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 plants and global warming

Dear Umbra, My simple understanding of global warming is that we are introducing long-buried carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is shifting the balance, leading to a host of undesirable issues. CO2 is consumed by plants, so here’s my thought: Could we grow crops that consume a lot of CO2 (I’m thinking bamboo here, which grows really quickly) and then bury them, effectively taking the CO2 they’ve consumed out of the atmosphere and the equation (at least for a while)? Randy Kansas City, Mo. Dearest Randy, Nice summary of global warming. “Undesirable issues,” indeed. Green plants take up carbon into …

Umbra on organic pesticides

Dear Umbra, Recently, an article in my newspaper stated that federal and state guidelines allow the spraying of “organic pesticides” on organic crops. I thought organic crops were pesticide-free. I am very disappointed to find out that there are sanctioned “organic pesticides” which, with probably little to no independently researched information, may or may not pose a risk to my health. Tell me the paper got it wrong (please)! ArtBakersfield, Calif. Dearest Art, Nope. Let me try to soften the letdown, though. What is a pesticide? In the simplest view, it is a substance that kills vegetative or animal pests. …

Umbra on measuring ocean temperatures

Dear Umbra, I’ve been hearing about rising ocean temperatures more and more. My question is, what are the criteria for measuring the temperature of the ocean? Wouldn’t probe location, probe depth, water depth, prevailing current, time of day, and ambient temperature all potentially affect the result? Have the criteria remained constant for the recorded history? Douglas Seattle, Wash. Dearest Douglas, I became riveted with the present and its modern, bizarro ocean measurement technique while finding the answer to your question about the past — so let’s quickly dispense with some background. A current affair. Image: NASA. “Warming of the World …

Umbra on free-range chickens and eggs

Dear Umbra, I just read your column on organic syrup, and you made a comment about the futileness of the phrase “free range.” I always try to buy free-range eggs and, whenever possible, the same with chicken. Am I wasting my money? Jeff PrittsSt. Louis, Mo. Dearest Jeff, Yes, basically. There is a chance that your egg purveyor uses “free range” in the way that you understand it, but the only way to tell is call them and ask about range freedom on their chicken ranch. The Food and Drug Administration oversees “shell eggs” (jargon of the week), but I …

Umbra on baby nurseries

Dear Umbra, I am pregnant and wondering if you know of any websites or resources for setting up a nursery — for green furniture, bedding, and mattresses. We’re painting the nursery with low-VOC paint and looking for low-VOC carpeting, and we gratefully accept used toys and clothes from friends and family. Janine OlsenPine Brook, N.J. Dearest Janine, Happy to advise, based on a bit of research I’ve done for you in particular, but also what I’ve learned over the years about furniture and room finishes, as they are known. Little bundle of oy. Photo: A Grist daddy. As you know, …

Umbra on politicians and the environment

Dear Umbra, I got into a long debate with a conservative friend recently about how President Bush has shown that he does not have environmental interests at heart. But I did not have any facts on hand about detrimental policies or budget cuts. On the other hand, my friend was able to go to the EPA website and show me a list of initiatives and results. There must be some reason environmentalists feel that Bush is not Mother Nature’s friend, but finding facts to back that up, not just liberal hype, is difficult. Is there cause to think Bush is …

Umbra on dorm snacks

Dear Umbra, As a hall adviser at a college where social activism is valued, I find myself stuck when it comes to entertaining en masse. Sure, I buy from local farms when buying snacks for myself, but when leaving goodies for my hall, putting the ever-enticing winter squash outside a resident’s door does not say “midnight snack.” Basically, I want to have my candy and eat it too. How can I appeal to the green in me while appealing to the love for crap food on my hall? Jessie Posilkin Bryn Mawr, Pa. Dearest Jessie, Mmm, raw delicata slices. Fiber. …

Umbra on alternatives to flying

Dear Umbra, I just read about Brits swearing off flying and feel such a sense of elation that I’m not the only one! Difference is, I’m in the U.S. I can’t take the train to Thailand. Any ideas on transoceanic travel? What will it take to get from Boston to Europe by boat? Anna Churchill Watertown, Mass. Dearest Anna, Not much — just planning ahead, a hardy stomach or a good supply of Dramamine, and a few weeks of adventure on the high seas. My choice for you today is freighter travel, also an interesting option for those of you …

Umbra on college Earth Day fests

Dear Umbra, With Earth Day coming up, our environmental group at Purdue, Campus Greens, is trying to plan some events. Last year we had 15 groups handing out information and we provided free veggie burgers plus other food. This year we were hoping to expand on that success and include some activities like having people manually power a TV, washing machine, or some electronic device. Other than that, we’re really struggling for ideas and support at a die-hard conservative school. Any help would be appreciated. Anthony West Lafayette, Ind. Dearest Anthony, Thank you for your letter. I would rather eat …