Monday, April 26, 2010

The Vickie Johnson Challenge

This Week's newspaper column - read it in the Hattiesburg American:

Plastic shopping bags are everywhere.

Once I came home from the grocery store only to realize that my lonely two items had been packaged in three bags. I’m not kidding.

Most of those plastic bags get discarded and are immediately carted off to landfills. The vast majority of bags that do not make it to the dump wind up lying on the side of the road, floating in bodies of water, or blowin’ in the wind (apologies to Bob Dylan) as litter.

What about recycling? Many stores and municipalities are starting to offer plastic bag recycling bins, but according to the Worldwatch Institute, of the 100 billion plastic shopping bags Americans throw away each year, less than 1 percent of them are recycled into second-generation products such as building materials or more plastic bags.

The times, they are a-changin’, but for now, what’s a sustainable citizen to do?
One earth-friendly solution comes in the form of the reusable shopping bag. Usually made of some natural cotton or hemp fiber, or of a more durable (and generally recyclable) plastic, these “bags for life” can reduce an individual’s consumption by several hundred bags a year.

Last week I judged an Earth Day Eco-Art show where the winning artist, Meredith Kresge, wove plastic shopping bags – hundreds of them - into one bushel-sized satchel. Not only was the finished piece a beautifully crafted work of art, this collection of would-be trash gained new life as a sturdy all-purpose carry-all proving that the imagination is the only limitation to creative reuse.

If you want to see a smile, take several bags of bags to the farmers’ market and hand them out to the venders. I’ve yet to find anyone less than enthusiastic about taking them. Every bag reused is one that needs not be manufactured or purchased.
And lately, my wife Vickie Johnson started taking along an extra bag when we walk our dog Frank, and she fills it up with litter. Yes, those trash-filled bags do make their way to the landfill, but in the process, the neighborhood stays cleaner making our walks that much more pleasant.

Too many times, the attitude about litter is “I didn’t put it there, so I’m not picking it up.” To that, Vickie’s attitude is ‘who cares, it needs to be picked up.’
So I hereby issue the Vickie Johnson Challenge. Whenever you take a walk around your neighborhood or workplace, grab a plastic shopping bag and fill it up with trash along the way. If everyone, including me, made this a common practice, the world we inhabit would be a much cleaner place.

Lest you think picking up trash is beneath you, Vickie holds a Ph.D. and she doesn’t get hung up on the idea, she just does it.

And the benefit (in addition to flexibility gained by the extra stretching): a cleaner, greener environment for all to enjoy.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Living Environment

This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg Amercian.

Try this.

Next time you’re driving across town, instead of noticing how things look, be aware of how the physical environment makes you feel.

On the typical suburban strip, do the oceans of concrete and asphalt make you anxious? Are the buildings you see interesting enough to make you take a second look? Do you feel any joy in the experience, or is it all business getting from here to there?

Now turn onto a tree-lined residential street, preferably one dating back a hundred years or more. Notice that the proportions and colors of your surroundings have changed. You pass underneath a soft green canopy of mature trees, and the older houses all seem to have character. You drive slower to take it all in. Can you feel the difference?

Better yet, for a more visceral experience, park your car and take off on foot. Now you can really feel your surroundings. Is your sensation different while strolling down a sidewalk buffered from the street by trees and vegetation than when walking along the shoulder of busy roadway? Do you feel different walking across a parking lot than you walking through a park or that neighborhood with the interesting houses? What if there’s no sidewalk? How does that change your perception?

You don’t need a Ph.D. for this little experiment. We all, as humans, have the innate ability to intuitively feel the world around us. This applies to the world we build as well as our natural surroundings.

I’ve often heard people say “I like old buildings.” But what is it that we like about them? Why do they seem to have so much character and personality?

Go to any old downtown district where the older buildings are still intact. The buildings play, the shades and shadows dance, and the space comes alive. The facades are not self-conscious and reserved; they are expressive.

There was a time when buildings and neighborhoods were designed with the human spirit in mind, and unapologetically so. No wonder we find so much delight in those older buildings. The buildings and spaces we respond to most are those that most closely reflect our humanity.

Yes buildings must keep the rain out and not fall down, and our exterior spaces must facilitate our movement from here to there, but those are intellectual exercises. Building codes and zoning ordinances exist to insure that we adhere to the practical side of things.

We are emotional creatures. Love, joy, excitement, the feeling of safety – these are just a few of the emotions that elevate the human spirit.

When we construct buildings and carve out spaces that begin and end with practicality, the resulting environment becomes soul-less.

Conversely, when we go beyond practicality with design solutions that honor and express the human spirit, everything comes alive.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Project Re-Patio

While waking my dog Frank, I've noticed a good many stray bricks in the alleys around my house. A couple of weeks ago, I couldn't help but pick one up. Actually, it was half a brick. I carried it around with me as Frank and I walked back to the house feeling its texture, its weight, it's chunkeyness. As I walked along, I began to notice a brick here, a brick there. So I began really looking. Its amazing what one sees with focused attention.

And then, an inspiration came to me.

I've been thinking about expanding my back patio. Dovetail that with my intention of utilizing recycled materials, and an elegant solution presented itself. Why not construct the patio of "found" bricks.

So now, every time I go out with Frank, I pick up a brick or two or three - always from the public right of way - and the pile is growing.

I'm planning to build a solar bar-b-que grill as well. A brick base will support a cast-iron plate upon which I'll direct concentrated sunlight from a movable solar reflector. Can I finish this project before the 4th of July? Will there be solar-grilled shrimp and vegy kabobs to go with John Phillips Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever?

Well, that depends on how fast the brick pile grows.

If you have a stash of bricks laying around yearning for some creative usefulness, let me know. I'll be glad to take them off your hands. Meanwhile, I'll keep picking up loose bricks on the side of the road and, like a garden, watch the brick pile grow.

A journey of a thousand bricks begins with one small dried piece of clay.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Our Deepest Fear

Yesterday, Vickie and I attended Easter service at Chapel of the Cross in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Rev. Ed Lundin, a longtime friend, included this inspirational poem by Marianne Williamson in the program, and the assembled congregation recited it, together. Ed is the most loving soul I know; he radiates love and light and doesn't, to the consternation of many "by-the-bookers," get hung up on dogma. It's all pure love. And that's a positive thing in any community.

Our Deepest Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

---Marianne Williamson

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mea Culpa

OK. As much as I loved reporting that Mississippi Power Company had experienced a "road to Damascus" moment, it's not true. So apologies to those who took the bait. (Usually, I completely forget about April Fools Day and take a bite or two from tall-tale-tellers myself, so I know the routine.)

But wouldn't it be nice if the Southern Company - one of the United States' largest energy producers - did move aggressively into alternative energies. It makes so much sense - environmentally AND economically. The environmental advantages of 1) not raping the earth for the extraction of finite resources and 2) ending the inherent carbon dumping associated with fossil-fuel energy production, are self-evident. But now that advancements in solar and wind energy technology along with economies of scale are bringing down the cost of alternative energies (while fossil-fuel-based energy production is increasing in cost), isn't it about time we moved as a society to a clean energy system?

Given the overwhelmingly positive - bordering on ecstatic - response to the post, it would be hard to believe that major US energy producers would suffer any downsides from aggressively converting to green energies, at least not with the general public. Sure, entrenched interests would "have a cow" if this announcement was true, but after the transition, I believe that even the hardcore drill-baby-drill crowd would come on board. In fact, it's my experience that those who resist positive change most viscerally wind up co-opting and championing the very thing they resisted(and almost always claim it as their own idea) once it becomes commonplace and proves itself beneficial. Witness Medicare, for example. The forces that fought so hard to keep it from being enacted several decades ago just made the "saving of Medicare" a reason not to pass health care reform. Ironic, but true.

Old paradigms are dying faster than new dirty energy plants can be constructed. Let your local power company and elected officials know that you are in favor of moving to a clean energy economy, and someday soon, I may be able to re-post this report on a date other than April 1.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mississippi Power Abandons Proposed Coal Plant

Image courtesy of Mississippi Power Company

In a stunning but welcome announcement this morning, Mississippi Power Company - a subsidiary of the Southern Company - abandoned their proposed plans to build a 582 megawatt lignite coal plant in rural Kemper County, Mississippi.

"The more we looked at it, it just didn't make economic sense," said Andy Blackledge, Director of Corporate Communications. "With the price of solar and wind energy coming down and uncertainties about the cost and feasibility of yet-unproven carbon sequestration technologies, it was just a no-brainer."

Apparently, Mississippi Power has been quietly working with the Department of Energy for the past few months on an alternative plan to build seven new wind energy farms 25 miles off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico - a move made possible by a line item regulation change buried deep in yesterday's Executive Order by the Obama Administration to open up US coastlines for off-shore drilling - along with a state-of-the-art CSP (concentrated solar power) plant on the Kemper County site. Combined, the wind and solar plants are expected to generate 600 megawatts of electricity with none of the air quality issues associated with fossil-fuel energy generation.

"The important thing for everybody to know," added Blackledge, "is that we are withdrawing our request to the Public Service Commission for a consumer rate hike. Stimulus funds already awarded for the construction of the lignite plant along with profits from our current rate structure will be used to construct the wind and solar plants. We expect to hold rates at the current level for at least the next ten years."

Three cheers for Mississippi Power Company!!!