Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

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

Umbra on cell phones vs. land lines

Dear Umbra, In this day and age, when many people seem to be getting rid of their “land lines” in favor of cell phones, I find myself wondering how these two options stack up against one another from an environmental-impact perspective. Doug QuirkEugene, Ore. Dearest Doug, I have a fairly strong anti-cell-phone bias. I am a cranky lady who believes they are eroding public manners and encouraging various irresponsibilities, some serious and others unimportant. But, as my father once enigmatically said, you can’t stop the 5th Fleet. Whatever that means. Hang up and drive. Photo: iStockPhoto. Here is my own …

Umbra on video games

Dear Umbra, After reading some heart-rending, gut-wrenching articles on global warming, I’ve decided that I want to do something about it. I’ve started by vowing never to buy a car, or get a driver’s license. But I happen to love video games. Nothing is going to make me stop playing my video games. As I am painfully aware, a consumer lifestyle is what contributes to global warming and the ecocide of our planet, so how can I be an environmentally conscious video gamer? Phillip MinerSodus, N.Y. Dearest Phillip, First, plenty of people are environmentally “conscious” — the struggle is to …

Umbra on fireplaces

Dear Umbra, We pile on socks and sweaters, but there are just times you need more warmth. Should we use the fireplace or our central (gas-powered) heater? Also, can you let us know which is better, natural firewood or those chemically infused logs that claim lower particulate matter is released? Kas SutDavis, Calif. Dearest Kas, Although we’ve contemplated this heating dilemma before, I find I have more to say about fire. Don’t use the fireplace. It is probably the least efficient way to heat a room. Remember the story about amazing Ben Franklin inventing the wood stove, and how mind-blowing …

Umbra on choosing a laptop

Dear Umbra, I am buying a new laptop, and I was wondering if all computers are the same energy-wise, or if some brands are better for the environment? Aviva HorrowPhiladelphia, Pa. Dearest Aviva, You’re already off to a good start, as laptops consume far less energy than desktop machines — we’re talking over 50 percent less. Thin is in. Photo: iStockPhoto. Computer manufacturers have three opportunities to earn their environmental stripes: during a machine’s manufacture, use, and disposal. From what I’ve read, the worst environmental legacy of computers will be toxic waste, rather than energy consumption. (Not to sneer at …

Umbra on amusing questions

Dear Umbra, When I was a kid we were allowed to lick our plates at the dinner table, except when guests were present. We were told that starving children in other countries would never leave a scrap on their plates, and my mother also took it as a compliment to her cooking. I still lick my plate in the privacy of my home, but today there are environmental reasons: licking prevents a small amount of waste from being transported and dumped in a landfill. More important is the satisfaction of considering the environment in every possible way, with very little …

Umbra on recycling condoms

For the sake of argument, how does one recycle condoms? Unused they are plastic of some sort? I know it’s a bit silly, but don’t you just hate to have to flush them and all the water that goes with? Flavia S.Milan, Italy Dearest Flavia, In brief: condoms are generally made of latex and are not recyclable. (Though the actual recyclability of Milan condoms may be a question for the Milan Recycling Bureau, not yours truly.) Used condoms would be revolting if gathered in bundles and shipped to a reclamation plant, so don’t feel sad. But do stop flushing them: …

Umbra on hyped-up verbiage

Dear Umbra, Surely you must have noticed that ubiquitous cliché of environmental reportage: the alarming rate. Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, coral reefs are being destroyed at an alarming rate, global warming is increasing at an a.r., and so forth. Clearly, the use of “alarming rate” is itself growing at an alarming rate. Do you have any idea where this particular phrase originated? How can we express our distress at environmental statistics without having to resort to clichés? By the way, I am not an English teacher. Abigail WrightBoulder, Colo. Dearest Abigail, Thank you for your question, which …

Umbra on replacing appliances

Dear Umbra, I’ve done the research, and I’m ready to buy my first front-loading washing machine. And then a pesky friend starts asking the tough questions. “Does your existing machine work?” Yes. “Are you going to sell it to someone else who will keep using it?” Yes. “So, two machines where there used to be one … how is that better for the environment?” Can you help me answer this one? I’m facing the same issue on the transportation front, as I just convinced my spouse that he should sell his 2002 Subaru and buy a Toyota Prius. Kathleen WhitsonSeattle, …

Umbra on ecological footprints, again

Dear Umbra, I have a couple of questions that relate to how I live and ask others to live. First, my guess is that many of your readers are above average in terms of income and education; who is the average American that we need ultimately to create a sustainable life for? Second, as we try to make our personal lives more sustainable, what is the ecological footprint we need to seek (i.e., square acres or miles or whatever) and what resources does that block contain for us to use in a sustainable way? Kit RobisonColumbus, Ohio Dearest Kit, A …

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