Tag Archives: Environment

The best night’s sleep

Last night I slept on the sand, keeping watch over a turtle nest that is about to hatch. If they hatch while no one is there, every single baby turtle will disorient towards a ridiculously bright parking lot street lamp, and ultimately die.

Artificial light at night is sometimes necessary, but it can severely affect both animals and people.

A European scientific committee recently found that “Exposure to light at night (independent of lighting technology) while awake (e.g. shift work) may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and also cause sleep, gastrointestinal, mood and cardiovascular disorders.”

Other studies have linked nighttime fluorescent light exposure (while both awake and asleep) to stress, cancers, shortened life span, dental caries, diabetes, ADD and a long list of other problems.

Those of us who live in cities can never fully soak up the rich darkness of night or bathe in the crystalline star and moonlight. Stars are hardly visible, and when it comes to the cycles of the sun, moon and earth, we are, as Wordsworth wrote, “out of tune.”

Lying there with my back firmly against the sandy ground, I marveled at how utterly majestic and gorgeous the night sky is: giant white clouds rolled in from the horizon, changing shapes in unpredictable ways. The few stars I could see invoked wonder — although it made me sad to know there were so many obscured by the city’s lights. When I was on the small Carribbean island of Vieques, I was able to witness the glorious Milky Way for the first time.

I felt my tension melt away, felt connected to and cradled by the vast universe. The turtles know to hatch at night through innate cues, one having to do with electromagnetism. I can’t explain it, but I think the moon and the night exude a special energy upon the world’s creatures, one they need to stay fully balanced and well.

For millennia, man rose with the sun and, if he stayed awake after sunset, did so talking, laughing and singing around a campfire. At Day’s Close explains how artificial lighting transformed the night into a time for revelry, rendezvous, political intrigues and downright debauchery. The evolution, if you will, of nightlife.

Nightlife is grand and exciting. I love staying up late — to work, play or just hang out. My chronotype and circadian rhythms dictate that I am a night owl. Some studies say that night owls are more intelligent, creative and have more “staying power.” However, since our 8-5 society favors morning larks, they tend to be healthier and happier. That makes sense because I absolutely dread waking up early. And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make myself go to bed early. Earlier risers, interestingly, were also found to be more conscientious and cooperative.

Exposure to lighting and age can affect sleep patterns, but about 50 percent is genetically determined. But beyond all this there is another modern technology that affects health and sleep quality: electromagnetic pollution. EMFs emitted by cell phones, laptops, modems, alarm clocks, wires and more can subtly affect us in a variety of ways. Some people are more “electrosensitive” than others. Many people are negatively affected without even realizing it. But try a night away from it all, and you will be able to tell the difference.

My best night’s sleeps occurred when I was removed from radiation and electropollution: the time I slept in a centuries-old estancia in the Argentine countryside; the time I slept in a wooden cabin in the snowy mountains of Utah; the time I slept in a hammock in the high desert valley of an isolated Indian reservation; and nights like last night, sleeping while connected to the healing powers of the earth, lulled by the sounds of the waves, caressed by a light breeze, and pondering the endless beauties and eternal depths of the universe.

Reading about the end of the world

I wrote this poem last night on a whim. It’s not super-poetic, just what came out while I was writing in my journal. It’s an indictment of myself, and no one else. A portrayal of myself as representative of all of us who feel powerless at the onslaught of bad news, day after day. Just like this guy.

I don’t mean to criticize people who like Facebook and TV — which is, of course, millions upon millions of people. I used those things to stand for all the things which serve to suck our focus, energy, empathy, life force. And the irony is that, for me, reading about all the terrible things that are happening — and making indignant comments as some or another avatar — is as just a ridiculous waste of time. Yes, I may be aware, but what good is it doing anything?

It’s hard to make any change while you are sitting — unless you are sitting on the street in protest as an Occupier, I suppose. But even they, who gave up the couch and the desk and the movie theater seat and the infectious complacency to rail against the machine, found it hard to effect any sort of change. The question is, what can we possibly do?

Some may say that it starts with you. Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And I do try. But there are billions of us, all dependent on systems that are not sustainable. And we’ve allowed corporations who have little thought for ocean health to have more power than national goverments. The result is we just keep connecting online. Reading each others’ comments. Worrying and wondering — what will the world be like in 50 years? Or in two?

Fast News Day

“Everyone Cheats,” Esquire declares,

While alJazeera features a three-page exposé

On ocean dead zones.

It’s already the 9th most-read.

We all know it’s true

Know about those gyres of plastic trash

Twice the size of Texas.

But we just keep clicking.

Sometimes we make a comment

Or respond to one another;

Mystery people, really,

Invisible friends and enemies out in cyber space.

What will they eat tonight? What will they dream?

What new news will make them cry

Or post a hundred comments

Each more futile than the last.

At least we’re not on Facebook

Posting updates about children’s tantrums

Or incessantly uploading pictures to Instagram,

A self-styled paparazzi jubilee.

At least we opt for the documentary, instead of

That Adam Sandler rip-off, eschew Glee and Mad Men

For a little bit of news.

Does it help to be aware of all the wreckage in the world?

The killed-off elephants, the endangered tigers;

If the last tree falls, where will you be?

Reading about it on Mother Jones at 3:30 the next day

And you think about it, then move on to the Huffington Post.

3 steps to a long and healthy life

I want to share two informative infographics making the rounds online. The first shows the top healthiest countries in the world (Iceland, Japan, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland) and hints at how they got that way.

Mainly, eat more fish and locally grown fruits and vegetables (rocket science!). But there are three other things we should keep in mind that are a little more surprising:

1) Engage in moderate exercise, the kind that used to accompany a normal life. You know, walking, gardening, the kinds of activities that  are now often obsolete. Not only are these low-intensity movements pleasant and conducive to deep thinking and de-stressing, you will find them a lot easier to incorporate than that 6 AM hell session at the local CrossFit. Quote: “Walking is the main mode of transportation in the world’s healthiest countries.” In the city where I grew up, Las Vegas, people don’t do a lot of walking; many American cities were built around the car. So you may have to find a walking path and consciously schedule a morning or evening stroll since we no longer walk to school, work, the store or our friends’ houses.

2) Have a purpose. Many people just go through the motions in an unfulfilling job, or feel confused about what they want from life, or are just burdened by a vague ennui. First of all, recognize that you are not alone and that this is often a normal part of life, and secondly, that homeless people have become millionares, junkies have turned into sought-after public speakers. Try some serious deep thinking (best performed on a long walk!) to figure out what you love to do and what really makes you happy. Then take the first step to making that dream a reality. Once you figure out what you want, the universe will help you get it. And as I have learned, that frequently isn’t material possessions or even a trip to an exotic locale; producing creative, valuable work and being engaged in stimulating activity where you are challenged, learning and can be proud of the end result often provides a deep sense of joy.

3) Go easy on yourself. Of course, for all things there is a season. If you are spending most of your time engaged in meaningful work that you believe in, then the times of rest are that much sweeter. Don’t confuse a good work ethic with flat out career obsession. Life is short. Don’t spend it all working and miss out on life’s little pleasures: relaxing on a beach, soaking in a bath or spending a night out on the town once in a while.

The other infographic shows how long it takes common items to break down. As you can see, plastic bottles, disposable diapers and plastic bags take the longest time, around 500 to 1,000 years. I wrote recently about using re-usable glass bottles instead of plastic (better not just for the earth and marine species but for you as well) and I am going to make a deliberate effort to start using a re-usable bag at the grocery store and farmer’s market instead of plastic bags (I always recycle, but with that sort of life span, they would be better off being banned altogether).

The day the sea turned black

Two summers ago I was living in South Beach, caught up, like many people, in my own life. But then the Macondo Well started gushing day after day, and I would never really be the same.

It was a never-ending horror that went on for months, and still is causing mass murder, destruction and heartbreak.

At the time, I thought it was unprecedented, and indeed it is thus far the largest oil spill ever. But it was by no means the first big spill. The Exxon Valdez spill is well known, but there have been dozens of spills around the world in the past century (most recently, in Alberta, Canada). There is even one in the Gulf of Mexico that started in 2004 and continues to this day.

The images of oil-covered birds, crabs, turtles, fish and dolphins were so very sad. Fishermen committed suicide. People lost a way of living that had been their passion and their income for generations; many got sick. I felt devastated and helpless, and also afraid. The NOAA predicted that the slicks could reach our beaches, turning my slice of paradise into a giant mess. It didn’t, but that did happen to the sugary white powdered shoreline along the gulf and the Floridian east coast.

Then they went and made things exponentially worse by dumping the ultra-toxic Corexit. Now, fisherman are pulling in shrimp with no eyes and crabs and fish with lesions.

Soon, Shell Oil will begin drilling in the fragile Arctic environment. Let’s hope we don’t have to witness another horror show.

Deepwater Horizon. Such a beautiful name for such a terrible monstrosity. But that’s a common trick in corporate America (check out Wordcraft to see how, for example, the pharmaceutical industry dresses up its poisons with pretty sounding names and connotations).

Obama has a mixed track record on environmental concerns. But, when so much of government is controlled by big business, and when so many people are stuck in a certain mindset and way of living, it is hard to overhaul the system that is causing global warming, epic habitat loss, ocean acidification and large scale species decimation.

I recently watched a great documentary I recommend called Ethos which explores who is really in charge and how the media manipulates public opinion and national conversation. We are all so distracted from the real issues. It encourages us to ‘vote with our dollars,’ and I suppose that’s a start. Is it enough?

Go for the glass

I just finished watching the 2009 documentary Tapped, which delves into the bottled water industry to uncover some surprising facets.

1) Commoditization — The film points out that the masses have been manipulated — through propaganda — into thinking that bottled water is safe and clean while tap water is not. This is not always the case and often, tap water may be even cleaner than bottled water. A classic folly is exposed: giant corporations (think Pepsi and Coca Cola) are pumping out groundwater, bottling it, and selling it to local people who should have it as a free right.

2) Environmental catastrophe — Heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It is a miles long mass of man-made debris, largely plastic particles, floating out in the ocean gyres — where it degrades into small particles that then enter the food chain. Similar patches exist in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere. While plastic is recyclable, the film points out that only a small percentage gets recycled and reused — the rest end up in landfills and in the ocean, where it never goes away but ends up harming life forms, infinitely.

3) Health consequences — Which brings us to the next point. Plastic has been proven to leach detrimental chemicals like PCB and BPA which are known to cause cancer and a host of other problems. Bottled water is exposing humans to these chemicals in two ways: via leaching from plastic containers (especially when reused or warmed), and when it degrades to minuscule amounts and then enters the food chain.

Note this excerpt from a New York Times article:

“But once it does split into pieces, the fragments look like confetti in the water. Millions, billions, trillions and more of these particles are floating in the world’s trash-filled gyres … PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals cannot dissolve in water, but the plastic absorbs them like a sponge. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles. Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat … The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.”

The plastic byproducts end up in us.

Other issues are explored: how the bottling plants affect local communities, and the potential for future water scarcity and corresponding exploitative practices by those who control the water supplies. I suggest you watch it if you haven’t already (view it instantly on Netflix).

I recently purchased a glass water bottle by Lifefactory. I paid around $22 at Whole Foods but there are similar ones for $10 at Target. There are many other glass bottle options on the market. I have to say, the taste of water from a glass container is much better than from plastic. I swear I can taste the difference.

While they still may not be perfectly footprint-free, they are pretty close. The bottles are not petroleum based and are infinitely recyclable; the wide-mouthed screw cap is BPA-free polypropylene. They come in a variety of pretty colors and are easy to clean. Do it for the taste, for your health and for the earth … and lets all recycle all plastic products whenever possible (and avoid when possible as well).

You can have my iPod

Recently I received a free iPod Touch, and I was very grateful for the gift and the gesture. However, I would never have bought one for myself. I never understood the Apple obsession, nor, in a more general sense, the need to always have the newest, fanciest electronic device.

My cheap, simple phones always seemed to far outlast my friends’ app-loaded devices in terms of battery life. All their little features sucked it dry. All I care about, really, is calling and texting. I can live without an app for everything. My mom and sister always insisted on fancy, expensive phones. My mom could never figure hers out. My sister would inevitably lose hers within a couple of months.

This satirical piece from The Onion makes fun of this widespread phenomenon: our need to have the newest — and therefore better — phone, TV, computer, etc. Sometimes, a newer device is better. But by how much? Does it really justify the price difference? Could you have gotten by just fine without it?

I understand that people love Apple products’ beautiful shininess. My designer colleagues find their software essential to their work. Some see the brand as representative of all that is great about America: innovation, progression, envy-inducing glamour. Personally, I prefer my old Samsung phone and my HP laptop — and don’t get paying hundreds more for something that can easily get broken, stolen, or quickly become obsolete.

Someone once told me that owning the latest iPhone made him feel part of an exclusive society. He was willing to stand in line for hours and pay as much was required to join this elite cadre. Whenever he saw someone else with the same gadget, he felt they were connected. We all get part of our identity from the things we wear, carry and own, but this is a little much for me (this same person felt the need to lease a BMW because it is ‘an adult car’).

Because of people like him (and me, and you), Americans toss about 130,000 computers every day and about 100 million cellphones a year. This adds up to staggering environmental problems. The point is that there are no green electronics. So while we can’t live without them altogether (or can we?), we could probably live with less.

Goodbye blue butterflies

Today I read a heartbreaking story about how the Miami Blue Butterfly has vanished from its last Florida refuge. “The pale blue butterfly – about the size of a quarter – was once ubiquitous in the hardwood hammocks, pines and scrub along the Florida coasts from the Keys north to Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast and Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic. But the region’s development after World War II slowly shrank its habitat until by the early 1990s it was found only in the Keys … No confirmed Miami blues have been seen on Bahia Honda since July 2010, and with each passing day it becomes less likely any exist there. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last August issued an emergency listing of the Miami blue as an endangered species and three similar butterflies – cassius blue, ceranus blue and nickerbean blue – as threatened.”

This is a case in point of a tragic situation that is playing out all over the world. In the U.S. Midwest, fireflies and bumblebees are declining at alarming rates. Soon I will be visiting one of the last areas where tiny bioluminscent organisms cause the water to glow — one of the many natural wonders I hope don’t disappear forever.

There are many animals — like the Sumatran tiger, panda bear, coral reefs — that are on the brink of extinction.The specific causes of these species endangerment are myriad — nonnative species, light pollution, chemical pollution, climate change — but all come down to habitat destruction due to development and human encroachment.

I know there is no easy answer. There are around 7 billion people on the planet who need a place to live and food to eat. Somehow, the symbiotic balance went awry. I hate to think of the suffering of the precious, inimitable creatures of the world and to know that the staggering biodiversity of our beautiful planet is in decline. I wish there was some way I could help.

To quote Brian May, former guitarist for Queen, in a speech he delivered to a room full of scientists, astronauts, artists and musicians (full transcript, entitled “What Are We Doing In Space?’ is found here; scroll down to read, it’s a great message):

We need new lands, do we? The Earth is no longer big enough for us? Right? So, briefly … shall we look at the damage we have done already to our own beautiful planet … a planet uniquely perfectly suited to our needs, and the needs of all the creatures who, as Richard Dawkins has reminded us, each at the pinnacle of their evolutionary path, worthily share the Earth with us. Looking at our planet from afar … it looks so peaceful, clean, gentle, unsullied. It evolved over millions of years, with its flora and fauna, its delicate balance of emergent LIFE. But this paradise, this Eden, is not showing us the hurt it has endured, in the mere couple of hundred years since Man became all-powerful. It’s hard to imagine, now, what the Earth was like, just 300 years ago, before we covered it with roads, concrete and fast food chains.

It was literally teeming with life. It’s said that when Captain Cooke first dropped anchor in the Seychelles, there were so many turtles in the sea, you could walk on them all the way to the shore.

It’s said that when the last rail was laid on the first railroad across the USA, you could travel from coast to coast and there was never a time when you couldn’t see buffalo.

Where do we even start to assess the impact we have had on our planet? Garik Israelian pointed out to me that, ironically, we have produced so much light pollution, that most of us can no longer see the stars from where we live … so maybe we have to go into space to see them!

A few months ago I wrote this poem after witnessing a lone butterfly fluttering around my apartment complex parking lot. The article I read today made me think of it:

Yellow Butterfly in a Parking Lot

Like something from a distant time, that doesn’t quite belong

Suddenly running into your childhood friend in an unfamiliar town

Or finding an old hat you haven’t seen in years

Two yellow wings aflutter on a Monday workday morning

Looking for a bush to land on in an asphalt parking lot

As it looped, seemingly confused, without a friend in sight

The Miami cars sped past. I couldn’t look away.

I too was late for work. But I couldn’t leave this living thing

This vestige from the natural world that looked so lost and so afraid

And as I drove away and looked behind, two men with big shears

Weed whackers and leaf blowers, went to work on the single sidewalk shrub

And my golden miracle was gone

Don’t buy it. Share it!

I just read a fascinating article about the rise of the new sharing economy. Reading it was, to use a cliché, a breath of fresh air. I was getting so sick of constantly hearing about new products being pumped into the market place, of rampant consumerism, about the way so many people find it necessary to own a car and an iPhone. Environmental destruction  is largely occurring due to our society’s insatiable, wasteful quest for more.

In the sharing economy, the goods that are already out there are shared in a consumer-to-consumer model. This is a win-win: it is more economical and more eco-conscious.

In a Ted talk, a tech entrepreneur named Lisa Gansky made a very valid, if shocking, point: people, on average, use their cars only about 8 percent of the time (and probably could get by with using it a lot less). Cars are, however, the most expensive thing people own/lease next to their residence. Enter a slew of car-sharing start-ups.

Airbnb is one of the fastest growing companies out there. Craigslist and eBay have been a hit for years. There are several other companies that exemplify this concept in different ways. Some are for-profit, others not. Some are completely free (you can borrow someone’s bike for a few hours, for example) while others cost, but cost a lot less than buying new.

So you could borrow a boat, BBQ, or Park City condo the few times you really want/need it instead of paying for it new and then having it lie around unused for years.

I really like this concept of using what already exists instead of generating more and more. I find it a good way to, if not completely eschew capitalism and consumerism, to at least find a happy medium, a compromise. I think it also forces people to stop mindlessly acquiring and really think about what they need, perhaps focusing more on experiences rather than things. I came across an infographic that illustrates how my generation, while still in the pursuit of the American Dream, equates it less with owning a car and a house as status symbols of having made it and more as finding a unique path to fulfillment.

Speaking of American Illusions, this other infographic kind of shatters a few of them. And speaking of coconut oil — okay that’s completely off-topic — but here are a ton of awesome things it can do.

Make space for what matters

I have written before about how many Americans are conditioned to want more and more things. Besides being a waste of money, a misguided focusing of energy, and potentially detrimental to the environment, there is another negative consequence: clutter.

When you have a big house with lots of space, shelves and closets, it’s not so bad (until you move and have to deal with three enormous U-Hauls of crap). Many people stuff their garages to the brim, while others have to overflow into spare rooms or storage units.

This MSN Money article discusses the phenomenon of the storage industry, as does this longer but fascinating New York Times feature. It’s interesting to note that people with a small to average-sized storage unit can end up paying tens of thousands of dollars on a long-term basis [monthly unity cost ($120) x 7 years = $10,080].

Some things are priceless: old photos and nostalgic, sentiment-saturated mementos. We can’t throw everything away. We can give some things away. We can go years without coming into contact with many of these things, often forgetting just what is lying around in all those cardboard boxes. Yet we are comforted that they are there, safe and sound.

It turns into love-hate. We feel burdened by all our things, yet we don’t want to part with them. We are overwhelmed with the task of organizing and cataloguing them. If there are too many things, we lose them and can spend anxious hours searching. Once high-priced items rapidly depreciate; last year’s showroom furniture can turn into tomorrow’s Craigslist ad or garage sale.

And we keep buying more.

Of course, the question of how much is too much depends on who you are and what you value. I found a recent summary of a TEDTalk inspiring and enlightening. It discusses how to “edit your life” down to what really matters. It concludes with this:

“2012 is the time to edit. We edit for the sake of the planet, for the sake of our pocketbooks, for the sake of our happiness.

Your personal edit might be buying a smaller home, participating in a car share, or buying one less pair of jeans. The specifics are not important. Simply remember that everything you add to your life that is not important, detracts from everything that is.”

You can read the rest of the article and watch the original TEDTalk here.

This Mother Jones article (which they shamelessly recycled from 2007, but hey, it’s still relevant) has some crazy statistics related to Americans’ pathological accumulation tendencies.

I’m no saint. I’ve definitely down-sized, yet I still love to get a new pair of high heels every now and then. I couldn’t throw my life into a backpack and travel the world — not unless I moved everything into a relative’s attic or a storage unit. But I do plan to think about editing my life in 2012 — making space, time and money for what matters, and getting rid of everything else.

Mercy Mercy Me

In 1971, Marvin Gaye wrote these lyrics:

Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be
No, no
Where did all the blue sky go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north, east, south, and sea
Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be
No, no
Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas
Fish full of mercury
Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be
No, no
Radiation in the ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Oh, mercy mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can you stand?
My sweet Lord
My sweet Lord
My sweet Lord 

What was cause for concern and sorrow four decades ago is cause for sheer heartbreak and horror now. Yesterday I read an article on Yahoo, intended to be purely informational, detailing what seafood you shouldn’t eat: Tuna, farmed salmon, imported crab and shrimp, Atlantic flounder, sole and halibut … pretty much most everything you find in the average grocery store and restaurant. Farmed salmon “are crammed into pens, which leads to the growth of diseases and parasites that require antibiotics and pesticides … [and] fed pellets that contain pink dye.” Other fish are also not only in danger of extinction from overfishing (and other man-made catastrophes) but contain high levels of mercury, BPA and other toxic chemicals.

Today on Aljazeera I read this article entitled “World’s oceans in peril.” From oil spills to overfishing to climate change to the great floating garbage patches … it is just an overwhelming tragedy. Not only are we at the point where it is a serious challenge to find healthy seafood that won’t poison us, but we are wiping out the ocean’s creatures and the beautiful blue world itself.