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 joining your first environmental organization

Dear Umbra, I am new to the environmental world, and looking for ways to help and organizations to join. It took me a while to find Greenpeace. I am wondering what other organizations are out there, and my friends (and I’m sure other Grist readers) would also like to know. Ayla Pinus elliottii var. densaNaples, Fla. Dearest Ms. Slash Pine, Happily, this is a difficult question to answer, because there are so dang many organizations out there. Welcome, welcome to the bounty of 21st century environmentalism. We’re glad to have you. You say you want to find “ways to help.” …

Umbra on finding the right green job

Dear Umbra, I am in the midst of getting my master’s in environmental science and policy. I am so sick of reading and researching — I just want to get out and do something. My thesis is on composting (of industrial and municipal wastes), but my true love is water. While I have a pretty good background in everything from chemistry to physics, I see myself as the “master of none.” Essentially, what I want to ask you is: What should I do when I grow up? What is the best water job out there that helps the environment, or …

Umbra on clotheslines

Dear Umbra, We would like to install a clothesline this summer to take advantage of the few months of sun that we get here in Oregon. Any advice on the best kind, and how to keep air-dried clothes from feeling like cardboard? German WhitleyPhilomath, Ore. Dearest German, Excellent. If your power supplier is, as I suspect, Consumers Power Inc. in Philomath, you are paying about 7 cents per kilowatt-hour; their handy electricity calculator says drying five loads of laundry a week is costing you $56 per year. So, besides reducing demand on the electric grid, drying your clothes outside will …

Umbra on shaving

Dear Umbra, Every morning when I shave, I stare in the mirror and wonder if my razor is the best choice for the environment. I realize the easy answer is to let the beard grow. Except the problem is, lots of today’s environmentalists are quietly waging their struggles in modern offices, where beards do not sit well with the management. And besides the risk of my boss telling me I look unprofessional, a beard is a surefire way to guarantee that no one takes my environmental ideas seriously. Plus I’m single, and I don’t want to blow my chances of …

Umbra on reducing emissions, one person at a time

Dear Umbra, I want to adopt the Kyoto treaty myself and adjust my lifestyle accordingly. No waiting, and to hell with George Bush! If my nation had adopted it, I’d have to be doing it anyway. So what is my per-capita fossil-fuel ration for the next 10 years, how do I measure it, how do I account for indirect consumption, etc.? Please advise. Thanks! Hans NoeldnerOregon, Wis. Dearest Hans, Good for you. The average American emits 6.6 tons of greenhouse gases per year. Gadzooks! Lots of room for improvement. Better calculate than never. As you live in an industrialized nation, …

Umbra on unclogging without chemicals

Dear Umbra, How does one unclog a clogged bathtub drain without pouring toxic chemicals directly into the waste stream? Allie CatBoiling Springs, Penn. Dearest Allie Cat, I don’t believe that’s your real name. But yours is a noble question. Let’s get motivated by reviewing a Drano material safety data sheet [PDF], where we find that the product has a hazard rating of “high,” that “mixing with other cleaning products may cause toxic gas,” and that Drano may cause “chemical burns” to the eye, “moderate skin irritation,” or “severe damage to the digestive tract.” Alright! We’re ready to replace toxicity with …

Umbra on the perennial packaging dilemma

Dear Umbra, I was recently elected the social chairperson of my subdivision’s swim/tennis/social club. Now I’m in charge of party planning for a group of about 150 families. While shopping at Costco, I wondered which is better for the environment: several 128-ounce jugs of apple juice plus many plastic cups, or lots of 6.75-ounce juice boxes that would equal the same juice volume, or the equivalent in 10-ounce plastic bottles? (Glass bottles aren’t really an option because most parties are at the pool, where glass isn’t allowed.) As this is just the first of about 10 parties planned for the …

Umbra on whether to visit national parks

Dear Umbra, We are considering a driving vacation this summer with the intent of visiting as many of America’s wonderful national parks as we can — both to enjoy them and to add some money to their coffers, which have been depleted in recent years. But as we all know, burning up lots of gasoline is bad for the environment. My question is: would it be a better environmental choice to drive around and support the national parks, or stay home and not spew all those hydrocarbons into the atmosphere? Jan McCrearySilver City, N.M. Dearest Jan, Our parks are indeed …

Umbra on letter-writing campaigns

Dear Umbra, I just switched to all-natural cleaning products (Seventh Generation, it’s great!) and I wanted my switch to have the most impact possible. I was thinking about sending emails to the companies whose cleaning products I had previously used, telling them why I switched, describing the nasty effects of their products, and encouraging them to change their products to be earth-friendly. I also thought I would send this email to all of my friends, encouraging them to send it to their friends, and cc’ing the company in question each time. Since I have never sent a letter to a …

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