Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Pedal Power: The Benefits of Cycling and Automobile Alternatives

I have been cycling to work now for about two years.  I love it.  I feel healthier, spend more time outside, and generally feel more optimistic about the day ahead.  Cycling also reduces my morning caffeine cravings and helps me feel connected to the conditions of the natural world.  I am acutely aware of rain, embrace the chaos of windy days, and celebrate sunshine. 

But cycling is not without its difficulties.  Safety precautions must be taken.  Drivers can be careless and unwelcoming.  Thieves will take anything worth a few dollars.  I know this all too well: I recently walked out of a restaurant to find my bike looking sadly dismembered, stripped of its handlebars, shifters, and brakes.  It was this event, and the loss of my means of transportation, that prompted me to examine the environmental benefits of riding my bike. 

The impact of driving versus cycling

The relative carbon footprint of a bicycle versus a car is a surprisingly controversial topic.  Some argue that a daily commute by car creates 1448 times more carbon than by bike.  Others factor in the food to fuel the cyclist and come up with as little as 50% less carbon for the bicycle.  A very good paper concludes that bicycles are 2/3 more efficient than cars, even if you factor in the extra energy required for a cyclist's food.  Regardless of the way it is measured, a bicycle has a vastly smaller carbon footprint than a car across everything from manufacture, to fuel consumption, to storage, and disposal.

Why leave the car behind? 

The problem with cars is that they require massive quantities of energy to produce and to keep running.  The EPA estimates that cars produce 20.4 lbs of CO2 emissions per gallonand if a gallon of gas only gets an average passenger car 20 miles, then a full pound of CO2 is released each mileOf course, not all cars have the same impact.  Driving an SUV for a year instead of an average new car would waste more energy than leaving a refrigerator door open for six years, a bathroom light burning for 30 years, or a color TV turned on for 28 years.  Think about this difference the next time you are in the market for a car.

If you can’t commit to giving up your car, or it is not a realistic full time choice, leaving the car behind part-time will still greatly reduce your CO2 emissions.  The EPA estimates that leaving your car behind even twice a week reduces your emissions by 1,600 pounds per year (the equivalent of 82 gallons of gas).

While a bicycle, like any manufactured good, requires fossil fuels for manufacturing and production, the energy needed to build one mid-sized automobile could be used to produce 100 bicycles—another reason to ditch the car.

Fuel for your engine

While the form of transportation you choose matters, it is worth noting that many feel very strongly that what you choose to fuel yourself is even more important.  Although I agree that we should make well-informed food choices, I do not think that cycle commuters consume that much more food to make a meaningful difference.

Here are a few of the interesting statistics I found.  I will also tackle environmentally friendly food more broadly at a later date.

-  According to one article, the carbon emissions of cycling a mile powered by different foods varies: 65g of CO2 for bananas; 90g of CO2 for cereals with milk; 200g of CO2 for bacon; 260g CO2 for a cheeseburger; and a whopping 2800g of CO2 for air-freighted asparagus

-  It takes 200 times more fossil fuel to produce beef than potatoes because cattle consume 14 times more grain than meat produced.

-  One vegetarian advocate estimates that meat-eaters use twice as much fossil fuel as vegetarians.

I have also read several debates on the steak-eating cyclist versus the hybrid-driving vegan.  I think this misses the point—most drivers and cyclists eat similarly.  Cyclists are generally healthier than the average sedentary driver.  Thus, the extra energy required to feed a cyclist may be offset or surpassed by the future health care costs required to treat diabetes, obesity, heart disease or the many problems that accompany poor lifestyle choices.

Automobile alternatives

There are many good, environmentally friendly alternatives to driving.  Below are a few options.  

1.  Cycling

In addition to the many health benefits, cycling offers an enormous improvement for your environmental impact.  The choice to get on a bike seems simple.  Often, the biggest barrier to becoming a cycle commuter is a fear of the unknown.  There is a solution to this: a number of sites and organizations offer urban cycling workshops and bike commuting tips.  The cycling community is supportive and well-organized.  Take the leap.  I promise it is worth the effort.

 2.  Walking

For short distances and simple errands, walking offers a low-impact, easy alternative to driving.  Here is a resource for tips and safety considerations when walking.

3.  Public Transit

Most cities and towns offer some form of public transit.  From the subway, to the bus, to the lightrail, or cable car, the options are diverse and can cover a lot of terrain.  Get familiar with your local transit website, which typically provides schedules, maps, and live updates.  See the SF Bay Area’s website for an example.

4.  Ride Sharing or Carpooling

If every car commuting in the United States carried one more person, it would save eight billion gallons of gas each year.  City ride sharing programs are prolific.  This site provides a list and map of places where you can find a ride in the Bay Area.  If this option makes you uncomfortable, you can still carpool with co-workers or friends who work nearby.

5.  Alternative Fuels

If you simply can’t give up your car to commute, consider alternative fuels (and cars that are compatible with them).  Again, there are resources that provide a detailed list of places to purchase alternatives fuels or find a city carshare.

Happy riding (in whatever form you choose)!


In the News and a Question on Wealth Distribution

Sometimes living life gets in the way of learning and reflecting on the journey, which is simply a more poetic way to say that that things can get pretty hectic in our lives.  This week has been busy.  The free time I have had—on planes, trains, and in hotels—gave me time to think about a lingering question that keeps coming up as I explore the issue of climate change.  My question: does environmental protection cost too much?

While learning and testing ways to reduce my ecological impact, I continue to wonder why anyone who must truly worry about day to day survival would consider the long term environmental implications of their actions.

The paradox of resource depletion and wealth is complicated.  On a global scale, this is caused by a conflict between developed and developing countries.  Wealthier countries consume more, create more environmental impact, and often export the costs (environmental or otherwise) due to an increased demand for products.

Poorer countries, which tend to create fewer emissions, may exploit natural resources in response to this demand and yet suffer the effects of climate change more intensely.  Because developing countries lack the infrastructure to protect themselves from severe natural disasters, as we have seen in Haiti and Indonesia, the impact of climate change is greater.  These countries have and will be forced to adapt to a climate largely due to consumption of wealthier countries.  What can be done about this disparity?  Who should be held responsible?  There are no easy answers.

Individually, the problem is played out in access to information and the ability to make and afford greener choices.  True, there are a number of easy solutions that improve quality of life at little to no cost, but the choice to live sustainability can be costly.  I welcome any thoughts or comments on the issue.

My travels also afforded me time to do some reading.  There is no shortage of great resources and articles on climate change already available (although there is still much I want to write about).  Below is a roundup of few of my favorite recent articles.

Everyday Products & Some Inspiration

For the body hair aware, Slate recently compared the carbon impact of an electric versus a disposable razor.  While there was a slight difference between the two—the electric razor saves roughly the same amount of CO2 in a year that driving a car for 16 minutes produces—the article did make the very good point that shaving in the shower versus the sink is where the biggest energy difference is found.  A mere three days of shower shaving accounts for the same amount of energy used by shaving an entire year using the sink.  The takeaway: saving water saves energy (thanks Jesse for the tip).

To e-book or not to e-book, which is better for the environment?  If you read at a normal pace, an electronic book reader is a better decision.  Bear in mind that the greatest impact for the e-reader is at the manufacturing level.  Another excellent choice for book reading is to walk or bike to your local library.

Good news in Britain!  Total UK greenhouse gas emissions dropped 8.7% in 2009.  I have not seen any numbers for 2010 yet.  The bad news, it seems that the recession lowered the electricity and fuel use that drive these numbers.

Global News & The Big Picture

The Guardian recently concluded its “green blog festival”.  The two-week festival featured a blog a day from a different country.  You can catch up on local issues from India, to Brazil, to Canada, Russia, and Australia here.

Speaking of other countries, by now I am sure most have heard about the China versus India debate in a number of contexts.  This article compares the two countries to see which is “greener” and which could do more environmental harm.  My favorite line: “blaming China for climate change is a bit like blaming your chauffeur for using so much gas.”  This speaks directly to my question of demand (ours) and impact (everywhere) discussed above.

Here at home, legislators are addressing climate change with proposals to slash EPA’s budget (by $1.6 billion) and bills to prevent regulation of greenhouse gases.  The “Barrasso bill” would overturn the EPA’s 2009 finding that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are harmful to public health and the environment.  Brilliant.  A “frontal assault” on fundamental environmental laws.

Finally, a recent NY times article looked into how climate change will affect already endangered animal populations.  I like this article because it steps away from discussions about humanity and thinks about the many other animals we share our planet with.

And a Bit of the Random

A quirky, somewhat funny article argues Genghis Khan’s reign of terror has reduced human carbon emissions in the long run.

And to conclude (and as a Valentine’s Day tribute), here is a Huffington Post piece on “green” birth control choices.  Of course, the obvious answer offered is simply not to add another carbon emitter (a.k.a. baby) to the ever growing population, but the article also explores what goes into the making of various contraceptives (hormones, synthetic estrogens, plastics and other nasty chemicals that end up in the water system).  Funny.  Controversial.  Plus, who knew fair-trade condoms existed?


Vampire Power: The Problem with Standby Electricity

Do you ever notice the faintly glowing lights on your television, cell phone chargers, or other electronic equipment, and wonder what they mean?  Have you ever thought about how much power it takes to keep your microwave clock running, your cable box at the ready, or your computer fully charged?  Perhaps, like me, you know these devices require some amount of energy even when they are off but have no idea how much.

The constant flow of power to inactive electronic appliances is called standby or vampire power.  Because these devices are technically off, you might think that it takes little energy to keep these appliances plugged in and on standby.  Estimates of household energy use indicate otherwise.  Appliances are often plugged in for the vast majority of the day, and the small amount of power these draw over multiple hours adds up. 

Around 10% to 13% of residential energy consumption is attributed to standby power.  In the U.S, standby accounts for a staggering $4 billion dollars in annual energy costs.  Other developed countries report similar findings.  

A 2004 U.S. Department of Energy report puts this in perspective: we use at least 64 million megawatt hours for vampire power—the equivalent of the output of 18 power stations.  Generating this much power adds about 27 million tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere annually, which is more than 3.7 million cars produce.  Globally, standby power use is responsible for approximately 1% of all CO2 emissions.

The numbers are surprising and the total costs tremendous.  Yet the solutions are simple and require little change.  Below are a few easy tips to reduce your standby power consumption, your environmental impact, and save money.

Note that while these simple changes are a step in the right direction, energy costs and environmental impact are much more pronounced for household activities like heating, cooling, lighting, and laundry, which we will tackle at another time.

Easy ways to reduce standby power use:

1.  Unplug unused devices

The easiest way to avoid standby consumption is to simply unplug those electronic appliances that are not powered on or do not need to stay in standby.  This includes televisions, DVD players, cell phone and laptop chargers (yes, even these draw power when plugged in), computers, electric toothbrushes, and many other devices we use on a daily basis.  Remember to keep chargers unplugged when not in use.

2.  Streamline your power sources

Most of us have quite a few electronic appliances.  Remembering to unplug each individual device is unrealistic and time consuming.  Instead, use one or more power strips to connect multiple devices.  This eliminates the need to unplug many different items—instead simply flip the switch to off. 

There are some things, like wireless routers, cable modems, or cordless telephones, which we might need to keep in standby to operate effectively.  For these items, I recommend purchasing a power strip that controls the flow of power to individual appliances.  These power strips, like the ones offered by ZuniDigital, have different outlets for different uses (master, controlled, and constant).  When this master device is off, all controlled devices are also powered off completely without going into standby mode.  However, the constant devices remain on regardless of whether the master device is on or off. 

I use this power strip to control my entertainment system.  The cable modem and WiFi are plugged into constant outlets, and therefore remain on, while the television is my master device.  When the T.V. is off, the DVD player, stereo, and cable box are also completely powered down.  A picture of my setup is below.  Other products accomplish similar goals or are adapted to specific uses (like computers).

3.  Upgrade your devices (and power strips)

Not all electronic equipment is made equal.  Older versions of appliances and power strips almost always draw more vampire power than newer models.  Take stock of your appliances and their power sources and prioritize what you might want to upgrade (or could eliminate altogether).  While energy efficiency might be a good excuse to purchase new electronics, bear in mind that there are still costs to the creation of these products.

Recent improvements in devices are due in part to a recognition by legislators and the government that energy efficiency is an important, easy step towards reducing our environmental impact and electricity costs.

For example, in 2001 the One Watt Initiative came into effect.  This directed federal agencies to purchase products that use no more than one watt in their standby power mode.  Britain banned televisions and video players that did not meet the one watt threshold and in 2007, California took this one step further, implementing regulations that require newly made appliances to run on .5 watts of standby power or less.

4.  Consider alternatives

There are some devices, like plug in flashlights, toothbrushes, razors or vacuum cleaners, that have power saving alternatives.  Instead of a plug-in flashlight, consider purchasing an LED flashlight that does not require a power source to operate.  Purchase a plug in vacuum rather than a cordless, or better yet, sweep surfaces that are not carpeted. 

Buy corded rather than plug-in battery operated devices.  Be creative.  Think about ways you could do without equipment that requires standby power or electricity at all.

5. Use reminders 

Of course, if you are like me, it is difficult to remember to power off appliances when they are not in use.  I have found that reminding myself to do this before I leave, either by leaving a post-it note by my door or setting an alarm on my phone, helps me to remember to turn off power strips and electronics before I leave.  Find your own easy reminder system and implement put it in place.  Soon, the few seconds it takes to power things off will become part of your daily routine.

5.  Educate yourself

The key with any lifestyle upgrade is to learn about your options and make informed decisions.  For information on your current appliances, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is a great resource.  The site provides estimates of power use for devices in on, off, and standby power modes.

When contemplating new purchases, Energy Star’s rating system is a must.  Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s program that rates appliances and provides information about standby or low-power energy use.  The program has saved roughly $14 billion a year for Americans’ utility bills and reduced power demand by 35,000 megawatts of peak power demand—the equivalent of the output of 70 new power plants.

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Like most things technology based, energy efficiency is constantly evolving and improving.  Couple this with global recognition of its importance, and the result is a shift in the broader drivers of energy efficiency and standby power (manufacturing, regulation, and policy). 

We can also make simple money-saving, impact-reducing shifts in our daily lives.  True, these may not save as much energy as doing away with air-conditioning or clothing dryers, but these incremental changed matter.  It takes seconds to power equipment off, which collectively could save tons of carbon emissions. 


Climate Science: 6 Questions and a Dose of Dissonance to Put Things in Perspective

Reducing one’s environmental impact is a noble goal, but why is it important?  This week I set out understand the bigger picture and science surrounding climate change. 

There is a theory about human perception called depressive realism.  The theory proposes that people with depression are more realistic because they can see themselves and their world more accurately.  This accuracy comes in part from an inability to reduce cognitive dissonance, or the anxiety caused by conflict between personal beliefs and actions.   Most people use defense mechanisms—like denial, blame, and behavior justification—to eliminate this conflict. 

What does depressive realism have to do with climate change?  Strictly speaking, very little.  What the theory does explain is our tendency to gloss over problems and ignore the link between actions and their broader impact.

Climate change creates the same cognitive dissonance—and defenses—as other aspects of our individual experience.  Anxiety, denial, blame and justifications surround the issue.   An understanding of climate science offers a means to check these defenses.  It is also an excellent starting point for an effort to find discrete solutions for environmental problems.

Below are six fundamental questions and answers about the science surrounding climate change.  While science is not perfect—because scientists are people and people are fallible—the research on climate change is comprehensive, conclusive, and yes, fairly depressing.

1.   What is climate change?

This is really two questions: what is climate and how does it change.  Climate is a combination of average weather or atmospheric conditions and variability in these conditions (as opposed to weather, which looks at the same factors but for a shorter period of time).

Climate change, as it is most popularly understood, is a shift in the climate beyond naturally expected alterations due to human activity.  Global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably to describe the earth’s recent warming trend.

2.   Is the earth actually warming?

Yes.  While this may seem like an obvious answer, there are an alarming number of “climate skeptics” who consider global warming to be a hoax.  In the scientific community, the overwhelming consensus is that the earth’s temperature has risen in the last century.

According to a joint statement from the national science academies of a number of countries, including the U.S., U.K., Japan, Canada and Russia: “Climate change is real” and “there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring.”

All ten of the indicators used to measure temperature trends also support this conclusion.  These indicators include sea level, humidity, snow cover, glacier-melt, and various temperature measures.  The U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has compiled data that dates back over 150 years on each of these indicators and also provides very accessible annual “state of the climate” reports.  If you are interested in these findings their website is a great resource. 

 3.   Are people causing global warming?

Yes.  As with the existence of global warming, the scientific community is in near unanimous agreement that humans are the driving force behind climate change.  Reports on the issue are prolific, and several sources have done a good job summarizing some of the more prominent studies.

4.   Why does the CO2 level matter?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most common greenhouse gas.  Nearly every activity we do that requires energy—from cooking, to showering, to using lights—emits CO2 into the atmosphere. 

Greenhouse gases like CO2 trap heat in that atmosphere that would otherwise be released into space.  This trapping, called the greenhouse effect, is not harmful in itself.  Without the greenhouse effect, the earth would likely be too cold to be habitable for plant and animal life.  

The danger to the climate comes from an increased intensity in the greenhouse effect due to human activity.  Each year, we emit billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Because we produce far more CO2 than any other greenhouse gas—and an increase in these gases will produce warming—CO2 is the single greatest human contribution to climate change.

5.   How much CO2 in the air is sustainable?

Carbon dioxide is measured in parts per million.  350 parts per million is the number that leading scientists propose as the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Currently, the atmosphere contains almost 390 parts per million of CO2.  As a result, the world is warming and will continue to warm.  350.org provides further information on this critical threshold and has been very effective in its advocacy for smarter environmental choices.

6.   What will the world look like if climate change continues?

2010 was the wettest and tied for the hottest year on record.  This trend will continue if the temperatures increase.  On a global scale, climate change will mean that sea levels will rise and water temperature will increase.  Coastal cities will flood, the ice caps will melt, and droughts will become more frequent and extensive.  The oceans may also acidify and cause coral reefs to bleach and die.  Intense storms, hurricanes, and cyclones will increase in quantity and in force. 

Our daily lives will also change.  Fresh water will increase in value and price.  Food sources will also shift when fish populations die, certain lands become too arid to farm, and livestock loses grazing land.

It is important to note that the consequences of climate change won’t all be negative—certain agricultural areas will have longer, more productive growing seasons, for example—and there is no certainty regarding the extent of these effects.  However, it is reasonable to speculate that food production will become more difficult (and therefore more costly), that weather-induced natural disasters will become more frequent, that entire populations will be displaced, and that humanity will have to spend far more of its time and output simply dealing with the complexity of a warmer world—all problems that are far better avoided.

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So what can we do about this?  Why does our behavior matter?

The potential repercussions of climate change do little to foster optimism.  However, it is precisely because the stakes are so high that change is necessary.  Perhaps nothing we do can curb rising temperatures.  But we must strike a balance between the value in this kind of realism and the paralysis ominous predictions bring. 

Instead of using denial (like climate change skeptics) or blame to deal with climate change dissonance, we would be better served by making our actions accord with the goal of safer CO2 levels.

Incremental change is actionable.   Turn lights off; take shorter showers; walk instead of drive.  Anything we can do “to scramble back as quickly as we can to safety” will reduce the anxiety impending climate change poses and perhaps, eliminate its threat.


Up in the Air and the Issue of Offsets

Everything looks beautiful from above.  Forests seem greener, mountains less daunting, and the setting sun casts soft light into a darkening sky.  Whenever I fly, I am amazed by this changed perspective and by its contradiction with the actual impact air travel has on the atmosphere and the land below.

Roughly 10-15% of the world’s population has ever flown.  This still means that close to 1 billion people have traveled by plane.  That volume of traffic produces a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide.  It also produces the opportunity for many airlines, travel groups and private companies to cash in on traveler guilt.  Carbon offsetting for purchase is prolific—and confusing.

One of the major challenges I face this year in my effort to reduce my carbon impact is the amount of air travel I will have do to for work.  I will be flying back and forth from the west to the east coast on a monthly basis.   I know this will affect my carbon footprint, but I am not sure of the extent. 

The estimates of how much carbon dioxide is produced per person by air travel is complicated and often varies.  For overall CO2 emissions, I prefer The Nature Conservancy’s calculator, which takes into account more individual factors and offers a good breakdown of sources.  Conservation International is good too and also has an eco-footprint calculator that looks at recycling and waste reduction habits. 

After testing a number of different calculators, my best estimate is that each one of my cross-country flights adds about 1.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide to my footprint.  This is pretty grim considering that per year the average American produces 49 metric tons and the global average is 9.8 metric tons

To put that in perspective, this would mean that I would have to plant at least 8 new trees for every flight.   (Note: this assumes that at least 2 of these trees would survive for 40 years!).

So what is the best course of action?  Ideally, I would like to offset these flights affirmatively, by actions I take in my daily life to reduce my impact elsewhere.  But it is unrealistic for me—and most people—to think that we can live an entirely carbon neutral life.

Purchasing carbon offsets seemed like a logical place to start. 

I began with a broad, simple search.  This yielded hundreds of sites, companies, and options.  The prices offered for offsets varied wildly, as did the programs they purportedly support.  After sifting through these options, I found a good chart that provides an overview of different providers, their projects, and product certification.

Eventually, I settled on carbonfund.org, which allows you to choose the type of project you want your offsets to support.  They also have a custom carbon calculator, which actually estimated my impact at 0.87 metric tons or 2.36 taking into account radiative forcing, or the increased impact on the climate at higher altitudes.

The transaction itself was simple—your credit card information and a few clicks.  The link between action and impact is more complicated.   

Actually offsetting emissions is not simple.  Purchasing offsets does not mean that you can fly as much as you want.  It is unclear that such an approach actually reduces emissions.  There are many experts and scientists who argue that purchasing offsets is a way to reduce guilt rather than emissions

Air travel as it exists, with high emissions to offset ratio, is simply not sustainable.  Perhaps I should reconsider planting those 8 trees.   For now, however, I will purchase what I can and continue to seek ways to reduce my impact in other aspects of my life.