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 used cars

Dear Umbra, With rising — OK, skyrocketing — gas prices, I would like to invest in a car that gets good mileage and is reliable. However, I can’t afford a new Toyota Prius. Do you have any suggestions for environmentally friendly used cars that those of us on a budget might be able to invest in? Living in Wyoming, I have to travel long distances on a frequent basis, and public transportation is a joke here, so any suggestions would be appreciated! Lindy JohnsonSheridan, Wyo. Dearest Lindy, Until today, I thought general guidelines were all the car-purchase advice I was …

Umbra on bicycle commuting

Dear Umbra, My question regards my daily half-hour (each way) bicycle commute through fairly heavy city traffic. I’ve been wondering if the benefits (exercise, sunshine, free and fast transport) are outweighed by the negatives (primarily breathing in diesel and other exhaust, but I’d also throw in the risk of almost getting run over, despite the cheap thrills). I am fortunate enough that my alternative would be to take the subway, not drive. Perhaps you could comment on the personal and environmental health effects of different types of commutes. IndieWashington, D.C. Dearest Indie, Spoke truth to power. Biking, biking, we love …

Umbra on kitty litter

Dear Umbra, I recently adopted a cat, and I am having a hard time deciding what to do with the kitty litter. Is there some kind of green litter that is best to use? Anything flushable and sewage-tank friendly? Or, can I compost the litter — and what should I use to cover it up with? Kate GravesNashville, Tenn. Dearest Kate, Just as our eco-children can be diaper-free, it appears our cats can be litter-free. Teach your kitty to use the toilet! Tutorials and tips await you on the internet, and Grist staffers have confirmed that this seemingly bonkers notion …

Rake's Progress

Ask Umbra on autumn leaves

With summer slinking away and fall breezing in, Grist advice maven Umbra Fisk offers eco-advice for dealing with autumn leaves.

Umbra on speed limits

Dear Umbra, I was babbling about the ’70s energy crisis, gas rationing, and the nationwide 55 mile-per-hour speed limit at work the other day, and found myself explaining to a group of younger people how you save gas if you drive slower. They had never heard such a thing! Could you refresh my memory about why 55 is the magic number for saving fuel? They need to hear it in scientificese. RuthDenton, Texas Dearest Ruth, As you well remember, 55 mph was decreed the national speed limit in 1973. It was lifted in rural areas in 1987, but stuck around …

Umbra on architectural salvage

Dear Umbra, We recently replaced the doorknobs in our place, so we have a fistful of old yet working doorknobs I’d hate to just toss. What to do with this and other perfectly good hardware? R.B.M.Arlington, Va. Dearest R.B.M., This answer goes out to you, but also to all your fellow home remodelers out there. One person’s old doorknob is another’s period-restoration item, as the adage goes. Don’t knock it. You can, of course, try to sell your knobs on the internet. I just amused myself by looking at doorknobs on eBay. Is it truly worth the effort to list, …

Umbra on windows

Dear Umbra, I just bought an old house and need to replace some of the windows. Are there alternatives to vinyl windows that will still cut down on heat loss? Noah WinerPhiladelphia, Pa. Dearest Noah, I hope I’ve caught you before you’ve placed your window order, because you are at a moment of opportunity. Window replacement will make a huge difference in your house’s energy efficiency. You could be losing up to a third of your heat through those old windows, and I’m sure they’re not helping with cooling either. What a pane. Here are the basic window-shopping questions: Does …

Umbra on why we shouldn’t waste energy

Dear Umbra, I am doing a big geography project at school on saving energy and recycling. My part is to comment on what will happen if we keep wasting energy. I know the basic information, but I am not sure what to write, as it is to be given out to adults (and I’m only 12!). Please send me some useful information because I am really stuck! LauraHeartfordshire, U.K. Dearest Laura, There are a few things that happen as we keep wasting energy. One, we will run out. Two, energy makes a mess, so the more we use the messier …

Umbra on offsetting emissions from flatulence

Dear Umbra, I was wondering if there is any information about the average CO2 emissions from human flatulence. My friend (and I really do mean my friend, I’m not just trying to hide that it’s for me) has a birthday coming up, and I think it would be a fun and meaningful gift to get him renewable-energy credits for his CO2 emissions. Thanks! MattAshland, Wis. Dearest Matt, When I first began writing this column three years ago, I thought I’d have to fake questions, but curious humans like yourself make that quite unnecessary. (In general, I believe advice columnists don’t …

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