Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

Central Coast Sustainability Festival

The 2015 Central Coast Sustainability Festival takes place this Saturday, May 2, at Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo. The festival, hosted by the Cal Poly Future Fuels Club, will feature bands, companies, alternative fuel and electric vehicles, and other projects all with one goal: making the world we live in more sustainable. Up to 30 businesses will be exhibiting their sustainable tech and cars, 2 bands (including San Luis Obispo’s own Louder Space, and Attic Empire), and several food vendors will be there!

The orderly and hardworking good people of Germany recently had the pleasure of welcoming me as their guest and kin, and it was with due interest and Wanderlust that I admired their seasonably verdant landscapes and observed their distinctively indigenous customs. Coming from a land of wide open spaces, perpetual sunshine and shameless consumption, I can’t help but marvel over the northern European’s congenital capacity for sensible pragmatism and efficiency.

With our sight-seeing ambitions stifled by inclement weather, I resigned myself to spending most of my short stay immersed in quotidian Germanic living, viewing rural and urban scenery from the front seat of an immaculate Audi station wagon and sampling the beers, breads and bon mots around various dining room tables.

While I would have liked to have stayed abroad at least twice as long, I did my best to perk my ears and eyes to detect all of the most subtle cultural nuances, with a particular nose for attitudes and practices that reflect a more sustainable way of life. Quickly I discover many pertinent examples.

No sooner were we out of Frankfurt (home to central Europe’s busiest airport) and en route to the Hinterlands, than I am struck by the ubiquity of roadside windmills. It’s only been a year and a half since my last trip to Germany, but the increased presence of wind generators is as conspicuous and impressive as the stable of German-engineered horses that power our Audi swiftly down the Autobahn.

Moreover, the construction of these renewable energy platforms represents far more than a mere symbol or Quixotic gesture against petro-hegemony; Germany has in fact committed to closing all its nuclear power plants within the decade. This decision came in response to the Fukushima disaster, but would have been undreamable without Germany’s longtime commitment to renewable alternatives like wind and solar. Giant swaths of photovoltaic panels also appear throughout the country, oftentimes right alongside the Autobahn, areas that are uninhabitable but very accessible. (It’s like they actually put some forethought into this.)

Even so, weaning off of nuclear will not be an easy transition. They’re already complaining  — complaining is one of their great national pastimes, after all — about the imminent rise of energy prices. And the fact that neighboring France hasn’t leaked so much as a whisper about closing any of its 59 nuke plants has many Germans feeling like they’re getting the sticky end of the Schadenfreude.

Gassing up the Audi at the filling station we get another stultifying reminder of high energy costs. 1.47 Euros per liter. That’s about 8 bucks a gallon! European diesel burns somewhat more efficiently however, and the benefits are reaped when we hop on the Autobahn and do 220 km/hr, or 135 mph. Whee. Fortunately, German drivers are mindful to use luxury items like turn signals and slow lanes appropriately, and roads are very well maintained, so we feel perfectly safe, even with our one-year-old Wunderkind in the back seat. As far as diminished fuel economy at high speeds is concerned, standard manual transmissions on new German cars now have six gears (plus reverse), and seven-speed automatics are not uncommon.

A trip to the supermarket yields more surprises. For one thing, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is not the leading ingredient throughout the store; in fact, it is nowhere to be found. USDA farm subsidies have yet to flood European markets with this dubious sweetener. They still rely on good old sugar, generally derived from native sugar beets, as opposed to the cane sugar that Americans extract from the Third World (and Florida). Neither does HFCS’s partner in crime, the super-sized soft drink, appear on the scene.

Other evidence also suggests that corporate policy makers do not run the country. Bound by government regulations, bio-chemical companies can’t stuff your groceries with genetically engineered constituents without stating as much on the packaging. Europeans have expressed an interest in knowing what sort of ingredients and technologies go into their foods, and food producers have been made to comply. Even where profits may be jeopardized, the public interest comes first.

Banking regulations, as further example, make it harder to get credit cards and for non-residents to open bank accounts. Consequently, Germans do not see the same sort of predatory lending practices and Ponzi pyramids to the sky, nor the kind of billionaire investor class that we have, all of which conspire to drive a deep wedge into the socio-economic strata and widen the yawning wealth gap. But statistics do suggest that Germans’ personal debt ratios are quickly gaining on ours. Despite their pragmatic proclivities, the temptation to indulge now and pay later can be difficult to resist, especially in times like these.

Finally, returning home from the market, we cram our groceries into the fridge, a moderately-sized kitchen appliance that many Americans would confuse with a dish cupboard. And yet there is ample room to accommodate our fresh produce. For some reason, the German fridge is not overflowing with odds and ends boasting decade-long shelf-lives, and so does not need to be the size of a walk-in closet.

Smaller cars and smaller refrigerators. Larger wind and photovoltaic power stations. Narrower traffic lanes and waistlines (though growing). Wider selections of beer and finally, of preeminent importance to the beleaguered globetrotter, bathtubs deep enough to get your neck wet. And now that we’ve reached the bathroom, I could launch into my polemic on the superiority of German toilets, but alas, no. All I can say is: tanks but no tanks.

If I’d had a little more time, I probably would have visited a doctor for a regular check-up, maybe seen a dentist. Might have even enrolled my daughter in a good multi-lingual pre-school. But no. I’m a product of the Central Coast, a victim of the slo life, and have not the temperament for efficiency, discipline or weather. Remove me from the happiest city in America for more than a week, and I’m utterly helpless.

April 22, 2011 marks the 41st annual Earth Day. Founded during the birth of the environmental movement, Earth Day arose as a symbol of the nation’s new-found ecological awareness. Establishment of the holiday followed the publication of Rachael Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring in 1962 which exposed the extent of pollution in the United States.  This book was considered a wake-up call to communities across the country as well as throughout the world, selling over 500,000 copies across 24 countries and appearing the New York Times Best Seller List.

During the 70’s, the culture of anti-war and and civil rights activism gave rise to this new environmental consciousness.  After witnessing the catastrophic Santa Barbara, California oil spill in 1969, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson was inspired to join forces with Congressman Pete McCloskey and Denis Hayes to establish Earth Day as a national observance.

The first Earth Day witnessed protests across the country where millions of Americans demonstrated in universities and local government agencies to assert their rights to clean, sustainable living conditions.  These rallies were cited as the impetus for the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  Today, the Earth Day Network sponsors environmental advocacy projects year-round, including healthy school initiatives, civic leadership programs, climate change awareness, and encouraging women’s rights in the green economy.

This year’s Earth Day is dubbed “A Billion Acts of Green”, themed after their organization’s grassroots campaign to devote pledges to environmental sustainability.  Suggestions for activities range from donating money to fight deforestation through their Canopy Project to Arts for the Earth, a celebration of environmental artists and design competition.  For a complete list of ideas plus downloadable pdf files to help organize and host your own Earth Day celebration, visit the Earth Day Network website.

Bambu Batu’s home city of San Luis Obispo will be celebrating on April 23 in El Chorro Regional Park from 10am-5pm.  The Park — surrounded by the El Chorro Botanical Garden, Steve Weiss AIDS Memorial Grove, and Dairy Creek Golf Course — will host an outdoor village of 15o exhibitor spaces, ten prominent locations, and two stages.  Free admission and transportation by the Regional Transit Authority to the event will be available throughout the county.  Join the global village and honor the planet with some fun outside!

With deep gratitude to the investigative journalism of Michael Pollan and to the burgeoning intrusion of natural fiber alternatives into the fashion industry, the general public is growing increasingly aware of the need for a revival of sustainable agriculture. In a climate of concern and sometimes desperation, buzzwords like green, organic and sustainable may be cast into the breeze like so many granules of pollen, but they mean little without a proper context for understanding the roots of this thorny issue. Agronomy is not a subject to be mastered overnight, but one to be studied over the seasons of a lifetime. For now let’s consider the modern method of monocropping.

In the past 80 years or so, the art and science of agriculture has undergone an astonishing transformation in order to keep up with the hyperbolic rate of world population growth. The need to extract an ever-growing quantity of produce — whether for food, fuel or fiber — from a planet of limited resources has required a massive wave of innovation among an ever-shrinking number of increasingly specialized farmers. The capacity of these mega-farms to meet the demand of global consumption with sufficient supply and minimal prices represents a genuine triumph of modern civilization. But (you knew there’d be a but, right?), at what cost?

One of the key components of this hyper-efficient system of modern farming involves the technique of cultivation called monoculture, growing huge areas of a single crop, such as the millions of acres in and around Iowa farmed exclusively for corn. If you visit almost any major farm in the world, you will see this technique in practice, row after identical row of crop X, bred to perfect uniformity and invariable mediocrity. The tidy, geometric rows may bear a certain appeal to the post-industrial, minimalist sense of aesthetic, but the impact on both the farmland and the finished product can be detrimental.

In the old days of subsistence farming, a family would plant variegated rows of roots, tubers and vegetables to ensure themselves a diverse diet come harvest time. But because each crop has its own soil nutrient and water needs, not to mention pruning and harvesting methods, this method of “polyculture” is certainly not the most efficient for large scale production. On the other hand, it does tend to yield a more nutritious and full flavored product with minimal pest and disease issues.

These are the chief problems we can associate with monocropping. When thousand of acres of broccoli or cotton, for example, are cultivated en masse, they are guaranteed to deplete the soil of those specific nutrients that broccoli or cotton use most. Industrial agriculture addresses this issue with the heavy application of chemical fertilizers. Residue and run-off from these petrochemical fertilizers has been demonstrated to be potentially harmful to both the habitat and the end consumer.

Secondly, monocropping results in the crop’s severe vulnerability to pests and diseases. An unnaturally high concentration of a given plant is sure to attract and support an unnaturally high number of whichever pests thrive on that plant, while their natural predators will remain absent or ineffective. Likewise, a plant-specific disease could spread like the plague across the exposed acreage of monoculture. Again, these man-made challenges are overcome with manmade solutions, i.e. the heavy application of pesticides and insecticides, with whose risks we are already familiar, those which chemical companies like Monsanto fervently deny.

How to draw the greatest efficiency out of a plant without chemically-intensive monocropping is a leading concern among organic farmers. Many have simply resorted to the use of more natural and organic fertilizers, animal-derived but industrially produced. But we might also look to nature for her solutions.

Unlike cotton and broccoli, there are a number of plants that actually thrive in monoculture conditions. Take the giant redwood, for example. They can stand alone, with reasonable success, in parks and gardens up and down the west coast, but only in vast swaths do they truly thrive. In their native habitat, these evergreen macro-organisms generate a climate of their own, attracting storm systems to satisfy their unquenchable thirst, while also sheltering one another from the high winds. As these old-growth forests shrink, the viability of individual trees is put at peril. That ecological sensitivity makes redwoods less than ideal as a crop for commercial cultivation, but under responsible forest management, other trees can be grown and harvested for lumber with a minimal environmental impact.

In addition to certain trees, many grasses also thrive in a monoculture. One of these grasses is bamboo. Not only does it renew itself with ease (similar to your front yard after it’s mown), and grow at record rates of several inches (even up to a couple feet) per day, but it also flourishes in the modern farmers’ ideal setting: the monoculture. Hence it can be cultivated on a commercial scale with minimal unnatural assistance. As a lumber alternative, its rate of renewability outpaces most trees by about 10 or 20 to one. As a fiber alternative, it leaves cotton in the dust; conventional cotton, after all, is subjected to more heavy chemical crop dusting than any other plant on the planet.

So if you’re concerned about sustainable agriculture, you need to be thinking about alternatives to unnatural monocropping. But if you’re interested in agricultural efficiency, you may find the large scale of monoculture all too enticing. While something of a botanical phenomenon, bamboo cannot and should not replace replace every other source of lumber and fiber on the planet, but it certainly cannot be ignored. It must play a major role in the global polyculture of the future, as we struggle to meet the needs of a shrinking planet, a mushrooming population, and an overburdened environment.

Sustainable bamboo

(The following story was written by me in the spring of 2007, and appeared in a number of local publications.)

Suddenly it seems like everybody’s talking about sustainability and renewable resources. And well they should. After 30 years of hot air about global warming and peak oil, the environment is finally talking a lead role in the American political drama. Solar energy is radiating across California and the nation, organic produce is spreading like pollen in the spring, and alternatives to disappearing hardwood and pesticide-rich cotton are drawing more interest than ever.

One remarkable resource that’s recently come out of the woodwork and into the spotlight is bamboo. A paragon of sustainability, bamboo is finding its way into construction, flooring, clothing, towels and linens. And unlike so many progressive alternatives, bamboo is absolutely affordable. It doesn’t require another 20 years of research or legislation, and it doesn’t demand a major initial investment to be recouped a decade from now. Bamboo is economically viable today.

Words like renewable and sustainable get thrown around a lot, and they’re likely to cause some misunderstanding. Even petroleum is a renewable resource; it just might take a few hundred thousand years to replenish itself. Redwood trees renew themselves much faster, in just a few centuries. As long as we don’t harvest them any faster than they grow, they could be considered sustainable. Further up on the scale, we have annual crops like hemp, which can grow up to 12 feet in a single season, with minimal crop rotation and little or no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Easily maintained and renewed each year: that’s sustainable.

Then there’s bamboo. A division of the grass family, with as many as 2000 varieties, bamboo flourishes in virtually every climate. It is a notoriously vigorous grower; some varieties grow as much as 3 feet a day in the growing season — although a few inches a day is more typical. Bamboo reaches maturity within five years, and, as a grass, requires no replanting. Anyone who’s ever tried removing unwanted bamboo knows this characteristic all too well. When bamboo is cut down, it just comes right back, and stronger. If there’s a more readily renewable resource out there, I’d like to know about it.

The vast majority of commercial bamboo comes from China, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. Indeed, they’ve been using the plant in that part of the world for both food and shelter for millennia. (They’ve even identified bamboo as having magical and mythical properties.) Countless varieties also thrive throughout Africa and the Americas, even in temperate and hardy climates.

Bamboo’s natural vigor makes it sustainable, plentiful, and inexpensive. And its physical strength and diversity translate directly into its versatility as a natural resource. In addition to all of its traditional uses for things like chopsticks and furniture, bamboo today is pressed and laminated as a superior lumber alternative. Stronger even than oak or maple, bamboo has become the first choice in flooring. And in the past couple years, its price has come to rival that of traditional hardwood. This pressed bamboo is also becoming wildly popular for cutting boards and kitchenware because of the way it resists scratching and repels moisture.

Bamboo clothing and fabrics, however, may hold the plant’s greatest promise. Until you’ve seen it yourself, the touch of bamboo is hard to imagine, and difficult to believe. Beat into a pulp and spun into thread, bamboo fiber yields an amazingly soft, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial material. Remarkably soft and absorbent bamboo towels are simply exquisite. And, unlike conventional cotton, bamboo grows prolifically without fertilizers, pesticides or defoliants.

In the quest for a global panacea, bamboo might not necessarily save the planet; but in terms of renewability and sustainability, it’s certainly one of the most promising natural resources we have. And not just promising — bamboo is available today, and affordable. No longer must one pay a premium to support a cause or to make an environmental statement. At last, you can do what’s right for the earth, what’s right for yourself, and what’s right for your budget.

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