Tag Archives: environment

Book Review: Material Value by Julia Goldstein

Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning ProductsMaterial Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products by Julia L.F. Goldstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book could be titled “Another Inconvenient Truth,” because it takes as a starting point what most polemical environmentalist literature does not: that we humans need fossil fuels, factories, manufacturing, and chemicals–even toxic ones. We also need corporations and jobs. The author accepts that these aspects of our lives are not going away, at least not in the absence of the environmental crash/catastrophe we are desperately trying to avoid. Once that foundation has been laid, the rest of the book can be built on it. The result is a largely even-handed discussion of what the built environment is made of, how it got that way, and a clear-eyed look at what steps might be taken to make the whole enterprise more sustainable, allowing humans to tread more lightly on the earth.

The author, Julia LF Goldstein, has a PhD in materials science and is a trained engineer and award-winning technical writer. This background molds her prose for better and worse. Her explanation of why and how the air has gotten cleaner since the 1970s is well-written, clear, and easy for the educated lay person to follow, as are her explanations of why and how it can be difficult to remove toxins from the environment. I hadn’t known the scope of the e-waste recycling problem until reading this book either, and I’m now giving myself two cheers for keeping my old cell phone a while longer.

This book also provides an interesting early-2019 snapshot of new companies and new technologies at work. Some of these new technologies are fascinating, and seem to be right out of science fiction. There is the sonic generator technology used by Ronin8, that uses underwater sound waves to sort materials by density. There is EcoSheep, a company selling a sheep oil lubricant that works better than petroleum-based competitors. And there is Mighty-O donuts, an almost zero-waste vegan donut shop. Reading about these companies gives me hope that entrepreneurship will indeed be a large part of the sustainability solution.

The writing is still quite technical, however, and is somewhat lacking in the areas of storytelling and reader engagement. To address this, Goldstein occasionally throws in an anecdote or two from her own experience. For example, she spends a few pages comparing the different kinds of tennis racquets she has owned, some made of carbon fiber. She also describes the milk she has purchased in glass bottles from a Seattle-area delivery service as delicious. Anecdotes like these can help to humanize her for the reader, as it did me, but they may backfire if the reader doesn’t share her biases or demographic. Millennials reading it might end up feeling lectured by their mother or teacher. People who can’t afford carbon fiber tennis racquets or milk delivery may feel condescended to. Environmental activists may be impatient with the incremental and halfway progress that these measures will bring about. And as someone who has studied molecular biology and genetic engineering, even I thought that her willingness to imply that the controversial agricultural weed killer Roundup is a public health menace on a par with Radium or Tobacco was unnecessarily hyperbolic. But that there is something there to annoy people on multiple sides of the political landscape probably only means that she has gotten the tone about right.

Goldstein makes extensive use of interviews of CEOs and founders of companies who are implementing green policies. This is an inspired idea, and these interviews are promising for reader engagement. But here too, more vivid language would be helpful. Instead of being written in a standard book or magazine interview format, with an introduction, questions from the author, and answers from the interviewee in his or her own voice interleaved, the interviews are summarized in their entirety in several paragraphs of the author’s workmanlike technical prose. I found this format confusing enough that I didn’t even realize that I was reading the first “interview” before I was halfway through it.

The exception is the interview with Smokey Peck, of Interwest Paper in Salt Lake City UT. His interview comes the closest to the type of interview I would expect to continue reading in a magazine. Although it is not written in his voice, the interview provides several stories of Smokey overcoming obstacles or making prescient decisions; for example he has been ahead of the curve on inventory control for years, and he convinced a resistant Utah state representative to support curbside recycling. Smokey also provides the author with some well-chosen quotes and his is the only name I remembered while writing this review without having to look it up.

The other interview subjects are similarly well-chosen to illustrate the author’s points; I only wish she had fleshed the subjects out a bit more and given them more of their own authentic voices. I believe this would help further humanize these business leaders and give a face to the corporations that remain anonymous and all-too-easy to scapegoat.

I will end this review by saying that I think every American adult should read this book, and that more authors should write even-handed, non-hyperbolic books like this one. Material Value is occasionally slow going, but overall it is a refreshing and practical antidote to the polarized sound bites that dominate so much of our political discourse about climate and sustainability.

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February #WATWB: Bicycling for the Climate

We are the World LogoI’ve written about adventure cycling for the We are the World Blogfest before, when I wrote about my friend Jasmine Reese, who is cycling across the country and around the world with her dog and her violin.

This month I want to call attention to another adventure cyclist, local resident Tim Oye, who is riding for Climate Ride, a nonprofit that organizes events to raise awareness and support for “active transportation” and environmental causes. Tim’s ride will take him through Death Valley this coming week.  Tim will also be giving a presentation at my church on Saturday night.

Environmental advocate and Sunnyvale resident, Tim Oye, is biking across the US to talk with adults and kids about Oceans, Plastic, and Climate Change. While bicycling 4500 miles from San Francisco to Boston, he will stop to give a talk about bicycling across the continent, how day-to-day human activities affect our oceans, and what we all can do to save our environment for our kids. With a degree in Chemistry from Harvard and after more than 30 years in high tech doing product development at Apple, Sun, and Adobe, Tim switched careers to pursue environmental advocacy and public service. He is a certified bicycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, a coach instructor for the American Youth Soccer Organization, a 4-H leader, and on the cutting edge of going zero waste.

I worked on “Anything But a Car Day” at my son’s school last year. It is an initiative to promote kids biking to school safely. My son biked to middle school. Now, in high school, he lives close enough that he can walk.

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I like to bicycle and I used to ride my bike to work when I had a shorter commute, but I am not as hard-core as these adventure cyclists. We can’t all do everything but we all can do something!

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The “We Are the World Blogfest” (#WATWB) shares positive news on social media. Cohosts for this month are: Inderpreet Uppal Shilpa GargSylvia McGrath , Peter Nena, and Belinda WitzenHausenPlease check out their WATWB posts and say hello!

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Mundane Tuesday: Coral

These posts are getting less and less mundane, but I like the chance to find the theme in my photos and showcase that. Dr. Katherine showed a picture of some beautiful coral mushrooms from the Olympic national forest.

My coral is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My daughter had a friend visiting last summer and we took her there for sightseeing.

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We found both Nemo and Dory.

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The last image is not coral per se, but is from an art exhibit about plastic that was at the aquarium at the time.

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“Message in a Bottle” by Alison McDonald

Artist Alison McDonald reuses and reforms everyday materials in her sculptures. She writes, “this transformation from refuse to artwork will I hope echo the transformation in our attitude towards recyclable products and encourage more responsible use of our resources.”  

Our coral reefs need this transformation in attitude, and are counting on us to bring it about.

Thursday Doors: Berliner Dom

Thursday Doors was on vacation too, but it’s back now, with a fascinating post about artist Maud Lewis, and the 1-room cottage that she lived in and turned into a studio. As promised, my Thursday Doors are going to be about my recent trip to Germany and the British Isles.

In Germany we started out in Berlin. I lived in West Berlin as a teenager in 1983, and I have already posted a couple of then vs now posts: 10316 days (about the Berlin Wall), and Thursday “Tors”: Brandenburg.

00WindyStairs
A lot of stairs for not much door!

The Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral, had not been on my radar screen as a particularly joyful, beautiful, or even dramatic place. Lacking the romance of Notre Dame, the pagentry of Westminster Abbey, or the artistic genius of the Sistine Chapel, the Berliner Dom was just another fancy old building, dingy and always under construction. This photo, taken through a tour bus window, sums it up. Rows of leafless trees and a crane under a blackened dome complete the somber picture.

I wrote “East Berlin Cathedral” on the back of this Kodak Instamatic photo in March, 1983

And I have to say, our recent visit didn’t completely dispel the aura of dark severity that surrounds this place for me. The sky was still cloudy and construction remains a fact of life in contemporary Berlin. But the Dom itself has become more open and welcoming.

01Entrance
Eingang (entrance)

The doors downstairs are quite diverse, some with glass:

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Some with marble:

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And the interior above the doors, which I never saw on my 1983 tour of East Berlin, is strikingly ornate and beautiful.

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As a musician, I wanted a picture of the 1905 Sauer Organ, which organist and blogger Dr. Jens Korndörfer terms “one a few choice organs in the world whose encounter is a life changing experience.”

The 1905 Sauer Organ
The 1905 Sauer Organ

There are some rather boring wooden doors too, probably to offices:

And side-chapel doors, adorned with gold and light:

I thought it all got a bit more adventurous when we went upstairs to the dome itself. Here is where you could get lost looking for a way out.

09Roof

Or where you might find a hunchback lurking around the corner.

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Or some bees. Yes, this is really a thing! “Berlin is buzzing!” to call attention to the importance of pollinators.

Beehive on roof of Berliner Dom
Beehive on roof of Berliner Dom

There is also something very neat about being up near the roof statues that look so ethereal from below. It’s like being backstage before the show and seeing all the makeup being put on.

For example, this angel clearly needs a smaller viola. If she keeps playing like that she’s going to get tendonitis in her left arm, or worse!

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I approached a security guard on the roof to take our picture. When I asked him in German, he lost his severe, dour look, and happily did us the favor.

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Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

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Follow my trip with this and previous posts:

July 20, 2018: Berlin Walk

June 13, 2018: Thursday “Tors”: Brandenburg

June 7, 2018: Germany

Book Review: Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this book 5 stars, and for audacity and imagination, I do. But I also found much of the text slow, repetitive, and curiously unemotional, and it lost a star for those aspects.

The animating idea of this novel is that in a time not too far from our own present day, evolution has begun to go backwards. Creatures are devolving from more complex to less complex forms, the very laws of the universe may be reversing themselves, the expanding universe has reached its apex and is now contracting back into singularity. What would this look like in the slow motion way that biological creatures experience time?

Such a big idea is almost impossible to bring down to our mundane level, but Erdrich almost pulls it off through the eyes and ears of Cedar Songmaker, nee Mary (Potts), a single mother newly converted to Catholicism, pregnant with a baby due on December 25th. Cedar addresses her story to her unborn child, whom she loves abstractly and believes to be normal, unlike the majority of babies born to women in the devolving universe.

Unfortunately for the reader, Cedar is the least interesting character in the novel. For the first third of the book I found her annoyingly passive and uncurious about what was happening to her world. Her trip to find her birth parents that comprises this part is interesting mostly because we get to meet Sweetie, her birth mother; Eddy, Sweetie’s husband; and Little Mary, their daughter. They are Ojibwe who live in northern Minnesota on a reservation, run a Superpumper gas station, and are setting up a shrine to a local Saint. The reader can theoretically understand and empathize with Cedar’s desire to find out more about her own origins as the world collapses around her, but her first reaction is one of muted disappointment about small things. She mopes around in her house, says nice things about her adoptive parents, avoids her baby’s father’s phone calls, reads pregnancy literature, and works on a Catholic newsletter that she is writing. This section of the novel felt like a clumsy and unnecessary expository lump, especially since I have been pregnant myself, and when I was, I read carefully the pamphlets about fetal development from my OB/Gyn’s office, which some of these chapters sounded like.

Things really get going, though, when Cedar is captured by the pregnancy police and put in a “hospital,” ostensibly for her and her baby’s protection in the New World Order, in which most pregnant women and their babies don’t survive. Again, she is surrounded by characters more interesting than she is: her fellow pregnant prisoners Agnes and Tia, the nurses who either torture them or bravely risk everything to help them escape, and her adoptive mother Sera who is highly placed in a resistance movement and actually manages to spearhead a successful escape for both Cedar and Tia.

This part makes the whole book worth reading. Events pull the reader along in suspense, and then the action almost stops for a painfully true conversation between Cedar and Sera, encapsulating mother/daughter tensions and bonds. Then Erdrich shows how effortlessly beautiful her prose can be, with a harrowing and horrifying account of Tia’s labor and stillbirth closely followed by Cedar’s wild joy and confidence in her own body’s wondrous abilities to bring forth life.

As the book barreled towards its conclusion and then petered out, I wondered if the author just couldn’t figure out how to end it properly. A dramatic climax comes about when Cedar discovers something surprising and dismaying about her own parentage, but this revelation neither propels the main plot nor illuminates the themes of devolution and collapse. And then when Cedar was captured again just before giving birth, I felt mostly tired and numb. Unlike most pregnant women in this book, she and her baby survive the birth process. Then Cedar’s voice, never particularly strong, fades into near nothingness and the book ends without our finding out what happens to her baby.

Does he become the “Living God” of the title, the messiah that his father hoped for? Has the very idea of a messiah become turned on its head, another exercise in futility? What does that mean for the future of faith?

This book promises a great deal and occasionally delivers. But because of the slow start and this truncated ending it was ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been.

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Book Review: 2022 (Percipience #1) by Ken Kroes

2022 (Percipience, #1)2022 by Ken Kroes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a thought-provoking, if flawed, book. I like near-future ecofiction and I like playing around in fiction with utopias, dystopias, and planned communities. Kroes’ ideas about these concepts are worth pursuing. How can you set up sustainable communities? Who pays for it? Who gets to (or has to) live there? How can you plan for these communities to last through what you expect will be a grim future? I wish more of the book had been devoted to questions like this.

I found the character development a little underwhelming. I didn’t believe Olivia would have been chosen for a top-secret microbiology project. Mikhail came across as a dork rather than an evil genius. It was almost comical that Diane and Olivia didn’t recognize the misnamed Hope before she burned down their trailer. And Spencer was completely mysterious to me–he seemed to just fit into whatever box the author needed at the moment: spy, dupe, model, love interest, puppy . . . None of the characters had a particularly unique voice, except for Sue, sometimes, which made the story periodically confusing, especially with all the head-hopping.

But simply viewing the characters as blank slates brings the reader up against the inconvenient truths the novel wants to examine: we humans are vulnerable and our behavior usually makes the problem worse. The institutions we expect to protect us, even the good guys, have their limits. And stress and danger make people do stupid, craven things. This book will stay with me longer than it deserves to based on the writing alone. It depicts is a future we want to avoid, made more frightening because it is populated by people who are so ordinary and banal.

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The Ozone Hole is Healing!

Remember the Ozone Hole? It was one of the big environmental problems of the 20th century that seemed to go along with all the other reasons that our planet was in trouble. It was a reason all we light-skinned people, especially the Aussies, were going to get skin cancer and cataracts. According to the Ozone Hole website, the ozone hole of 2006, over Antarctica, was the biggest ever:

The 2006 ozone hole over Antarctica (Photo credit: NASA)
The 2006 ozone hole: big, blue, and scary (Photo credit: NASA)

So what is ozone and why is a hole in it bad?

Ozone is a gas made up of three oxygen atoms, with the chemical formula O3. (The normal oxygen we need to breathe is O2). It occurs naturally in small amounts in the upper atmosphere (also known as the stratosphere) and forms a thin layer covering the entire planet. This stratospheric ozone layer (“good ozone”) protects life on Earth from the Sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Near the Earth’s surface, however, ozone is created locally by chemical reactions between air pollutants. High concentrations of ozone down here on the ground are toxic (“bad ozone”). The Ozone Hole is a thinning of the layer of protective “good ozone” that allows too much UV radiation to reach Earth’s surface.

Why did the layer get thinner?

Some chemicals that were used in spray cans and in air conditioners and refrigerators contain chlorine and bromine atoms, and these atoms are released when the chemicals come into contact with UV light. Then, when these chlorine and bromine atoms drift up into the stratosphere and encounter the ozone layer, they destroy it. A single chlorine atom can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules. The most common of these ozone-depleting chemicals are called CFCs.

In 1985, the Montreal Protocol regulating CFCs was introduced. This is an international commitment to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals that was ratified by all UN countries. On January 4 of 2018, the first study was published that used measurements of the chemical composition inside the ozone hole to confirm that not only is ozone depletion decreasing, but that the decrease is caused by the reduction in CFCs. In other words, the Montreal Protocol is working! NASA Study: First Direct Proof of Ozone Hole Recovery Due to Chemicals Ban.

This is only a first step and more needs to be done, because CFCs last a long time and the CFCs made in the last century are still around causing trouble in this one. But it is still a good example of how science can influence governments’ decision-making, and how the nations of the world can work together to solve big environmental problems. May our leaders learn from this example!

EarthSculpture

This post is part of the We Are the World Blogfest, a monthly event created by Damyanti Biswas and Belinda Witzenhausen to showcase stories of hope and light. The #WATWB cohosts for this month are:  Shilpa GargSimon FalkLynn HallbrooksEric LahtiDamyanti Biswas and Guilie CastilloPlease link to them in your #WATWB posts and go say hi!

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We are the World Blogfest: Saving the Environment through Art

Late November in the USA marks the start of the crazy holiday season. Thanksgiving. Advent. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday . . . With my daughter home for Thanksgiving and two concerts and my birthday coming up, I just wasn’t in the space for posting anything.  Continue reading We are the World Blogfest: Saving the Environment through Art

Not A Scientist

My blogging friend PJ Lazos at “Green Life, Blue Water” has a great blog about a great-sounding book, Not a Scientist by Dave Levitan. It is about how politicians misuse and abuse scientific facts. It also sets the story straight, giving you the real facts behind some recent political whoppers.

Unlike the politicians profiled, I am a scientist, and I don’t think I could have re-read all these examples again without the process driving me crazy. I’m glad Dave was able to hold his nose and compile them (and the debunking of the various political falsehoods) into one volume. PJ was also able to meet the author in person at a recent book festival in Collingswood, NJ! As she writes in her blog, “knowledge is power. Read Not A Scientist and get on with your powerful self.”

Green Life Blue Water

Not A Scientist

Did you go to the March for Science on Earth Day? Did you feel the swell of pride for all the people who lent their support in favor of science? Do you worry about the current state of science in America, especially when politicians are holding the purse strings? Then Not A Scientist, How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan is your next read. Not a Scientist is loaded with examples of real life politicians ditching the facts, disputing the evidence, and generally disrupting the scientific status quo on topics of which they know little to nothing about.

Today, there is an ever-growing divide between science and politics. Maybe it’s because the problems are too big, the solutions too expensive, the public loathe to change. There’s little disagreement in the scientific community that humanity is on the brink of critical mass, a 6th…

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