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.

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

Umbra on diesel vs. standard gasoline cars

Dear Umbra, I’ve always heard bad things about diesel fuel. However, I know someone who has a diesel VW that gets 50 miles to the gallon. I’m wondering if you could do a cost-benefit analysis for me. I know I can’t afford a hybrid anytime soon, and was wondering if it would be better to buy a used diesel car that gets excellent gas mileage or a regular used car that gets in the 30 to 40 mpg range. AnneNelson, N.H. Dearest Anne, Unless you can get alternative diesel fuel, stick with a standard gasoline car. Is it worth it? …

Umbra on bicycle commuting, again

Dear Umbra, So what about bike commuting? Is it safe? Is it good? Is it encouraged? P.K. BorzoSt. Paul, Minn. Dearest P.K., Yes, yes, yes. Lungwise, biking is at least as safe as driving, if not more so. It’s true, as many readers pointed out after my previous column, that we breathe more heavily when bicycling than driving. But the scientists thought of that. In general, we are not worse off biking in regular old city traffic, especially if we are able to stay to the side of the pollutant slipstream. Of course, there are a lot of variables — …

Answers to readers’ most frequently asked questions about green dilemmas

Should I use paper or plastic bags at the grocery store? Neither one is better. Best choice: bring your own cloth bag. Should I dry my hands with paper towels or the electric blow dryer? Use the dryer if you can’t drip dry. Should I wash my dishes by hand or use the dishwasher? If you and your dishwasher are efficient, by all means bypass the sink. Is it better to leave [lights, cars, computers] on when I’m not using them, or turn them off and restart them? Restart! Whether you’re driving, defeating darkness, or doing work, it takes more …

Umbra on the perfect eco-day

Dear Umbra, But the question was paper or plastic. We are asked every time we go shopping. What if we’re doing all those things you suggested, and we still want to know if we should use paper or plastic? I think your answer was haughty and irresponsible. CurtNewton, N.J. Dearest Curt, So many annoyed readers wrote to chide me on avoiding the paper-or-plastic question. Sorry. I try to entice us all toward bigger themes, with mixed success. Here is an old exploration of the bag issue. The correct answer to the grocery bagger’s question is, “Neither, thank you, I brought …

Umbra on getting local foods into college cafeterias

Dear Umbra, I am a student at Hartwick College running the Grassroots Environmental Club. The college’s major cafeteria is run by a large food company that also serves prisons. In a meeting with the director, I was told they have the power to get any food. When I asked if we can get local, organic food, they responded that it would cost too much and be a hassle. How can I convince them that the quality of the food is way better, that plenty of local vendors would love the business, and that, since the college has fewer than 1,500 …

Umbra on freezing local foods

Dear Umbra, I am lucky enough to live across the street from a farmers’ market, and I shop there all summer. But when summer’s done, the market closes and I am left to buy produce from California. Would it be better for me to buy a small freezer and freeze farmers’ market veggies for winter, or to forgo the freezer and buy from the grocery store? Which is worse: long-distance transportation or the juice used by a freezer? Anne McKibbinChicago, Ill. Dearest Anne, Don’t be so sure your produce comes from California. It could come from South America. One of …

Umbra on soy vs. meat

Dear Umbra, I finally went vegetarian several months ago, and one of my main reasons was the environmental impact of meat production. The other day, however, a friend pointed out that soy foods take a great deal of energy to produce too. So is there really that big of an environmental difference between TVP [textured vegetable protein] and free-range beef? And how does dairy compare? Should I just try to stick to nuts and beans? Sarah AmandesBrooklyn, N.Y. Dearest Sarah, Have you ever wondered whether TVP might be the hot dog of soy products? All the soy boogers and intestines, …

Umbra on rebuilding the Gulf Coast

Dear Umbra, There seem to be plenty of good organizations accepting dollars to help the people of the Gulf Coast. But as The Nature Conservancy has said, “While current attention is rightfully focused on the immediate human toll and suffering of this tragedy, the ecological damage has yet to be assessed.” The rebuilding effort, it seems, ought to occur in an environmentally sustainable way. Where can we direct our dollars to best advantage when the focus shifts? M.Z.Cleveland, Ohio Dearest M., Katrina and the toxic soup left in her wake is yet more unneeded confirmation that what we do to …

Umbra on preparing for winter

Dear Umbra, With the coming winter, our local news did a story on how to save on heating. The tips included window treatments, lowering the water heater, etc. But those of us in apartments are limited in what we can do. I can feel the cold air seeping through the cracks, and laying towels on the window sills doesn’t seem to help. Any advice? CarolLafayette, Ind. Dearest Carol, Yar. It’s going to be doom and gloom this winter across the country, what with natural-gas and oil prices on the rise, the economy heading to the toilet, and Bush’s touch turning …

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