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Q. Dear Umbra,

I have greatly cut back on my airplane trips because of my concern about global warming. However, I have groups of friends whose main conversation is about the overseas trips they have been on. When I don’t have an exotic place to talk about it seems like I have nothing to say. Can you think of good ways to address this issue so that I can continue to seem fascinating?

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A. Dearest Macki,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

world travelerThere’s more than one way to see the world.You have clipped your wings for the health of the planet, and I applaud you. Does this make you less fascinating? Only, I suppose, among a circle of friends who measure fascination by number of jaunts taken or planned. How jaunty.

I have some thoughts for you. The first is, you could be fascinating by contributing factoids about air travel and climate change to these conversations. To avoid being a downer, you might want to frame them in fun ways. Such as: Did you know that Virgin Atlantic has been testing out biofuels? Did you know that one Japanese airline asks passengers to go to the bathroom before boarding, so they weigh less, which means the plane burns less fuel? Did you know there’s a scorecard that shows how airlines are faring on climate?

If you aren’t up for salting the conversation, I have three L’s to suggest: The first is listen. It’s not always necessary to be the one boasting about a trip. You could try to enjoy your friends’ stories, ask them about the places they’ve been, and consider it an education. The second L is lie. Choose a place you wish you could go, devour several guidebooks and visit chatrooms, then regale your friends with your tales. If nothing else, they will think you’re fascinatingly pathological when they catch on. The third L is look for new friends. Because yours, frankly, sound a bit dull and judgmental, despite their well traveled ways.

Good luck, and stick to your guns.


Q. Dear Umbra,

There has been a bit of a buzz on the web lately about another type of nuclear reactor, called a thorium reactor. From what I understand it has much less waste, smaller half life, is much safer, and cannot be weaponized. Is this all pie in the sky, or could this be a major part of our CO2 reduction plan?


A. Dearest Redwing,

First a note to all you readers who have stopped telling me what state you’re from: you’re driving me batty! I like to know where people are when they’re worrying. So please, please include your state. Redwing, I’m going to close my eyes, spin my atlas, and guess that you are in Conway, Louisiana. Or New Hampshire? Maybe here in Washington. Who knows.

On to the matter at hand. Thorium is, in some circles, the great white-hot hope for future nuclear-power production. It is a naturally occurring radioactive metal that is three to four times more abundant than uranium. It is found around the world, which means we don’t have to fight wars over it. And as you say, the waste it produces is harder to weaponize (it’s possible, but tricky) and remains radioactive for a mere 500 years instead of 10,000. In general, thorium’s good points seem to outweigh the bad: lookee here on Debatepedia.

This is not just “pie in the sky” — major research efforts are underway, primarily in India and Russia. Even here in the U.S., we have poked around the edges. Here is a good overview. As you know, there are many people — powerful people — who believe nuclear is an appetizing part of our future. But thorium, dreamy as it sounds, is a long way from being widely implementable, and should not be used as an excuse for rushing to build new plants. I would point out that we also have some other resources that are mighty abundant: things like sun and wind. Why risk even 500 years of radioactivity when we can invest in alternatives that are truly safe and clean?


Q. Dear Umbra,

Thank you for selecting my question [about composting], but I feel my actual question went unanswered … Perhaps I was not direct enough, but I wanted to know if organic waste was integral in the decomposition rates of landfills. Your answer provided nothing regarding decomposition rates. Thanks again. Sorry for any confusion.


A. Dearest Todd,

Thank you for your persistent attention to detail. Those close to me know I aim to leave no question unanswered, no stone unturned, no Vancouverite unsatisfied. Last time around, you asked if organic waste is integral in landfill decomposition rates, and I said, “The answer is no.” Perhaps I was not direct enough either? Allow me to briefly elaborate.

Decomposition rates vary depending on the materials in question, and on the type of landfill, and on how much moisture and air are in the mix. That said, organic items do not inspire the inorganic items around them to decompose faster. A glass bottle will take as long as it feels like to degrade (hint: a long, long time, like never), whether or not it is cuddling up with your rhubarb pie leftovers. I talked with Doug Williams, a spokesperson for the department that oversees King County Solid Waste, and he confirmed two things: first, that each item “will decompose in its own sweet time,” and second, that as I said in my original answer, the methane created by the decomposition of organic matter is either bane or boon. It’s boon only if, as in at least one King County landfill, there’s a gas-to-energy program in place.

If you’d like to know more about how long it takes particular items to decompose, check out this eye-opening slideshow.

Todd, I truly hope I’ve answered your question this time. If you have further questions, may I direct you to the solid waste departments of Vancouver, B.C., and Vancouver, Wash. (States and provinces, people, please!)


Q. Dear Umbra,

I see so many Green Product Awards. Why doesn’t Grist sponsor an Un-Green Product Award. I would nominate Fiji Water. Bottled in Fiji in plastic bottles, transported to the U.S. [by the California-based parent company] to exploit the conspicuous consumption needs of the public and increase greenhouse gases.

Morgan Hill, Calif.

A. Dearest Wes,

Great idea! While I personally tend to avoid endorsing or bashing any particular product in this column (got to maintain my serene objectivity, don’t you know), I do wonder what your fellow readers would nominate. Have at it, readers — go to town in the comments section, but please provide substantive evidence for your claims. No fair dissing a company out of spite.