Saturday, June 20, 2009

the greater of two evils

I drive to Toronto from Hamilton a fair amount, for gigs and recordings mostly. I'd love to take the GO Bus instead - I actually hate driving - but it doesn't run later than about 12:30am and I am almost never done playing before about 1:30, so I am forced to drive. Alternately, I could do the gig, stay at a friend's, and then come home in the morning, but then I'd miss hours of morning time with my family, and often I'd have to get up super early to get home early enough for my wife to get to work on time.

So I drive. But it's this family time thing that causes another problem: according to the US Department of Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists, driving fast can use up to 33% more gas than keeping to the speed limit, and as we've seen, every litre of gas produces 2.4kg of CO2, so that's a lot more CO2 being emitted over time. When I leave for gigs, I give myself around an hour to get there from home. But I know, for instance, that the Tranzac can be a 45-min. drive, door-to-door, if I drive 120km/h instead of the posted 100km/h. So for that extra 15 minutes of time with my family, I opt to drive faster rather than use less gas. On the way home, all I want to do is collapse in bed, so I also speed home.

There are many examples of this kind of problem for me: my coffee pot uses 1200W of electricity. My microwave uses 1100W. Thus, if I make a pot of coffee, the most energy-wise thing for me to do is to turn it off right away, and then nuke it cup by cup as it cools. That way, instead of using 1200W of power for an hour or-so, I use 1100W in bursts of 1:45 (this is my optimal coffee-nuking time). But I'd say at least half the time I prefer to leave the pot on so I don't have to take the extra step - which probably takes about 2 mins total - of nuking my coffee before I drink it. Ironically, after that first hour I do like to turn it off so it doesn't start to taste burnt, and then I start nuking the stuff anyway (aside to coffee purists: I know this anaethema to your being. I would love to be a coffee snob, but I really just don't have the palate, which in the end is better for the Earth anyway. so ha). 

On a related note, the coffee I buy is fair-trade organic stuff, actually from PC (which is a little suspect, but at this point ignorance is bliss), and to offset the cost I also buy bags of roasted barley, which I then use in a 2:1 ratio for brewing. It does make a slightly nuttier taste, but it's not unpleasant and it saves both money and arable land. I also harvest the dandelions that grow in our yard, clean and dry the roots, and then grind them up in my bean grinder to add, about a tablespoon at a time, to the mix. According to the University of Maryland Medical Centre, dandelion root (ideally dried for at least a year according to some herbalists) is very good for the endocrine system; liver and kidneys both benefit. And it takes some of the bitterness out of coffee, so everyone wins. Well I win anyway. And I think that's it for today. 

[addendum: a recent article in the Manitoban says that putting the windows down instead of using AC does save gas but only when you're driving slower than 80km/hr; below that speed, using AC can increase your fuel consumption by as much as 30%! Above 80km/hr though, having the windows down actually creates so much drag that you ultimately use more fuel than you would blasting the AC]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

decisions decisions

These are the decisions I agonize over:

I left the house today with my laptop, but found when i took it out that I'd forgotten the power cord. So... do I drive home and get my laptop's power adaptor, thereby lessening the amount of energy I have to use when I turn it on (it won't need to recharge) but using gas in the car, or do I use the battery, thus not using the gas to get home but using more electricity later to juice the battery up again? Does one have a worse impact than the other? 

According to, my laptop, charging, uses about 97W (about 34% more power than normal). It takes maybe 3 hours to charge fully, so that's basically 0.291kWh. The majority of our power in Ontario comes from nuclear sources, followed by hydroelectricity, followed at a distant third by coal and then gas ( That may be good news for my dilemma, given that driving my car uses gasoline... 

It's about 1km from where I am to my house. The car's a 1999 Civic, very basic model with no power anything (except locks). It's not hot enough for AC, but even when it is I usually drive with the windows down instead (though I'm told the drag this creates offsets the gas you save not using AC. argh). The US Dept. of Energy says that, driving in the city, I get about 22MPG (, which is around 35km/gallon or, apparently, around 5.7L/100km (does anyone understand this designation? why aren't we using the equivalent km/litre??) according to So if I drive 100km, I'm using 5.7L of gas. It took a lot of digging, but I finally found a Ministry of Natural Resources page explaining that each L of gas produces about 2.4kg of CO2 (interestingly, it's 2.7kg/L for diesel!). If you'd like to track your fuel consumption, there is in fact a new intiative through the federal government to do so online: 
At any rate, this means 2km (return trip to and from home)  uses 0.114L of gas, and creates something like 0.2736kg of CO2.  whew. do I determine how much CO2 I create by using 0.291kWh of electricity, with all its various sources? I have no idea. I intuitively guessed, wrongly it seems now, that getting the power cord was better than charging the laptop. 

But part of the madness of trying to find reliable info on this stuff is trying to find a source that doesn't have obvious conflicts of interest... Bullfrog Power, for instance, has some sort of CO2 for electricity calculator, but they are far from an unbiased party. On the other hand, the Ontario and Canadian governments have in their best interests reporting slightly skewed results too so it can seem that they're doing a better job than they likely are at cleaning up the environment. I currently have 13 tabs open, not including this one, just trying to find out how much CO2 Ontario electricity generation produces. And I still have no clue. If you've found your way here, perhaps at least some of the links I've found will help you navigate your way through to some sorts of helpful sites. Meantime, I'll keep looking...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

water and electricity

I went back to school last fall, to finally finish my Hons BFA in Music. One of the courses I took was called, Science, Technology, and the Environment, and our second term project involved tracking our use of three resources over two weeks; I chose to track electricity, water, and travel (the latter being a bit of a cop-out since I almost never drive anywhere anymore). 

W A T E R :

The water portion of the paper was fascinating: I had to determine exactly how much water I used, day-by-day, in litres, by measuring how much came out of each faucet in our house over the course of 10 seconds, multiplying that by 6 for the amount per minute, tracking the number of minutes the water was running, and then calculating the total number of litres used. 

Here are the water measurements I calculated:
  • bath: 3.25L/10s = 19.5L/min
  • toilet: 6.8L/flush
  • bathroom sink: 1L/10s = 6L/min
  • kitchen sink: 2L/10s = 12L/min
  • kitchen washtub for dishes: capacity 4.5L
  • washing machine: 3.0cu/ft capacity (approx. 85L) – always cold water, so heat for hot water not a factor
  • shower: 1.55L/10s = 9.3L/min
  • coffee pot: 12 cups (240mL x12) = 2880mL or 2.88L
and the end result was that, the first week (which we were to treat as a control week, using the second week to try to lessen our consumption), my water useage was just over 2400L (which, weirdly, a quick search on Google tells me is the same amount of water it takes to produce a single hamburger, from farm to plate)! NB, my second week, I managed to reduce this to about 1550L, which still sounds like a LOT. 

E L E C T R I C I T Y :

The electricity portion, on the other hand, was a little staggering: turns out that, while I thought we did a pretty good job at keeping our electricity use down, we still had a long way to go. This was a much much more intenssive process that involved reading all the amp and/or watt readings on our appliances, tracking how long each of them was on (including idling times), and then determining the number of kWh used per day for each of them. 

...a number of things stand out:
  • Laptop: 64.98W - charging: 97W approx (about 34% more power according to
  • Laptop w/ new power adaptor: 90W - charging: approx 120W
  • PC: 600W
  • PC monitor (LCD): 100W

→ this means a) that it's waaaay less energy to use my laptop than our PC, b) that my newer, fancier power adaptor also uses more energy. hmn, and c) that our fancy LCD computer screen uses as much as a very strong light bulb. 

  • Television: 95W
  • radio/CD player: 13W
→ turns out listening to the radio IS better for you!
  • microwave: 1100W
  • coffee pot: 1200W
→ in fact, making big pots of coffee, turning them off as soon as they're done, and then nuking them when they get cold is more energy efficient. maybe. 
  • washing machine:  1200W
  • clothes dryer: 2760W – 5520W
→ the clothes dryer uses more than twice the energy of any other appliance, and is in fact even more energy-intensive than our fridge!

We've been hanging clothes on our lines as much as possible since then...

which is way more human-energy intensive - like, it adds at least an extra 20 minutes to each load of laundry - but which saves 45 mins, or about 2.3Kwh, of electricity. 

My first week's total useage was around 36kWh. 

But the point here is twofold: reducing your consumption of resources is good for the environment, but it's also pennywise. Our electricity is currently $0.05600/kWh (five and a half cents); at 1100 - 1500 kWh/mo., we're therefore looking at between $62 and $84 monthly. Obviously cutting things like the use of our dryer down helps us save money. But, as my essay asserted, according to Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator, just under 70% of Ontario's electricity needs are met by a combination of hydroelectric and nuclear power (Independent Electricity System Operator, 2009). That's a far cry from the U.S., where natural gas and coal provide the bulk of electrical power (U.S. EPA, Energy and You, 2008), but there are still environmental consequences to our electricity's generation.
While the general perception is that hydroelectricity produces little-to-no environmental pollution, because of the flooding it usually causes, the process of building massive hydroelectric dams does in fact strongly impact surrounding ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic (U.S. EPA, Hydroelectricity, 2007). However, in the past few years, scientists have begun to look more closely at the environmental impacts of hydroelectricity, and an article published in 2005 in the New Scientist finally suggested that “hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels,” due to the fact that when a reservoir is first flooded, the trees that end up underwater begin to rot (Graham-Rowe, 2005). As we now know, methane is a major greenhouse gas, being 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Graham-Rowe, 2005), and rotting wood releases vast amounts of both methane and CO2 (stored in the wood through photosynthesis) into the atmosphere.
Nuclear energy, which accounts for around 30% of the electricity in Ontario (IESO, 2009), presents a number of environmental hazards, from the initial mining of uranium (which, among other things, uses fossil fuel-burning machines) to substantial amounts of water used for cooling, to consequent water pollution, and finally to the generation of radioactive waste, which has a half-life of around 25,000 years–meaning it remains dangerous for a quarter of a million years–and for which there is no accepted disposal method (David Suzuki Foundation, 2009). More immediately, in some cases nuclear power plants are also reported to “emit radioactive material, imposing cancer risks on its workers, their children, and people in surrounding communities” (David Suzuki Foundation, 2009). However, despite these obvious problems, nuclear energy is still the best option for electricity generation in a world where cutting CO2 emissions is really paramount for moving towards a healthier climate. A June 2008 article in Wired magazine goes further: “There's no question that nuclear power is the most climate-friendly industrial-scale energy source... the reality is that every serious effort at carbon accounting reaches the same conclusion: Nukes win” (Wired, June 2008).

Saturday, June 6, 2009


   I was in the garden just now watering the plants from our rain barrel - the one I never quite got 'round to finishing so that now it has caused a $3500 bowed wall problem in our storm entrance to the basement - and I was remembering a conversation I had with a neighbour a couple summers ago when I first got our push-mower. He walked by, as he always does, walking his dog in his acid wash jean uniform, and exclaimed something about not being able to give up his power tools, no matter tha price of gas (which, if you will remember, has reached $1.30 a litre at that point). I laughed but, as always, didn't speak my mind about the reason I had chosen to buy a push mower, giving our gas-powered one to the single woman next door.

   So... in a predominantly Conservative neighbourhood, nestled in the heart of Canada's NDP stronghold, I, a budding Green, censored myself in the interest of making nice. I have vowed a dozen times that if he comes by again, ever, and says anything similar, I will explain myself. 

But also, how much good does it do the environment for me to buy a push-mower if I then give my old gas-guzzler to someone else to use? Granted she has a ton less grass than we do, but still, isn't it a bit of a contradiction? argh.

We let our grass grow quite long... I keep it at about 1.5 - 2", I'd say, and this serves two purposes:
  1. we don't have to water it as often, if ever, because the extra length shields the roots from the sun and keeps them moist
  2. the grass often goes to seed before I need to cut it, so that our back lawn was actually so thick the first time I tried to cut it this spring that I bent the handles of the mower. I eventually had to accept defeat and use - just once - the gas one, now borrowed from the afore-mentioned neighbour. 
...and our front lawn is now almost half clover, which is great for the nitrogen content of the soil.

Finally, here are some photos of our veggies, planted predominantly from seed, except for the onions and rutabaga, which were planted from veggies that went off in our 'root cellar' (cupboards under the kitchen hutch). Also, the tree in the mix is one that planted itself last spring and has grown like gangbusters (might it be a beech?), and the chickory is stuff I transplanted from an abaondoned lot up in Ancaster. Good greens, and the roots make an excellent coffee subsitute (as do dandelions, which I also harvest). 

peas (to let the ground rest and replenish the nitrogen)

tomatoes in pots

said onion

and rutabaga...



beach tree...

and chickory type 1 beside chickory type 2

post script:

I choose not to use any fertilizers whatsoever on the plants, and save the seeds of the heartiest ones at the end of the season, leaving them to rot on the vine so the seeds are good & ready. I watched a number of summers as chickory grew like mad at the edges of the highway (little blue silky flowers), and realized it was doing great despite drought, high sun, and tons of salt and contaminants. I'd love to only grow species that are native to this area, but I have yet to get my lazy butt out to Dundas to William Dam Seeds to explore those options. Instead, our seeds this year were a mixture of PC Organics (validity? who knows...), seeds saved from last year, and a couple other varieties. The beech tree, as mentioned, sprouted last spring

Idealists & Hyprocrites

It seems to me that ideologies have to be allowed to exist hand-in-hand with hypocrisy. As an ideological environmentalist, I am often a blatant hypocrite. 

So before going any further, I'd like to expose some of the basic tensions I have with being environmentally responsible:
  • money
  • practicality /ease /status quo
  • peer pressure /social norms
...there are likely more. I wanted to name them so you, dear reader, know that I am aware of what may seem at times to be a judgemental attitude, and that in fact I too struggle to do right by the Earth.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Grocery Dilemmas

I have a problem when I go shopping for food: I evaluate all the pros and cons. all of them. I want to share with you some of the considerations I try to make:
  • how far has the food travelled? our dependence on oil means that on average our food travels over 2400km (Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p5) (see also this study by the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State U.), using up 7 times more calories than the food yields (U. Michigan, Centre for Sustainable Systems), and even more - 11-15 times the yield - when we're talking about meat (Living in the Environment, 1st Canadian Ed., 2008)
  • how much grain has the meat I'm buying been fed (7 kg of grain makes 1 kg of feedlot beef; 4 kg of grain makes 1 kg of pork; 2.2 kg of grain makes 1 kg of chicken), to say nothing of the antibiotics it's been fed to get it to grow bigger and faster than it normally would (Paul Roberts: the End of Food)?
  • though it's more expensive, I buy non-clay cat litter for our cats, because the clay used is actually being strip-mined in a way that not only devastates local ecosystems and vast areas of land, but is also non-renewable
  • what kinds of pesticides do I think may have been used on the produce? I don't know any specifics, but I have heard, for instance, that apples are grown with a ton of pesticides. Better to buy organic. Bananas, on the other hand, are reportedly dipped in gasoline to help preserve them and ripen them at just the right time (after their long journey).
  • is it better to buy beans and peas dried and add water, thereby reducing metals used in cans and the preservatives we add, or is it better to buy the cans so you don't waste water and energy re-hydrating and then boiling them before use?
  • how high on the food chain am I eating? Citing the second law of thermodynamics (energy is always lost during a conversion from one form to another), if I try to eat less meat and consume things lower on the food chain and closer to the ground (so-to-speak), I can reduce the amount of CO2 my consumption is contributing to the atmosphere...
  • can I afford to buy fair-trade coffee this week? how much do I trust President's Choice's new organic & fair trade labels? How is it possible such a huge company is really making such changes? (see for an excellent discussion about the so-called "fair trade" coffee industry)
...there are more. Tonight I "had to" go to a grocery store further than our local one because it has longer hours, and when I got there I was really almost panicky about the obvious ignorance of the other shoppers around me, buying boxes of crazy processed foods with ingredients you can't pronounce, and apparently not thinking at all about how their lives are soon going to have to change because of the inevitable meteoric rise in the price of oil and the subsequently monumental decisions our fossil-fuel-dependent society is going to have to make about how we live. I find it hard to breathe in malls for the same reason.

So What?

But so why should you care, even though I've developed this slow-paced, fairly obsessive relationship with the food I purchase? Well, because, together with the decline in oil production (signalling and end to cheap oil) and our exploding population (worldwide @ 6.9 billion today, expected to double by about 2025), the Green Revolution is going to become a thing of the past - we are only able to get as much food from the ground as we do now because of petrochemicals; without them, our fertilizers and pesticides will disappear. And so, in short, we're entering an era when food is about to become scarce, and our methods of producing food are going to have to be re-thought. Additionally, all that fossil fuel energy we are using to produce our food is contributing to greenhouse gases (methane, CO2, ozone, etc.), which is warming our planet, creating a positive feedback loop. And that's just scratching the surface...