Sunday, September 30, 2007

Carbon offsetting: more harm than good?

I'm unimpressed with the concept of carbon offsetting. The Wikipedia article on the topic brings to light several controversies including a case where it was in question whether any carbon was in fact offset and others where non-carbon-related environmental and social damage was caused by the carbon-offsetting activity donors paid for. Another case involves a carbon-offsetting company, whose customers reportedly include the Prince Charles, Land Rover and the leader of the UK Conservative party, which pays third world farmers to switch from diesel powered to human powered machinery ... elitist in the extreme. I mean wealthy British are of course free to abandon their technology rich life styles in favour of running a small farm, pumping the water for irrigation by treadle. But to carry on driving cars, flying in planes, heating and air conditioning their homes, and running the latest electronic devices, while paying third world farmers to pump their irrigation water by treadle ...

Nothing wrong of course in donating to causes that truly help the environment (and/or the poor) alongside attempting to decrease our personal and communal carbon production, but I see no value in inventing a relationship between our carbon production and our donations to environmental causes.

The thought that carbon trading is likely to be formalised in law so that whole companies can get away without making their practices more environmentally friendly by paying other companies to carry out questionable acts such as transforming more land from its natural state to plantation forest is disturbing!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lowering my negative impact on the environment: 2. Transport

My general goal is to use my own steam (biking, walking, scooter) as much as possible to get around, next turn to public transport, and only if neither of those is feasible take the car. I face two main obstacles. The first is that my children aren't up to travelling far by bike yet - five kilometres at a time is about their limit. This means that we use our bikes to get to Tessa's guitar lesson, Josiah's Technicraft class, the local shops, and when visiting one friend who lives close by. Everywhere else we go is further away than five kilometres. Still it's a start and we hope to make longer bike rides over the summer.

I can ride further of course but I don't often go out without the kids - just to the odd appointment like visiting the dentist, or more often nipping down to the shops for something. Which brings me to the other obstacle I face: the car is so easy and accessible! Despite better intentions, I use the car when there's no reason not to go by bike :( Sometimes I think we should all find someone who lives a block or two away from us and swap parking spaces with them, making cycling the quicker, easier option. Or maybe all cars should be fitted with some sort of delay lock to make it not worth our while to use them for quick jobs.

New Zealanders interested in cycling as a means of getting around might like to check out my friend Steven Muir's cool website. Steve sells bike trailers.

Luckily I like taking public transport - given the choice between sitting comfortably reading on a bus or train and driving through traffic then hunting for a car park, I'll sit reading any day. So we take public transport for our longer trips around town whenever public transport is convenient, eg we don't take the bus to climbing because that trip takes ten minutes by car and at least 45 minutes by bus because the bus closest to us doesn't go close to the climbing wall and vice versa.

We make a few longer trips each year ... to visit family, to go camping or tramping and in the last two years to take the children to climbing competitions. Usually we drive, sometimes we have flown to Christchurch, sometimes we've taken the ferry and train to Christchurch, which makes for a long, tiring day but is a comfortable way to travel. Once, the kids and I took a bus from Nelson to Picton. That was the pits, only a two hour trip but I was overjoyed to get off that bus. I never feel unwell reading on buses around town but I guess buses sway more at faster speeds or something.

It seems clear that flying is the worst way to travel. I did some Internet research a few months ago and although the precise figures claimed vary enormously, every site I looked at agreed that flying is significantly worse for the environment than any other form of transport, no matter how you look at it. I'd like to say that I will never get on a plane again - I certainly feel challenged to avoid flying - but when the destination is more than a day away by car or train, I have to admit flying is an attractive option ... if the trip is justifiable in the first place: possibly the best way to travel more environmentally soundly is simply to travel less.

So which of my journeys can I eliminate? We are already pretty efficient around town. We do the supermarket shopping on our way home from climbing. We stop at the library on our way out or our way home. Items like stationery or clothing sit on my shopping list for weeks - sometimes months - till I happen to be passing a shop where they are sold. (I pass clothes shops all the time of course - there are so many! - but we buy most of our clothes secondhand and the large secondhand clothing shops in Wellington are all slightly out of my usual orbit.)

As far as our longer trips go ...

Visiting friends and family is very important to me. The camping holidays we take can be justified in my opinion because of their rejuvenating effect and the opportunity they provide to see something new - learn something new. Their impact on the environment can be kept to a minimum by choosing destinations not too far from home ... I'd love to be rejuvenated and learn something new in say Italy (the kids and I have been studying Ancient Rome this year) or say Fiji but there are plenty of amazing sights to see and people to learn from who live different lives to mine much closer to home.

Can trips to climbing competitions be justified? Climbing is Josiah's life! Attending competitions - meeting up with other enthusiastic climbers from around the country - is one of the highlights of his year. So, yes, I think they are justified for now :)

My current approach to transport seems to be not to have any concrete goal or rules to follow but to consider each journey individually.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lowering my negative impact on the environment: 1. Rubbish

No Impact Man divides his life into six areas to analyse his impact on the environment: trash, carbon-producing transportation, inconspicuous consumption, sustainable eating, reduced power use, and environmentally-friendly water use. I like this idea of breaking it down so I thought I would analyse each of these six areas in my family's life, cataloguing the steps we've already made (because patting myself on the back gives me the motivation to go further) and brainstorming what needs to come next.

Okay, today I'll look at Rubbish Production. The mantra is "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" isn't it?

First Reduce

To date:

  • We are cutting down on purchases.

  • We use cloth carry bags for shopping.

  • We use smaller cloth drawstring bags for bulk bin items and fruit and veg.

Next move:

  • Look for bulk alternatives to the food we buy that comes with packaging, especially non-reusable packaging: tinned food, pasta sealed in plastic, soy milk in one litre cartons. We have borrowed a soy milk maker but haven't tried it yet.

  • Ditto for non food purchases that come sealed in packaging: look for alternatives that come without packaging (I do generally look for secondhand options first).

  • Switch to environmentally friendly cleaners and hygiene products that can be made from bulk purchased goods. Currently we buy cleaning products from the supermarket, choosing ones that have some kind of green certificate. Next time I pass Moore Wilson's I plan to buy a large quantity of baking soda as I have heard it makes good shampoo and underarm deodorant.

  • We use a lot of paper tissues (I have a chronic sinus problem). I recently dropped a note in our local supermarket's suggestion box, thanking them for supplying recycled paper toilet paper and asking them to supply recycled paper facial tissues (the tissues we buy now are made from "sustainable forestry") but I know I should really be using cloth handkerchiefs. The problem is that I have horrible memories from childhood of the contents of handkerchiefs being redistributed rather than removed in the washing machine and ending up on my school uniform. Yuck. I guess handkerchiefs should be washed separately - in hot water? Anyone know how to wash handkerchiefs effectively?

One day in the future:

  • Have a larger vegetable garden - enough to do some of our own preserving so we don't have to buy tinned vegetables, tomato sauce etc. This is pretty unrealistic in the immediate future: I don't know how families find time to maintain a large garden and do their own preserving, make their own soy milk etc, especially if they also walk and bike everywhere rather than drive, another time consuming activity. Something for me to have in mind as a goal though.

Second Reuse

So far:

  • We reuse jars and plastic containers that our food comes packaged in.

  • We buy almost all our clothes and some other purchases secondhand.

  • I have recently joined my local Freecycle group. I think this is a great idea: if you have something to give away, you email the group, offering it to anyone who'd like it.

  • When our towels start to fall apart, we cut them up into cleaning rags.

  • For writing and printing from the computer, we use paper printed on one side that Geoff collected from recycling stacks at work.

  • Although we avoid plastic bags as much as possible, some still make their way into the house, eg bread bags as we bake some but not all of our bread. These we wash and reuse.

Third Recycle


  • Josiah and Geoff eat a vegan diet, and Tessa and I eat a nearly vegan diet. This means that 100% of our home food waste can be (and is) composted :) We also compost the paper tissues we use for nose blowing.

  • All of our rubbish that is recyclable goes out in the recycling bin.

Not sure what else we could reuse or recycle at present; it seems our focus should be on reducing.

A note: When we were on holiday recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the motorcamps and backpackers we stayed at had recycling bins and one or two even had separate bins for food waste.

I will write about each of the other five areas - transport, power use, water use, food and consumption - over the next weeks.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

What shall I do?

Every so often I think I have enough spare time to take up some formal study or paid employment. Usually homeschooling gets challenging again and I change my mind; that's probably what will happen this time too but it's nice to dream. So ... what would I do? My big passions are children under 7, writing, and conservation. I envisage that one day, when Josiah and Tessa are largely independent of me, I will run a home preschool / daycare - I would love to look after very young children again. But I am an introvert and I already have more human interaction in my week than I can cope with well so this isn't the time in my life to start a home preschool. Similarly, it would be odd for me to take on more conservation work considering I barely keep up with the ongoing care (weeding) of the natives the City Council let me plant on the reserve next door.

That leaves writing. Is the best thing for me to do to improve my writing to continue reading lots and writing as much as possible (eg this blog). Or should I enrol in a writing course? I quite fancy myself as some sort of editor: I often notice bits in books that I think should be written differently (I had to give up reading Eragon because the writing was so appalling it just about hurt to read it). The Writing School offers an appealing looking course called Editing and Proofreading. But the cost is $1000! And snobbishness always makes me think a university course is a better idea. Massey University has a paper called Writing, Sub-Editing and Publishing which doesn't look quite so precisely what I'm after but is only $500. Realistically a university paper, even one, is more than I have time for. I thought I'd found the solution when I came across a one day workshop, Editing and Proofreading: Getting it Right run by Victoria University but the cost is $600 just for the day!

Maybe for now I should just read books on writing and editing.