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Ask Umbra: Is there an easier way to get natural gas?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Why are companies so determined to violate the geological structure of the planet in search of methane when almost everything that is alive or decaying produces it naturally? Would it not be cheaper and safer and cooler to just use what is already being produced limitlessly?

Anusha
Melbourne, Australia

methane-sign-large
Jeremy Buckingham MLC

A. Dearest Anusha,

Listen, I don’t want to freak you out. But you know how everyone talks about carbon this, carbon that when it comes to climate change? Methane is in some ways far creepier. It’s the second-most abundant greenhouse gas, and the U.S. EPA says it can have 20 times the climate impact of carbon over time. It’s like the cackling villain hiding in the wings.

Except! Methane also happens to be a cleaner-burning fuel source than coal or oil. How delightfully complicated. Now we have to picture it wearing that Phantom of the Opera mask in the wings.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: Are GMO sugar beets bad for the birds?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I feed hummingbirds a syrup made of 1 cup sugar and 4 cups water. I recently read an article about GMO sugar beets in the U.S. And that beet sugar is sold as granulated sugar and not labeled to indicate beet as opposed to cane sugar. So my question is, what effect will GMO beet sugar, if I unknowingly bought and used it for my hummer syrup, have on the birds?

Susan W.
Egremont, Mass.

hummingbird
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Susan,

I love that your first thought upon learning that sugar is not labeled transparently is for the birds. That is, for lack of a better word, sweet.

As we began chronicling in the pages of Ye Olde Grist Herald back in 2007, genetically modified sugar beets have been on a stealth march into your pantry (and your hummingbird feeder) for a few years now.  Sugar beets themselves, the non-GMO kind, are nothing new: They actually make up more than half the sugar production in this country, with sugar cane comprising the rest. (That’s half the sugar. I’m not talking high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, verbose, comatose, or any of those other sweeteners.)

Unless your box of sugar says “cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar beets. And since we don’t label genetically modified ingredients in this country (yet), chances are even better it contains GM sugar beets, which now make up at least 95 percent of the country’s sugar-beet crop.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: What can Fukushima teach us?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

How much does Fukushima (land loss, clean-up, rehousing people) add to the average cost of electricity (kWh) in Japan over the period they have not been running reactors? Compared to renewable, etc.?

Matthew B.
Melbourne, Australia

nuclear-mask-kid-flower-cropped
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Matthew,

Your letter made its way to my inbox before the latest concerns over leaks at Fukushima hit the news. I don’t know why you were sitting around of an August day wondering about utility rates in Japan, and I’m not exactly a deep expert on the subject, but I do enjoy the occasional break from lightbulbs and bug spray. Plus, I like your accent. So here we go.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: Can I keep bugs at bay without a spray?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My son is 1.5 and has a very bad reaction to mosquito bites. Think red bumps on steroids transitioning to plague-esque scabs. I am looking at different mosquito repellants that aren't as toxic (my lemongrass oil isn't cutting it!) and came across mosquito-repelling stickers and bracelets. I'm wondering if they really work and if so, more scarily, why they work? I don’t want to spend the rest of the summer either indoors or hooked on DEET!

Mary M.
Kernersville, N.C.

Is this the only way to avoid DEET and mosquitos?
Pieter Morlion
Is this the only way to avoid DEET and mosquitos?

A. Dearest Mary,

Your letter made me realize that I should have addressed all these newfangled insect-repelling items when I talked about bug spray a few weeks back. I’ve been thinking about them a lot since spending time with a family member last month who was trying out a clip-on repellent. Her verdict: “Ehhhh.” But a coworker says she spent an entire family reunion this summer jealous of relatives who successfully used the clip-on doohickeys. So what’s the buzz on wearable alternatives to bug spray?

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Will the kids be OK?

worried parents
shutterstock

Dearest readers,

Occasionally a theme jumps out at me from Ye Olde Inbox. This week’s theme is: Oh dear, you parents do worry. I know there is plenty to fret about, raising children in this mixed-up, toxic world of ours. But I also believe in giving oneself a break when possible. In that spirit, I hereby present an ‘It’ll Be OK, Parents’ Edition of Ask Umbra.

Q. Dear Umbra,

We own stain-resistant, flame-resistant couches and rent an apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting. I have recently learned of the dangers of flame retardants, but am not sure what to do with this alarming new knowledge. We have an infant who crawls around on the floor, we sit on the couches all the time. I have started insisting that everyone in the house wear long pants and socks so as to minimize contact with the carpet and couches, and we vacuum both floor and furniture every day with a HEPA vacuum, but I am ready to move me and my baby out to the balcony to live and sleep. We can't afford new couches again so soon, and the prospect of moving is similarly daunting. Short of placing my son in a glass bubble, what should I do?

Rachel G.
Austin, Texas

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: What’s so bad about fracking?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I informed a friend that fracking is harmful to the earth, can contaminate groundwater, and can cause deep structural imbalances that may result in increased seismological activity, i.e. earthquakes. He is employed in the industry and insists that this is not true. Furthermore, he justifies fracking by saying using natural gas for travel, etc., is better than traditional gasoline. He does not want to look at longer-term future alternatives and new methodologies. Can you help me to answer his defense?

Peter M.
Brantford, Ontario

fracking protest sign
ltmayers

A. Dearest Peter,

I’m afraid that arguing the merits of fracking with a friend who works in the industry is like suggesting to the ice cream man that fudgsicles are bad for your health. But I will offer a few pieces of information you can use in your conversations with him and with others in your life.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: Do the costs of LEDs outweigh the benefits?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My little brother, a pretty staunch environmentalist, just graduated from college and spent the last year of his service-learning job working for the college's electricity crew. He adamantly insists that while LEDs indisputably save a lot of energy in their usage, the components and energy that go into constructing the LED and its circuit board outweigh the savings -- just like the construction of a new electric car uses more resources and energy than it would save over driving a used car. I haven't been able to find too much on this aspect anywhere and was wondering if you might be able to weigh in.

Adam T.
Arlington, Va.

But can incandescent lamps do this?
Giulia Bartra
But can incandescent lamps do this?

A. Dearest Adam,

How lovely to come from a family in which the adamant opinions of younger siblings are valued, mulled, and questioned. Kudos to your parents for raising such thoughtful young men. Unless, of course, you’re writing so you can wave my answer in your brother’s face -- a grown-up version of the wedgie.

I get questions along these lines quite a lot, without the dramatic sibling interplay. (Note to letter writers: Odds of being published increase 62 percent when dramatic sibling interplay is involved.) When I wrote about cars this spring, I received several “yes, but” letters. Don’t the energy and resources required to manufacture greener products overshadow the savings we get from using them?

The answer is almost always no. The manufacture and transport of these items does not outweigh the energy savings from their usage over time.

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Ask Umbra: What’s the safest bug spray?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I’m seeing a lot about Lyme disease and West Nile in the media -- it’s enough to make a person freak out. While I’m not a big fan of bug spray, it seems like a requirement for leaving the house these days. What are the safest options? Is DEET ever OK?

Jen H.
Ithaca, N.Y.

woman spraying legs
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Jen,

Remember the days when summertime meant arms and legs covered with scrapes and scratches and mosquito bites? In the Fisk household when I was coming up, that was a sign of long days well spent. But in this day and age, those bites would practically be grounds for a call to protective services. Partly that’s because society has gotten weirder about the outdoors. But it’s also because we seem to be facing more scary diseases.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: How can I become a farmer?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I am currently in college majoring in computer science and am preparing to tackle all the higher math classes my major requires (algebra, calculus, etc.). But there's a problem. When I started this major three years ago, I was really into this, but now I am considering a new major -- but I'm not sure what exactly it should be. I truly enjoy working in gardens and agriculture, yet am not sure what kind of majors are out there that pertain to this particular field. What would you suggest/recommend?

Roger
Allentown, Penn.

chalkboard of farming life
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Roger,

A few weeks back, I reassured a worried father that his son should stick with his engineering major because it would lead to lucrative opportunities in his field. Today, I am going to counsel you to stick with your major as well -- and then go work in a field. Field, field. Get it? Yes, I do have an advanced degree in hilarious wordplay.

Your anxiety is not uncommon. You have put three years into a computer science major, you have presumably one year to go, and suddenly you find yourself wondering: Have I made the right choice? Or have I destined myself to a lifetime of soulless jobs and stunted ambitions? It probably feels like you’ve reached an all-or-nothing moment, where you must lock yourself in to the ride known as The Rest of Your Life. But things can change at any time. That’s what makes the ride so darn interesting.

Read more: Food, Living

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Ask Umbra: Is it OK to shop at IKEA?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My boyfriend is moving downtown to be closer to his job, which also happens to be closer to me. He wanted to shop for furniture at IKEA, and I agreed I would go if we went to a local vintage market first. He didn't really care about the market (not his taste I guess) and fell in love with a full-blown living room set at IKEA, which he plans to buy all new with a few upcycled pieces as "an accent.” Is there any way to move him from made-in-China matchy-matchy to upcycled oasis without being a sustainabitch about it?

Katie P.
Phoenix, Ariz.

If this relationship can survive a trip to IKEA, it can survive anything.
Katie Soltysiak
If this relationship can survive a trip to IKEA, it can survive anything.

A. Dearest Katie,

Wow. This letter is juicier than a horse meatball! Where to begin?

I assume you both are relatively young, as your boyfriend has apparently never had to furnish a flat before. If I’m wrong, and he’s tossing old living room furniture in favor of a shiny new set, then we are dealing with another problem entirely. It also seems you’ve been together long enough to be committed, to a point: He’s moving closer (but not in!) and you’re shopping together (but not at the same stores!). If your relationship were newer, he would have pretended to love the vintage market and possibly ended up with a musty mauve loveseat as the centerpiece of his apartment. Or you would have cooed over Ektorp sofas and Poäng chairs and not suggested that his consumer choices were misguided.

So here you are, in a pretty committed relationship, dealing with a situation that is part eco-debate and part mundane argument about furniture. Excellent practice for marriage, as it happens.