Thursday, October 29, 2015

Some recent press in my new hometown

It's been a while since I've been to the blog myself, because even though I think a lot about trash, recycling, and materialism; and even though I am still deeply influenced by the project, I haven't been living completely the way I did in Ann Arbor.  Well, all of that changed pretty much overnight because a piece of mine--All my trash for a year fit into two plastic bags. Here’s how I did it.-- describing my experiences just got published in the Washington Post, which has given me a whole lot of food for thought. I can do more to live up to what I was doing in Ann Arbor.  Or, perhaps, I start a new project to minimize entropy.

Thoughts?  Ideas?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Four years on, reflections from a new home

On three previous occasions I have used this anniversary day to reflect on what I can do with my privilege and the tremendous resources I am surrounded by; to lessen my burden on the world; to continue a dialogue about the larger impacts of our individual choices, and the structural challenges we face in reshaping this culture of destruction, violence, and injustice into one aligned with peace, equality, and harmony; to make this dialogue actionable.  Today is the fourth time I reflect on a small journey that began in my Ann Arbor kitchen, this time from a new home, Washington, DC.

As grey skies poured rain on my bus ride home from a weekend New York City today, I read a recent essay by Gretchen Legler in Orion, The Happiness Index: Putting people before profit in Bhutan.  The essay describes Bhutan's alternative social, economic, and environmental metric, Gross National Happiness, in the context of the country's and people's struggles "negotiating the wilderness of modernization without losing its soul," a soul that has so far been filled with organic food and resided in lush, untouched environmental beauty, a soul being challenged by the opening of its borders and the cautious welcoming of what we call "modernization."

Sadly for Legler, she found in Bhutan a new found obsession with the modern world in which "traditions and nature are taking a backseat to convenience."  For example, traditional, handcrafted bamboo food containers call bangchung replaced by "plastic insulated containers made in China, exported to Thailand, flown to India, and trucked over the southern borders."

After a three-day hike to to the holy lake Dragipangtsho, or "in the lap of the mountain," Legler and her group drink tea around a fire on the lake shore.  She reflects:
When we finally arrive at the holy lake, it is nearly night...But even with the fire and tea, this is a fierce place.  Magnifying this eerie scene is that we are camped in what feels like a garbage dump, surrounded by piles of plastic litchi juice containers, candy and gum wrappers, packaging from dried noodle soups, clear plastic Bhutanese gin and vodka bottles, worn out trousers, a blue rubber boot. 
I stare outside the bus window along I-95, and see a congruent scene rushing by my eyes at seventy miles per hour: junk of all kinds littering the shore of the highway, the shore of forested lands.  While many have benefited from a paradigm of environmental destruction, modern society's most boundless production is pollution, waste, and trash, refuse strewn across landscapes, leeching unwanted chemicals into our soil and water, ending up in living bodies, cancerous.

"I begin to pick up trash and toss it into the fire," Legler writes.  "Karma stops me in alarm: "No!  You must not burn trash beside a holy lake!  It will offend and anger the local deities."...[W]hile burning garbage beside a holy lake is taboo, leaving garbage as of yet seems to carry no spiritual repercussions.  The incongruity of it hangs over us all."

I do not live trash or recycling free anymore, but I live a changed life because of this journey, because of where I live.  Climate change resilience, low-cost air pollution sensors to fight for environmental justice, the politics of the Environmental Protection Agency, protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, anti-drone new home, this nation's capital, has provided new outlets for socioecological engagement, and alternative concepts and paradigms to think about, act on, build.  I am fortunate to be here, and I am looking forward to what is next.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How can we forget? Exxon Valdez and the Kirby Barge

"​The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting​," wrote Milan Kundera.  

Many people remain blind to or unaware of the power that must be challenged if we are going to revolutionize our economic and political systems to align their interests with justice and ecological integrity.  This is due partly because of a massive disinformation campaign by corporate and political elites, and partly because everything we do--heating our homes or transporting ourselves to work--is inextricably bound to these power structures that feed us toxic and dirty energy.  If this energy is in everything, we do not have a choice.  If we do not have a choice, we can slowly become blind to alternatives.    

It is sadly fitting that on the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska, we are dealing with another ship-caused oil spill,  this time in Houston and Galveston after a barge owned by Kirby Inland Marine Co. leaked bunker fuel into the Gulf of Mexico.  While the size of the spill is sixty times smaller than Exxon Valdez spill (11 million gallons from the Valdez vs 170,000 gallons from the barge), the spill could not have come at a worse time for the birds that are migrating to and from the area.  (News just in: We are also dealing with another oil spill in Lake Michigan.  The culprit, BP.)

Just when we thought that we learned lessons from Exxon Valdez, that the BP Deepwater Horizon spill was fading into distant memory, just when politicians (and some scientists, and, maybe even the President) delusionally support of the Keystone XL pipeline by saying that its ecological effects are minimal or could be mitigated, we are presented with not one, but two oil spills.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  Perhaps 

We need to use these events to keep ourselves and the masses from forgetting, from losing focus on the struggles that lie in every next step.  We need to use these events to (re)orient ourselves to strategically challenge and fight the culprits of socioecological havoc and injustice of all kinds.  

We cannot forget that challenging big oil means confronting hegemonic power.  We must use these events, as Naomi Klein says, to make the increasingly popular calls for fundamental and systemic reform powerful.    

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline: Environment be damned

There is a ton of literature and information available about the ecological impacts of tar sands.  These impacts stem from the entire spectrum of the tar sands process--from mining the sand, to extracting the unrefined bitumen oil, transporting the diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), and refining the dilbit to be burned.

First and foremost, a vast expanse of tar sands, the source of the oil that the northern leg of the Keystone XL will be shipping, lies in one of the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystems in the world--the Canadian Boreal Forests.  Currently, trees need to systematically cut down to gain access to the tar sands that lie beneath the ground.  There is a significant amount of greenhouse gas emission that occurs from deforestation.  (It does not really matter what the deforestation is for, greenhouse gases will be released.)  Of the 767 sq. km of forest that has been destroyed over the past few decades, only 104 hectares has been "certified restored," i.e. only 0.13% of the land has been somehow restored to its "original" state, if that is possible.  If the average age of black spruce is 200 years, and the average age of lodgepole pine is 150-200 years, and if it is likely that this is the average age of the trees cut down, how long will it take to actually restore the land the condition it was once in?

Boreal forest against a Suncor surface mine.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

The yellow spots are the largest trucks in the world. 
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

Secondly, one the trees are cut, the land below must be industrially excavated and large quantities of water used to extract the bitumen from the sands.  According to the Canada National Energy Board, it takes between 2.5-4 barrels of water to extract one barrel of unrefined synthetic crude oil.  This water is significantly contaminated and the water that isn't recycled is stored in tailing ponds that leak into local water supply.  The Athabasca River is connected to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world's largest freshwater deltas.  Estimates say that by 2020, around 1 billion cubic meters (the volume of 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or the entire area of around 11 Manhattan islands submerged to a depth of one meter) of toxic water will be stored in tailing ponds by Suncor and Syncrude alone.  

A Suncor facility and tailing ponds alongside the Athabasca River.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

Tailing ponds along side the Athabasca River, seen on the top left.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

What is the potential for contamination and leakage of this water, let alone the fact that this water is essentially permanently toxic?  Fish in Lake Athabasca, near Fort McMurray (an oil boom town), have unusual red spots on them, likely from the pollutants.

"Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta's rivers and lakes." Peter Essick, National Geographic Magazine, 2009

Thirdly, the bitumen is viscous and dense.  To transport it, it must first be diluted with diluents--other petroleum products--and then pumped at high temperatures and pressures.  Dilbit is much more corrosive than other kinds of crude oil, and the likelihood of pipe leaks and eruptions thus increases.  When the leak occurs in water, the diluents separate from the heavier bitumen, and the bitumen sinks to the bottom of the water body.  This is exactly what happened in June 2010, just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred, when an Enbridge-owned pipe erupted and spilled more than a million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River.  The technology to adeuqately deal with such a spill does not exist.  Four years and a billion dollars later, 40 miles of the Kalamazoo river still remain contaminated.  What might happen if the Keystone XL leaked (and its southern leg Keystone 1 has already...twelve times in its first year...more than any other first-year pipeline in the US) or burst over the Ogallala Aquifer, so important for agriculture and drinking water?

Fourthly, the processing of dilbit creates petroleum coke, or petcoke--a solid byproduct with a high suplur content.  Burning it is illegal in the US because it emits significant amounts of smog-forming sulphur dioxide pollution.  Currently, mounds of petcoke line the banks of the Detroit River and Calumet River and contaminate the air of Detroit and Chicago, or better yet, are shipped to poor places to exacerbate the air there.  "You can't have a picnic outside because you are going to get a mouthful of black dust.  It's so bad we have to power-wash the house every week to wash it off," says Lilly Martin of Mackinaw Avenue in Chicago. The petcoke is this sent to countries even less concerned about environmental issues and public health to be burned.

Next, more about the environmental impacts of the pipeline, specifically on public health and the economics of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline: Youth protests

Four days after I moved to Washington, DC, on 28 August, 2014,I was fortunate enough to find my way into the 50th anniversary celebrations of the March on Washington.  While the event was no protest, the goal was clear--direct political messaging, in this case about the confluences of racial and economic injustice.  That day provided my first taste of attending more politically charged events in this city.  Fast forward through a heated anti-drone summit by CODEPINK and a peace vigil in solidarity against the Keystone XL pipeline to today, when several hundred youth activists marched from the Red Square at Georgetown University to The White House to engage in civil disobedience dissent action to send a simple, concise, and extremely political message to President Barack Obama--say no to the construction of the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Saying no to the pipeline sets the stage for a course correction on President Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, which is basically this: we can combat the social and ecological dimensions of climate change while still expanding offshore oil drilling, promoting fracking, continuing mountaintop removal, and becoming even bigger trade partners with Canada by importing their ecologically devastating oil.  How such an energy policy can reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels and lighten this culture's burden on the world I do not know, but at the very least saying no to the pipeline is a serious symbolic commitment that activists can gather around to wean this country and the world of toxic and climate change-inducing fossil fuel energy.

Today, I am energized by the spirit of young climate change activists who came in buses and cars from all across the country and who zip-tied themselves to The White House fence and got arrested, with the intention of showing President Obama that the youth cares deeply about the causes and effects of climate change--physical, economic, social, political, ecological.  I thus revive this blog from its hibernation by focusing my next several posts on the Keystone XL pipeline, both to educate myself and to provide you with information about the spectrum of issues that tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline affects.

My next posts will focus on:
  • the science and engineering behind tar sands extraction, processing, and transport
  • a brief foray into the social implications of tar sands
  • the ecological impacts of tar sands, now and possible
  • arrest, direct action, and the legal issues surrounding arrest for civil disobedience and dissent
  • the climate change movement's relation to other social movements
  • the State Department's environmental impact statement 
Responses to this culture's addiction to oil cannot look at alternatives that continue to bolster the political, economic, and technological paradigm that has us locked in to degrading our Earth to the benefit of a few.  Tar sands represent the very worst things about the risks our government and corporations are willing to take to keep themselves in power.  Just take a look at a very real and ongoing tar sands disaster on the Kalamazoo River--here, here, here and here--in my state of Michigan.  More than three years and close to a billion dollars in clean-up efforts later, who knows when the nightmare will end. 

For now, I leave you with photos I took today during the dissent.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

With knowledge comes responsibility

What is the point of learning about the world if we live for ourselves?  What the is point of research and of generating knowledge if we do not take what we learn to heart?

Scientists and engineers occupy a unique and powerful position in this culture, and they always have.  While kooks and quacks no doubt exist, scientists and engineers do important work in chemistry, atmospheric sciences, biology, physics, ecology, building and designing.  But if you're a scientist or engineer reading this, it is likely that you have been educated to (or at least told to) just doing the science and engineering, and leaving the decisionmaking that stems from it to others--policymakers, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians, many of whom do not have the best interests of people and nature at heart.  Scientists and engineers thus leave it to others, others who many not fully understand the implications of this knowledge, to decide what should be done about what we know, so scientists and engineers do not lose their "objectivity," so they do not cross the supposedly strict boundaries between scientific, reductionist research and the murky world of "values."

But in this glacier-melting, toxic tresspassing, obesity-inducing, mass-species-extinction, large corporate culture, scientists and engineers can no longer sit on the sidelines of decisionmaking.  Traditional means of scientific communication have led, for example, to politicians undermining and denying climate science (although in this episode of This American Life, it becomes clear that many politicians fully accept climate science, but just do not admit it).  Instead, given the incredible diversity of thought, skill, and knowledge they possess, scientists and engineers must take full responsibility for what they know and do, and that is to become front and center the faces of the radical social, political and economic change needed to align this culture and its laws with ecological holism and peace.

Fortunately, there are a handful of such brave men and women out there already, and Sandra Steingraber heads the list of courageous scientist activists.  A poet, essayist, author, environmentalist and ecologist, Steingraber has written extensively (in Orion magazine, among other places) about the links between industrial chemicals released into the environment and human health impacts, specifically cancer.  Recently, she has been intimately involved with the opposition to the extremely destructive practice of fracking, for which she was jailed.  In a conversation with Dick Gordon on The Story, Steingraber says,
In the absence of a powerful human rights movement behind the science, I don't think we can move this forward.  The world's most powerful industries are standing in our way.  And so I think science needs to be coupled with a kind of activism, similar to what we saw with [the] Civil Rights [Movement], similar to what we saw with the Abolitionist Movement.  And so, I feel inspired in the work that I do not just by the power of the data, whether it's on climate change, or on the growing evidence that we have linking childhood asthma to crummy air, [but also by how] Martin Luther King Jr. did what he did, and how my dad, at age eighteen, had to go off and fight global fascism even though at the time it looked like an overwhelming task...People under very desperate circumstances rose and said, "This is wrong." 
I carry around this German name, Steingraber, and my dad [was] also German...and what I learned from my dad was to not be a "good German."  If you see something is wrong because you have evidence, whether it is the kind of evidence that the French partisans had or whether it is evidence like I have as a biologist, we have a moral obligation to make sure that that evidence [leads to change].  You don't just say, "Here's the evidence," and that's your job, you're done.  But if nobody is coming to take the evidence and turn it into change, then you have to do that yourself.  It becomes your own responsibility. 
I hope to continue to develop these thoughts on the blog over the days and weeks to come; they formed an important part of my dissertation, and continue to be something I write about more academically.  I hope to translate more of that writing here.  I am sure many of you have thoughts on this very important issue, and I welcome them in the form of comments and even guest blog posts.  Until then, I encourage you to listen to Gordon's full conversation with Steingraber, which I have posted below.  You can also find the conversation on The Story's website, here.

Part 1 of Gordon's conversation with Steingraber.

Part 2 of Gordon's conversation with Steingraber.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Guest blog #29: Minimalist parenting by Crystal Thrall, part 2

I left off yesterday writing about elimination communication and breastfeeding and baby-led weaning.  Today, I finish off writing a little bit about co-sleeping and babywearing.

I am going to take away all the fun of preparing for the arrival of a baby by suggesting that a nursery is simply not practical.  The nursery: an entire room and furniture to fill it suited to the first year of a baby's life.  Sure, that crib probably converts to a toddler bed, but I really think that even a crib is unnecessary.  Why not skip the tiny mattress entirely and buy your child a proper mattress she can use throughout childhood?  For that matter, why bother with a nursery at all?  Why not make a fun room suited to your child's interests, when they become apparent, as she ages?  Yes, I am implying that you share your bed with your child during the infant, and probably the toddler stage of her life.  To make co-sleeping practical for us, we bought another mattress to increase our effective bed size, and we put our bed on the floor.  I can hear you quietly thinking, "How do you ever have sex when you share a bed with your child?"  That's a fair point to which I respond: it is possible to be intimate with your partner without having your bed available. 

I was given many things by very well-intentioned friends and family that would help me put my baby down: an infant seat (a.k.a a Bumbo); colorful play mats with exciting toys that could stimulate many of my baby's senses; a swing and a bouncy seat--both of which played soothing music or simulated noises from the womb; and a stroller.  I happily and gratefully accepted these gifts and hand-me-downs thinking it would be nice to put my baby down every now and then to have free hands.  Little did I know not all babies willingly accept any distance from a warm body.  Call them what you want: high-needs, fussy, colicky...I was/am the proud mother of one of these babies!  It wasn't long before I realized each of these items was practically useless to me, and I thought I would never be able to put my baby down without having to listen to her scream.  I knew that baby carriers existed, but the options overwhelmed me and I couldn't decide on one. 

One glorious day, a friend of mine introduced me to a local babywearing group.  I was honestly quite intimidated by the vast library of carriers and the babywearing proficiency demonstrated by these wonderful moms and dads...but mostly moms.  Nevertheless, I knew this was the solution that would work for my husband and I.  My carrier collection started with a simple ring sling crafted by my mother.  I quickly learned how easy it was to just pop my daughter in and out of the sling and carry her hands free anytime, anywhere.  Finally, I was liberated from my stroller!  The burden of my baby gear load decreased significantly, and I would no longer be forced to awkwardly maneuver a stroller around any store.  I didn't realize how much I loathed the stroller concept until I acquired my ring sling.  You can see a picture of me and a passed out organic baby in yesterday's post.  Here is one of my husband, Brian, with baby Rae awake.

Brian, organic baby, and a ring sling on Main Street in Ann Arbor
Now that I could leave the house with a happy baby, my next babywearing goal was to free my hands for domestic duties.  I had to learn how to wear my daughter on my back, and for this I would need a wrap which is essentially just a very long piece of fabric.  Even more overwhelming than choosing a specific type of carrier was selecting a wrap!  There are various sizes, colors, fabric blends, and brands, and in the end I learned many people choose their first wrap based on the color.  After buying a wrap and learning how to back-carry, I could resume many of my pre-baby activities while providing entertainment for my baby.  My daughter especially enjoyed watching me sweep the floors as I wore her on my back.  She still does, but she would prefer to sweep the floors herself (especially after she's involved in a mishap...not really, but maybe some day!).  

That leads me to the semi-babywearing-related topic of toys.  In the first year, a child needs few, if any, toys.  At this age, babies can be entertained by things you already have in your home, or better yet, outside.  What's even more entertaining than things is mom and dad and the activities they do. 

Final thoughts
I must confess that I have simply summarized the concept of "attachment parenting" from a different perspective.  Attachment parenting is what works for our family.  Coincidentally, this parenting style achieves another goal of ours--minimizing our impact on the environment. 

While putting together this post, my husband said that I should discuss his perspective throughout this process.  Here goes: Initially, he was opposed to co-sleeping, babywearing, and elimination communication.  He reluctantly followed my lead, but became more accepting as we progressed into a routine.  When he observed how happily our daughter would eliminate on a potty, he was no longer an EC skeptic.  He also appreciates doing less laundry and going out with less baggage.  When he started wearing our daughter, he appreciated the increased closeness and interaction he didn't get with the stroller.  And he quickly learned that co-sleeping gave him the ability to sleep more during the night.  Eventually, his entire view on what parenting should look like changed, and he will not do it any other way now.  (Now, on to conquering the world!)

Attachment parenting is probably not the only environmentally friendly parenting style, but this is what works for us.  Ultimately, you have to do what is best for you and your family.  I am quite satisfied with how relatively little clutter there is in my postpartum home and how my daughter doesn't require much baggage when we go out.   If minimizing the baby gear in your life is your goal, then you might want to consider wearing, breastfeeding, pottying, and/or sleeping with your baby!

There's a ton of used baby things out there!  And always remember, craigslist is your friend!

Elimination communication
The Diaper-Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative by Christine Gross-Loh
EC Simplified: Infant Potty Training Made Easy by Andrea Olson
Andrea Olson's EC website:

Breastfeeding and Baby-led Weaning
Lactation consultant directory
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West, and Teresa Pitman
So That's What They're For!: The Definitive Breastfeeding Guide by Janet Tamaro
Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby To Love Good Food by Gill Rapley

Find a babywearing chapter near you here
Babywearing blog from my local Babywearing chapter

There are also plenty of instructional youtube videos available!