Mixed Greens, by Carol Roig

Mixed Greens

Mixed Greens is a monthly column on sustainability by SASD Co-Executive Director Carol Roig.  It is reprinted here courtesy of The River Reporter (www.riverreporter.com)

Let the Sun Shine

January 2014 – Solar energy is booming across the country and around the world, because it is increasingly affordable, productive and reliable.  Utilities in California and Colorado that only recently were considering building natural gas-powered generating plants have announced they will use solar instead, because it’s cheaper.

Costs are down for residential solar installations, too, and a big selling point for home and business owners is the ability to net-meter, or sell back to the utility the excess electricity their systems generate.  Actually, no money changes hands in this arrangement.  Customers are credited for the electricity their solar panels feed into the grid, which reduces their utility bills.  In New York State, net metering is limited to 10% over the amount the building uses.  In the case of a business, a school or municipality, this electricity can be credited to another site owned by the same entity.

This is such great news for consumers and for the environment; wouldn’t you think everyone would be celebrating?  Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry’s response is to try to shut it all down.  Their designated weapon is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC ghost-writes and promotes industry-friendly legislation to protect the interests of their corporate clients.

In the case of residential solar electric generation, the plan of attack is to persuade state legislatures to approve a tax on residential solar generation, claiming that homeowners who install solar panels are “freeloading” on the distribution system – the grid – and should be charged to “sell” their electricity to other customers.  In November, Arizona became the first state to penalize homeowners with solar installations, imposing an average monthly surcharge of $5 per residential customer.  New Mexico followed suit.  While these charges fall far short of the outrageous $100 monthly surcharge the ALEC legislation originally sought, it is nevertheless an egregious misrepresentation of the mechanism of net metering, a deception that ultimately harms the utilities as well as homeowners.

Independent research by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) reveals that net metering actually provides a significant financial benefit to utilities, making nonsense of ALEC’s argument.  IREC’s analysis of New Mexico’s surcharge found that on-site generation helped the utility avoid energy costs, line losses, capacity upgrades, and transmission costs, and that these benefits added up to more than 15 cents for every kilowatt hour (kWh) generated.  Even when any costs related to net metering were included, the policy had a net benefit to the utility of 7.8 cents per kWh.

That’s not going to sway the folks at ALEC, who recently announced their goals for 2014: block climate legislation and EPA enforcement of environmental laws, weaken state clean energy regulations and limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and of course, punish homeowners for installing solar panels.

The Guardian newspaper recently shone a little antiseptic sunshine on this agenda by quoting ALEC spokesman John Eick:  “What we saw in 2013 was an attempt to repeal RPS [Renewable Portfolio Standards] laws, and when that failed . . .  what we are seeing now is a strategy that appears to be pro-clean energy but would actually weaken those pro-clean energy laws by retreating to the lowest common denominator.”

On my own agenda for 2014 is a resolution to expose and reject deceptive, “lowest common denominator” environmental legislation that weakens standards and slows our progress to sustainability.

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The Season of Hope

December 2013 – I want to share some early Christmas gifts – in the form of hopeful news on the sustainability front.

First is the growing awareness of the living wage issue.  More and more people are realizing that poverty wages destabilize the whole economy.  This insidious practice forces hardworking people onto welfare and externalizes the social and economic damage to the American taxpayers who subsidize it – the portrait of an economy cannibalizing itself.  The Economic Policy Institute has published research demonstrating that by phasing in a minimum-wage increase to $10.10 over the next 18 months we would increase GDP by roughly $32.6 billion and foster the creation of approximately 140,000 net new jobs. Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford realized he should pay his workers enough to enable them to purchase the cars they were building.  He may not have used the term “sustainability,” but his enlightened self-interest sustained his business and helped build a vibrant economy.

Closer to home, I am happy that the Climate Smart Communities program is gaining momentum throughout New York State.  Forty-nine communities in the Mid-Hudson Region (the counties of Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester) have signed the Climate Smart Communities Pledge and are devising specific strategies to lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in their government operations and across the community.

We will achieve our climate smart goals by reducing our use of fossil fuels (to mitigate the causes of climate change); and by adapting to minimize the effects of climate change through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and improved planning.  These efforts will yield significant cost savings for local taxpayers by reducing energy costs at the town and county level, and help businesses and homeowners reduce costs as well. We will also create opportunities for green energy job growth and, by improving our infrastructure and addressing emergency planning and public health issues related to climate change, we will increase the resiliency of our communities and enhance the safety and well-being of all County residents.

Sullivan County, where I live, is making impressive progress on its commitment to reducing GHG in County operations and adopting an aggressive approach to energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy resources at County properties.  The vehicle for organizing this effort is the County’s Climate Action Plan, an endeavor I am proud to be a part of through the work of Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development and numerous County staff.

Five Sullivan towns have also joined the Climate Smart Communities Program and are in various stages of progress crafting their own energy efficiency goals:  Bethel, Cochecton, Delaware, Lumberland, and Tusten.  Others towns are collecting their baseline energy data as they consider adopting the pledge.

Five NYS agencies are involved in supporting the Climate Smart Communities Program:  the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Department of State, the Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Public Service Commission.  Climate smart communities can also benefit from newly-increased technical assistance and customized guidance provided by VHB Engineering through a contract with the DEC.  Information about these resources, and the remarkable activities of our neighboring counties and towns in the Mid-Hudson Region, can be found at http://www.midhudsoncsc.org/.

Let me take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in creating these hopeful developments:  from the tireless activists who engage on these issues, to the town and county officials who are envisioning a more resilient future and the energetic community volunteers who are helping their towns achieve that vision.  Your sustainability efforts are a magnificent gift to us all.  Enjoy the season!

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Great Expectations

November 2013 – The crisp autumn air conjures up the delicious expectancy that characterized the months of November and December in my childhood.  I recall my parents cooking the ritual Thanksgiving dishes, unchanged from year to year by family decree.  These pleasures were followed by a flurry of activities – the Christmas tree, the food, school pageants, fruitcake-baking and, of course, shopping. The extravagant department store displays made shopping an occasion that far outweighed the significance of what we bought.  Our family gifts were usually things we needed anyway, but the season made them feel indulgent.

Grown up and on our own in New York, my husband and I gravitated to Thanksgiving as our favorite holiday.  Without the stress of gift-giving, it was the perfect time to slow down and invite friends to join us in a happy feast.  It all seems very innocent now because, as portrayed in the popular media, Thanksgiving has been high-jacked.  What ought to be a day to contentedly count our blessings is now touted as a gladiatorial spectacle, the kick-off to a season of shopping stoked by relentless product hype and capped by a casualty report.  Quick, get the dinner out of the way so we can head to the mall!  The season of excess is upon us.

The constant drumbeat in the business news is that the “success” of the holiday season is measured by retail sales.  And unfortunately, turkey dinner with all the trimmings just doesn’t pull its economic weight.  The USDA estimates that the average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people costs about $49.00.  Total spending on Thanksgiving dinner is about $2.37 billion a year – chicken feed compared to the $584 billion Americans spent on Christmas in 2012.

With such high stakes, even the weather man exhorts us to “get out there and shop in this great weather!”  It’s become a cliché that the Christmas shopping ads start earlier every year, but the reason is worth noting: early shoppers spend about 14% more than the average, according to the research compiled by smartfamilyfinance.com, which also says about 68% of Americans spend all or part of their savings on Christmas presents, and that 17% of Americans will go into debt to pay for them.

George Carlin expressed it best:  “Some people say the glass is half full.  Some people say the glass is half empty.  I say the glass is TOO BIG!”

Maybe we need to adjust our expectations, and to ask ourselves, what are we filling our glasses with?  What thirst are we attempting to satisfy? Is it possible to replace quantity of “stuff” with quality of experience?

What if we measured the success of the holiday season by how fully stocked the food pantries are?  By how many people volunteer in their communities?  By how many fewer Americans are homeless, hungry, lonely, or uninsured?

Our local farmers’ markets are extending their operations into the fall and winter, making it easy to find wonderful locally made gifts and high quality local ingredients for our holiday feasts.   What if we measured the success of the season by how many farmers and artisans are thriving in our communities? By how well we are sustaining our locally-owned main street businesses?

Or by how well we listen, speak from the heart, and give our friends and family members the luxury of our time and undivided attention?

How much happier and more fulfilled would we be if we could channel our appetite for holiday excess into a superabundance of generosity and compassion throughout the year?

A Disgraceful Tale from the Land of Plenty

October 2013 – One in two American children will be on the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at some time in their lives; one in four goes to bed hungry every night.  In 1980 there were 200 food banks in the US; today there are 40,000.  Fifty million Americans live in a state of “food insecurity” – undernourished and unsure where their next meal is coming from.

That is the message of a remarkable 2011 documentary, A Place at the Table, in which filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush introduce us to hardworking people caught in a food crisis.  A young mother in Philadelphia struggles to stretch her SNAP benefits to feed her two children.  Overjoyed when she lands a job, her pride turns to despair as she realizes her paycheck leaves her with even less food for her children. A short order cook in Mississippi takes home $128 every two weeks, too much to qualify for food assistance.

A Colorado schoolteacher volunteers at a food bank.  Sensitive to the embarrassment many feel about receiving charity, she discreetly places the bags of food in their cars or on their porches.  She feels guilty because she knows that much of what she’s delivering is processed and junk food, not good nutrition.

We watch in 2010 as Congress passes the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which increased school lunch funding by $4.5 billion over 10 years (about 6 cents per meal) and raised nutrition standards.  Lost in the ensuing back-patting is the fact that all of the increased funding came from cuts in SNAP.  Out of the $2.68 budgeted per child for the school lunch program, only $0.95 goes to the actual purchase of food; the rest is administrative costs.

The problem is not food scarcity – we live in a land of abundance.  But for a huge number of Americans, hunger is framed in failed food policy, a misguided system of federal farm support and extraordinary misconceptions about who needs help, and why. It’s not only a question of quantity, but of the quality of food we are feeding our children, and the enormous health problems that result.

US agribusinesses spend $124 million a year lobbying.  Since 1995, we have spent $250 billion in farm subsidies, and 70% of that support has gone to just 10 agribusinesses that control what foods are available.  The result:  84% of subsidies go to commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat; virtually zero to fruits and vegetables.

Our fellow citizens are caught in a spiral of poor nutrition, chronic anxiety and ill-health.  Most disgraceful is the way we are shortchanging our children.  Poor nutrition is directly linked to a range of physical, emotional and developmental issues.  Our current system of food subsidies supports bad nutrition at the expense of our children’s health and ability to succeed.

Most people remain on SNAP for less than a year.  They are there because of layoffs, family disruptions or medical emergencies.  As they move to work they need a transition period of support.  Charity is admirable, but it can’t be a permanent solution, and the logistics of food charity make it difficult to provide fresh fruits and vegetables.  We need a living wage.  We need a comprehensive food policy that moves from food charity to fair access and puts nutrition first.

I can’t imagine an issue in which sustainability and social justice are more closely intertwined.

Explore positive action at www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table

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Trash Talk

September 2013 – I’ve been a little obsessed with garbage over the past few months. Oh, I am a dedicated composter and I recycle, avoid single-serve plastic bottles, re-use glass jars and bottles for food storage and pickling.  I repair and repurpose things and try to make them last.  But recently, I opened an informational door that brought it all into a more global perspective.  Here’s what I learned from the 2012 report Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging, published by the non-profit As You Sow (www.asyousow.org):

Americans produce 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSP) per year.   Packaging alone – paper, paperboard and other materials – comprises the largest single category of MSP, about 44%.  Post-consumer packaging includes valuable commodities such as aluminum, glass, paper, plastic, and steel, but barely half of these materials are recovered for recycling. As You Sow estimates that the US wastes $11.4 billion worth of reusable materials each year.

As an organization that promotes environmental responsibility through shareholder advocacy, As You Sow points out that it is just not good business practice to throw away valuable resources.  The heart of their report is an analysis of what it costs Americans, as consumers and as taxpayers, to collect, landfill and recycle this waste stream each year, and what financial gains companies could make by recovering and reusing these valuable materials.  Their proposed solution is to shift financial responsibility from taxpayers to producers through public policy and regulation known as extended producer responsibility (EPR).  The idea is to create economic incentives for companies to reduce excessive packaging, switch to more easily-recycled materials, and take responsibility for the full life cycle of the materials they use.

More than 47 countries already require producers to bear at least some of the cost of managing the recycling of their materials.  In fact, the policy has already been very successful in the US with a range of specific products including batteries, carpet, electronics, fluorescent lighting, and paint, and with deposit charges that have increased rates of recycling of beverage containers. A number of states are realizing success with EPR laws that require responsible recycling of some of the 65 million computers and 130 million mobile phones that are discarded in the US annually.

I am also concerned about the energy side of this story, since 35-45% of the US energy budget goes to the production of disposable items.  Fossil fuels play a role in the life cycle of many of these products, as feedstock for the creation of plastic used in for products and packaging, in the transportation of goods, and in the collection, transport and processing of waste.  Our love affair with disposability helps drive an ever increasing demand for fossil fuels obtained through environmentally devastating “unconventional” processes, as well as the production of non-biogradable materials that are overwhelming our conventional landfills.  No one wants to live next to a landfill, and so we end up spending more fossil fuel to transport our garbage to someone else’s back yard, out of sight and out of mind.

We need a new paradigm, driven by consumer demand and corporate pragmatism.  As citizens, we can demand policies that require corporate responsibility for the full life cycle of their products, and investment in high-tech processes that refine waste to generate energy and to recover valuable minerals, metals, plastics to be recycled into new products.

As consumers, we can recognize the value of the materials and energy embodied in what we think of as “garbage,” and confront the hidden costs of our wasteful ways.  Disposability is just too expensive.

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Late Bloomers and Early Adaptors

August 2013 — Years ago I came across some provocative comments by Kirk Vardenoe, the noted American art historian.  I was struck by his observation that throughout the 19th century, Denmark and Sweden were considerably behind the curve in industrial development.  Vardenoe’s insight was that this was actually an advantage, because the delay gave them time to observe, prepare, and avoid some of the worst negative effects of industrialization.

They particularly wanted to avoid the deplorable slums they saw in the industrialized cities of Europe, where workers migrating from the farms to cities were packed into shoddy, crowded housing that bred crime, disease and social discontent.  To head off this blight, they worked to establish some of the world’s earliest housing standards, specifying sufficient space, air, clean water and other amenities to ensure decent living conditions.

This notion of quality and integrity of design for everyday objects and buildings,  and for everyone, became the hallmark of the enduring Scandinavian design tradition. It is also an eloquent expression of the values and priorities of the society that produced it.  They didn’t call it “sustainability” in those days, but the word is apt.  Timing intersected with cultural values and social policy to transform a disadvantage into a better way forward.

This idea popped into my mind recently when I got drawn into yet another conversation in which a well-meaning individual asked “why try to do anything about sustainability in Sullivan County?”  I get this question a lot.  The thinking seems to be:  Sullivan County is so poor, so far behind the curve, that it is unrealistic to promote renewable energy or try to build a green economy.

But it seems to me that, to the extent that we may be behind the curve, we have an excellent opportunity to learn from the mistakes and build upon the successes of our neighbors.  With less bad stuff to undo, we have a chance to get it right the first time.  We certainly don’t need to “catch up” to the bad decisions and failed policies of the past.

Casinos provide a case in point.  The industry has proliferated in states eager to increase revenue without raising taxes; but we may be at a tipping point as the sheer number of casinos increases competition and shrinks profits.  Now, states like New Jersey and Delaware are being asked for millions of dollars in bailouts. The lesson seems to be that casinos are not a sustainable strategy for economic development.

It is also worth noting that late bloomers can become innovation leaders.  Denmark is now a global leader in renewable energy, an early adaptor of wind power that is now on a path to produce 50% of electricity generation from wind by 2050.  They have also pioneered the development of community-owned wind power cooperatives and wind-powered electric vehicle charging stations with “smart” battery systems that can store surplus wind-generated energy and feed energy back into the system at times of peak demand.  Closer to home, we have ample models to emulate, and I will report on the great work of our neighboring counties in a future column.

Here’s the bottom line:  In order to develop a 21st century economy, we need to reach for the best energy technology.  If we are behind the curve, then we just have to be more informed, resourceful, ingenious and determined than our more prosperous neighbors.  We need to focus on our resources – talent, intelligence and dedication – and not on our deficits, and let necessity be the mother of sustainable invention.


Creating Community

July 2013 — Two new local projects illustrate the extraordinary dedication and creativity of my fellow citizens.

The first is The Delaware Company, a non-profit organization formed this year to promote and preserve the historical heritage of the Upper Delaware River Valley.  The organization takes its name from the group of Connecticut farmers who established the first European settlement here in 1755, and will focus initially on a range of events at Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg.  Like its 18th century prototype, the new Delaware Company captures an auspicious mix of adventure and practical enterprise – good ingredients to nurture our sense of community.

I’ve always loved visiting historical places and exploring the texture of everyday life in another time – cooking, housekeeping, child-rearing, the social framework – as well as the political and economic pressures that shape great events.   In relation to our pioneering past, there’s a special power in walking the same landscape, imagining the challenges, the heartbreaks, the ingenuity, and the leaps of faith that helped make our own lives possible.  Thanks to the vision and scholarship of John and Debra Conway, the Delaware Company is harnessing that power, to inspire us with a love of this extraordinary place, a sense of our personal continuity with history, and an understanding of how we can shape events through our engagement with our communities.

I’m also excited about The Weather Project, the brainchild of Tannis Kowalchuk and Brett Keyser of North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL).  For more than fifteen years, this world-class experimental theatre company has created and presented innovative theatre works at its home in Highland Lake.  With The Weather Project, funded through a prestigious “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, NACL joins with the Town of Highland to create a multidisciplinary two-year exploration of all things relating to the weather – how it affects us and how we affect it.   Numerous partnering organizations, uniting the worlds of the visual and performing arts, conservation and climate science, promise to make this a thought-provoking community experience with plenty of opportunities for all of us to participate as creators as well as spectators.

For me, these endeavors exemplify a critical aspect of sustainability – one that is sometimes overlooked as we focus on the technical details of carbon emissions and energy efficiency.  It’s the fact that we create our notions of community by choosing where to devote our energies, and the civic culture we build is the medium in which we grow.  We are our own most precious natural resource.

Toby Hemenway sums it up in his remarkable book Gaia’s Garden.   Writing about the origins and practices of permaculture, he describes “the invisible structures  . . . the careful design of relationships among them – interconnections – that will create a healthy, sustainable whole.  These relationships are what turn unrelated parts into a functioning system, whether it‘s a backyard, a community, or an ecosystem.”   From our volunteer fire companies and rescue squads to the infinite examples of neighbors helping and watching out for each other, we are all part of an ecology we create day by day, and our cultural organizations provide essential mental nourishment.

The Delaware Company will help us find inspiration and relevance in the courage and ingenuity of those who have come before.  NACL’s Weather Project looks forward, inviting us to explore the realities of climate change and to develop and apply our innate creativity and ingenuity to this new challenge.   I am struck by the dynamic synergy that has energized both of these projects, here and now, in the Upper Delaware.

More about The Weather Project at http://www.nacl.org/weatherproject/index.html


Home Truths

June 2013 — Last month, climate scientists announced that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) had surpassed 400 parts per million, an alarming milestone since CO2 is earth’s most abundant heat-trapping greenhouse gas (GHG).   A few weeks earlier, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reported on American attitudes on the issue.  It turns out that only about 8% of Americans are genuine climate change skeptics.  The rest of us are concerned, even alarmed, but mainly sitting on the fence, wrapped in despair because the evidence seems too abstract, the consequences too distant, and we just don’t know what to do.

What does global warming mean in our daily lives, here in the Catskills?

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has identified a range of impacts for the Catskills region now and over the next 50 years.  We can expect increased flooding alternating with periods of drought, and a higher incidence of catastrophic events like hurricanes and ice storms. Weather-related disruptions of communications and travel will affect public safety and economic stability.  Increased asthma, heat stroke, heart attack and vector-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease will stress our public health system.  Agricultural impacts will include more spring frosts, reduced summer precipitation and heat stresses on farm animals, especially dairy cows.  We may lose our iconic Empire and Macintosh apples.  Invasive pests like the hemlock wooly adelgid and emerald ash borer are already affecting our forests.

Impacts will have a cascading effect.  For example, as we lose our hemlock forests to the wooly adelgid, streams and lakes will become warmer, stressing our beloved brook trout by reducing the cold water refuges they need.  This could have a disastrous impact on the $3.5 billion a year hunting and fishing businesses in upstate New York.

It sounds pretty dire, and what can we do about it?

Let’s focus on three key words.  The first is mitigation – reducing the GHG emissions that cause climate change.  The most important way to do this is to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to renewable sources like solar, wind and biomass as quickly as we can.

The second is adaptation – finding ways to reduce adverse effects.  For example, we can make our houses cooler in the summer by insulating our attics, using reflective roofing material, and planting deciduous trees to provide shade in summer.   In new construction, we can site houses to take advantage of summer breezes and passive warming in winter.

Effective adaptation efforts can also mitigate the causes of climate disruption.  For example, as we use passive design and construction practices to help heat and cool our houses, or demand more organically grown local food, we also reduce energy demand and use of the fossil fuels and petrochemicals that cause global warming.

The third key word is resiliency, which describes the ability to recover from adverse events.  In the context of climate change, we will build our resiliency by educating ourselves and becoming proactive, and by calling upon our greatest human asset, our ability to bring creativity and innovation to our problem-solving efforts.

What we eat, what we buy, who we vote for and what policies those leaders enact – our choices determine what kind of life we live now, and how future generations will fare.  Our predicament is the unfortunate cumulative result of millions of incremental choices as well as regressive energy policy.  The answers to the problem are also cumulative – small personal choices day by day, and big policy choices demanded boldly and implemented robustly. We will not get there by sitting on the fence or cowering in despair.



The Bill Principle

May 2013 — When we bought our house, “sustainability” wasn’t part of our everyday vocabulary.  We did know that a hundred-year-old house was likely to bankrupt us with heating bills unless we made serious changes.  Other than new wiring, no major renovations had been undertaken since the 1960s, a plus since the scary-vintage state of the house meant that we could afford to buy it. But we had a lot of work to do if we were going to be both snug and solvent.

My fantasies of choosing paint colors and bathroom tile took a back seat to insulating the walls and attic on a “do-it-yourself” budget.  Soon, friends’ eyes were glazing over as my conversation reverted inevitably to the eccentricities of a folk-built house.  Other people might describe vacation plans or the accomplishments of their children; we obsessed about R-value – the quality of conductive resistance that keeps heat from flowing through insulating material.  We also needed to block cracks that allow heat to escape from the house (air leakage), and the drafts that move cold air through the interior (convection).  Energy efficiency starts with the how we address these three issues in walls, floors and ceilings – the “envelope” of the building.

One day at the lumberyard, we got a bit of advice that we named in honor of the man who offered it:  the Bill Principle.  “Do what you can,” said Bill. “Every bit helps.  If you can’t afford the best, settle for good and keep at it.”  That turned out to be pretty good advice.

Working room to room as our budget allowed, we used high density fiberglass batts between the wall studs, then added a layer of foil backed polyisocyanurate foam, carefully taped at the seams.  This brought the insulation to a respectable R-19 and addressed air leakage.  In the attic, we achieved R-38 with multiple layers.  Our first full winter in the house, we became relentless draft hunters, caulking around the window trim, adding insulation around electrical boxes, and installing child-proof plugs in the outlets, all of which made a remarkable difference.

Sixteen years later, we are more aware of the full life cycle of materials, what they are made of and how future generations will maintain or dispose of them.   So today we would probably choose cellulosic insulation instead of fiberglass.  This green insulating material is 80% recycled post-consumer newsprint. It uses about one eighth of the energy to manufacture as needed to produce fiberglass, according to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and uses none of the toxic propellants (or petrochemicals) associated with spray foam – better for indoor air quality, and safer for the people who make it and install it.  The US Department of Energy rates it at a higher R-value per inch of thickness than fiberglass.  When blown in, it also blocks leaks and drafts, which is great for a retrofit but not recommended for DIY.

We have tightened our building envelope enough to heat almost exclusively with one wood stove, reducing our household fossil fuel use so much, our disappointed supplier told us we’ll never be customer of the year.  A solar thermal hot water system is next on the wish list.

The Bill Principle gave us permission to do our best with our available resources while continuing to pursue better solutions down the line.  Whenever we feel paralyzed trying to decide which materials are the most economical AND environmentally responsible, we remember the wisdom of Bill:  Don’t get hung up on perfection. Do what you can, then do a little more. Keep learning, and keep working to make better choices.


How Does Your Garden Grow?

April 2013 – Spring starts in early January at my house, when my husband starts planning his Fedco seed order, reading aloud the enticing descriptions of leeks and lettuces.  By the time spring officially arrives, the seed trays on the back porch are full of tender shoots that will soon be transplanted to the 30 by 30 foot garden he has nurtured for the past 15 years.

Those tender seedlings reflect the care and study he has invested in coaxing our exhausted patch of earth back to life.  The prospects were not favorable when we moved here in 1998.  The ground was so hard a shovel bounced off of it.  In fact, our first soil test revealed a nearly total absence of organic material – we didn’t have dirt so much as compacted dust, highly acidic and inhospitable to earthworms and other beneficial organisms.

We couldn’t afford to truck in topsoil and anyway, imported soil would eventually become depleted and need rehabilitation.  The most practical choice was to rehabilitate the soil we had, by building it up with the necessary minerals and organic matter and using it in such a way as to replenish its fertility through organic techniques.

We chose a soil testing company that would make organic recommendations, and learned that what we needed most were calcium and potassium, both readily available from Fertrell.  Calcium, in the form of lime, raised our soil’s pH to a healthy 6.5, good for growing vegetables.  We added Jersey Green Sand to improve our soil’s water retention.  Most importantly, we began composting all of our vegetable kitchen waste and yard waste such as leaves, chips, and pine needles.  Even the ash from our wood stove is recycled as a pH-correcting soil additive, good for vegetables and for shrubs and trees as well.  We learned we could also enhance soil fertility by rotating our crops and growing “green manure” – soil replenishing ground covers.

These strategies have enabled us to avoid chemical pesticides because healthy soil pH and crop rotation prevent the creation of habitat for pests and diseases.  By contrast, “chemical” gardening creates the never-ending need for fertilizers and pesticides because it does not address long term soil health.

Within two years, the garden was producing more strawberries and tomatoes than we could eat, an annual feast that now includes lettuce, spinach, leeks, scallions, onions, carrots, potatoes, celery root and rhubarb.  Garlic is our new obsession, and the scapes – the green tops of the plant – make a delicious pesto that we add to soups and stir fries as well as pasta.  We grow lots of herbs, and bee balm and coneflowers to attract pollinators. Valerian and amaranthus add dramatic shapes and color, and a small tree nursery is dedicated to propagating fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus), a beautiful flowering native.

Our personal choice to embrace organic practices has made our garden much less expensive to grow, easier to maintain and infinitely healthier to eat – in short, sustainable. And sustainability in the microcosm of my own back yard translates to a bigger picture:  if every home gardener followed organic practices, we could significantly reduce toxins in our water and soil, reduce the demand for petroleum-derived chemical fertilizers, and reduce the carbon footprint of the manufacture and transportation of those chemical products.  That would be a collective personal choice with global environmental significance.

Our go-to reference is Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Gardener, a comprehensive and entertaining book.  Fedco (www.fedcoseeds.com) is a great supplier of organically grown, non GMO seeds, and Fertrell (www.fertrell.com) has a range of organic soil amendments.  Happy gardening!


Inaugural Column: Seeking Sustainability

March 2013 — It’s a wonderful privilege to be invited to take up the mantle of the inimitable Marcia Nehemiah and to write about sustainability for the readers of The River Reporter.  I hope to bring you useful information and to inspire you with the positive, practical and visionary work being done in Sullivan County and around the world as we address the intertwined challenges of climate change, environmental responsibility, and sustainable economic development.

I should start by attempting to define what I mean by “sustainability.”

It’s an elusive concept, dependent on context. In ecology, sustainable biological systems are those that “remain diverse and productive over time.”  The U.N.’s definition links up social, environmental and economic concerns and speaks of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Not everyone is enamored of this word.  Some proponents of organic farming see the use of the word sustainable in the 2008 Farm Bill as a dilution of the principles of organic growing, a way for big agriculture to get in on the action by merely reducing their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A truly organic standard would have prohibited them.  At the other end of the spectrum are the climate change skeptics and those who fear that sustainable living demands that we renounce all of the conveniences of modern life.

So, is sustainability just conservation on steroids?  Is it a watering down of more serious principles and standards?  Does it promote values of community and caring for future generations, or is it just a Luddite rejection of modern technology?

I am drawn to the word “sustainable” as an overarching philosophy, a principle to apply to everyday decisions, a metaphor for a healthy way of relating to people and things – in fact, a sort of Unified Theory of Life, both spiritual and pragmatic.  As a philosophy and lens for viewing my own personal choices as well as the larger trends in our culture, it links up a train of thought that includes conservation, historic preservation, ecology, food, health, environmental justice, and the economy.  Far from calling for a rejection of modern life, it prompts me to think about what I imagine modern life should be, and what kind of footprint I want to leave for future generations to build upon – or clean up after.

It’s a universal question. Even the characters of Downton Abbey are embroiled in a sustainability dilemma:  What do we have to change in order to keep what we value?  And are we willing to make those changes?

It came into focus for me this past Christmas, when I had a sort of sustainability epiphany.  My husband and I invited two other couples for our customary Christmas Eve feast and, after a happy day of cooking came that wonderful moment when we all gathered at the table.  As the serving dishes were passed around it dawned on me that this timeless tradition illustrated my own idea of sustainability in a nutshell. We do it without thinking. It’s as natural as breathing:  each guest takes a portion, instinctively measuring how much to take so as to leave plenty for the others.  Even if roasted potatoes are one guest’s favorite, he would never empty the dish and leave none for the others.  We make sure everyone is served, and there is plenty for us all.

What I want for my family and dear friends, I want for others, for the whole world.

I wouldn’t take all of the potatoes.  Neither would you.

Could it be that simple?  It’s a start.

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