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Eco-party celebrates art of simple living

Dee Anne Finken, Portland Oregonian
If bridge or bunko isn’t your kind of fun, how about an eco-party?

Sponsored by the Portland-based Northwest Earth Institute, an eco-party — as its name suggests — turns ecology into a party animal. A host invites a dozen or so friends or co-workers to learn a little more about being better stewards of the Earth.

On a recent Tuesday evening in Northeast, school counselor Pam Wood hosted such an event. There were no games or playing cards, but the atmosphere was fun and lighthearted. Piled into her living room — around a table loaded with chips and fruit — 18 or so friends swapped ideas about how to live more simply.

Plenty of people are environmentally conscious, Wood says. “But an eco-party helps by giving you the practical skills to live that way.”

At the center of the party was Jeanne Roy, who, along with her husband, Dick, founded the nonprofit institute in 1993. A checklist in hand, Roy spent most of the evening prompting guests to consider their habits at home.

A number of arms shot up when Roy asked: “How many of you at home have a durable, recyclable shopping bag?” Her follow-up addressed the real issue: How many actually remember to take it to the store and use it?

One guest’s solution was to scribble in “bags” at the top of the shopping list each week; another noted is attached a hook on the kitchen wall where he immediately returns the bags after each shopping trip.

Over the next two hours, Roy helped direct a bounty of insights, tidbits and tricks on how to better reduce, reuse and recycle to conserve resources.

A longtime commitment to living more simply has made Roy and her husband something of legends among this crowd. One partygoer asked whether the rumor is true that the Roys generate a single can of trash a year.

A few gasps followed Roy’s “yes.”

Nonetheless, Roy doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Plenty of guests added their own ideas on how to make a difference: eliminate toxins in cleaning and gardening supplies; buy local and organic food; reduce garbage by composting.
(20 July 2006)
Northwest Earth Institute has developed curricula for six discussion courses on sustainability themes. “These self-facilitated discussion courses are taken informally by small groups in a home, workplace at noon, center of faith, or other place where people naturally gather..” I’ve taken two of the courses and found the quality of the content to be very high. -BA

The Un-Coal

David Talbot, MIT Technology Review
By investing in energy efficiency, we could vastly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and save money.
There is a low-tech way to sequester carbon dioxide: don’t dig up so much coal and oil in the first place. Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative concludes that using the most efficient building technologies for commercial and residential buildings could avert as much carbon dioxide as is produced by 800 one-gigawatt coal power plants. Doubling automotive efficiency — possible with existing technology — would achieve the same. Do both and you’ve canceled out the emissions of 1,600 coal power plants — more than all the coal plants proposed globally today.

Clearly, even partial deployment would yield enormous benefits. So what’s the problem? “The classic reason why efficiency didn’t fare well [is that] it took five guys in a corporate boardroom to spend a couple billion bucks to build a power plant that can power 250,000 homes,” says Steve Selkowitz, who manages building-efficiency research programs at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA. “Getting 250,000 homeowners to each change 10 light bulbs and buy a more efficient refrigerator and air conditioner takes much more effort.”

And right now, federal policy mostly helps the five guys in the boardroom. Consider federal tax credits and funding for energy-related activities: according to the Alliance to Save Energy, an energy-efficiency organization, most energy tax breaks go to efforts to bolster energy supply, primarily fossil fuels. Only 14 percent go to efforts to increase efficiency and reduce consumption, even though the benefits would be the same or better in terms of cost, and the measures would prevent — rather than add to — carbon dioxide and other emissions.

Consider what’s possible with lighting alone. Half of U.S. electricity comes from coal. Two-thirds of U.S. electricity is consumed in commercial and residential buildings. In commercial buildings, 35 percent of electricity goes to lighting (the figure is 20 percent for homes). Selkowitz says that with an aggressive effort, lighting consumption in commercial buildings could readily be cut — by half — through better designs, more-efficient light sources, and smart sensor and control systems. That strategy alone, fully deployed, would replace 40 one-gigawatt coal plants.

But are efficiency investments really cost effective? A 2001 National Academies study found that just three small U.S. Energy Department-funded R&D programs that produced technologies now widely deployed — electronic ballasts for fluorescent lamps, efficient refrigerator compressors, and low-emissivity (low-E) coatings for windows — have achieved cumulative energy savings of $30 billion. Despite this lesson — to say nothing of the climate-change issue — the White House wants to cut efficiency efforts further. In its proposed fiscal 2007 budget, research at the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office would get $517 million, down $112 million. Efficiency incentives would get trimmed, too.
(19 July 2006)

Go green, Miliband tells UK supermarket bosses

Julie Finch, Guardian
Environment secretary David Miliband yesterday summoned bosses from the big four supermarkets to demand they work harder to make their businesses more environmentally friendly.

…Mr Miliband said: “The food industry has the potential to significantly affect our fragile environment, but it is also in the unique position of being able to make a major positive contribution to reducing our environmental footprint.” He told the supermarket chiefs he wanted them to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions and asked how they could increase their uptake of locally produced, seasonal food.

Mr Miliband also asked the supermarkets “how they plan to provide clearer, more accessible guidance and information to consumers to help them evaluate the ‘greenness’ of electrical products on sale, by using their purchasing power to influence the range of products available to consumers”.

…Tesco recently launched a 10-point “community plan” which includes a £100m environmental fund to power stores with wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal power. The plan also included a pledge to source more food from local suppliers and encourage shoppers to buy locally produced goods. The company has also announced plans to start moving non-food products by rail .

Asda already moves some goods by train. Its parent group, Wal-Mart, recently set out an ambitious environmental programme including a pledge to ensure it is supplied 100% by renewable energy.

Yesterday’s meeting took place as Defra released new figures showing an increase in CO2 emissions caused by food transport for the UK. Road and air “food miles” generated nearly 18m metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2004 – up 6% on the previous year. No figures are available beyond 2004. The increase followed a 15% rise in emissions over the decade to 2002.

Food transported by air – mainly fresh fruit and vegetables – accounted for only 0.1% of total food miles, but generated 13% of total food transport CO2 emissions.

…Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne called for government action to encourage more local supply. “Our own research has revealed that supermarket lorries travel the equivalent of almost four return trips to the moon every day.

“The big chains have a duty to provide environmentally friendly alternatives by supporting local producers.”
(21 July 2006)

Green Wonders of the World

Andrew Blum, Business Week
Green building technology has reached a tipping point that makes it more feasible — and elegant — choice for new construction

Ten years ago, large-scale green building was still a pipe dream. Most of the designs were the architectural versions of horsehair shirts, neither very comfortable nor very pretty. Using less energy inherently meant making do with less—less heating, less cooling, less of the symbolism and grandeur that define great architecture.

Yet by the turn of the millennium green had become glamorous, and today it’s even economical. The cycle of innovation for sustainable building technologies is now staggeringly short, given how long it takes to complete a building. In short, we are close to the tipping point at which green design becomes the default option for smart building.
(21 July 2006)

Is buying local always best?

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Christian Science Monitor
Small shops and farmers benefit. But that may be outweighed by cost to other parts of the world.
To buy or not to buy from local farmers, stores, and craftspeople – that is the moral question. It’s stirring sharp debate about what it means to do the right thing at the cash register.

The question has roots in a fast-growing “buy local” movement. About 36 cities and towns, from Seattle to Salt Lake City to Tampa, Fla., have over the past five years adopted systems to label and promote locally owned businesses. Since 1999, about 5,000 farms have registered with, a website that connects consumers with their local growers. In Austin, Texas, where local merchants this year marked the week of July 4 as “Celebrate Your Independents Week,” stickers reading “I Bought Local” have become a popular statement of dissent against proliferating chains.

As these efforts gain momentum, “buy local” activists are increasingly arguing that their cause is about more than preserving a place’s unique character. It’s also a moral issue, they say, because local businesses are more visible and therefore more accountable on issues from employment to the environment than are competitors with headquarters and operations in faraway places.

“If it’s done locally, you have some sense of what the ethics are of its production” methods, says Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of “Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.”

For instance, if goods “are produced in our community, we’re going to know if there are 11-year-olds working in that factory,” she says.

Others, however, question on an ethical level the wisdom of maximizing local production and consumption. A local focus can breed an unhealthy provincialism and lead to practices that harm both the environment and the poor in developing nations, according to John Clark, a social development specialist for East Asia at the World Bank and author of “Worlds Apart: Civil Society and the Battle for Ethical Globalization.”
(24 July 2006)
Looks like the Christian Science Monitor is succumbing to the pernicious journalistic philosophy of “Two sides to any argument, no matter how ridiculous or lobbyist-driven one of the sides is.” This sloppy approach has marred coverage of global warming – a real black eye for U.S. journalism. -BA

Principled eaters gather at grill

Joseph Gallivan, Portland Tribune
Portlanders who like to think of this town as being on the cutting edge of both dining trends and “green” culture recently got a reminder that the Bay Area is still the leader. On July 11, Jessica Prentice came to town to cook dinner.

It was the sort of event that gets foodies salivating: an all-organic, all-local dinner held outdoors on a summer night. Guests dined on the lawn beside the Busy Corner Grocery rich in shabby-chic. There were small bunches of wildflowers as centerpieces on mismatched tables, and behind the clouds a full moon.

Prentice is the author of “Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection” (Chelsea Green, 2006) in which several shades of the new foodie rainbow converge. She put a catchy name to a movement: “Locavores” are people who try to eat seasonal, local food, in part to reduce the amount of energy spent in transporting food to the table. (Locavores are usually omnivores; “I used to be a vegan … ” is a common conversational opener.)

“It’s taking off partly because organic has been so much taken over by corporations,” Prentice says as she flips meat. “And people who want to feel a connection to their food don’t really feel like organic does it anymore: It’s corporate organic, it doesn’t have much depth, conviction or meaning.”

She mentions rising concerns about peak oil and global warming, saying: “Eating locally is one way we can reduce our footprint on the planet. People want to know where their food is grown, who by, and that the animals and ecosystems aren’t harmed by what they eat.”

Prentice follows the ideas of Weston A. Price (1870-1948), a Cleveland dentist who noticed that people in certain nonindustrialized cultures often had fine teeth. His book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,” recounts – with photos – his global odyssey during which he researched their diets and formulated reasons that their general health was so good, noting what happened when they switched to Western diets.

Some of his prime recommendations: consume organ meats, sauerkraut, raw (unpasteurized) milk and healthy fats; soak grains overnight; and avoid soy.
(25 July 2006)