Clean Up the Air in Your House

Interesting. You need 6-8 healthy, waist high plants in your house per person to keep the air clean and healthy? I suppose those plants should all be currently alive. I’m going to have to get to work.

Also, you need to take your plants outside for a while every few months. I’m not sure what that does. Is this to purify the plants so they can keep purifying the indoor air?

Anyway, I found this video via Life Hacker. They have links recommending other types of plants for the same purpose.

Anybody priced a ficus tree lately. It sounds like I need a ficus forest in my house.

The Haphazard Environmentalist

I went to the Farmer’s Market this morning as part of my quest to purchase more local foods. It’s hard to remember to shop there, because it isn’t open every day. I’ve been determined make the Farmer’s Market a regular Saturday habit, though, since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was appalled to realize just how much fuel goes into transporting food in this country.

Buying from local farmers just makes sense, and the food is better too.

I bought squash and green tomatoes. I even remembered to carry my own cloth bag with me so that I wouldn’t have to use a plastic bag. I felt terribly virtuous for doing so. I would have felt even more virtuous if I’d remembered I had the bag with me and what it was for. I stood there holding my cloth bag in my hand while the nice lady double-bagged my fresh veggies in plastic.

When I realized what I’d done, I’m sure the proper response would have been to transfer the food and give the plastic bags back, but I just stuck my plastic bags inside my cloth bag and went on with my day.

I also bought asparagus plants today. Not asparagus, but asparagus plants. Ambitious of me considering they aren’t scheduled to even produce anything for another two years. If I remember what they are in two years, this will be something of a miracle.

But then the book that inspired me to garden did promise miracles in its very title. Sometimes they happen.

What are You Willing to Do?

I am one person air conditioning 1400 square feet of space for just one person, a couple of cats, and a couple of plants. I drive about 50 miles a day just going to work and back. I go to the store where I buy individually packaged dinners in individual plastic wraps. The dinners are made of ingredients that have been shipped for hundreds of miles in one direction and hundreds of miles again in another.

If there is even a place in my town to take cardboard, plastic, or glass for recycling, I don’t know about it. I save aluminum cans and put everything else in the trash.

I drive to the store sometimes just because I am bored. I drive to a town ten miles from where I work to eat lunch.

I drive 100 miles to Jackson when I am bored with the stores in Hattiesburg. I drive slightly more than 100 miles to Raymond for a meeting that could have taken place over the phone.

I listen to a book on an iPod along the way. This is efficient and seems to incur no real waste because I know absolutely nothing about the cost of running the servers that hold the books, the cost of keeping them cool enough to run.

I am describing my life, a typical life perhaps for where I live. Maybe the energy and resources I consume are actually less than typical. I drive a small car. I don’t buy that many products, all things considered. I reuse where I can. I often hang my clothes up to dry in the bathroom to avoid running the dryer.

Yet if we compare the energy and resources I consume to those a typical person consumed 75 years ago, my wastefulness is phenomenal. We call it poverty now when we look back at the way our grandparents lived. We would call it disaster if something happened to force us into a similar lifestyle.

We sit in our air conditioned houses, watching our satellite TVs, and we cast judgment on the environmental disaster happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico. BP ought to pay, we say. The government ought to do more, we say.

Some of us are even going so far as to say we should quit drilling for oil in the ocean, quit taking such chances with the one earth we were given.

But what are we willing to do? Who is going to voluntarily give up dependence on oil? The plastic casing on the computer I use to type this article is a petroleum product. If I print the article out, the ink will be made of petroleum products.

My shampoo contains petroleum. The carpet under my feet contains petroleum.

This need for oil permeates every last inch of the lives we live. Who is going to take a real and meaningful stand? Who is going to say enough?

It is one thing to say the drilling should stop. It is another to give up your car. It is one thing to say the government should find a solution to our oil dependence. It is another to quit purchasing products made with petroleum.

In truth, anything an individual does to give up oil is a gesture only. You won’t change the oil culture all on your own. But it is our collective demands for more and more personal conveniences that have caused the energy problems we face today. It is our messages to politicians that they cannot be elected or reelected if gas prices go too high, if plastic is not abundantly available. It is our collective indifference to more fuel efficient vehicles, more conservationist measures in our daily routines, and more demand for alternative energies.

My friend Patti said on her blog yesterday that the big oil companies have only been answering our own demands.

So what are we going to demand now? And what are we going to do to make those demands real? It doesn’t mean a thing to say we want to quit drilling for oil in the Gulf if we aren’t willing to dramatically reduce the use of oil in our own lives.

How many of the people making the loudest demands are opting now to bike to work, to make their own soap, to stay home in the evenings rather than drive unnecessarily no matter how bored they become?

Not many, I’d say, and that’s why their complaints won’t accomplish anything.

What are you willing to do? What are you really willing to do?

Compost

You know I’m getting a little carried away with the whole gardening thing when I start pricing compost bins. They’re outrageous, by the way. Some cost as much as $200.

Maybe that sounds normal to you, but if so, we’re not from the same place. This is how composting happens where I come from. Food scraps are tossed onto some dirt on the ground. Probably in or around the garden. The end.

Honestly, you don’t have to purchase worms, and you don’t have purchase envelopes of “compost starter,” whatever the heck that is. It’s a natural process. Food decomposes all on its own, and worms and bugs help where they can without being asked.

If you have food in your house that doesn’t break down on its own without sprinkling manufactured bacteria on it, don’t eat it. It can’t possibly be healthy.

That said, I don’t think people who live in town are supposed to throw food on the ground like country people. I’m not sure it’s a law, but Lowe’s would not stock compost bins if it weren’t generally accepted protocol.

Compost is a good thing, you know. Plants always need better dirt. Even if your dirt is okay this year, it will be depleted soon enough if you are growing things in it. And so it is that Lowe’s also stocks bags of manufactured compost. People throw their food scraps in the trash because they are too polite to throw them on the ground, and then they purchase new dirt for their yards. This is the glory of the modern world.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food scraps and lawn clippings “constitute 26 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream.” I don’t know how many of those people who send their food scraps to the landfill in plastic bags end up purchasing dirt in the spring when they start landscaping, but it is no doubt a considerable number.

All that is to say I’m looking for a cheap way to compost my food scraps without looking like too much of a redneck. Ideas, anyone?

The Nissan Leaf

If I had an extra 30k sitting around, I’d be tempted to order a Nissan Leaf. I’d be tempted to do other things with it as well, but the Leaf would at least make the list of things I’d consider. It’s a truly cool thing.

In the real world, I won’t be buying one any time soon. Though I’m charmed by what the Leaf represents, it wouldn’t work for me. It’s an all electric plug-in with a range of 100 miles or so before it needs recharging. I can just imagine myself calling in to work to say I can’t make it because I forgot to charge my car. Or remembering after I’d decided to run errands after work that I don’t have enough charge left to get home. Or trying to drive to my parents’ house with the knowledge that getting behind one tractor on a country road could mean I’d run out of charge before I arrived.

I live thirty miles from my office. I would have to limit myself to going straight to work and straight home in order to drive a car with only a 100 mile range.

But then the Leaf wasn’t designed for me. It isn’t a commuter car. It’s a city car. If I actually worked in Hattiesburg where I live and planned to use the car only for driving around in town, it would make all kinds of good sense. It would make even more sense in a larger city with greater pollution problems and a greater sense of urgency on cleaning up the air quality. Though the Leaf doesn’t use gasoline, they have given it a mph equivalent rating 350. That’s pretty dang efficient. And no fumes either.

The concept of the plug-in car isn’t new, but what is exciting about the Leaf is that it is the first of its kind expected to be mass marketed to general consumers. You can buy one for the price of a regular car. By the time you factor in your clean energy tax break, you have a real deal. That’s a long way from the Tesla that only the rich can afford at price tags sometimes exceeding 100k.

I live in Mississippi. I don’t expect to see a lot of these on the road immediately after their release later this year. I once joked to a friend that Hattiesburg people would drive to Jackson for a taco without thinking twice, and she said, “I did that last week.” We have sprawling towns rather than compact cities here, and we like our space and don’t mind having to drive a ways if it means we get to keep our space. I myself live 30 miles from where I work for no particular good reason.

Mississippians also aren’t going to be the first to jump on any eco-bandwagons. The Toyota Prius was slow to take off here, but there are more and more on the roads now.

Mississippi aside, I’ll be interested to see how the car does in the general market. Nissan evidently believes the time of the electric plug-in has arrived. And the release of an affordable all-electric in the midst of dealing with the Gulf oil spill probably will mean more people are paying attention to alternative choices.

Still, I don’t think the Leaf is the car of the future. I think it is the car of transitioning to the future. It will be fine for city driving but not for commuters. It won’t replace the kind of cars that can go 350 miles before refueling. Not yet.

But this car is a sign that we’re moving toward electric vehicles as a far more viable choice than they ever have been before. If that helps us move closer to transforming our society away from an oil economy, I’ll all for it. Yay, Nissan.

Victory Gardens

Did you know there was a campaign during World War II to plant gardens for the sake of reducing the costs of transporting food and thereby for the sake of contributing to the war effort?

Victory Garden

I knew many people had gardens, and I knew that even schools often had gardens in efforts to be more self-sustaining (and to teach agriculture). I didn’t know there was a specific campaign for Victory Gardens.

Most likely I never heard this term because my grandparents didn’t call their gardens Victory Gardens. They were growing them anyway before the war and continued after the war. But they were country people. The Victory Gardens evidently really took off in urban settings.

Now, of course, if the Department of Defense asked Americans to plant gardens to reduce fuel costs and reduce the amount of money we’re spending on foreign oil that is just going straight into the hands of the enemy, ten food industry coalitions would sue, and political accusations would fling in all directions.

Victory Garden 2

The Victory Garden campaign was a success, though, with millions of new gardens planted. Even Eleanor Roosevelt got in on the act, planting a Victory Garden at the White House.

If it was good enough for Eleanor, it’s good enough for me. I think I’ll call my garden Peas for Peace, but first I’ll have to plant some peas.

Turn That Thermostat Up

I’ve been keeping my thermostat on 75. I’m comfortable at 75. It’s where I like it. I tried turning it up to 80 one day when I was feeling particularly fervent about energy savings, and I thought I would expire on the spot. 80 is not comfortable as an indoor temp even if you are wearing shorts.

I just read an article, though, that said you are a real jerk if you keep your thermostat any lower than 80 in the summer. It said ceiling fans use far less electricity than air conditioning; therefore, responsible people turn the thermostats up and the fans on.

I’m going to give it a try. I can see where this might result in real energy savings. No way am I going to turn on the oven when it is 80 degrees in the house, nor am I likely to expend any energy of any sort on the treadmill. And I don’t see myself turning on a light unless it is absolutely necessary.

The savings could truly mushroom from here.

The fact is we could all stand toughening up. We’re spoiled. We’re weak. We think our excesses are necessities.

That’s what I’m telling myself as I push the thermostat up this morning. If it doesn’t come back down by the end of the day, I’ll feel like a real hero. If it doesn’t come back down by the end of the summer, I’ll feel downright righteous.

I make no predictions or promises, though. I’ll just have to let you know if I endure.

So far I’m doing okay on my summer resolutions. I haven’t had a Diet Coke in two or three days. Living in a hot house with no Diet Coke, though, could turn out to be a deal buster.

I’ll let you know.

Vampire Appliances

I’m going to call the vampire living in my house Erik. I suspect he’s an old and strong vampire.

I have lots of gadgets, and I have a real history of not paying attention to how much electricity I’m using. When they started writing us up for wasting energy at work, though, I began to wonder if maybe the small things really do matter.

It seems they do.

I ran across the term vampire electricity while looking up information about low fume paints. Don’t ask me how the two went together. It’s all about taking care of your house, I guess. Suffice it to say I diverted the path of my attention at that point, completely losing interest in painting a bedroom. Now I’m all about looking for things to unplug.

Evidently, a significant chunk of the electricity consumed in a typical house goes to vampire appliances, those sucking electrons out of the grid even when they are turned off. Unplugging or plugging them into power strips that can be turned off can save a noticeable amount on your electric bill.

Do you really need a clock running on five appliances in one room all day every day? Why not unplug the coffeepot when it isn’t making coffee? Why not unplug the microwave when it isn’t making waves?

Maybe the differences seem negligible if we’re talking about perhaps saving $20 a month on your utility bill, though $20 is lunch money for 3 1/2 days at the going rate on my campus. It is worth saving.

The real point, though, is in the power of the many. By the time 300 people save $20, that’s $6000, which is the whole point the school has been trying to make in policing our electronic habits.

We’re using too much electricity as a society. I think we usually assume there’s nothing an individual can do about that without taking drastic measures like electing to bake through the summer rather than use the air conditioner. Not so. Little steps do matter. Thousands of little steps from thousands of people matter a whole awful lot.

Excuse me now. I see a light blinking on an iPod dock. I have to go pull the plug on Erik.

Saving Our Place

Here’s my column that appeared yesterday in the Hattiesburg American. I was nervous about this one. I thought people would leave rude comments on it. I usually write about things that aren’t in the least bit controversial for this column, and people leave rude comments anyway. This time when I thought people would have rude things to say, no one left a comment at all. Maybe this isn’t controversial after all, or maybe no one read it. 🙂

At any rate, it’s very difficult to say what you mean in less than 400 words, especially on a large and complex topic. I cut more sentences than I kept in writing this. I may not be finished with it yet, but here it is…

***

The Onion (www.onion.com) had a story last week with the headline “EPA: Stubborn Environment Refusing To Meet Civilization Halfway.”

The Onion is all about satire, but satire only works when it resembles truth. This sentiment does in fact accurately reflect our societal attitudes toward the environment. We tend to think we have a right to do whatever we want for as long as we want.

Then something happens like an explosion on an oil rig that kills 11 people and pumps vast amounts of oil into the Gulf, endangering habitats and livelihoods across multiple states.

Something happens to make us take stock, to make us question whether we ought to keep doing what we are doing. Despite our carelessness, we humans are very good at momentary guilt.

We’re ready in the aftermath of disaster to make changes. The trouble is that real change takes a long time to accomplish.

We’re at a point now, though, where we can’t afford to be short-sighted. We can’t afford to just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We need rational, deliberate, determined, and long-term commitment to both conservation and alternative fuels.

I won’t claim we need to stop drilling for oil right now. I’m horrified by what has happened in the Gulf, but I’m not prepared to give up my car or my air conditioning.

I’m not prepared to see the many people in our area who make a living in the oil field lose their jobs. I’m not prepared to see our economy suffer because gas prices shoot to new and alarming heights. I’m not prepared to see us shift even more of our oil purchases to foreign sources, thereby further enriching the people who hate us the most.

There isn’t an easy answer, and there isn’t a quick answer. For now, we are undeniably dependent on oil. If, however, we have not radically shifted to other fuel sources in another 10 or 20 years, we are a foolish people indeed.

This isn’t just about saving the dolphins and the turtles; it’s about saving our own place in the world.

This week I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” He makes a compelling case for America taking the lead on clean energy initiatives. In a hot, flat, and crowded world, can we afford not to put our considerable industriousness toward finding new ways to fuel our own habits?

Going Green

Last week I got a note from the energy police that I’d left my computer monitor on in my office. I was praised for turning the computer itself off. I even got a piece of candy. But there was a strong implication that I should not forget the monitor next time.

I hope no one has checked my office this weekend. I’m sort of afraid I forgot again. I don’t want to forget. I really care about lessening my impact on the environment and saving my school some energy costs. The problem is nothing more than a lifetime of bad habits. Those habits are so strong and so prevalent that the school expects to pay the salary of the person going around checking up on us out of the energy savings from everybody just turning stuff off.

Who knew?

When I got my energy waste citation, I decided I needed to start paying more attention at home as well as at school. Turns out small electronics were on and unused all over my house. I’d never noticed. A printer here, a DVD player there, a clock in a seldom used room that had been blinking 12:00 for possibly a matter of years rather than weeks or months.

I don’t know how much turning all that off will matter, but I’m going to do it on principle if nothing else.

I’m also going to research ways I can lessen my impact on the environment.

The day I decided that I received an email ad for a book called No Impact Man. I’m sure I’ll read the book, and I’m sure it will be fascinating. I can tell you now, though, I’m not going that far. I’m not giving up toilet paper.

A few days ago I made a facetious comment about how killing trees had sent me to college and I wouldn’t mind if more were killed to get me stuff that I wanted. I was joking. Mostly. But I will say this. My dad never cut a tree in his life without replanting. He’s probably planted far more than he’s ever cut. I’m absolutely certain he’s planted enough trees in his life to keep me in toilet paper for all of my life. I’ll go paperless on everything else, but I’m not giving up Charmin extra soft.

Alas, I must look for other ways to improve my green status.

That thought led me to considering the air conditioner. It uses more electricity than everything else in the house put together. Just turning it off or turning the thermostat up can make a huge difference. It can indeed, but my resolve to do that lasted for about 20 seconds. Apparently, I’m not that kind of girl either.

That’s why I was glad to hear that Mississippi is getting a solar panel plant. I hope this is an indication that the cost of converting to solar energy is going to inch a little closer to affordable in the next few years. If so, I would gladly switch over to solar in lieu of rationing my use of electrical appliances.

I’m so interested in whether this will become cost effective in the next few years that I’m considering assigning it as a research project for my students so that I can find out. What’s the point of having an army of source gatherers on hand if you don’t put them to good use, after all?

Solar is something I think we should all be taking a closer look at. The cost is prohibitive right now, but I believe it is coming down. Even so, there are far more difficult ways to go about doing your part for the earth. Air conditioners run just fine on solar power. We don’t have to give them up to be good. That’s what I’m telling myself.