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Ask Umbra
astute advice on all things green
How to Get Results
Friday, Apr 2, 2004 (12:22 PM)

Dear Umbra,

I get the sense that a lot of the questions people ask you ultimately involve pretty negligible results. When you are talking about the balance sheet of the world, does it really matter if I use a more or less environmentally responsible solution to wash my fruit? I'm wondering what three major concrete changes you'd recommend that people make that might be more difficult to implement than using lower-energy light bulbs but would really let us rest easy at night knowing we'd contributed?


Dearest Cate,

How did you know about the rash of fruit-washing questions? You're right, I get gobs of questions from people basically looking for input on their grocery shopping list, or an okay for flushing used Kleenex tissues (I'm not kidding). My inbox is often a source of laughs and incredulity (I keep a "ridiculous" letters folder, and the Kleenex questions aren't stored there), but an equal number of letters reflect the maturity of the environmental movement. Readers, particularly the audience reached through Grist Magazine, have a strong grasp of the political and economic complexities that influence our use of natural resources, and I'm often baffled by missives whose content is far beyond my pathetic comprehension. People asking about used Kleenex will often poke fun at themselves for worrying about the "small stuff," in the argot of our day.

I'll tell you right away, my answer to the substance of your question is based on an excellent book from the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Consumerís Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Being scientists, the authors studied the answer to your question with alarming thoroughness, developed elaborate ways to calculate the effects an individual has on the environment, picked out the most fruitful possibilities for effective change, and presented opinionated answers in this informative book. Will it tell you which cleanser to purchase? Nyet.

Four general areas of effective action that improve beauty sleep are transport, food, the heavy parts of home, and activism. Making changes in these areas of your life has a guaranteed impact on water pollution, air quality, global warming, and habitat preservation — positive or negative depending on the sort of change you make.

The specifics here are not going to surprise you. Cut down on driving, live close to work, take mass transit when possible, walk or bike when you can, buy the smallest car for your needs, and advocate for transit alternatives in your area. Personal cars and trucks really do spew pollutants, from birth through death.

It turns out that food purchasing choices are important as well as faddish. If we cut down our meat consumption and buy organic produce when possible we will also be reducing our consumption of land and water and our contributions to the pollution of both. We can begin to implement positive daily food and transit changes now, in big or little steps. Influential changes at home are going to be long-term projects, especially the decision about where we live: ideally in the smallest house for our needs, close to our work and shopping. Of course, if this is not your current situation, youíll have to wait until it comes time to move. Your other foci at home should be energy efficiency in the home itself and large appliances within it.

Now, my personal thoughts about activism: It doesn't necessarily mean picketing Shaw's Supermarket. At its core it means magnifying our influence on public policy and our immediate community via whatever tactics are at our disposal. It is imperative to phone legislators, donate to Greenpeace, install school gardens, speak at the synagogue, do whatever we can to incorporate environmentalism as a permanent consideration in all decisions. Conscientious shopping is not equal to or a substitute for environmental activism.

This column is by necessity brief, with sorry little description of the thoughtful calculations behind the recommendations. I truly recommend the book, which is an easy read filled with interesting tidbits. Ironically, I bought it at a chain store in a sprawl mall.



Note to readers: this is Umbra Fisk's last new column for POV's Borders, but we invite you to peruse her previous entries, below, and the other Border Talk guests. You can find more Umbra online at Grist Magazine. Thanks for stopping by.

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Cui Bono?
Wednesday, Mar 31, 2004 (10:31 AM)

When I see the "Energy Star" rating on an appliance, can I trust that some government or consumer group is monitoring the ratings, or is that just a commercial ploy? Who profits from the Energy Star thing?

Be wary of label-based shopping as a solution, or an end unto itself. Ecological labeling and brands are part of a solution but also potential soporific diversions. Hence, the need for consumer activism...

Read this entry »

GMO. So?
Monday, Mar 29, 2004 (10:52 AM)

Is most of the genetically modified food that makes its way into our grocery aisles really that harmful? It seems to me that genetic modification is not that far from hybridizing and other tinkering processes that we've come to accept.

It's not possible to hybridize a mango and a cow to get mango-flavored milk. Genetic manipulation in the laboratory brings us over that pesky hurdle. It's a creepy difference that doesn't seem "natural," but is that cause for alarm? We don't know...

Read this entry »

Hydroponic Attacks
Friday, Mar 26, 2004 (03:46 PM)

What are the advantages of hydroponics, and if it is so good, why isn't it used more?

Plants take up most of their nutrients through their roots, despite all we learned in elementary school about leaves making food from the sun. Soil is a complex conglomeration of minerals, nutrients, bugs, and fungi...

Read this entry »

Fresh Frozen
Wednesday, Mar 24, 2004 (11:41 AM)

I'd like to move my 1985 refrigerator to the basement and use its freezer entirely for freezing fresh veggies at their peak of ripeness. I would buy a new one designated Energy Star. Environmentally, would this be a plus, a minus, or a wash?

Your 1985 refrigerator has passed its own peak of ripeness...

Read this entry »

Drinking Your (Re)fill
Monday, Mar 22, 2004 (10:58 AM)

I've read some conflicting things about the risks associated with reusing plastic water bottles. Is there some kind of bottle I can reuse without running these risks?

The mysterious world of plastics: convenient, yet filled with vague and shadowy dangers...

Read this entry »

Bigfoot Prints
Wednesday, Mar 17, 2004 (10:48 AM)

I just took the environmental impact quiz over at www.myfootprint.org, feeling rather confident that I've been doing my part. But the quiz tells me that if everyone lived like me, we would need two planets. Am I still such a big part of the problem?

Maybe we just need two planets...

Read this entry »

The Environmentalist's New Clothes
Monday, Mar 15, 2004 (02:01 PM)

A friend recently claimed that cotton does more damage to the environment than the factories that produce the artificial fabrics. Should I resign myself to a more Elvis-like wardrobe?

I've got some good news and some bad news....

Read this entry »

Something's Fishy
Friday, Mar 12, 2004 (04:50 PM)

I'm an elementary school teacher and I'd like to get a pet fish for my classroom. How can I make sure I'm getting happy, healthy, sustainably caught fish for my aquarium?

Is nothing sacred? Apparently not cute aquarium fish...

Read this entry »

Plastic Not-so-Fantastic
Wednesday, Mar 10, 2004 (02:01 PM)

It seems so complicated. The recycler will take the bottle with this number but not the bottle with that number. Are there any simple "one, two, threes" of recycling knowledge, or recycling steps, which one should know or practice?

Thank you for trying. I can't give you a simple answer...

Read this entry »

The Rising Stocks of Anti-Ox
Monday, Mar 8, 2004 (03:25 PM)

I would love to be able to eat as many anti-oxidant foods as I need. Would it not make sense for farmers or producers to grow these products in greater volume, so we could all afford them and be able to eat healthier more easily?

The crux of your question seems to be: why don't farmers make my favorite foods less expensive...

Read this entry »

Trash Art: the Director's Cut
Friday, Mar 5, 2004 (02:49 PM)

I have a large library of films on VHS and old-fashioned laserdiscs. I want to add DVDs, but I know that will require me to get rid of a bunch of bulky plastic cassettes. Is there an alternative to the landfill? Must I choose between my collection and my burgeoning environmental sensibilities?

I don't think you need to choose between your passion for film and your nascent enviro consciousness. You need not eradicate fun...

Read this entry »

Not Always Greener
Wednesday, Mar 3, 2004 (05:37 PM)

I just moved into a house with a large backyard. I would like to kill and remove the grass. I'm not a fan of chemicals and would like to find an alternate solution.

Here are Three Fun Ways to Kill Your Lawn...

Read this entry »

Downside of Organic Produce?
Monday, Mar 1, 2004 (01:44 PM)

I try to buy organic food where possible, but I notice that organic food has often been shipped further and/or is more heavily packaged. How do I assess those tradeoffs?

Think about your reasons for buying organic. What are you actually hoping for...

Read this entry »

The Diesel in the Details
Friday, Feb 27, 2004 (12:26 PM)

My partner and I recently bought a small station wagon with a turbo-diesel engine that boasts about 45 miles per gallon instead of a gas engine, which gets about 30 MPG. Would you please comment on our decision?

Diesel oil is the football player — big, strong, lunk-headed, unwashed, and mean. Gasoline is the cheerleader...

Read this entry »

A Cleaner Clunker?
Wednesday, Feb 25, 2004 (11:42 AM)

Many enviros are scrambling to buy hybrid cars. Does the total amount of energy involved in making a new car constitute a greater overall environmental impact than the added emissions and fossil-fuel consumption of a huge old second-hand clunker?

If you have the money, and you absolutely must own a car, join the crowd at...

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Monday, Feb 23, 2004 (04:57 PM)

I work for a large corporation that is very wasteful with paper. I am looking for information on whom I can complain to about this so that something will happen.

Prepare yourself: The fate of reams of office paper is in your hands...

Read this entry »

The Eternal Conundrum: Paper or Plastic?
Tuesday, Feb 17, 2004 (12:17 PM)

At the grocery store, when they ask "Paper or plastic?", which is the lesser of two evils?

I am beginning to believe that true national environmental consciousness will be heralded by the cessation of this constant concern...

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Every Drop Counts...
Wednesday, Feb 11, 2004 (02:08 PM)

A friend said recently that given that our area has plenty of water, why should he turn off the tap when he brushes his teeth? I'm not sure.

Mr. Toothbrush Man has a point. So if he only wishes to think of his own needs, there's no reason to conserve...

Read this entry »

Past Entries
02/11 Every Drop Counts...
02/17 The Eternal Conundrum: Paper or Plastic?
02/23 D.I.Y.
02/25 A Cleaner Clunker?
02/27 The Diesel in the Details
03/01 Downside of Organic Produce?
03/03 Not Always Greener
03/05 Trash Art: the Director's Cut
03/08 The Rising Stocks of Anti-Ox
03/10 Plastic Not-so-Fantastic
03/12 Something's Fishy
03/15 The Environmentalist's New Clothes
03/17 Bigfoot Prints
03/22 Drinking Your (Re)fill
03/24 Fresh Frozen
03/26 Hydroponic Attacks
03/29 GMO. So?
03/31 Cui Bono?
04/02 How to Get Results