Green Travel

By Donnie R. Dann

Free Picture: Ready To TravelID: 5906762 © Geoffrey Poulad | Dreamstime Stock Photos
We’re all on the go, but for the conscientious traveler, traveling can be gentler to Mother Earth and no less a great travel experience.

Wanderlust. I’ve had the “affliction” all my life. But I’ve come to realize that travel can significantly contribute to ourever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the resultant warming of our atmosphere. And I’m not alone in my love of going places. The total U. S. domestic and foreign travel expenses in 2015 were close to one trillion dollars, an increase of over $200 billion since 2010.

So how can we see our loved ones who live elsewhere, conduct business, or enjoy a destination vacation, and simultaneously minimize our impact on the environment?

In many cases practicalities will dictate where and how you travel, but here are some suggestions (wherever possible) for lowering your carbon footprint when leaving home:

  • When you’re in a new location, your best mode of transportation is often your feet. Walking is better than driving for touring and for the environment. If walking is impracticable, consider biking, taking the bus, riding the train, or using a shared ride service or cab, rather than renting a car.
  • For those inevitable flights, some airline websites have a calculator that enable you to estimate the carbon footprint for your journey. With this information, you can purchase “carbon offsets” to negate the CO2 you will generate in flight. In addition, one bit of good news that will lessen the impact of pollution from jet travel is the recent 190-nation accord that will result in far less jet plane emissions by 2021.

We’re all on the go, but for the conscientious traveler, traveling can be gentler to Mother Earth and no less a great travel experience.

This Newsletter may be excerpted, reproduced or circulated without limitation.

 

Birds and Glass: a Fatal Mix

canada warbler bird collision
This canada warbler collided with a retail store window in Highland Park, Illinois. Although collisions like this are common in Highland Park, the city manager has rejected any recommendations that require compliance with bird friendly building codes.

By Donnie R. Dann

In late April, the American Redstart, a small songbird marked with the striking orange and black colors of Halloween candy, leaves his wintering grounds in Venezuela’s rainforest and begins a 4000-mile journey to the Lake County Forest Preserve where he was born the previous summer.  His purpose is to build a nest, attract a mate, and raise a brood of young, as his kind has done for countless generations.  But first he must survive the countless threats he faces during this perilous journey, including storms, predators, a 20-hour 600-mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, communication towers, feral and free-roaming house cats, and more.  He is almost home, and after flying over the corn and soybean deserts of central Illinois, he arrives in the Chicago metropolitan area. But there he becomes confused by a modern building with extensive glass, where he sees reflections of more sky and some shrubbery, and he flies full speed into a window that he doesn’t recognize as a barrier. He is instantly killed.

This is the “thunk” you hear upon awakening early on an otherwise beautiful spring morning. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that every home in the United States kills about two birds a year, and that up to one billion birds a year are killed by collisions with glass.

Does it really matter? There are still plenty of birds out there, right? Wrong. According to the most recent State of the Birds report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, “one-third of all North American bird species are in urgent need of conservation action.” The same report estimates that some species have lost 70% of their continental populations since 1970. And aside from habitat loss, collisions with windows are the second greatest source of human-caused bird mortality.

Birds provide crucial benefits to mankind, including seed dispersal, pollination and insect control, as well as the cheeriness of their morning song.. Further, bird-watching is a $40 billion economic activity. And all of these benefits are in addition to their remarkable beauty which—along with tropical fish—is nature’s showpiece. But the benefit of birds to people should not be the measure of their worth any more than the value of the rainforest is tallied by what’s on the pharmacy shelf. Birds have their own right to exist!

You can take steps to minimize bird collisions with your windows. Here are some products suitable for homes and recognized to be effective:

In addition, communities across North America, including San Francisco, Cook County, Toronto and others, have enacted bird-friendly construction ordinances applicable to new commercial, industrial and multi-families buildings. Encourage your elected officials to pass similar legislation, and make your own homes bird-safe as well.

This Newsletter may be excerpted, reproduced or circulated without limitation.

Small Actions for Conservation

In its essence conservation is about people and we will care more deeply about it when we realize its critical role in our lives. Sir David Attenborough put it well, “We depend on nature for the very air we breathe, for every mouthful of food we consume, for every drop of clean water that we drink.”

The little steps may not seem like they matter much but if all of us act on some of these ideas our collective efforts will conserve and sustain nature’s bounty for everyone’s long term health.

Here are a few small actions, some of which we can all take:

  • Pre-heating the oven is an old wives tale and is simply unnecessary. Bread and pastries aside, it just wastes energy. While cooking, opening the oven door to check on your food results in a significant loss of energy. Just check the oven window.

  • Along the same lines limit the number of times you need to open the refrigerator or freezer door. Give thought to what you need for a meal, and just as you should cluster your errands do no less for removal and return of food items. Most importantly don’t leave these doors open for any extended period.

  • Clothes dryers employ large quantities of energy. Clean the lint filter after each load (improves air circulation). Use the cool-down cycle (allows clothes to finish drying from the residual heat inside). For those especially conscientious, forget about your dryer and use a clothesline or buy drying racks. Clothes usually dry overnight.
  • Although a backyard with native plants is far more environmentally friendly, most of us still maintain turf grass lawns and they require regular sprinkling. In doing so be sure to direct the water only on your grass, and water in the morning as the air is usually still and cooler (less evaporation).

  • To the extent we can let’s keep fossil fuels in the ground. Oil and coal extraction and burning are the major contributors to climate change.

  • A large number of household products are made from these petrochemicals, one of which is paint. Oil based paint contains volatile organic chemicals (VOC’s). One of their advantages1 is that they dry quickly. This is more than overcome by the release of these chemicals that contribute to or can cause a variety of illnesses and generally threatens public health. Furthermore, in their manufacturing they create 10 times their own weight in toxic waste. Use low or non-VOC paint whenever possible.

  • The production of charcoal continues to be a major contributor to rainforest destruction, now at the rate of 200,000 acres per day. Converting to a gas fired bar-b-cue not only saves the rainforest but avoids those VOC emissions from your grill.
  • According to Consumer Reports the pre-rinsing dishwasher cycle is unnecessary and wastes 20 gallons of water with every use.

A little can mean a lot if we all do our part.

Our Critical Pollinators

Bugs—the creepy crawly stuff of our nightmares. We don’t want them where we live, we don’t want them in our food and we certainly don’t want them scampering on our bodies. Yet bugs are essential to our lives and our food sources, as they serve as “pollinators” to nurture our farms, forests, prairies and gardens.

A variety of animals, including birds, bats, monkeys, lizards and others can serve as pollinators, but insects are far and away the most common of all the world’s pollinators. An especially valuable pollinator species—the honey bee—has been in the news of late as honey bee hive populations have declined precipitously.

Economic importance of pollinators

  •  The honey bee accounts for more than 2/3 of the $24 billion contributed to the U. S. economy by all pollinators and enables the production of at least 90% of the commercially grown crops in the United States.
  • Worldwide, 35% of global food production depends on animal pollinators, and collectively these pollinator species are responsible for 87 of the 115 leading food crops.

Why our pollinators are in trouble

  • Habitat loss is a primary cause of concern for pollinators, as the development and extractive industries and intensive row crop agriculture have diminished the biodiverse natural areas that pollinators require to forage and reproduce.
  • Pesticides, including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, not only kill the intended pest but often destroy beneficial ones as well, including important pollinators. Pesticide residues can remain in the environment for multiple generations.
  • Alien species, i.e. non-native animals (e.g. Emerald Ash Borer, European Starling, Norway Rat, to name a few) often have fewer predators and out-compete native species.
  • Climate change directly affects our pollinators, as critters adapted to one climate zone may be less able to adapt when that zone shifts.

What you can do to help pollinators

  • National Pollinator Week takes place from June 20 to June 26. Celebrate by planting a mix of plants in your garden that provide pollen and nectar for all growing seasons.
  • Grow plants and flowers in groups, rather than growing a plant in isolation.
  • Seek planting advice from native plant landscaper specialists or your local botanic garden.
  • Most importantly, convert your turf grass lawn or part of it to flowering plants.
  • For an excellent reference to help guide your choices, please see the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign’s regional guides for your ecoregion.

Good Environmental Citizenship; Suggestions and Reminders

Practicing sustainable living in our personal lives comes down to developing the good habits most of us already know. Here are a few reminders as well as some new ideas about recycling:

Around the Home

  • The call to reduce, reuse, recycle has long been a key motto for sustainable living. Few would see any problem in urging the first 2 actions. Using fewer resources and reusing those we have are valuable steps all of us can take. A new look at recycling recently appeared in the New York Times, from which I found 2 significant take-aways. Reducing and reusing make far more contributions to sustaining earth’s resources than recycling. The greatest benefit comes from recycling paper, cardboard and aluminum cans.

  • Any new appliance should be purchased only if it bears the Energy Star label. Besides the obvious saving on your utility bill, good energy saving ideas are available to consumers on the Energy Star website.

Using water

  • Run water as needed but only when actually using it. Tooth brushing, shaving, dish washing, etc. can all be done with the water off except when it’s needed.

  • If you want to be especially conscientious showering and hand washing can be done the same way. Wet your hands or yourself but shut the water off before thoroughly soaping. Only then turn the water back on and rinse.

  • Avoid lawn watering completely by replacing the monotony of turf grass with native plants. Most are deep-rooted and drought tolerant, and a variety of plantings once established will flower beautifully from spring to fall, even during lengthy rain-free periods. They provide the added benefit of attracting our needed pollinators.

  • Every day over 100 million plastic water bottles are used worldwide, most of which end up in landfills or the ocean where close to 8,000,000 wreak endless environmental havoc. Carrying your own reusable bottle of tap water is at least as safe (other than in many developing countries).

Shopping

  • According to the Economist over a trillion plastic bags are used annually. Bring your own reusable or mesh bag(s) to the store. And when a clerk automatically puts your purchase of a few items into a plastic bag, tell him/her “no bag please”.

  • You can also bring a reusable container to a restaurant for any take home food.

  • If at all possible avoid plastic wrapping. Many fruits and vegetables are available without plastic or bring your own “net” bags to take them home.

  • LED bulbs have greatly declined in price, use minimal electricity and can last decades. Use LED’s when a bulb needs replacing.

Earth’s resources are limited. We can all do more so future generations can share its bounty.

Climate and Weather

It was a cold February in Washington D.C. this year, and a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma threw a snowball in the Senate chamber as part of his argument that global warming is a hoax. This stunt evidences a real problem in the struggle to prevent climate change—confusion over the difference between weather and climate.

Every living thing on earth, including of course its human inhabitants, observes weather on a daily basis. Weather is what we perceive when we step outside—cold or warm, wet or dry, windy or still, and cloudy or sunny. But that is NOT the climate.

If you lived in much of eastern North America last year, or spent time on a ship in the mid-North Atlantic ocean or the Straits of Magellan, your weather this past winter was much colder than normal. When people experience record colds and look no further than what their senses tell them, they might be skeptical about global warming.

But worldwide, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the climate in 2014 was in fact the hottest since record keeping began in 1880.  Moreover, the seemingly inexorable warming trend over the past 135 years is unmistakable.

The most thorough analysis I’ve seen confirming planetary climate warming caused by humans was published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). “Regardless of what had happened in past centuries, the warming since the 19th century was as certain a fact as anything in science” by 2012, according to Dr. Spencer Weart, former director of AIP’s Center for History of Physics. In Dr. Weart’s comprehensive history of the discovery of global warming, he explains: “The coup de grace for people who doubted the climate community’s statistics came from their own ranks. A painstaking re-analysis of land-station data was organized by warming skeptic Richard Muller and funded by oil billionaire Charles G. Koch, a leading sponsor of groups that attacked the climate consensus. The study, using different methods and more data than earlier teams, only confirmed what every other study had found. There was a marked recent rise, Muller’s group announced in 2012, that could only be explained as human-caused.”

Need more evidence that this temperature trend is not part of earth’s long-term regular heating and cooling cycles? Check out this recent article in Scientific American, in particular the top two charts, which show the unmistakable correlation between increasing atmospheric carbon and our climate’s warming temperatures.

Global warming is not a hoax or some vast conspiracy by scientists and journalists. Rational, environmentally conscious people may ask themselves why many of their neighbors (and political leaders) continue to question the reality of increasing planetary temperatures.  Yet skeptics do, and one of the reasons, forcefully demonstrated by the Senator from Oklahoma, is the confusion between climate and weather. And this confusion is dangerous in the face of the scientific consensus on climate change.

Urgent, Conservation Alert – Open Season on Birds

Prior to European settlement and late into the 19th century, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in the United States. There are reliable stories of flocks that would darken the skies for a week, and their population was estimated at 5 billion. It is almost impossible to believe, but through slaughtering via indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss on a massive scale, they were extinct by 1914.

The silver lining in the very dark cloud represented by this tragedy was the 1918 passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (the “MBTA”), the fundamental environmental protection law afforded to our native birds.

Recently, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell proposed strengthening the MBTA. Possibly as a reaction, in late May the House of Representatives passed and sent to the Senate an appropriations bill containing an amendment that would defund enforcement of the MBTA for one year, effectively killing it. This represents a frontal attack on the protection of birds. After the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, it is hard to believe that a law like this would be under attack.

During my many years of conversation activism, I have never witnessed an issue of greater magnitude affecting one of our nation’s most priceless resources than the current Congressional attack on migratory birds. Moreover, this is probably the timeliest possible Alert, as immediate action is urgently needed. For a good summary of the background and current status of this amendment, please see the American Birding Association’s June 11 summary by Nate Swick.

The Senate version of this appropriations bill passed out of Committee earlier last month without the harmful language defunding enforcement of the MBTA. The bill now proceeds to the Senate floor, where the sponsor is actively advocating for his language to be incorporated into the Senate bill through the use of a procedural maneuver.

Please call your Senators and urge them to VOTE NO on any amendments to the FY 2016 CJS Appropriations bill or any other proposal that would gut the MBTA. Urge your Senators to stand up for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and vote NO on any provisions that would allow birds to be threatened, harmed, or freely killed.

If you are an Illinois resident, please call Senator Kirk at (202) 224-2854 and Senator Durbin at (202) 224-2152, and tell them to VOTE NO on any proposed amendments that would weaken MBTA. If you live outside of Illinois, please call (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to your Senator.

Distributed Solar

This Alert will make me no friends among the nation’s utility companies.

In January, I described several forms of “green” energy that may do more harm than good. So then what types of renewable energy are better? Is there a renewable energy source that is both wildlife-friendly and relatively low cost? Yes, there is: “distributed solar.”

Current energy generation sources are primarily large-scale coal- and gas-fired power plants, massive hydroelectric dams, and nuclear generating stations. Even renewable energy mostly originates from industrial scale wind farms or multi-acre solar arrays. But with distributed solar, the energy generators are spread out, dispersed, or decentralized. Think rooftop photovoltaic panels on suburban homes, urban factories or even rural farm buildings.

Distributed rooftop solar systems send power directly to the user — no power plants and no power lines are needed to get it there. The user is “off-the-grid.” Moreover, installing these systems does not require erecting structures that destroy habitat or displace, injure or kill plants and animals. On the contrary, distributed solar fills in otherwise unused space on rooftops. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, distributed rooftop solar systems avoid fossil fuel use to the extent that they displace power that would otherwise need to be purchased from coal- or natural gas-fired power plants.

But is solar energy a practicable solution for the U.S., a country with significant areas of cloud cover? Yes, according to the experience of Germany, hardly a very sunny country. Germany currently produces more than 23 gigawatts of solar energy, which provides over 50% of the country’s electricity.

Some critics also refute the solar solution as impractical because their roofs are not south-facing. As Michael Richard points out, a west roofline orientation may be even more suitable.

As to the cost of solar, there is no doubt that the downward trend has been significant. David Roberts writes that “the rapidly falling cost of solar PV is the clean-energy story to beat all clean-energy stories!” Many companies make the financing of solar installations relatively painless by applying the utility bill savings to the lease cost (see two examples here and here).

In Illinois, energy conscious consumers have an additional incentive. In addition to the federal solar tax credit, Illinois passed legislation in 2014 authorizing up to $30 million for supplemental “distributed generation for solar procurement.” Other states have similar incentives.

Considering the benefits of passive solar, the rapid advances in solar storage capacity and the decline in installation costs, there is little uncertainty that this technology is not just the wave of the future, but is also the best way we can provide efficient, benign power today.

Adapting to Flooded Lowlands

The people of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island located between Hawaii and Australia, will have to move.

BloombergBusiness reports that the entire country is to be flooded due to climate change and rising oceans and “It won’t be the last.”

Since the time of the industrial revolution, the world’s sea level s have risen about 8”, and this trend continues as sea ice diminishes and the planet warms. It is a problem that confronts oceanside residents world-wide.

From pre-historic times, people have always liked living near water. Whether it be by oceans, lakes or tiny creeks, humans have sought proximity to water not only for its utilitarian values, like sustenance, recreation and transportation, but also because living near water seems to soothe and comfort the human spirit. It’s part of who we are.

However, the combination of living in lowlands and rising water levels has repeatedly been devastating. The east and south coasts of the United States have periodically sustained serious property damage and loss of life from hurricanes. Residents of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, about the lowest part of the city, suffered horrifically from Hurricane Katrina. After Hurricane Sandy, Time Magazine wrote that “we need to think about what we can do to minimize the number of people and the value of the property that might be in the way of the next storm.”

Though farmland is often most fertile in floodplains, it is also where croplands can be lost for an entire season from severe floods. Notwithstanding, property owners rebuild again and again, sometimes with government help.

Even with the risks of wind, high water, and seemingly exorbitant property insurance premiums, seaside real estate still commands premium prices, reflecting our demand for these places. Adapting to the reality of this ever-increasing risk, the question then is who should pay for residing in lowlands that are bound to flood.

Solutions:

1. The National Flood Insurance Program was developed to help solve this problem for the U.S. Currently it is vulnerable for $1.25 trillion to coastal dwellers but is paid for by all taxpayers.

2. Individuals can move, though doing so is impractical and highly disruptive. But entire communities generally can’t simply pack up and move. Kiribati is unlikely to be replicated by the residents of Miami Beach.

3. Re-establish natural barrier islands. This is being done in coastal Louisiana, but insufficient funding regrettably impedes the needed scale.

4. Take the Dutch approach and build artificial barriers.

5. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

All of us can reduce our individual carbon footprints, but for the most part, solutions 2 through 5 above require community actions and change via political means. Our government must represent us in taking the steps needed to adapt to the realities of flooded lowlands, and it’s up to you, Mr. or Ms. Citizen, to urge your elected representative to make doing so a priority.

Nature, Smart Phones and Kids

In Diane Ackerman’s excellent new book, The Human Age, she describes how an orangutan baby uses an iPad much like a human toddler does. Interestingly, the baby ape shows little interest after this age, but as we well know, our kids’ absorption with hand-held devices and other electronics only intensifies as they grow up. Although conventional TV has been around for most of our lifetimes, the pervasiveness of hand-held devices is relatively recent, and the long-term impact of regular screen time on the brains of young children is largely unknown.

What we do know from several studies is that screen time means time inside — time not playing outside in the natural world. For young people today, can nature compete with the iPad? Can a walk in the woods and the exploration of nature be as compelling as the latest dazzling device from Apple or Android? To my generation, the “outside” was a neat place to go and learn about all sorts of critters, breathe fresh air, and play hide-and-seek behind bramble. Many of us developed a bond with the natural world and a commitment to conservation that stems from that period.

My generation played outside and became imbued with the awesomeness of nature, and I believe that today’s kids could be similarly captivated if wisely exposed. For starters, parents and grandparents can introduce kids to the many children’s books that help build environmental consciousness at a young age. The Lorax (also available on DVD and YouTube), The Wump World, James and the Giant Peach, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? are just a few examples.

The following is based on a Newsletter I wrote more than ten years ago, but it applies even more today in the face of those ever-present small screens. Here are some tips for peeling your children and grandchildren away from their iPhones and exposing them to the wonders of the natural world:

  • Take a child for a wildlife-watching day. Look for small mammals and birds, turn over a log to find insects, or sweep prairie grasses with a net to examine critters. Consider bringing binoculars for the older kids.
  • Participate with your children in educational programs and field trips run by local nature centers, botanic gardens, natural history museums, and forest preserves. It can be fun for the whole family to learn about our native plants and animals.
  • Plan a nature vacation with your children and grandchildren. America’s national parks, wildlife refuges, and national monuments are among the world’s greatest natural treasures. In many, park rangers provide interpretive walks and lectures, which can both educate young people about the natural world and instill in them an appreciation of and sense of awe for its many wonders.

“Green” Events

All of us experience major “life-cycle” events; births and deaths, confirmations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, graduations, anniversaries and more. From a simple party to an elaborate gathering, all too often environmental considerations are forgotten.

For example, whether it’s celebration or sorrow these activities typically have in common the serving of food and drink. This frequently and regrettably results in a large plastic bag full of trash, plastic spoons and cups, paper plates, wrappings and gift packaging.

Further, do these events have to be the biggest and splashiest possible with so many resources used and so much waste and throw-aways? Moreover, is it necessary to incur great expense and entertain lavishly, and try to “out-do the Joneses” in your celebration?

Need it be? Can a wedding, even with a large number of people, be done tastefully, yet with a minimal carbon footprint?

Here are some ideas to think about in planning and executing these kinds of gatherings:

  • When hiring a caterer look for “Green” Catering companies (these are links to Chicago area caterers), those that work with organic, local and sustainable products whenever possible.

  • When planning for such an event on your own there are materials available that are biodegradable and/or compostable. Further, virtual or emailed invitations could result in huge paper savings

  • If you try to live with ecological sensitivity is there any reason why your death can’t be planned with similar considerations? This subject could use its own newsletter, but for now consider these alternatives. Cremation generates fossil fuels but conventional cemetery burials use land. A new technology known as resomation (not available in all states) produces even fewer greenhouse gases. Donating your remains to science is giving to future generations via crucial training to aspiring surgeons and physicians. One example of a very “green” funeral would be burial at sea wrapped in a biodegradable sheet and from a sailing ship. For many, religious considerations would be a key factor.

Earth’s resources are limited. We can all live, party and die so future generations can as well.

Corn and Soybeans: Can we live without them? Can nature survive with them?

The USDA estimates that this year, 91.7 million acres of U.S. farmland are devoted to planting corn (equal to about three New York states), and another 81.5 million acres are planted with soybeans. Corn and soybeans are our two largest food crops, and the role they have on our food supply is truly staggering. They are found in a wide variety of food groups, including:

  • Breads and pastries — soy and corn products are pervasive in baking.

  • Meats and dairy — corn and soy are staples for livestock feed, and can be contained in an array of processed meats, dairy replacements and other foods.

  • Fish — farmed fish, like salmon, tilapia and catfish, are fed corn and soy.

  • Fruits and vegetables — the waxy coatings found on some produce are derived from corn.

  • Juices and other beverages — citric acid, ascorbic acid, and the sweetener high fructose corn syrup are made from corn.

But corn isn’t just a food source. The federally mandated use of corn ethanol in gasoline extends corn’s influence to the energy sector as well.

It is clear then that living without corn and soy and the products derived from them is nearly impossible. But we can—and should—consider the environmental impact of so much land being devoted to these two crops.

Millions of acres of environmentally sensitive farmland have been lost, despite three decades of a federal program meant to protect such land, according to Kay MacDonald of Big Picture Agriculture. Loss of land to soybean and corn fields means habitat loss for local flora and fauna. Increased agricultural development has led to significant declines in grassland bird populations in the native prairie of the Upper Midwest, according to a University of Michigan study. In addition, both corn and soybeans also require using copious quantities of fertilizers and pesticides, which are derived from fossil fuels.

Driving this major national commitment to these two crops are in large part the huge federal subsidies to corn and soybean farmers. So what can you do to help?

  • Express your outrage to your elected officials over these farm subsidies and their influence on our food supply.

  • Buy seasonally whenever possible, for example, by supporting your local farmer’s market and paying close attention to ingredient labels.

  • Prepare your food at home to the extent possible, and take back control over your table.

A Healthy Environment = Healthier People

Environmentalists like me are often accused of caring more about butterflies, frogs, birds, and beavers than we do people. We’ve been called radicals, wackos, and extremists. But we know that keeping our environment healthy is not about prioritizing wildlife over humans; rather, protecting the environment helps people live longer and healthier lives.

The connection between environmental issues and public health is well documented. According to the World Health Organization, cleaning up the planet’s air could save 7 million lives every year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services adds that nearly 25% of all deaths and diseases around the world can be attributed to environmental factors, and “maintaining a healthy environment is central to increasing quality of life and years of healthy life.”

Yet only a third of Americans worry a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about the quality of the environment, and less than one-quarter are similarly concerned about climate change, according to a recent Gallup poll. Moreover, only 36% of Americans believe that global warming will pose a serious threat to their way of life during their lifetimes. This is despite warnings from the international scientific community that the “ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.”

So even though 97% of scientists maintain that health and life on earth as we know it is in serious jeopardy from increasing global temperatures, most Americans aren’t even worried about it!

Why the disconnect? Clearly it’s not that people don’t care about staying healthy. They just don’t directly associate their personal health with the health of the bigger world around them. This may be partly because the environmental community is divided and has failed to deliver the message about the connection between public health and the environment. But there is another reason: the fossil fuel industry has a much bigger megaphone. The forces of greed are powerful, and the money spent by the coal, oil, and other fossil fuel producers to influence politicians and create doubt in the public’s mind dwarfs the amount spent by conservation advocates.

To change this and to allow people and wildlife to flourish, all of us must publicly support and loudly promote these key elements of environmental health:

  • Less polluted air, with reduced greenhouse gases
  • Higher quality water, both surface and ground
  • Elimination of toxic substances and hazardous wastes
  • Improved local and global community health
  • Repaired infrastructure

More Energy Supply, or More Efficient Energy Use?

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not avoid its rule-making authority to regulate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change without demonstrating scientific reasons for doing so. Although the EPA established regulations last year for new power plants, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases are its existing power plants. Seven years after that landmark Supreme Court decision, in his State of the Union speech, President Obama directed the EPA to issue regulations for existing power plants by June 1, 2014.

There is considerable speculation over whether the EPA’s proposed rules will be so harsh as to require excessive cost for compliance, or alternatively so weak as to be effectively toothless. Stringent regulations may indeed force inefficient plants to close or be faced with higher compliance costs. Industry critics will likely complain that with the resulting plant closures, we risk losing energy suppliers that our growing world economy needs.

But do we really need these dirty energy suppliers? The largest “source” of energy over the last 40 years hasn’t been any fossil fuel or even any renewable supplier. Not coal, nor oil or natural gas, nor hydro or nuclear, nor wind, solar or geothermal. It’s been energy conservation, through more efficient use of energy supplies. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) put it well: “The cheapest, best ‘source’ of energy is needing less of it in the first place by converting, delivering, and using it more efficiently.”

And making our current uses of energy more efficient costs less than producing new power. That is the conclusion of this study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), which makes a direct, side-by-side comparison of the costs and benefits of producing new sources of energy (via fossil fuels or alternatives), versus making the supplies we already have more efficient.* The study considers the various costs of becoming more efficient, such as the expense of insulating buildings, research costs to develop better transportation options, and actions utilities must take to improve efficiency in power generation.

Certainly we can obtain some of the energy that we need from conservation and efficiency, but how much? Five percent? Fifty percent? Can our society take enough of these actions collectively—from turning off a light when leaving a room to better insulating buildings to getting more miles out of every gallon of gas—that we could meet our energy needs through conservation and efficiency alone? Do we have the political will to mount an Apollo or Manhattan project, marshaling all possible resources toward eliminating fossil fuels entirely?

In the short term, the answer is no. Our fossil fuel addiction is too deep to be shed overnight. But if conservation and efficiency are the long-term answers, it is crucial that the EPA’s proposed regulations be as rigorous as possible today. You can contact the EPA here to offer your comments.

*That’s without considering the hidden costs of energy production and consumption. For a detailed treatment of the “unpriced consequences of energy production and use,” the so-called externalities, click here.

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Let’s (Finally) Get the Lead Out

When I was a kid, we molded lead into toy soldiers. We’ve learned a lot since that era. Lead can be a serious health and environmental problem, but surprisingly, its use continues.

If swallowed, lead is poisonous to humans and also to a variety of wildlife. Lead accumulates in the body over the years and can cause serious health issues, even in small quantities. It affects the nervous system and can impair the bloodstream and cause brain damage. It is especially harmful to small children.

State and federal governments have taken many actions to reduce the amount of lead in our environment. Lead was initially banned from gasoline in 1973 and was fully phased out by 1986. Lead was banned from household paint in 1978, and in 2010 the EPA ruled that in remodels of homes built before 1978, workers must be certified if a specified amount of paint will be disturbed. Lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, and recently California became the first state to ban lead in ammunition for all other hunting.

Yet lead remains in widespread use. Sportsmen use it in shooting sports, hunting and fishing tackle. Lead’s industrial uses are extensive: as a radiation shield; in batteries; in building construction (including residential); in certain electronics; in some chemical compounds, and more. Lead also potentially exists in pipes that bring water to and from houses built before 1978. Lead also occurs in nature, but only in very small amounts.

We should be doing everything possible to minimize the use of lead in our environment. Here are some suggestions to help you protect yourself and your home:

  • The Center for Disease Control has warned parents to be aware of potential lead hazards associated with some toys and toy jewelry.
  • If you live in a house built before 1978, it should be tested for lead. Here is a list of EPA-certified renovators in N.E. Illinois. The EPA website gives information for other localities.
  • Children’s hands can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil, both of which are known lead sources. Wash kids’ hands regularly.
  • Regularly wet clean floors and horizontal surfaces, to rid your home of household dust.
  • By choosing to use non-lead shot for hunting, hunters can avoid poisoning millions of birds. Click here for a Consensus Statement of Scientists describing the health risks from lead-based ammunition in the environment, and here for more information on non-toxic bullets, from the American Bird Conservancy.
  • Use cold water in preparing food and drinks, or filter drinking water using a filtering system.

Lead continues to be a serious health and environmental problem, but with thoughtful safeguards its impact can be minimized.