This excerpt from "Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet: Everyday Things to Help Solve Global Warming," by Eric Sorensen and the staff of Sightline Institute, published by Sierra Club Books, is an ode to seven everyday devices that are friends of the climate (and your pocketbook, neighbors, health and children). More subversively, Seven Wonders is...
Excerpted from “Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet: Everyday Things to Help Solve Global Warming,” by Eric Sorensen and the staff of Sightline Institute, copyright (c) 2008 by Sightline Institute. Published by Sierra Club Books (www.sierraclub.org/books/). Used by permission.
Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet is an ode to seven everyday devices which are so powerful, elegant, and in most cases simple, that they are and always have been friends of the climate (and also of your pocketbook, neighbors, health and children).
More subversively, Seven Wonders is a way to think — illustrated seven ways — about solving the climate crisis. It’s a way to reimagine the problem, starting with a few mostly low-tech tools and notions.
Most Read Stories
- Are your neighbors getting vaccinated against COVID-19? Take an area-by-area look in King County
- West Virginia factory is center stage in supply chain crisis as U.S. economy seeks to rebound from COVID
- Even with vaccines, COVID will always be with us; here's why
- Coronavirus daily news updates, May 10: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
- Here’s what we really know about omega-3s and brain health
Each of the seven wonders carries the weight of a larger idea, a more encompassing way to see the global-warming challenge and its solutions.
A human on a bicycle is more efficient (in calories expended per pound and per mile) than a train, airplane, boat, automobile, canoe or jet pack.
Bicycles are sustainable wonders because of what they don’t do. At zero pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions a day, versus the car’s one pound per mile, a bike does not alter the global climate.
In the long run, the measures most crucial to getting more people on their feet and their bikes are those that fight sprawl. On average, city dwellers drive a third as much — and half as fast — as suburbanites.
Tax codes and land-use regulations can reward builders who fill in space in existing cities and towns, not those who turn farm and forest land into “Foxmeadow Farms” subdivisions and “Cedar Knolls” business parks.
Today, human beings will have sex more than 100 million times. Today’s sex will also make one million women around the world pregnant — about half of them unintentionally.
The condom is a remarkable little device; a fraction of an ounce, and thin as 1/500 of an inch, it simultaneously fights three of the most serious problems facing humans: sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and population growth.
Researchers theorize that just a 14 percent increase in the use of contraceptives could translate into 1 billion fewer births by the middle of this century. A billion fewer humans might spare the planet perhaps 4 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions each year.
Inadequate contraception is not just a Third World issue. Roughly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended. And a baby born in North America will use roughly 25 times more resources over the course of its life than a baby born in the developing world.
The Ceiling Fan
Air conditioning has profoundly changed life in the U.S., with some dubious benefits. Whole cities — Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas — owe much of their post-World War II prosperity to engineered air.
Better energy efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean investing in new technologies. Much of the time, a ceiling fan will be enough for keeping cool. Even when it’s not, with a fan going, you can set a thermostat 9 degrees higher and feel just as comfortable — and save about a third off your cooling (and global-warming) bill.
Because an office worker feels about 5 degrees warmer in a coat and tie than in a short-sleeve shirt, simply allowing employees to dress casually can save an office roughly $300 per employee in cooling and electrical-equipment costs.
In an hour and 15 minutes, the Earth receives as much energy in the form of sunlight as humans officially use in a year.
If American rooftops were covered with solar shingles, they could supply half to three-quarters of the country’s present energy needs; winds are capable of supplying roughly one and a half times all the electricity used nationwide. The clothesline is only the most obvious way to tap into the renewable energy all around us.
If investors and energy users had to pay (through taxes or other mechanisms, such as a cap and trade program) for all the pollution, health problems and climate change caused by fossil fuels, renewables would quickly take over the world-energy market.
Clotheslines would spring up in North American backyards faster than dandelions.
The Library Book
The essential wonder of libraries is that they reduce the need for newly manufactured goods.
Each American goes through roughly two pounds of paper a day, while the U.S. pulp and paper industry is the nation’s second-largest industrial consumer of energy.
Fortunately, books and other paper products can be enjoyed at a fraction of their current climate impact if they are given second chances at life.
Those old-fashioned interdepartmental envelopes are the cutting edge of Earth-friendly packaging, designed to be reused 30 times or more. Despite a recycling rate of around 70 percent, containerboard is the single largest component of the nation’s waste stream. What if documents and goods traveled instead in “interdestinational” packaging, with crossed-out names tracing each package’s many lives?
The digital systems that microchips inhabit are helping us cut down on commuting, making warehouses irrelevant and creating an economy built around information more than around fuel-consuming stuff.
The microchip does use lots of electricity, most notably in the vast Internet-processing facilities known as data centers, or server farms. Overall, though, as we make and move less stuff, we save energy. In fact, Web titan Google is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on renewable- energy investments in a move that could slash its energy bills, even while it prevents pollution and ramps up clean-power alternatives.
The Real Tomato
FOR MUCH OF THE YEAR, a hundred-plus farmers from across Washington state make weekly pilgrimages to Seattle, bringing the tastes of the countryside to small neighborhood farmers markets scattered around the city. Billy Allstot brings strawberries, peppers and eggplants from the Okanogan Valley. Dennis Schultz brings kiwis from his Green Water Farm on the Olympic Peninsula. And if it’s Thursday, you’ll find Richard Ness in the Lake City neighborhood overseeing tables of fresh-picked gems with names like Kellogg’s Breakfast, Cherokee Purple, Yellow Brandywine and White Queen.
Shoppers stand two and three deep, paying a premium price. “They want it fresh,” says Ness, who farms in Ellensburg, in the Kittitas Valley, just east of the Cascade Mountains. “They’re demanding people.”
Vine-ripened, truly flavorful tomatoes like Ness’s are a staple of farmers’ markets, a growing institution with more than 4,000 across the nation.
Ness’s tomatoes are lessons in the merits of a fresh fruit or vegetable, alive with tangy and sometimes exotic flavor, a voyage of culinary discovery as old as the Aztecs.
They also show how far the tomato has come. Too far, if you’re considering the thing most often called a tomato these days.
It started as a wild fruit in the Andes of western South America, then was a farmed fruit among the Aztecs of Central America. There it fell into the hands and mouths of Spanish conquistadors, priests and functionaries, who introduced it to the Philippines, the Caribbean and Europe.
Colonists brought it back across the Atlantic to North America, where eventually food packers found a way to squeeze billions of them into narrow-necked bottles of ketchup that lurk in seven out of nine refrigerators.
The tomato — botanically a fruit but legally a vegetable after an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision — is ubiquitous and hugely popular, the second most common fresh vegetable after lettuce. It is also infamous, reduced over the years from a juicy grenade of flavor to the mealy, bland, thick-skinned hardball that some shoppers now think of as the norm.
“People have gotten used to a hard tomato,” says Ness, who grows a dozen varieties of old-line heirloom tomatoes. “If they come by a soft one, they think it’s ‘spoiled.’ “
The tomato is a road warrior, picked apple-hard and “mature green,” then ethylene gassed to a pale-red illusion of ripeness. It tolerates rough handling, long bouts of storage and display and lots of travel.
Tomatoes can grow in all 50 states, but just two — California and Florida — account for two-thirds of fresh tomatoes grown in the country. Along with the rest of our nation’s fresh vegetables, they travel 1,500 to 2,500 miles to market, according to several studies.
As recently as the 1950s, the fruits and vegetables eaten in most major cities were grown on nearby farms. But refrigerated transport, interstates and advances in storage quickly took the show on the road. And the distance food travels is only growing longer. More than one-fourth of Americans’ fresh fruits (including a third of its tomatoes) were imported in 2001, more than double the amount in 1985.
So even in the peak of summer, when tomatoes are ripening in gardens around the country, American supermarkets will sell mass-produced hothouse tomatoes from Canada and Roma tomatoes from Mexico.
The result: tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, often when nearby food choices can be grown, processed and shipped with much less energy.
As Americans learn more about agriculture’s impact, more and more consumers are stepping outside of the mainstream food system. They’re eating more organic food. Or they’re cutting back on meat.
In the U.S., people eat more meat and poultry (200 pounds a year on average) than in any other nation. Livestock production consumes almost half the energy used in American agriculture.
The problems arising from animal agriculture are vexing enough with just one in four people worldwide eating a meat-centered diet. There’s no way the world can support 6 billion — much less a future population of 8 to 12 billion — heavy meat eaters.
Eating organic also can go a long way to reducing the environmental impact of your menu. Fossil fuel-based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides account for more than one-third of the energy used on U.S. farms. But organic food can fall short when food miles start entering the equation.
Author Eric Sorensen is a former science reporter for The Seattle Times. Sightline Institute is a Seattle-based nonprofit think tank.