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Ask Umbra: How can I convince my alma mater to go fossil-free?

Send your question to Umbra! Q. Dear Umbra, As you know, university students across the country are petitioning their administrations to divest of fossil fuels. They are eager for support from the older generation of alums, but so far the alums have not done much. As an alum of two schools, I recently realized that one of the best ways that we can help in this effort is publicly to pledge to withhold further donations until our alma mater divests. But we need to spread this "meme" far more widely. How can we do this so that colleges and universities …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Ask Umbra: Could dish soap make our family sick?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My darling husband does our family's dishes so I try to just stay out of his way. But he is convinced that the environmentally safe dishwasher detergents are not effective. Then again, opening the door after a completed cycle with his super-duper soap is so noxious that I am convinced these detergents leave behind residue subsequently to be consumed by me and his lovely daughter. What's the rub?

Michele C.
Keene, N.H.

dishes-soap-sponge
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Michele,

It is awfully hard to argue with people who take on odious chores, isn’t it? Ordinarily I would agree with your urge to give your husband a wide berth, but dish detergent happens to be a subject about which I am passionate. Hey, we all have our passions.

First, let us celebrate the fact that your husband is using the dishwasher. As we have discussed before, a fully loaded dishwasher is more efficient than hand-washing dishes. Our friends at the Energy Star program swear it saves us time and money, too, to the tune of 10 days a year and $431 over the life of the machine. (Those of us not blessed with dishwashers can save water by filling a basin or two in the sink instead of leaving the water running while we wash up. But you knew that.)

So are your husband’s habits putting your family at risk? For many years, mainstream detergents contained phosphates, which were magic on dishes but fatal for fishes. In 2010, a controversial ban on phosphates took effect, relieving us of that worry, but conventional detergents still contain an alphabet soup of unsettling ingredients, which can include chlorine, sulfuric acid, and the nefarious “fragrance.”

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Watts up with lightbulbs?

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Q. Dearest Umbra,

I know you’ve written about lightbulbs before, but it seems like there are lots of new options on store shelves. Are incandescents even being sold anymore? And what about LED lights? I tried some a few years ago and, in addition to being hella expensive, the light they gave off was cold and blue and institutional -- I couldn’t stand it. Are there other low-energy varieties? Which kinds of bulbs work with dimmers? Can you -- ahem -- shed some light on this confusing subject?

Liza E.
Battle Creek, Mich.

lightbulbs
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Liza,

Thanks for reminding me that it’s time for our semi-demi-hexi-annual revisitation of the lightbulb topic. And what better day than Earth Day to undertake this quest? For years, “change a lightbulb” has been cited as a simple step people can take to help the planet. Now even that command is starting to feel complicated, a state of affairs that does not help our cause.

But I promise it’s not really as complicated as all that. For those with short attention spans, the answer is: Go buy LEDs.

Here’s the rest of the story:

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Ask Umbra: How green is my Barbie? And other burning questions

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Dearest Readers,

Spring cleaning time! Here are a few quick and dirty questions that have been lingering in my inbox. Hope this helps -- keep ’em coming!

Q. Dear Umbra,

Do you have any suggestions for the best way to get my eyeglass lenses clean?

Monique M.
Plymouth, N.H.

A. Dearest Monique,

I have the perfect eco-solution for you. It is called: Your Breath and a Swipe of Your Shirt. Yes, you will look a bit like your high-school algebra teacher, but it gets the job done. If that doesn’t appeal, might I suggest our old friend white vinegar. Seriously, people, there is nothing white vinegar cannot do. Dab a little on your lenses, wipe with a soft cloth, and enjoy the streak-free shine.

Bifocally,
Umbra

Q. Dear Umbra,

Do Barbie dolls and accessories contain BPA?

Janie
Wayzata, Minn.

Can't fool us, Barbie.
Charles Rodstrom
Can't fool us, Barbie.

A. Dearest Janie,

When I was growing up, a Fisk hound chewed the legs off my favorite Barbie. Did he ingest Bisphenol A along with those deliciously petite feet? I asked the good folks at Mattel, who would say only that the materials they use are "considered safe by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission." It does appear that Barbies are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is worrisome. Longtime readers will recall my firm rule -- “No on vinyl, and that’s final” -- and this overview gives a sense of the global uprising against PVC. A better choice would be to buy or make toys that don’t contain any plastic at all. Healthier for the children in your life, healthier for the planet -- and healthier for the occasional overzealous canine.

Skipperly,
Umbra

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Ask Umbra: Which newfangled eco car is better?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

My wife and I are in the market for a new car. We've been looking at several options and are finally leaning toward a small vehicle that gets decent miles per gallon. Which makes me ask a few questions: Is it more important to get a hybrid for the mileage or should people be really concerned about emissions? Are hybrids and PZEVs [partial-zero emissions vehicles] equally good choices? And is it better to buy a car from a company that offers a majority of its models with a PZEV rating, or from a company that makes hybrids, but also manufactures some of the largest-consuming vehicles on the market?

Ryan H.
Constantia, N.Y.

red-key-blue-key-cropped
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Ryan,

How I love these simple questions. Obviously the answer is clear: Don’t buy a car!

OK, OK, every time I make such a utopian suggestion, readers across the country hasten to point out that where they live, cars are a necessity. If that’s the case for you -- perhaps the Constantia subway system is not what it might be -- I still hope you will try to drive your new car as little as possible. Walk, ride a bike, carpool, bundle your errands. Driving is responsible for 10 percent of climate emissions [PDF], or maybe 15 percent, and American drivers are responsible for nearly half of that. Besides the climate impact, driving pollutes our air, increases our isolation, and hurts our health. We should endeavor to drive less, no matter where we live.

End of rant, Ryan, and beginning of answers. Let’s start with a little refresher on automotive terms:

  • A hybrid car runs on a combination of gas and electric power. Most hybrids typically get 45 to 55 miles per gallon, compared to an average of 29 mpg for conventional cars. (That average for conventional cars is set to rise to 35 mpg by 2016 and 54 mpg by 2025.) Typically hybrids cost roughly $5,000-$7,000 more than their gas counterparts, but much of that is recouped in fuel savings.
  • A PZEV is a partial-zero emissions vehicle. These cars use regular gas, but their tailpipe emissions are 90 percent cleaner than a typical car thanks to whizbang technology related to their catalytic converters. They also have zero evaporative emissions, which are the vapors that can escape from a fuel system. Most of the major car companies make PZEV versions of regular models (e.g., the Ford Focus PZEV), which typically get about the same mileage and sell for just a bit more ($200 or so) than the regular version.

Originally available only in California and the Northeast, PZEVs are beginning to pop up all over the place. In fact, we have California to thank for a soup of “EV” options, including ULEV (ultra-low-emission), SULEV (super-ultra-low-emission), ZEV (zero-emission), and SWTULEV (super-wicked-totally-ultra-low-emission). I might or might not have made that last one up.

Still with me? Try this on for size: Many hybrids are PZEVs, but not all PZEVs are hybrids. Now that our heads are properly spinning, let us tackle your questions.

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Ask Umbra: What can the Star Wars planets teach us?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

This might sound a little out there, but whenever I think about climate change, I picture us all ending up on a planet like Tatooine. Hot as hell, two suns, broken dreams and unhappy people all around. Am I just getting carried away here, or does Star Wars have some lessons to offer us?

Jim R.
Rutland, Vt.

sahara-desert-tunisia-star-wars-set
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Jim,

Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, and then someone like you comes along to ask if we can learn anything from a galaxy far, far away. I suspect my knowledge of the planetary system of Star Wars does not hold a candle to yours, but I don’t mind taking a break from the problems of this galaxy to explore another one. Luckily I also have a couple of experts in the family Fisk to whom I can turn for guidance.

Isn’t it remarkable how science fiction offers such fascinating ideas for surviving brutal, apocalyptic situations? For decades, imaginative writers have put forth super-creative notions that really might be worth a closer look, especially as we creep closer to our own climate apocalypse. In fact, some of the boldest geoengineering concepts out there seem like they are straight out of a sci-fi novel. It’s a fine line, I suppose, which may be why many people cast aspersions on that field. (Then again, I know others who are fully convinced that cloud-seeding will save us.)

But back to Star Wars. The more I poke around, the more I think the planetary lessons on offer are a bit grim.

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Ask Umbra: Is it cruel to kill insects?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I defer to your sage advice in many matters and often wonder at the minutiae laid at your feet. How silly to agonize over bra stuffing when climate change is poised to make my home here in Florida the next Atlantis. However, here I am, agonizing over the small: I love insects. They are resilient, organized, fascinating, beautiful -- and I want to wear them. I've been looking at stunning butterfly wing jewelry and I just have to have it. But I don't wear fur or feathers on the grounds that the creatures may have been treated badly. Is it hypocritical to not extend this ethic to insects? Or by showcasing the beauty of bugs can I help others see their value and importance?

Anastasia
Clearwater, Fla.

We can safely say you probably shouldn't wear monarch butterflies.
Shutterfly
We can safely say you probably shouldn't wear monarch butterflies.

A. Dearest Anastasia,

In one sense, you’re absolutely right that it’s silly to fret over the little things. But it’s also a bit comforting, isn’t it? One can lose plenty of sleep over climate change, but the problem remains unsolved the next day. Put enough energy into your butterfly-wing dilemma, though, or any of a thousand other tiny problems, and sooner or later you will decide upon a course of action you can feel good about. Sometimes it’s nice to feel that we have some control in our lives, that we can solve problems and change habits and make the tiniest ripple in the world. It’s just the over-fretting we need to be careful about. We mustn’t tie ourselves in knots.

As for the insect-ethics question, I am very interested to know what your fellow readers think. You probably know that many vegans avoid insect-originating products such as silk and honey. But how far should this careful consideration extend? I have used high-falutin’ technology to create a poll:

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Ask Umbra: On holey jeans, holey socks, and dyeing clothes

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I wear jeans a lot, practically every day. When my jeans get a hole I patch them and wear them in the garden. But eventually they get too holey to wear even in the garden. What can I do with my old jeans rather than throw them out? Jeans don't make good cleaning or pee rags like my worn-out cotton T-shirts. Can I send them someplace to be used as insulation for houses? Any other ideas would be appreciated.

Judith M.
Highlands Ranch, Colo.

old-torn-jeans-holes
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Judith,

Jeans as pee rags seems like a new torture method. Let’s not go there.

I com-mend you (ha) for being so thrifty. And I’m sure you know, as our Greenie Pig recently confirmed, that you can make your denim last even longer by not washing it too often. But what to do when those dungarees done give up? You can mail them (and other denim cast-offs) to the Cotton. From Blue to Green program. Originally a campus-oriented recycling drive, the program turns your jeans into insulation, which is then used by Habitat for Humanity in hard-hit places like New Orleans.

Another thought: Since you’re into gardening, you could use your old jeans to make kneepads -- which would protect subsequent pairs of jeans. You can also compost fabric, though it can take awhile to break down. Needless to say, crafty ideas abound for reusing denim -- take a look at this list, for starters. Some of the items are in-jean-ious, and some will make you look like you stepped out of a Charlie’s Angels episode. I shall let you decide what suits you best.

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Is there hope in this world?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I am an up-and-coming millennial looking at this world and I often wonder -- is there hope for us on this planet? I realize this is a loaded question, but I was after your honest opinion as someone who has been at this longer than me and might have seen a few things. Thank you.

LL
Boston, Mass.

Don't give up yet!
Shutterstock
Don't give up yet!

A. Dearest LL,

Might have seen a few things? Why just this morning I saw a pair of wild turkeys walking down the middle of the street as if they owned the place. But those are probably not the things you mean.

I appreciate loaded questions, especially from up-and-coming millennials such as yourself. Now for my little secret: I am by nature hopeful. I have to be, since I spend my days encouraging people to make greener choices and be wiser citizens of the planet. If I thought they weren’t following through, or that their personal and political actions didn’t matter, my entire reason for being would evapotranspirate, wouldn’t it? Nobody wants to see what I look like as a vapor.

But even the most hopeful among us must acknowledge that we are, to use a technical term, in deep doo-doo. Climate change is here, it’s real, and it’s wreaking havoc. We no longer have time to fiddle around. As my colleague David Roberts puts it, we do something or we’re screwed. (I encourage you to take some time to watch David’s delightful video elaborating on this point.)

The good news is, people are doing things. Stroll with me for a moment down the Boulevard of Maybe We’ll Be OK After All, where we find a few reasons to be optimistic:

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Should I confront my son’s anti-environmentalist teacher?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

Recently, as my son was doing his homework, he asked, "Dad, who is Rachel Carson?" I gave a brief biography, then asked why he wanted to know. His worksheet for health class included a question about Carson's role in the EPA's decision to ban DDT. My son's teacher had told the class to skip that question "because she was just a crazy lady." My sputtering and fuming induced my son to say that he was sorry he had asked. He expressly forbid me from sitting in on this teacher's class, or doing anything that might make her grade him unfairly. So what can I do? This teacher, who also teaches American history, has crossed a line that I cannot accept.

Andrew E.
Skamokawa, Wash.

Rachel Carson has become a bit of a lightning rod.
Library of Congress
Rachel Carson has become a bit of a lightning rod.

A. Dearest Andrew,

As a fan of facts in general, I understand your sputtering. But as you might know, your son’s teacher is not alone in her opinion of Carson, whose Silent Spring transformed how the public regarded the risks of pesticides. Attacks on Carson began the moment the book was published in 1962, and haven’t stopped since. These days, they are primarily based on the notion that she is responsible for the banning of DDT, a chemical her (mostly conservative) critics believe could have prevented millions of malaria-related deaths. The full story is rather more nuanced than that, of course. I encourage you and your son to read this helpful account or this one for a little more information about why Carson has become a bit of a lightning rod.

But your question is whether you should rush over to your son’s school, Birkenstocks a-flappin’, and demand to know why his teacher is filling the heads of the Skamokawa youth with lies, damn lies. I say not so fast.

You have done the most important thing, which is to give your son the facts.

Read more: Living