Mom vs Mother Nature

There’s a problem trying to be an environmentalist. The problem is Mom.

I try pretty hard to be pretty good dealing with the environment. I only heat two rooms in my house and I keep them at 50 most of the time. I don’t heat my bedroom at all, I sleep under a big pile of wool and down. I wear a lot of flannel pants and fuzzy slippers and fleece in my house. I use a few compact fluorescent lights and turn them off when I leave the room. My kids don’t particularly like to come visit my house, because it’s too dark and too cold, and I tell them to wear more clothes.

And then my Mom shows up. My Mom’s in her eighties, and she’s a really good Mom and a good person, as anyone who knows my Mom will tell you.

When my Mom shows up, the temperature in her bedroom goes up to seventy, or a little more. The temperature in the rest of the house goes up to seventy, or a little more. The heat stays on at night. Many more lights get turned on, and they stay on.

I could tell my Mom that the temperature needs to stay low and she needs to wear more clothes. But I don’t. I could tell her we need to conserve electricity and turn out lights when we leave the room. But I don’t. I could tell her how wasteful it is to turn on the electric heat in the bathroom when she takes a shower. But I don’t. She’s in her eighties. She always has and still does live modestly. She knows what I do and what’s important to me. And she wants to be a little comfortable. Who am I to begrudge her that?

I drive a car that gets 45 miles a gallon. Outside of work I try to drive as little as I can.

And then my Mom shows up. She divides her time now between her place in South Jersey and mine in New Hampshire. I drive her both ways, 800 miles round trip. I make that trip once a month. Last week, because it was a beautiful spring day in New Hampshire and she is in her eighties and doesn’t have an infinite number of beautiful spring days left, we took a long drive up into the White Mountains. Today, because it is a beautiful spring day in South Jersey and she doesn’t have an infinite number of beautiful spring days left, we will drive down to the among the flowering blueberries and greening fields of Southwest Jersey.

I wonder about this, in the context of being an environmentalist. If there’s hope for human society on this planet, we’re going to have to start making different decisions about how we use resources. We’re going to have to recognize, for real, that husbanding the natural environment and its resources needs to be our highest priority. We’re going to have to make life and lifestyle choices that aren’t 100% about comfort and convenience. We can do these things. Personally, I try to do these things.

But then Mom shows up. And when it’s Mom vs Mother Nature, Mom wins.

What have we done to this beautiful country of ours?


I had a meeting this afternoon in a place called Ashburn Virginia.  Of course you have never heard of Ashburn, Virginia, because Ashburn, Virginia doesn’t exist.  It is not a town, it is not a township, it is not a city or a community.  It is a “Census Designated Place.”  It is 30 miles northwest of DC.  It is an indiscriminate collection of subdivisions and corporate campuses (and renta-corporate campuses) and condo developments and strip malls.

My meeting was at two this afternoon.  At two I waited in long lines of traffic on a road called Route 7, which is three lanes in either direction, one or two red-green cycles before I got through the traffic lights, of which there were many.  At four when my meeting ended I waited in a continuous line of traffic, two or three or sometimes four cycles before I got through the traffic lights, of which there were many.  All the way to Leesburg.  At Leesburg, I got off onto a route called 15, and I waited through many more cycles of many more traffic lights.  This was 40 miles from DC.

And I thought, what have we done to this beautiful country of ours.

From Route 7 you could turn off at any one of a hundred driveways and shop at any one of a hundred strip malls where there was a Best Buy, and/or a Target, and/or a Famous Footwear, and/or a Marshalls, and/or a Sports Authority.  A Wal-Mart.  A Bed Bath & Beyond.  Take your pick.  Any one of ten dozen stores identical to the same ten dozen stores you can find in any strip mall suburb in America.  If you were hungry, you could get something to eat at a Panera, and/or a Chilis, and/or a Red Lobster, and/or a P.F Changs.  At any one of ten dozen restaurants identical to the same ten dozen restaurants you can find in any strip mall suburb in America.

And I thought, what have we done to this beautiful country of ours.

Looking across the valleys you could see hundreds of acres of townhomes.  They used to be called townhouses, but someone must have decided that “townhomes” makes them sound more like a home, and less like a piece of mass-produced tract structure plastered onto the landscape.  Looking across at the ridgelines, you could see the ridgelines crenellated with more and more townhomes.  From the low 300’s.  If they were not townhomes, they were fake mansionettes, brick veneer over 2×4, with their own crenellations to make them look more castle-like and real, less 2×4 and temporary.  From the low 500’s.  If you didn’t want to take a driveway into a strip mall, you could take a driveway into a tract development called Ashmont or Brambleton or Belmont Greene (I do not know what a Greene is, so don’t ask), or even The Village of Waxpool (I do not know what a Waxpool is, either).

And I thought, what have we done to this beautiful country of ours.

I sat in traffic and I wondered, in the sense that we wonder at something we cannot understand:  People do this every day.  People sit in traffic, for hours, to go to their townhomes or their mansionettes scarring the landscape like bad acne, and they sit in this traffic, and they live in these places, so they get to shop at Best Buy and Target and Marshalls and Walmart, and eat at Golden Corral or Outback Steakhouse, in strip malls like more and bigger bad acne.  In places that aren’t towns, or communities, but Census Designated Places, surrounded  by acres of unbroken, unabashed black asphalt, and connected only by black asphalt, and held together only by black asphalt.

And I thought, what have we done to this beautiful country of ours.

Every now and then, several times in fact, there was a sign that said “Battlefield Park”.  This part of northern Virginia is where much of the Civil War was fought.  Six hundred thousand soldiers died in the Civil War.  Compared to the U.S. population, that’s as if six million soldiers were to die today.  Six hundred thousand soldiers, and who knows how many innocent others, died to preserve this awesome democracy of ours, in this beautiful land that is ours.

All so that we could pave over their gravestones to build chain stores in strip malls surrounded by asphalt?  All so we could turn their fields into townhome developments built from cruddy 2x4s from plantation forests?  All so we could eat mass-produced food at yet another McDonald’s or Outback Steakhouse?

And I thought, what have we done to this beautiful country of ours.

Let’s solve some problems, NRA style.

So, there’s a problem in America, and the problem is too many guns.

The National Rifle Association has a solution to the problem:  more guns. I think this is a great solution.  I think the theory is, if everyone had a gun, then no one would shoot anyone, because someone would shoot back at them.  That is, the more guns there are, the less people will use them, and the safer we will be.  I like this theory.  I like this theory a lot.

I think this is such a good theory, we should find other problems we can solve the same way.  I think we have many, many, dozens, hundreds of problems we can solve the same way.

Like, there are too many people who smoke cigarettes in America.  What’s the solution? More people should smoke cigarettes.  Then the people who smoke cigarettes would realize how gross it is, smoking cigarettes, and they’d quit.  Not only, but if more people smoked, then more people would get cancer, and we’d finally get frigging serious about finding a cure for cancer.  We would be healthier and safer.

Like, there are too many obese people in America.  Oh great NRA Ouija, what’s the solution? More obese people.  The biggest issue with all the obese people is that they stand out.  We notice them.  They feel bad.  We feel bad.  If there were more obese people, we wouldn’t notice them, we’d all be obese people.  Obese would be the new normal, and we’d all feel good about ourselves.  Plus which, think of all the new business for restaurants and food companies, all the high fructose corn syrup.  Good for the economy.

Like, there are too many people who drink and drive in America. NRA to the rescue.  More people drinking and driving.  I mean, if you didn’t drink and drive, and you knew there were all those drunks out on the road, you’d stay home, right.  YOU WOULD BE SAFER.  And if you did drink and drive, what a frigging hoot, getting out on the road with all those other drunks.  It would be like a video game, with consequences.  And think of all the extra work for the EMTs and emergency rooms.  Good for the economy.

Too many cars on the road?  We need MORE cars on the road.  We need to sell more cars.  Good for the economy!!

Too much CO2 in the atmosphere?  We need MORE CO2 in the atmosphere.  We need Florida from Maine to Alaska.  Good for farmers.  Good for tourism.  Good for the economy!!  Bad for polar bears, maybe, but that’s what zoos are for.  And what are zoos?  Good for the economy!!

Too much violence on TV?  We need MORE violence on TV.  Then people would stay at home out of fear, and they would be SAFER.  And other people would go out and buy guns.  And guns are the best way to prevent violence.  They would be safer too.  We would ALL be safer.  Not to mention, selling more guns is good for the economy!!!

Too many politicians?  We need MORE politicians!  I mean, the problem is not that there are too many politicians, but there are not enough good politicians. If we had more politicians, we’d have more good politicians.  Right?

I think, when the histories are written, that we will be thanking the NRA for such a good idea.  Got a problem?  Here’s the solution:  create more of the problem.  Create so much of a problem that it’s not a problem anymore.  It’s a SOLUTION.

That’s just what we should do.  We should solve more problems, NRA style.

E-Waste, E-Wast…

Why doesn’t this issue go away?  I don’t know why this issue doesn’t go away.

I guess it doesn’t go away because:  (1) People want to make money, (2) Other people want to save money, (3) Some people who want to make money will tell lies to do that, (4) Some people who want to save money will believe lies to do that.

An easy way to make money is to collect old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, throw them in a shipping container, and sell them to a broker.  There are brokers who will pay decent money for those things.

If you have old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such to get rid of, an easy way to save money is to work with one of those collector types.  They will take your stuff away for free.

But here’s the issue:

If you put old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such into a shipping container and sell them to a broker, they go to places like these.  They do not go to real recyclers.  They go to places where desperately poor people will knock them apart and burn them up to scrape out the value in metals and plastics, and toss the rest into a pile or a ditch.  Other people, the brokers and such, will make some real money from their labor; the desperately poor people will still be desperately poor, and living in a really gross, polluted, poisonous environment.

If you collect old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, put them in a container, and sell them to a broker to be “recycled”, you know this is happening.

But your clients, the people from whom you are collecting old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, they do not want this.  They do not want their old electronics to go to places like this.  They want them recycled for real, not scavenged at the expense of desperately poor people.

So if you want them to be your clients, you have to lie.  You have to tell them that their electronics are being recycled responsibly.  That way, you can collect used electronics and make some money.

If you’re the client, you have old computers and monitors and TVs and printers and such, you need to get rid of them, you want them recycled, and you want to save money.  One guy comes to your office and tells you he’ll take them away for free and get them recycled “responsibly.”  Another guy comes to your office and tells you it’s going to cost you to get them recycled “responsibly”.  If you want to save money, all you have to do is believe both of these guys and take the best deal.

But there’s that damn issue:

That’s where the “best deal” ends up.  If the guy takes your old electronics for free, he’s making his money selling them to a broker, and the broker is part of a chain that ends up here:  He may cherry pick some of your electronics and resell them on Ebay or to another broker, and God only knows where they end up after that, or, for that matter, where your data ends up.  It’s not just me or IRN who says that, it’s hundreds of independent reports backed up by thousands of photos and video documentation and shipping records.

If you really recycle responsibly, it costs money.  LCDs contain mercury; CRTs contain lead; rechargeable batteries contain heavy metals.  You have to take used electronics apart carefully and under controlled conditions to recover those things.  It costs money.  There’s a fraction of old electronics that can’t be recycled, and those need to be disposed of in a real landfill.  That costs money.  If you want to get your old electronics recycled responsibly, it costs money.

But against all the evidence, you can choose to believe different.  You can choose to believe the guy who comes to your office and tells you he’ll take your old electronics for free and recycle them “responsibly.”  You can do that; lots of people do.  It’s called “willing suspension of disbelief.”  It will save you some money.

But it’s a lie, and you’re choosing to believe a lie.  Take a look at:  That’s the truth about “free, responsible” “recycling” of used electronics.

Boston University Celebrates More Than 1.5 Million Pounds of Surplus Property Provided to Charities

This spring Boston University passed a major milestone.  In the past ten years, BU has provided more than 1.5 million pounds of surplus furniture and equipment to charities.

BU is one of IRN’s original members.  We’ve been working together since IRN was founded at the end of 1999.  A couple of years later, in 2002, BU asked IRN to help with excess furniture and equipment – all the desks and file cabinets and beds and bureaus and thousands of other items that BU could no longer use.

At that point, almost all of BU’s surplus was being tossed into its dumpsters, as it had been for decades – and as still happens on most college campuses.  That first year, BU collected 10,000 pounds of surplus, not even a single truckload.  IRN matched most of it with charities, and recycled the remainder that was unfit for reuse.

From that beginning, BU’s surplus management program with IRN has grown to the point that, in 2011 alone, the school recovered more than 525,000 pounds of surplus.  Currently over 96% of the BU surplus is reused through IRN’s network of charitable partners, and almost all of the rest is recycled for its commodity content.  Virtually nothing is landfilled.  Here’s the ten-year track record:

Year               Surplus Recovered (Lbs)

2002                                 9,800
2003                               14,600
2004                               18,800
2005                              170,300
2006                                30,100
2007                               83,200
2008                              128,300
2009                              202,300
2010                              342,000
2011                               528,000

Ten Year Total  1,527,400

Back in 2002, when we started looking into BU’s waste stream we realized that there are two major sources of surplus on campus.  The first comes from replacements and cleanouts:  replacements when BU purchases new dorm or classroom furniture, cleanouts when the school tears down or renovates.  The second consists of surplus that’s generated in small quantities every single day:  a couple of desks from an administrative office, a few beds or mattresses, two or three filing cabinets, the leftovers when a professor cleans out an office or lab.

Reflecting that pattern, since 2005 BU’s surplus program has had two main tracks.

One works out of a parking lot in Boston’s Back Bay, central to BU’s campus.  There we parked two storage trailers.  Any time a department gets rid of some surplus, BU’s facilities staff puts the surplus into a trailer instead of the trash.  When the trailer is full, IRN cleans it out, takes the surplus to our warehouse, and makes a match with our network of charities.  This steady program has kept more than 400,000 pounds of BU surplus out of the trash.

The second track handles large replacements and cleanouts.  This surplus has come from many departments on campus; the most active has been BU’s Housing Department.  When BU renovates a dorm or buys new furniture, IRN identifies a charity that can use the surplus in relief or development projects.  IRN then arranges movers to come on campus and load the old furnishings into trailers (for U.S. charities) or shipping containers (for overseas shipment).  Once packed at BU, the trailers are not unsealed until they reach their final destination.  This program has provided over a million pounds of furniture and equipment to worldwide charities.

And then there are things like the basketball floor.  For 30 years the floor at BU’s Brown Arena hosted the likes of Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski, Reggie Lewis, and Grant Hill.  When BU built their new Agganis Arena, they kept the old floor in storage. But eventually they needed the storage space, and the old floor needed to disappear.  IRN placed a call to nonprofit partner Food for the Poor, and FFTP identified a school outside of Kingston, Jamaica.  The school had a gym but no floor; BU had a floor with no gym.  It was a perfect fit.  BU packed the floor into two shipping containers, and three weeks later it was installed and being used by school kids in Jamaica.

Jeanne Sevigny is Assistant Director of BU Housing.  She says:  “This started out as a good idea for recycling our unwanted furniture, but as we became more connected with IRN and their charitable network the social benefits of the program really grabbed our hearts.  For those of us in Housing and Sustainability, we could not be more pleased.  We are doing the right thing environmentally and socially, and the costs related to this program are far less than disposal – a real win-win situation all around.”

Given such successes, BU is recognized as a leader nationwide in surplus property management.  Mike Lyons of BU’s Purchasing Department sums it up:  “The days are long gone of filling dumpsters with materials that could have a second life.  It is not just about furniture.  It’s about doing the right thing for the environment, the right thing for people, and the right thing for BU.”

We Have Met The Enemy, and It Is Us

I cut school in 8th grade to go to Earth Day.  I asked the School Authorities if I could be excused to go to Earth Day, but they said No.  So I cut school and went.  It was the first time I ever cut school.

This was in Philly and Philly had one of the biggest Earth Day gatherings.  I remember there were a whole lot of people and I was near the back.  Ralph Nader spoke among many others.  I know I got a program because I still have it.  No thanks to me; my Mom put it in a plastic bag and kept it.

This was 1970 and there was a LOT of energy among the kids I hung out with.  Not just the kids I hung out with, but kids everywhere.  It was probably the peak year of all the mixing up that went on in the 60s and 70s.  There were antiwar riots all across the country.  Kent State happened.  Richard Nixon was insisting on Peace With Honor in Vietnam and sent troops into Cambodia, and there were more riots.  Nixon unleashed Spiro Agnew to stir up the “Silent Majority” against the kids in the streets.  But the kids in the streets were the children of the Silent Majority, so what he stirred up was fear and distrust across dinner tables.  But somehow at the same time Richard Nixon was creating EPA and signing giant pieces of environmental legislation:  Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species.

There was a lot of ferment.  The thing about us kids of the 60s and 70s was that we were different, and we were going to make things different.  And we have.  We’re in charge now.  We’re in our fifties and sixties.  We are the people with power, the bosses, the people running the government and big companies.  We have made things different.

We have made them worse.

We are squeezing out of existence America’s greatest achievement, a society built on a large and secure middle class.  We are implementing policies that make the richest among us even richer, while the middle class shrinks and slides backwards.

We are spending trillions of dollars on “Defense” in ways that make Vietnam look cheap and smart in comparison.  Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could at least argue that Vietnam was part of a global power play.  But Iraq?  Afghanistan?  Given the keys to the Pentagon, my generation is wasting trillions of dollars, making enemies around the world, and leaving the U.S poorer and less secure.

We are spending money and running up debt at a pace that staggers imagination.  Government debt.  Personal debt.

We are replacing a credo that greed is something to guard against with one that greed is good – the greediest are the most successful.  We have systematically dismantled regulations that have kept personal and corporate greed in check.  The winners are the greediest among us; the losers are everyone else.

We are condoning, often encouraging, often doing it ourselves, the destruction of rain forests, depletion of oil, exhaustion of resources, extinction of species.  We are implementing policies that promote the consumption of Earth’s resources as if they are ours and no one else’s, now and forever, and will never run out.

We are denying that humans can have and are having an impact on the global environment and climate, even as the evidence presses in on us from all directions.  We are dithering while the Earth is heating up.

In 1970, I and the kids I hung out with and the kids at Earth Day and the kids marching against Vietnam were pretty sure we knew who was the enemy.  It wasn’t the Vietnamese.  It was boring, greedy, self-absorbed, complacent middle-aged people who could justify any wrong, as long as it didn’t interfere with their comfort and self-indulgence.  We were right.  That was an enemy worth fighting.

What we didn’t know was who we’d become.  Forty years on, the enemy is us.

U.S. Defense: Spending a lot, buying very little

Here’s a fact about America.  We have five percent of the world’s population, and we spend forty-one percent of the world’s defense budget.  We spend seven times as much on defense as China, and more than ten times as much as Russia – four times as much as China and Russia put together.  We spend more on defense than the next fifteen countries in the world combined.

Who is it we are defending ourselves from?  It must be the other people who spend a lot on armies and weapons, right?  Then who are they?  Well, there’s China at number 2.  Then there’s France (Napoleon?).  Then there’s England (they want their colonies back?).  Russia (aren’t they friends now?).  Then there’s Germany, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Spain, Australia.  They really want to have a go with Uncle Sam?  I thought they were buddies.

And what is it we’re defending ourselves against?  The only attacks on the U.S. since World War II have been 20 guys with box cutters, one guy with a shoe bomb, and a dufus who tried to blow up his underwear.  All of those guys were on airplanes, and we have the TSA to deal with that.  TSA is not in the defense budget.  Apparently they should be.

Speaking of which, where was our defense budget on 9/11?  9/11 was a clear day and they hijacked four big, slow airplanes.  Our Defense Department has hundreds of small, fast airplanes that have all sorts of radars and missiles and guns, and they have other radars and satellites that can count the flowers in your back yard.  But they couldn’t find four big slow airplanes heading for NYC, the White House, and the Pentagon?  The Pentagon?  For $900 billion a year, they couldn’t defend their own headquarters?

We spent trillions of defense dollars in Iraq.  Our President told us that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction, which he didn’t, and was poised to use them in cahoots with Al Qaida, which he wasn’t.  Either our President was making things up, coincidentally in time for an election, or our defense budget isn’t buying us much in the way of intelligence.  I don’t know which I want less to believe.

We’ve spent another trillion or so in Afghanistan, where the biggest threat to the U.S. was some camps in the desert where they taught people to make shoe and underwear bombs.  Now I think they run those camps on the internet.  And if we wanted to get rid of camps in the desert, don’t we have those satellites to find them and drones to take them out?

So what is it again we’re defending ourselves against?  Well, there are many real threats to the security of the United States?

There’s poverty.  Poor people envy rich people and try to bring them down.  But the U.S. spends proportionally less on peaceful foreign assistance than any other developed country on earth.

There’s overpopulation.  The biggest threat to humankind is too many humans competing for limited resources.  But our government spends virtually nothing on population programs.  (The best population control, by the way, is poverty relief, but see above.)

There’s our own spending and debt.  The biggest direct threat to U.S. security is the fact that we owe so much money to so many countries (particularly that one called China), and are so utterly reliant on them to pay our bills.  Defense is the biggest item in the U.S. budget, and, by far, the big item over which we have the most control.  But it’s a sacred cow.

There’s international relations.  Friends don’t attack you, they don’t support terrorists, and they back you up if you need help.  But our foreign policy in the past decade-plus has made outright enemies of much of the world, alienated most of the rest, and created multiple terrorist breeding areas.

There’s dependency.  As long as we depend on other countries for the things we need most – like oil – we’re at their mercy; we either have to appease them or bully them.  But in 40 years since the first oil crisis, we have done practically nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  And in the name of “defense” we have made enemies of much of the Middle East, where most of that oil comes from.

Why again do we spend so much on defense?  Or, more precisely, why do we mis-spend so much on defense.  We spend a lot, but we buy very little.