Saturday, April 22, 2017

News from Earth

As usual, Brian and I didn't do anything terribly exciting or dramatic for Earth Day this year. Even though it fell on a Saturday this year, our town decided to hold its local Earth Day celebration on Sunday instead—possibly to accommodate our large Orthodox Jewish population, or possibly so it wouldn't conflict with the Marches for Science taking place in Washington and Trenton. We've been doing the usual array of little things—hanging laundry on the line (though we had to take it down when it started raining), shopping locally, and eating home-grown produce (some of last year's rhubarb for breakfast, and a salad of winter lettuce that we planted last year for dinner)—but nothing too major.

However, I have been pleased to read several news stories lately about other people in the world who are making major strides to help the environment. So in honor of Earth Day, I thought I'd share three stories about Earthlings who are doing their part to save their home planet.

Story #1: Changing the Pallet
Source: Haverford alumni magazine

As an ecofrugal person, I have kind of a conflicted attitude toward shipping pallets. On the one hand, I love them, because they make an incredibly useful source of virtually free building material. For example, our compost bin, which has served us well for seven years before finally starting to come to bits, is an ultra-simple box made of pallets recovered (with permission) from a building at Rutgers. And that's only the beginning of what you can build with pallet wood. I've seen tons of pictures online of gorgeous projects involving pallet wood, from a simple hanging shelf in this bathroom makeover to an entire pallet wall that makes a stunning focal point in a living room. There's a whole website, 101 Pallet Ideas, devoted exclusively to projects you can make from pallets—patio furniture, beds, sofas, and even entire buildings.

But at the same time, I know that the only reason pallets are free and widely available is because there are so many of them being discarded after just one use. They cut down trees to make these things, ship them across the country with stuff on them, and then just throw them away because it's not cost-effective to ship them back. Clearly, that's incredibly wasteful, and salvaging a small percentage of the pallets for building purposes isn't enough to make it sustainable. From an ecofrugal perspective, it would be much better if there weren't so darn many of these things being made and tossed in the first place.

So I was pleased to read in the Haverford alumni magazine that my former classmate Adam Pener is now running a company whose sole purpose is to make eco-friendlier shipping pallets out of corrugated cardboard. These things are better than standard wood pallets in numerous ways. They weigh less (around 10 pounds, as compared to an average of 50 for a wood pallet), so they lighten the load of the trucks that carry them, thus reducing their carbon emissions. Also, it's easy to make them in custom sizes and shapes to pack those trucks more efficiently, so it takes fewer trucks to haul the same volume of goods. They're made largely from recycled paper rather than virgin wood. (The ones made by Adam's company, Green Ox, don't even use glue or staples.) And when they get to their destination, they can easily be broken down and recycled, rather than going into landfills (except for a small number that go into DIY furniture and accessories). IKEA, my favorite green business, has already opted to switch its entire supply chain to cardboard pallets, and has thereby reduced truck trips by 15 percent and cut CO2 emissions by 300,000 metric tons.

The only real downside of the corrugated pallets is that they're not quite as strong as wood. They can't hold very heavy items, and they don't hold up well in the rain. So chances are, there will always be some wood pallets around for us tightwads to scavenge. But if all the rest of them are made of cardboard, that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

Story #2: An island of green
Source: The Christian Science Monitor

The cover story in last week's Christian Science Monitor Weekly is "An island of green: How a group of gritty farmers turned Samsø, Denmark, into a premier global model of renewable energy." Back in the 1970s, when the environmental movement was in its infancy, this little island tucked between Jutland and Zealand was entirely dependent on fossil fuels. But when word got out that Denmark was considering building its first nuclear power plant, a vegetable farmer named Søren Hermansen became concerned that Samsø would lose control over its electrical supply to a big, centralized utility. So, along with about 20 other families, he invested in a small wind turbine to power their farms.

Over the next 15 years, he grew steadily more interested in environmental issues. He studied environmental science at college and started farming organically. And when, in 1997, the Danish government announced a competition for communities within the country to become energy independent in the space of 10 years, Hermansen convinced his fundamentally conservative fellow farmers to take up the challenge. Instead of talking in lofty terms about saving the earth, he focused on the practical benefits: the income from leasing their land for wind turbines, the jobs that would be created laying district heating pipes, the improved market value of a better-insulated house. Samsø built a network of wind turbines under community control, along with district heating plants to replace inefficient, individual oil heaters. Today, the island produces all its own energy and actually exports $3 million worth of energy each year. Its overall carbon footprint is negative 3.7 tons. By 2030, it aims to eliminate all fossil fuel use entirely.

Of course, Samsø is just one little community, with a population of "3,750 people and a few sheep." No matter how green it is, one tiny island is probably not going to make that big a dent in the world's overall energy use. But to me, Samsø's success is a proof of concept. It proves that energy independence is possible—and moreover, that it's possible using only technologies that are already available today. Hermansen acknowledges that the same systems that work for Samsø probably wouldn't work in a larger city, because cities have such complex infrastructure—but they could still draw on the same technologies to incorporate green projects throughout the city, "rooftop solar on this block and urban gardening on this one."

What's most encouraging to me is not just how much Samsø has achieved, but how quickly it made the transition. It went from a single wind turbine to a fully energy-independent community in the space of just ten years. This gives me hope that, when the perils of climate change finally becomes impossible for the world at large to ignore, it won't be too late to set ourselves on a sustainable path. If they could do it there, I think there's hope even for the USA.

Story #3: Bipartisan climate change solution is already in existence
Source: The Daily Targum

The final piece of positive environmental news came from an unlikely source: the Daily Targum, the official student-run newspaper of Rutgers University. I say it's unlikely because most of the stories in the Targum are, well, not exactly shining examples of journalistic achievement. It's not the material that's the problem; it's the writing. Apparently most of the students who work for the paper have never been taught even the most basic principles of how to organize a story, such as leading with a sentence that answers the five "W" questions: Who did What, When, Where and Why? Often, I'll be halfway into a story before I manage to figure out what it's actually about.

So I was both surprised and delighted to come across an editorial on the Targum's opinion page that actually made a well-constructed, well-reasoned, well-supported argument in clear, lucid prose. The author, Connor O'Brien, a second-year economics major, starts out by arguing that most of the stories about climate change in the mainstream media center around a false choice: save the earth or protect the economy. He then points out that there already exists a solution, endorsed by American leaders from both parties, that can curb carbon emissions without harming us financially: "a revenue-neutral carbon tax." The basic idea, as he succinctly explains, is to build the environmental costs of carbon emissions into their actual costs in dollar terms. Polluters would pay for each ton of CO2 they produce, giving them a strong incentive to reduce their emissions in whatever way they can. And the cash raised by the tax would go straight back to the taxpayers, effectively putting the money consumers would have to spend on higher-priced goods and services right back into their pockets.

O'Brien acknowledges that the "toxic politics" in the USA remain an obstacle to passing this eminently sensible plan. Many prominent Republicans, eager to reject anything that Democrats favor, have rejected the whole idea of global warming as nothing but a hoax (while remaining a little vague on the subject of who started this hoax, and what they had to gain by going to such vast lengths to sustain it, manufacturing reams of data and co-opting 97% of the scientists on the planet). But the fact that there is a solution that could work, and that is compelling enough to attract supporters among Republicans as well as Democrats, is at least an encouraging sign.

In short, all three of these stories express the same basic idea: change is possible. Just because things have always been done in a destructive way, that doesn't mean they always will be. With folks like Adam Pener, Søren Hermansen, and Connor O'Brien on the job—along with the countless others who marched on Washington today to stand up for reality-based policy—there may be hope for our little planet yet.

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