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A Silent Thanks

As I sat on a rock in a nearby park with my face held up to the sun’s rays, I felt happy.  I was alone with my thoughts on a beautiful pre-Thanksgiving day.  Or at least as alone as I could be with my two daughters playing in the creek nearby.

As I listened to their gleeful chatter and watched as they bounded from rock to rock, I closed my eyes and smiled. With a quiet breeze blowing and the sun gently warming me, I gave thanks for my two beautiful girls and the beauty that was all around me.  I gave thanks for the wonderful life that I had been given and thanks for the people I got to share it with.  I gave thanks just to “Be.”

Suddenly, I had the feeling that I was not alone on my rock in the middle of the woods.  I opened my eyes and looked around.  My daughters were still there laughing and playing, but they were a few hundred feet down the creek.  As my eyes took in my surroundings, I couldn’t see anyone else there with me until I glanced down at the rock I was sitting on.  There, right beside me, was a Daddy Long Legs stretching out his legs and tentatively inching closer to me.  I watched him for a few minutes and then, just as he was getting close enough to touch me, he stopped.  As I quietly watched, he stopped moving and sat on the rock next to me, taking in the silence.

I’m not sure how long the two of us sat on the rock together, silently thankful for our lives as the afternoon sun warmed us.  It felt peaceful as both of us gave our own unique thanks for the beautiful world we live in.  Both of us were taking time out of our busy lives to enjoy the quiet peace of the day. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the company.

As the voices of my daughters got closer, I opened my eyes and looked down again.  My friend had moved on.  He had continued on his journey just as I would be continuing on mine.  For me, the next month will be filled with the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But, for a brief moment in time, I am thankful I got to share the quiet and the beauty of the woods with a silent stranger.

‘Tis the Season

I swear I’m not a scrooge.  I really do love the holiday season – the music, the festivities, the food, the shopping.  Okay, maybe not that last part, but I do love watching as the excitement and the holiday spirit spreads through the Weiss family and extends out to our friends and family.  I even enjoy the nip in the air and the expectation that maybe, just maybe, we will wake up Christmas morning to a blanket of snow.  Yes, sometimes it snows even in North Carolina.

For everything that I love about the holiday season, there is one thing that I simply can not tolerate.  No, it’s not the extra pounds I seem to accumulate each year.  It’s not the endless songs on the radio that start the day after Halloween.  It’s not even the long lines at the post office or the ‘dance’ I do with other drivers while circling in crowded parking lots.  No, the thing that most perturbs me about the holidays is … the junk mail. Pounds and pounds of catalogs, coupons, and invitations to purchase things I have never heard of and most definitely wouldn’t buy. As an aspiring environmentalist, I have dutifully taken myself off every mailing list and I try not to encourage any marketer to send me mail.  And yet, each year at this time my mail box starts to fill up.  Or, as I found out just yesterday, some days my mail box explodes.

Yesterday I opened my mail box to find not one, not two, but over 15 catalogs, 3 invitations to apply for credit, a few magazines that I didn’t know I subscribed to and a reminder to schedule a doctor’s appointment.  With the exception of the doctor’s reminder, I did not need any of these pieces of mail. Come to think of it, I probably didn’t need to receive the doctor’s reminder either. I would have remembered to make the appointment all by myself.

Although I’ve requested to be off mailing lists many times in the past, I’ve once again begun the annual purge of unwanted mail box clutter.  A friend of mine recommended Catalog Choice as a way to get myself off the mailing lists. It’s easy to use, but a bit time consuming.  Today, I’ve dutifully entered all my catalogs.  With each catalog I add to the “do not mail” list, I begin to feel lighter, happier, a better environmental steward.  At least for now.  We’ll see what today’s mail brings …

To Geo or Not To Geo

My A/C unit stopped working a few weeks ago. Luckily, we were no longer experiencing the 100 degree weather that has haunted us here in North Carolina this past summer. But, even 90 degree weather is hot when you have no air conditioning. The repair technician was able to fix it with a small part to get us through the rest of the summer. But, as all good sales guys will do, he highly suggested that we replace the unit soon. It’s old (2001) and a SEER 10. This is one of the lowest efficiency ratings an A/C unit can have. As an environmental management graduate, I know that I need to replace my aging units with new, more efficient units. I know I should do it sooner rather than later. But knowing this and actually doing it are two different things entirely.

This is not the first time the A/C dilemma has crossed my mind. Each year when I am forced to turn the switch on my thermostat from “heat” to “cool,” I hold my breath and wait to see if the system kicks on. When it does, I rush around the house to feel if cold air is actually being pushed through my vents. Most of the time, I am rewarded with a nice cool breeze and I can sit back and relax for a month or two. Occasionally, I have to call a service tech to replace a coil or, as was the case this year, a capacitor. Small things, but I keep thinking that the next time I may not be so lucky.

Now I know in theory that I should replace my 11+ year, 10-SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) units with more energy efficient units. I probably should have done it years ago. As a student of the environment, I know that upgrading my 10-SEER units to the more efficient 15-SEER units will save an average of 30% on my electricity bills. Even the electric company knows this makes sense and will offer me rebates to upgrade my units.  And still … I have put it off, not wanting to commit to the rather large price tag that accompanies this improvement in energy efficiency. Despite the fact that I know I will save money in the long run, and despite the fact I know that I am reducing my energy use, I can not get over the price tag hurdle.

So, now that I know that I need to replace my units, what have I done? I have been investigating geothermal. Yes, despite a price tag of at least twice as much as a traditional system upgrade, I have been investigating geothermal renewable energy – a way to use the earth’s constant temperature to heat and cool my house. In my defense, the fact that the government offers tax credits (up to 65%  in federal and state credits) for the installation of a residential geothermal unit is quite compelling. And, truth be told, it feels like the right thing to do environmentally.  And yet ….

Here’s the trouble. My monthly electric bills are just not that high. Or at least not high enough to send me rushing to replace my aging system with an expensive renewable energy system.  I know it is the right thing to do from an environmental perspective.  I know that with tax credits it might actually be the right thing to do from a financial perspective. I know these things in my heart. It’s my brain I’m having a hard time convincing.

And so I am wrestling with my options. Do I replace my system with geothermal and wait for the tax credits and longer term environmental benefits to kick in? Do I replace my units with more efficient, higher SEER units? Or do I continue to wait until my A/C units completely give out and I am forced to make a hasty decision?

Lucky for me, the temperatures in North Carolina have dropped and I no longer need to depend on my A/C for comfort. This has given me a little more time to weigh my options.  At least until the next time that my aging A/C units decide to shut down.

Pedal to the Metal

The newest source of renewable energy?

I have just found my new favorite renewable energy source. Nope, it’s not solar. No, not wind. No, it’s not even energy from ocean currents (although that’s pretty cool too). It’s electricity generated from stationary bikes. Specifically, stationary bikes pedaled by prisoners. Yes, I just said from prisoners.

A recent NPR broadcast tells the story of a small city near Brazil where prisoners pedal four stationary bikes  that have been rigged to generate electricity. Prisoners volunteer to spend all day in the prison courtyard and take turns pedaling stationary bikes that were donated by a local police department. In return for their efforts, they receive one day off their sentence for every three 8-hour days of pedaling. Plus, they get a pretty good workout.

So how much electricity can be generated by four prisoners pedaling for 8 hour a day? According to the NPR story, the 4 bikes generate enough electricity to power 10 lamp posts. I’m not sure what types of lamps these are, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The  point is … they are generating electricity. And, with the exception of needing a bit more food to fuel their bodies, the prisoners are not emitting any green house gases to produces the electricity they are generating.  Brilliant.

Which makes me think … what if we took advantage of this great new renewable energy source right here in the United States? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were over 735,000 inmates in local jails in 2011. If each of these inmates pedaled for 8 hours a day, they would produce electricity to power 1,837,500 Brazilian lamp posts. WOW!!

Now, I won’t get into whether these stationary bikes are an efficient means of generating electricity (they aren’t) or whether this is even a feasible idea (it really isn’t), but it is fun to think about. If each prison were given 10 stationary bikes to use to generate their own electricity, it  would at least offset some of the electricity being used to house them during their prison term. And, let’s face it, it’s not like they have a lot of other things to do while they are waiting out their time.

Hmmmm … Prisoner Power. It has a nice ring to it.

Just Add Water

My flowers are drooping, my grass has turned brown and I can literally hear my vegetables begging me for more water.  It makes me a little sad to see them in this state, but with temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s, there is only so much I can do to keep them healthy and robust.  Or is there?

A few years ago, as water restrictions were enforced for the city of Raleigh, I invested in a rain barrel.  At first, I watered all of my plants daily from the rain that had collected in the barrel and felt the smug satisfaction that one feels when conserving … take THAT water restrictions!  My plants were happy, I was happy and I am guessing that in some very small way, Mother Earth was happy.

As the years went on, however, my precious rain barrel became less of a source of sustenance for my plants and more of a source of entertainment for my two daughters as they began to create a variety of soups that only a mother could love.  Soups made from flower petals, rocks, leaves and oh yes, mud.  The rain barrel provided hours of enjoyment for my kids, but alas, it was neglected as a conservation mechanism.

And then the 100 degree heat hit Raleigh.

Although North Carolina is not officially under drought conditions and there are no water restrictions in place, the continued heat made me fear that our water supply was diminishing. One day, as I looked out at my wilting plants and brown lawn, I turned back to my old friend – the rain barrel.  There he stood, full of water and ready to tackle the heat. It was if he was saying “Enough of the playing, let’s get down to business.”

For a few days, this new plan worked out perfectly.  There was more than enough water in the barrel for my plants and my garden.  Everyone thrived.  Everyone was happy.  I was a conservationist again. And then it happened … my rain barrel was dry.  It, too, had succumbed to the heat.

The ironic thing about rain barrels is that they require water just like the plants. They can hold it a bit longer of course, but in the end, no rain means no water.  And so, I made the painful decision to water with (gasp) the hose.  I felt more than a little bit guilty as I looked over at my empty rain barrel with the hose in my hand, but I solemnly told myself that this was only temporary.  Soon, the rain barrel would be full again, and the hose could be put away.

Sure enough, last night we had some rain.  With the natural watering they received, the plants are happy and well nourished.  Cautiously, I glanced into the rain barrel.  It was full.  Welcome back, old friend, I’ve missed you.

Getting Hotter

It’s hard to have a conversation today without the word “HOT” popping up within the first 60 seconds. In fact, as we enter our second day of over 100 degree heat here in North Carolina, I think HOT is the only thing that people are talking about. This is mostly because it’s so hot, I think our brains are kind of melting. I know mine is.

The heat saps our strength and we find ourselves making excuses to stay out of the sun and find indoor activities to do during the day. It  makes us appreciate things like air conditioning, ice cubes, and small breezes. It makes some of us grumpy. And while many of us acknowledge that the heat may have a little something to do with a thing we call global climate change, it is hard to change our habits at this time – especially if these habits involve keeping us cool. I am no exception.

Right now, my home A/C is running almost full time and if I do venture out into my car, I immediately turn the car’s A/C to “max’ and keep it there for the entire trip.  I may be an environmentalist, but I get hot too. I try to lessen the impact by keeping my home thermostat set at 77 degrees during the day, using my home’s ceiling fans to circulate the air and parking in the shade when I do happen to venture out in my car.  Little things, but they make me feel better.

It is during these times that I notice something about our culture.  When the going gets hot, all attempts at sustainability go out the window.  Store owners leave their doors wide open to invite shoppers into the cool air. Cars idle in parking lots as passengers keep cool while they wait for the shopper to emerge.  Air conditioning units blast cold air 24 hours a day to keep buildings at a comfortable (if not chilly) temperature to offset the heat that blasts at us outside. It’s as if, in our heat-tinged fog, we have forgotten that sometimes, conserving energy means not increasing our usage.

As our electric grids are pushed to the max to keep us cool and we idle our cars in long lines to purchase fuel, our emissions jump proportionately which, as you might suspect, increases the likelihood of global warming.  It’s a strange, cruel, inevitable global warming spiral.

There are many things we can do to stop the spiral, or at least slow it down. Top of the list is to harness the power of the sun and make the very thing that is heating up our environment be the first place we turn to cool it down.  But there are other things too.  Little things.  Like closing store doors and not letting the cool air escape.  Like turning off the car when running errands and parking in the shade.  Like turning up the thermostat – 76 degrees still feels great when it is 100 degrees outside.

It sure is hot out there. Unfortunately, if we keep going the way we are going, it will keep getting hotter.

Traceable Me

As a student of sustainability, I know the advantages of tracing a product’s life cycle back to it’s origin. I think it is important to know where my food comes from and what the labor conditions are like in the plant where my cell phone was made. I’d love to make every single purchase decision I make based on a sustainability scale that is posted right on the package – kind of like a nutrition guide for busy environmentalists.

But alas, no such guide exists today.  Oh sure, some major manufacturers have tried.  Unilever, for example, offers an online product analyzer which is supposed to look at the environmental footprint of its products, but it is hard to find on their website and even harder to understand.  It doesn’t give me the “warm, fuzzy” feeling that I am looking for or explain where my product was actually made and, even more importantly, what my product was made from.  In fact, I’m not sure the manufacturer even knows the answers to these questions. Which I guess is part of the problem. With huge manufacturers providing us with most of our food, clothing and products, it is hard to trace any product back to its origin.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was given a shirt last week that carried a bright green tag with two simple words:  “trace me.”  Intrigued by this unique request, I went to the website, icebreaker.com, and entered my shirt’s unique “Baacode” which I found conveniently sewed to my shirt.  Up popped two sheep “stations” – the sources of my icebreaker’s merino wool.  Out of 120 stations, my product’s origin had been narrowed down to two and (this is the most amazing part), I could click on videos to meet the farmers and learn more about their farm.  Talk about warm and fuzzy.  I literally felt like I had just purchased my shirt from the farmer himself. Amazing.  Simply Amazing.

I realize that developing a traceable tag for every product is not an easy or inexpensive task. The icebreaker shirts are all made from wool provided by a manageable number of farms in New Zealand and  if I did a cost analysis, I am sure they cost a bit more than their mass-produced counterparts. But that is not the point.  What I find simply amazing is that, with the help of my traceable tag, I can learn more about the product I am purchasing and make decisions based on what is important to me – sustainable products, ethical treatment of people and animals, and environmentally conscious manufacturing.  Better yet, I feel like I just bought a shirt from the farmer down the road.

Try it out for yourself.  Visit icebreaker.com and use my Baacode:  EFF0E2206.  Or, ask for e a demo code.  Visit the farmers, tour the farms and then sit back and think.  Wouldn’t it be crazy if every one of our products offered us this amount of transparency? Imagine the changes that would be made in manufacturing companies around the world if we could see where each of our products come from and how each of our products is made.

‘Trace Me’ technology.  Brilliant.

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