Re: Kernel Ganders

Dear Editor:

Thanks for covering the ethanol issue and our paper in Science.

David Pimentel erroneously claims we didn’t include energy for farm machinery in our analysis, and unfortunately his claim, though false, has been repeated several times in the media. Your article also attributes to our study the claim that “replacing fossil fuels with corn-based ethanol is energy-efficient.” Actually, we go to pains to point out that conflating petroleum, coal, and natural gases to talk about “fossil fuels” is not helpful, and merely creates confusion. Our claims were about replacing gasoline with ethanol.

Grist is in good company, though, in these two areas. The National Public Radio show All Things Considered covered the study and committed the same two errors. Our letter to NPR addressing these two issues in more depth can be viewed here [PDF].

Again, thanks much for the coverage, and for providing links to other sources. You might add a link to our site, from which readers can download the Science article, the spreadsheet model, and a longer supporting document with greater detail.

Richard Plevin

Energy and Resources Group

University of California, Berkeley

 

Re: Cutting the Cord

Dear Editor:

I was surprised that Umbra didn’t mention cell-phone towers. With more cell-phone users comes the need for a wider area of coverage on the part of the cell-phone companies. They are constantly expanding their ranges, with new towers going up on hills, ridges, and mountaintops. Clearing a nice big spot for a tower and a road to get to it are going to impact that environment by eliminating habitat, encouraging the growth of exotics, and increasing erosion and therefore increasing sediment in the local watershed — not to mention becoming an eyesore.

Sarah Reynolds

Cumberland, Md.

 

Re: Cutting the Cord

Dear Editor:

Another environmental hazard of cell phones is that 80 percent of the world supply of coltan, an ore used in cell-phone transmitters, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mining the ore has in the past been devastating to gorilla populations. Here is a recent article from National Geographic on the topic.

Steve Siegel

Portland, Ore.

 

Re: Cutting the Cord

Dear Editor:

I was disappointed to find that Umbra’s normally thorough research about environmental issues was replaced by a rant about the evils of cell phones, which is totally unwarranted from an ecological standpoint. Obviously, your irritation with cell-phone users has hindered you from writing a balanced and informative article.

Cell-phone chargers consume just a few watts of power even when charging and represent an insignificant use of energy in the home. Cordless phones, which most people have, will use 10 to 20 watts of power (with the exception of the three brands that are Energy Star rated). While it is true that the old-fashioned corded phone uses no energy at all, who still uses those? Asking people to go back to those phones is a sure way to get them to ignore your advice altogether and to keep doing what they’re doing. Might as well tell them to stop heating in the winter because that’s the best environmental option.

Nik Kaestner

Cambridge, Mass.

 

Re: Cutting the Cord

Dear Editor:

If you’re a slave to your cell but want a greener one, here’s an anal-retentive chart that I made comparing plans from major carriers against those from Earth Tones and Working Assets.

elsamary

via Gristmill

Editor’s note: You can find lots more debate on cell phones in Gristmill, Grist‘s blog.

 

Re: I’m Floored

Dear Editor:

I was surprised that in her article about flooring Umbra did not mention ceramic tile with radiant heat, seeing as it is a cozy, comfortable, and more energy-efficient alternative.

Christa Lachenmayr

Madison, Wis.

 

Re: I’m Floored

Dear Editor:

For our new office flooring we chose Interface FLOR as an environmentally sustainable choice that was more affordable than cork or bamboo. The reasons we chose it were: 1) the company will take it back for recycling at the end of its lifecycle; 2) the tiles can be rotated for even wear and stained tiles can be replaced, making this a longer-lasting investment of resources; 3) it supports a company that is working to create an environmentally sustainable business model; 4) some of the styles are made from natural materials; 5) it’s stylish as well as sustainable; 6) it can be installed by the homeowner; and 7) it can be moved from room to room or house to house, increasing its useful lifespan.

jka123

via Gristmill

 

Re: I’m Floored

Dear Editor:

I was surprised to read that Umbra promoted hardwood floors made from submerged logs as an eco-friendly choice. The practice of mining logs from Georgia’s rivers is certainly not an eco-friendly practice, and the Georgia Water Coalition is working to keep it illegal here.

An excerpt from an action alert from the Georgia Environmental Action Network:

The logs sank in the late 1800s during massive harvesting and transporting to coastal sawmills and ports for export. Over time they have become an integral part of the river bottom and serve as habitat for fish spawning, food production, and protective cover. Even under a highly regulated program, mining for the logs on the river bottom will disrupt fragile ecological systems and may release heavy metals residing in sediments into the water. Mining activities will disrupt boating, fishing, and swimming activities in the river and may create additional hazards to people using the river. Mining these logs will serve only a handful of “trophy” wood collectors who can make large profits by selling the old, preserved logs for use as upscale floors and furniture.

April Ingle
Georgia River Network
Athens, Ga.

 

Editor’s note: Find more discussion on flooring in Gristmill, Grist‘s blog.

 

Re: Rock the Coat

Dear Editor:

About a year ago I had to move, and wanted to paint the apartment with nontoxic paint. I found two companies that make safe paint. One is Bioshield and the other is American Pride Paint.

Anne Caputi

Newton Center, Mass.

 

Re: Rock the Coat

Dear Editor:

I just painted my bathroom with Benjamin Moore’s low-VOC Eco-Spec paint. I have to say I was very impressed with the results. The walls were already white so I didn’t have to prime, but I only had to do one coat to get good coverage. It’s a bit more expensive than the non-eco-friendly paints, but in my mind it’s well worth it.

flashgrl

via Gristmill

 

Re: Rock the Coat

Dear Editor:

Don’t forget milk paint. I haven’t seen an entire wall painted with it, but the samples I’ve seen are very nice indeed!

oryahk

via Gristmill

 

Re: Good Nintentions

Dear Editor:

Just brainstorming off the top of my head about sustainable video gaming:

Buy secondhand. A lot of gamers are rabid about upgrading, playing only the latest games, etc. You can get games secondhand as soon as a few weeks after they come out, and most major game stores have used sections for at least consoles.

Choose greener distribution methods. Many games these days have direct-download options. It’s much less wasteful than buying a disc case, disc, box, and having it physically shipped either to you or to the store you bought it at.

Write to software companies about their packaging. Games sold in a jewel case are functionally identical to games sold in a big box with a jewel case in it, except that the box is waste. If you’re writing to them anyway, request a direct-download option.

Play older games! New game software requires upgrades. But of the zillions of console games out there and the zillions of PC and Mac games out there, how many have you played? Instead of just buying the new hardware to buy the new software, try exploring other games for your existing hardware that you haven’t played.

These options will also save you money.

Maize

via Gristmill

 

Re: Good Nintentions

Dear Editor:

Umbra’s recent mention of video games made me think of Food Force, a free video game that has become extremely popular. It was developed by the United Nations and is completely nonviolent. To win, you must solve a food crisis. Another aspect of aligning gaming with green principles.

Peter Buck

Alexandria, Va.

 

Dear Editor:

Regarding a letter by Jeffrey Irving about the article Buenos Bios: I truly regret how muddled and confusing the debate about biomass fuels has become.

Jeffrey’s letter and the study it cites are basically correct in saying that ethanol production does nothing to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and is essentially a waste. However, this is not because we get less energy from the combustion of ethanol than we put into producing it. The same thing could, in fact, be said about fossil fuels. We do not derive 100 percent of the solar energy that went into our oil in combustion, nor would it be possible to do so. So what makes ethanol inefficient is not that we derive less than 100 percent efficiency from it, but that we put more fossil energy into it than the total energy we derive from it, as demonstrated in the study.

This does not have to be the case! If the biomass crops were grown without fossil inputs, producing ethanol would be just as sustainable as producing the food we eat — which, as it stands now, is unsustainable in the same way as ethanol. There is no such thing as a truly sustainable useful energy source, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, so when we say sustainable, we mean sustainable given constantly added solar energy. How much of the solar energy that goes into making ethanol will end up as mechanical energy in your car? Not much. But when Jeffrey says, “Turning corn, soybeans, and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates,” it demonstrates a poor understanding of the concept of energy.

Ethanol and biodiesel do not “generate” energy at all; they contain it in the form of chemical energy, which was converted in a complex process from solar energy. The ethanol is then converted to mechanical energy in an engine. Each of these conversions is subject to entropy and results in less than 100 percent of the useful energy in the previous form. In this sense, ethanol is no different from any other energy source, be it fossil fuel, wind, solar, or whatever. The challenge we are now facing, given the imminent depletion of fossil fuel — which is essentially a vast reserve of “free” energy — is to use solar energy efficiently enough to sustain the global population at an acceptable standard of living. This is an extremely difficult or perhaps impossible task, given that over 100 years we have used about half of our oil reserves, which represent millions of years of solar energy.

Ethanol, if produced with less fossil inputs than are derived from its use, could be part of this solution.

Joe Scott

Iowa City, Iowa

 

Re: Book Your Guilt Trip Today!

Dear Editor:

It is surely in the U.S. where we have the greatest problem with overuse of air travel, with the concomitant excessive and unnecessary damage to the atmosphere. Here train travel is constantly under attack by politicians who are presumably under the influence or control of oil, auto, and/or aviation interests. Neglect of the railroad freight services means the interstate highways are increasingly crammed with overpowered 18-wheelers, making driving your car long distance less and less attractive.

So where is the U.S. equivalent of Flight Pledge?

Paul Piehler

New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

 

Re: Time to Bust Out the Scare Quotes

Dear Editor:

I thought it extremely irresponsible of you to write a tongue-in-cheek article about eco-terrorism. Whoever wrote the blurb was obviously mocking the feds for pursuing these groups at the rate that they are. Earth Liberation Front is a terrorist group, not an environmental group. Just because their behavior “caused no deaths” does not mean they did not cause terror. As an environmentalist, I am appalled to be even remotely associated with a group like this; you should be too.

We will never make progress in the complex environmental issues we face until we try to see each other’s viewpoints. People who own a ski resort in Vail share many of the same environmental concerns as the rest of us, I bet. But they may be also motivated by other things. Dealing with them by burning their place of business isn’t going to get them on our side. All it does is alienate and instill fear and hatred. The bottom line is that we’re all human and we’re all in this together. But, as environmentalists, if we continue to operate in hypocritical ways — terrorism is not OK, but groups like the Earth Liberation Front have a point to make! — we’re going to continue to be seen as illegitimate.

Melissa Hopkins

Washington, D.C.