Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

For even more green goodness, you can follow Umbra on Twitter (@AskUmbra) or become a fan on Facebook.

Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

Umbra on motivating teenagers

Dear Umbra, I’m an officer for my high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, and we stress academic importance and help our community by doing service projects. I’m trying to get a service project going in support of the environment. Greenhouse-gas emissions and alternative fuels are some things I tried to bring up at our officer meetings to motivate my friends to help out, but they don’t seem too interested. What I want to know is, what issues can I bring up to get a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds in southern California to care about this? Thanks. Richard …

Umbra on greener golfing

Dear Umbra, I am getting an early start on my Christmas shopping this year, and always try to find sustainable gifts whenever possible. My father is an avid golfer. I have been pleased to see that the golf community’s efforts to be more ecologically sensitive have been making news lately. I would like to treat my dad to a round on an eco-friendly course, but have had trouble finding a list of such courses online. Also, I saw that they are coming out with biodegradable golf tees and balls. Do you think these products make an impact? Any other suggestions …

Umbra on toxic schools

Dear Umbra, My four-year-old daughter is attending a brand-new preschool program in a brand-new building this fall. Nothing was missed in setting up the school for the best possible education for young minds. Unfortunately, it’s filled with all those toxic “new” smells. When we toured the building, I developed a headache within five minutes. Are there any known mitigators for those already-installed toxic smells, like salt crystal lamps or other natural ionizers? My daughter has asthma, so her health is critical and could prompt us to go elsewhere until the smells subside. Carla Hall Indianapolis, Ind. Dearest Carla, In today’s …

Umbra on fire-fighting chemicals

Dear Umbra, Nearly every day, I can hear slurry bombers (planes that dump bright pink goo at the edges of fires) zooming overhead. I think the bright pink goo is a flame retardant, which seems to recently have gotten a bad reputation as a carcinogen. Not only that, but folks who have dogs here claim their dogs get hot spots from playing in the rivers below where the goo is dropped. What’s going on? What is this stuff? Could it be harmful to firefighters or local communities? Is there anything being used anywhere else as an alternative? Thanks for any …

Umbra on electric cars

Dearest Umbra, Why are electric cars considered so great? They don’t pollute the air where they are driven. But certainly when they are plugged in they use energy from a power plant, which does pollute and also contributes to global warming. Doesn’t this just move the pollution from one area to another? Then you have to consider that there are power losses when electric energy travels over transmission lines. Are electric cars more efficient — using less energy per mile? What gives here? Patricia Rice Lafayette, Colo. Dearest Patricia, Many people think electric cars are the bee’s knees. They do …

Umbra on washing your car

Dear Umbra, What can I do about washing my car in a more eco-friendly way? Is phosphate-free soap enough, or should I just suck it up and go to the drive-through car wash every time? Katie North Carolina Dearest Katie, You are one of those fastidious people I see busily washing their cars on Saturdays. I always wonder why some people are driven to go to such lengths, while others consider washing their cars somewhere below replacing their toothbrush on life’s long list of things to conveniently forget about. One of the little mysteries. Fun for the kids, bad for …

Umbra on dropping out of society

Dear Umbra, Although I have always been one to conserve, recycle, etc., it is only in the last year that I have realized the extent of the catastrophe coming upon us in terms of climate change. I am 40-something, live in a city, own an older home with a sizeable mortgage that requires my husband and me to work, two kids, two cars, etc. I’ve done all the usual stuff: changed the light bulbs, we’ve each started biking to work when we don’t have to pick up our kids, and I’ve gotten politically active, writing emails and organizing my first …

Umbra on carpooling to a reunion

Dear Umbra, You have told us, in no uncertain terms, that traveling by train is better ecologically than traveling by car. Several members of my family plan to carpool to an upcoming family reunion 600 miles away. I have considered trying to talk them into taking the train instead, but face the following problem: It would cost about $130 each, round-trip, and involve inconvenient hours guaranteed to annoy the elder generation. The car will cost about $40 each, round-trip. I myself, having a very tight budget, am considerably swayed by this, and have no doubt they will be also. Consequently, …

Umbra on eco-friendly tents

Hi Umbra, When I posted this question locally, I started a brouhaha about owning a car. Hopefully you can answer more succinctly — any suggestions for a tent made out of reasonably friendly materials? Alex BernardinSan Francisco, Calif. Dearest Alex, There’s plenty to say about friendly tents, and nary a brouhaha in sight. Since I’m not sure from your question what you want the tent to be friendly to, or exactly what you want to use it for, let’s take a broad look at some of the options. A beautiful day in the neighborhood. Photo: iStockphoto In terms of the …

Got 2.7 seconds?

We've devised the world's shortest survey to find out what kind of actions our readers are taking. You know you want to.

×