This is the time of year when drought drops from the headlines in all but the warmest parts of North America. Crops aren't withering in the sun; few homeowners worry about lawn-watering restrictions. Until the weather heats up in the spring, the weather headlines will be mostly about winter storms. But that doesn't mean moisture deficits have been resolved. National drought maps reveal that persistent drought is plaguing California, the central Plains states, and, to a lesser extent, the East Coast.
Looking more widely, the past eighteen months have seen a global outbreak of emergency water rationing in the face of sudden, extraordinary scarcity. In a diverse group of countries, including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, a wide variety of rationing plans have had to be put into practice. Rationing has even become necessary in normally moist, green places, most prominently the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand. In many situations, the causes of water shortages have been much more complex than routine drought or high population density. Thanks to greenhouse emissions, local climates are becoming increasingly fickle.
A whopping 86 percent of the world's total fresh water consumption is accounted for by production of food, fiber and other agricultural products, and 9 percent is attributable to industrial production. Farms dominate water use in the United States as well. But even though a scant 5 percent of the global footprint is residential water use, it is in the domestic supply where shortages are felt most immediately and most intensely by the majority of people.
When municipal or county water supplies are tightened, lucky residents with wells are able to supply themselves (at least until the well also goes dry). And increasingly, people in drought-prone areas are planning ahead and capturing rain for future use. A dozen states and the US Virgin Islands now have laws regulating, and for the most part encouraging, rainwater harvesting. In this, Texas leads the nation. In 2009, Colorado partially lifted a longstanding law that had banned homeowners from collecting rainwater off their own roofs. Utah repealed a similar ban in 2010. The state of Oregon publishes a guide to rainwater rainwater collection (PDF). (Hysteria a couple of years ago over the conviction of an Oregon man for water harvesting was unwarranted; he had built a vast system of reservoirs with a capacity of 13 million gallons—a bit more than is needed for personal use.)
Meanwhile, most of us are still stuck with paying for our residential water supply. And any economist can show you how the most efficient method of allocating water is "marginal cost pricing", under which the first gallon per week or month is the most valuable and expensive, with the cost falling as consumption rises. That, however, penalizes low-income households and rewards heavy consumption. Therefore, many municipalities across North America and the world have turned marginal cost pricing on its head. Under what are called increasing block tariff systems, each household has a monthly right to an initial "block" of that is free or very cheap, with the price escalating sharply for subsequent blocks.
But there will always be a wide gap between what it costs to provide municipal water and what many residents can afford to pay for it. Treating water as a market commodity almost inevitably leads to conflict, and water-privatization schemes have repeatedly failed.
Talk of looming worldwide conflict over water resources has been going on for years. But it is often conflict itself - state versus state, class versus class, neighbor versus neighbor and, increasingly, humanity versus nature - that triggers water scarcity in the first place. The only long-term solution is to resolve such conflicts, to ensure that every community has an adequate water supply. But even then, resources may not be bountiful, and rationing by some means other than willingness (and ability) to pay will be necessary.
If we cannot manage to conserve and share water fairly, there is little chance that we will manage share other resources fairly. Enforcing the right to water is, or at least should be, less complex and contentious than ensuring rights to, say, energy, food, or medical care. As Maude Barlow concluded in her 2007 book Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, "If ever there was a time for a plan of conservation and water justice to deal with the twin water crises of scarcity and inequity, now is that time. The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will."
Meanwhile, you might as well get a couple of rain barrels going.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Sustainable Sanitation Alliance
Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).
What was your "aha" moment about the environment?
Remember when you first felt a personal connection to the Earth that changed the way you viewed the world forever? My Earth Changing Moments is a new initiative to collect stories of the “aha” moments people experience that forever connect them to the environment. Together, our stories can move people everywhere to develop a deeper connection with the planet we call home.
We want to inspire as many people as possible to think about their connection to the environment and to inspire others. If your Earth Changing Moment was meaningful to you, it will be meaningful to others – and it may help them to learn about, experience and help care for the world around us.
NEEF, www.neefusa.org, invites you to share your Earth Changing Moment through a video, short essay or photo at MyEarthChangingMoments.org.
Here are some questions to consider for your Earth Changing Moment story:
- What, or who, inspired you to consider the environment?
- Why is the environment important to you?
- What is your personal message to the public about the environment?
Planet Earth is precariously balanced between fire and ice, between the sun and the frigid depths of space. Carbon-based life forms exist on this planet because there is a balance between the amount of carbon that is continually cycled within the ecosphere. Transpiration and emission of carbon from land and sea into the atmosphere must be balanced by absorption of carbon into the oceans and their life forms and into the land and its life forms. This is called the Carbon Cycle, which is taught in middle school Earth science classes.
If more carbon is emitted than absorbed, or if more carbon is absorbed than emitted, the Earth either fries or freezes. Balance must be maintained for life to exist on this planet
Now comes man and cuts down the forests on a planetary scale. Where the cedar trees were once so thick you could not see the sky, today there is a desert in Lebanon. Vast tracts of land like the Great Plains and the rain forests of Africa and South America, which were once carbon sinks, no longer participate in the carbon cycle. Here in North America, the Sonoran desert is spreading northward out of Mexico and is poised to consume the Great Plains. No more corn, no more wheat.
Mankind’s use of fossil fuels during the last 200 years has dumped millions of years of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere in the form of Carbon Dioxide. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, 315 gigatons of carbon have been added to the atmosphere, leaving the carbon cycle 315 gigatons out of balance. Even more troubling, that imbalance is increasing by 5 gigatons a year due to fossil fuel emissions. Just by burning gasoline in this country, we are releasing 8 times more CO2 than all the volcanoes on Earth combined.
On May 10, 2013, a potentially fatal landmark was hit. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has now reached 400 parts per million — a 53 percent increase over pre-industrial levels and a concentration not seen on Earth during mankind’s existence. This increase in carbon has created an enormous imbalance, disrupting the climate and causing increasingly warm temperatures. CO2 concentrations must remain balanced not only in the atmosphere but in the in the human body. A 53 percent change in CO2 blood levels will result in sickness, and death can be the result.
Earth is a closed system, a terrarium as it is, floating in space. Life depends on a balanced ratio of gases in our environment. Carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere traps heat. In effect, we are adding more insulation to our home while heat from the sun continues to enter and warm us. As we all know, the more insulation we add to our houses, the less heat gets out. The higher CO2 levels trap the heat and the temperature rises. As a result, USDA Plant Hardiness zones are moving north more than 100 miles every 20 years. On Venus, the high level of CO2 in the atmosphere has resulted in a surface temperature too hot to support life. Astronomers refer to conditions on Venus as the "Runaway Greenhouse effect.
Mankind’s survival as a species requires a radical change in outlook. We would do well to live by the words of Chief Seattle, who said, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
The result of mankind’s activity and the effect on the web of life has been stated more bluntly by Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund: “Future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”
There is no escape. Prepare for it, and make the needed changes to prevent a runway greenhouse effect so that future generations may survive.
The Last Hours of Ancient Sunshine by Thom Hartman
On Thin Ice by Mark Bowman about Lonnie Thompson
Scientific American magazine:
“The Physical Science behind Climate Change,” August 2007.
“How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate?,” March 2005.
“Global Climate Change,” April, 1989.
Exfoliating scrubs promise to wash away dead cells, leaving younger, more vibrant looking skin. But there’s a catch — the ingredient that many cosmetic companies use, tiny plastic beads, are a part of the microplastics that researchers find in the oceans and now, a new study reveals, in the Great Lakes.
A research group, 5Gyres, teamed up with Sherri Mason, a researcher at State University of New York at Fredonia in one of the first studies of microplastics in freshwater. And the news isn’t good. Microplastics were found in the Great Lakes in large concentrations. As The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple reported:
"About 60% of the microplastics we found were these perfectly round, spherical balls. And those definitely don’t come from the degradation of larger plastic items," said Mason.
Microbeads, the tiny plastic beads in cosmetics, end up in the Great Lakes through the municipal sewersystem, after being rinsed down the drain. Mason says the little beads could be creating big problems for wildlife.
"They essentially look like fish eggs. They look like food. The biggest concern is the possible ingestion of these microplastics by aquatic organisms," Mason said.
Studies have shown tiny bits of plastics in oceans are being eaten by fish and birds. Even mussels and plankton at the bottom of the food chain ingest them. Wildlife can fill up on the plastics, preventing them from digesting real food.
Microplastics can pose a risk to human health, too. Mason said the Great Lakes were once a dumping ground, and even though pollution is more regulated now, some chemicals are persistent. Plastics found during Mason’s study had elevated levels of industrial chemicals like PCBs.
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis with Women for a Healthy Environment explained that dangerous chemicals can essentially bind to plastics, the fish eat these toxic-coated plastics and then we eat the fish.
"So we know that it works up the food chain and as a result will impact human health," she said.
Groups are pressuring companies and governments to ban microplastics. Recently, a coalition of Great Lakes mayors asked the U.S. EPA and its Canadian equivalent to regulate microplastics. Other groups have petitioned cosmetics companies to stop using microbeads in their products, and a few companies, such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson (they own Neutrogena, which uses micro-beads in some products), say they will phase out the ingredient.
The Environmental Working Group has a database of 79,000 personal care products, called Skin Deep, where you can find alternatives to microbeads, such as natural scrubs, or search for your favorite product.Ecowatch has natural recipes for making your own scrubs.
Source: Kara Holsopple, The Allegheny Front: “Microplastics a Problem in the Great Lakes” November 8, 2013
Photo by 5Gyres: The majority of the plastic that Mason and her team found were tiny pieces called microplastics.
Kathy Knauer is the executive producer of The Allegheny Front, an independent public radio program and online source of environmental news.
The sharing economy is moving into the mainstream. Sharing innovations old and new such as cooperatives, Sidecar, Airbnb, RelayRides and bike-sharing programs are on the rise and show that sharing resources is good for cities.
With their population density, public spaces, and vast social networks, cities are already ideal platforms for sharing. Sharing innovations promise to take cities to the next level by democratizing access to goods and services, connecting neighbors in mutually beneficial ways, and reducing waste. In the process, urban economies could become more innovative, resilient and democratic.
Some cities, including San Francisco and Seoul, are positioning themselves as global leaders in the sharing movement. But many municipalities are saddled with dated legislation and low awareness of the ways that sharing can transform cities for the better. Policies that prevent the sharing of vehicles and homes, or the selling of locally-grown or handmade foods, need to be re-examined. As Shareable co-founder Neal Gorenflo says, “New policies are needed to unlock the 21st century power of cities as engines of freedom, innovation and shared prosperity.”
Recently, Shareable, a leading voice of the sharing movement, partnered with the Sustainable Economies Law Center on a report titled and Policies for Shareable Cities: a Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders. Designed with city officials in mind, the primer includes input from “dozens of leaders from the worlds of law, government, urban planning, business, and alternative economics.” It provides policy recommendation, insights into the importance of integrating sharing programs, and examples of cities that have the recommended services in place.
Below are the key areas the report covers along with some of the recommendations for integrating the various sharing programs into city policy.
Car-sharing, ride-sharing and bikes-sharing programs are all viable ways to increase transportation efficiency in cities. Primer recommendations include designating parking spaces for carsharing vehicles; incorporating car-sharing programs in new, multi-unit developments; allowing residential parking spot leasing for car-sharing; applying more appropriate local taxes on car-sharing; creating economic incentives for ridesharing; designating ridesharing pick-up spots and park-and-ride lots; creating a Guaranteed Ride Home program; and adopting a city-wide public bikesharing program.
Food and the Sharing Economy
When it comes to food, the sharing economy prioritizes local, sustainable and fresh. Through community gardens, home-based food enterprises, mobile food vending, shared kitchens and more, food becomes a way to live a healthier, more connected life. Primer recommendations for food include allowing urban agriculture and neighborhood produce sales; providing financial incentives to encourage urban agriculture on vacant lots; allowing parks and other public spaces to be used for food sharing; creating food gleaning programs to reroute some of the 40% of our food that gets thrown away; and creating or subsidizing shared commercial kitchens.
Housing density is a good way to cut down on resource use, strengthen community and make efficient use of limited space. Policy recommendations for creating shareable housing include supporting the development of cooperative housing; reducing the fees and simplifying the permitting processes for adding new units to existing homes; encouraging the development of small apartments and “tiny homes”; allowing short-term rentals in residential areas; amending or removing any zoning laws that restrict co-habitation; establishing zoning ordinances that enable the creation of cohousing and eco-villages; and factoring sharing into the design of new developments.
Job Creation and the Sharing Economy
As the report states, the sharing economy offers enormous potential to create jobs. By increasing access to resources and lowering barriers for small businesses to enter the market, cities can keep jobs within the community. And, jobs within the sharing sector tend to offer fair pay, increased self-worth and more opportunities for creativity. Primer recommendations for creating jobs within the sharing sector include allowing home occupations to include sharing economy enterprises; reducing permitting barriers to enterprises that create locally-controlled jobs and wealth; using idle commercial spaces for community benefit; assisting cooperatives through city economic development departments; making grants to incubate new cooperatives; providing financial and in-kind resources to cooperatives; procuring goods and services from cooperatives; and integrating cooperative education into public education programs.
Get Involved with Sharing Culture
As people learn about, and participate in, the shareable cities movement, it grows stronger and more widespread. So get involved, join the conversation on Shareable, share the primer on social media with the hashtag #PFSC, share your observations, critiques and ideas, and advocate for sharing policies in your city, sign up for the Shareable and SELC newsletters. As the primer states, "...you'll join a growing number of people working to democratize urban economies around the world."
There’s no reason not to “go green” when picking up a game for a young loved one. Despite the abundance of “Made in China” plastic toys and games that line the aisles, some companies have made it their business to create amazingly fun toys and games for children in ways that protect, preserve or restore the planet. When attending the Chicago Toy & Game Show the weekend before Thanksgiving, I had a chance to check out a few.
Organic Rubberwood Toys
The award-winning PlanToys, a Thailand-based company, is creating a more sustainable world through play through their delightful toys for babies, toddlers and young children. Depending on the toys, they may use organic rubberwood, an “e-zero” non-formaldehyde glue, water-based, non-toxic dyes for coloring their toys or soy or water-based inks. Since 2010, PlayToys has been using a high-density fiber composite wood made from reclaimed wood particles left from the manufacturing process of toys in the factory. They call it PlanWood. The process allows the toys to be made safe, stronger and more durable while earning the company the distinction as the first wooden toys company in the world using this method.
“Most toy companies are using materials that are, first and foremost, cheap,” explains Jay Chanthalangsy, PlanToys’ Marketing Director who was at the Chicago Toy and Game Show. “The way certain companies make plastic toys is to take a vinyl plastic, that very inexpensive, and add materials like antimony, arsenic, or mercury. This in turn makes the plastic more malleable as they are heated and molded into shapes. As safety insurance for heating and melting the plastic, they often add Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), which makes the plastic flame retardant. Needless to say none of these materials are something a child should be around, much less a part of the toy that will eventually end up in their mouth.”
For PlanToys, however, going green doesn’t stop with the toys. It reaches many other facets of their operations, in part, powered by a photovoltaic system on site. Day-lighting is used to illuminate their factory workspace and a solar drying kiln is used for their wood products. With the goal to use every possible part of the tree in toys’ production and reduce waste to zero, a biomass power plant is built on site where leftover woodchips, sawdust from PlanToys factory and agricultural waste from the surrounding communities are used as raw material in gasification process to produce electricity sold to the Provincial Electricity Authority of Thailand that supplies it to local communities.
“The inspiration for being sustainable stems from our founder, Vitool Viraponsavan,” says Chanthalangsy. “The village he grew up in, in southern Thailand called Trang, was covered with wild rubberwood trees. Growing up among the rubberwood trees he developed a great sense of appreciation for nature, the environment and what man can create with nature’s resources, in this case the rubberwood trees. After finishing architecture school, Viraponsavan, along with seven others, was compelled to contribute and build a more sustainable world. Thus creating PlanToys and giving life to the ideal of sustainable play, hoping to build the foundation of how our toys can cultivate creative minds and bring children who come into contact with our toys closer to nature.”
Eco-Friendly Game of Wordplay
This same concern for the environment is shared by txTylz founder, Joan Severance, a movie actress turned toy inventor with a passion for helping people cultivate their creative intelligence. The object of the txTylz is to use square-ish game wordplay pieces to express words or “whatever makes sense” before time runs out while other players try to gain points off your demise. The txTylz pieces may be used phonetically (as they sound), literally (as they are spelled) and symbolically (as they look) to say whatever makes sense in 2 minutes.
“Playing with and touching natural materials, in all types of products, benefits the soul, learning experience and the planet,” shares Severance. “As we are connected with nature it makes sense that the vibrations would recognize each other and therefore compliment every aspect of our lives including learning and creativity.”
The wooden, hand-crafted pieces are made in the USA (imagine that?). The Playing Pouch is also the container for the game pieces. Each piece is hand stamped with low VOC ink. “This game will last a lifetime and was created in wood because I remember playing with wood games when I was young and we still have them in our family,” writes Severance.
Sustainable Wooden Toys
I also discovered a few other games worth considering. The Swiss-made Cuboro marble track game features beech wooden tracks and blocks made from 100-percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified (FSC) wood. For block-builders, The Un-block , an interlocking block building set, is made in the USA from ash trees which -- if things keep going the way they are with the devastating Emerald Ash Borer -- put these hardwood trees to great use before the insects do away with them.All these toys and games kinda make me want to be a kid all over again.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance (www.ruralrenaissance.org), the award-winning ECOpreneuring (www.ecopreneuring.biz) and Farmstead Chef (www.farmsteadchef.com) along with operating Inn Serendipity (www.innserendipity.com) B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. Ivanko writes and contributes photography to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living” (www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/self-sufficient-living-zm0z13onzrob.aspx). They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.
Photos: Courtesy of PlanToys and txTylz
Every year, thousands of volunteers identify and count birds during Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The annual count – which is in its 114th year – helps researchers, conservation biologists and others study North American bird populations over time. What have they learned?
Winter bird ranges are shifting. Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change analysis shows that from 1966-2005 – a 40-year period when the average January temperature in the lower 48 states rose by over 5 degrees Fahrenheit – 58 percent of observed bird species shifted their ranges north. Sixty species shifted their ranges by more than 100 miles. The U.S. EPA included these range shifts as one of 26 Climate Change Indicators in the United States.
Learn more about range shifts of finches in the Western, Midwestern, and Eastern United States.
Doves are expanding their ranges. Since 1950, the number of CBC counts reporting mourning doves has increased by 20 percent. White-winged dove counts are increasing from Texas to Florida and the Eurasian collared-dove, first reported in the 1980s in south Florida, is expanding its range in Florida and neighboring states. Why so many doves? Many dove species prefer urban and suburban areas, so they are benefiting from increased urbanization. Expansion of agriculture and backyard bird feeding also helps doves. And, warmer winter temperatures may also be giving doves a hand – the feet of some dove species are susceptible to frostbite during extreme cold snaps.
Some bird populations are recovering, others are declining. CBC data has shown the recovery of birds like the peregrine falcon and bald eagle. It has also documented the decline and disappearance of other species. Bewick’s wren – a familiar bird in the western U.S. – showed up in eastern U.S. counts from 1949 through the late 1970s. But by 1977, the eastern population began to crash and it hasn’t recovered. Some scientists think that competition from the more aggressive house wren contributed to the decline.
Viewer Tip: Learn more and find a count near you. Anyone can participate in the Christmas Bird Count, which takes place from December 14, 2013 to January 5, 2014. The CBC takes place in “count circles” that focus on specific geographic areas. Every circle has a leader, so even if you are a beginner birdwatcher, you’ll be able to count birds with an experienced birder and contribute data to the longest-running wildlife census. If your home happens to be within the boundaries of a count circle, you can count the birds that visit your backyard feeder.
Read regional highlights from last year’s count.
More CBC photos from the National Audubon Society Press Room.
Photo by Jerry Acton, courtesy of National Audubon Society.
(Sources: National Audubon Society. “Christmas Bird Count.” http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count; “Birds and Climate Change.” http://birdsandclimate.audubon.org/cbcanalysis.html; “Dynamic Dove Expansions Citizen Science illustrates the spectacular range expansions taking place throughout North America,” http://birds.audubon.org/dynamic-dove-expansions-citizen-science-illustrates-spectacular-range-expansions-taking-place-throug; “Demise of the Eastern Bewick’s Wren,” http://birds.audubon.org/demise-eastern-bewicks-wren)