Monday, December 1, 2008

Giving the Gift of the Green

It's Christmas, and the paper, and the packaging, and the idling through the parking lot looking for a spot, and the schlepping from store to store, and the catalogs...

OK, so maybe you've guessed that being asked to come up with the 10 Best Green Gifts for the holidays put us in touch with our inner Scrooge.

And then it dawned on us, advise people to give the gift of -- nothing.

Let's face it folks, none of us have any money this year and, more important, we all have more crap than we could ever use.

So how about this year, we get in touch with what the holiday is supposed to be all about, you know, good cheer, kindness toward others, good will toward men.

So, with this theme in mind, let's explore how we can find nothing under the tree this year and still be merry.

1) Junk the Junk -- Hey, nobody likes Junk Mail, but at holiday time, you could build a house with the stuff that comes through the door. So instead of using it to buy a gift for that special someone, give the someone the special gift of getting rid of it -- permanently.

A company called 41 Pounds provides a service that stops 85 to 90 percent of the mail you don't want, for $41 for five years.

2) Adopt Something that Needs Your Help -- Rather than try to compete, let me (again) crib shamelessly from Grist Magazine which advises you can "adopt endangered animals -- and even parcels of rainforest land -- in someone's name. For the greenie who has everything, look past the charismatic megafauna to sting rays, Hellbender salamanders, and vampire bats -- because nothing says happy holidays like poisonous stingers, cannibalism, and blood sucking." Ah, don't you just love the holidays?

3) Provide a Service -- Everyone knows someone who has a child who needs watching, a foot that needs rubbing, a garage that needs cleaning or even a portfolio that needs advising. These things cost money too, and buying or providing them gives your receiver the most important gifts of all, time and piece of mind.

4) Have a Good Time -- Some years ago, old friends of The Thin Green Line agreed to stop buying crap and instead, decided to devote the money to something worthwhile -- drinking! To be specific, we would make a holiday date and all go out and spend quality time together.

While alcohol is certainly not required (although advisable in moderation), good times are to be had a-plenty at Christmas time. Right down on High Street, the TriCounty Performing Arts Center is staging its premiere performance of "Miracle on 34th Street."

Up in equally lovely East Greenville, The Grand movie theater, remodeled to look as it did in 1924, will continue it holiday tradition showing "Scrooge," starring Albert Finney, starting Dec. 12. Also premiering will be the theater's historic 1923 Marr & Colton Theater Pipe Organ. Admission is only $5 and, on Dec. 17, admission is free!

Also free is the concert that will take place on Dec. 5 for Phoenixville's First Friday. The free concert will be at the Steel City Coffee House on Bridge Street from 6 to 9 p.m. One week and one day later, come and see the Holiday Luminaria set up at Lock 60 at the Locktender's House run by the Schuylkill Canal Association, also from 6 to 9 p.m.

5) Remember the Second R -- For that person on your list who just won't take "no stuff" for an answer, remember what comes after reduce and recycling. (It's "re-use" dummy! Don't you have your Tree-Hugger Manual handy?) Any-hoo, if there's one thing Pennsylvanians are good at it's re-using, they being so ... thrifty. That's the word. So go to the church bazaar or the antique store and give the gift that's already been given. In many cases, you can find something that's been locally made, involves little or no plastic and may even benefit an organization in your community.

6) Speaking of Helping a Community -- Help your own or someone else's. Our mother, never a fan of crap, decided to teach our little green liners about the real spirit of Christmas and rather than sending crap, sends them a note about a village in Africa that is getting a goat instead of them getting another PlayStation game. Local organizations, like the Green Valleys Association, abound. Or go far afield and help communities in the Third World develop sustainable practices.

7) Give the Gift of Knowledge -- My wife and I have long bemoaned the fact that no one would pay for us to go to college. We had been doing it for 17 years and had become quite good at it. But if you can't get paid to go to class, maybe you can cover someone else's costs. Both the Gallery on High and TriCounty Performing Arts Center have classes right here in Pottstown, as does the Pottstown Parks and Recreation Department, the YMCA and YWCA and, or course, the Montgomery County Community College's West Campus. All right here in Pottstown.

8) A Taste of the Holidays -- Put your stove to work. For years, my wife, sister-in-law and mother-in-law put together a collection of Christmas cookies, candies and sweets that still has people asking for more when they send Christmas cards (which are, of course, printed on recycled paper.) Yes, it takes time, but that's the idea. If time is money, making plates of cookies to give as gifts is perhaps the most expensive gift you can give.

9) A Gift That Gives Back -- You can also combine suggestions six and two. Consider that many organizations whose goals include helping your communitity and its environment sell items as a way to raise money. For example, the Berks County Conservancy sells a fleece jacket for $42 or, if that's to pricey, a $21 watercolor print of a painting called "The Oley Hills," identified as one of the most pristine areas of the the Highlands.

10) Explore Your Inner Crafter -- So perhaps, like those of us here at The Thin Green Line, the only handicraft ability you have is to buy them. But even you can put together a photo album, re-live that time the two of you got lost in the woods for two days and descended into savagery -- ah good times. If not, consider making something for some of your more recalcitrant recyclers, like a bin for their plastics. Or peruse the selection at RSI, where they specialize in sustainable gifting with things like rugs made from old jeans, or more useful things like battery re-chargers, used books (we once found a complete works of Shakespeare there for $5!) and even an electricity monitor.

Whatever you decide, remember that Christmas has always been about new life and the fewer things that get killed in order to celebrate it are in keeping with the spirit of the holiday.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

So remember how just one short blog ago, I was writing about how great it was that both the House and the Senate had passed bills that extended tax breaks for alternative energy?

Scratch that.

Apparently, should I ever again write a sentence that includes the words "House," "Senate" and "great" together, I should be strapped to a solar reflector until my skin crisps off.

For while it is true that they both passed bills ostensibly aimed at accomplishing the same thing, those bills are incompatible with each other and are unlikely to be signed into law before our fearless leaders come home to ask for you to send them back to Washington to continue to provide this most excellent leadership on crucial issues facing the nation.
According to this blog posting from The Wall Street Journal, even The White House hates the House version of the bill.

Maybe that's because the House bill insists "on actually paying for the tax credits with tax hikes elsewhere" the Journal reported in the blog, appropriately headlined "From the Dept. of Futile Gestures."

Or maybe it's because, as Kate Shepherd reported here in Grist Magazine's Muckraker, "the House version strips out tax incentives for oil shale and tar sands development, as well as provisions to support coal-to-liquid fuels."

Regardless, the end results is the same. Politics as usual kills something this country desperately needs. Sound familiar?

Is there any common sense left in Washington? Or is "drill baby drill" the nearest we can come to reasoned discourse in Washington?

The House vote marked the sixth time the House has passed these extensions. "The bill stalled repeatedly in the Senate, until a compromised version of the package passed earlier this week," Grist reported.

"At the time of passage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged House members not to change the legislation, worrying that any changes to the package would bring about its demise. 'If the House doesn't pass this, the full responsibility of it not passing is theirs,' said Reid. 'It's not ours,.'" Grist reported.

Apparently, the Senate's previous five failures to pass a bill shouldn't count. Geez, how many strikes do they get?

Don't you just love a leadership more worried about blame then credit; political liability than energy sustainability?

"House Democrats are holding firm that theirs is the superior version," according to Grist. "'This legislation also holds true to our commitment to fiscal responsibility,' said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement today. 'By closing loopholes that allow corporations and executives to avoid U.S. taxes by shipping jobs and investment overseas and curtailing unnecessary tax subsidies for big, multinational oil and gas companies, we are ensuring that future generations don't foot the bill for the progress we can make today.'"
Sounds reasonable to me, but hey, what do I know? Maybe continuing tax breaks for fossil fuels is a good way to prevent global warming.
In a quick Thin Green Line update on that issue by the way, we bring you this report from The New York Times' most excellent environmental reporter Andrew Revkin.
In this brief, he writes: "Worldwide emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from fuel burning and cement production increased by 3.5 percent per year from 2000 to 2007, nearly four times the growth rate in the 1990s, according to a new report. The rapid rise is being driven primarily by economic growth in developing countries, which now produce more greenhouse gas than industrialized countries. The report was produced by the Global Carbon Project and is available online at"
On the positive side of this issue (who says we're all gloom and doom here at The Thin Green Line?), Reuters reported here last week that: "Rich nations' greenhouse gas emissions dipped for the first time in five years in 2006, easing 0.1 percent despite robust economic growth, a Reuters survey of the latest available information showed Friday.
For the record, we're one of those "rich nations."

The fact that we can lower emissions while increasing economic growth puts a stake in the heart of the old fossil axiom that reducing emissions will hurt the economy.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
According to this Reuters report, alternative energy has revived a moribund economy in, of all places, rural Texas.
A wind power boom there has generated millions of dollars in additional tax revenue which is being used to build schools and has fueled an economic revival there, Reuters reported.
Two years ago, the Blackwell School District there had a property tax roll totaled $324 million. "Now the total value has mushroomed to $1.2 billion due to the build-out of four nearby wind farms," according to the report.
Tell me Pottstown or Pottsgrove school districts wouldn't love to be able to take that much of a burden off local taxpayers here. But closed-minded, old-school (dare I say say "bitter") readers of The Mercury continue to call the paper's "Sound-Off" column poo-pooing the potential benefit of a solar park being championed for the former OxyChem site off Armand Hammer Boulevard.
"The hotels are full, the restaurants are full," said Karan Bergstrom of Sweetwater, ground-zero for the wind boom which now rivals the city's famous rattlesnake roundup. "There's not an empty house," Bergstrom said.
When is the last time we said that about Pottstown?
But the entrepreneurs who want to do similar things in other parts of the country (maybe even here?!) won't get any help from our representatives in Washington apparently.
"The legislative stalemate will just prolong the agony for America’s clean-energy sector," the Journal reports in its blog titled "Environmental Capital."

It seems even the Journal realizes that the economy of the next century will have to be based on something other than fossil fuels.

There was even some hope held out for the "little guy" in those bills with federal tax breaks upped from $2,000 to $12,000 for those installing solar arrays on their homes, an outlay that can reach $40,000, according to The Journal.

But now, the only hope for a bill this year seems to be a "lame-duck" session after the November elections.

As far as the country's energy policy is concerned, it doesn't seem we will have to wait until November to apply the word "lame."

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Monday, September 8, 2008

The Car You Want But Ford Won't Let You Have

So are you tired of me writing about cars and gas mileage yet?

Too bad, this is my blog, not yours.

Anyway, I'll try to make this one as brief as it is remarkable.

You've heard of Ford Motor Company? You know, the maker of the lumbering Expedition SUV that set the standard in gas guzzling?

Well, in case you hadn't noticed, they're getting their butt handed to them on a regular basis by people buying more fuel efficient cars so they don't have to take out a second mortgage to fill the tank.

More on them in a minute.

Many of those sales are going to hybrids like the one I write about ad nauseum. (BTW, right now its "around town" mileage is barely cracking 35 mpg. I'm about to write my Congressman!).

Anyway, since everything old is new, there's this old technology out there that is really the newest thing and it is the darling of one of my most loyal readers (and they are few!).

It's called diesel.

Now I have always looked askance at diesel because while it is more fuel-efficient, the amount of particulate matter it spewed into the air was enough to give asthma to a fish.

But did you notice how I used the past tense there? Clever right? That's because with fuel economy all the rage, those folks in the white coats are working over time to make diesel a cleaner fuel.

No, it's not a solar car, but it's something.

But according to this article in Business Week, "diesel vehicles now hitting the market with pollution-fighting technology are as clean or cleaner than gasoline and at least 30% more fuel-efficient."

The other argument against diesel is it's more expensive, but that is the fault of the tree-hugger types like me lobbying Congress to impose higher taxes on diesel because the fumes spewed by trucks using dirty diesel impose health costs on the country, primarily in the form of respiratory diseases, that society as a whole must absorb.

But it seems to me that if we can distinguish between the old, nasty diesel and "clean diesel" (which is by all reports and a quick glance at the family tree, is no relation to "clean coal") that tax should be lifted in the interests of fuel economy, particularly if it is no longer more polluting.

Over in Europe, where they like to think they do everything better and are often right, half the cars sold last year were diesel.

While brings us back to our friends at Ford.

The car they're introducing in Europe is called the Fiesta EcoNETIC and gets a whopping 65 miles to the gallon folks. Three cheers for American technical ingenuity!

But don't get too excited, American technical ingenuity is about to fall victim to American marketing stupidity.

Ford says it won't sell the car here (even though it looks wicked cool!) because they don't think we'd buy enough of them to make them money.
While Ford balks at selling it here in the U.S. market, the Japanese and Germans already have plans well underway to introduce diesels here.

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of deja vu in the air?

Isn't this how American car makers got their asses kicked last time there was a new trend in automobiles?

Now before anyone starts pounding their chest about buying American cars, you should know that Ford is manufacturing this little beauty in England. It would cost too much to import because the dollar smells like week-old fish and the English Pound is much stronger, they say.
And they can't build it here in the good old U.S.A. because it costs $350 million to build a new plant and Ford is too busy hemorrhaging like $1 billion a week from its reserves to cover its losses to think about investing in its own company in its own country.
For those wondering why this would happen, consider that a few years ago when Henry Ford's great,great,great, grandsire (or something like that) tried to turn the company green, those far-sighted execs at Ford forced him out of the driver's seat so they could make great decisions like this one.
Since I learned about this idiocy from my friends at Grist Magazine, (worth reading for the headlines alone) let me promote a few of their links on the subject. Click and be enlightened:
There's this one, about the cleaning of the diesel fuel supply;
Then there's this one, about who will be introducing new diesel models;
And there's this one, from just two months ago, about a report predicting the dominance of diesels by 2012.
And for the zealots among you (raise your hand, I know you're out there, quietly reading and spreading sprouts on your homemade peanut butter) there is Grist's all-knowing columnist Umbra Fisk's how-to on converting your diesel to run on vegetable oil.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reading Your Way to a Better Tomorrow

That's right kids, reading is still a good thing to do. In fact, YOUR'RE DOING IT RIGHT NOW!

But commentary about whether reading a book is the same as reading a blog aside (a subject In intend to tackle in a column back in that fuddy-duddy old newspaper of ours), this is a blog telling you to read books, well at least some books. And maybe a blog....

OK, what I'm trying to say here is Americans have always been a people who believe in self improvement.

And all too often, we turn to the experts to do so. Which is why the self-help section of the Barns & Noble off Papermill Road is larger than the literature section.

So if we're willing to to read a book or two to improve ourselves, how about the planet?

OK, let's start small.

How about instead of saving the world, we just buy junior some green school supplies.

For this we turn not to some tree-killing paperback, but my favorite sardonic on-line magazine, Grist.

In this article by Holly Richmond, we can find about everything from notebooks made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, to mechanical pencils which reuse materials from car headlights.

No seriously.

If you're looking for something a little more comprehensive, try a book with the title "A Community Guide to Environmental Health."

This $28 book has a FREE! digital version you can download. It contains handy hints on everything from how to build a compost toilet in your own back-yard assuming you hate your neighbors, (toilets consumer 40 of the books 600 pages, so there is lots to choose from), schematic drawings of simple fly and roach traps, to disinfecting water using sunlight or lime juice.

It even teaches communities how to organize opposition to harm from oil companies, chemical plants and mining.

But maybe, instead of facing down the giants of industry, you would just like to cut down on the impact your household's everyday activities have on the environment on which it depends.

For that, there's "The Green Book," by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas Costigan.

As reviewed by my fellow Mercury blogger, Business Editor, voracious reader and occasional supreme being Michelle Karas, in her book-review blog, "Balancing the Books," this book includes no end of ways we could do better.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Taste of Germany's Dust

On June 19, I wrote (in extreme frustration I might add) about the likelihood that Congress, in its extreme ineptitude, will allow to expire a tax incentive to encourage the development of alternative energy.

The potential of a solar energy plant in places like Arizona was cited as an example of the kind of thing that might collapse if the tax break were not extended.

Then Tuesday, I received in my in-box my daily copy of Grist, an on-line magazine of sorts that includes links to the environmental stories of the day.

It included a link to this story about a new solar power plant on a former air base in the former East Germany.

In my blog I had noted that Germany is fast becoming the solar power king of the world and we (again) are being sadly left behind by a myopic energy policy.

A reader wrote, and I quote "that is BS."

The writer, identified only as anonymous, said his (or her) tax dollars were not needed to get a fledgling industry off its feet.

Fair enough. But in the meantime, here is what's happening in Germany.

"A solar power plant described by its operators as the biggest in the world began generating electricity at the site of a former East German air base on Sunday, June 22.

"The Waldpolenz Solar Park is built on a surface area equivalent to 200 soccer fields, the solar park will be capable of feeding 40 megawatts into the power grid when fully operational in 2009.

"In the start-up phase, the 130-million-euro ($201 million) plant it will have a capacity of 24 megawatts, according to the Juwi group, which operates the installation.

"After just a year the solar power station will have produced the energy needed to build it, according to the Juwi group.

"The eastern part of Germany is one of the forerunners of solar energy in the country. Three of the world's 50 biggest solar parks are located near Leipzig.

Folks, it's not even sunny there!

Two years ago, President Bush told the nation in his State of the Union address that "we are addicted to oil."

And now, rather than investing in the development of the clean technologies of the future, he wants to drill our way out of a corner into which we've put ourselves by refusing to make the investment sooner.


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