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 channeling gray water to the garden

Dear Umbra, As part of my water-conservation strategy, I’d like to reuse the rinse water from my laundry machine to water the native plants, many of them edible, in my yard. I’ve heard concerns about the soap (biodegradable) damaging the plants. There are also potentially some regulatory hurdles involved. Can you shed some light on this? Thanks, WendyGray All the WaySeattle, Wash. Dearest Gray All the Way, Congratulations on having a water-conservation strategy. All praise to those with a plan, and all praise to gray-water recycling. Gray water, other dear readers, is all the wastewater from your home excepting the …

Umbra on mulch

Dear Umbra, Spring is upon us and the season for spreading shredded bits of trees around our landscaping is here. How does Umbra feel about the utility of mulching, and what is the environmental impact of mulch production? OmarEllicott City, Md. Dearest Omar, Umbra feels excited about spring, I’ll tell you that much. Umbra is jumping up and down with glee, sometimes on top of slugs. Umbra is very pro-mulch, and very happy to choose mulch questions over diaper questions. (Don’t worry about it, parents!) Mulch — pile it on! Photo: NRCS. Mulching is piling any type of organic material …

Umbra on whether to eco-retrofit an old car

My husband is an environmentalist. He wants one of the new alternative-fuel cars, but I have a dream to surprise him for his birthday with a 1970 muscle car (a Malibu or something like that) from his youth, which I would retrofit with a biodiesel or natural-gas engine. My questions are: 1. Should I put in a biodiesel engine or a natural-gas engine? 2. Who can do this for me in California (preferably the Bay Area)? 3. How much should I expect to pay to have this done? LucyBelvedere, Calif. Dearest Lucy, I’m glad you wrote before rushing out to …

Umbra on the climate-change literacy of Umbra readers

Dearest Readers, Happy Earth Day. I have mixed feelings as I look forward to the planet’s special holiday tomorrow. Happiness on the occasion of anniversaries: Grist (six years), me at Grist (three years), Earth Day (35 years). Sadness, for this column shall be my last edited by my august editor, and we are having an argument. We disagree about the climate-change literacy of Umbra readers, and we must settle things peacefully before she passes me off to another editor. She offered to arm wrestle, but I’m no fool. She’s short but powerful. There’s only one way to settle our dispute: …

Umbra on nuclear energy

Dear Umbra, What are your thoughts on the reconsidering of nuclear power as a viable solution for helping with energy shortages and improving environmental conditions? I was shocked to hear a “scientist” say (in a “no duh,” matter-of-fact type of way) that nuclear power is far cheaper and cleaner than our current coal- and oil-based energy system. He even talked about how much radiation is leaked when burning coal. MarkSan Francisco, Calif. Dearest Mark, My thoughts on the reconsidering of nuclear power: Well, like you, my head is awhirl from a recent conversation. This fascinating chat was with — real …

Umbra on getting up to speed on enviro issues

Dear Umbra, I am new to the environmental movement, and I was wondering how you keep track of the major issues within it, because there are so many! Also, do you have any books to recommend on the history of the environmental movement? NaomiVictoria, British Columbia, Canada Dearest Naomi, Grist, of course! In addition to the website, you can get smart, pithy, funny summaries of breaking environmental news delivered free via email on a daily and/or weekly basis (in fact, if you subscribe to one of Grist‘s emails this month, you could win a trip to Iceland!). I get both …

Umbra on conserving water

Dear Umbra, Twenty years ago, I lived off the grid and learned how to conserve water. That lesson stayed with me, and it’s agonizing for me to witness the cavalier, wasteful treatment of precious freshwater. My elderly mother moved in with me two years ago, and all is lovely and fine, except that she wastes more water with basic household activities than any single individual I’ve ever seen. Do you have any suggestions on household water conservation? While many water-saving methods are obvious to me, they have escaped my mother’s attention, despite my not-so-subtle hints and suggestions. Thanks for any …

Umbra on talking about environmentalism without being preachy

Dear Umbra, Since you’re the closest thing to Miss Manners that the environmental community has, I’d like to ask for your etiquette advice. I was recently on vacation with some friends and friends of friends and was disturbed by the lack of environmental awareness. For example: the 30-mile round-trips to get a takeout latte. Really. We were — relatively speaking — in the middle of nowhere, but apparently that was no reason to forgo one’s daily amenities. I was desperate to say something along the lines of “Have you not heard of global warming?” but that seemed counterproductive. Any suggestions …

Umbra on having kids, revisited

Dear Umbra, What do you feel is the one issue of personal responsibility regarding the environment that people ignore the most? VaughnJackson, Tenn. Dearest Vaughn, Reproduction. But what can you do? As I said the other time I touched this topic with a 10-foot pole, we don’t make childbearing choices based on politics. If we don’t want kids, we bolster that decision by patting ourselves on our environmentally aware backs. If we do want kids, we scoff at the notion that we would avoid creating life and happiness simply because kids will consume and pollute. Teach your children well. Photo: …

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