Sustaining Changes

In my efforts to get healthier, I have changed some habits which are having positive results; most notably what and how much I eat.  It is clear that if I sustain these changes, it will continue to benefit me by reducing my likelihood of some diseases, making clothes shopping less depressing, and in aligning me closer to my self-image.  Making these changes has been a challenging endeavor which requires a heightened sense of consciousness to avoid falling in to old habits.  As an example, yesterday I went in to a gas station to say hello to a neighbor who works there and I needed to fight my urge to buy some junk food and a sugary beverage which is exactly what I used to do.  I browsed around the store and ended up buying a small pack of almonds and refilling my stainless steel water bottle.  As I drove home and ate my almonds, I thought they tasted delicious and that is one of the more notable things with my efforts, the foods I am eating taste better than they used to.  Some days I am tempted by unhealthy foods but mostly I do not miss them.  I miss the habits and situations that used to accompany them, so I am making new habits and new associations, ultimately re-training my brain which is an iterative process with it’s up and downs as you can see from my daily weigh ins above.  Some days I take a few steps up the down escalator but most importantly, the escalator has continued in the desired direction.

Today, Earth Day 2017, I was thinking about the importance of sustainable changes like the ones I making towards better health.  The mindset required for making more environmentally conscious decisions also requires a sense of consciousness and will require breaking some old habits.  This can mean different things to different people but what is one sustaining change that you can make to help improve the long term sustainability of our planet?  I am genuinely interested in your ideas and resisting my urge to list a plethora of examples / choices.

The human disposition

My wife recently discovered a lump on my body and a closer inspection found a second one. This was a concerning discovery and I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for later that week. In the days leading up to my appointment I had some internal angst, worried about cancer and various other potential issues. This got me to thinking more about death and I recalled a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency blog I had seen detailing options for ‘dying greener’.

Conventional funerals, burials, and cremations are typically not environmentally friendly. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, cemeteries across the U.S. each year bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (includes formaldehyde), 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets), 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets), 1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults), and 14,000 tons of steel (vaults). Flame-based cremation is typically the best of the three traditional methods but is also energy intensive and little regard is given for the release of mercury and other emissions that come from the process.

Our traditional means of human disposal is not at the top of the list of environmental concerns, but like many things it presents an opportunity to improve. Over 10 years ago The Mayo Clinic created a process called Alkaline Hydrolysis as a means of disposing of cadavers more efficiently. Today that process is becoming more mainstream with progressive funeral homes offering it as a ‘green option’. It is sometimes called bio cremation, green cremation, or flameless cremation. The process places the deceased in to a steel cylinder that is filled with 95% water and 5% alkali which are heated to 350 degrees. This makes complete decomposition, which would normally take about 25 years, only take about 2-3 hours. The end result is nothing but some soft bone fragments and possibly mercury cavity fillings remaining, everything else is dissolved in to a sterile solution. Dexter Morgan could have really benefitted from having access to this technology.

At the doctor, my lumps ended up being nothing to be overly concerned about (lipoma, a benign body fat tumor). Regardless, it is good to know that when my time comes I can be taken to the Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater and boiled in to dust using less energy and emitting 75% less carbon than alternatives. I also saw a video about burial pods on my nieces Facebook feed recently. That is an interesting thought as well and could transform would be cemeteries in to forests.

Ikea revisited

In 2013 I blogged about (and tainted) Ikea for their lack of environmental sustainability. They recently joined a growing list of companies who are upstaging governments and have pledged over a billion dollars to help fight climate change and they are making numerous steps to improve their business practices which were previously lacking. Ikea Chief Sustainability Officer, Steve Howard, has been given the latitude to assemble a team to make real progress and improvements. The key to validating improvement on most things is to measure it, make educated decisions on where to apply effort, apply effort, and re-measure. That is the simplistic approach Howard is taking and he is the first to recognize it is an iterative process. He discussed this in part at his TED Talk.

Where some companies seem to talk sustainability for marketing purposes, Ikea’s commitment is genuine. In 2014, 42% of their total energy consumption came from renewables. With over 700,000 solar panels installed on Ikea buildings and a commitment to own and operate 224 wind turbines, they have quickly outpaced their competitors. They are well on pace with core things like water and energy conservation but more importantly have taken serious stock in obtaining materials from sustainable sources. In 2014, that was 41% of their wood and 75% of their cotton as examples. They are also shifting their portfolio of products to help home owners be more sustainable.

Recognizing that ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’, I hereby approve shopping at Ikea again if you are unable to re-purpose or salvage something.

Turning down the service

In the late 90’s or early 2000’s I took a work trip to Chicago and stayed at the Omni Hotel on Michigan Avenue. At that time the hotel was better known by the phrase “Guests of the Oprah Winfrey show stay at the all-suite Omni Hotel” which concluded each episode of Oprah. Fast forward ~15 years and a work trip brought me back to the Omni Hotel. The hotel truly is a luxury hotel in a great location and not too long ago it went through an $11M renovation. The public information about the renovation boasts about the upgraded public spaces, new guest and specialty suites, and a unique blend of modern and historical charm.

Returning to my room one evening is what first got my attention to their lack of sustainable practices. As I entered my room I found the TV on the relaxation channel, several lights on, the furnace on, and my ice bucket filled up. All of which had been off / empty when I left my room. It seems the turn down service attendant had followed protocol and prepared my room for me to turn in. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the lamps in the room all contained incandescent bulbs. It seems the $11M renovation did not include any modernizing of the room lighting. In hindsight, I should have done more research prior to booking my stay.

I reached out to the front desk and was told to leverage my do not disturb sign to avoid turn down service and was referred to the website for contacts to discuss sustainability practices further. I voiced my concerns respectfully to their leadership, asking them to consider making the turn down service an opt in practice. The next day I received a call saying that they would flag my account if I wanted and then would not change my bedding, towels, or turn down my room going forward if desired. I had them go ahead and do so, but the person on the phone was not the right resource to discuss the broader issue.

Most hotels these days have an Environmental Mission Statement and have instituted numerous things to help reduce energy consumption. Next time I will do more research first and likely stay at a Wyndham, Marriott, Starwood, InterContinental, Fairmont, or Hilton who are all more invested in environmental stewardship and sustainability. In a city as green as Chicago, where there are solar powered trash and recycling compactors on most blocks, the Omni hotel is a disappointment. Lastly, I should mention that the Omni Dallas made great investments while being built in order to achieve LEED certification; including capturing rain water for irrigation use, automated lighting and thermal controls, automated guest room energy management systems, water saving fixtures, low VOC products, recycled building materials, and more.

See something, Say something

The “If You See Something, Say Something” mantra became commonplace after 9/11 and there is still an active campaign by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which they licensed from the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The campaign includes signs stating this near airport entrances, public service announcements, partnerships with various agencies, and more. At the core of the DHS initiative is the idea that “It takes a community to protect a community. Informed, alert communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe.” After watching a Frontline episode last night (American Terrorist) which outlined the story of David Headley and the failures of intelligence analysis to prevent the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the need for everyday citizens to speak up when something seems wrong is critical. Despite their best efforts, security agencies cannot effectively review the 3 million e-mails sent every minute and the countless other online communications to keep nations safe from terrorism. They require the help of everyday citizens to speak up.

At the start of today, I found myself very frustrated. It is Earth Day and the amount of fanfare and conversations about it seem very limited. Many folks I have encountered seem to have no knowledge of it and give it no more thought than National Candy Corn Day, Peculiar People Day, or Talk like Shakespeare Day. Yes, those are all real “days”. On the one hand it is sad that we need an Earth Day and that every day is not spent helping to better promote caring for the one planet we have. On the other hand, we will see an increase in some media coverage today regarding the importance of mitigating our use of fossil fuels which might spark some healthy dialogue. Unfortunately much of the media attention today thus far has been focused on the differing opinions and giving equal airtime to those opposed to action despite the overwhelming evidence that the time to act has been in hand for a long time. One example is president Obama giving an address on the importance of taking action while in the Florida Everglades today. The leading media outlets are busy talking about how the fossil fuel funded presidential nominees are responding and the uncertainty they feel there is on man’s impact to the warming planet. The story should be as simple as 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred this century, the last global cold temperature record was in 1911, the greenhouse effect has been well understood for nearly 200 years, and more than 97% of peer reviewed papers on the subject agree that global warming is real and being caused by human activity. Global warming is not something to believe in or not believe in, it is a scientific explanation for the facts.

Part of my frustration stems from a lack of meaningful action being taken by society as a whole, or I should clarify, the frustration stems mostly from a lack of meaningful action being taken by the U.S. Working towards handing future generations a planet thriving and sustainable should be a core priority to be taking the lead on. Instead, we (the U.S.) consistently see profit margins and the economy taking priority over the environment. One recent example is the desire by some in Congress to turn over the federal public lands and national parks to states to manage. This includes a provision allowing the states to privatize the land for mining, drilling, and to sell portions to real estate companies in the name of economic progress. Sure, selling some of the northern Minnesota forests to a paper mill might create some jobs and additional tax revenue, but what if every state acted selfishly like this and did not consider the broader impacts? If we want economic benefits and a healthier planet, the answer is a carbon fee and dividend program which will help gradually shift us away from fossil fuels while not punishing taxpayers.

So on this Earth Day, let’s not lose sight of our moral, spiritual, and personal responsibility to care for this pale blue dot. We as a collective society need to do more of See something, Say something. There is a fine between bringing a concern forward and getting traction versus appearing like a crazy person. I have had various successes and failures in this area and have no doubt a few people I have engaged view me as radical, in part because my approach was not as respectful and articulate as it should have been. Implementing an environmental See something Say something campaign could be trying to get your local sports facility to recycle, getting your kids school to stop using polystyrene, or trying to get your company to investigate the ROI on installing solar panels where the typical ROI is now 7-10 years. Regardless of your passions, establishing a constructive dialog is usually the first step in making improvements so on this Earth Day and every day that follows; let’s not be afraid to use our voice.

Tainted: North Dakota

First, I feel it is important to say that I have friends and family in North Dakota (ND) and I am confident that there are plenty of good people in the state doing good things. Hopefully tainting ND does not get me uninvited to an upcoming wedding. However, the way the fossil fuel industry is running portions of the state is not in humanity’s best interest. A recent L.A. Times article outlined the volume of natural gas flaring currently being done in ND. The picture above illustrates this well; in the Williston Basin where the Bakken oil fields are there is not a major metropolitan area and yet a picture from outer space depicts a different story, simply from all of the natural gas flares being burned and wasted. Currently $1 billion worth of natural gas is flared each year in ND, about 30% of total production. There are not too many industries where you can ‘throw away’ 30% of your product and still be highly profitable. But natural gas flaring and wasted energy are just the tip of the iceberg in Western ND. Portions of the state are neck deep in an “oil boom” which has helped lead to an incredibly low unemployment rate but has brought on numerous unintended consequences. ND has failed to get ahead of the needs surrounding infrastructure, crime prevention, and governance. This has led to overuse and erosion of infrastructure, a wave of illegal waste dumping and other crime, and disputes over land and mineral rights. There are examples where it appears as though the fossil fuel industry has politicians bought and paid for or perhaps have just been allowed to conduct business to make the most profit with little regard for the long term economic and environmental consequences. ND produces over a million barrels of oil per day and has 17,500 miles of pipelines. In September 2013 a spill released over 20k barrels and was only reported to the public after an Associated Press inquiry. It is a relief to know that while oil covered over 7 acres, officials stated no wildlife was harmed and no groundwater was contaminated <sarcasm>. Cleanup crews opted to burn oil on the surface and later dug ditches to collect and vacuum what remained. Starting oil on fire as a cleanup procedure is an interesting approach, let’s hope they do not begin doing that at local car repair shops. Further research revealed that there have been over 300 spills since January 2012 that were never reported to the public. Jim Fuglie, a ND native and former governor appointed Director of Tourism has a great blog outlining more of the issues here. If the oil ever does run out, ND has the single largest known deposit of lignite (coal) in the world and may choose to move from exporting one dirty fuel source to another. And a few final statistics on ND; the state’s energy consumption per capita is the 4th highest in the US, 79% of all electricity generation comes from coal, and wind farms have taken a back seat to oil despite the state being ranked 6th highest in wind energy potential with average wind speeds of 10-13 mph.

Earth day Every day

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Earth Day is a tradition of bringing environmental concerns in to our consciousness.  While we no longer accept air pollution as ‘prosperity’ or use leaded gasoline like we did 44 years ago when Earth Day began, there is still plenty of room for improvement.  As a collective society, we still have not completely accepted our role in climate change nor have we made serious efforts to improve our behavior.

Thinking about the current dependencies we have on fossil fuels is astounding.  In one quick example; we step in to a car which (likely) burns oil and gas, many components of the car are made from plastics which are derived from oil, the street we drive on is oil based, the tires are oil based, the food we are going to pick up at the store is encased in plastic and goes in a plastic bag and we pay for the stuff with, you guessed it plastic.

While eliminating fossil fuels from our everyday lives might seem impossible, we need to make more significant iterative steps towards changing.  The greenhouse effect has been well understood since the late 1800’s and any peer reviewed science article will tell you that pulling resources out of the earth and burning them is not a long term sustainable practice.  Our planet and our atmosphere are not limitless so we need to stop treating them like an infinite toilet bowl.  Thanks to my good friend Tim for letting me paraphrase and plagiarize much of the detail below.

Recent reports by the world’s best scientists stress that the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans.  Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and people’s livelihoods.  The observed impacts are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest – nobody is untouched.  More intense and frequent weather events such as flooding, drought and fire have occurred and will become worse.  Unchecked carbon emissions put at risk agriculture, global security, human health, water resources and the economy.  The reports also conclude that there are opportunities to respond to these risks, though the risks will be difficult to manage if we wait much longer to implement policies to deal with them.

I have three requests of you.

First – If you don’t know about climate change or are unsure about it I hope that you would take 30 minutes to read the first two documents below (the third is bonus material).  The papers in the following URLs are derived from the best climate scientists we have in the world and all are rooted in peer reviewed science.

  1. The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change – This 20 page report is one of the best, easy to read summaries, that I have seen.  It is written by the American Association for the Advancement of Science who is the group behind Science magazine and one of the world’s largest non-governmental science organizations.
  2. A Discussion on Climate Change: Evidence and Causes – This summary paper is from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council is designed to summarize the science of climate change for general audience consumption – it too is excellent.
  3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report – this is a detailed report (warning it’s long) with lots of “in the weeds science” on climate change and the risks associated with it.

Some people have the general opinion that climate change is a “naturally occurring event”, a “hoax”, something conjured up by “alarmists”, is a “conspiracy” or something similar.  If you know someone like this encourage them with an open heart and mind to watch the PBS Frontline report “Climate of Doubt” and/or read the peer-reviewed Drexel University study on the climate change countermovement.

Second – Contact your U.S. Senators and U.S. House of Representative on a quarterly basis and let them know you’d like to see congressional action, now, to address climate change.   Climate change has been made to be a political issue – it is not.  Thermometers don’t care if you are Republican or Democrat.  Climate change is a moral, economic, and national security issue and Congress should be implementing policies on how to solve it.  Waiting has not and will not help anybody.

Third – Please speak to friends and family about this very important topic and/or forward this link to them.  The great news is that we have the technology to meet the challenge.  However, we have a short window to invoke policies that will allow the greatness of the United States to be innovative and be a world leader in staving off the greatest risks of human caused climate change.

Finally, I used to think that climate change was something I was concerned about for my kids as they got older – this was false thinking.  For 29 years in a row global temperatures have been above the 20th century average and 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have occurred in in the 21st century.  Climate change risks the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, the planet we have been entrusted to care for by God, our economy, our own families health, and our kids/grandkids future(s).  We have the solutions to avoid the risks and damage.  Please join me in having respectful conversations with those you know and with our elected officials about climate change.