October 28, 2012

The Climate IS the Economy, Stupid

On a recent milk pickup, I heard a customer ask "my" milk farmer when the organic apple cider would be for sale: after all, it's October. The answer was chilling: my farmer's neighbour, who grows the apples, has been hit by this year's drought, and his harvest is about 10% of what it normally is. He's not sure he will be in business come next year.

My milk farmer tells me the price of organic hay for his dairy cows has just about doubled this year. I'm a huge fan of my milk farmer and all his family, and I intend to support them, even if it means dealing with rising milk prices. But I expect our path will only get more difficult as time goes on.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that, following the reduced harvest in the US and other grain producing countries this year, global grain reserves are now so low that any further crop failures could cause a serious food crisis.

The people who will be hardest hit are those who can least absorb such a shock: nearly a billion people are already chronically malnourished: if food prices double, as they did in 2008, hunger will strike in a big way. The humanitarian reasons alone should be enough motivation for us to curtail our consumption (and the accompanying production of greenhouse gases). Moreover, because grain and other foodstuffs are traded on a global market, we in the US will feel the effects directly as well. This is just one way in which climate ties in with the economy: our economy.

You can argue over whether the erratic weather patterns we've seen all over the planet in 2012 are a collective fluke, or whether they signal a serious onset of climate change. Either way, they can be taken as a foretaste of what is to come when climate change occupies the planet in earnest. And I don't like what I see.

Because while it is poor people in faraway places who will bear the brunt of climate change, none of us will escape its consequences. Indeed, Munich Re, the re-insurer (who insure "retail" insurance companies against catastrophic losses) have recently published data showing that over the past few decades, climate-change driven extreme weather events leading to huge financial losses have occurred in North America significantly more than in other parts of the world.

Next disaster up is hurricane Sandy, which is slated to hit the East Coast this week somewhere between Philadelphia and New York, a densely populated region that hardly ever gets visited by hurricanes and is therefore relatively unprepared. Just to stack the cards further, it is exactly on the US East Coast that sea level rise due to climate change is the highest on the planet. The last hurricane to hit this region, Irene (by then "only" a tropical storm), left millions of homes without electricity, many for more than a week, and inflicted damages estimated to be $15.6 billion.

Update 2NOV2012: Total damages wreaked by Sandy is now estimated to be $50 billion. Of that, $10-20 billion is covered by insurance; the rest is borne by individuals and businesses.

Try to tell me that climate change has no economic consequences!

Yet, throughout the 2012 US presidential election campaign, there has not been a single mention of climate change. Both candidates have been focusing on the domestic economy - but their silence on climate change has been deafening.

Why is that? The EPA itself, an agency not particularly given to hyperbole, sketches a soberingly dark scenario of the consequences of climate change throughout the United States. The outlook is bad everywhere: from declining water resources in the already arid Southwest; to more frequent droughts in the nation's breadbasket; to more intense hurricanes battering the Southeast, and increasing human health problems associated with insect vectors (think West Nile virus) throughout the eastern states.

If you click on the map above, it links you to EPA's page where you can find out in much more detail about the consequences of climate change for your particular region. It's all you'll need to scare the daylights out of you; after you're done with that, you won't need Halloween. (Of course, if you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, your Halloween will be seriously scary this year).

In January 2012, the USDA released an updated map of plant hardiness zones, which is significantly different from the 1990 version. The map on the right is a graphic illustration of how, by the year 2100, summers in the state of New Hampshire will be more like summers in North Carolina are today: hot and humid. If we put the brakes on carbon emissions, New Hampshire's climate in 2100 will be more like that of Maryland today.

So let's put the brakes on already!

Because every single one of those EPA scenarios will impact the US economy. Adversely. As one example, think of the apple farmer losing 90% of his harvest.

Here is one thought scarier than Halloween: is it possible that the candidates are so reluctant to speak of climate change, because it is already here, and is already taking a toll on the economy? Is it possible that both are afraid to spell out the consequences to the electorate: that we need to consume less, that we need to eat less meat, that the cars we drive are dinosaurs that consume ridiculous amounts of fuel - in short, that we need to make painful changes, and we need to do that, not even yesterday, but last year? Are they afraid of being the proverbial messenger that gets shot for delivering the bad news?

Ladies and gentlemen, let us not wait for our elected leaders to show us the way: they are not likely to. We need to take matters in our own hands. We need to wake up from our comfortable slumber, and make our own resolutions: that we need to buy fewer things, eat less meat, and move ourselves around in a more sustainable way.

If we're smart about it and play the energy efficiency card, we can go a long way towards reducing our carbon emissions without giving up too many of our creature comforts. That way, reducing our carbon footprint also means reducing our expenses. So: time to start counting our carbs! - our carbon emissions, that is.

It's that, or we'll be contributing to the cost of health care for those who are affected by tropical diseases previously unseen in this land. We'll be bailing out farmers struck by persistent drought - while suffering skyrocketing food prices. We'll be helping to re-build flooded areas, whether on the coasts or in the low-lying lands surrounding the Mississippi. Disaster relief is paid for by the national pocket book. That is to say, by the tax payers. That's you and me.

The climate IS the economy, stupid.


This post is part of a linky party hosted by Green Lifestyle Consulting and Crunchy Farm Baby.



October 27, 2012

Review: Scion iQ, Toyota iQ, Aston Martin Cygnet

"Have you seen the Aston Martin Cygnet?" CelloDad inquired.

CelloDad is not a fan of cars, and considers my car blog antics with indulgent bemusement. But he is an anglophile and a fan of James Bond, so how can he not be a fan of the Aston Martin luxury cars? You know: the kind that gets re-engineered by Q to bristle with high-tech lethal gadgets and invariably gets smashed satisfyingly during the car chase.

In Aston Martin's lineup of high-luxury, high-performance cars, none have much regard for the back seat: I mean, you don't ever see Bond with more than one passenger, do you? The Cygnet, at exactly 3m length unabashedly a citycar, with its tiny back bench where a full-sized cello might have to be placed on the diagonal, fits right in with that idea.

Otherwise, it sticks out like a sore - ummm, little pinky. No space for high-tech weaponry here: the most you can see doing with this car is opening a compartment in the back to scatter tire-shredding push pins on the road behind to deter the pursuers hot on your tail. The Cygnet's very name is a reflection of how uneasily it fits in with the rest of the Aston Martin family of roadsters and coupés: despite sporting a grille that looks like all the other Aston Martin grilles, the Cygnet is basically an upscale version of an ugly duckling. If it weren't half the size of its elegant brethren it might have been called the Aston Martin Cuckoo.

This is because the Cygnet is essentially a rebadged version of the Toyota iQ, a Japanese "2box" car that is sold in the US as the Scion iQ. Aston Martin, most at home at the racecourse in Le Mans, seems incapable of producing cars with small engines, and has brought the iQ, with its modest engine, into its fold to help it comply with the tightening European emissions requirements. None of its V8 or V12 engines will be any help with that.

Even so, now that it sports an Aston Martin front, the Cygnet is better looking than its close relations in the Toyota fold. It's being marketed as a "bespoke luxury commuter car". You can custom-order this car in literally any colour you want, and have interior leather upholstery installed to match your favourite Alexander McQueen dress.

One would love to sniff out this car, because at first sight the interior promises to score high marks for chemical cleanliness: what with leather on the seats and dashboard wrapping, machined aluminum features, and Alcantara fabric lining on the ceiling, there is very little plastic here. If you are chemically sensitive and don't deal well with the emanations from the plastic interior of most cars, this might be a solution. However, perhaps most of us don't deal well with the nearly $50,000 price tag.

With its small size and small turning radius, this is one cool car in which to do a spot of shopping even in England's narrow-streeted city centers. Perfect for the ladies who lunch on London's Beecham Place (spelled Beauchamp).

Its Japanese counterpart, the Toyota iQ, is also great for manoevering and parking in tight spaces in Japan's high density neighbourhoods. The iQ is offered with the same 1.3L engine that comes in the Cygnet, as well as a 1.0L, 67HP engine. However, because the latter comes with automatic transmission only, its fuel efficiency is actually lower than that of the 1.3L manual-transmission version. The 1.0L does come in a two-seater version, which means that you have a bit more cargo space; in the four-seater the space behind the second row is diminuitive and probably fits barely more than two standard paper grocery bags. Or a skateboard. Either way, the interior is done in standard-Toyota plastic.

Stateside, this same car is marketed as the Scion iQ. Same body, same 1.3L engine, except it's available only with automatic transmission. However, it is Toyota's smart CVT (continuously variable transmission) which gets a very respectable fuel efficiency when compared to the manual-transmission counterpart.

In the US as in Japan, the iQ is marketed to the younger crowd. It's perfect for moving yourself and a friend around town, but I can't see installing a toddler on the back seat even though the back seat is carseat-ready. And maybe you'd better not play anything larger than a viola.



Comparison iQ and Cygnet

Scion Toyota Aston Martin
Type iQ iQ Cygnet
Year 2012 2012 2012
Emissions rating  
$ 16,060
¥ 1,400,000
($ 17,600)
£ 30,995
($ 49,900)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 36 / 37 mpg   5.8 / 4.5 L/100km
(41 / 52 mpg)
Avg. quoted  
37 mpg
21.2 km/L JC08
5.0 L/100km
(47 mpg)
Avg. actual 39 mpg   45 mpg (VVT-I)
Engine 1.33L 4-cyl
16-vlv DOCH

1.33L 4-cyl
16-vlv DOCH

1.33L 4-cyl
16-vlv DOCH
Power 94HP 93HP 97HP @6000rpm
Transmission CVT-I auto 6-spd manual

6-spd manual
w/ Stop/Start

Fuel Unleaded Unleaded Unleaded
Length, mm(in) 120.1 in 3000mm 3078mm
Width, mm(in) 66.1 in 1680mm 1680mm
Height, mm(in) 59.1 in 1500mm 1500mm
Weight, kg(lbs) 2127 lbs 950/1170 kg 988 kg
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 3.5 cuft    
Turning radius, m(ft) 26.4 ft c-c   4m (13ft) radius
Top speed, kph(mph)     106 mph


October 22, 2012

Mile Miser Monday: Check Your Tire Pressure

Have you seen this warning sign on your dashboard? Mine turned on the other day, setting off a round of speculation on what it might mean. It looked like a warning of the presence of onions in the car that could cause the driver's eyes to fill with tears, dangerously reducing the view of the road.

Actually, it's the Low Tire Pressure warning light. In my car, there is a sensor embedded in the ABS braking system that monitors how the tires vibrate as I'm driving around. The sensor is calibrated at the recommended tire pressure. If the pressure in the tires is much lower than the recommendation, it will give a "mushier" ride with different vibration characteristics. When those characteristics are different enough from the calibration, the warning light comes on.

While it's comfortable not to have to feel every pebble on the road, it's not a good idea to drive with under-inflated tires. The contact area with the road surface is larger, so the friction is larger. This does no favours to your fuel efficiency.

Especially if your car is outfitted with those plus-sized tires that are so ubiquitous now, you really need to keep an eye on tire pressure. Tires that are shaped like onion rings, with their reduced side walls, are much more prone to under-inflation trouble than regular tires shaped like donuts: it's much easier to end up driving on the rims, say, when you hit a pothole.

So do a visual check on your tires once a week. Carry a pressure gauge in the glove compartment and check your tire pressure once a month. If you need more air in the tires, most gas stations offer compressed air for a dollar. Or you can buy a valve adapter so you can pump up your tires with your bike pump. You save the dollar, and you get some good exercise. You do have a bike pump, right?


Low tire pressure icon by Hydrargyrum via Wikimedia Commons.

October 18, 2012

Climate Justice and Our Shopping Choices

Welcome to the October 2012
Natural Living Blog Carnival:
Ethical Shopping Choices

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by
Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network.
This month our members have written about
how they make purchasing choices.


You're standing in a name-brand store at the mall, holding a hoodie in your hand that you might buy for your child. The usual questions go through your head: Will it be comfy and warm? Will the colour match the rest of your child's wardrobe? Is it easy to wash? Does the price give you good value? Was it not made in a sweatshop? How much carbon emissions did its manufacture cause?

Whoa. Come again?

What do carbon emissions have to do with your decision to buy a piece of clothing?

Every consumer item takes energy to manufacture, ship and sell, and most of that energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels, leading to the emission of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that is contributing to global climate change.

Climate change is happening now. Just look at the searing summer heat and the related drought that has caused so many wildfires and that has taken out a large fraction of the US corn crop this year. It's part of a trend: temperatures have been higher than average for the last 329 months in a row. But what is even more devastating is that weather patterns have become both more erratic and more extreme. The lack of predictability does not bode well for us humans, both for our food and water supply and for the very land that we call home.


Food security.
Extreme weather variations invariably lead to reduced crop yields. They make it very difficult to plan crops: a cold-hardy crop is going to wilt in excessive heat; a xeric crop will drown in excessive rain. Season-dependent plants get thoroughly confused: when cherry trees bloom in December, what will they do at their proper blossoming time the following April? Chances are they will have fewer blossoms, and therefore a reduced harvest of fruit.

Home security.
The land on which we live is increasingly threatened by fires resulting from extreme drought, or by flooding and landslides from extreme rainfall. And the risk of river flooding holds for every river, from the Chao Phraya in Thailand to the Rhine in the Netherlands to the great Mississippi here in the US.

Water security.
In arid regions, water is receding and people either have to drill deeper wells, or women have to walk farther to fetch it - somehow it's always the women fetching the water. Every day. In wet areas, flooding is actually a threat to supplies of safe drinking water. Either way, sanitation and disease prevention become thorny issues.


To most of us living in the industrialised West, these issues do not pose risk of the life-threatening kind. On the whole, we lead cushy lives: we don't have to carry water, it comes out of the tap. We complain when food prices go up, but most of us don't go hungry. We have safety margins.

But things won't be that easy for even those people who live in rich countries but are already struggling to make ends meet. In other places, where human existence is precarious in the best of times - in Africa's drought-prone regions, in shanty towns built on flood planes on the coasts of Asia, in places where poverty is endemic - in those places an erratic climate means nothing less than a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen.

Is it fair, that the people who are least responsible for pumping out the greenhouse gases are the ones most threatened by climate change?

We find it hard to live with the idea that a young child spends his days in a sweatshop stitching our sneakers and soccer balls: we demand that companies practice the principles of social justice, we support fair trade. Should we stand by while entire populations are put at risk from a climate-change induced catastrophe? Can we live with the idea that it's the most vulnerable groups: the very poor, the very young, and women, who will suffer the most from a lack of climate justice?

Well, you might say, why us?
Because we made most of the mess: If you look at all the human-caused carbon emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Age, we in the industrialised countries are responsible for 70% of those emissions, even though we account for only 20% of the planet's population. in 2010, the 5% of the world population living in the USA emitted 25% of all greenhouse gases - and that's not counting our imports, which is more greenhouse gases emitted on our behalf. The carbon emissions figures have improved over the past few years, mostly because US electricity generation has shifted from coal to more carbon-efficient natural gas. But our energy use has kept growing.

Aren't the Chinese just as energy hungry? And did they not surpass, in 2011, the US for energy use, burning dirty coal at that, and not very clean diesel? Yes, yes, and yes. And we too have been where the Chinese are now, mucking the air in our manufacturing cities (London in the 1890s, Pittsburgh in the 1940s) so that you couldn't see the end of the street for the smog.

Besides, a large fraction of Chinese greenhouse emissions are made on our tab, in the manufacture of goods to be shipped to our malls. And, for their own good reasons, the Chinese are doing their bit for population control, reducing the fertility rate in an amazingly short time, from 5.9 before 1970 to 1.7 today. We may have our own opinions about the wrenching and socially problematic One-Child policy; the Chinese government claims that without it, there would be 400 million more people on the planet now, each with his or her own carbon footprint.

The developing world may have larger fertility rates, but by and large those rates are declining. They may be burning dirtier fossil fuels - but they do that not out of profligacy but for survival, just as we used to burn dirty coal when we ran out of forests from which to get cleaner-burning wood. (Think about it: many of Grimm's and other European fairy tales feature dark, dense forest. They're mostly gone now, we've chopped them all down).

Yes, there's a recession on. But let's face it: by and large, we are the privileged few; our lives are easy. We are not clawing our way out of extreme poverty. We don't carry our daily water on our backs. We are not building a 21st century economy from pre-industrial beginnings within a few decades. We enjoy life in a mature, industrialised economy. But maybe we have become soft, and a little greedy: for the easy life, for convenience, for material goods.

To support the kind of lifestyle we lead in the USA takes, on average, 12,000 watts of energy. That's six times the average rate on the planet. Europeans consume 6,000 watts, Chinese 1,500 watts. People in Bangladesh get by with 300 watts. You can't very well ask a Bangladeshi to reduce their energy footprint even farther from where it is. You can't ask a newly affluent Chinese or Indian to give up their car for the sake of the planet, because they would ask, and rightly so, what are you, rich person in the West, giving up for the sake of the planet?

Why us, personally?
To return to the original question: why does it have to be you and me, Jane Doe standing in the mall deciding whether or not to buy a hoodie? Wouldn't this be a government affair?

It was. In 1997, the governments had a big meeting in Kyoto, where they hammered out a plan to reduce the world's carbon emissions to a few percent below what it was in 1990. As of last year, 191 nations had ratified the Kyoto protocol. The US was not one of them. Late in 2011, Canada withdrew its signature. Even among the "Annex I" nations of developed and developing countries that remained signatories, many had failed to even curb carbon emissions, let alone reduce them to pre-1990 levels.

In short, our governments failed.

But then again, governments don't have the kind of conscience that would respond to the idea of climate justice or, more broadly, environmental justice. Neither do the corporations which are so free with their campaign contributions and, generally, so free of ethical consideration. Remember Dick Cheney (of Haliburton) saying that he wouldn't sign on to a protocol that would crimp Americans' lifestyle? That is not the kind of leadership we need to deal with climate change on a global scale.

Now it's our turn.

The buck stops at our front door, because we - you and I - denizens of the rich and industrialised world, are the consumers for whom a huge fraction of fossil fuels are burnt. It is in our name that carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere. Climate change is imposed on the global community so that we few can enjoy our easy lives, climate controlled, with an entertainment suite in every large home, more than enough calories, and a lot less exercise than we need.

Benefits to us
"Energy security" is so often interpreted as getting enough fossil fuels to keep our wheels turning at the outlandish rates we are used to now. Even if it means drilling in the fragile arctic zone, even if it means engaging in resource wars. But it's not about that: real energy security means managing it so that there is enough for everyone now, and for generations to come, without endangering the planet which is our home. The way we've been living, it's like we're a size 6, but have been wearing size 12 clothing. Why? If we right-sized our lives, we would feel better.

The good news? We wouldn't even feel a 1,000 watt reduction off our current 12,000 watt energy consumption rate. If we do it right, by playing the energy efficiency card, we can probably reduce our consumption by 20-25 % without giving up much in the way of creature comforts. A larger reduction than that will need concerted action. Isn't it worth it, to ensure that all our children can live and enjoy this beautiful planet?

And we can start right now. With our next shopping decision. That hoodie, for instance: do you really need it? Will your child wear it more than once a week, or will it join the other few dozen hoodies languishing in the closet? Could you get your child warm in a hoodie that has belonged to a cousin or a friend, or one that comes from eBay?

Here is the really good news: reducing energy consumption generally saves money. And starting from our over-consumptive lifestyle, turning down the dial on our consumption will generally make us healthier.

Ready? Here are a few places to start:

Buy only what you need.
You need a few sets of clothes for each season. You don't need a few dozen sets. Corollary: you don't need a few dozen pairs of shoes to match your outfits. Apply this approach to all your other possessions. Resist Upgrade Mania.

Keep your life simple.
Get away from clutter in your life: it keeps your spirit from soaring. Keep as few tools as you can in your house; avoid buying single-purpose gadgets. For those projects where the right tool is half the job, see if you can borrow one from a friend, or rent one for the time that you need it.

Learn to repair.
There are a lot of things you and I can fix ourselves. Find a mentor who is good with their hands: most repair jobs are straightforward, once you know how to go about it.

Go plastic-free.
This belongs under the broader umbrella of environmental justice, but I have found that avoiding plastic, either in products or their packaging, is a great way to reduce consumption. My leading light and inspiration: Beth Terry's Plastic-Free Life .

Don't waste food.
A lot of energy goes into producing our food; it's precious stuff. In my own kitchen, I have a new tactic: If I buy, and cook, less than what I think my family needs, I end up at just the right amount. If it's a bit short, well, CelloDad and I can deal with a meal with fewer calories. (When the children have a growth spurt, and I see CelloDad make himself a piece of toast after dinner: that's my sign that I have to adjust the portions).

Eat low on the food chain.
An inordinate amount of energy goes into the production of meat. While we are carnivores, our digestive systems are built for mostly vegetable foods, and tends to suffer from a meat-heavy diet. So eating lower on the food chain will benefit our health, that of our checkbook, and also that of the planet.

Your house.
Live in the house that's the right size for you. If you don't have a lot of stuff, you don't need a lot of storage space. A large house invites a lot of stuff, takes a lot of cleaning, and requires more energy to heat in winter and cool in summer.

If you can, switch to an energy provider that will sell you electricity from renewable sources. Buy the smallest, energy-star rated, refrigerator you can live with. Many vegetables and fruit are best kept outside the fridge, anyway. Mow and rake the lawn by hand: the exercise, fresh air, and hearing the birds sing are all good for you.

Climate control.
Heating and cooling our homes and cars takes a huge amount of energy. We've started to believe that we can survive only between 68F and 72F, but in fact you can widen that range considerably by learning ways to control your body temperature. In the winter, apart from putting on extra layers of clothing (preferrably wool), I try to do my vigorous tasks in the morning: it gets me all warmed up, and then I'm fine with turning the thermostat way down. In the summer find a nice breeze, or invite one into your house by opening the windows. Shower often for an effective cool-down. And learn to embrace sweat, which is largely beneficial, and is seldom really smelly unless you sweat out of fear or stress.

The single largest source of carbon dioxide for a typical US household is our car, or cars. They are too large, and their engines are way too large for what we really need. They have too many gadgets, some dangerously distracting, all requiring energy. And we drive them mostly alone, all that steel and horsepower moving just the one occupant.

Bus in West Bengal, by Shayan via Flickr
Traffic in Southern California, by Daniel R. Blume via Wikimedia

Of course, the healthiest, cheapest, lowest-carbon way to move about is by walking or biking. But we have to live in our inherited infrastructure, which is often only friendly to cars. We can still choose to drive smaller cars, or the same models we know and love but with smaller engines (150HP is more than enough to drive a Honda Accord on the nation's Interstate highways, anything more is an indulgence). Cars with smaller engines are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run; I personally feel no need to switch to expensive and unproven technologies. And with the recently introduced federal CAFE requirement that new cars' fuel efficiency reach 54.5mpg by 2025, car manufacturers will finally start selling us the gas sippers that our friends abroad have been driving for years.

Start now.
The best part of life is not about stuff. It's not about getting the latest widget, the fastest widget, or the widget with the loudest vroom-vroom. Don't let the admen tell you what is important to you.

There's no better time than the present. More than that, there is no time to lose. Bill McKibben offers a sobering view on climate change, and a cogent argument for action now. I respectfully disagree with his identification of Big Oil as the ultimate culprit. Big Oil wouldn't have nearly the power it has now, if it weren't supported all the way by us, the consumer, so eager to consume all the energy that Big Oil can dig out of the ground.

Even so, McKibben's piece is chilling. Afterward, maybe you want to recover with this musical offering from Symphony of Science, featuring Bill Nye, David Attenborough, Richard Alley and Isaac Asimov. "We can do this: we can change the world". More heartwarming. Same message. Catchy tune.

"We can do this: we can change the world."


One last thing: Teach your children.
They are the future stewards of the planet. As with anything you want to teach children, you have to be living it: children are the best fake detectors. Talk to them about the link between consumption and climate change. This Christmas, try giving your child no more than three gifts - that's how many the Child of Light received. Our children might not appreciate receiving gold, myrrh and frankincense; but we could give them one thing they want, one thing they need, and one item of clothing. Perhaps a new hoodie?

This year, how will you celebrate the Friday after Thanksgiving, Buy Nothing Day?



Visit Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project to learn more about participating in next month’s Natural Living Blog Carnival!

Please take some time to enjoy the posts our other carnival participants have contributed:

October 15, 2012

How Will You Travel for Thanksgiving?

Family. Friends. Stuffed bird. Grandma's pumpkin pie. The old homestead. Good wines and spirited conversation. Uncle Joe's special sweet potato bake. There are plenty of reasons why Thanksgiving is the most-travelled holiday in America.

This year, I've started early with seeing what's the best way to get where we're going, in terms of time, money - and carbon footprint.

Focusing on travel over a few hundred miles, I started at carbonfund.org's Carbon Calculator page, which has a helpful link to EPA's report on carbon emissions from travel. The data on high speed trains is from Vidya Kale's Climate Is Our Job blog. Its numbers are consistent with those on Wikipedia's page on energy efficiency in transportation.

There were a few surprises!

For instance, I've been under the impression that it's always greener to travel by train than by car. It turns out that depends on the train and on the car. The train is greener if you compare taking riding the Amtrak train (185 g CO2 /passenger km), to driving by yourself in a large or otherwise gas hogging car: driving solo in a Toyota Sienna minivan, which gets 24 mpg on the highway, your carbon emission is 227 g CO2/km. (To find the carbon footprint for your own car, use UnitJuggler's mpg to g CO2 /km conversion calculator).

However, if you bring six friends in your minivan, the boring trip becomes a social outing, and the footprint per passenger is reduced by a factor 7 (ignoring the slight decrease in fuel efficiency from loading the van): now the per passenger carbon footprint is only 32 g CO2 / passenger km. This is a lot better than that of Amtrak, and better even than that of my VW Golf TDI, which does 45 mpg on the highway, when filled with the four members of my family (39 g CO2 / passenger km)!

As long as you fill all the seats in the car, you can do better than even the average European high-speed train. Swiss trains have the smallest carbon footprint because a large fraction of their electricity comes from renewable and nuclear sources, and because of the high average occupancy of the trains (80%) and the fact that on average each track carries 90 trains per day, so the carbon emissions from building the tracks (even over and through the Swiss Alps) is shared by those 90 trains.

Even regular, not high speed, European trains offer a great alternative to driving: it's safer and more pleasant. And it's much greener than travelling solo in your car.

If Amtrak plays its game right, it could get its trains' emissions much closer to the European average. It's a matter of attracting more riders, which is far from a pipe dream: on the Eastern corridor, Amtrak trains are very popular, and nearly always filled to capacity. Those tracks are well used.

Right now, the US-wide average occupancy of railroad tracks is pretty low, even if you count freight trains. Many trajectories are travelled by Amtrak trains just once or twice a day. And each Amtrak passenger carriage, on average, is only 60% occupied. My own guess is that Amtrak trains use locomotives that run on older technology that those of European and Japanese high-speed trains. All this contributes to the larger per-passenger carbon footprint of Amtrak trains: 4 to 5 times larger than that of a typical European fast train.

Amtrak needs higher speeds to attract more passengers in this large country: In the midwest it does sort of okay (but not great), covering the 1000-mile distance between Denver and Chicago in just over 8 hours; that's an average speed of 125 mph. On the crowded Eastern seaboard speeds slow to an average of 69 mph. Taking the "fast" Acela train shaves a bit off your travel time, but only a bit, and it costs more than twice as much as taking the regular service. To put this in perspective: the record speed for passenger trains is 302mph, attained on a track between Beijing and Shanghai.

Cost & Speed Comparison: Amtrak, TGV, car

New York
Wash. DC
Distance (miles) 229 mi 1000 mi 483
Travel time 3h20m (2h45m) 8h 3h20m
Average speed (mph) 69 (83) mph 125 mph 146 mph
Cost (one way) $ 82 ($ 199) $ 110 $ 146
Amtrak cost per pass. $ 0.36 ($0.87) $ 0.11 /mi $ 0.30 /mi
VW Golf cost ($4/gal) $ 0.09 /mi $ 0.09 /mi $ 0.09 /mi

(numbers in parentheses for Acela trains).


At fuel prices of $4 per gallon and a highway efficiency of 45 mpg, my brave diesel Golf easily beats Amtrak's per-mile cost per passenger. When my family of four takes a trip, we're 5 to 16 times cheaper off taking the car than the train. No wonder the interstates are still jam-pack clogged with cars on Thanksgiving weekend.

Even so, there are signs of a renaissance in intermediate-distance rail travel, and I hope it will in time replace short-haul air travel which is truly wasteful of energy, and not necessarily a time saver. I can't wait to ride that planned high speed train that's to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours. It's time for the country that gave birth to long-distance train travel to catch up with the rest of the world again.

For now, if you're travelling solo and your car does less than 29 mpg, you're better off taking the train, carbon wise. It's certainly more pleasant, with lots of people to meet, power outlets at each seat for your mobile devices and WiFi for connectivity: it beats staring at the tail lights of the car in front of you. If you count delays from traffic congestion, taking the train will be quite a bit faster. Only flying is faster, at least on long-haul trips.

By air and by sea

It came as a real surprise to me that Amtrak's per-passenger carbon footprint is the same as that for a long-haul airplane. If Amtrak installed high-efficiency, high-speed trains it could reduce travel time between Denver and Chicago to about four hours, which is less than the total time you spend travelling by air, if you count the struggle to get through airport security. Moreover, it could reduce its emissions by up to 80%.

Another surprise: in case your turkey is beckoning to you from Paris or from Prague, getting to Europe by flying is greener than taking a transatlantic boat cruise. This is because water presents a formidable resistance to anything trying to get through it, unless you're shaped like a fish. I guess cruise ships like the Queen Mary II, confined to the water surface, don't look remotely like a fish. So flying to Europe is greener and faster than taking a cruise on Cunard. And of course, it is much much less expensive.


But the story is different for freight. For air travel, all that really counts is the weight of the person or the stuff that needs to be lifted into the air at takeoff and kept there until the plane lands. So the per-ton, per-mile carbon footprint of air cargo is about the same as that for human passengers.

For boats, trains and trucks, it's much more efficient to transport stuff, which you can stack to the ceiling, than people, who need room to breathe and move around a bit during the journey. For a truck rolling down the interstate, it's mostly about air resistance, so the carbon emissions of moving cargo by air is much larger than that of truck transport. That, in turn, is limited by the size of the cargo container, so the truck's carbon emissions per ton of cargo moved is much larger than that for a boat or a train that can handle large numbers of containers per trip.

And this is why the 10,000 mile diet, that includes flying in raspberries from Peru in February, is bad for your personal carbon footprint.


The best thing to do for Thanksgiving? Source your food locally. And try not to travel too far. Whichever way you decide to go, you'll be one of an enormous crowd.


October 14, 2012

Review: 2013 Subaru Outback

I did a double-take on the school parking lot the other day. It was one of those "My, you've grown!" moments. Except I wasn't staring at a child. I had to look at the label on the back of the car to confirm that yes, it was indeed a Subaru Outback.

"Another two weeks, you'll be as big as your mom!" This usually elicits a smile from the mom, and a bewildered look on the child. In the case of the Outback, I'd say, "Another two years, you'll be as big as a GMC Yukon!"

This car played a trick on the CAFE requirements on cars' fuel efficiency: it grew taller in the body, acquired a higher ground clearance, and a few other features associated with trucks, and now falls in the category of light trucks. Thereby cleverly circumventing the stricter emissions requirements imposed on regular passenger cars.

Even so, the Outback on the school parking lot had the chutzpah to sport a "PZEV" label. It stands for "Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle", an emission bracket invented by some California clean air board who are more earnest about CO2 emissions reductions than about math, and you can get the certification for $300 when you order the car. I think one shouldn't spread around mathematical nonsense. Not even on the back of a car.

In the old days, the Outback (and before that the Subaru Wagon) was known as a "station wagon". It was beloved of countless families. It wasn't pretentious. It was long and low, and had very decent fuel economy for its time. It was a real family mover; it was capable of moving immense amounts of stuff, kids, dogs, cellos, furniture and such, and had the reputation of being indestructible.

But it has left all that behind. It has acquired high heels, sorry high wheels, and now calls itself a crossover. It sports the aggressive smirk worn by a lot of other cars in the current crop. Puts a whole new spin on that book title, "Farewell my Subaru".

The higher clearance actually comes in handy now that the nation's road infrastructure is crumbling, potholes and debris are thick on the ground, and road surfaces resemble the surface of the Australian wilderness after which the Outback was named.

In the US, it comes with a choice of a 2.5L, 4-cylinder boxer engine (173 HP) that does 21 / 28 mpg with manual transmission and better, 24 / 30 mpg, with the clever CVT automatic transmission. Or the 256 HP, 3.6L, 6-cylinder boxer hunk getting 18 / 25 mpg. That was about how well the Subaru Wagon did, back in 1985 when CelloMom was young.

You can get it with the usual features: overstuffed (heavy) power-adjustable seats, and the non-optional air condition unit, plus the full spectrum of distractive technologies built into the price, whether or not you choose them.

In the Japanese home market, Subaru offers the Legacy Outback exactly the same way (except, of course, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car), with the same engines.

In Europe the choice is different: Responding to pressure from EU fuel efficiency requirements, Subaru UK does not offer the Outback with the 3.6L engine. Rather it has added a 2.0L diesel engine to the lineup, which does 33 / 45 (cty /hwy) with a combined fuel economy of 47.8 mpg. Just kidding: that's per imperial gallon, and comes to 40 mpg_US.

The diesel still packs a torque of 258 lbs-ft, more than 247 lbs-ft delivered by the 3.6L gasoline engine available in the US and in Japan. Still can reach 120 mph. The 2.0D with manual transmission costs the same as the 2.5i with automatic transmission, but has about 40% better fuel economy.

In 2013, a car like this really should not do worse than 30mpg.


Outback (UK) Outback (UK)
Type 2.5i S Gasoline 2.0D S Diesel
Year 2013 2013
Emissions rating  
MSRP £ 28,875
$ 46,418
£ 28,870
$ 46,410
CelloMom Rating    
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 24 / 30 mpg_US 33 / 45 mpg_US
Avg. quoted   40 mpg_US
Avg. actual 28 mpg  

2.5L 4-cyl

2.0L 4-cyl
Power 164 HP 148 HP
Torque 169 lb-ft
@ 1800-2400 rpm
258 lb-ft
@ 4000 rpm

LinearTronic Auto

6-spd manual
Fuel Unleaded gasoline Diesel
Length, mm(in) 189 in  
Width, mm(in) 71.7 in  
Height, mm(in) 65.8 in  
Weight, kg(lbs) 1573 kg 1534 kg
Trunk volume, liters(cuft)    
Turning radius, m(ft) 11m 11m
Top speed, kph(mph) 120 mph 120 mph


October 9, 2012

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Actually, I hate the colour pink.

The girls' isles in toy stores creep me out. So when October comes around and there is an outburst of pink absolutely everywhere, even in the most unexpected places, in the shape of balloons, pins, socks, ski goggles, screwdrivers - I feel I have to wear my sunglasses all day.

Beside the pink, the whole "Awareness" thing saddens me. I mean, must we attain awareness only through buying the hoodie with the pink ribbon, or the make-up kit with the pink vynyl pouch, or the cookie with the pink frosting, the sale of all of which benefits cancer research? That's not awareness building: that's fundraising. At best. At worst, it's plain marketing.

Call me a naive, but it seems to me that too much emphasis is put on fighting cancer once it has arrived. But then it's already too late. Even screening for cancer, as useful as early detection can be, is not where the largest emphasis should lie.

Call me a hopeless naive, but I think the place where we really need to focus is on how to prevent cancer in the first place. We need to build awareness of what causes cancer, and what to do to minimise our risk. This takes more than "thinking pink" for a couple of days.

There is the work of getting informed. Following that, there is the difficult, day-to-day, unglamorous, ongoing task of risk reduction. Rather than buying things outfitted with a pink ribbon, it may involve not buying things. Saying no to cool things, yummy things, convenient things, attractive and desirable things. Things that have become a nearly inextricable part of our lives.

The call for prevention is worth shouting from the rooftops, year round. For this I would put on all the pink it would take.


Get the facts.

To start with, get informed. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation on breast cancer. Get over any fears you may have around this issue: knowledge is power

The Breast Cancer Action website summarises some key facts about breast cancer, and its link to environmental factors:

  • Seventy percent of people with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors. The so-called known risk factors, like late menopause, having children late in life, and family history of cancer are present in only 30 percent of breast cancer cases.
  • Non-industrialized countries have lower breast cancer rates than industrialized countries. People who move to industrialized countries from countries with low rates develop the same breast cancer rates of the industrialized country.
  • Estrogen is a hormone closely linked with the development of breast cancer. Numerous synthetic chemicals, called “xenoestrogens,” act like estrogen in our bodies, including common weed killers and pesticides, plastic additives or by-products, ingredients in spray paints and paint removers, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used extensively in the manufacture of food packaging, medical products, appliances, cars, toys, credit cards, and rainwear.

So genetic predisposition plays a smaller role than we were led to believe. On the other hand, environmental factors do play an important role.

Look at the list of products to avoid: all these are endemic, indeed pervasive, in industrialised societies. And a lot of the toxins in these items settle preferentially in fatty tissues, so breasts act like magnets for them, and tend to retain them. On the other hand, just as immigrants from non-industrialised countries can acquire an increased risk of cancer, by the same token it is possible for all of us to cleanse our systems: toxins don't hang around in our bodies forever.

It's easy to get discouraged by the length of the list. But consider this: our exposure to each individual toxin in each item is probably well within some safety margin. It is their combined effect, and especially their interactions, that cause havoc.

So even if you can't eliminate your exposure to all these toxins, you'd still come out way ahead if you manage to avoid as many as you can.

I will tell you straight up front (because I'm a truthloving geek and a naive one at that): it will require giving up on certain things. Ten-hour lip gloss, with pearl effect, is glamorous. Canned tomatoes are convenient. Oil-based paints do cover beautifully, and your brush strokes are never visible. Don't talk to me about those root-vegetable chips from that stay-fresh plastic bag.

There are alternatives. They either don't work quite as well, or require a lot more work on your part. Or both.

So what. These are our breasts we're talking about: they're part of who we are; we need them, for our babies - as well as for our own pleasure. We have better things to do with them than to offer them as housing for any toxins that happen to come along.

Besides, as we're cleaning up for ourselves, we're also cleaning up for our children, and their children. So here goes:

Risk Reduction Strategies

Your care and feeding:

  • Exercise!
  • Eat low on the food chain.
  • Choose "clean" foods. Organic is best. If you can't afford all-organic, find out which foods are the most toxin-prone, and buy those organic.
  • Avoid foods containing growth hormones.
  • Avoid processed foods with ingredients you can't pronounce.
  • Do not heat food in any plastic container.
    Non-stick pans are plastic containers.
  • Avoid storing food or drinks in plastic containers. Not even water. This holds especially for foods with a high fat content.
    Note: most cans come with a plastic lining inside.
  • Choose personal care products as clean of toxins as possible ("natural" is not a guarantee of "clean"). Your skin has a large surface area, and all of it is porous.
  • Wear clothing made of natural fibers.
  • Live slow. Get plenty of sleep.

Your home:

  • Use soap as your main household cleaner.
  • Keep air "fresheners" out of your house.
  • Avoid synthetic carpets (with that "new carpet smell").
  • Avoid upholstery with a no-stain finish.
  • Avoid synthetic stuffing for mattresses and sofas.
  • Keep a shoe-free house to keep from tracking in nasties on your shoes. Our soils are still laced with pesticides banned 30 years ago.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Avoid plastic toys for your children and your self.
  • Don't use weed killers and pesticides in your garden.
  • Don't drink from the garden hose (except figuratively).

Your car:

  • Your car is not your living room, nor your dining room, nor your bedroom. It's a box that gets you from A to B. Don't linger in it.
  • Avoid cars with the "new car smell" which indicates toxins outgassing from the car's plastic interior.
  • Try not to buy a new car for your new baby. If you must, put chemical cleanliness on your list of things to check. Air the interior of your new car often and well.

Other exposures:

  • Minimise radiation exposure: from deep-UV rays from the sun, from long-haul flights, from radon in the home, from medical procedures.
  • Don't sit down on lawns that have only grass: a lack of weeds is a sure sign of herbicide use.
  • Toxic chemicals at work: treat them with profound respect. Know your risks and your rights. Change your clothes when returning home.
  • Try to free your life of plastic.

In short, live like you're chemically sensitive. You are. You just may not know it yet.

And these tips benefit men as well as women: after all, we humans all have a finely balanced hormonal system that we don't want to mess with.

These choices are in our hands, made individually by us. Then there are larger environmental issues that are outside of our personal control. When voting with our dollars isn't enough, or doesn't bring change fast enough, we need to get actively involved. There are lots of opportunities to help push back against the rising tide of pesticides, fertilisers, plastics, dangerous food additives, and other toxins. As Liza Gross says, "Think pink? I'd rather raise a stink."

Pass it on.


Selected resources:

Breast Cancer Action: calling for breast cancer prevention

Keep A Breast: "prevention is the cure"

Pesticide Action Network: advancing alternatives to pesticides

Skin Deep Database: Huge number of personal care products rated on toxicity by the Environmental Working Group

Healthy Child Healthy World: working toward a clean world

Plastic Free: Beth Terry frees her life of plastic; both book and blog are full of practical tips and advice.

The Story of Cosmetics - Annie Leonard
Bag it! - Jeb Berrier
Plastic Planet - Werner Boote


October 5, 2012

Fitting Three Children on Your Car's Back Seat

"I hate to give up my hatchback, but with the third baby coming, we need to buy a minivan." You hear this a lot. Even if you have two young children, you can't offer a ride to a friend because the extra child seat won't fit in the back row.

Do manufacturers of child seats get a kickback from manufacturers of minivans?

What if a minivan is not your cup of tea? Maybe your driveway is extremely narrow. Maybe your city parking garage doesn't accept vehicles as tall as minivans. Maybe you're just not into looking like the proverbial soccer mom, even if you are one.

What are your options?

Seven-seat gas sippers.
It's galling that the choices are so very limited for families of five. So I've gathered a collection of seven-seat vehicles that do 30 - 45mpg. The list includes the 7-seat Toyota Prius V (44mpg), and a few other cars with on-demand third-row seating. Some are crossovers. Some are minivans.

(I've nothing against minivans, actually: I used to drive a Vanagon, the last Volkswagen minibus that had its engine in the back. My family of four shared its use with my parents, who lived a few streets away: a private car-share scheme. And it carried all six of us comfortably.)

There's only one catch: most of these seven-seaters are not available in the US market (yet). I don't know why. I mean, if you can afford a Prius V, and you have a family of five, wouldn't you jump at the seven-seat option?

It may be a while before those gas-sipping seven seaters make it stateside, and meanwhile the baby is on its way, so we need a solution now.

Narrower car seats
Take heart, there are actually some options out there. A baby's hips are what, eight inches across? There is no reason why the baby's car seat should be 21 inches wide.

When my eldest was a baby, we went to Holland and were met by my cousin at the airport; he had thoughtfully brought a baby seat, which was a marvel of slenderness and light weight. Carrying it was much easier on my back than the bulky, heavy baby seat we had left in the US.

I settled the baby in the seat, and we were on our way. I didn't question the safety of the slender baby seat, which had passed Europe's stringent tests - after all, Europeans love their children too. The seat was made by Maxi Cosi, a Dutch manufacturer who understands space limitations.

Narrower seats are now available in the US: there are several brands that offer child seats with modest widths of 17 inches of less. Just check out the useful list at Carseat Measurements and Data. Three car seats, each 17 inches wide, would fit on my VW Golf's back seat, which has 52 inches clearance between the doors. If your car is wider than mine, you can afford wider car seats, and your choice is - no pun intended - widened.


But the best solution I've seen so far asks you to approach child car seats in a completely new way: check out multimac. Based in the UK, multimac offers a complete system that can house three, or even four, children on the back seat, by seating them all in one continuous car seat that has three (or four) bays.

The whole thing is anchored to the seat belt hooks that normally accept the adult seat belts. Multimac claims its car seats significantly exceed the European crash test requirements. Available with bespoke upholstery. In the long run, this is probably cheaper than buying a string of individual car seats. It's certainly cheaper than buying a new and larger car.

Accessories are available that can accomodate babies in rear-facing seats, to toddlers, to children tall enough to need an extra head rest, all with height-adjustable 5-point harness. Their website shows a three-seater in the back of a Fiat 500.

The multimac comes with legs that rest on the floor of the car. We in the US are not used to seeing child seats with legs, apparently because, according to an article at shopautoweek.com, “The bench seat that is used in car-seat testing in the U.S. is from a 1970s model vehicle [1974 Chevrolet Impala, according to NHTSA] and is only the bench seat--there’s no floor to rest a support leg on.”

The same article confirms what many globetrotting parents have found: that many countries don't honour each other's child-seat safety tests: “The primary roadblock remains the opinions of those in charge of car-seat safety regulations. Whether one system is safer than the other is still being debated.”

So don't try to import a multimac on your own.

But I do hope that this sensible solution to a vexing problem will make its way to the US eventually.

Your other option? Ditch the car. Move yourself and your offspring by bike. Beats buying a new car and having your kids breathe new car smell. One intrepid mom moves her six children by bike exclusively. None of them brought a cello. But I could only dream of having lungs and leg muscles like hers!



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