It’s always a pleasure when scientific studies confirm your own long-held opinions, especially when what you think flies in the face of all conventional wisdom.
For instance, who knew that chocolate éclairs and triple fudge caramel brownies actually contain fewer calories than a 12-ounce glass of skim milk? Or that every $1,000 you spend on lavish vacations before the age of 65 will, over the long run, provide you with more retirement income than if you’d stashed that same $1,000 in a savings account?
Well, to be honest, I made up the fact about the éclairs. And the one about vacations, too.
But here’s bona fide scholarly research that excites me in the same way: Biking for transportation appears more helpful in losing weight and promoting health than working out at the gym.
Environmentalists and green marketers are always talking about “saving the planet.” Buy this car, this laundry detergent, or this light bulb and you will help save “the planet” or “nature” or “the environment.” Jenny Price, for one, wishes they’d stop.
Price is an activist, historian, and self-appointed Los Angeles urban ranger. When she’s not trying to inject a little humor into the generally unfunny world of environmental preaching with her satiric blog Green Me Up, JJ, she gives tours of the concretized L.A. River. She’d be happy to tell you why she loves the river, why it is every bit a part and parcel of “nature,” and why she thinks that places like this have got to be at the core of the environmental movement.
When it comes to rhetoric about “saving the planet,” she has two main beefs: First, it encourages a “greener-than-thou” form of preachy consumerism that does not encourage real change nor help those most in need. Second, the rhetoric clings desperately to the historical notion that nature = pristine wilderness, obscuring the muddy, mixed up reality visible in places like her beloved L.A. River.
The vast majority of our stateside fruits and vegetables are handpicked by more than 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Without those farmworkers, we'd be very hungry. But as a whole those workers are treated like hell: They're underpaid, underinsured, and undereducated. About half of them are undocumented, and only about a third are U.S. citizens. These workers bear the brunt of our food system with their bodies, but only California requires that they get water and bathroom breaks. On average, one farmworker dies on the job every day in the U.S., and laborers can be as young as 12 -- legally.
I wrote a (rather heady) post this morning about the move from centralized to distributed energy systems. Thanks to John Farrell -- who, by the way, is the guru of distributed energy -- I just came across a great example of how it's beginning to happen.
NRG Energy is a huge provider of power to U.S. utilities, the biggest single provider, actually, with a large fleet of enormous fossil fuel plants. But now it's getting into a different business. NRG has started selling solar panels directly to homeowners. And it intends to couple those solar systems with fuel cells and micro-turbines that can generate power from natural gas, to serve as backup when the sun isn't shining.
What happens then? NRG CEO David Crane puts it this way: "The individual homeowner should be able to tie a machine to their natural gas line and tie that with solar on the roof and suddenly they can say to the transmission-distribution company, 'Disconnect that line.'" Put more simply, consumers will realize "they don't need the power industry at all."
I have a confession: I’m a cynic when it comes to living small. I like to garden and ride bikes; I buy local whenever I can. But I don’t think my personal lifestyle choices are going to save the world -- and neither will yours.
I’m not alone. Just ask Greg Sharzer, a frustrated Marxist activist with a PhD in Political Science from York University who also enjoys cycling and Fair Trade coffee. Sharzer’s book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World is a bucket of ice water on fresh-faced progressive localism, and an affront to the concept of micro solutions altogether. Localism is a survival strategy, Sharzer writes, not a movement, and not a solution.
Localism says we can change how we act within capitalism. If consumers don’t like a commodity, they can demonstrate their commitment to a better one. Choose to support ethical, small-scale businesses, and little by little the excesses of economic growth will disappear. Community gardening, farmers’ markets, and biodiesel cooperatives will change the entrenched power of agribusiness, for example.
For Sharzer, progressive localism and small acts come from a place of "deep pessimism," a sense that the problems are just too big to tackle. He criticizes lifestyle localism for seeking to model behavior for others while not confronting the powers that made us all oil-addicts in the first place.
It's not that micro solutions are wrong, per se. It's just that they aren't solutions. Buying local organic veggies -- or better yet, growing your own -- is great, but it's not a replacement for fighting for the rights of the people who pick the fields for 10 cents per head of lettuce.
The wave of small-scale power generation technologies -- technically known as distributed energy resource (DER) systems -- that are growing in use or undergoing rapid development across Europe, from fuel cells to micro turbines, photovoltaic systems and reciprocating engines, do indeed point to a fundamental change in the way, and by whom, power is generated, transmitted and stored.
It's not just about the power generation, of course, it's also about storage, intelligent management, and demand reduction. It's about creating a lean, resilient, just-in-time electricity system to replace the lumbering dinosaur we live with today.
The centralized paradigm, which still dominates, is simple. It's a one-way street from generators to transmission to distribution to (passive) consumers:
The localized paradigm is more complex, with power going every which way, via multiple technologies:
Odd, then, to remember that less than three years ago, CNBC’s stock market “analyst” Jim Cramer declared that Monsanto’s was “the worst stock of 2010.” This came just before Forbes magazine all but withdrew its 2010 accolade that Monsanto was “company of the year.”
Monsanto had all the hallmarks of a troubled company. Its net income dropped nearly by half in 2010. By October, its stock dropped by almost that much. But those were just the most obvious indicators.
While it’s true that, even at the time, the company dominated the seed industry -- 85 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. that year contained Monsanto’s patented genetically modified traits, as did 92 percent of soy -- its products were taking a beating both in the fields and in the mainstream press. Word spread of the rise of superweeds that were immune to Monsanto’s pesticides, while farmers complained that Monsanto’s new SmartStax seeds were overpriced and no more effective than the old. At the same time, its flagship Roundup Ready product was about to go “off-patent,” and analysts were expecting a flood of “generic” (and much cheaper) pesticide-resistant seeds on the market.
On the equinox, March 20, a mostly forgotten sliver of a city neighborhood, where Goldeneyes and Coots fly low and fast along the river, the stalks of last season’s brush still steeped in snow, hummed with the celebration of the season’s unfolding.
They gathered along the water’s banks, cutting back old growth, repairing paths and railings fashioned from tree branches. And when the day’s labor was done, the local chorus, calling themselves the Bullfrogs, sang songs bidding farewell to winter with a rousing cheer to spring.
This is life among the Riverbank Neighbors, ages 0 to 90, so named because of their close proximity to the once-shunned North Branch of the Chicago River and the life they’ve built around it. In one breath, they are both a throwback and the future, recalling a time when community thrived, often centered around the local landscape. Their recapture of life writ small and meaningful makes the art of porch sitting seem regal, a wooden step, a throne.
257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in the Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It’s otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.
“There are more opportunities because of everything that’s happened in the last six months,” Matthew says.
In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or, like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there’s a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce -- sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.