Skip to content Skip to site navigation

More Articles


Alpha & Omega-3s: Salmon farmers’ quest for the ultimate green feed


Fish farming gets a lot of flack, and salmon often bears the brunt of it. Much of this has to do with the fish food -- namely, the old saw that it takes an average of three pounds of wild fish to make one pound of domesticated salmon. But then why is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vaunted Seafood Watch program, for the first time ever, giving ocean-farmed salmon its seal of semi-approval as a “good alternative”? What’s more, these salmon, from Verlasso, were spawned by agri- and aquacultural behemoths, DuPont and AquaChile, and fattened with the help of genetically modified organisms. …

Read more: Food


Dairy tale: New tech could turn small farms into the land of milk and money


It was after 6 p.m. and approaching 0 degrees Fahrenheit on a March evening when Doug Turner started the second milking of the day of his 42 cows at the family farm in Waitsfield, Vt. In a work-worn orange hoodie and flannel-lined jeans, the third-generation farmer started from the southeast corner of the barn, attaching one of his three milking machines to the swollen udder of a black and white cow.

“This one’s my oldest,” Turner told me, patting Bianca, a Holstein approaching her 13th birthday.

The milk flowed out of the barn, through a steel hose, to the tank in Turner’s cramped, old-fashioned milk house. Every other day, a milk truck from Organic Valley picks up this dairy and brings it to a processing facility -- the closest ones are in Connecticut or New York -- where it is pasteurized, homogenized, packaged, and dispatched to the grocery shelf.

All told, the average American gallon of milk travels 320 miles from udder to grocery store shelf, a journey that often crosses state borders. That seems like a long way to go, given that milk is produced in all 50 states.  

But farmers don’t have much control over where their milk goes, or how much they get for it. If Turner can’t get by on what Organic Valley will pay him, he’s short on options. Striking out on his own, and setting his own price, would mean massive costs of starting his own processing plant. Now, new developments in micro-pasteurization from a Vermont company could change that.

Many of the farms that were here when I grew up in central Vermont have closed now, and much of the milk produced by the remaining few goes straight out of state. I set out to look at this technology to see if it could be the key to cutting down on dairy miles and saving small farms.


Ask Umbra: Is it irresponsible to use cloth diapers in a drought?


Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I am about to have a baby. I had planned to use cloth diapers after the first two weeks, but given the California drought, I am not sure that is the best idea. I've read much of the literature about sustainability of cloth diapers over other alternatives, but given the state of emergency, I wonder if the benefits still hold over disposables.

Marisa R.
Irvine, Calif.

A. Dearest Marisa,

Congratulations on your impending bundle of joy! It sounds like you’re well-prepared for one of parenthood’s primary side effects: A 1,000-percent increase in the amount of time spent thinking and talking about poop. As diapers are about to become a major part of your life, it makes sense to get your strategy pinned down now.

The party line here at Ask Umbra is that disposables and cloth diapers are basically a draw, environmentally speaking. As spelled out in a comprehensive life cycle assessment from the British Environment Agency, disposable nappies create a much larger landfill burden, but cloth ones require much more water, both to grow and process the cotton and also to wash the diapers. However, a severe drought does indeed change the calculus here.

Read more: Living



Thanks to these sweet posters, green habits have never looked cooler

Oliver Cheshire

It's that time of year again! Do the Green Thing is celebrating Earth Hour by releasing a new poster every day until March 29. The posters, often created by big designer names, are aimed at encouraging folks to, well, do the green thing. Here are some of our favorites. See more great posters and follow the project


New report warns of “cascading system failure” caused by climate change


From roads and bridges to power plants and gas pipelines, American infrastructure is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to a pair of government reports released Thursday.

The reports are technical documents supporting the National Climate Assessment, a major review compiled by 13 government agencies that the U.S. Global Change Research Program is expected to release in April. Scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory put together the reports, which warn that climate-fueled storms, flooding and droughts could cause "cascading system failures" unless there are changes made to minimize those effects. Island Press has published the full-length version of the reports, which focus on energy and infrastructure more broadly.

Thomas Wilbanks, a research fellow at Oak Ridge and the lead author and editor of the reports, said this is the first attempt to look at the climate implications across all sectors and regions. Rather than isolating specific types of infrastructure, Wilbanks said, the report looks at how "one impact can have impacts on the others."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Big Oil’s new strategy: If you can’t build a new pipeline, just overload the old one


Yesterday, Canadian pipeline behemoth Enbridge won government approval for its plans for 9B, one of the most contentious pipes in pipe business. While it doesn't get much press, 9B is important because it's part of a hot, new trend in trans-national pipe dreams: Skirting environmental review, and public scrutiny, by pumping dirty crude through existing pipelines rather than building new ones.

Enbridge wants to use 9B to carry up to 300,000 barrels of tar-sands oil per day to Quebec for refining and export. And it is determined to not repeat the mistakes of TransCanada, the company behind the much-maligned (and very publicly held-up) Keystone XL pipeline. Thus the tactic of reusing old lines, a game that it has already played with several other pipes.


No, we’re not “environmentalists.” It’s more complicated than that

Image by Maria Popova

We’ve been called out: Millennials are not environmentalists. A new Pew Research Center report says that only 32 percent of people born after 1980 identify themselves as such -- versus 42 percent of people born between 1965 and 1980, or even 44 percent of those born after 1945. But, as someone born in 1988, I find it hard to believe any of those numbers actually matter.

The old guard loves to harp on us for being an apathetic, unmotivated, and lazy bunch (old guards tend to make a habit of this, regardless of the era). OK, as a generation, we might not be storming the streets, or the seas, a lá Greenpeace -- but judging by the host of things still going badly for planet Earth, while that kind of activism may be admirable, it seems clear it's not the silver bullet. Growing up with a universe of information constantly at our fingertips means we know every issue is complicated and loaded with unintended consequence. We know solutions that rely on preachiness or dogmatism won't last. So think of us as hipsters who embrace the complicated (though I would never call a unique individual such as myself a hipster. Ahem). 

Read more: Living


House Republicans just passed a good environmental bill, believe it or not

suited man with "efficiency" button

Political junkies have become so accustomed to House Republicans’ venomous hatred of environmental regulation that they could be forgiven for assuming that no environmental legislation would pass the House as long as the GOP controlled it. But on Wednesday, proving that one should never say never, the House approved a measure to improve energy efficiency in both the public and private sectors.

The Energy Efficiency Improvement Act, which overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 375-36, is similar to a bipartisan bill that was reintroduced in the Senate last week. The House bill calls for several steps to reduce electricity waste, including:

  • Create a “Tenant Star” program, modeled on Energy Star, that would establish best practices for efficiency in commercial tenant spaces and set up a voluntary certification system.


We’re hypnotized by these artsy time-lapse animated GIFs of cities

Sunset at the Bund
© Fong Qi Wei
Sunset at the Bund

Fong Qi Wei is a super-talented photographer from Singapore who happens to have combined two of our favorite things: time lapses and GIFs. (Oh yeah, and cities. Three favorite things.) The artist captured China, Indonesia, and Bali over a several-hour period, usually sunset, and then spliced the photos together to create beautiful animated images:

Chinatown Sunset
© Fong Qi Wei
Chinatown Sunset

Writes Wei on his site:

Read more: Cities, Living


Bernie, if you care about the climate, don’t run for president as an independent

Bernie Sanders, Josh Lopez

Are you feeling frustrated by the lack of action in Washington on the biggest problems facing the nation, such as economic inequality and climate change? Are you tired of watching a moderate Democratic president stuck in stalemate with Republicans in Congress? Well, help may be on the way, in the form of a left-wing presidential campaign that will make you feel good about yourself. Don’t worry that it could take votes from the Democratic nominee and potentially toss the election to the Republican. Ralph Nader did just that in 2000, and things worked out OK, didn’t they?

In an interview with The Nation, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, says, “I am prepared to run for president of the United States.” But he hasn’t made up his mind about whether to run in the Democratic primary or as an independent. He says, “I haven’t reached a conclusion on that yet. Clearly, there are things to be said on both sides of that important question.” And then he muses about how there's a record-high number of independent voters in the country, but getting in televised debates as an independent would be impossible. (Sanders must expect that like Nader, but unlike Ross Perot, he wouldn't have the polling numbers to qualify for the debates.)

Based on the experience of right-wing insurgent candidates such as Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson, it seems obvious that running in the primaries will attract the most attention to a candidate who is at one end of the political spectrum. By competing in the Republican primaries, conservative extremists have generated headlines and extracted concessions at the Republican convention.

But that's less important than the fact that presidential elections are not just an opportunity to advertise a platform. They result in the election of the most powerful officeholder in the world.