Category Archives: Environment

A Shining, Hopeful Example: Wind Power and Orkney Islands

When you are someone who cares about the environment the way I do—Clif and I refer to ourselves as green beans—it is easy to get discouraged. A focus on climate change, resource depletion, and overpopulation can lead to gloomy thoughts. And let’s face it—most of the news we read about the environment is not good, thus adding to the gloom.

Then in The Guardian comes Robin McKie’s piece: How Orkney Leads the Way for Sustainable Energy. (Thanks to Susanne’s Mom’s Blog for featuring this piece as well as providing the link to it.) According to Mckie, Orkney Islands—an archipelago to the northeast of Scotland—produces so much sustainable energy that they can’t use it all.

Holy cats!That news is enough to make this green bean snap with joy.

So how did Orkney Islands do it? First, because they are islands, all of their power came from the mainland, and their energy costs were expensive. Mckie writes, “Orkney was once utterly dependent on power that was produced by burning coal and gas on the Scottish mainland and then transmitted through an undersea cable.”

Second, Orkney Islands have wind and lots of it. “Low-lying and exposed to both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, Orkney is battered by winds and gales throughout the year.”

Rather than gripe about how wind turbines spoil their view, the way we do here in Maine, the Orcadians decided to embrace the wind and use it to produce energy. How much energy? “Orkney…generates, on average over the year, electricity that fulfils 120% of its own needs.”

That’s right. Orkney Islands now have surplus energy that is clean and affordable. They are actually thinking of exporting that energy back to the mainland.

Anyway, McKie’s piece is well worth reading. On this sunny day where the snow from the last storm still hasn’t melted, Orkney’s  success with wind power gave me a much-needed lift.

Correction: I originally wrote that Orkney was between England and France. A couple of my blogging friends corrected that error, letting me know Orkney Islands were to the northeast of Scotland. Many thanks for letting me know.

Salut April, Salut Earth Month

April is finally here, and with all due respect to T.S. Eliot, it is not the cruelest month. Not by a long shot. In Maine, that honor goes to March, which, thank the weather gods, is behind us for another year.

For many reasons, April is one of my favorite months. The snow melts at a rate that can only be called astonishing. The sun is higher, the days are warmer, and Spring is definitely on its way. In April there is hope that at last Winter has released its bony grip on the land.

Another reason I love April is that our youngest daughter was born on April 22, and that day will always be a sweet day for me. (As will October 29, the birth of my eldest daughter.)

April 22 also happens to be Earth Day. As Earthday.org notes, “Each year, Earth Day—April 22—marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970….The idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.”

I came of age during the 1970s, and I was profoundly affected by the environmental movement. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that it has made me the person I am. Along with my family and my writing, my concerns and focus as an adult have always been on the environment.

My teenage self—foolish in too many ways—was not wrong to be concerned about the environment. Forty-nine years later, that concern has been upgraded to alarm as the ravages of climate change become more and more obvious.

Earth Day has now been expanded to Earth Month, where all of April is set aside for celebrating our beautiful planet. Some people scoff, proclaiming such things are gimmicky. They note that every day should be Earth Day, and that we shouldn’t need special designations. Maybe so, but we humans have a yen for symbols and stories, and focused in the right direction, this is a good thing.

Earth Day and Earth Month turn our attention to something of vital importance—Earth, our only home. So bring on the stories, the celebrations, the attention. May they bloom into something more.

I’ll end with a picture of the beautiful Kennebec River, nearly free of ice the beginning of April. I’ve told the following story before, but it bears repeating as it is an example of what we humans can do when we put our minds to it.

In the 1960s, when I was a child, the Kennebec River was so dirty that no one even wanted to stick their big toe in it. There were no eagles, no ospreys, no birds of prey. Nobody sat by the Kennebec River to admire the teeming wildlife. Dank and foul smelling, it was a river to be avoided.

Then came the Clean Water Act of 1972, and slowly the river came back to life. No longer a dumping ground for chemicals and other foul things, the river became, well, clean. Eagles have made a comeback. Ospreys hunt for fish. In the spring, sturgeon jump. In Hallowell and other places, people come to this river to watch the sparkling water and the creatures who live in and by it.

So salut April, Earth Day, and Earth Month!

 

Part Three: Success!

The other day, with a few containers in our bag, we made a trip to the Gardiner Co-op to check out their bulk food section. We wanted  to see how easy it would be to use our own containers. We considered this a scouting trip and only brought a couple of containers.

We found that the Co-op has a small but practical bulk food section, with items such as rice, beans, and lentils, among other things. These are staples in our house, and we eat them, in one form or another, every week.

We needed chickpeas and black beans, and the clerk cheerfully weighed our empty containers before we filled them. We didn’t feel at all odd or as though we were asking him to do something that was an imposition. In fact, he acted as though it were a normal request. So all in all, we felt bringing our own containers was a smashing success, and we will definitely return to the Co-op. Here is what we came home with.

The big container with the black beans once held peanuts. (Yes, we do love peanuts.) As it turns out, this container is the perfect size for getting bulk food out from the bins without spilling anything on the floor. The jar that we used for chickpeas was a little too small, although Clif did avoid any spillage.

Although the peanut container is made of plastic, it is sturdy and fits easily in our cupboards. For now, at least, we will continue to buy peanuts in that packaging as we will be reusing the containers for bulk purchases. When we have enough of those containers, we will have to reassess how we buy peanuts.

A day after we went to the Gardiner Co-op, we went to our local Hannaford grocery store to find out about their bulk food. Their selection is not as practical as the Co-op’s and runs more toward treats—chocolate-covered peanuts, granola, and sesame sticks, to name a few.

However, I am a person who, ahem, loves treats, and let’s just say that of all the food that comes in wasteful, non-recyclable packaging, treats are at the top of the list. So I am totally into bulk treats.

But there was a bit of a snag at Hannaford. When I asked a clerk whether it was all right to bring in our own containers for bulk food, he hesitated before saying, “Yes, but we don’t weigh the packaging.” This means that you have to pay for the cost of the containers when the food is weighed.  H-m-m-m, I’ll have to think more about that one.

Finally, on a different but related subject, here is something that should go into the Green Hall of Fame. After going to the Gardiner Co-op, we met our friends Alice and Joel at a local Mexican Restaurant. They always order enough so that there is food leftover for a meal at home. And here is what they do.

They bring their own containers from home, including the cardboard ones for the condiments. And Alice assured me that she finds plenty of ways to use the little condiment containers.

Do we have awesome friends, or what?

Part Two: It’s Not Easy Being Green

The world is in transition—either burning or flooding. This summer has been especially bad in too many places. Clif and I have decided to take action in our own small way. Being two green beans for a long time, we have always aimed to live lightly, and by American standards, we have a modest lifestyle. For many years, we have been a one-car family, very unusual in this country.  We limit our driving.  We don’t fly. We recycle. We don’t use plastic straws, at least not most of the time.

But that’s the low-hanging fruit.

Chickens looking for low-hanging fruit

 

To continue with the metaphor, the higher up you go, the harder it gets.

Chicken jumping for fruit higher up

 

In short, it’s not easy being green, and it would be remiss of me not to write about this issue. Every person has a different situation, and what’s hard for us might not be hard for you, but I suspect there is enough overlap so that our problems are common to many.

But never fear, I have also included possible solutions to our problems.

Item One: Being green is more expensive. Local, organic food costs more, and ditto for electric cars and bikes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Clif and I have a budget that’s as big as a minute, and we have to be careful not only with our nickles and dimes, but also with our pennies. For us, this is a large obstacle that must be dealt with creatively.

Solution: Lucky for me, I can cook. I am not a gourmet chef by any means, but I’m a good home cook who has mastered the basics. My immediate plan is to bake from scratch—even more than I do now—so that most of our bread and other goodies come from my kitchen.

Item Two: We live in a world of packaging. The next time you go grocery shopping, take a good look at what’s in your  cart. Note the boxes, the plastic, the foil, and various other wrappings. Cereal, milk, cheese, butter, eggs. Shampoo. Laundry detergent.  Everything comes in a package and must either be discarded or recycled. And now that China is no longer accepting much of our plastic trash, recycling has gotten more difficult.

Possible solution: We will be making a greater effort to buy food  that isn’t packaged. Not too far from where we live is the Gardiner Co-op. They sell bulk items and will let customers bring in their own containers. We will be giving this a shot very soon. I also plan to check with Hannaford to see if they will let us use our own containers for bulk items.

Item Three: Being green is not convenient. Or, we want to go where we want to go,  and in this country, for most of us, that involves driving. You want to go to a movie? Get in your car. Visit with friends and family? Get in your car. Go shopping? Travel? Get in your car, or even worse, fly.  This is a very tough nut for Clif and I to crack. The town we live in—Winthrop—is beautiful but not exactly dynamic when it comes to anything cultural. We do have museums, cinemas, and theaters in nearby towns, but going to any of things involves driving as we don’t have much in the way of public transportation.

Short term solution: Bike as much as we can and limit our driving. Longer term solution: We would like to buy an electric car, and every year, the technology improves. But even then, we need to be mindful about how much energy we use.

There. That’s enough for now. I’d love to hear from all of you about your problems with being green and  your solutions.

Part One: Climate Change Is Here

Today, It was 90° outside, and the air was so heavy that it seemed as though I could feel it press against me. Because of this, I set up a temporary office in our basement—or down cellar, as we would say in Maine. Once we had a family room in part of the basement, but when the kids left it became a sort of catchall, a jumble of castoffs that we aren’t ready to part with. Let’s just say that this room has zero ambiance, especially when you add the litter box for the cats.

But it was cool down cellar. I was not sweating as I typed on my laptop, and man oh man, was that a good feeling. To heck with ambience.

We have lived in this house in the woods for thirty-four years, and in the past the trees and the shade have protected us from the worst heat of summer. A fan in the attic was enough to cool the house down at night. For the most part, no air conditioner was wanted or needed.

How things have changed in thirty-four years. Our once pleasant Maine summers have become brutally hot, and there have been ozone alerts on the coast. Extreme fires are burning in this country and in other countries, too. In California, one fire was so hot and so large that it had its own weather pattern. There was even a fire tornado, something that sounds like it came straight from hell.

At least there are no fire tornadoes in Maine, and we have had enough moisture to keep us out of a drought.

But it is beyond my comprehension how anyone can deny that climate change is real and is happening right now. Some people do, but it seems to me that most folks, whether liberal or conservative, understand that a big change has come to this planet, and it’s not especially good for us humans.

In my heat-induced stupor, I accidentally published this before I was ready, and I know some of you have received the email notice. So consider this to be Part One, with more coming later this week.

In the next post, I’ll write about changes we are planning to make in our lives so that we are living more lightly, more minimally, more sustainably, whatever you want to call it. Because we are all responsible, at some level, for climate change, and while big corporations certainly must play a larger role in addressing the problem, I feel I must play my part, too.

Onward, ho!

 

 

In Transition

Yesterday, Clif and I went to the Winthrop Center Friends Church to see In Transition 2.0, a movie about Transition, a movement celebrating community and the environment. It also re-imagines a different economy, based on supporting local stores, farmers, and artisans. Transition began in the United Kingdom, and some of you have perhaps heard of Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of Transition. (Transition Network.org provides a more detailed account of the movement and its various aspects.)

Released in 2012, In Transition 2.0 follows the usual rah-rah trajectory common to upbeat documentaries about the environment and social change. The gist of the movement is explained, and then big and small examples of action from around the world are featured—community gardens (relatively easy); a group that focuses on personal action (again, relatively easy); local currency (a little harder but manageable); and starting a small power company that is based on renewable energy (very hard).

I’m aware that the above paragraph makes me sound like a cynic when it comes to movements such as Transition, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a Mainer, I am very much aware of the problems addressed by Transition, especially climate change and the decline of small communities. I’ve already written about the weird winter we’ve been having and how this seems to be the new normal. Climate change is here, no two ways about it.

However, I haven’t written about how Winthrop, the small town where we live, has gone from having a vibrant downtown with clothing stores, a craft store, a five and dime store, and a little grocery store to having a few sandwich shops, some thrift shops, and not much else.  It’s been sad to witness this decline. There are many reasons for this, including the closing of major businesses and poor leadership. I could go into great detail about this, but I’ll stop here.

Therefore, my sympathies are with Transition, but having once been a part of a failed Green Committee, I am also aware of how difficult it is for people to come together to make a change.  And, to be fair to In Transition 2.0, the movie does acknowledge that groups do fail and even highlights one that has.

After the movie, the handful of us that came discussed what we had seen.  Maggie Edmondson, the Friends pastor, did a fine job of leading the discussion. However, because most everyone came from a different community, there was really no possibility of starting anything in Winthrop.

And yet. The movie and the discussion made me think more about what I can do to live a greener life, about how I should use less of everything, throw away less, buy more local food, and drive less. (This is very difficult in central Maine as there is not much in the way of public transportation). In fact, I grapple with these issues on a daily basis, and seeing this film has made me resolve to do better, do more.

The title of the movie, In Transition, aptly catches what we are experiencing regularly in this country and, I think, around the world. Fires and mud on the West Coast. Dreadful hurricanes in the South. Twelve inches of snow and frozen alligators in North Carolina. Flash floods in Maine in January.

We are, indeed, in transition. Now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

The Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, on January 22, 2018. More rain, more ice dams are predicted tonight and tomorrow, and these, in turn, could lead to more flooding. Good times.

 

What Can You Do Without?

Earth Day was on Saturday, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I make every effort to “honor Earth Day in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

By American standards, Clif and I live modest lives. We eat little meat, we only have one car,  and we put a lot of thought into our purchases. We don’t buy willy-nilly. (I also realize that we are blessed with many things—running water, electricity, toilets—that other people don’t have, and I am very, very grateful for these conveniences.)

However, as I discovered when reading a current piece by Melissa Breyer in TreeHugger, there is plenty more we could be doing to lead a more Earth-friendly life. The title of Breyer’s piece is “10 Things Not to Replace Once They’re Used Up or Broken.”

Here is the list:

  1. Microwave Oven
  2. Ziploc Bags
  3. Liquid Soap
  4. Keurig Coffee Maker
  5. Plastic Food Storage Containers
  6. Wet Wipes
  7. Non-Stick Pans
  8. Scented Cleaning Products or Air Fresheners
  9. Toxic Personal Care Products
  10. Disposable Plates, Cups, and Utensils

For some of these items, Clif and I pass with flying colors (Numbers 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10). Others, not so much. But it is all food for thought, so to speak, and throughout the year I will be considering the other items on the list, one at a time, so that it is less daunting to make the change. Baby steps. And I’m going to be honest about Number 1—I really like my microwave, and I use it for all sorts of things. Therefore that suggestion has a big “maybe” beside it on my own personal list.

A note about Number 10—Disposable Plates, Cups, and Utensils. Clif and I rarely eat out, and when we do, we usually go to restaurants that have reusable cutlery and plates. We always say no thank-you to straws, and we seldom order more than what we can eat in a setting. However, we have friends who love taking home leftovers from restaurants, and they bring their own reusable containers to eliminate waste.  What a great idea!

That particular tip wasn’t mentioned on Breyer’s list, but no list will be complete.

Also missing was the suggestion to give up a clothes dryer. When ours broke, several years ago, we decided not to fix it, to see if we could do without. As it turned out, we could do without just fine. There are only two of us, and from spring through fall, I hang laundry on the line outside. In the winter, I have racks in the basement, where everything, including sheets, goes to dry. Clif teases me about my Rube Goldberg arrangement of racks, but I suspect that he’s secretly impressed with the set-up.

When the girls were little, I’m not sure we could have managed without a clothes dryer. However, as now there are only two of us, we don’t miss the clothes dryer at all and have no plans to buy a new one.

How about you, readers? What have you given up? What could you give up?