January 28, 2013

Mom in Sheep's Clothing

Temperatures have dipped well below the freezing point. The wind chill is brutal. You get into your car to go skiing / skating / shopping for a down blanket. Which of these four options applies to you?

You deposit your delicate derrière onto the driver seat and you:

(a) Run back into the house and don't emerge until May.

(b) Grit your teeth, remain seated and get frostbite on your bum.

(c) Turn on the seat heat and drive away. - OR:

(d) Settle yourself in comfort and calmly drive away.

I have a friend who goes for option (a), spending winters holed up in her house until she runs out of food. As she telecommutes, she really only needs to emerge to walk her dog a few times a day: since it doesn't involve putting her behind in contact with any cold objects, she can deal with that.

But a mom like me doesn't have that option. There's school, sports, fossil hunting. There's grocery shopping and cello lessons. I have to take that driver's seat.

January 26, 2013

Review: 2013 Chevrolet Cruze

Here's a surprise: Contrary to the trend, GM is offering the Chevy Cruze in the US with the smallest engine available for it, and only in the sedan version, not the hatchback or the larger wagon.

In South Korea, the Chevy is available in either sedan or hatchback, called the Cruze5 (for five-door vehicle, presumably). In Great Britain the Cruze is also available in those options, called Saloon and Hatchback, with a Station Wagon to arrive later this year.

January 19, 2013

Stop the Smog: use cleaner coal and diesel.

I've been thinking about Chinese moms: the ones living in large cities, who have recently had to cope with their families living inside a thick pall of smog. Megacities don't have the cleanest air in the best of times, and for places like Beijing these are not the best of times.

Smog contains many gaseous chemicals that are bad for you, but the most worrisome part of the pollution are the small particles (soot and aggregates) that can penetrate deeply into the lungs and cause breathing problems, exacerbate asthma, and even lead to lung cancer. The smallest particles, the ones that cause the most trouble, are those of a size 2.5 micrometers (µm) or smaller, and are referred to as PM2.5.

Last weekend, the PM2.5 count was 993 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) by official measurements. That is an astounding 40 times the maximum of 25 µg/m3 recommended by the World Health Organisation. In the developed West, the latest proposed guidelines call for a limit of 18 µg/m3 in Europe (by 2020), and 12 µg/m3 in the US.

In the past week the PM2.5 counts in Beijing have eased, but over this weekend they have risen again, to around 400 µg/m3 earlier today.

Young children are especially at risk. Imagine the choice: it's either playing outside breathing bad air, or being cooped up inside all day. And after all this time, surely some of the pollution has made its way inside.

January 17, 2013

My Big Fat Dutch Wedding


Welcome to the January 2013
Natural Living Blog Carnival: Green Confessions.

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 posts about areas of their life where they aren't as "green" as they may want to be.


I'm in this culture clash, and it's entirely internal.

Here I am, a proponent of simple living and an advocate of the low-carbon lifestyle: I've got my bike, my high-MPG car, my near-vegetarian cooking, my wind-powered electricty, my steadily dwindling amount of household waste, blah blah.

And there I went jetting off across the Atlantic to get married. Although we weren't high school sweethearts, we had gone to the same high school in the beautiful city of Delft, in the Netherlands. We had both been living in the US for years and years, but I had never got around to un-registering myself from the city, which entitled us to a wedding in its city hall dating from the middle ages.

We had a glorious time at the party, with our families from both sides, some Dutch high school friends, and a few American ones who had found research or postdoc positions around Europe.

But the carbon footprint of this wedding!

January 13, 2013

The Average Speed of the Average Car

In the mid-1970s the illustrious Ivan Illich, Austrian philosopher and critic of Western culture, calculated the average speed of a car to be 3.7 miles per hour, about the speed of a brisk walk.

Illich arrived at this shocking number by dividing the average annual miles per car driven in the US in 1974, approximately 6000 miles, by 1600 hours, which represents the total of time required to make the car go that far. Those hours include the actual time spent actually driving it, the time spent pumping the oil and refining it into gasoline, the time spent by health care professionals on the consequences of traffic accidents, and so on.

You might think that this falls firmly in the category of "Lies, d--n lies, and statistics". But Illich used this to illustrate the concept of counterproductivity.

I would like to update the result for the early 2010s. However, I think it is excessive to include such things as the time spent on producing oil and refining it into gasoline: after all, that can be counted towards time that someone else spends on their job.

So in my analysis I am going to count only the amount of time actually spent driving the car, plus the time required to make enough money to own and operate the car.

January 12, 2013

Is Energy from Natural Gas Cleaner than from Coal?

Is it good news? The US is transitioning, albeit slowly, from dirty coal-burning power plants to electricity generators run on natural gas. Natural gas contains no toxic mercury, and does not generate coal ash and other nasty waste products. The waste product from burning natural gas is carbon dioxide and water.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but the nice thing about natural gas is that it generates electricity with a much smaller carbon footprint than coal.

Or does it?

January 9, 2013

Why Discrimination is as Senseless for Cars as it is for Humans

Vive la différence, right? Among humans is precisely our riotous, exuberant spectrum of differences that makes our social interactions so riveting. Even the Dutch, that most egalitarian of societies, sort their young into different high schools: vocational, college bound, educational, etc. according to their ability and inclination.

But if the Dutch government were to institute a rule that says only kids taller than 6ft may attend the college bound high schools, that's called discrimination. Because your height has nothing to do with your scholastic potential.

Such an arbitrary line has been drawn in the vehicular world, in the exclusive favouritism bestowed by the US administration's on electric and hybrid vehicles.

January 4, 2013

Review - 2013 Dodge Dart, Alfa Romeo Giulietta

The Dodge Dart is one of those cars that beat the trend and actually got smaller with time. When it was first introduced in 1960, it was a whopping 210 inches (5.35m) long, tail fins and all. It was smaller in the 1970s even as its engine volume reached a now incredible 7.2L. Production ceased in 1976; but the New Dart re-emerged for 2013 as a compact sedan with either a 2.0L engine or the more frugal 1.4L Turbo with Multi-air.

The page for the Dodge Dart says, "Alfa Romeo DNA with Dodge Passion and Design". So I went digging into what that means, exactly. Alfa Romeo is the Italian manufacturer of high-reputation sports cars, whose early team included Enzo Ferrari.

January 3, 2013

A New Budget for 2013

Happy new year! If you are looking to impose more discipline in your finances for 2013, remember to include energy savings in your plans, for the double benefit of reducing both your expenses and your carbon emissions.

While some energy conservation measures take an initial investment, in the intermediate to long term your carbon emissions budget and your financial budget largely go hand in hand. Surveying the energy use in your household may pay off handsomely.