And other words from readers
Thanks go to Umbra for outlining her perspectives on the environmental consequences of childrearing. I agree wholeheartedly and have found myself in both a personal struggle and heated arguments about the topic with friends.
I now have one child and plan, though guiltily, to keep it this way. I am under a huge amount of pressure from people around me to have more children, yet I feel I’ve contributed enough to extending my line of consumption with one! People have tried to argue to me that we need more children from people like us, to make the world a better place. I couldn’t agree less! We can’t predict or determine how our children will turn out. We can predict that they will consume at least the same amount of resources as we do, though.
I am disturbed by arguments that the real population problem is in the “third world,” for want of a better term. How racist and prejudiced can we get! I really believe that we have to practice what we preach, and if we recognize that the human population is putting undue pressures on the rest of the world’s inhabitants and natural resources, then we should try to reduce our population growth by having fewer children, and we should raise our kids in the most environmentally responsible manner we can, giving them the skills to become self-sufficient and to respect the rest of the planet.
Thanks for confirming my long-held thoughts.
I’m a rarity — a childless woman by choice. Thanks for reminding me that along with not having an overwhelming desire to have a child, it’s one more way that I’m helping our planet.
I am a 20-year-old college student and very aware of the fate this planet is heading toward. As a result I will never have children. Many people do not understand my reasons, but if the world has this many problems now, what will it be like when my child is 20? The answer scares me. I cannot bring a child into this world because I do not feel this is the type of life we were meant to live. There is too much suffering when you open your eyes to see it.
I completely agree with Umbra’s stance on reproduction. I think Americans should start using their advantages to help others. Instead of having your own child, adopt one — you could make a big difference in a helpless life.
And another thing: Women who don’t want to have children should be praised, not looked down upon. It means one more woman free to channel her caring instinct toward many others and not just her offspring.
First off, let me commend Umbra and the rest of the Grist staff for adding a hint of humor to what are otherwise “heavy” subjects.
heavy subjects, I just finished reading your article discussing the pros and cons of bringing more people into the world (in the form of children, no less!). This topic, and many similar ones, always makes me think of a deeper problem: growth.
My question is this: Why do you think that 99.9 percent of 21st century North Americans (most enviros included) still seem to have the “frontier” mentality that never questions whether “growth” is actually a good thing? We can talk about childbearing, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, renewable energy, and recycling until we are blue(box) in the face. The most important point is the one that rarely seems to surface. Is more better? When does more become too much?
I don’t know about your part of the world, but in mine, people who are in favor of a stable (read: zero-growth) economy and lifestyle are often branded anti-development, anti-immigration radicals. Is it possible to get the message out that growth is often bad?
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Hurray for Umbra! Tackling the emotionally charged subject of population growth is never easy, but it is at the core of all of our environmental problems. From dams that destroy salmon habitat, to factory farms that churn out food while pouring pesticides on plants and soil, to the homes and apartments being built to house our ever-burgeoning numbers, to pretend human population growth isn’t the root of the problem is to hide one’s head in the sand.
I chose to have one child. He is now 33 years old. I talk to as many people as I can about the environmental impact of reproducing ourselves. I want my one grandson to have a livable world and the only way to make that happen is to limit our own out-of-control growth as well as our over-the-top consumption. Both have to happen for our world to survive.
I was more than a little pleased to read Umbra’s brave words on population in our super-consuming society. Although the population of North Americans is perhaps the greatest threat to all other life on the planet, it has become too politically incorrect to even discuss. The fact is that more of us means less of everything else.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was primarily about population. Then there were 203 million Americans. Today there are 80 million more. Please do what you can to encourage honest discussion about the impact of breeding Americans.
We decided to “replace ourselves” by having two children, no more. We figured that would not impact the earth overall, and we would be bringing two little environmentalists into the world. I believe we have been successful. Our oldest lives simply and peacefully with others, while our youngest is a homesteader like we are.
Free Soil, Mich.
Kudos on a chick-o-centric column! As a mom of one, I think you’re right-on about the joys and eco-malignancies of parenthood — though my six-year-old is vegetarian, wears used clothes, and knows about the evils of coal-burning power plants, he’s been on 84 plane flights. Perfection is tough.
And thanks for mentioning the usually unmentioned Keeper — it’s a teeny bit weird to get used to, but the feelings of virtue that accompany its use are bountiful (and it works!). Brava!
The President of The Keeper, Inc., Ms. Lou Crawford, has asked me to write and thank you for your wonderful column proclaiming the virtues of our product.
Neither Lou nor I had ever heard of your online publication when orders started coming in as a result of your column. Lou asked me to go online to investigate. What a wonderful treat! I literally spent hours browsing, reading, and smiling.
Thanks for your article on the Keeper. Guilt-ridden by my monthly contribution to the landfill, I have picked up a Keeper box at the store many times only to put it back down. I was worried it would leak. After reading your article, I went to the Keeper website and was finally convinced. I should receive my Keeper in a week or two. Thanks so much!
I discovered the Keeper over 10 years ago. It’s great, except I developed an allergy to the rubber! Not a place you want an allergic reaction. Please let people know that if they have a prior sensitivity to latex, or if they begin to have itching or other discomfort, to stop use of the Keeper. It is a great option for those who can use it, but not for everyone.
While I give Umbra a lot of credit for mentioning reusable cotton pads as an alternative to tampons, I think she forgot to raise some really important points. If anyone is grossed out by the details of menstruation, now would be a good time to stop reading.
Firstly, the water in which reusable cotton menstrual pads are soaked (provided no soap is used) is an invaluable source of nutrients for plants in the garden. It’s rich in all kinds of minerals — think fertilizer that’s completely organic and free. When people admire the produce from my organic garden, I smile knowingly and accept the compliment, but really, it’s my menstruation that deserves the credit.
Secondly, I think that Umbra should’ve mentioned the health hazards of tampons. I realize that the question posed was in relation to the environment, but it’s becoming well-known that the rayon and other fibers in tampons stay in one’s body even once a tampon is removed.
I must comment about this article’s title. I felt that it was very crude and horribly wrong! I had always admired the wit of your titles until this one. I am totally repulsed by it! If you were one of my children, I would have said, “Shame on you! Your father and I raised you with a better vocabulary than that!” I would have also said that it shows a total disrespect for women and their situation at that time.
You do so much good that it’s a shame you lowered yourself to make a gutter comment like this. I am very disappointed in you.
The Daily Grist gets it only partially right in digesting an article from the San Francisco Chronicle on high levels of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) in San Francisco. The study the Chronicle cites appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental Health Perspectives, simultaneously published a parallel study in Indiana, showing that there, too, PBDE levels are high — in fact, comparable to the California levels and some 20 to 100 times higher than levels in Sweden, a country that has already moved to ban PBDEs because of their persistence and bioaccumulative potential. Thus, focusing on PBDEs as contributors to the high levels of breast cancer in the Bay area probably is misplaced. The parallel and independent studies in both California and Indiana suggest PBDEs are probably elevated widely in the U.S. Perhaps more important, PBDEs are thyroid disruptors, not estrogen disruptors, and hence the big concern should be about brain development in exposed fetuses, not breast cancer.
White Hall, Va.
Bill McKibben is dead right in suggesting that we Europeans saw the true worth of the word of a member of the Bush administration when the Kyoto Protocol was rejected outright. Bush’s claims to be in possession of strategic vision ring very hollow considering that the U.S. couldn’t even sign up to the limited measures envisaged under Kyoto.
It is becoming ever harder to give any sympathetic hearing to the U.S. policy on Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Yes, we know he must be contained and ultimately dealt with. However, why is there such an urgency that another month couldn’t be given to the U.N. in order to arrive at a consensus?
Sympathy across the world was almost universally with the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001, certainly in Britain and Western Europe. However, most of that goodwill has been frittered away by an administration that seems incapable of any subtlety or finesse in its diplomacy. We have had far too much Donald Rumsfeld and too little Colin Powell. A lack of coordination has left many of us wondering how much coherent thinking takes place in the Bush White House.
When this is coupled with foreign policy that is conducted both high-handedly and incompetently — suggesting, for example, that France has no right to any opinion that doesn’t agree with the U.S. view — it just confirms our belief in the arrogance of many Americans. Might isn’t always right. And all the military might that the U.S. presently possesses may not be of much use against a few determined terrorists in the longer run. Wars in the 21st century may well turn out to be asymmetrical in character. As Israel is discovering in the West Bank, it is hard to fight kids throwing stones with tanks and helicopter gunships without losing any sympathy for your cause.
If only Al Gore had had a brother to help him win the election instead of just winning more votes than his opponent, wouldn’t things have been different. At least the U.S. would have had a president who knew what he was talking about.
Let’s hope the president’s newfound enthusiasm for nation-building in Iraq lasts longer than his commitment to Kyoto, the biological weapons treaty, the antiballistic missile treaty, nuclear test bans, and all the other agreements reneged on since he began his administration.
Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland
I think McKibben raises a good point. Bush’s true colors shone through in his reaction to Kyoto and Europeans seem to have forgotten this less than Americans. Of course Saddam is a bum and none of us protestors were protesting “for Saddam,” as the extreme right in the U.S. were saying.
The question boils down to one of ends and means. And this is how McKibben is off somewhat in assuming that the issue is just about trust. It is also about logic. Meaning, even if we were to trust Bush that Saddam is a “mounting threat,” it’s clear that Bush has the wrong solution as to what to do about it. That is, most of us agree on the ends, it seems. It’s the means that have us all in a knot. More importantly, the means that Bush is proposing are so at odds with his supposed ends that a heck of a lot of us don’t really think they’re his ends at all. He does this a lot. He gives to the rich (targeted tax cuts) to help the poor (economy stimulated … not), gives greater forest access to loggers to save the forests (from fires), starts war because he wants peace, harasses Arabs and others to prevent terror … the list could go on.
The greatest irony to me at the moment is that at some point, some group of Arabs might have thought that crashing planes into the World Trade Center would actually get the U.S. to wake up and look at itself. In other words, they had the means and ends thing screwed up too. Big time — only made things worse.
The CIA has announced that the U.S. is no safer from terrorism than it was on Sept. 11. Surprise. You’ve been trying to fight terror with terror. Doesn’t work.
I don’t think oil is the whole story here, but it surely is a huge part of it. And so to the extent that it is, the wiser means to the desired end of ridding us of both maniacal leaders is to get off oil in all ways — through renewables, bike riding, efficiency, better design, and hydrogen. Freeing the people of Iraq from sanctions and helping them take charge and own their own coup might help too.
Re: This Just In, Heat Beat, by Leonie Haimson
Can you name an industry that has met the Kyoto Protocol targets by totally voluntary measures? The U.S. carpet industry. They have the same CO2 emissions today as in 1990 and they are producing 47 percent more product. Just thought you’d like to know there is a little bit of good news out there.
Werner H. Braun
President, Carpet and Rug Institute
I liked the piece on proposed ethanol plants in Cambria, Wis. I agree that family farms are a vanishing species. Having ADM control the ethanol market is adding to this problem, and in the long run our dependence on monoculture is detrimental to the environment, including the longevity of soil.
I also know that ethanol is one option to help us get off our dependence on oil. Instead of objecting to ethanol, let’s get at the real problem: corporate dominance over politics, the environment, buying power, even our foreign policy. Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann is an excellent expose on the emergence of corporate “personhood” and the rise of corporate power.
Corporations are not evil as some activists would claim. Corporate structure is a very efficient way of getting things done. Corporations are capable of doing great good. However, the combination of tremendous power and anonymity have lead to abuse and corruption. This is the underlying cause of much suffering now on a global scale.
I read with interest the piece by Sarah Lloyd about the debate in her Wisconsin community over whether an ethanol plant should locate there — even more so because it is almost in my backyard.
Last autumn I purchased an alternative fuel vehicle (a Ford Taurus) that operates on 85 percent ethanol, or E-85 (as well as pure gasoline or anything in between, for when I am not able to find an E-85 station). I thought very carefully in making the decision to fuel with E-85 instead of gasoline. The environmental concern was most compelling. Through a combination of driving less (especially the more-polluting short trips) and using a fuel that produces 35-40 percent lower greenhouse-gas emissions, I can reduce my adverse impact on the environment by my transportation choices.
What about ADM? No, I am not comfortable with near-monopoly conditions in the ethanol industry and am concerned about the effect of large-scale agribusiness on the farm economy. But I ask those who oppose ethanol fuels on that basis to explain how ADM — as bad as that company may be for family farming — is any worse than oil companies? Would you rather have your personal fuel dollars supporting Exxon and Shell? Furthermore, there would appear to be more of an opportunity for a small, independent ethanol producer to get a share of the market than for an independent in the oil industry. Yes, we need to be concerned about ADM gobbling up too big a share of an emerging industry. Opposing an independent ethanol producer who wants to build a plant seems counterproductive from that perspective.
Certainly there are many “gray area” questions about ethanol fuel, but as a relatively “green” choice that people can make right now (or at least the next time they replace a car), it’s far preferable to continued addiction to fossil fuels.
Re: Good, Clean Fun
So glad to see that Shaklee got a mention in your article about spring cleaning. They offer a range of cleaning products for any job in the house or workshop. Their germicide is a fantastic substitute for Lysol. All of their products are wonderful. I’ve been a proud customer of Shaklee products for 20-plus years and I have a clean conscience too!
Re: Good, Clean Fun
The Green Guide staff does a disservice to readers by discouraging the use of chlorine-based cleaners. The authors state, “If you’re in the mood to detoxify, getting rid of germs doesn’t have to mean overkill: This is your home, not a hospital.” While chlorine-based disinfectants certainly play a critical role in preventing the spread of disease in hospitals, regular chlorine bleach (with the active ingredient sodium hypochlorite) is also an inexpensive, highly effective household germ killer.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommend chlorine disinfection of food preparation surfaces and utensils. A solution of one to three tablespoons liquid bleach per gallon of water kills harmful microorganisms like Campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella, preventing cross-contamination of foods and untold cases of illness. Food-borne diseases affect millions of people annually in the U.S., and according to the World Health Organization they are becoming increasingly common in developed countries. As a proven germ buster, chlorine bleach is an excellent choice of household disinfectants.
As for its environmental effects, chlorine bleach breaks down, primarily into sodium and chloride (producing salty water), as it chemically reacts with food particles. Any excess bleach goes down the drain, reacting with wastewater components until it is completely deactivated, long before it is released into any waterway. Contrary to the misgivings of the Green Guide staff, chlorine bleach, when used as directed, is safe and reliable for protecting your home.
Kip Howlett, Jr.
Executive Director, Chlorine Chemistry
Re: Burden of Proof
I am encouraged by your recent fine piece on the “body burden” of chemical contaminants, first because the CDC has decided to have a look-see at this issue (however myopic), and second because you are raising awareness of the topic.
I have been substantially educated on this matter by the excellent writing of Sandra Steingraber, whose Living Downstream and Having Faith are both starkly informative and truly inspirational. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about this to read her work; in fact, I encourage anyone I meet to read it.
Two significant points come immediately to mind that might have deserved inclusion or emphasis in your piece:
One, the heaviest burden falls to our population’s smallest bodies; infants and children are most at risk, since the contaminants can affect the development as well as the health of their bodies, and the same levels adults are exposed to are proportionately more significant. As a breastfeeding advocate and counselor and a breastfeeding parent, I am most motivated to try to address this issue by the discovery that my own lifetime body burden can be passed through the mother’s milk I offered my daughters, and their present exposures will be passed to their own children.
Second, while it is encouraging indeed that we are seeing declines in the body burdens of the chemicals we have seen fit to ban or control, it is critical to remember that we tend not to destroy but to export the pesticides and chemicals we cannot use within our borders. In so doing we export the burden to other nations and their children, and just to compound the problem further, we can then end up re-importing the toxicity on food and fibers we take in trade from those nations.
Re: Burden of Proof
Ms. Sawin is one-fourth correct about what should be done about the unknown effects of the toxic chemicals that poison our bodies — that is, putting the burden of proof for safety on the proponents of the chemicals, not the public.
Put this with the other three-quarters and you have the four basic tenets of the precautionary principle: (1) action must be taken before the harm occurs; (2) we must examine a comprehensive range of safer alternatives to the potentially hazardous chemical or activity (an “alternatives assessment”); and (3) decisions using the precautionary approach must include all potentially affected parties and be made in an open, democratic process, not behind closed doors.
Re: Burden of Proof
Thanks to Elizabeth Sawin for an excellent summary of ways to think about our management of chemicals. To the list of three questions to consider, I would add: Can we realistically be expected to identify health and environmental problems associated with exposure to one or many chemicals? There are two obstacles here. First, as Sawin mentions, are the resources that would be required to test the many chemicals and combinations of chemicals. Conservatively, there about 70,000 chemicals out there. A battery of tests for a wide variety of health effects can cost well into the tens of thousands of dollars per chemical, at a minimum, not to mention testing for the effects of combinations of chemicals. And second, not all potential health effects would be identified.
The health effects of lead are more thoroughly understood than almost any other chemical considered to be a contaminant. Yet we continue to identify new health problems associated with it. Though weak so far, mounting evidence suggests that very low levels of lead exposure may be at least partially responsible for some criminally deviant behavior. But science may never be able to conclusively prove the link because the problem pushes the boundaries of even our latest methodologies. The point is that science cannot detect all the potential damage chemical contaminants can do, even if we had the resources and political will to try.
New Haven, Conn.
Another aspect of environmental damage related to the war in Iraq is the MOAB bomb unveiled a couple of weeks ago. This is going to be deployed in Iraq, and you might want to write something about that from an environmental point of view. Its explosion is so massive that for a radius of a few hundred yards all life, down to a depth of three-plus feet into the ground, will be killed. Deserts are already fragile ecological places, and this is just gonna create huge dead zones.
Mountain View, Calif.
Bush is trying to pass legislation that would allow more clear-cutting of old-growth forests. Our son, Oak, and other young people are tree-sitting in Freshwater, Calif., trying to stop clear-cutting of the redwoods. Cuts to date have caused flooding, erosion, and killing of salmon.
Though my son is in contempt of court, I must say I support him and am prouder of him at the moment than I am of our elected officials.
Mooak (Mother of Oak)
Mount Vernon, Iowa
Re: Pee Ditty
I’m pretty sure that Umbra’s got it backwards on the environmental choice between paper towels and blow dryers for a few reasons:
1) Energy and resource use: One useful thought experiment is to compare the heat (energy) produced by the typical electrical blow dryer with the heat (energy) that would be released by burning a typical wad of two to four paper towels. To put it bluntly, I think we’re very wise to use the paper towels as absorbents rather than as fuel, because we’d never get our hands dry if we burned them. Even assuming a generous ratio (3:1 or 4:1) between the paper towels’ total input energy and the energy released by burning them, I think the electrical dryer uses much more energy. Admittedly I haven’t included trash disposal, but I haven’t included building and maintaining the electrical grid or the generators or disposing of the nuclear waste or abating the coal-fired emissions, either.
2) Renewability and sustainability: Without flattering the forestry industry, it’s a heck of a lot closer to renewability and sustainability than the electricity-generating industry.
3) Health and hygiene: Ironically, this issue has always been the electric hand dryer industry’s loudest and boldest claim of superiority — but most modern experts in contagious diseases are now leaning strongly in the opposite direction. If you’re concerned about disease transmission — and that’s one of the best, most basic reasons to wash one’s hands in the first place — paper towels are very useful to prevent contamination after washing. One can use a paper towel to turn the water off, clean the faucet and soap dispenser, turn the light off, and open the door, all without directly touching surfaces that are probably covered with E. coli and a bunch of other pathogens. Try that with an electric blow dryer! (And I also believe that blow dryers promote skin chapping that can promote infection …)
For your info and amusement: About 20 years ago, I did some fairly careful calculations that convinced me that the energy consumed by a cold-water shave with a razor blade greatly exceeded the energy consumed by a typical shave with an electric shaver. And a warm-water blade shave loses by another mile. The bulk of the cold-water shave energy I calculated is spent pumping the fresh water up from the nearest reservoir to the typical bathroom sink. (I think I used my own bathroom sink in Toronto and the nearby surface of Lake Ontario.) Including the “cost” of water treatment and sewage treatment would only make the comparison more lopsided. And note that using an old-fashioned non-disposable razor with a leather strop doesn’t turn this around, because I didn’t even count the energy embodied in the disposable blade. Didn’t have to, because it was already lopsided.
Senior Consultant, Borealis Energy Research Association
Director of Nuclear Research and Senior Policy Analyst, Energy Probe
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
And, finally, a smattering of commentary on our April Fools’ Day edition of Daily Grist:
Gawdammit! I got all the way through the April 1 edition, gawking at the crazy news and sharing it with my office mates, before realizing it was a prank. The same thing happened last year — gack! Well done.
GREAT issue! I was so psyched about the car news that I couldn’t wait to tell my husband. I eagerly clicked on the link to the Detroit Free Press and got a good chuckle when I got the April Fools note instead.
I am busy and do not usually click on the links below your stories. I actually sent two of the stories to several people who were all psyched like me to read about the car situation. I am not an uptight person, but that really sucked. I am not happy with you right now. Please don’t do this again.
Thank you! I really needed this with the news of the world today …
I knew something was up when I saw the Buffy gang bylines. Clever, clever.
Thank heaven I read to the end! You wrote so convincingly that I was ready to make near-hysterical pleas to my legislators to stop the Homeland Security Department’s plans. That probably would have convinced them that I was a nut, and hurt our cause. Because you produce such a well-researched and written newsletter, you have an authoritative voice (at least in my mind). Please be careful about your hoaxes.
I’ll bet you just started a bunch of urban legends.
Thanks for a good laugh! I was completely taken in by every one of the stories, having forgotten what day it was. Glad for the opportunity to laugh at myself in these dark days. The proposal to clear-cut forests in the name of anti-terrorism was just plausible enough to ring true, even after I saw the April Fools alert.
Quit wasting my time. Unsubscribe me!