Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Green Building

The weekend before last, the New York Times Magazine was a special issue devoted to green building. This is one of my pet interests as a conservationist. Why? Because the housing that I have been issued as a master's student at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research* is environmentally friendly. It is lit during the day by daylight. It is heated in the winter by passive solar heating and during the summer we keep it cool by keeping everything closed. We have a solar hot water heater. I believe that the materials they used weren't the most sustainable, although I would have to check.

It is a shame if the materials were not very environmentally friendly, or were not durable, because:

"a building's efficiency should be measured not just by its mechanical systems but also by how much energy it uses over its lifetime. More energy is expended in a building's construction than at any other stage, so a structure that lasts 100 years will use far less energy than one that lasts 5, no matter how efficient." --from "Greener Acres: Why are they greener than we are?" by Nicolai Ouroussoff, May 20, New York Times

I am also interested in green building because buildings use so much of our natural resources, some estimates say 45% of energy use, dwarfing other sectors like transportation. This means that building design is much more important than the last topic I addressed, green weddings. And there is a lesson in green building, that by defining the framework well from the beginning, you can stem major problems before they happen. I will write about energy conservation here, but that is something finite. After you have switched to fluorescent bulbs, you will still be using a baseline of energy. A house that was built with no reference to local climate will force you to use heating and cooling. You can find ways to reduce your usage, but if the building was designed better, you would be using less energy already.

I was heartened today to see that many schools in the US are starting to look at ways of greening their buildings. Schools going green are especially important because they can teach many people, children and families, about the benefits of green building.

For residential construction, the New York Times suggested that the most important people to reach are developers, because architects may want to build green, and consumers may want to buy green, but developers are the ones making the decisions about what gets built.

What can you do? Green building is an issue that calls out for awareness raising. For example, did you know about LEED? If you are looking for a place to buy, ask everyone about LEED. The reality is that you probably will not be able to buy a green home or apartment, you will have to try energy saving measures (here are some ideas for renters). But as more people learn about green design, your chances will improve for the next move.

*That's right dear readers, I study in Sde Boker, Israel, in the news today here for an epic story of man wrestles leopard to save feline lives. And the AP is incorrect, this did not happen in Kibbutz Sde Boker, but in the Midrasha.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Green Weddings

Yes dear readers, I married just months ago. Weddings right now are an exciting topic, with numerous books like Rebecca Mead's "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding." For us conservationists, the wedding industry has thoughtfully created the "green wedding."

While I was initially interested in incorporating a green element in my own wedding, I came to the conclusion that the green wedding was about hype. Instead of focusing on reducing, the creators of the green wedding urge you to buy more, just more organic stuff.

I, too, love organic stuff. I would have loved an organic silk crepe dress, preferably by a major designer. Also many seated meals with organic local foods, designed and cooked by a talented chef. Unfortunately, my budget did not afford these things.

Interactive Green Wedding Planning Advice:

1. My budget is: a. $20,000 or up b. less than $20,000

If you answered a or b:

point I:
The purpose of a big wedding is to celebrate with friends and family, not to make a political point. If you want both a wedding and a political event, I recommend that you separate the two.

point II:
Please do not ask for gifts of charity donations. It is very preachy (and if it is a "green wedding" anyway, people already understood the sermon once they saw the slow organic food menu).

I already think you are a good person or I won't buy you a gift. I want to give you a gift that celebrates your union and helps you build a household together. I may buy you something from your registry. So why don't you register for gifts that are lasting and useful. If I determine that it might be a better gift, I will give money. Or you can return the gift I gave you. With the money you either receive directly from the giver or indirectly from the store, you can make a donation to whichever charity you choose. I will never know. Or you can use it to help pay rent, or to buy groceries, or for some other nondisappearing bill.


If you answered a: follow the tips you will find elsewhere, and thank you for doing your part for our planet.

If you answered b: come along with me.

The keyword here is REDUCE. All these green luxuries, while "glamorous" have little to do with conservation. If you buy favors for all your guests, for example, each favor is one more extra thing that might never have needed to be produced. Even if the favors are organic seeds--those of your guests that are gardeners can buy their own. The others will just waste the seeds.

The good news is that a modest wedding does not have to use much extra energy. Don't be too anxious about it, and don't worry too much about whether it is "green." Focus on what is most important for you and your family.

10 Greener Wedding Ideas

1. Consider each element of the wedding and whether it is important to you.
2. Skip the favors.
3. Use plants instead of cut flowers.
4. Consider where the majority of the guests live, and have it nearby.
5. Skip extravagant touches.
6. Patronize local merchants.
7. Recycled paper for the invitations.
8. Recycled gold for the rings.
9. Reuse someone else's dress.
10. Register for gift items that you need/will use, and will stand the test of time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Funniest Books I've Read

Here, for free, is a list of the funniest books I have read. Funny as in they make me laugh out loud. I will amend this list when I think of others.

Me Talk Pretty One Day--David Sedaris
A Confederacy of Dunces--John Kennedy Toole
Al Capsella Takes a Vacation--J. Clarke
The Heroic Life of Al Capsella--J. Clarke
Right Ho, Jeeves--P.G. Wodehouse
Leave it to Psmith--P.G. Wodehouse
The Twinkie Squad--Gordon Korman
Go Jump in the Pool--Gordon Korman
I Want To Go Home--Gordon Korman
Who is Bugs Potter--Gordon Korman
Son of Interflux--Gordon Korman
Scoop--Evelyn Waugh
A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag--Gordon Korman

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lesson 1: Reduce

So I started to think, when I was working at my job in conservation, that probably just by recycling or starting a recycling project in your own community, you could make just as important a difference as I could make at my job. That is not terrible. My personal philosophy is that our most important actions (unless you hold a very influential position) are in our private lives, not our professional lives.

I digress. The point is that "glamorous" is not key when it comes to conservation. It can be a tool to make conservation more attractive, but the key is conservation itself. And conservation is nothing more than a fancy word for "keep" or "save." Another nice catchphrase is "Reduce, reuse, recycle."

As you may notice from what you have read so far, I was not well versed in the concept of "Reduce, reuse recycle" when I first became active in conservation work. And I did not yet understand that the emphasis is in that order. You start by reducing your needs. Which is hardly a glamorous concept.

Glamorous Conservation?

As time went on, I began to question the glamorous nature of conservation work. The truth was, that while fundraising parties in exotic locales were glamorous, the people I met who worked day after day on projects trying to rejuvenate traditional authority structures, teach the children, or guard their stretch of forest--they weren't glamorous. Well some were, and a lot weren't. In fact, when I met indigenous workers, some were a lot of fun, interesting, funny, and some were poor, standoffish, hard to communicate with.

I started to think that maybe what was glamorous about this work, was that it was far away. It involved exotic locales and travel.

Glamorous Conservation

When I took my previous job at a conservation organization, I wanted to be involved with a group that was trying to make a difference in the world. I believed in conservation, fighting global warming, saving the rainforest. I had subscribed to Ranger Rick as a child and Audubon as a teenager.

I could see, during my interviews, that my bosses to be were passionate about their work. That was enough for me. I took the job when offered and began working immediately.

And so began an interesting period wherein I learned a lot about:
1. The mission of the organization;
2. The world of conservation organizations;
3. conflicts between indigenous issues and conservation issues;
4. overlap between areas of high cultural diversity and importance with areas of high biological diversity;
5. people involved in conservation work.

While my job was near Washington DC, our organization was international. We were not political, but were concerned with grassroots projects in sometimes turbulent areas. I was lucky to work for a group that was very much centered on indigenous issues.

As I continued working there, I realized that conservation was not, as I had thought, uncontroversial and hands-off. I like consensus, and thought that the environment is an issue that can unite people. While some people may not care very much about environmental issues, everyone can agree that streams shouldn't be polluted and that we need trees.

I was surprised to see big disputes among conservationists. To be political or not. To side with indigenous groups who want to continue living on their land, or to kick them out and make a national park there. To work together with corporations who want to develop unspoiled land in hopes of getting less contamination, or to side against them to remain "pure." To accept donations from organizations or corporations of questionable repute. To be "paternalistic" in working with indigenous groups or to let them represent themselves.

Luckily, these disputes were far away from me. Our work was far away from me. While I answered phones, arranged meetings and worked on the website, other people in another continent were meeting government officials and indigenous representatives. Although my work was fairly humdrum, I was told by people that my job was "glamorous."

Maybe that was a goal: a glamorous job, and a glamorous life. But this isn't confession, and I think everyone wants to feel like their life is exciting and glamorous.

Personal Introduction

I am a conservationist. And I can prove it. If I were to tell you my name, you could google it and see that I worked for a conservation organization for 3.5 years. And now I no longer work there, but I am studying for a master's degree that is all about sustainability.
And I am a newlywed. I married my husband 2 months ago and now we have an idyllic life here in the desert of Israel.
These are two labels that can be applied to me (you see, I did it myself). But part of this blog is an admission that despite my credentials, I may not even be a conservationist. I am interested in conservation issues but I don't always live up to my ideals.
I created this blog to write about my thoughts and steps towards conservation. I hope that it will be useful to other people like me, from developed countries who have a big ecological footprint but who want to do better.