Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More Things That Make Me Optimistic: The Buffalo Edition

I've revised this post to include a fourth bullet.

Tonight, I (Don Duggan-Haas) attended the opening ceremony of the North American Association for Environmental Education annual meeting in Buffalo, NY.  The nature of the conversations I had with folks there made me optimistic, in largely the same way I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  In short: smart people working hard on things that matter.  But, I'm not going to write about that as it's revisiting old ground.

Instead, I'll bring attention to a few organizations that are doing interesting work in Western New York.

  • PUSH Buffalo is doing exciting work that includes not only performing energy retrofits on low income housing, but also using the the housing stock as an educational laboratory to teach folks how to do that kind of work and construction trades more broadly.  PUSH is an acronym for People United for Sustainable Housing.  They are also in the process of renovating one home to bring it to a net-zero energy use, meaning that over the course of a year it will use no more energy than it generates.  I'll be visiting the Net Zero House tomorrow and expect to write a bit more about it next week.
  • Buffalo ReUse also engages in training using Buffalo's aging housing stock as both a teaching opportunity and a rich resource of materials.  Buffalo ReUse deconstructs houses slated for demolition, saving tons of materials from landfills while preserving historical and often beautiful architectural elements.  The picture at the top of the post shows green deconstruction in action.  You can buy beautiful and useful things at their store: The ReSource.  Pieces of my kids' tree fort came from there.
  • The Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo is now hosting a web site with information about much of the important work going on in the area.  Check that out at  
  • The Massachusetts Avenue Project is another non-profit working in downtown Buffalo.  It's tag line is "Building the local community through food, urban farming and entrepreneurship"and they work toward that goal in a variety of interesting ways, including running a small urban farm that includes aquaponics in a hoop house.  If you don't know what that means, check out their website.

I'm PRI's only telecommuter and I live just barely outside of Buffalo (in a little place I call PRI West).  Ithaca, of course, is famous for the groovy things that go on there -- but you've got some competition out this way...

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Wine Vending Machine?

I often have dinner parties and everyone brings a bottle of wine.  At the end of the night the empty bottles are put in the recycle bin -- making their carbon footprint that much bigger.  Imagine being able to go into a store with your own container and purchasing a nice merlot -- just take the nozzle and put it in your reusable bottle/container and fill!  Sounds great doesn't it?

It seems that some smart folks in France have been pioneering this process at a few grocery stores, and are planning to bring it stateside in the new year.  Not only does this machine cut down on the carbon footprint of your bottle of wine, but it's also a money saver.  A liter of wine is about $2!  That's enough reason for me to say let's go green!

Check out the whole article and a very cool picture here: French Wine Vending Machine .

Monday, September 20, 2010

Container Gardening: The Aftermath

Wow! 2010 was a great year for growing yummy and pretty edibles in containers on a deck! I learned a lot about the whos, whats, wheres, and whens of planting, watering, and harvesting from a deck. Its a lot different than gardening right in your backyard. One nice benefit of container gardening, especially around Ithaca, NY, was the fact that I didn't have deer munching on my hard work. Excellent.

But now that the growing season (for my veggies) is over, I've realized one not-so-nice con to container gardening: ridding myself of the soil. Posting about this is tricky, because I have a pretty reasonable landlord who will let me pile my used soil out in the corner of the land. I know not everyone who container gardens has this freedom, and I also know that I have to cart heavy buckets of dirt through my living room and kitchen to do this, so I've been researching a few alternative options.

If you do some composting, a great idea is to store your used soil in some heavy duty garbage bags and mix in fresh compost with it over the winter. If you have the storage space, this will save you $$ for next season, as you'll have some great soil ready to go. You can also do this outdoors. If you can put your pile of soil in corner somewhere, grab a tarp and some heavy rocks to weigh it down, and add compost to it throughout the winter months. Or just save it and mix in some fertilizer in the spring. The soil will stay relatively moist in both cases. I know I just tried to save a bag of potting mix through the winter in an open bag and it dried out, but I think adding to it throughout the winter and mixing it will help maintain the moisture necessary to keep the soil in tip-top shape for spring.

If you don't compost currently, or don't have the outdoor space to do so, you're in luck. Next week my colleague will tell you about her dream of setting up a kitchen compost in her house. I'll be tuning in so I can revive this year's soil by next spring. I hope you'll check back, too. Together, we can compost, container garden, and maybe even succeed at it...even if we're lazy. :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fall Energy Tips

It definitely felt like fall this week in Ithaca, and fall is a great time to start thinking about how to go green and save money on that winter energy bill. For tips on this, see this useful blog post, or consider signing up for free classes taught by CCE called “Repairing and Weatherizing Older Windows" and “Save Energy Dollars”

Save Energy Save Dollars is a free 2-hour program where:
  • You will learn about low-cost and no-cost energy saving actions;
  • Energy conservation facts will be shared and myths will be busted with research-based information;
  • You will learn about financial incentives you may be eligible for to help you afford energy-efficiency improvements;
  • Each participant will leave with an individualized action plan ; and
  • Each participating household will leave with an Energy-Saver Kit to help get started on lowering energy bills.

The program is free, but pre-registration is required. Call CCE-Tompkins at (607) 272-2292 to reserve a seat.

Schedule of workshops, all held at CCE-Tompkins, 615 Willow Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850
Thurs, Oct. 7, 6:30 -8:30 pm
Fri, Oct. 15, 12:30 -2:30 pm
Thurs, Oct. 28, 6:30 - 8:30 pm

Repairing and Weatherizing Older Windows
Thurs, Sept. 30th, 7:00 - 9:00 pm at CCE-Tompkins, 615 Willow Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850

In this workshop you will learn:
  • How to replace worn parting-bead to tighten up a window;
  • How to repair the sash-cords on your double-hung windows with weights;
  • How to re-glaze an older window;
  • About energy efficient treatments you can add to your older windows.

Presented by Mark Pierce, Cornell Cooperative Extension Associate.
The program is free, but pre-registration is required. Call CCE-Tompkins at (607) 272-2292 to reserve a seat.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A few things that give me hope.

Thinking about the state of things can bring me down. Every now and then I like to draw attention to things that give me hope. In today's post, I'll draw brief attention to three of those things:
  1. Good colleagues, working on things that matter;
  2. Deepening understandings of how to effect behavior change on a broad scale; and;
  3. The fact that young people hold expertise that matters for changing how the world works, and that that expertise and its related infrastructure is growing quickly.
Charismatic Megafauna Aboard the JOIDES Resolution

Smart people are working on things that matter.
I'm writing again from the JOIDES Resolution, an ocean research ship now off the coast of British Columbia. Today we placed a CORK, a remote observatory on the seafloor, not quite a mile beneath where I sit now (and extending into the seafloor enough to reach a mile below me). I've been blogging on the JR's blog over the last week along with many of my colleagues in the School of Rock. I invite you to take a look and see what we're up to.

School of Rock is a program to bring educators into the ocean research programming to deepen the educators' understandings of ocean science and to bring scientists into contact with educators to help deepen the public's understanding of ocean science and its importance.

My School of Rock colleagues, like my colleagues at PRI and its Museum of the Earth give me hope about where the world is headed. Terrifically smart, hard working nice people working on things that matter give me hope that those efforts will make a difference. The Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling program (from which the JR gets her first name), brings together scientists and now educators from around the world to a program that enriches our understandings of how the Earth works.

A reality check is that smart people have always been working on things that matter, so we do need something more than this for our hopes for change to be realized.

The research base for effecting behavior change is maturing.
Joe Brewer, of Cognitive Policy Works, offers a nice summary of how research on fostering behavior change has changed over the past several years. Perhaps the most compelling reason for hope is the growing understanding that self-interest isn't as strong a motivator as long believed. I like to think we know this from our day-to-day experience. Most of the people I know and care about don't have greed as a primary motivator and it turns out that my friends and family aren't freakish for being kind and at least somewhat altruistic (though some of them are pleasantly freakish in other ways).

Also encouraging is the recognition that broad sweeping change happens all the time. Some of that's not been so good (urban sprawl, for one example). But there are many positive changes we can point to -- that overt sexism and racism is no longer socially acceptable in most circles, for example.

Change is possible.

For the first time in history, huge numbers of young people have expertise that really matters and that their seniors do not have.

Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World describes how media and young people's engagement with it is changing the fundamental nature of how we communicate. And if we change the way we communicate, we change the way we live.

My interaction with young folks gives me hope too. As an educator and a parent, I get the opportunity to interact with lots of them, and with their teachers from all over the country.

Though the phrasing of that last paragraph makes me feel like an old man, the basic gist of it gives me reason for optimism.

What gives you reason for optimism?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Polar Bears in the City...

It's not often that I see a commercial that makes me cry, but for some reason this commercial did it for me. It's for the new Nissan "Leaf." An electric car.

Who wouldn't want to be hugged by a polar bear!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Solar Panels and the White House

Last week we linked to a video of Bill McKibben of 350.0rg on Letterman discussing his new book and his mission to try and convince President Obama to reinstall Carter-era solar panels on the White House. Unfortunately, President Obama and his staff have declined to do that.

Campaigners had hoped that the White House would embrace at least the symbolism of going solar - much like Michelle Obama kicked off her healthy and local food movement by planting a vegetable garden.

"Clearly, a solar panel on the White House roof won't solve climate change - and we'd rather have strong presidential leadership on energy transformation. But given the political scene, this may be as good as we'll get for the moment," McKibben said in a Washington Post comment this morning.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sailing on the JOIDES Resolution and Pondering Climate Change

The JOIDES Resolution approaching Victoria, BC

I'm on board the JOIDES Resolution (the JR) and set to head out to sea tomorrow afternoon. I'll be blogging about it regularly on The JR's blog and occasionally here too.

What is The JR and why should we care?

Well, to answer the first question well, you should spend some time poking around on The JR's website, but I'll say briefly that it's one of the most famous geologic ships that there is. JOIDES stands for Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling, and it takes the name Resolution from James Cook's ship of more than 200 years ago. It's also a converted oil drilling ship that now drills for samples of ocean core sediments rather than for oil. It's also a pretty big ship. Look at the picture -- the row of windows across the front of the ship should give you a sense of scale of something familiar. The derrick stands 62 meters (about 20 stories tall) and she's 143 meters long (about one and a half football fields).

More amazing than its proportions (and partly because of them) is the fact that The JR can reach from its derrick to the sea floor and not only drill deeply into the sea floor, but also recover cores from the sea floor, and place instrument packages into the hole left behind. Take a virtual tour here.
Handling a core on The JR's previous voyage.

We won't be coring on this trip. We'll be placing an instrument package called a CORK in an existing hole. More on that later (as I learn more about it).

Ok, so why would we want to do that stuff?
We can use what we find in these sediments to reconstruct the story of how the Earth came to be the way that it is -- in many different ways. The fossils (commonly microscopic) that we find in cores give us hints about what ancient climates were like. Studying methane hydrates found in sea floor sediments can help us understand their role in climate change.

A chunk of methane hydrate looks like ice -- but you can light it on fire.

Pondering them raises a question for me to explore in the coming days with the scientists on board. What, if anything, do the methane hydrates found under the sea have to do with methane bearing shale, like the Marcellus? I also want to deepen my understand of how they fit into understandings of climate change.

If there's more you want me to be pondering (with the help of some scientists who are some of the world's experts in these areas), please let me know. You can do that by posting here, or by sending me an email at my temporary ship's email address (and I only have limited access to my regular email). That address is:

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Lazy Twentysomething's Guide to Sustainability: Organic Beer

Organic - Not just for food anymore!

Apparently, Americans drink about 82L beer per capita every year. This places us 13th in the 2004 world rankings behind, well, most of western Europe. The Czech Republic and Ireland are first and second, with 157L and 131L, respectively. We may be woefully behind the rest of the developed world in beer consumption, but that hardly means that we should ignore how the ingredients are grown.

Beer is mostly water and malted grain (usually barley or wheat), with a little yeast for fermentation and hops for flavor. It takes about 336 square feet of barley to produce enough barley for one American’’s entire year of beer. The number of acres under barley cultivation worldwide is dwarfed by maize, wheat, and rice, but the rate of fertilizer per hectare is pretty high (pdf). The rationale for drinking organic beer over conventional is basically the same as with eating organic rather than conventional anything. Namely, a lower pesticide and synthetic fertilizer load in the environment and a lower pesticide load in you. Since “100% local” seems to be an impossibility for brewers outside of Germany, we’ll have to settle for USDA certified organic as our green alternative to conventional beer.

In an act of staggering generosity, members of the PRI Outreach and Development teams have tested a selection of organic beer in order to provide our readers with a little guidance should they wish to purchase some. We were able to find 3 brands of organic beer at the Finger Lakes Beverage Center*: Pinkus, Peak Organic, and Wolaver’s. A more thorough search would probably turn up an even greater variety. From Pinkus, we tried the Pils and the Munster Alt; from Peak Organic,we tried the IPA, the Pale Ale, the Amber Ale, and the Nut Brown; from Wolaver’s, we tried the IPA, the Pale Ale, the White Ale, the Brown Ale, and the Oatmeal Stout.

Here is a summary of the rankings and tasting notes, but the main point is that you don’t have to sacrifice taste to sustainability!

Peak Organic Amber Ale
  • Darker
  • Syrup-y
  • Smells better than it tastes
  • Unbalanced
  • Awful start, but a good finish

Avg. = 5.375

Peak Organic IPA
  • Righteous
  • Smells like tomato plants
  • Honey and citrus scents
  • Darker than I thought it’d be
  • Deeper than a hoppy finish
  • I like the way it starts but it’s bitter at the finish

Avg. = 6.25

Wolaver’s IPA
  • Cleaner than last IPA
  • Don’t like his one as much – not as much character
  • Floral and not too bitter

Avg. = 6.625

Peak Organic Nut Brown
  • A little flat
  • Smells better than the last one
  • A little earthy
  • Not a fan, generally, of nut brown ale
  • Vanilla on the start
  • Enjoys the complexity
  • Brown-sugary sweet

Avg. = 7

Pinker's Original Unfiltered
  • Yummy smell
  • Smooth and not a big finish
  • Summer beer
  • Not too flavorful
  • Citrus-y
  • “…a decent Bud Light”

Avg. = 7.125

Wolaver’s White Ale
  • Smells like bacon; like breakfast at CNC, like lighter fluid
  • Citrus-y – more lemon than orange
  • Needs citrus to be effective
  • Sweet, and not smoky or salty
  • Like the highest note on a piano
  • Too complicated for a beer that you’d put citrus in

Avg. = 7.1875

Peak Organic Pale Ale
  • Smells like soy sauce or the woods
  • Coffee taste
  • Acidic
  • Herbal, earthen flavor

Avg. = 7.3125

Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout
  • “Oh, hello.”
  • Smoky
  • Delightful
  • Tastes like dinner
  • Not coffee, but espresso
  • More earthy than other stouts
  • “Starts sweet, then smoke, then coffee”
  • It’s like chocolate that’s spent time by a campfire

Avg. = 7.3125

Wolaver’s Pale Ale
  • Solid
  • Definitely preferred
  • Easy to drink
  • Nice finish – not bitter
  • Warm finish like a soup
  • Bread-y

Avg. = 7.75

Wolaver’s Brown Ale
  • Smells like a good beer
  • Completely solid
  • More than just nutty – Mr. Peanut Party Mix
  • “tastes like beer to me”

Avg. = 7.83

Pinker’s Alt Beer Munster Ale
  • Molasses and whiskey
  • Bread-y – pumpernickel
  • Mellowed out
  • “I like this. I like this a lot.”
  • Finishes with depth, and starts like OJ / juice
  • Smells like grape juice
  • You can drink this year-round, and all day
  • Little too sweet overall

Avg. = 8.25

Have you tried any organic beer that we missed? How did you like it?

*Thanks to the Beverage Center staff for pointing us in the right direction.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Labor Day!

How to throw a green Labor Day picnic…

1. Use natural charcoal or wood for your grill.

Natural charcoal is very basic - it's simply charred wood. It's available by the bag at major retailers and home improvement stores.

Using wood itself is another option. If you have a basic backyard grill (not propane), you can burn fallen sticks and twigs that you can gather yourself with minimal effort.

2. Send out electronic invitations to save paper.

Or, make your own invitations from scrap paper or junk mail.

3. Encourage your guests to walk, bike, carpool, or use public transportation to get to your party.

4. Serve local, seasonal foods.

Labor Day is still within the growing season in many parts of the country.

Corn, tomatoes, peppers, onions and squash are all good options for grilling and are still in season in early September.

Potato wedges cooked on the grill can take the place of packaged potato chips.

Regardless of where you live, there will be something good and grill-able that is in season and grown locally.

5. Serve food on reusable flatware and plates.

Serve drinks from washable cups and glasses. If possible, have drinks in coolers and kegs rather than individual cans or bottles.

6. For those items that are disposable (beverage cans or bottles, for example), have clearly labeled recycling bins set up for guests where they can easily toss their used items.

7. Burn citronella candles or torches around the edges of your party or grilling area if it's all outdoors.

Have citronella candles burning on any outdoor tables where your guests will be eating.

Provide natural insect lotions or sprays for your guests as well.

8. If you want to cook meat on the grill, choose grass-fed, organic, and/or free range meats.

Wild meats are also a good option if the season coincides.

You can still serve traditional burgers and hotdogs - just choose vegetarian or free-range, organic versions of these classic foods.

9. Whole grain flat bread is good on the grill, and with toppings of grilled vegetables and/or meats, it becomes a main course.

10. Make dessert from seasonal, local fruits.

Some berries are still in season around Labor Day - serve them in a cobbler or pie, or raw with sauce or dips.

11. Strings of festive LED lights in appropriate colors provide eco-friendly lighting for your party.

Solar lights are also an option - they are easily obtained these days and can be quite affordable.

--Courtesy of

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

McKibben on Letterman

Whoa. Wednesday's almost gotten away from me, and it's been a busy one. I'll share someone else's good food for thought. Here's Bill McKibben from last night's Letterman.

Hmmm... My usual formatting trouble. Here's the link to view it on youtube:

This clip came to my attention through the Post Carbon Institute's Facebook page. PCI is an excellent resource for information about climate change, and McKibben is a Fellow of PCI.