Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Story of Stuff

Question: Where does all the stuff we buy come from, and where does it go when we throw it out?

Following up on Carolynn’s great post yesterday about going paperless, I thought it’d be an opportune time to talk about
Annie Leonard. I first met Annie in late 2005, when she spoke to The Overbrook Foundation’s Board of Directors during our fall retreat. During the retreat, Annie gave a presentation that examines the above question about stuff. Her presentation, which she’s done hundreds of times to standing ovations, became the video The Story of Stuff. If you haven’t already watched this 20-minute video, you must.

In this very engaging and humorous story about “all of our stuff”, Annie explores the global materials economy and its impact on economy, environment and health.

Those fans of the late George Carlin might recall his hilarious exploration of stuff (click
here to watch it). But this is no laughing matter. For example, each person in the United States makes 4.5 pounds of garbage a day. That’s twice what we each made thirty years ago! In the past three decades, one-third of the planet’s natural resources bases have been consumed. And just as frightening – there are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce today.

All of this certainly gets me thinking – why are products designed to be regularly replaced – from computers to phones to clothing fashions? How is this driving consumerism year after year? And what will the impact be on the environment?

After watching the video, be sure to check out film’s website It serves as a great example of the Web 2.0 platform! It’s a great interactive site that features organizations working to change the cycle of the materials economy. It also includes resources and information, a suggested reading list, The Story of Stuff Blog and discussion topics for local screenings. Check it out!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Set yourself free, go paperless.

How many paper products do you own? No just the stuff in a printer or on the desk that’s clean and read to go, but how many phone books, bills, catalogs, AAA maps of Northwest Arizona, user manuals, coupons, bank statements do you glance at once and then never see again?

Although at first benign, these small, tedious, obstructing pieces of paper are everywhere if you keep looking around. They stick out of cabinet drawers or are placed in brown boxes and put on the top shelf. At my house we even have a whole table, right in the front, dedicated to two things: our keys and piles of papers from schools, banks, companies, or cell phones that nobody looks at. It doesn’t do much for the foyer. And it’s not just from the mail. Every time I get a new gadget or toy there are 4 or 5 user manuals that along with those “DO NOT EAT” silicon packets usually get thrown away.

However, not only are these stacks of useless papers product messy and obnoxious they have an environmental impact. Most of the paper that lands in your life is not certified from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). That means that when it was produced giant machinery drove through huge, carved roads and deposited invasive species along. That machinery took out whole acres of wood at a rate that’s unsustainable and yielded a profit, not more growth. That land was then ignored until rains came through and washed most of the unprotected soil into polluted bodies of water downstream.

Paper is archaic. Nowadays, most of the same information is online. Of course services like Catalog Choice allow users to opt out of unwanted catalogs, but there are also many other websites that are working on ‘paper’ as well. The Paperless Petition wants to scrap the phone book since most of the information is online, has all sorts of guides for phones, cameras, dvds, and tvs. There’s even the Paperless Hymnal which has all your congregation's favorite songs.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Freedom of Expression in Mexico: An Important First Step

Last month, Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Mexican President Felipe Calderon had pledged his commitment to federalize crimes against freedom of expression. This announcement came on the heels of a CJP delegation, led by the organization’s board Chairman Paul Steiger and Executive Director Joel Simon that met with Calderon and several members of his cabinet. Shortly thereafter, Mexico’s Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora announced draft legislation that would amend Article 73 of Mexico’s political constitution that would make a federal offense for any crime causing “social alarm”, including threats to freedom of expression.

This legislation is expected to be introduced into the Mexican congress this fall but could take between six and twelve months to pass. Meanwhile, Mexico remains a dangerous county. Research shows that over the past 15 years, 13 journalists were killed in direct relation to their work, and 14 additional journalists were killed under mysterious circumstances. Three journalists and three media workers were murdered in 2007, and another three reporters went missing. This violence has continued in 2008. Historically, journalists who cover organized crime and official corruption are particularly at risk.

If this legislation is passed, it alone would not solve the issues of attacks on freedom of expression in Mexico, but it would be an important first step for the country. As Joel Simon recently wrote, it’s not realistic to believe that the federalization of crimes against journalists will ensure successful prosecutions automatically. But it would send a message to the press and to the public that the government is actively cracking down against impunity.

Also last month, CPJ launched a special report “
Three Killings, No Justice” written by Monica Campbell which discuses several unsolved cases of slain journalists. The report looks at the factors is preventing three specific cases of killed journalists in Mexico from being solved.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Is 'thrift' the new 'green'?

1. Bring your lunch to work.

2. Line dry clothes in the sun.

3. Grow a garden.

4. Turn off lights and air-conditioning when not in use.

5. Make clothe napkins.

Is this top-five list of: a) ways to go green b) ways to save money and get out of debt c) your grandparent’s age old advice? The answer: all three! As economic woes are increasing, many Americans are making decisions about lifestyles and consumption habits. The good news: many of these changes are also good for the environment and fight climate change. Actions like line drying and making your own jam pull on a powerful tradition of thriftiness we’ve shied away from in the past two decades and are also help reduce your impact on the environment.

A recent New York Times article reported that consumers are experiencing a “green fatigue” and are less interested in claims companies are making. Environmentalists may or may not be seeing the beginning of the end of the recent mainstream advertising, but marketing ideas as ‘thrifty’ may be a way for us to encourage behavior change and reduce consumption habits without dying out with a fad.

However, there are reasons to be wary of this line of reasoning. Encouraging people to make decisions based purely on economic choices will not mean that the environment always comes out on top. In fact, in many cases it won’t at all. What’s more, a lot of serious changes will take more investment up front.

We want to encourage environmental values AND stay in the lime light. We should emphasize the value of the ‘thrift’ when talking about environmental choices, but those economic arguments should support not supplement the reason for waking up an hour early to make your own lunch.

The environment and economy will always have a complicated relationship, but as the proliferation of green marketing may start to dwindle and we can cautiously use the appeal of being frugal and saving money. However we must make sure that its clear those actions protect, not destroy, our natural resources.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Step Ahead

If you want to be healthy, save money and battle climate change all at once, moving to one of the recently named "walkable" cities might be your answer., a service working to improve public health, communities and the planet, just named San Francisco the most "walkable" city in the U.S. The city by the bay scored an 86 out of 100, followed by New York's score of 83 and Boston's score of 79. Walkscore looked at the 40 largest cities in the U.S. and evaluated them based on residents' proximity to grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, movie theaters and other amenities.

I know I just praised San Franciso for being ahead of the curve, but I honestly think that New York should have taken the winning title this time around. I feel like I'm always walking! I went to and found that most neighborhoods in Manhattan, including mine, are considered a "walker's paradise." Furthermore, I don't know anyone who drives in Manhattan, though many of my friends living in San Francisco drive daily. The ranking is deceiving, however, as it takes Manhattan's outer boroughs into account--where the neighborhoods aren't as densely populated and access to public transportation is more limited. Meanwhile, San Francisco's outer borough's, such as the East Bay, are not included in the evaluation.

Regardless of the ranking, it's evident that living in a walkable city is becoming an even more significant factor in choosing a place to live. Given current fuel prices and the state of our climate, it's a great time to wean ourselves off our fossil fuel addiction. Congratulations to all the cities making strides in the right direction. As accessiblity becomes a bigger decision-maker in people's lives, I hope that more cities work to enhance their walkability. In the meantime, take a walk and enjoy the sights!

Photo taken from

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Recreating Paradise

With gasoline prices at a record high, transit systems in major cities from Los Angeles to New York are benefiting from an increase in ridership. According to the American Public Transportation Association, heavy-rail systems experienced a 4.4% ridership increase in the first quarter of the year. Meanwhile, smaller cities, such as Honolulu, Hawaii, are struggling to figure out how to utilize and develop their public transportation systems within existing infrastructure.

I grew up in Honolulu, a city of over 370,000 people, most of whom live in the surrounding suburbs and commute to work everyday. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, 67% of commuters in Hawaii drove alone in 2006. On a small island with a rapidly growing population and one freeway connecting most suburbs, you can imagine the hellish morning commute. I cringe at the thought of driving whenever I come home to "paradise," and often find myself missing the MTA.

To satiate a need for a more comprehensive mass transit system, the city of Honolulu plans to spend $3.7 billion on a 20-mile elevated commuter train. This comes on the heels of the controversial Superferry which now only runs between Oahu and Maui after cancelling its Kauai-Honolulu trips due to protests citing environmental risks. Change is hard for many to swallow--especially when it is done without public collaboration and consent. Anti-rail groups have also protested the proposed rail system, complaining about aesthetics, noise, increased taxes, displacement, among other things. The city is pressing on, however, and hopes to finish the project in phases between 2012 and 2018. Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he isn't afraid of putting the city's proposed rail system to a vote, as he is confident that the public will back the project. I sure hope so. The last thing this island needs is for traffic to increase by 64% by 2030, as is currently estimated.

Barack Obama, a local boy from Punahou School, famously created a slogan around the power of change. I hope the rest of the island (and world) recognizes how important it is not only to change, but to do so in a way that benefits both the population and environment.

Photo taken from the Honolulu Advertiser.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Not So Swift Justice

Walter Swift is a free man – after 26 years. Back in 1982 in Detroit, Swift was found guilty and sentenced to 55 years for the rape of a pregnant white woman that he did not commit. His case was fraught with common mistakes when it comes to wrongful convictions, notable misidentification by an eyewitness in an unorthodox and unreliable identification procedure, forensic evidence that could have cleared him at trial that was never shared with the jury, and a court appointed lawyer that was inadequate.

It took ten years of hard work which began in 1998 by The Innocence Project, to prove Swift’s innocence but he was finally exonerated this past May. More than anything, Swift’s case has highlighted discrepancies in the identification procedures used in Michigan. To make sure this doesn't happen to other people, a bill has been introduced into the Michigan's Legislature that would improve eyewitness identification practices statewide. The bill is currently pending.

Swift is in Ireland this week, where he will be honored at a special fundraiser, which will help him build a new life in Detroit. He will be joined on July 16th, by Barry Scheck (one of the Innocence Project’s co-founders) at the Law Society of Ireland. They will also be interviewed on Irish national television.

Sadly, Swift is just one of the 218 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States; nearly 60% of them are African American. The average length of time served by exonerees is 12 years. That is not so swift justice.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Good News for Net Neutrality?

It can be pretty rare that the Federal Communications Commission does something good these days. So yesterday when Kevin Martin (the head of the FCC) said that he would recommend that Comcast, which is the nation’s largest cable company, be punished for violating agency principles that guarantee customers open access to the Internet, I was pretty surprised. Of its investigations, Martin said, “The commission has adopted a set of principles that protects consumers access to the Internet….We found that Comcast’s actions in this instance violated our principles.”

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised because I knew
Free Press was on the case. In January of this year when they learned that Comcast was secretly blocking the Web sites and services of its competitors, Free Press and members of the Coalition filed a complaint urging the FCC to stop Comcast's harmful blocking and sought fines to deter future violations. They flooded the FCC with hundreds of thousands of complaints and comments, and organized a series of public hearings on the issue.

What could this decision, which would be the first time that regulators have punished an Internet provider for violating open-access rules mean for
network neutrality moving forward? Well, Vindu Goel of The New York Times called it an “imminent victory” for net-neutrality advocates here. But he also warns that the decision could actually end up hurting Internet users if it spurs moves by the cable industry giants to charge customers based on how much data they are using instead of offering unlimited data for a flat fee.

Although I’m breathing a sigh of momentary relief, I’m still keeping my eyes on the cable industry because I know they aren’t going to take this lying down. We’ll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Can It!

I spent the past weekend hanging out in San Francisco and enjoying a break from the New York City heat and humidity. I met up with Paul, one of the main guys working on Catalog Choice out of the Ecology Center. After finishing up our lunch, I walked down Haight Street, checking out the vintage shops and looking for good deals on used CDs at Amoeba.

Although the city has much to offer, I must say that one of the cooler things I discovered was its trash cans. Unlike standard cans, each of these had a separate compartment on top for recyclable cans and bottles! And it looks like people use them--each can I passed had quite a few bottles and soda cans tossed in there. It's a simple concept that's easy to implement and is doing its part to reduce waste.

In New York City, the average resident (remember, there are over 8 million of us),
discards nearly four and a half pounds of waste each day--imagine how much of that waste could be prevented simply by providing easy access to a recycling bin. It's a shame how often I find myself with a soda can and nowhere to toss it except in the dump! With San Francisco's goal of diverting 75% of its landfill by 2012, we should see what steps it's taking to reach its goal. It would be great if other cities could learn from each other and figure out easy ways to make an immediate in decline in our waste production.

Click here to learn more about San Francisco's environmental initiative and here to learn more about New York City's own PLANYC 2030.

Photo taken from:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Climate Change Conversions

Example 1:

Bill McHarg was an Australian real estate titan and the co-founder of Colliers International. He worked on the development and sale of property all around the world for more 40 years. A millionaire and avid bicyclist at 62 you would think Bill had his eyes set on a comfortable retirement off the coast of Australia.

Instead, Bill quit his job, bought a van, decorated it with yellow and red and mounted four huge megaphones to the top. Then he drove it down central Melbourne during lunch time playing loud kookaburra calls and mocking the Australian Prime Minister. “It was the most undignified thing I think I've ever done” he said.

What triggered this abnormal behavior? Eight weeks early McHarg was at an event where Al Gore, the leading voice of climate change in the world, in his polite Tennessee drawl explained global warming and its effects around the world.

Something triggered in Bill. He then spent all his time until the upcoming election determined to take down then Prime Minister John Howard. Howard was an ardent climate change denier. Australia, like the US, has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions rates and was the only other industrialized nation not to sign the Kyoto Protocol. They were also in the middle of a long, severe and unprecedented drought. Not only did McHarg drive around the van, but he took out ads in major newspapers mocking Howard and created a successful YouTube video which argued “Planet First, Howard Last.” And luckily, his efforts had a real impact in changing the election. Australia elected Kevin Rudd and one of his first actions was to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Bill McHarg had a climate change “conversion.” He felt an intense urgency about the situation and terrifying understanding of the severity. A lot of people working on climate change have had similar moments as well--where all at once the true depth of the situation hits them. Climate change is so different than any other challenge we have faced that it takes a different kind of conceptualization. It's good for us to talk about similar experiences and collect these stories. It is especially important because our understanding and "conversions" must fuel a radical change in the way we live.

To read more about Bill and his adventures:

"Climate was right McHarg's political foray"

Monday, July 7, 2008


Anyone who has ever been forced to take New Jersey transit on a holiday weekend probably can experience the frustration I endured coming back from the Jersey Shore yesterday afternoon. After my boyfriend asked me to buy him a bottle of water at the newsstand (for $3.50 no less) I remembered that I had a copy of Elizabeth Royte’s new book “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It” stuffed in the bottom of my beach bag.

I dug it out and began reading it. I quickly learned that Americans spent nearly $11 billion dollars on bottled water in 2006 when we could have simply drunk tap water instead. Sales of bottle water grew a shocking 170 percent between 1997 and 2006. Globally it is a $60-billion-a-year business. Sales of bottled water have already surpassed sales of beer and milk in the United States and by 2011 are expected to surpass soda. How American is that?!

Even more troubling than the clever marketing that spurred the industry is the issue as to when, how and why access to safe and clean water became acceptable to market as a private commodity rather than be provided as a public good. In her book, Royte questions the environmental and social fallout of what we’re drinking. It has me worried about what’s next: Are we going to be charging for the quality of air we’re allowed to breathe (if so, we New Yorkers may be in big trouble)?

I was so engrossed in Royte’s funny engaging book that I have to say I was disappointed when we finally pulled into Port Authority and I had to put it down.

To read the New York Times Review of Royte’s book, click
here. And to hear comedian Lewis Black’s hilarious take on bottled water click here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Founding Fathers and Sunscreen

As we all head off to the beach to enjoy The Fourth of July holiday weekend, be forewarned! The Environmental Working Group just released a study that says 4 out of 5 sunscreens don’t adequately protect consumers. In fact, they say that chemicals such as oxybenzone that are found in many popular sunscreens can penetrate skin and pose serious health concerns.

Sadly, I’m hardly shocked. According to
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (which is a project of The Breast Cancer Fund and is funded in part by Overbrook) only 11% of all personal care products are tested for safety. Here in the U.S. only 10 ingredients are banned from cosmetics, in Europe it’s over 1,100. And most frightening – one-third of personal care products contain at least one chemical linked to cancer!

Luckily the folks over at Environmental Working Group have put together a database called Skin Deep, which can be your safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products. It pairs ingredients in more than 25,000 products against 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory databases, making it the largest integrated resources of its kind. Click
here to access the guide.

After researching some of the products I use on a daily basis, it looks like I’m going to need a serious overhaul of my cosmetics. I’ll do it as soon as I come back from the beach.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Environmental Movement at a Crossroad

One of my favorite blogs World Changing has a really great discussion up about a recent report from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) called “Weathercocks and signposts: the environmental movement at a crossroads”. The report asks really critical questions of the movement and judging from all the activity on the World Changing blog—a lot of people in the environmental community are digging a little deeper as well.

Over the past couple of years everyone has noticed a viral trend to “go green.” Magazines, advertisements, and TV shows all seem to have advice about how to become more environmentally friendly and activities once associated with a small subset of culture are now mainstream. The environmental community has generally encouraged these “painless and easy steps” with the argument that buying an organic towel is the first step on a virtue ladder. Those first towels will lead to more and more significant lifestyle changes.

However, the WWF report challenges that assumption. First, there is no evidence that this virtue ladder exists and works. Second, they argue that using marketing and eco-consumption as a tool undermines the movement. Environmentalists should be telling people to stop buying things. We should challenge materialism—not promote consumerism. Third, although we’ve had tons of mainstream and commercial success we haven’t had any on the things that matter. Carbon emissions are steadily rising world wide.

Climate change is one of the largest challenges to face human history and is quickly evolving out of the environment box. It’s spreading to become an economic, human rights, national security and public health issue. People are beginning to understand that our actions have serious impacts on our ability to live. How do we balance the need to bring as many people into the movement as possible and make significant changes at the same time? To solve climate change will require a radical pivot in the way we live. It will not be easy. In the next decades we will have to make tough decisions about our culture priorities, so we better start having more conversation like this now.