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Nina's Blog

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I support local, seasonal eating - for now

Thanksgiving might very well be America's favorite holiday. It comes at a time when the weather is getting colder and we, in the more northern parts of the country at least, look forward to gathering and cuddling together in our snug, warm homes (even if we are occasionally distracted by wondering how to improve efficiency and reduce our heating bills and CO2 emissions). It is a holiday free from the frenzy of gift-giving, and we are neither measured, nor measure others, by the bounty or price of the gifts that are given.

We don't even have to do think much about what to serve: the menu (often the hardest part of planning celebrations) is largely pre-set.

But one of the lessons of Thanksgiving's feast that is often lost on all of us grateful holiday gluttons, is that it reflects the once essential trait of eating locally and seasonally.

Of course we all know this, but eating local and seasonal foods on Thanksgiving seems more charming than inevitable, as it was 400 years ago. Ideally this year at least, our Thanksgiving menu will remind us of the blessings, and the challenges, of a global food market.

Let me go on the record as being an agnostic about the ultimate value of local, seasonal eating. I am not convinced that eating pumpkins in the fall in Baltimore is inherently more ethical or environmentally sound than eating bananas - if we can control for several factors. We are a global community, and my purchases of certain foods can mean the difference between financial security and poverty for some family I will never meet and some community I will never visit. Many foods that will never grow in Baltimore are not only healthy and good for but also are aesthetically pleasing and might be an essential part of our diets. Simpler living - which I highly advocate - does not always mean only local living.

However, at the same time, I need to be sure that the production and harvesting of these foods are done in sustainable ways - that woodlands, hillsides and tropical forests have not been denuded for my indulgent gastronomic choices; that the workers are not exploited; that fertilizers and pesticides are not wastefully, inappropriately and unhealthily used (if at all); and that fossil fuels are not expended spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If, and I would like to think when, we can be assured that food is produced, processed and transported sustainably and equitably, we would then not be constrained by the location of its growth. That is, if - and hopefully when - food can move as carbon-neutrally and as sustainably 3,000 miles as it does 50 miles, then all food can be considered local.

This is what we are seeking when we talk about fair trade coffee. That we carve out this special niche of foreign food is motivated mostly by our addiction to caffeine, and our equally laudable desire to consume it without guilt. Likewise our desire for sugar, chocolate, tea and other exotic staple foods that we would be most unhappy without. Can we not extend the same criteria which allow us to get our morning rush and our endorphine pleasures to other sorts of commodities?

To be sure, in the absence of these guarantees of ethical, sustainable food production and distribution, local, seasonal eating becomes an ethical imperative. And today, since such assurances are not given and transportation is largely based on fossil fuel, and wasteful production contributes tragically to increased greenhouse gas emissions, eating closer to home is the ethical thing to do. But hopefully we can right these wrongs, and thus local eating might best be seen as a transitional behavior, and not an absolute one.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Natural Step

"The non-sustainable path of society is not about some natural catastrophe that we need to tackle. It's about human desires and curiosity and wittiness and the decisions that lie behind our non-sustainable development..." ( The Natural Step Story).

This is why BJEN and the Jewish community and the entire religious world need to get behind the sustainability movement. We live in a world of limited resources and capacity but with a human appetite that is expansive and infinite. That is the human blessing. And if not well-guided, that will be our curse. How we reconcile these two conflicting elements of life is a spiritual question. What, or when, is enough? How do we get beyond stuffness to satisfaction? What is our rightful place on this earth? To what extent do we have rights to the earth's resources? In how long a time horizon do we measure satisfaction, reciprocity and compensation?

Judaism, as all religious traditions, seeks to help us answer these questions. Ultimately, their answers determine our behavior. It is not as if we have no current environmental ethic. We do. We may not have named it yet, and we may not like it when we do. But we live one. The question is: is it the one we are proud of?

Meanwhile, in the world of litigation and EPA, the 11/14 reports:

In a major win for environmentalists, the U.S. EPA's Environmental Appeals Board handed down a landmark decision on Thursday that essentially puts a freeze on the construction of as many as 100 new coal-fired power plants around the U.S.

It will now be up to the Obama administration to develop rules on carbon dioxide emissions from such plants.

In July 2007, the EPA issued a permit for a proposed Bonanza coal-fired power plant in Utah. Lawyers for the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates, and Environmental Defense filed a request that the permit be overturned because it did not require any controls on carbon dioxide pollution. The enviros pointed to the Supreme Court's April 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

"Essentially what this decision does is it gives the Obama administration a clean slate to decide what our nation's energy future should be," said Joanne Spalding, the senior attorney at the Sierra Club who argued the case before the board. "It puts it back in the lap of an Obama EPA to determine how to treat greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, and it gives the opportunity to establish policies that will essentially favor clean energy and impose restrictions on fossil fuels that emit lots of greenhouse gases."

Many of us have great hopes for the Obama administration, in this area as so many others. But we cannot sit idly by and observe and judge. We must continue to support and advocate. Even if only from our computers at home! Shabbat shalom.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our President-Elect

I confess: I wept during Obama's speech last night. Truly wept as I had not done in a long time. They were tears of relief. They were tears of gratitude. They were tears that undammed the clogged and unwanted reservoir of pain and embarrassment and worry and frustration that had built up for too many years. The flow opened the reservoir, letting it empty. It is making room for tomorrow.

I needed to hear the words he spoke, words of hope, unity, daring, dignified confidence. They called me to duty and sacrifice, to believe in our collective wisdom, talents and abilities. How can I not respond? And how long has it been since our leaders so believed in us that we were deeply moved to believe in them?

I have dear friends and family who supported McCain. This entry is not about politics. It is not about them and us. It is about America, and how we again are being called to be our best selves and lead this imperiled world to a blessed future.

For all of us, it is a new day. And it is up to us to help make it a great one for all humanity.

In order to do that, among all the other sacred challenges we face, we must also continue to work for a healthy, green world. Please take a look at President-Elect Obama's environmental and energy policies.

You can find them on his website, and easily see them if you simple google 'barack obama environment'. I am attaching two weblinks - hoping they will provide an easy access to them. But if not, with a tiny bit of exertion on your part, you will readily find them.

This is his policy on the environment:

This is his policy on energy:

May we, and the world, work together to build a new, blessed era for us all.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Eleven green(ing) synagogues

Sunday morning, 12 people representing 9 synagogues gathered at my house as part of the BJEN (Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network) training kick-off for greening our local synagogues.

We studied Jewish text; reviewed our Green Covenant of Commitment (online at along with our Green Synagogue guide) that participating synagogues will sign as an expression of their values, actions and commitment; we learned about energy audits and greening our simchas, where to find additional practical guidance and resources; and most of all, met to support each other as we all embark on this sacred task.

Each synagogue is approaching this effort in a way that is unique to its needs, demography and capacity. That is as it should be. Greening is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. But it does have a few elements in come that we felt in abundance yesterday:

-- a deep concern and conscientious awe for the natural world and the gifts it offers us
-- an optimism and belief that we can make a difference, that the human spirit and technological advances can help us reverse this unsustainable lifestyle, even as they helped us get into it
-- that living an environmentally aware and self-renewing (aka sustainable) life brings us meaning, purpose, joy and delight
-- that being more aware of our consuming habits and of the origins of the things we eat and use and buy to live, and of all the people along the way who made getting that stuff possible, raises our appreciation for the miracles of life and all those who participated in the long process of enabling us to have what we have.
-- a sense that we are privileged to be able to work on this effort

It was a moving, historic morning. Yasher koach, kudos, to all the participants and synagogues involved in greening Baltimore's Jewish community. May your hard work see great results. And may you be satisfied with the fruit of your labor.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

lessons learned from wood burning stoves

I know there are many of you who are way ahead of me on this one. I must confess that not only am I a late-comer to the joys and environmental value of wood burning stoves, but I actually bought a house with one and removed it in the renovations!

Now, I see the light. First of all, it calms you better than an aquarium. The hearthiness, the earthiness, the physical engagement (you have to manage the wood flow, the air flow, the cleanliness, the timing), the visual comfort of the flames, the colors and the show, especially if the window is spacious. (The heat of the fire cleans the window constantly so it is always clear.)

I have a backyard filled with wood, and with the cost of oil these days (yup, my electricity is all wind powered but my heat is oil), this stove will pay for itself in 2-3 years.

Here are things I am learning about the benefits of a wood-burning stove:

-- the newest stoves have a burn cycle that consumes most of the smoke's particulate matter and is said to burn so efficiently that it leaves less of a residue (including less CO2 - though I welcome an explanation of how this works) than naturally decomposing wood.

-- CO2 put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is CO2 that what would have been safely sequestered deep underground, save for the fact that we dug it out of the ground, and are now releasing it. Burning fossil fuel changes the CO2 equation, for the worse.

-- CO2 put into the atmosphere by burning wood would have been released into the atmosphere through decomposition anyway. So by burning wood, we are not adding to the cycle of existing above-ground, loose, CO2. That is, burning wood is CO2 neutral - and sustainable, as long as additional trees grow in their stead. (The source of the wood for these stoves could become an issue if we begin to destroy more trees than are replanted. A net-loss of tree cover is bad - no matter what the reason for cutting down the trees.)

-- Most interesting to me, however, is what I learned about radiant stoves and how that is being emulated in the broader construction and building maintenance business.

Wood stoves largely come in two varieties: circulating air and radiant. They both burn wood efficiently. They both heat the house. But one (circulating air) heats the air directly, and the other (radiant) heats a material (cast iron or soapstone) that absorbs and stores the heat and releases it evenly over an extended period of time. To heat air directly is to allow the heat to dissipate quickly. When the fire is gone, so is the heat. But when the fire's heat is absorbed by these efficient heat-storing materials, and released slowly over time, the fire keeps heating even after it is out.

The lessons learned here go beyond wood burning stoves. We build power plants to meet the maximum peak energy demand of a region. That is, we have to build new power plants mostly because most of us wake up between 6 am and 9 am and use hot water, lights, shavers, hair dryers, toasters, microwaves, coffee machines all at the same time. However, at 3:00 am, almost all of us are asleep, and the energy demand is minimal. If we could somehow shift our energy use schedule, and spread it out more evenly over the course of the day, we would not have to continue building new power plants at the same rate as is demanded today.

However, few of us are going to get up at 3:00 am or stumble around in the dark or otherwise make the significant shifts we have to (moving up to 50% of our daily energy use to off-peak hours). However, if the burden were placed not on the consumer to shift their use, but placed on the industry to create ways to store its energy, that might be a most useful tactic.

That is, what if the power companies generated a steady rate of energy 24 hours a day - and stored it in big batteries (or whatever creative technology they can devise - and I believe they can with the proper incentives and investments). The public, you and me, would draw on the energy as we needed it - and could even be enticed to shift some of our energy use, say, dishwashing, oven cleaning and clothes washing to off-peak hours, especially since many of these appliances are coming with built-in timers to help us do that.

But mostly, with efficient storage systems, the generation of energy could be constant even while the consumption of energy would still follow the circadian flow of human activity. Would this reduce our energy use or our CO2 emissions? Maybe. I need to learn more about that. But it would reduce the cost and waste associated with building and operating additional, unnecessary, facilities.

Heat storage and delayed release is what my stove is teaching me. That is what some construction companies and businesses are doing. They are using materials that can store and time-release the heat and cool that they have stored to ease peak-time energy crunches.

Solutions are at hand. There is no one single magic bullet - but with thousands of little innovations, we can conserve, shift and redirect our energy so that we can run a more efficient, and ultimately healthier society, both for the economy and the environment.

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