World Habitat Day – 10/5/2009

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Photo courtesy of oxfam international at Flickr.com

Poverty has drastic effects on the natural world. People living without access to treated water, sustainable fuel supplies, or adequate food can have a huge impact on their surroundings. Slums and destructive farming techniques can do as much damage as SUVs and chemical spills.

To highlight this issue, the UN has an annual event that focuses attention on living conditions. World Habitat Day falls on the first Monday in October. The theme of this year’s celebration is Planning our Urban Future.

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Photo courtesy of andreasnilsson1976 at Flickr.com

Why should we focus on the urban environment? People are moving into cities at a staggering rate, and the way that these cities grow is going to have a huge impact on surrounding areas. At the dawn of the twentieth century, only 14% of humanity lived in cities. Now, more than half of all people call a city their home. Some of the largest cities have more than 10,000,000 inhabitants.

People who are starving are more interested in survival than in wildlife conservation. When your stomach is empty, conserving natural resources is an abstract concern. Without working sewage systems, trash services, or reliable electricity, people are unable to minimize their impact on the natural world.

Many endangered birds have beautiful plumage or produce enchanting birdsong, but starving people are unlikely to be interested in watching or listening to Blyth’s Tragopan Pheasants or Mandarin Ducks. They’re more likely to eat them.

Poverty is tightly associated with a host of environmental problems, including sewage contamination of wetlands, deforestation, and poaching ( for food as well as profit). When drought or poor management cause crops to fail, baboons, gazelles, elephants, and other endangered animals often show up on the dinner table. Native plants and animals are often featured in local medical and spiritual practices; when these species are harvested with modern technology, they are often unable to reproduce fast enough to replace their losses.

Poverty and cultural attachment were cited as the main reasons for bushmeat exploitation. Bushmeat-eating households regard bushmeat as more tasty and medicinal than livestock meat and fish

Looking down the road, there is major concern that climate change and over exploitation of resources by developed countries are going to make the problem worse. As new land is cleared for human use, wildlife habitat disappears. As the number of people living in an area grows, so do appetites for food and timber.

While a lot of attention has been focused on how McMansions waste resources, poor urban development is a problem that affects both the affluent and the indigent. For example, growing slums are also destroying forests to supply building materials and charcoal (for cooking and staying warm in the winter). Disease and illiteracy are major problems in these shanty towns that can easily affect the wealthier neighborhoods of town.

PE - World Habitat Day - The Advocacy Project
Photo courtesy of the Advocacy Project at Flickr.com

Even though poachers earn very little money from killing endangered species, wealth is relative. Small sums of money are often a kings ransom in third world countries. People who have no other job prospects are often tempted to break the law, especially when enforcement is weak or when the animals are seen as a nuisance.

“A villager can earn as much in one night from poisoning and skinning a tiger as he could earn from farming in five years. Eventually, that skin can sell for up to US$6,000 [HK$46,800] in Lhasa.”

To address these environmental issues, it’s important to tackle the root causes of deforestation, resource depletion, and poverty. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is encouraging leaders to engage their citizens in urban planning and to avoid letting inertia determine how we deal with these problems. If you have an idea or a novel solution to fighting urban blight or dependency, now is the time to speak up and act out.

According to the United Nations, more than 100 million people in the world today are homeless. Millions more face a severe housing problem living without adequate sanitation, with irregular or no electricity supply and without adequate security.

Even if those millions of people are squatting in alleyways, hiding under tin sheets, and digging through garbage today, tomorrow they will move mountains and uproot forests in their search for food and shelter. The question of our generation is how to enlist their help in building a healthier, safer, and greener future.

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Photo courtesy of Enzinho83 at Flickr.com

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Be green, and bank some green with these contests

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Photo courtesy of Shira Golding

Earth Day has come and gone, but there are still a lot of contests going on that focus on environmentally friendly ideas. If you have green skills or an innovative idea, here are some fun contests that offer a chance to keep changing the world:

Show Us Your Green Contest from Threadless T-Shirts:
Prize: $3813.74 (and growing as more people participate)
Method of entry: Digital Picture on Flickr or Tweetpic along with a typed description on Tweet
Deadline: April 27, 2009

Spring Dream Challenge from Lowes
Prize: $301-2672 (different prize packs based on the entry category)
Method of entry: YouTube video
Deadline: May 3, 2009

Escape to Alaska or Bust Contest from Alaska Wildland Adventures
Prize: 8 Day / 7 Night Lodge stay with a wildlife expedition
Method of entry: Up to 33,000 characters in essay format
Deadline: May 22, 2009

The Green Effect Contest by Frito Lay’s SunChips & National Geographic
Prize: $20,000 to spend on a green cause
Method of entry: 100-250 word proposal for improve the environment, with up to 4 pictures in support and up to 3 minutes of video explanation
Deadline: June 8, 2009

How are you spending Earth Hour on March 28th?

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Photo courtesy of Earth Hour Global at Flickr.com.

Once a year, environmentalists around the world turn out the lights for an hour. This year, Earth Hour falls on Saturday, March 28th, and many different homes, offices, and government buildings are taking part. The organizers of Earth Hour hope to raise awareness of how much energy we waste with inefficient lighting systems. For one hour a year, everyone can take part and see the beauty of the natural sky that’s lost due to light pollution.

The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations are hard at work planning activities for Earth Hour 2009, ranging from star watching and recycling events to tree plantings and slumber parties. Find an Earth Hour event nearby, or if there aren’t any, you can plan one yourself with help from the Earth Hour Facebook group!

Now’s the time to raise your voice and take part. Are businesses and government offices in your town participating in Earth Hour? Check the latest Earth Hour news, and if City Hall isn’t taking part, now is a good time to ask pointed questions of your elected officials. While they’re on the line, why not ask about steps that the city is taking to retrofit energy efficient devices into public buildings and legislation that improves local air quality?

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how we destroy the night sky for the other 8,765 hours of the year…
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Photo courtesy of fyngyrz at Flickr.com.

How to plant a victory garden

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Photo courtesy of Sunfell at Flickr.com.

Everything old is new again. This is doubly true for trends that never went completely out of fashion, like vinyl records and Victory Gardens. Originally conceived during World War I as a way to ensure food supplies for troops, these community gardens took off in a big way during the second World War. By 1944, up to 40% of the vegetables on American tables came from a Victory Garden.

Now, with the rising price of staple foods, increasing awareness of the environmental cost of industrial farming, and increased interest in self sufficiency and independence, Victory Gardens are making a serious comeback. The Smithsonian Institute has a new exhibit on Victory Gardens, and vegetable rows are replacing ornamental bushes nationwide.

Modern-day Victory Gardens look a little different – gardeners are now blogging about their successes and even using Twitter to send gardening updates!

Success with Victory Gardens is snowballing into more awareness of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Urban food pantries are stocking up with fresh fruit gleaned from “ornamental” trees. Believe it or not, some HOA’s are embracing community gardens. There’s even a campaign to start a Victory Garden on the White House lawn:

Benefits of a victory garden:

  • Cut grocery bills
  • Gain access to fresher food
  • Boost vitamins in your diet
  • Increase the health of your soil
  • Insure against food shortages
  • Reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
  • Avoid disease (or ensure access to your favorite veggies if an outbreak occurs)
  • Preserve oil supplies / reduce dependence on foreign oil
  • Grow produce for sale or gifts

So, let’s say that you’ve been bitten by the Victory Gardening bug. Where to begin?

It can be a bit daunting to start your first Victory Garden. There’s a lot to learn about soil, planting seasons, and local weather conditions. Hit the books! The library is a good place to start – a little bit of research can go a long way in getting the best results. As the old saying goes, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of perspiration. Your state’s Extension Office can also be a good source of information and expert advice.

Try looking for help from your neighbors – local gardening clubs often know the best times to plant and which species do best in your area. Find a local Gardening MeetUp, and you’ll find a pool of knowledge and maybe even people willing to lend you seeds or cuttings from their favorite plants. No matter which plants you choose, PBS is a great resource for beginner gardeners.

In the past, Victory Gardens were all laid out from a universal template. That didn’t work out very well for people who tried to grow the same plants in California as they did in Maine and Florida. Instead of a cookie cutter layout, you should tailor your garden to local conditions. Work with your climate to choose the best plants. For example, even if you love rice, it may not make sense to grow rice if you live in the middle of the desert.

We’ve learned a lot in the last 50 years, and it’s easier to start a vegetable garden in your yard than ever before. Incorporate this knowledge in the layout and composition of your victory garden, and you can achieve amazing results. Our grandparents didn’t have much practical experience on designing to minimize erosion or using cover crops that naturally fertilize the soil, but there’s a wealth of useful information on these techniques. Here are some other research topics that you might want to consider:

Even if you have limited space or no yard, Victory Gardens can be grown in containers and indoor planters. Hanging planters can turn any patio or balcony into a vertical garden.

If you don’t have a patio, many plants will thrive in window planters or grow boxes. There are also light boxes and grow lights that can turn the deepest, darkest basement into an oasis of life. Indoor plants not only make rooms beautiful – they also can help reduce sick building syndrome by providing fresh air and absorbing indoor pollutants.

Not a gardener? No problem. There are entrepreneurs eager to turn other people’s yards into gardens. Also, there are other steps you can take to promote food safety and sustainability.

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Photo courtesy of mental.masala at Flickr.com.