Posts Tagged ‘Conservation’

A few months ago I had a visit from a Danish cousin. Jet-lagged and weary, she said little on the half hour ride from the train station. It was an appliance in my kitchen that sparked her first strong reaction: “Wow! Your refrigerator is so big!”

This was, I thought, a striking comment. While it is true that Europeans consume less energy per capita than Americans, they nevertheless also have a good supply of all the gizmos that make life relatively easy and comfortable for the inhabitants of developed countries: refrigerators, clothes washers, cars, and the like.

But, my fridge is not some behemoth SUV-type of a fridge; it’s really perfectly ordinary. My family of four has no problem packing it full to bursting at the start of every week and eating through the contents by the end. Just forget trying to fit anything in the freezer. On the whole, it doesn’t appear to me as if we have an excess of chilling capacity.

Nor, I should note, is my cousin living an old-fashioned rural existence in the Scandinavian countryside amid flocks of chickens. She and her husband have modern, busy, urban lives, with the usual challenges of two full-time jobs, an old house to maintain, and lots of kids (eight, to be exact) from assorted marriages. I can’t imagine what their weekly shopping trips look like; yet, the size of my fridge was enough to elicit amazement.

About half of Maine’s electricity supply comes from burning fossil fuels, a practice which scientists tell us is unravelling the very systems upon which life depends–or at least life in a stable and hospitable climate. It is imperative that we rapidly switch to power supplies that do not damage these global systems.

I have a problem, though. Each time a wind farm is built, we are told how many homes can be powered. For example, according to the Natural Resource Council of Maine, the Mars Hill wind project in north of the state generates enough power to run 24,000 homes, or 4.6% of Maine households.

This is not a trivial percentage, and one could imagine all the little percentages from each new turbine adding up into something worthwhile, but still, I do not have the warm fuzzies.

The costs of developing wind power are huge. Massive subsidies are required from taxpayers (as they are for oil and gas production). People living near turbines are often deeply troubled by the noise. Most ridge-top sites require cutting new roads into wilderness habitat. Bird and bat collisions are not insignificant. And, without doubt, mountain tops and ocean-scapes are more scenic, wild and lovely without turbines.

More troubling still, wind power, as currently deployed in the United States may not be making a big dent in our emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gasses. Electricity generated by wind power typically replaces electricity generated from natural gas, rather than from coal – the latter of which is by far the most damaging to the climate. Unfortunately coal is also the cheapest and consequently there is pressure to leave it in the mix for as long as possible.

In addition, our power grid needs the capacity to meet peak energy demand at any given time. On a calm day when wind turbines are not rapidly spinning, a gas or coal-fired power plant must be ready to supply the missing electricity. Because the plant needs to ramp up and down in response to fluctuations in wind supply, it does not run as efficiently as it would were it simply on all the time.

Thus far, these two factors, along with periodic increases in electricity demand have combined to mask some of the potential climate benefits of wind power.

My conclusion is this: when we put up wind turbines we give up something of extremely high value. Therefore, what we get in exchange should be of extremely high value. Some percentage of the electricity we use fits the bill, but much of it does not.

What if, through conservation, mandated increases in efficiency of household appliances and electronics, and a commitment to stop inventing and buying energy-hogging devices (such as TVs that use more electricity than refrigerators), we could make major cuts in residential power use?

What if we cut demand so much that we could shut down back up power plants burning fossil fuels?

What if we chose to pay more for energy and prioritized shutting down coal-fired plants?

What if we had fridges that didn’t elicit gasps from Danish visitors?

What if we turned off our lights when we weren’t in the room?

The answer is, then we could start to make a real difference.

In exchange for making a real difference, in exchange for getting serious about saving the planet, I would be willing to give up a lot of purple mountain’s majesty. I would be willing to hand over more of our vistas and our wilderness. I would feel a lot better about the sacrifices made by the folks who have to live near these spinning giants. I imagine they would feel better too.

But, I’m not willing to do it for a larger fridge, or a brighter TV, and certainly not for a bulb burning in an empty room. Excuse me while I go turn off the kitchen light.

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Why is it that the folks who want us to air-dry our laundry (rather than tossing it in an energy-slurping machine) have their own movement? There are, for example, no equivalent advocacy groups telling us to inflate our car tires to the proper levels, or drive the speed limit. Those simple steps would arguably save much more energy, yet they just don’t generate the same passion.

Project Laundry List, with the sole mission of promoting the air-drying and cold-water washing of clothing, has even waged battle in the courts to protect the right of Americans everywhere to hang out their nighties. The result is that a number of states, including Maine, have Right to Dry laws prohibiting the passage of anti-clothesline regulations.

What is it about clotheslines that generates all this intense activity?

For starters, hanging the laundry is, for many of us, a truly delightful task. And, like all devotees of this or that, we are convinced that others would love it too, if they would only give it a chance.

What, afterall, could be more fun than pinning reds, oranges, and purples side by side against a summer sky? Air drying laundry is an excuse to step outside for a moment, engage in an enjoyably physical, but not overly onerous activity, save money, help the environment, and get the chores done all at the same time. This is something people can get excited about.

In contrast, dumping the clothes in the basement dryer, is just another random bit of time-slurping, money-slurping daily drudgery.

Of course there will be some particularly hard-hearted among us that will fail to be moved by the virtuous sunny glow emanating from air-dried clothes. For them, I must cite the facts.

Clothes dryers use more energy than any other appliance in a typical house, save the refrigerator and clothes washer. When the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant was supplying our grid, its full output would just meet the energy needed for everyone in the state to run their dryers at the same time. In the words of a friend, “Imagine that: we can dry our clothes with a nuclear power plant, or with the free energy already in our homes!”

In addition to using lots of electricity, the dryer also, in a sneaky back-handed sort of way, raises your winter heating bills. When dryers blow hot air out of your house, cold air is pulled in to replace it. The effect is the equivalent of leaving a window wide open for the entire time the dryer is running.

Speaking of winter, you can still air dry your clothes on a folding drying rack placed pretty much anywhere in your house. We hang our laundry in the basement near the oil burner. My parents hang laundry in their bedroom, which, they say, humidifies the dry, skin-cracking winter air so perfectly, that when they are all caught up on laundry they wet clean towels and hang them instead.

The average Mainer spends about $145 per year running the clothes dryer (assuming 5 loads per week dried in an electric dryer at a cost of $0.15 per kWh)–not a trivial amount of extra cash to have on hand at the end of the year. On top of that, dryers significantly shorten the longevity of clothing by stripping away fibers with every cycle, essentially nibbling fabrics to death.

But the passions stirred by laundry lines are not all positive. For many, laundry lines are not just unsightly, but they invoke the impoverished past in which folks hung out their laundry, for all to see, because they had no other choice. Clotheslines are a highly visible reminder of the harder, darker world from which our grandparents toiled their way out.

This anti-clothesline bias is so pervasive that laws prohibiting laundry lines (and often solar panels as well) appear as standard boilerplate content in many housing development contracts. That is, without anyone lifting a finger, or even necessarily caring about the issue, the default setting is to prohibit laundry lines.

As a culture we’re always balancing conflicts between individual rights and collective rights, otherwise known as the public good. We’re all familiar with discussions such as whether the right to play loud music infringes on the rights of neighbors to have peace.

But now we’re on slightly new ground. Does there exist some collective right to protect the climate? Might the environmental benefits of air drying laundry in the backyard, or installing solar panels on the roof, trump the rights of others to live in a community where these are not allowed?

The debate in the Maine legislature revolved around just these issues. On the one hand, it was argued, why shouldn’t someone be allowed to buy into a development that prohibits clotheslines? What gives the legislature the authority to tell a homeowners association that they can’t ban laundry lines?

The counter-arguments were largely environmental. Legislators focused on the pressing need for us to reduce our energy use. One legislator commented that our dirtiest power plants come on line only to meet peak electricity demand on the hottest summer days — something that might be avoided by allowing more people to line dry clothes and install solar panels.

Negative attitudes about clotheslines are cultural; only 4% of Italians own clothes dryers. There is nothing inherently noxious about clean laundry flapping in the breeze. It doesn’t stay up late singing show tunes, it doesn’t smell bad, it doesn’t blow onto your property like the fumey growl from a nearby lawn mower or the toxic mist from a pesticide application.

Drying clothes outside is also one of the tiny actions that keep us tied directly to the natural world. When it’s raining my laundry piles up. When it’s sunny, I put in a load before I sit down to breakfast and it’s ready to hang before I head out.

We sever these lines at our peril.

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The prairie town of Lethbridge in southern Alberta sits on a high plain just to the east of the Rockies. Winds from the west scream across the mountains, depositing on the peaks whatever moisture they might contain. Lethbridge, consequently, is bone dry, averaging about 15” of precipitation annually–about the same as Tucson, Arizona.

In regions as arid as this, life revolves around rivers. The St. Mary River flows out of Glacier National Park in the mountains of northwestern Montana, across the border into southern Alberta, just south of Lethbridge.

The river supports a lush corridor of trees, a rare green oasis bustling with wildlife. Cottonwoods and willows, uniquely suited to the wet and dry cycles of river flood plains, dominate the banks and are key species, providing food, shade and shelter for innumerable plants, fish, insects, amphibians, and animals.

Not surprisingly, the St. Mary River is also critically important to the human population, serving a range of uses including irrigation, hydroelectric power, and municipal water. Fed in large part by snow melt from the mountains, the St. Mary typically runs high in spring and lower in the summer. In 1951, a dam was built on the river to allow for limited storage of spring melt water for use later in the summer, as well as to facilitate a diversion of water to the adjacent Milk River basin.

Within a few decades it became apparent that cottonwood populations downstream of the dam were collapsing. Older trees were gradually dying and younger trees were not being established. The same pattern was evident in other arid western river basins below dam installations. Kayakers were among the first to notice the decline.

What was going on? Biologists at the University of Lethbridge, lead by Stewart Rood, wondered if the altered timing of stream flows, caused by the dam, were to blame. They compared historical records of stream flow data to the age, health, and species mix of trees along the river. They retreated into greenhouses and simulated the effects of different watering regimes on seedlings.

Newly hatched cottonwood seedlings are, in fact, perfectly adapted to the vagaries of life on the banks of arid western rivers.  To deal with the natural cycle of abundant spring water followed by long dry summers, the tiny trees, some no taller than inch or two in height, unfurl a few token leaves and then sink all of their energy into growing a single hair-like tap root.  As long as the trees can keep a toe in the dropping water table, they have a good chance for survival.

The building of the dam allowed for spring water flows to be terminated abruptly, rather than gradually as used to happen in the free flowing river. In other words, once the spring flood crest passed, dam operators shut spillway gates to save water for the drier summer months, resulting in an immediate and steep drop of the water table in the flood plain. The baby trees could not keep up and quickly withered.

In the greenhouse, Rood and his colleagues found that young seedlings could generate an impressive 2.5 cm per day of new root. They proposed that stream flow be reduced gradually enough to allow the trees’ roots to keep pace with the water table. Dam operators were willing to give it a try, provided there was ample water from spring storms or winter snow melt.

Heavy rain in June of 1995 offered a perfect opportunity for a trial. The test was wildly successful. By the end of the season the river banks were covered, for the first time in decades, with vivid green carpets of new cottonwood seedlings. Similar tests in other river basins yielded the same results. Because ideal conditions for new tree establishment in wild river systems occur about once every 5-15 years, there was no problem with resource managers implementing the additional spring water flows only in years with high spring precipitation or a large winter snow-pack.

This utterly elegant solution highlights the ongoing importance of continued investigation into the basic natural sciences such as biology, hydrology, and ecology. As natural systems are under increasing pressure, it is only our intimate understanding of how they function that will let us live in harmony with them rather than destroying them.

Yet I fear that many of the skills required to be a good student of the natural world are skills that have eroded with our changing culture. The speed of a calculator, for example, may allow us to quickly find answers and perhaps produce more, yet it also distances us from a feel for numbers that comes only from hours spent cranking through problems by hand.

Many folk that used to be able to rebuild every bolt in their cars now look under the hood with bafflement. Kids that once grew up intimately connected with the woods out the back door are now, instead, teaching their parents how to use computers.

While it is absolutely true that we must train people to work in hi-tech fields, with calculators, computers, and microchips, it is equally true that we still need to nurture tinkerers, careful observers, and those people who will float down rivers and first say, “What happened to all the trees?” and then, “I have an idea…”

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Picture an illuminated manuscript, as ancient as the first protozoan, sitting on a table in a library. Imagine it to be a catalog of all the creatures that have ever existed, of every slinking, hopping, replicating, blood-sucking, fluttering, gilled, furred and armored organism: an unabridged bestiary of life.


Elena Newmark, age 13

Elena Newmark, age 13


I open the door to the library sending a dark storm of brittle paper swirling into the air. The book is in a terrible state of disrepair. Thousands of pages, thundering with mammoths and swooping with cat-sized dragonflies, have disintegrated into dust eons ago.


Many pages, however, have crumbled more recently. In the detritus on the floor, one can still find fragments of creatures that vanished from the earth only within the last century: the stripes of a Tasmanian wolf, the toe of a Golden toad.


As more and more species have become imperiled, decay has spread onto nearly all the book’s pages. Although extinctions have been common enough throughout our planet’s history, their pace has accelerated wildly. Conservation groups estimate that human activity has increased the rate of extinctions by 1,000 to 10,000 times more than the ‘background’ level (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).


Pause for a moment to let this sink in: one in four mammals are at high risk of extinction in the near future, along with one in three amphibians, half of all tortoises and freshwater turtles, and one in eight birds.


I open the book, aiming for the letter “C.” It flips easily to the pages in best repair: sharp and sturdy chickadees, skittering chipmunks. The page I’m looking for is still fairly bright, but signs of stress are visible and gray paint rubs off on my fingers. I offer greetings to my friends, the Chimney swifts.


These lovely birds used to roost by the thousands inside the hollow husks of giant trees. When we cleared the aging forests, the swifts made a remarkable adaptation. They abandoned their woody dwellings, and settled into the large brick chimneys of our churches, mills and schools.


All was well for awhile, until we began tearing down old buildings and upgrading chimneys (swifts cannot cling to the smooth linings of new chimneys). In the last 30 years, as their roosting spots have disappeared, Chimney swift numbers have predictably dropped: 95% in Canada and 44% worldwide.


Oh, you silly, optimistic Chimney swifts, what could you have been thinking, throwing in your lot with us? You’d think we’d be more appreciative. Every spring you migrate up here from the Amazon to provide us with free, non-toxic, pest management services: a nest of four babies will daily be fed around 12,000 mosquitoes, biting flies, and other bugs. You catch all these bugs without stopping even once to rest until you finally turn in for the evening.


And, then what a wonderful spectacle you provide for your nightly finale: one minute there are hundreds of you swirling about the sky, and then within seconds, you all spiral into your roost and vanish. Visualize a video of smoke suddenly billowing out of a chimney, and then run the video backwards so the chimney appears to suck the smoke out of the sky: such is the effect.


We imagine the world’s natural spectacles occurring in the jungles and forests of far off lands; we don’t expect them to happen in our downtowns. But the Chimney swifts can easily be seen by most people reading this column.


The largest known roost in Maine is in the chimney of the old Brunswick High School, slated to be torn down later this year. The 2009 migration has already begun and the birds should be at peak numbers by the third week of May.


For a species declining as rapidly as the swifts, the preservation of such a roost could be a significant factor in their survival. Fewer than 20 other roosts exist in the state of Maine and Maritime provinces combined.


Why should we care about these birds that most of us didn’t know existed?


A friend once observed that old time Mainers had the peculiar habit of giving directions by referring to things that were no longer present. They might say, for example, “take a right where the dairy farm used to be.” Why don’t they say, instead, “take a right at the new Maple Grove housing development?” It must surely be because the new development has no character and no personality; it has no sense of place.


Brunswick’s Chimney swifts are woven into what makes this region special, meaningful, quirky and lovable, just as every living creature is part of what makes our planet special, meaningful, quirky and lovable. Without our swifts, we take one step closer to becoming nowhere.


How terrible it would be to discover that we cared about these birds only after they stopped flying over our heads, eating our mosquitoes, and chittering into the long dusk.


We can help the swifts. When the old chimney comes down, we can construct a new brick chimney for them, anchoring the new elementary school to be built on the same site. Replacement chimneys in other locations have been successful at attracting swifts, and in some places have become significant tourist attractions.


I say come out, come out, Mainers, old and new. It’s painfully hard to identify, let alone save, the elements that create sense of place and make us care so deeply for this unique spot in which we are lucky to live.


How often does anyone hand us a chance to truly make a difference in the preservation of an entire species? How often do we get to take out our paintbrushes and repair a page in the universal bestiary?


A new generation of Mainers will soon be tearing around the halls of our new elementary school. Let them not be the generation to say, “turn left where the swifts used to roost.”


Fundraising for the new roost is well underway, but at least $5,000 remains to be raised (as of May 2009). Please consider donating to this rare and wonderful opportunity. To make a contribution or for more information, visit Merrymeeting Audubon’s website at: www.maineaudubon.org/merrymeeting. You can also contact Ted Allen at 207-729-8661.


To view the swifts, go at dusk to the back parking lot of the old high school; there will be Audubon volunteers present during peak migration–the last few weeks of May into early June.

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