Sunday, July 31, 2011

A sustainable airport restaurant?

I just had an absolutely delicious breakfast torta for about $10 at Rick Bayless' Tortas Frontera at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport.  The food was freshly and carefully prepared by a staff that was clearly made up of chefs and those on track to be chefs.  The music was hip.  And, not only was the food delicious (I've NEVER raved about an airport eatery--it REALLY was delicious), it was obvious that a lot of care went into the selection of ways to serve it (recycled paper boxes, compostable utensils, 100% post-consumer waste napkins, etc.).  And, get this, the ingredients were (mostly?) locally sourced from named farmers! Never seen anything like this at an airport eatery.

We need more of these to help us make sustainable choices while traveling!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fettucini with lobster sauce

Last year I failed to make our lobster bisque before Janice went back to LA.  This year I didn't want to make that mistake.  However, we didn't have any fresh bread today so I modified the recipe in Eating Our Way to Civility:  A Dinner Party Guide for lobster bisque and turned it into a soupy pasta sauce.  If I had time to make a fresh egg fettucini (recipe also in the book), it would have even been better.

You'll have to get a copy of the book for the main recipe, but here's how I modified it.

I used a one cup of heavy whipping cream, and about 2 Tbs of cognac in the sauce/bisque.  

To plate, I put a mound of pasta in a pasta bowl, ladeled 2 ladles of the bisque onto the pasta and sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on the top.

YUM!  We had it for a late lunch and it seems to have been enough for dinner too!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New report on greening your diet

The Environmental Working Group just released a life-cycle analysis of the impact of eating different foods.  Read the report, but one of the main take-home messages (in their words) is:

"Lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases. With the exception of salmon, they also tend to have the worst environmental impacts, because producing them requires the most resources – mainly chemical fertilizer, feed, fuel, pesticides and water – and pound for pound, they generate more polluting manure. On the health front, the scientific evidence is increasingly clear that eating too much of these greenhouse gas-intensive meats boosts exposure to toxins and increases the risk of a wide variety of serious health problems, including heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and, in some studies, diabetes.

Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging (although a few studies of the impact on climate show mixed results for grass-fed versus confined-feedlot meat) (Pelletier 2010, Gurian-Sherman 2011). Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices. In some cases, grass-fed and pasture-raised products have also been shown to be more nutritious and carry less risk of bacterial contamination.

Greenhouse gas emissions vary depending on the quantity of chemical fertilizers, fuel and other “production inputs” used, differences in soil conditions and production systems and the extent to which best practices (cover cropping, intensive grazing, manure management, etc.) are implemented along the entire supply chain. While best management practices can demonstrably reduce overall emissions and environmental harm, the most effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts from livestock is simply to eat, waste and produce less meat and dairy."

The cheese message was a new one for me!

In a line: eat less meat and cheese and buy them carefully when you do...lessons that Eating our way to civility:  a dinner party guide supports!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Light bulb regulation: a good step forward?

I have to say that I have mixed feelings about government guidelines that seek to ban incandescent light bulbs.  Sure, we're dealing with century-old technology but why not just subsidize the shift, as many communities have, to compact fluorescent light bulbs?

That said, the LA Times recently came out with support for light bulb standards.  I'm reprinting it here because I think it's a reasonable argument:


Light-bulb standards equal energy efficiency

Resistance to light-bulb efficiency standards is foolish and contrary to the nation's goal of energy independence.

Refrigerators and cars have become more energy-efficient. Water heaters and windows have too. So it's strange that so many politicians cling to old-style incandescent light bulbs.

Contrary to what congressional critics have been saying, a law passed during the
George W. Bush administration does not ban incandescent bulbs. Rather, it phases in higher requirements for energy efficiency that the old incandescents — in use for more than 100 years since they were developed by Thomas Edison — do not meet because much of their energy creates heat rather than light. Starting in 2012, the traditional 100-watt bulbs go off the market, followed over the next two years by lower-wattage bulbs. California is moving ahead even more quickly, phasing out the 100-watt bulb this year.

Once the phase-out is fully in place, the law will save consumers about $12 billion a year in energy costs; the average California household will save $124 a year. And more than utility bills are at stake. Conservation is one of the fastest and most effective paths to energy independence. The bulb law will save the country more energy than it takes to power a third of the state of California.
And even though compact fluorescent bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, making them harder to dispose of, the law will reduce mercury pollution overall by eliminating the need for 30 coal-fired power plants.

The incandescent bulb is an old favorite, shedding a warm glow. It's cheap to purchase (though other bulbs ultimately cost a lot less). That's why politicians have begun efforts to repeal the bulb law. After one such bill failed in the House last week,
Republicans revived and passed it in the form of an amendment to the Energy Department's appropriations bill, stripping out funding for enforcing the law. That amendment faces more resistance in the Senate, but the move has given impetus to efforts in several states to get around the law by exempting bulbs manufactured and sold within state boundaries. Such a measure passed the Texas Legislature; others are pending in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

It remains to be seen whether those state bills would have much impact. The light-bulb industry supports the new energy standards and has been closing old production lines and improving technologies. An incandescent-halogen hybrid looks the same as the traditional bulb yet meets the federal standard. New fluorescents give off a warmer light than they used to. Light-emitting diode, or LED, bulbs initially cost a bundle — $30 or so — but provide the desired glow, last decades, are dimmable and use a fraction of the energy.

Many opponents complain that the bulb law is an unwarranted government intrusion on their right to buy the product of their choice. But it's actually about setting standards for production, which the government does in many areas. Cribs must meet safety standards; new homes must meet energy standards; roofs have to meet fire standards.

Reducing both energy dependence and pollution is vital to the nation's future and collective health; on balance, individual consumers give up little and gain much. Edison himself, ever the forward thinker, probably would have approved.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Subsidize vegetables?

Mark Bittman has done it again! In a NY Times Op-Ed he suggests that we tax unhealthful foods (he suggests 2 cents per ounce for sweetened drinks and 50 cents for an order of fries!) and subsidize the production of healthy vegetables.  By selling dried legumes, whole grains and seasonal vegetables (everywhere--and thus solving the problem of food deserts that many urban poor live in) for 50 cents/pound he argues that the barriers to buying wholesome food will be lowered and he goes on to argue that our health care costs will be lowered because people will be healthier.

Read the op-ed and discuss this at the dinner table: how would you feel about government taxing foods that are considered unhealthful?  Do you see any downsides?  Is this the start of a slippery slope of regulation?  Is that a bad thing if it's in our best interests?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Classic Chicken Marbella

Want to have an easy dinner party main dish that just requires throwing into the oven and plating?  Go no further than this classic adapted from the Silver Palate Cookbook.

Chicken Marbella, the classic 1980's party dish is simple, classy, and delicious.  I marinate it overnight but throw ALL of the ingredients into the marinade.  Then about 1 hour before serving, throw it into an oven and serve it with rice-cooker cooked rice.  Can't get much easier than this.

Here's how I make the recipe.

3-4 pounds of chicken thighs (skin on adds flavor and moisture)
1 head of garlic, chopped
1/4 cup dried oregano
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup large green olives, halved or quartered
1/2 cup capers (with a little juice to add 'natural' saltiness)
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine

Marinate the chicken overnight in the refridgerator.  About 1 hour before serving, put into a covered heavy pot into a pre-heated 350°F oven. When you start smelling the sweet smells (usually about 45 min after putting it in, depending upon the size of the chicken pieces) check to see how well cooked the chicken is.  When it's juicy but no longer red, it's done. 

Serve in a shallow dish, garnish with chopped Italian flat leaf parsley on freshly cooked rice.  Spoon the marinade over the chicken and rice.  Yum.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ecotourism: Loving nature to death?

I love being outside and I love to see wild animals and landscapes.  Such ecotourism is great in that it bonds people to nature and natural places, but it isn't always cost-free.  Earlier this year, my research group published a paper in the journal Current Zoology that showed that lizards respond to the sounds of digital SLR cameras as they do to predators--fearfully!  Now, a research group studying Barbary macaques (a primate that lives in Morocco) showed, in a forthcoming paper in the journal Biological Conservation (Maréchal et al. 2011), that increases in tourists led to the macaques scratching themselves more (a behavioral measure of anxiety) but only aggressive interactions with tourists (when people teased the macaques or pushed them away) led to a physiological stress response.

These and other studies show that human presence around wild animals, even well-habituated ones, is not benign.  Get outside, but tread lightly when you're outside!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ethics of industrial farming

Chickens are most often raised in horrendous conditions that create all sorts of health risks for them and for those who eat them.  Indeed pathogens like Salmonella often are cultivated along with the chickens which create risks for consumers. A forthcoming  study in the the journal of Applied Environmental Microbiology (by Robert J. Atterburry and colleagues) shows that by giving young chicks a particular bacteria (Bdellovibrio), Salmonella is eliminated (Bdellovibrio preys upon it) and the chicks are healthier.

While this is a cool example of how new knowledge of ecological relationships between bacteria can be applied, it does raise some interesting ethical issues. 

Discussion topics
Given that chickens are typically raised in rather inhumane conditions (battery cages or in large rooms with little space for them to maintain their complex social relationships), does making them healthier solve the ethical dilemma of how they are raised?   By comparison, imagine that you could eliminate disease in an over-crowded prison; is over-crowding then justified?  How can we improve the health AND welfare of the animals that we eat or raise commercially for their products?

NYT Op Ed by President of Nauru

The President of the island nation of Nauru wrote a chilling NY Times OpEd today about ecological limits and collapse...

July 18, 2011

On Nauru, a Sinking Feeling

Yaren, Nauru 

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country.
At just 8 square miles, about a third of the size of Manhattan, and located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Nauru appears as merely a pinpoint on most maps — if it is not missing entirely in a vast expanse of blue. 

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years. Nauru is worth a quick Internet search, I assure you, for not only will you discover a fascinating country that is often overlooked, you will find an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits. 

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on. The legacy of exploitation left us with few economic alternatives and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and led previous governments to make unwise investments that ultimately squandered our country’s savings. 

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate, melting ice caps, making oceans more acidic and edging us ever closer to a day when no one will be able to take clean water, fertile soil or abundant food for granted.
Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding, and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes. 

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages. 

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes. 

Yet the international community has not begun to prepare for the strain they will put on humanitarian organizations or their implications for political stability around the world. 

In 2009, an initiative by the Pacific Small Island Developing States, of which I am chairman, prompted the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the link between climate change and security. But two years later, no concrete action has been taken. 

So I was pleased to learn that the United Nations Security Council will take up the issue tomorrow in an open debate, in which I will have the opportunity to address the body and reiterate my organization’s proposals. 

First, the Security Council should join the General Assembly in recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security. It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism. Second, a special representative on climate and security should be appointed. Third, we must assess whether the United Nations system is itself capable of responding to a crisis of this magnitude.
The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us. Negotiations to reduce emissions should remain the primary forum for reaching an international agreement. We are not asking for blue helmets to intervene; we are simply asking the international community to plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time. 

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking. Making our island whole again will be a long and difficult process, but it is our home and we cannot leave it for another one. 

I forgive you if you have never heard of Nauru — but you will not forgive yourselves if you ignore our story. 

Marcus Stephen is the president of Nauru.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Organic Safety

In a recent issue of the New Scientist (all my magazines are coming a few weeks late these days...) there was an essay about the safety of organic farming.  While the author (Dominic Dyer) seemed to be a food irradiation enthusiast, he raised two interesting issues about the safety of organic food.

First, he noted that there are increased E. coli and Salmonella risks from the natural, untreated compost used for organic farming.

Second, he noted that by not using fungicides, there could be an increased risk of poisonous molds in food.

His solution:  food irradiation.

The challenge of risk assessment is that you can never eliminate all risks and as soon as you eliminate the largest risk, the next largest risk is now the largest! 

Discussion Questions

Anyone have an opinion about this that they'd like to share?  How can we increase the safety of organic food?  Are the risks of these bacteria smaller than the benefits of avoiding toxic chemicals on our food?  How would we know?  How can we, as consumers, ensure/increase safety in our organic products?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Australia passes a carbon tax

Read about Australia's carbon tax in an LA Times interview with an Australian politician.

Good on 'em!

Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It) cited by Time Magazine

My book with my friend and colleague Charles Saylan, The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It) was cited by Time Magazine as one of the seven education books to take to the beach (or mountains, or wherever).  Do you have your copy yet?

And, in other good news, Charlie was just interviewed by Tavis Smily about The Failure of Environmental Education.  You can listen to it on Tavis' website.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eating less as a green thing to do

The other night a friend suggested that by burying Americans (since many of of us are obese) we could help get carbon out of atmospheric circulation (much as by burying trees or charcoal, we remove carbon from atmospheric circulation).  And, while this probably wasn't  the most PC thing to say, there is a growing industry in thinking about green burial practices that contrasts the costs of cremation versus burial versus chemical digestion (yes, I know, not what you really want to think about much on a food blog...).

But my friend's tongue-in-cheek remark got me thinking about our current obesity crisis and how eating less is a very green thing to do.  

Think about it for a moment.  Just as by reducing our food waste reduces our individual carbon footprints, reducing the amount of food we eat, particularly processed foods and meat, is an effective way to reduce our individual carbon footprints.  

Can we create a fun name for this?  How about "One serving for the environment"? 

Your Earth will benefit and your health will benefit too!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Geo-engineering Critique from Herman Daly

Geo-engineering or Cosmic Protectionism?
by Herman Daly

“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars  because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard  Keynes, 1933

Frederic Bastiat’s  classic satire, “Petition of the Candlemakers Against the Sun“,  has been given new relevance. Written in 1845 in defense of free trade and against national protectionism in France, it can now  be applied quite literally to the cosmic protectionists who want  to protect the global fossil fuel-based growth economy against  “unfair” competition from sunlight — a free good. The free flow  of solar radiation that powers life on earth should be  diminished, suggest some, including American Enterprise Institute’s S. Thernstrom (Washington Post 6/13/09, p.  A15), because it threatens the growth of our candle-making economy that requires filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses. The protectionist “solution” of partially turning off  the sun (by albedo-increasing particulate pollution of the  atmosphere) will indeed make thermal room for more  carbon-burning candles. Although this will likely increase GDP  and employment, it is attended by the inconvenient fact that all  life is pre-adapted by millions of years of evolution to the  existing flow of solar energy. Reducing that flow cancels these  adaptations wholesale — just as global warming cancels myriad existing adaptations to temperature. Artificially reducing our most basic and abundant source of low entropy (the solar flux)  in order to more rapidly burn up our scarcer terrestrial source  (fossil fuels), is contrary to the interests both of our species  and of life in general. Add to that the fact that “candles”, and  many other components of GDP, are at the margin increasingly  unneeded and expensive, requiring aggressive advertising and  Ponzi-style debt financing in order to be sold, and one must  conclude that “geo-engineering” the world for more candles and  less sunlight is an even worse idea than credit default swaps.

Why then do some important and intelligent people advocate geo-engineering? As the lesser evil compared to absolutely catastrophic and imminent climate disaster, they say. If the  American Enterprise Institute has now stopped offering  scientists money to write papers disputing global warming, and  in fact has come around to the view that climate change is bad,  then why have they not advocated carbon taxes or  cap-auction-trade limits? Because they think the technical  geo-fix is cheap and will allow us to buy time and growth to  better solve the problem in the future. One more double whiskey to help us get our courage up enough to really face our growth addiction! Probably we are irrevocably committed to serious  climate change and will have to bear the costs, adapt, and  hasten our transition to a steady state economy at a sustainable  (smaller) scale. Panicky protectionist interventions by arrogant  geo-engineers to save growth for one more round will just make  things worse.

At the earthly level I am no free trader, and neither was  Keynes, but “shutting off the sun and the stars” to protect the  fossil fuel economy is carrying protectionism to cosmic  extremes. Reality has overtaken satire.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Technology to enforce the commons

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, writing in her magnificent Governing the Commons, noted that one of the major problems managing common resources is that cheaters must be detected so that they can be punished.  Tim Flannery, is his ever-positive Here on Earth suggests that modern technology makes it very difficult to hide pollution, illegal resource harvesting, and other potential transgressions of the commons.  What a wonderful point!  Even cooler is that a lot of this technology is not restricted to governments--citizens, using satellite technology can participate in monitoring.  How to stimulate monitoring?  Make it fun!  Lars van Ahn, the inventor of the captcha, has an outstanding Google Talk explaining how people can have fun while helping a good cause identify things or classify images.

Discussion Questions:
What un-restricted technology can be used to monitor the commons (air, water, biodiversity, fisheries, etc.)?  How could games be created that would get people to participate in monitoring?  If you come up with a good answer, contact a relevant NGO and suggest it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


The late Buckminster Fuller said "You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change things, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The application of knowledge...

Aldo Leopold, writing in Round River, said "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.  Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.  An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."

Monday, July 4, 2011

no government, really?

We're just back from the Crested Butte 4th of July parade; a small-town American icon if there is one.  Over about an hour many floats, many quite funny, march down the main street (Elk Ave.) in Crested Butte, Colorado.  This year there were no guys snowboarding off a pickup, over a jump, and through a ring of fire (boo hoo, they're missed!), but there was a solitary guy carrying a sign proclaiming that all government was bad, that there shouldn't be taxes, grants, or government intervention in people's lives.  Some people next to me stood up and clapped.  I (civilly) restrained from commenting.

No government, huh?  Ok, who's going to try to ensure that rancid meat isn't sold?  Who's going to try to ensure that medicines we buy are safe?  Who's going to try to ensure that poisons are not put in our milk?  And, who is going to try to ensure that we don't pollute the air and water we all need?  All of these things happen with greater frequency that we like in countries without strong government regulations.  Who is going to fund the basic research that stimulates the applied research that leads to new medicines, inventions, and sources of energy?  Who is going to pave the roads?  Who is going to provide a police force?  Who is going to try to enforce equality laws?

I'm the last one to want inefficient government, but no government?  No taxes?  No thanks!

Discussion topic
What government services are essential?  Discuss these broadly: before removing a government service think what the consequences are for people and especially the poor and for the environment...two things that I believe need government oversight.  How do we, as citizens, lobby for a more accountable and effective government without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  Or should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Meatless Mondays on July 4th

Mark Bittman, writing recently in the New York Times, has a great essay about the Meatless Monday movement, our national over-consumption of meat, and the problems that one of our "National Meat Eating Days" falls on a Monday this year.  His suggestion:  go meatless the next week. A commentator's suggestion:  go meatless on Tuesday 5 July.

Both are great suggestions!

Friday, July 1, 2011

What should be taught in schools?

School's out (finally) for our son.  Now the real education begins--stomping around outside in nature, meeting new kids, and quietly observing animals--out in Colorado.  He's fortunate to hang out with a bunch of biologists all summer who love and respect nature.  But what about those who aren't so lucky:  what do we want our schools to teach them?

Charlie Saylan and I wrote about this in The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It) but the question is compelling.  With "Race to the Top" teachers often "teach to the test" and peripheral issues are given short shrift.

California's Environmental Education Initiative is a good interdisciplinary start because it uses environmental issues as the scaffolding on which to teach disciplinary specialties like math, civics, and biology.

Discussion Questions
What do you think an environmentally literate citizen must know?  How do we teach this?  How do we evaluate its efficacy?