this month, Washington, Utah, and South Carolina were home to the only three low level radioactive waste disposal sites in the country. On July 1, after almost 40 years of national junkyard-dom, the disposal site in Barnwell, South Carolina stopped accepting several classes of waste from all states except New Jersey and Connecticut.

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Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 9:38 pm Comments Off on The Silver Lining That Glows in the Dark

Old McDonald Had a Farm

The New York Times has featured a few excellent articles in recent weeks that, together, highlight not only the deleterious environmental and economic impacts of the way we eat, but the manner in which our eating habits are inextricably bound up with our health, both bodily and spiritual.

In-N-Out Burger

The first, “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler” by Mark Bittman, is a concise restatement of the first half of Michael Pollan’s recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it also draws some from Pollan’s latest work, In Defense of Food. Bittman’s essential theme: The American (and, increasingly, the global) appetite for meat is so closely connected to the decline in our health and ecological robustness that we can no longer afford to keep eating at this pace and in this way. Industrial agriculture, which increasingly provides the majority of meat and produce that we eat, means dependence on foreign oil (both for transportation of goods and for the mass production of fertilizer used to grow unsustainable crops of corn and soy.

The increased use of fertilizer to continue growing these massive erosion-causing crops in turn pollutes ground water and ends up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. “Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.” And that’s not even counting the pollution caused by fecal “lagoons” that exist at the prison-like animal compounds, where animals are kept in such great numbers and in such close proximity that their immune systems are compromised, requiring regular applications of antibiotics, which is as bad for us as it is for them. These temporary housing units are used to quickly fatten huge numbers of animals on corn before they are sent to the abattoir. This doesn’t even mention corn’s contributions to the diabetes and obesity epidemics via its ubiquitous use as a sweetener.

So what are we to do?

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Published in: on January 29, 2008 at 12:20 pm Comments Off on Old McDonald Had a Farm