What have you done today to lower your impact?

We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

Blog Archive

Friday, 29 February 2008

Video - Vesco Back from Exhaustion Part 4

Video - Vesco Back from Exhaustion Part Two

Food part 1 - Soil erosion - by Robb

There are many issues surrounding food, it’s production, transportation, and consumption. I’ve already touched on some issues relating to corn production in the previous post. I’d like to go right back to the basic ingredients for production of healthy food; clean water, clean air and rich healthy soil. I’ll deal with more with clean water in later posts and clean air will require many posts as well. For now I’d like to start with soil.

Our entire civilization depends on our soil!

“Around the world, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year....” reports a Cornell University study by ecologist David Pimental.

The same Cornell report points out that 99.7 percent of human food comes from cropland. Cropland is shrinking by almost 37,000 square miles a year due to soil erosion.

"Erosion is one of those problems that nickels and dimes you to death: One rainstorm can wash away 1 mm (.04 inches) of dirt. It doesn't sound like much, but when you consider a hectare (2.5 acres), it would take 13 tons of topsoil -- or 20 years if left to natural processes -- to replace that loss," Pimentel said.

If that isn’t enough to scare you here are some more stats from that report:
* The United States is losing soil 10 times faster -- and China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster -- than the natural replenishment rate.
* The economic impact of soil erosion in the United States costs the nation about $37.6 billion each year in productivity losses. Damage from soil erosion worldwide is estimated to be $400 billion per year.
* As a result of erosion over the past 40 years, 30 percent of the world's arable land has become unproductive.
(http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/March06/soil.erosion.threat.ssl.html Feb 2008)

So what’s going on? It seems clear we need to look carefully at farming methods. It is well known that tropical rainforests exist over very poor soils due to their amazing ability to very quickly recycle nutrients. So when these forests are cleared for farming or livestock the soil can only support a few years of crops before erosion washes it away. Stopping the clearing of tropical rainforests make sense on so many levels that it is frankly unbelievable that it continues.

Industrial farming methods are equally to blame. At every planting season the earth is laid bare to dry out and blow away. It is already weakened through overfarming and chemical usage and lack of organic matter to bind it together and hold moisture. According to Pimental in just one winter almost 2 inches per hectare (2.5 acres) of soil blew away from cropland in Kansas, the equivalent of 650 tons of topsoil per hectare. There is new evidence suggesting that the increasing dustiness of the US west has gotten much worse in the last 200 years and is due largely to intensive livestock grazing and railroad building. (http://www.livescience.com/environment/080225-west-dustier.html March 2008)

Low or no tillage farming is proving to substantially reduce erosion. Avoiding the plough and leaving mulch in the soil, even if only 20%, reduces erosion by 70% to 80% according to conservation agriculture trials monitored by the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5274100.stm Feb 2008)

So what can an individual do about this? As with most efforts to live in a sustainable manner one begins with detailed examination of personal consumption. Where does your food come from? Does it contribute to irresponsible farming practices? Are all the calories you are consuming full of quality nutrition? The easiest solution is to grow your own food and drastically reduce meat consumption. By growing as much food as you can, organically, you can offset the food with unknown origination with food you know everything about. But if you can’t grow it, buy it. Organically grown food is much kinder to the soil as it depends on healthy soil for it’s production rather than on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Buy supporting organic farming you will be encouraging conservation of the soil and getting healthier food in the bargain, a much more sustainable choice.

Video - Vesco Back from Exhaustion Part 1

The Epiphany of Enough by Dave

The populations of the developed world generally and the United States particularly are choosing more and enjoying it less. That's the basic premise of a book entitled, "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz. This book is a great resource for reinforcing our commitment to living a balanced, sustainable life.
Schwartz examines the apparently contrary fact that, although people today have a veritable cornucopia of options to choose from...an array that has increased exponentially since the 60's, we also see a corresponding decrease in well being. Since 1960 in the U.S., the divorce rate has doubled,the teen suicide rate has tripled,the recorded violent crime rate has quadrupled,the prison population has quintupled, and the percentage of babies born to unwed parents has sextupled. Also, and perhaps the most telling of all, the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the last two generations, and increased by a factor of 10 from 1900 to 2000. Why all this in a culture that assures us that being in control of your needs and wants...the freedom of choosing...is the key to a happy, fulfilled life?
The author's conclusions lend new resonance to Orwell's anti-mantra, "Freedom is Slavery". This freedom we celebrate as a birthright comes with a curse: what economist Fred Hirsch called "the tyranny of small decisions". The many field studies Schwartz cites show that choice, in the modern age, has become burdensome, not liberating. A study in a hospital asked patients if they would prefer to choose their own mode of treatment should they contract cancer...65% said yes. However, when patients who actually got the cancer were asked, 88% said they would prefer that the professionals made that choice.
Other data presented showed that accumulations of wealth (i.e. more choices) did not always translate into increased happiness. People in wealthy nations are generally happier than people in poor nations,yes...money matters. But, once subsistence needs are met, surveys show that further increases in wealth don't seem to matter much.
Another interesting element is the discovery that the things that seem to make people the most happy, are the things that limit choices . Marriage for instance, and closer, more committed ties to family and religious institutions.....the kind of things that can't be easily opted out of. That part reminded me of a discovery I made when working in the theatre, building scenery. When I built sets on a tight budget, I had to get more creative about problem-solving, and the rewards for success were richer than later in my career when I could just throw money at the problem. The limitations became the reward.
So the dynamics of choice are seen to vary from a sense of helplessness at the extreme where a person has no choice at all, to a sense of empty ennui and depression at the other end.
Choosing when to choose is one corrective. Some control over choice is certainly rewarding.We don't want to give up on choosing altogether, like the somnambulent Eloi in H.G. Wells' "Time Machine", just waiting around listlessly to die, but neither do we want to invest too much in the expectation that mere choosing will enrich our lives and make us happy.
Schwartz encourages us to cultivate an "attitude of gratitude", and substitute an elusive and ultimately disappointing search for the "best", with a calm acceptance of the concept of "good enough".
I found all this to be yet more evidence that sustainable living is not a discipline that we need to shrink from as onerous, but an ideal to pursue for our own, and the planet's enhanced well-being.

Research tidbit - Lake Mead

Researchers at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggest that Lake Mead faces a 50% chance of drying up by 2021 if the drought continues and water use keeps rising. By 2017 Lake Mead will likely not be able to produce hydropower any longer. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are both half full. 25 million people in seven states rely on these lakes for water management.
Thanks to the National geographic website for the picture. Please click on the post title "Research tidbit - Lake Mead" to go to a more detailed discussion of this research.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Corn ethanol and Water in the US Part 5 - by Robb

In this discussion on living sustainably I have already mentioned food as a basic need. My next post will begin to look at food in more detail but for now let me wrap up this thread on corn ethanol with a move from it’s water implications to it’s impacts on food production.

Corn is Food

Of the total 93 million acres planted in corn in 2007, approximately 23 million acres were devoted to ethanol. (Food and Water Watch2007) 70 million acres of corn were used directly or indirectly for food production. The 2006 US output of ethanol was 6.5 billion gallons. (Platts 2007) The Congressional Research Service has stated:

“barring drastic realignment of US field crop production patterns, corn based ethanol’s potential as a petroleum import substitute appears to be limited by a crop area constraint.”

Tell the Bush administration because the US Dept of Energy and the US Dept of Agriculture have decided that the US has the land resources capable of producing 1.3 billion tons of biomass/yr by 2030 and that only 1 billion tons would be needed to displace 30% of the country’s oil use based on 2004 rates. Even the NRDC has gotten on board. The Natural Resources Defense Council reckons that biofuels could offset 25% of projected US transport oil consumption by 2050. (Food and Water Watch2007)

But what will be the effect on food prices? Ethanol production already has a deleterious effect on the poor who rely on the corn crop as a staple. Corn prices in Mexico rose 400% just 3 months resulting in civil unrest in Mexico in early 2007. (Jerome Taylor in “The World” 2007)

“David Pimentel,... has calculated that powering the average U.S. automobile for one year on ethanol (blended with gasoline) derived from corn would require 11 acres of farmland, the same space needed to grow a year's supply of food for seven people.” (Roger Segelken 2008)

It should be noted that Mr. Pimentel’s work on this issue has been called into question due to his research associate, Tad Patzek’s connections with the oil industry. More recent research is supporting his conclusions however.


The profligacy of the US extends beyond their driving habits; water use in the US is the highest in the world. According to the WWF report “Rich Countries, Poor Water”:

“In the USA, large areas are already using substantially more water than can be naturally replenished. This situation will only be further exacerbated by climate change scenarios of lower rainfall, increased evaporation and changed snow-melt patterns. Salinity threatens important irrigation areas and there is increasing anxiety over the level of contamination with chemicals and pathogens in water sources and water supplies.”

Ground and surface water pollution has resulted in an ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and poisoned drinking water across the corn belt. The environment of the US cannot support a large scale expansion of the corn industry; indeed if anything it should be scaled back to a level that is achievable through sustainable and ecologically sound practices. There is not enough water, not enough arable land, and not enough GHG emissions reduction to be gained from an expanded corn to ethanol industry. If the subsidies currently going to support corn ethanol production, $7 billion in 2007, were instead shifted to the auto industry to help them rapidly achieve at least a doubling in CAFE standards, a much more substantive reduction in GHG emissions could be realized.

Committing to a large scale shift to corn based ethanol as a fuel for transportation in the US is a business as usual solution that threatens water quality and availability as well as making food even more unaffordable for the worlds poor. Further, cultivation of food crops for fuel means that more land will have to be converted into food crop production, whether it be rainforest, temperate wildlife habitat, or drained swampland. There is mounting evidence that this process has grave implications on GHG emissions as mature diverse wild lands tend to sequester carbon and their conversion to crop lands releases huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere as well as methane.

I think we face a choice, would we rather eat, drink, and breath or drive an SUV?

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Video - Joanna Macy on The Great Turning

The Eighth Deadly Sin by Dave

We've all heard the rhetoric of "growth". It is a word that carries heavy and sacred freight whenever uttered within financial institutions, or on the world's airwaves. It's fundamental to our concept of economic health. If a pundit should detect figures that indicate growth running at 1 or 2 percent, it would be labeled "anemic" and "worrisome". I'm no economist, but as far back as I can remember, I've been troubled by this convention, especially since the publication in 1970 of our first photo of the entire planet seen from space...it looks blue and round, beautiful but fragile, and emphatically finite. Yet 38 years later, we never hear economic experts question the illogic of endless growth within a finite system.
What can this wealth we speak of be, but the systematic mining of the world's resources? To improve our mining techniques doesn't change the equation, it only postpones the eventual reckoning...a reckoning the pioneer biologist Robert Malthus would recognize immediately; i.e. a smaller rabbit population leads to a smaller wolf population which leads to a larger rabbit population which leads...etc.
Can we be more logical than rabbits or even wolves? Can we project our destinies into the future based on all the self-evident data? Certainly we can. Our failure to do so is caused by mere unwillingness...by fear. Of course a paradigm shift of this magnitude makes people fearful- we've been growing exponentially for at least 250 years. But does the alternative have to be scary? I submit that it's less scary than "staying the course".
The alternative is "zero-growth", a state that has lasted a lot longer than 250 years. Equilibrium or balance need not be a frightening scenario. On the contrary, it could prove to be the restorative that our species needs most. "Balance", as any athlete will tell you, is the most basic attitude to adopt in order to acheive maximum physical proficiency...in any discipline. Our species has lived in balance before...we can do so again.
As we seek this sustainable equilibrium, we'll need to re-visit religious and moral concepts, rejecting some values, while re-emphasizing or inventing others. A starting place that comes to my mind are the infamous "seven deadly sins", sloth, gluttony, envy, lust (what are the other three? somebody help me out here...avarice?). I don't think I'd take anything off the list...they're all in synch with the ideal of sustainability, but I'd certainly add a new one...Waste.
The false ideal of endless growth has enabled the appearance, at least in the developed world, of the eighth deadly sin. Perhaps the most appropriate icon for this sin, both for it's revolting vividness and the universal sense of wrongness it engenders, would be the vision, in the late 19th century, of hundeds of thousands of buffalo carcasses rotting in the sun, stripped only of their hides and tongues. An act so morally bankrupt as to leave Native Americans paralyzed with the shock of it...what is this white man not capable of doing? How can the Great Spirit allow it?
As we move forward into an uncertain future of dwindling resources, we must all train ourselves to consume with the same level of awareness and balance practiced by the North American plains Indians....oh Great Spirit, deliver us from the eighth deadly sin.

Corn ethanol and Water in the US Part 4 - by Robb

Efficiency and emissions in personal transport in the US

In the US, petroleum is primarily used in the transportation sector, 14 million barrels per day of the 20.6 mb/day consumed in 2006. In 2005 average fuel economy for all passenger cars was 22.9mpg, up from the 1990 average of 20.3mpg, for other 2-axle 4 tire vehicles, SUV’s, light trucks, vans and the like it was 16.2mpg, up from the 1990 average of 16.1mpg! 15 years of virtually no progress.

If we use a figure of 20mpg, roughly midway between the two figures above, for all light vehicles and the average distance travelled by the typical household of 24,800 miles multiplied by 104,700,000 households, we can calculate the average fuel used to be 1,240 gallons/household with a total for all households of 129,828 million gallons which breaks down to 3,091 million barrels of transportation fuel/year or 8.5 million barrels/day. (Rutledge 2006)

A standard of 40 mpg, easily achieved with current technology, would half that figure to 4.25 million barrels/day. That would be a reduction of GHG emissions of 50% from this sector which accounts for 20% of US GHG emissions, a total US GHG emissions reduction of 10%.

Ethanol, Energy, and Emissions

Corn grain ethanol only reduces GHG’s by 12% compared to gasoline with a meager 25% net energy gain, one of the lowest ratios of all biofuels. (Food and Water Watch 2007) In addition, ethanol has a more negative effect on air, water and soil quality compared to biodiesel. A study based on the 2005 crop from two institutions based in the heart of the corn belt, University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College, determined:

“In 2005, 14.3% of the US corn harvest was processed to produce 1.48x1010 liters of ethanol energetically equivalent to 1.72% of US gasoline usage...... Devoting all 2005 US corn and soybean production to ethanol and biodiesel would have offset 12% and 6% of US gasoline and diesel demand, respectively. However, because of the fossil energy required to produce ethanol and biodiesel, this change would provide a net energy gain equivalent to just 2.4% and 2.9% of US gasoline and diesel consumption, respectively.”

So referring back to the gasoline use figures mentioned earlier, and applying the 12% offset
.12 offset x 129,828,000,000 gallons = 15,579,360,000 gallons x .024 net energy gain = 373,905,000 gallons x .12 emissions reduction = 44,869,000 gallons

So for giving up the entire 2005 crop to ethanol the emissions from just 44,869,000 gallons of gasoline would have been offset, .035% of total usage in the sector which is responsible for 20% of overall GHG emissions resulting in a total reduction of .7%

There is much dissension on this issue. A 1995 USDA study found corn ethanol to have a net energy value 3X that found by ethanol dissenter, David Pimentel, and also compared many other studies. Results for net energy values of corn ethanol ranged from a low of -33,517 btu/gal (Pimentel) up to a high of +25,653 btu/gal.

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates corn ethanol reduces emissions 20 to 30% compared to gasoline. If the more optimistic figure were used in the formula, using the same net energy gain, emissions reductions comparable to cutting 112,172,000 gallons of gasoline would result. This is .086% of total usage which would result in an overall US GHG reduction of 1.72% This is still a very small improvement in the GHG emissions situation in the US compared to improvements to be gained from higher fuel efficiency standards.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Corn ethanol and Water in the US Part 3 - by Robb

Supply side solutions?
New major sources of groundwater are out of the question as many aquifers are in serious decline, the Oxnard-Mugu aquifer system in southern California, Denver basin bedrock aquifers, the Oglalla aquifer in the midwest, the Odessa aquifer in eastern Washington, the list goes on. But what about new dams and reservoirs?

To supply the water exhausted region of Odessa, the state of Washington proposed more diversion, dams, and reservoirs to store Columbia river water at a cost of up to $3 billion per site. The Columbia Institute for Water Policy concluded:

“Construction of reservoirs, canals, pump stations, pipelines and laterals would be exceptionally expensive – far beyond what is affordable to local farms or even within the range of reasonable subsidy by state or federal government.....Time ran out for the Odessa subarea long ago, when farmers chose to ignore the consequences of over-pumping and the use of improperly constructed wells.”

This lesson has been learned in Spain as pointed out by the WWF freshwater report “Rich countries, Poor water”

“Spain, consuming nearly 35 percent of it’s long term renewable resource is the third most water stressed nation of Europe”

This despite having more dams per capita than any other nation combined with large scale diversion projects to support subsidized agriculture. This supply side strategy has led to more water shortage rather than less. The Spanish National Hydrological Plan for dams, reservoirs and diversions put into place in 2001 sparked inter-regional conflict over water and the 23 billion euro project was scrapped in 2004 in favor of expanding the desalination capacity of the country.(WWF Freshwater report)

Expensive and energy intensive to operate, desalination plants are also labour intensive to run and maintain. The largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere opened in Tampa Bay and closed within 6 weeks of opening for a $29million upgrade. (Robert Glennon 2007)

Reuse of municipal effluent is a growing resource but does not offer nearly the amount of water necessary for such a large ethanol industry expansion and there are unknown health problems that make that supply questionable. It is typically used for urban irrigation.

There are currently no reliable supply side solutions to the water shortage facing the ethanol industry.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Corn ethanol and Water in the US Part 2 - by Robb

Corn, currently used to produce 95% of US ethanol (Food and Water Watch 2007), has a water footprint of 900 litres/kg and annually consumes about 500 billion cubic meters of water. (waterfootprint.org 2008) Growing corn is thirsty work. So is refining it to ethanol.

“...... the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy estimates average water consumption for ethanol plants is about four gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced, indicating that water availability will be a major limitation to the potential of the ethanol sector.....” (Food and Water Watch 2007)

This major limitation has already been felt in the industry as the construction of a plant in Minnesota with a production capacity of 100 million gallons and requiring 350 million gallons of water annually was stopped due to local water shortage. (Food and Water Watch 2007) Even if the industry can reduce the water use ratio to 3:1 with new plants coming online in 2008 refining ethanol will consume 30 billion gallons of water.(Keeny and Muller 2006) The high demands for water by the ethanol industry places it in competition with domestic supply, industry, farming and livestock for water. It is clear that much more water will be necessary if the US is to meet the 13 billion gallon target proposed by the White House.

Where will all that extra water come from?

Welcome Dave; another author - by Robb

I've invited Dave Maynard, a longtime friend of mine from Seattle, to add his perspective to this blog. Shortly before starting this blog he and I had some very stimulating e-mail discussions and this helped to make up my mind to blog about sustainable living. I am very pleased to have him aboard and I'm sure everyone will enjoy his perspective and wit.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

video - Affordable Green Housing

Please watch this 5 minute video

Corn ethanol and Water in the US Part 1 - by Robb

(Graphic from Robert Service 2004)

I'd like to discuss corn ethanol because it is a perfect example of a proposed solution that isn't as good as it seems. It also serves as a good model for examining personal resource use as it impacts so many areas of our lives; food, water, transportation. I'll attempt to cover this in 2 or 3 posts.

Transportation contributes 33% of total GHG in the US. At only 18% or less efficient well to wheel, light truck and automobile traffic contribute 60% of that total. If the ratios of US GHG emissions stay the same, in order to achieve the carbon reduction goals as set forward by the Contraction and Convergence limits of 450ppmv by 2050, personal transport contributions need to be reduced by 4/5’s.

The Bush Administration believes that corn based ethanol is part of the solution. A shift to ethanol is being subsidized to achieve a target of 36 billion gallons of production by 2022 as mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Approximately 1/3 of that is set to come from corn.

Water and climate change in the US
In a 2003 freshwater report the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that of the 50 states,

“36 states anticipate water shortages in localities, regions, or statewide in the next 10 years..... When shortages occur, economic impacts to sectors such as agriculture can be in the billions of dollars.”

In the case of drought the number of states expecting shortages rises to 46. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are embroiled in a legal struggle to control the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. South Carolina is suing North Carolina over diversion of water from the Catawba river basin. The city of Las Vegas has struck deals with most of the neighboring states for their water or storage capacity. These types of conflict and brokering are common all over the US.

Snow-melt accounts for 75% of all water in streams in the west. The Cascades of Washington, Oregon and Canada will likely see snow-pack reductions of 60% or higher by 2050.This would reduce stream flows in the summer by 20 to 50%, directly affecting over 9 million people 8 in cities from Vancouver to Portland west of the mountains not to mention the big cities east of the mountains. As cities rely on this water for domestic supply this places them in increasing competition with agriculture. (Robert Service 2004)

Most of the water coming off the mountains is stored in reservoirs. The 2003 GAO freshwater report states that,

“........the amount of water available for use from these reservoirs is continually being reduced by sedimentation.....the total reduction resulting from the buildup of sediment is estimated at about 1.5 million acre-feet per year.”

To the corn belt of the midwest, climate change will bring more rain in the winter, before planting, and late spring during planting. This rainfall will likely be more intense, risking the flooding of fields during planting time. Summers will see less rain and lower reservoirs. (Cromwell, Smith and Raucher 2007) As of 1997 only 15% of the total US corn crop was irrigated (Christenson 2002), but irrigation is becoming more common which has significant impacts on groundwater resources.

Groundwater constitutes more than 25% of the US water supply. Farmers used 2/3’s of the 28 trillion gallons of groundwater pumped in 1995.(Hoekstra and Chapagain 2007) Major aquifers are in serious decline. The Oglalla aquifer, one of the largest in the nation is a well known example,

“......... 6% of the aquifer has dropped to an unusable level that can no longer be pumped. If irrigation continues to draw water from the aquifer at the same rate, about 6% of the aquifer will be used up every 25 years.” (Worm 2004)

Groundwater is relied upon for domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses. When we’ve outstripped it’s ability to recharge we are in trouble.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Virtual Water - by Robb

‘Virtual water’, embedded water imported in the form of food, fuel and goods, is a significant part of many nations food security strategy and also a significant portion of water rich countries GDP. For example, the Netherlands depend on foreign water resources for 95% of their water footprint. (Hoekstra and Chapagain 2007)

This tends to work against the most disadvantaged of our population. Every product I use has a water footprint; 900litres of water for 1kg of corn, 140 litres of water for 1 cup of coffee,16000 litres of water for 1kg of beef. (waterfootprint.org 2008) If that product was produced where people and ecosystems are water stressed then my consumption is creating a demand responsible for depriving that ecosystem and it’s inhabitants of the water needed to survive or at least have a decent quality of life. This can even be a community near you. Bottled water, aside from being more expensive than gasoline, of no better quality than tap water and producing a huge and totally unnecessary waste stream, is pumped from aquifers. Aquifers all over the world are in decline. Many in the US are in terminal decline. Declining aquifers are susceptible to collapse, a state whereby they will never safely recharge, this threatens food production and public health.

“..... former aquifer strata can be physically or chemically damaged by over-exploitation, with ....... consequences including widespread land subsidence, ph changes and the mobilization of toxic oxidation byproducts such as arsenic compounds.” (WWF Freshwater Program 2006)

As we examine our water usage it is important to consider the embodied water in the products we use. For instance; is the grain I buy or barter for raised in a sustainable manner? Where did the water come from to grow it? Was it pumped from an aquifer, an unsustainable process, or was it brought from surface flow to the field, or even better was it grown using strictly rainfall? This type of information is readily available. Here are a few links to get you started.


Let's consider corn again. Extremely thirsty as a crop to grow it was until recently grown using primarily rainfall. Climate change and the increased demand created by the higher demand for corn as a food and the ethanol industry has meant that more and more of this corporate crop is irrigated. As we’ve already seen corn has dire consequences for the environment, reason enough to consider ways of reducing our personal consumption. Corn has a large impact on water supply in agricultural areas. Corn based ethanol is exacerbating the situation. Is the corn I eat encouraging long term damage to aquifers that cities rely on for clean water supply? Can I justify burning corn, a food crop, in my automobile when the impact on water supply is so damaging? I will post a more detailed examination of corn ethanol in the next post but suffice it say that for anyone attempting to live a more sustainable lifestyle that next bag of genetically modified corporately farmed corn chips or tankful of E85 should give pause for thought.

This is a tough one for me. I could live on corn chips! Not really but it sometimes seems that way. When available I purchase organic chips, Bearitos blue corn are my favorite. Unfortunately I have yet to find an outlet near me, within a 3 mile walking radius, that carries organic corn chips, though I have to admit not having focused enough on this specific issue. Still, this hasn’t resulted in my giving up corn chips. This requires some introspection. This failure to act is very interesting. I am quite interested in the burgeoning field of ecopsychology, why we make the choices we do regarding the environment. I think it should be covered in a later post.
For now let’s wrap up with a few more about water.

Monday, 18 February 2008


6600 square miles of death
Beef: It's what's for dinner

Thanks to the Food and Water Watch report "The Rush To Ethanol"

Sunday, 17 February 2008

What's truly needed? some details - by Robb

“That all people should have free access to air and water of acceptable quality is a fundamental human right.” (WHO 2000)

I’d like to spend several posts examining water to start with.
Clean fresh water is the most precious of resources. Second only to fresh air to breath.

Overview of current global water situation
Worldwide use of freshwater has grown at the twice the population rate of increase in the last 100 years. 1.8 billion people will be living in a condition of absolute water scarcity by 2025. For most of the world, agriculture is both the largest and most important consumer of water accounting for 70% of all water use globally. (UN Water Thematic Initiatives 2006)

“It is suggested that an additional 5,600 km3/yr of consumptive water use will be needed to produce an adequate amount of food by 2050 - i.e. almost a doubling of today’s consumptive use of 6800 km3/yr........Expanded irrigation can only solve part of the problem. Already today, there is a large scale overappropriation of river flow over 15% of the land area (Smathkin et al., 2004). In addition there is a huge overuse of groundwater beyond renewable rate......The present irrigation system is.......not sustainable.” (Falkenmark 2006)

Fully one quarter of groundwater withdrawal is not sustainable according to The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. While 1.1 billion of the world’s people lack access to improved water supplies, 2.6 billion lack access to to improved sanitation. (UN World Water Assessment Program 2006)

“Irrigation agriculture, responsible for nearly 40% of world food production, uses about 70% of total water withdrawals.”
(United Nations Economic and Social Council 1997)

In the next 30 years approximately 14% more freshwater will be needed by agriculture just to keep pace with the growing demand for food. (UN Water Thematic Initiatives 2006)

Water pollution
We are not only using too much water but we’re abusing it as well. The most common contaminants found in water, after salt, are agricultural chemicals. Just looking at one of the primary staple food crops, corn, is instructive. Corn production in the US involves vast quantities of commercial nitrogen, applied to 98% of corn fields, and commercial phospate, applied to 87% of corn fields.(USDA Economic Research Service 2002) That’s 91.73 million acres or approximately 1.5 times the entire land mass of the UK sprayed with commercial nitrogen in 2007 if the rate remained the same. Both those chemicals are eutrophying agents. They stimulate the growth of microorganisms which use up all the oxygen in the water and thus everything else either leaves, if it can, or dies. The Gulf of Mexico has a large and growing deadzone, currently 6600 square miles in size, largely a result of corporate agricultural and industrial practices resulting in polluted runoff into the Mississippi river. (Food and Water Watch 2007)
Also widely used on the the US corn crop, is atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides on earth, a known carcinogen and banned in the EU.

“The EPA acknowledges that ‘there is significant, widespread exposure to atrazine and it’s metabolites in drinking water’ and warns that exposure to atrazine can cause ‘congestion of the heart, lungs and kidneys;low blood pressure;muscle spasms;weight loss, and damage to adrenal glands....... cardiovascular damage, retinal and some muscle degeneration and cancer’”
(US EPA 2006)

The EPA under the Clinton administration found that 43% of the 1million lbs/yr of chemicals produced or imported in the US have no basic toxicity data with only 7% having undergone full basic toxicity testing. One such chemical, perchlorate, a chemical used in the defense industry is showing up in groundwater.

“About 20 million Americans have rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate present as a contaminant in their tap water. No safe level has been established for the chemical which can disrupt thyroid function and cause cancer.” (
WWF Freshwater Program 2006)

This is scary stuff and I’ll pause here. Next post I’ll talk about virtual water which begins to tie in water use with sustainable living.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Personal Health and Basic Needs - by Robb

Many who seem to be struggling with adversity are happy; many, amid great affluence, are utterly miserable. - Tacitus

Sustainable living is after all about “living” first and foremost. Quality of life issues must enter into the discussion. In order to get the most out of life careful attention must be paid to health of body, mind, and spirit. A healthy body facilitates a healthy mind and the two together allow a state of being in which one can appropriately deal with matters of spirit.

First and foremost in any style of life, basic needs must be met; food, clothing, shelter, hygiene. There are many issues within these that will warrant detailed discussion but for now let’s consider just the basics. What does each require? This is about the basics, what is required, not what would be nice. What do we need, not what do we want. In order for the typical affluent lifestyle to become sustainable we need to personally redefine the word “need”. We should also consider what is meant by "affluent". By affluent I don’t mean the typical idea of some financial threshold in the west. My concept of affluent would include almost every citizen of the developed world. A person who owns a television is affluent compared to one who does not, or more importantly cannot. Moreover a person living check to check in America but who does not want for the basics and can afford a computer or television is affluent compared to a Bangladeshi whose primary concerns center around providing the basics. If you can regularly afford material possessions, consumer goods, above and beyond basic needs you are affluent compared to the rest of the world. For many of us living in affluence, rich or poor, our relationship with our possessions has become the central relationship of our lives. We think we are dependent upon consumer goods for our happiness. It is that very dependence which makes us unhappy and insecure, not to mention presenting an unsustainable load on the ecosystem. Close investigation of this will bring us to a clearer understanding of what is truly needed.
This process does not preclude luxury, convenience, or material goods. We don’t need to become ascetics. Sustainable living develops out of a thorough examination of what is needed and determining what is not which enables us to make very conscious decisions about what “extras” to bring into our lives.

For example, consider the clothes dryer, necessity or luxury? I currently live in northern England, a damp generally cold place. Many people in this part of the world don’t own, or if they do, don’t often use, a clothes dryer. We dry our clothes on a line when the weather permits, on racks in the house when it doesn’t. When I visit my family in southeastern America, I see very few clotheslines. The weather is much more conducive to solar drying but people choose to spend the energy, the money, and the climate on fossil fuel powered clothes dryers. This is surely not a necessity, at times it may be a convenience, often I think it has to do with image. Clotheslines are seen as being for the poor and unsightly, they are even banned in many subdivisions, as is becoming more common in England as well. Somehow the clothes upon which we place so much importance to make us appear “properly” fashionable become less than aesthetically pleasing when off the body. Just so many rags that spoil the view of the house. This need to impress with an impressive looking house gets into the discussion on shelter which will come later.

So somehow owning a clothes dryer has become a “necessity” for most. It is obviously not. This is about convenience and ego gratification, about image relative to your neighbor, never mind that you may not know your neighbors very well because one of the activities that might bring you into interaction with them, hanging out clothes in the lovely sunshine, has been replaced by stuffing clothes into a machine indoors. Much could be also be said about the “need” for convenience here. Many feel they just couldn’t give up the ability to dry clothes at all hours and quickly. They just wouldn’t have time for the finer things in life if they had to tend laundry on a line. Personally, I find great satisfaction from hanging out laundry. One of the finer things in life is a of feeling self sufficiency, of relying on natures gifts, smelling the breeze, feeling the sun on my shoulders. It also puts me in touch with the ownership and condition of my clothes as well my use of them, a topic for the discussion on clothing. Surely there will be times when the clothes dryer will be useful, it's rained for 2 weeks and your house is full of half dry clothing and your stash of dry work clothes has run out. Does that mean you have to use it the other 50 weeks of the year? Is that problem insurmountable any other way. Most folks in America will own a clothes dryer. Using it less will make it last longer, drastically cut down on utility bills, and ultimately reduce GHG emissions through the combined efforts of conservation.

Being realistic about what is truly needed and what is just needless convenience or ego gratification allows us to make conscious choices about what we do with personal and common resources. Ego gratification is a factor to be considered when looking at the basics as I believe it is largely responsible for many of the excesses of our personal lives and society at large. I’m sure it will come up time after time in this discussion of sustainable living.

Getting back to considerations of basic needs.

Food - The body requires proper nutrition based on level of activity, climate, body type. Food must provide enough energy to sustain necessary activity while supporting the immune system, the brain, growth into adulthood, healthy organs and bones. Food needn’t provide excess calories, ego gratification, or comfort above and beyond physical requirements.

Clothing - must provide protection from the elements and allow for comfort while addressing modesty within societal norms. It needn’t provide ego gratification, or a sense of superiority or conformity.

Shelter - must provide protection from the elements and safety enough to allow food storage and preparation, secure and comfortable sleeping arrangements, healthy family interactions, areas for proper practice of hygiene and storage of tools. It needn’t provide entertainment, ego gratification, or storage of unnecessary accumulation of material goods.

Hygiene - must provide sanitary removal of bodily waste from the living space, water enough to maintain reasonable bodily cleanliness, systems for cleaning of food, cooking areas, clothing, and shelter to keep sickness and vermin at bay. It needn’t mean excessive washing or disinfecting of the body, clothing or shelter, nor need it involve personal adornment or ego gratification.

Again, this isn’t about asceticism, merely a change in perspective. Poverty is not required or desirable. As Duane Elgin has said in his book “Voluntary Simplicity”

“Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and functional integrity that elevates the human spirit.”

The first step towards sustainable living involves coming to a deep and thorough understanding of what is truly needed.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Why Sustainable living? The Golden Rule - by Robb

“We don’t inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”- native american proverb

Limits to growth, climate change, peak oil, population explosion, water shortage, war, carbon footprint. These are all topics that would need to be covered in detail to adequately explain why we must all examine our lives and find ways to make our lifestyles sustainable. Rather than spend a great deal of time dealing with these issues I am going to assume that if you are reading this then you are at least passingly familiar with the concepts. There are many books, websites, blogs, films, podcasts and videos that go into great detail about any one of these you happen to be interested in. I will touch on these issues as the subject matter of this blog requires as I go along. In the meantime I urge you to study deeply into these issues. They are after all the defining issues of our time and will become the issues which force us all, sooner or later, to practice sustainable living. For now I’d like to discuss why sustainable living is important on a personal level.

A feral cat released on an island will hunt down the very last of a prey species to eat, or simply just to hunt. The cat is not to blame. It is it’s nature, it doesn’t have the wherewithal to manage the resource. We are the first species on the planet with the power to choose how we impact our environment. We can choose short term luxury, comfort, convenience, or even survival over long term sustainability. We can choose to deny future generations the gift of a clean diverse environment, to deny them the right to make the same choice. Or we can manage our own affairs in such a way that we still have comfort, some luxury, and survival without threatening the web of life upon which we and future generations depend. We have that choice, one is moral, one is not.

believe it is important to live a moral life. An amoral life is out of balance, every spiritual tradition I have ever heard of stress doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This isn’t just about getting to heaven or attaining a good rebirth, it is about living in harmony with all life around us. How often this is ignored. We must consider the people, plants, and animals yet to be.

This truly golden rule must extend to all.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Sustainable living; my definition - by Robb

To sustain means to hold up or bear the weight of. Our lives rely on and demand much of the ecosystem we are a part of. To make them sustainable we must insure that the ecosystem can bear the weight we impose upon it. If not, the ecosystem that supports us will crumble like the support of an overloaded bridge. Every single thing we do in our daily lives has an impact on the support systems we rely on.

In order to practice sustainable living we must examine the minutiae of our lives and determine if the individual activities therein are sustainable. A simple example of this is reliance on fossil fuels. There is a finite supply of fossil fuels, they cannot be renewed. Therefore, use of it, in any form; motor fuel, heating, plastics, paints and solvents, wherever it is used is unsustainable because the finite resource cannot support the use of it, not to mention the damage they cause to the ecosystems which support us. But is it reasonable to expect a complete avoidance of fossil fuel use in our modern lives? Probably not, but careful attention to our personal behaviour will reveal many opportunities to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels in many contexts and thus make our lives more sustainable. Each person will have to decide the degree to which they are willing pursue sustainability in regard to each resource.

These types of decisions must eventually be made about everything we do if we are to practice sustainable living