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Earth Week 2010: Be part of the solution

 Posted by on April 19, 2010
Apr 192010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

On this 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, this Thursday, everyone from your grocer to your vintner to your brother-in-law with the new AP-LEED certification may be tugging at you to go green. Earth Day, after decades flying under the radar, is going mainstream. Americans are finally carrying reusable totes to the market, driving ever smaller cars and sticking solar panels on their roofs.

Not so long ago, crowds would have gathered to marvel at such a tiny car, and homeowner’s associations would have risen up against those solar panels. Come to think of it, that still happens. But it’s getting harder to fight the green wave. People are asserting their right to raise chickens, eat GMO free foods, wear organic cotton and buy recycled art. Neighbors, restaurants and clothing stores are starting to listen.

And that “Think Globally, Act Locally” ditty that once seemed like a disembodied bumper sticker on an aging Corolla? It’s resonating. Nurseries are selling native plants intended to be grown in the area where they are being sold. What a concept — these plants can survive on the rainfall typical for that region. Farmers markets are bringing in produce from around a city, shaving food miles off the distribution chain, and selling fresh, seasonal and, according to increasing scientific literature, more nutritious fruits and vegetables.

What’s more we’re finding out that green isn’t always more expensive. Prices are coming down. Organic foods are still a little steep, having not reached the economies of scale needed to compete. But many green home improvements only cost more in terms of up-front spending, returning their cost within a few years in lower energy bills. Other green solutions actually save a person money, such as managing a yard or home vegetable garden organically. What’ not to like about using grass clippings as fertilizer? It’s about as cheap, and far more healthful than the toxic fertilizers and weed controllers that aren’t just a little environmentally unfriendly; some are carcinogenic.

Another price saver: Green household cleaners. As grocers have developed house brands, and big companies like S.C. Johnson have jumped into the green market, it’s no longer more costly to keep an eco-clean home. And of course, it never was, if you factored in the potential harm from the ammonia, bleach, phosphates and synthetic fragrances to ourselves and our natural environment. No longer do you hear, “but it doesn’t clean as well”. Today, the march is on to take on the next batch of less-obvious offenders, the antimicrobials like Triclosan that have creeped into everything from soaps to socks and have been marketed as something that protects us, but actually do the opposite as they play out in the environment, encouraging super bacteria that become antibiotic resistant.

It would be naive to believe that this is the beginning of the de-industrializing of America, a large movement toward cleaner, simpler, less toxic ways. We’re still on the cusp. But the wake-up call is getting through. The vast majority of people are not reading their food labels to see if they list palm oil because they want to protect orangutans. They’re just grabbing the Oreos.

But the situation is improving.

Three years ago, when we started Green Right Now, we tested the only safer drain de-clogger we could find on the market (for when a plunger won’t do), a device called the Kleer Drain. It worked. Today, it has several competitors, and much as we enjoyed blasting the sinks open with the thing, we’ve moved on to the Perma Flow, a pipe with a debris sweeper that keeps the drain from getting clogged in the first place. It works too, and it’s simpler. It’s innovative. Now, we’ve got a dual-flush toilet adapter on order. My kids think I’m a nerd because this is exciting to me. But I get a good feeling saving water, and witnessing all this unfold.

We’re seeing a lot of innovation. It’s wonderful. And I haven’t even discussed energy yet. Here’s where America is bursting with ideas. We’ve got thin film photovoltaics, giant solar concentrators, even solar paint and solar curtains (on the way). In Arizona, they’re testing solar power that doesn’t use so much water. In Texas, they’re bringing wind to the grid with some of the biggest farms anywhere in the world.  In North Carolina, they’ve got a demonstration of some smaller, vertical wind turbines perfect for on-site power. In California, electricity consumers could be saved by geothermal power, the potential for which is so vast Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has said it could power the entire country (theoretically).

Soon, several cities will be ready for electric cars. Shut out of the market after a trial run in the 1990s, they are back by popular demand in a big way. While Nissan’s out front with the first affordable family car (the Leaf) and the bones of a charging network, there’s a line forming behind it.

And finally, we may finally, finally, finally, get high-speed rail in these here United States. Amazing. There’s stimulus money in the bank for it. And there are plans underway in the California, the Midwest and Florida.

Indeed, we live in exciting times. But not all the motion is forward. And certainly not at 150 mph. There’s a lot of human quibbling over where the future lies, and how quickly we could or should get there. We don’t even have the space to get into it all here. But as you know, there are climate deniers for whom the sky is not blue. And foot draggers, doubters (those who will listen as distinguishable from ideologue denialists), waverers and those with conflicts of interest. Where I live, some of those who are pushing urban natural gas wells are drawing royalties from urban gas wells. Surprise!

When climate scientists say we have just a few years to rein in carbon emissions, and the federal government responds with a climate bill (the Senate’s) that reportedly will offer a paltry 3 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 (compared with 2005) obviously we’re not all on the same page. We’re not even reading from the same book.

That’s got to change. In talking last week with Nate Byer, chief coordinator for the Earth Day Network,  I expected a pep talk about what a great day and week it will be, what with so many on board, yadda, yadda. He surprised me. “There’s not a lot to celebrate,” he said, an obvious reference to the Sisyphus-like and so-far-failed efforts to get Congress, and the new more enviro-minded Executive Branch, on the train. That would be the life-saving, high speed train to a cleaner carbon future.

Want to get on board, or at least edge toward the platform? There are big problems out there, large, looming, industrial-size issues. Still, you can do a lot. We’ve tried to assemble some ideas, looking at Energy (we chose coal specifically, the Darth Vader of the dirty energy pack), Water, Transportation and Wildlife Conservation. Some you may have heard before. (If I had a dollar for every green tips list I’ve stumbled upon….) But we’ve tried to offer the latest thinking, and the most authoritative links. Take a look.

Today’s post, Be a Part of the Solution: Chipping away at coal.

Check out the stories this week.

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