Tuesday, August 9, 2011

fire (now with references)

So I suck at being good to the planet. I'm trying to make the right decisions, but even when I oh-so-virtuously manage to deny myself all kinds of things I feel are harmful, I still manage to mess it up.
I have just come back from camping with my family. It was mostly restful, except for the somewhat leaky tent one night and the steadily deflated blow-up mattress the next, but on the third day (of five), while I was sitting beside the fire pit nursing damp wood to life, I had a glimmer of memory about campfires being terrible for the environment. As I recall now, the information was given in reference to the Third World and their meagre choices for heat - wood, dung, garbage in some cases - but it made me realize that I was polluting the air too! Now you may be saying, Oh come on Bowen, surely a few campfires cannot do that much damage to the atmosphere! ...and in one sense you're right, but the Tragedy of the Commons (is that Thoreau or Malthus or someone else? - edit: it's someone named Garrett Hardin, and it was coined in 1968 in the linked article) dictates that if you and I think that way, basically so does everyone else, and suddenly we're all having just a few campfires by the thousands and the tens of thousands... you can see where this leads. So... what to do?
There are a few different factors to consider:
  1. apparently trees only remove CO2 from the atmosphere for a certain length of time. By some estimates, after about 100 years of life, trees begin to decay and return their CO2 to the air. So... by burning wood over a century old, does this create more CO2, or an equal amount? Edit: "Carbon sequestration," as it's called, does only last in trees for between 80 - 100 years, after which time it is offset by decay in the tree, which releases CO2. see here...
  2. we could consider using those indoor creosote-removing recycled-coffee-bean ready-made logs outside while camping. But are they meant for outdoors? Are they safe for cooking with? And, most pertinently, do they produce noxious and environmentally-damaging gases? Edit: depends who you talk to. This company says their logs are "greener," while this report (p2 under "Toxic Pollutants") says some of them release PCBs and other toxic gases.
  3. if no campfire, then all cooking must be done otherwise: is propane a better alternative?
...This also leads me to the dreadful conclusion that perhaps cooked food is worse for the environment than raw food. I am already a super-reluctant vegetarian; do I have to consider not eating anything cooked now too? Good God.
My second major revelation was to do with some of the snacky-type "vacation foods" we brought along, ostensibly for our daughter, but y'know. Oreos, for instance. Turns out Oreos are made with (cow-fat derived) shortening rather than butter (splitting hairs though? more on this...). Ack! And both a vegan friend of mine and our (very not-vegan) neighbour recently mentioned, separately in the same week, that they don't eat Jell-O because of its gelatine, which of course is from cow hooves.
And suddenly I felt foolish and simple-minded in my conviction not to eat "beef." It seems fairly clear that all the "fruit of the bovine" may be just as bad as beef itself (quick! creative writers! new Creation myth where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is actually a cow! go! oh and also, now the serpent is actually Adam's little girl saying, "but daddy you love beef! you should stop being a vegetarian. I want you to be happy!" Please also read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage for reference). Given that I don't eat beef anymore because of methane (a greenhouse gas which I have cited numerous times as being 90x more toxic to the atmosphere - technically the troposphere, Jack and Annie and their Magic Treehouse recently pointed out to me), isn't buying dairy products just supporting the same industry and therefore the production of the same toxic gases? Argh!
so... do goats burp or fart?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

cow farts

Sometime in the spring we had a moment of weakness and went to a pizza chain (a sit-down one. with a bar) for dinner. When the waitress took our order, I asked whether a particular sauce was meat-based and my daughter (almost 5 now) exclaimed, "Daddy doesn't eat beef because of cow farts!"

She's not wrong. It's why. It's also why I tend not to eat even the "happiest" lamb or mutton (actually that's because of sheep burps). Last time I had red meat, then, was Easter dinner. We bought a leg of lamb, organic and locally sourced, from our local butcher. It was melty. And I tried not to feel guilty.

So generally I avoid beef no matter what. In their book The Way We Eat, Peter Singer and Jim Mason do an excellent job of pitting the various ethical factors in our dietary decisions against one another. In terms of beef, they convincingly argue that pasture-fed organic "free range" cows are actually more damaging to the environment than factory-farmed ones fed corn and other grain because eating grass makes the happy cows fart more. This produces more methane, which is a greenhouse gas 90x more potent than CO2, and accounts for the fact that by some estimates, our North American meat industry alone is responsible for around 40% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Ugh. Which means that even if I get happy beef that has been shot in the back of the head while watching the perfect sun set with its adoring bovine family, it's still going to be responsible for record-breaking temperatures, droughts, water shortages, etc. for something like the next 800 generations of my offspring (apparently greenhouse gases stick around for about 20,000 years).

But ho, what news? Apparently, we're working on the scientific equivalent of bovine bean-o. See here in the March 2011 edition of Business Green!

So maybe, just maybe, one day I'll be able to eat a non-lentil, non-tofu, non-mushroom burger again. A boy can dream.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

tiny little OCD decisions

I may have written about this before, I can't remember.

We don't buy bottled water in our house - we (perhaps naively, but I'll save that for a future conspiracies blog) just trust what comes out of the tap. But we like it cold. Today, when I was filling up the jug to put in the fridge, I wondered, does it take more energy to let the water cool before I fill the jug, or just take the first water that comes out and let it cool in the fridge? It occurs to me now, it uses less water to do the latter, which then seems like an obvious choice. But having read The Way We Eat, I find myself weighing various environmental consequences against others: which is worse, wasting a couple litres of water or using extra electricity by putting lukewarm water in the fridge?

I have no idea what the answer is, but I'm plagued by such decisions. Here are choice others:
  • driving at what speed does it become equally bad, because of drag, to have the windows down as to run the AC?
  • is it worse to water your own vegetables (thereby using water) or to buy non-local non-organic veggies from somewhere with high rainfall (thereby using petrochemicals)?
  • does it take more gas to turn the car off frequently and then turn it on (like at a long light) or just to keep it running?
  • is it worse to drive to the bookstore (using x amount of gas) and buy a new book or to order it secondhand online (using y amount of gas - likely more than x)?
  • do the eggs I buy from a local farmer actually use more resources - in terms of food, water, gas, etc. - than the ones I buy from the grocery store (because the latter are mass produced and more carefully controlled)?
...as a musician and academic, I'm also always thinking cost because money's always a little tight, so then factor that in too. Sometimes, I have to admit, cost wins over environment. It can be expensive trying to do right by the Earth, and much as I want to think long-term, there are times when I can't afford to. Those are times when I feel incredibly guilty, times for which I imagine myself apologizing to my daughter and her children in 25 or 40 years.