Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Location, Location, Location

The one thing you can always count on in green is that local is good - mostly.

Environmentally, local materials work best. If the product you're looking for comes from local raw materials, you can be pretty certain that it is compatible with the local environment. For example, stone quarried on site makes for a nice aesthetic for a designed landscape feature -colors and textures are inherently compatible with natural surroundings.

Local requires less energy, and here most likely we're talking about oil, moving items from there to here. Less expended energy in transportation is a fundamental principle of sustainability.

Close-to-home manufacturing, harvesting, processing, designing, servicing, etc. stimulates the local economy. We are all connected in some way in this world, but we are very connected to our local environment. Buying local gives us the opportunity to support our neighbors who in turn support us. And, a wonderful by-product of local commerce is that it raises the level of cultural interaction by putting us in constant contact with those who live around us. A product from China may be cheaper to by in the short run, but the marginal savings at the cash register come at the cost of the many synergies created by buying local.

Growing evidence indicates that significant health benefits come from eating locally grown food. There's even a term for it - "locavore" - introduced by Jessica Prentice to describe the practice of eating a diet consisting of food grown within a 100 mile radius of where you live. You can visit her website dedicated to local cooking and eating at wisefoodways.com.

A common thread in the green ethic is that there are almost always exceptions to everything. There will always be an odd case here and there where on influence outweighs another. Its good to keep looking at the issue from all angles.

If local options demand a disproportionate amount of energy, uses up unique natural resources that society has a stake in preserving, or creates an imbalance in some way, it may indeed be more green to look farther away. For example, if a local processing plant is old and carbon heavy, it may be wise to look for an item assembled by a green facility 300 miles away. The cleaner manufacturing process may outweigh the cost of petroleum to get it from there to here.

It's best that we get used to these complexities. Green is not "one size fits all." There's no silver bullet. But there are infinite opportunities.

So remember, it's location, location, and sometimes - location.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Green Ethic

Consider How far we've come.

Just a few short years ago, people who used words like 'green, organic, natural' to describe a better way of life were marginalized and dismissed by most of society, big business, the press, and politicians as if they were a hopeless cult of idealists who "just didn't get it." Conspicuous consumption was pitched as the highest moral paradigm, and Americans bought in - literally. While a few dedicated individuals in the green movement worked tirelessly in the trenches over the 70's, 80's, and 90's, people-turned-consumers were consumed by consumerism.

Now, green is the latest national craze.

"Time to jump on the bandwagon - don't be the last person on your block to go green!" "Look at me, I'm greeeeeeeeeen!!!"

What happened?

Well, to be truthful, gluttonous consumerism caught up with us.

Americans bought big gas-guzzling vehicles, trumped up the price of housing (using the home equity loan like an ATM), and maxed out credit cards to buy things we really could do without. We outsourced everything - even the kitchen sink - under the banner of "globalism." Sprawl was crowned king and McMansions became as ubiquitous as Big Macs.

Now as gas prices head towards $4 a gallon, driving that SUV 60 miles to and from work while your spouse chauffeurs kids through traffic jams from this centralized county school to that far-away soccer field just doesn't look like utopia any more.

For the majority of Americans, its now hitting home (especially the one way out in suburbia or even farther out in exurbia). The financial and cultural strain brought about by a consumption-driven ethic has reached a tipping point. Its not just theory any more; our collective blind eye to the idea of sustainability is affecting people's lives in profoundly negative ways. The cost has been exacted in time, money, and culture. In 2008, the consequences of hyper-consumption are painfully obvious to everybody except the ostriches among us.

(Here's where some of you reading this post can mutter a cathartic "I told you so").

With this realization that "green is good," the business community is taking note.

Automobile companies, who for decades fought against raising gas mileage standards, are now trumpeting hybrid vehicles, even though you can't buy them yet. Developers talk up New Urbanist communities as a green living alternative, although most people can't afford to live in one. Oil and chemical companies are even spinning the PR that the only reason they have ever been in the business is to save the planet. All the while their carbon footprints increase.

Has big business now all of a sudden seen the light? Or is this just a new form of consumerism? Is all the clamor a real sea change, or just "greenwashing" - a term defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as 'the dissemination of misleading information by an organization to conceal its abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image'?

So what's a nascent green enthusiast to believe? How do we define "green"? How can we know which sustainable options enhance our personal well-being and improve the health of the planet, and which choices are just hype?

I submit to you, the "green ethic."

Over the next few days, we will be discussing the meaning of green. Let's dig deeper than "checklists" and PR campaigns - and hopefully we'll cut through the organic bull droppings. Please feel free to join in on the discussion.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ernie's Epitome

A beautiful essay by my old friend Ernie. We met in nursery school, grew up together, and to this day, play each other dead even in "cut-throat" scrabble.

I live and work about 65 miles due South of Washington, D.C. in Southern Maryland. The political mindset and terrain of this region reminds me much of my hometown area around Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The region of Southern Maryland consists of four counties of rapidly vanishing farmland which for the last 40 years has been undergoing a transition into a bedroom community for suburban D.C. This land is tucked away between the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River so it has traditionally been isolated despite its proximity to D.C., but that isolation is disappearing as a result of suburban D.C.'s swelling population.

About a dozen years ago the Federal government's Base Realignment Committee moved my job and about 20,000 other military and civil servant jobs to Southern Maryland, along with all the support contractors and thousands of other workers needed to work in the chain department stores and other required support services. What was once a sleepy community of farmers, fishermen, and workers at southern Maryland's Naval Air test station founded during WWII has now become a sterile community composed of a six lane, six mile shopping strip populated with a BestBuy, fast-food restaurants, a Super Walmart, an Old Navy store, a Target, an Outback, and other national and regional retail chains. What this area also has in common with other exurbs is its lack of sidewalks and lack of good public transportation for all. Common with Mr. Polk's description of the short-sightedness of commercial "strips", southern Maryland, despite its unprecedented growth in the last dozen years, was unable to engage in forward thinking, so southern Maryland, even that six miles of strip malls, still requires the absolute necessity of a personal automobile to conduct such basic living requirements as grocery shopping and transportation to work.

One of the things that lured me to the D.C. region over 20 years ago after I graduated from the school of Engineering at Mississippi State University was D.C.'s cosmopolitan environment: D.C. has the Smithsonian and other museums, the National Zoo, several ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Adams Morgan's multi-ethnic mix of Hispanic, Afghan, and Middle Eastern restaurants in addition to D.C.'s beautiful architecture in its historic communities. I learned to appreciate architectural sensitivity by hanging around my high school friend James Polk when we were both undergrads at MSU. There are also numerous festivals to be enjoyed in D.C. throughout the warm months of each year.

For the first five years I lived in basement apartments in D.C. until I bought a quaint Cape Cod home in the D.C. area town of Cheverly. Cheverly has been described as "a diamond in a coal mine"; its three boundaries are isolated by two limited access highways and access from the third state highway is limited by a clever implementation of one-way roads which all but one lead only out of the town of Cheverly. The houses of Cheverly are not cookie-cutter duplicates, each house is distinctive. Every street in Cheverly has public sidewalks allowing its residents to walk anywhere in town. If you know Mr. Polk you will not be surprised that it was he who made me aware of the advantages of Cheverly when I was in the market for my first home. Incidentally, Cheverly also has a Metrorail subway stop which allows the Cheverly residents to take the subway to almost any community in the D.C. area. The Metrorail allowed me to get to my office if I had car trouble or if there was snow or frozen roads - something which seems to occur less each successive year due, perhaps, to global warming.

After my job was transitioned to southern Maryland about a dozen years ago I commuted the long hour and a half to my new work location for about 9 years. The long commute made my once enjoyable job an ordeal. I still enjoyed the engineering work of my job, but now I'd have to wake at 5 AM, and I wouldn't get home until at least 7 PM or even later if the weather was inclement or if a highway accident caused congestion. I didn't dislike my job, I disliked my commute. After nine years of this craziness and after I turned 40 years old I started falling asleep behind the wheel. Sometimes I'd have to pull off the road and take a 15 minute nap so I wouldn't fall asleep behind the wheel and kill myself and other commuters. The quality of my life kept disintegrating. In desperation I finally bought a house on two little two acres of land only seven miles from my southern Maryland office and then sold my Cheverly home in the middle of this last crazy housing boom.

I exchanged one over-priced house for another over-priced house so that I could be closer to work. All my new neighbors are friendly and, like me, keep well-manicured lawns. One of my new neighbors is about ten years younger than me with two girls in elementary school. Ironically, he's a manager at a warehouse in the area of D.C. which I moved away from so that I could be closer to work. He is one of the many commuters in the exurbs of southern Maryland who forfeits three hours of each day commuting so that his two girls can go to a decent public school and he and his wife don't have to worry about the crime of a large metropolitan community. Also ironic is that the dozen years that I lived in Cheverly I was never a victim of crime. Go figure.

I like living in my new community. There are numerous white-tailed deer in my new semi-rural community which causes me consternation when they use my shrubbery for food. There are also bald Eagles, Ospreys, owls, and geese which make each weekend day and each warm night very entertaining to the nature lover in me. I can also take my canoe and shove off into the creek behind my house and paddle into a serene area of the Patuxent River which empties out into the Chesapeake Bay and enjoy aquatic nature.

Most importantly I'm now only 15 minutes away from my office so my job has become enjoyable again, and I no longer dread waking and making the long commute to work. But I miss the walkable community I once lived in; I miss the convenience of the Metrorail, and I miss the public radio station that I once so easily received on my FM radio - thank goodness for NPR's streaming audio via my broadband internet access!

So after my grass is mowed and my shrubbery is deer-proofed I make my way some weekends to D.C.'s Dupont Circle community. I stroll the streets of Dupont Circle, sit in the public parks in the area and watch the occasional artist engaged in a public performance, rub shoulders with people who many times look and think differently from myself and from my neighbors in southern Maryland, and I take in museum displays and thought-provoking theatre and movies which never come to southern Maryland.

I would never want to forfeit my memories and experiences of camping, fishing, and hunting with my blue-collar Father in the wilds of Mississippi. I would never want to forfeit the experience of hunting the woods with my fraternal grandmother for sassafras root which would then by cleaned and boiled into a slightly intoxicating tea. Every child is not lucky enough to have my Father and grandmother.

But back to the subject of this blog response: One certainty, along with death and taxes, is change, and the United States has now become a debtor nation, and its time for us to pay who we came to the dance with. Gasoline is now over $3.00 a gallon, and with the depreciating value of the U.S. dollar and the growing middle class of India, China, and other areas of the World, the price of gasoline will undoubtedly keep climbing.

Walkable communities, which were once valued only for their social advantages will soon become an economic necessity. Perhaps this necessity of economics will force humans to re-engage with their fellow humans.

Ernest C. Suggs, Jr.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Park It !

Is it possible to go an entire day without driving your car and go about "business as usual"?

I am happy to report that Tuesday, Earth Day, the answer for me was yes.

A dozen blocks on foot began the day - breakfast with Ed at IHOP. Ed is a long-time friend and running buddy, an Episcopal priest (who single-handedly revived my faith in his profession) and "ombudsman" extraordinaire. You should hear his sermons. Very inspirational, full of insight and love and woven with razor-sharp wit. I call it "stand-up homily."

Took care of an errand along the way.

After a hearty breakfast, and several hearty laughs, we carpooled downtown and took care of a few "necessaries". Employing some cerebral strategic planning (ok, we were really just driving and yacking) we breezed through our to-do lists in one car, not two.

Ed dropped me off at my place and I rode my bike for the rest of the day. It helps that I live only a couple of miles from my office.

So there you go; I did it.

It wasn't easy. The walking infrastructure has deteriorated over the past two generations as sprawl-centered development ignored anything but the car. And there are no bike lanes, so urban jungle rules apply. A rails-to-trails project will soon link the university with downtown with a walking/biking trail and that is a very positive initiative.

But it is possible.

What if every other day, we leave our cars at home. The result: half the cars on the road. Faster commutes, fewer traffic jams, less stress.

I understand that these options are not open to everyone. Some live in the county, and there, the car is really the only way to get from here to there. I live in a city, so I have options. Even though there are few sidewalks and no bike lanes, you can get around without a car. Sure the bus line could have longer hours, and could run more frequently, but with some personal planning, that's an option as well.

The more people insist on alternative modes of transportation, the easier it is for politicians and community leaders to move forward and initiate policies to fill in the gaps.

If we all look for options and engage in our community's effort to expand and enhance transportation alternatives, we can move in the direction of more livable, more humane existence and reverse the destructive trend of sprawl.

What can you do?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Underground No More

OK, OK...

So for the benefit of those who wondered where I went (thanks for asking), here's the story. I was thrown in the slammer; the official charge was "pamphleteering." Rocking the boat was the crime, or so they said. Turns out, the we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-sidewalks lobby has some pull here with the local authority-figures. I pleaded guilty - I had to tell the truth - and threw myself on the mercy of the court. "Lock him up" screamed the scowl-faced judges. Who would have thought it could come to this? I thought the jury was still out.


that's not exactly what happened.

I've been spending some time catching up on work. The blog is a wonderful ly stimulating creative outlet, but very demanding on the time. In recognition of Earth Day, I am resuming my posts and plan to log an essay about 3 times a week.

And I am looking for a few guest bloggers. If interested, send me an email with some ideas and enough of a sample of your work so I can get a feel for your writing.

Happy Earth Day