Posts tagged ‘Health & Safety’

April 25th, 2013

Conservation Hobgoblins

Taking steps that reduce the negative impact each of us has on the earth–being environmentally sensitive–is unambiguously good. While some of us are surely more virtuous than others (as in most things), I often feel as though the questions and answers around environmental sensitivity are not as clear-cut as all that. Getting into discussions about it (such as with my mother) pulls out the Hobgoblins of Logic and makes me wish that some combination of environmentalists, scientists, economists, and database engineers (I’m looking at you, Wolfram|Alpha) would get together a create a computational database to help resolve certain tricky questions.

What are those tricky questions? Well, here are a few, divided by category:

Power conservation:

If you live in Texas, Ohio, Indiana or Pennsylvania, is a plug-in electric car worse for the environment than a hybrid-electric model that charges its battery from a gas-powered engine? Those four states are among the top users of coal for electricity generation–and the emissions from coal are worse than those from gasoline. (North Carolina and Georgia should also be on this list, since two of the three largest coal-powered power plants are in those two states.) So perhaps it is better not to increase electricity demands in those states by charging your “clean”, “zero emissions” vehicle with coal-powered electricity?

Meanwhile, all those electric cars use special lithium ion batteries. Those are technically recyclable… but the costs (and energy) involved seem disproportionate to the value, which means it’s less likely to happen. So the question is: if you buy a hybrid or all-electric car, but use it in ways that diminish the life of the battery (such as letting the car sit unused for extended periods of time), is it still better for the environment? Is a 50% reduction in battery life a fair trade-off for burning fewer fossil fuels?

And speaking of transportation challenges: The “locavore” movement sure does sound appealing. And for a city slicker it’s especially appealing, because the idea that one can get fresh food from farms just a short distance away, well: this has to be better, right? Better food, better for the environment? Except that there’s all these arguments and some evidence showing that maybe that isn’t true: that an old farm using an old (less fuel-efficient, less efficiently-packed) truck coming from traffic-congested nearby areas might use more energy than a modern transportation network that ships food by plane or train long distances with great efficiency. So, which is it, local or not? And how are we supposed to know, product by product?

Water conservation:

If you live in the water-deprived Southwestern United States, and you go to the grocery store, is it better to buy the bags of greens that have been pre-washed or the greens you bring home and wash yourselves? Assuming the plastic levels are equal (since you would likely bag your unwashed greens before taking them home), what is the environmental impact difference, factoring in water and power usage?

A variant of this question is relevant here in the water-plentiful New York. Last year, some of the greens and other vegetables we received from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group to which we belonged were so fresh-from-the-farm dirty that it took significant time under the sink to clean them. (The CSA in this case is a group that buys organic produce from some farms in Long Island; those farms bring their goods directly to a central distribution point in the neighborhood.) Is it generally better to buy these vegetables even if it takes more water to wash them, then to buy the more industrially produced organic–but pre-washed–greens at the grocery?

We are devoted to reusable containers for food storage. We buy good quality ones that can be reused many, many times, and we rarely microwave them (so they tend to last longer). So even though it seems more virtuous to use these than, say, a ziploc bag … can I take it for granted that the water required to wash them is a better use of resources than throwing out the bag? And what kind of recycling processes do we need to have in place before that equation may not be true?

Pesticides, etc.:

It’s easy to scare the bejeezus out of people about pesticides in food. (“Thanks,” Environmental Working Group!) How about telling us more info about the pesticide residues? If I peel the apple, does that get rid of it? If the strawberries are well-washed, does that get rid of it? Or are we talking about leached-into-the-food residue here? How would you balance the organics-cost-more vs. needing-to-feed-a-family dynamic?

Let’s assume that money is actually an issue. If buying organic groceries reduces my available funds for charitable donations by 15%–charity that might be given to help the hungry–is this still worth the trade-off? That is, is the environmental impact of organic produce so powerful that it can have that kind of offset?

I could probably go on. (And on.) Is the question about charitable gifts a red herring? Possibly. But overall these are very real problems–for which we are mostly unequipped to come up with genuinely logical answers. If environmentalism is to succeed–I mean, to really succeed in reshaping behavior in the modern world–someone is going to have to tackle these and other questions, probably state by state and city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Personalized environmental audits: the wave of the future.

May 19th, 2010

The Fetish of Choice

I ordered a new vacuum cleaner last weekend. It’s taken several weeks of pondering and, on my part, about two hours of research combing through something like 100 different products to make the final choice. We almost bought one the weekend before, after a pop-in to our local hardware store, but I wasn’t sold on the bright red $69 “Dirt Devil” unit. Consumer Reports would bear me out on that: although it rates Dirt Devil products solidly for overall brand reliability and endurance, the vacuums themselves don’t always score well.

This process of searching, of combing through Consumer Reports and other online reviews, got me thinking about the way in which our culture fetishizes choice. This is a phenomenon that has exploded as a result of the internet: the incredible access to information, reviews, product details, and retail sources has made it possible for us all to become consumer connoisseurs, and often for items one never knew required such connoisseurship. Like vacuum cleaners. Or sheets.

If you have tried to shop for sheets lately, you know what I mean: the selection is no longer about fabric, color, pattern, and possibly brand name. It’s now also about thread count, trim style, and the origin of the fabric—nearly twice as many factors. I have bought sheets more than a few times in my life, but prior to the internet I do not recall debates over thread count entering into the equation, or of having such attention drawn to the grow spot for the cotton. Can any of us really tell the difference between sheets with a thread count of 500 versus 600, particularly after they’ve been through the wash a few times?

I’m not trying to do a Grumpy Old Man schtick here—I like the degree to which our choices have increased, and our ability to shop around for and price out products so effectively. But I think we have surpassed the mere offering of a wider selection of products at different prices, glorious though that is.

In researching the vacuum, much was made not only of HEPA filters (to catch dust particles) but also noise reduction. Silly me, I just assumed that vacuums were noisy! If the machine uses bags (as opposed to re-usable canisters), there are a variety of vacuum bag options: some do an extra-good job at trapping dust along with dirt—which seems to me the sort of bag you want want as standard, not as an add-on. For the model I purchased, there are actually two different kind of higher-quality bags, one of which is branded “Clinic,” as if to convey that its dirt-and-dust-trapping would pass muster in a hospital. And there’s even a vacuum (same brand, same model as the one I purchased) made from recycled plastic. It’s tagged as “Green,” though this misleadingly implies there’s something greener about how it works, as opposed to how it was made.

Again, this is not to say that choice is bad, or even to argue that the wide selection of products and services is overwhelming. Others have made—or skewered—this argument, and I tend to side with the (pardon the pun) pro-choice folks. I am not too concerned about the overwhelming options, or the diverse range of products one can choose from in different categories; I tend to think this should be celebrated, and the internet hailed as the liberator. If it sometimes requires more work, more time, and more thought for what might seem like a simple decision, we are still better off as individuals and as a society. At the same time, the internet has enabled us to fixate on standards that sometimes seem more illusory than real—the kind of standards that were once limited to the small segment of people who could afford to worry about such distinctions.

Often, it does not feel like a kind of Consumer Democracy, but rather just a Consumer Absurdistan: a place where we make choices based on factors that have a stronger psychological draw than a practical one, and where such decisions may not satisfy either our actual or our metaphysical needs.

May 7th, 2010

Weather Man

Back in the 1960s, New York City introduced a “heat law,” a requirement that (residential) landlords provide heat for apartments between October 1st and May 31st in any given year if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees during the day or 40 degrees at night. (Actually, the law seems to date to the 1940s, the era when rent control was also introduced in New York, but to have been updated in 1966.) If this seems like an odd legal requirement—why wouldn’t landlords heat their buildings?—then it’s possible you, dear reader, have never rented an apartment in New York or elsewhere. The struggle between landlord and tenant is often made of such complaints, with some landlords seeking every financial advantage out of even the smallest or most mean-spirited withholding of services. New York City’s law is well-intentioned.

NYC average temperatures, 1950-2010, courtesy Wolfram|Alpha

This law is also out-of-date. Temperatures in New York have been rising. By one measure, the winters in New York State are an average of 4 degrees warmer in the period 1990-1999 versus 1900-1909. Data from Wolfram|Alpha shows a fairly clear trend of rising temperatures in New York City from 1950 to now (and see charts here). This is not to say that New York is lacking in winter—indeed, this past winter was one of the most “wintry” ever, with record-setting snowfalls not just in New York but across much of the country. Copious snow, however, is no proof that our weather and our temperatures haven’t changed. Observationally, I can say that winters in New York have (since 1995) started increasingly late, and that the warmth of summer (skipping over much of the moderate temperatures of spring) have arrived increasingly early.

Why does this matter? Because my colleagues and I have been sweating it out in our office for the last week, in a modern glass office building without air conditioning. Well, not without air conditioning—the building has AC. The landlord simply refuses to turn it on before the contractually required date of May 15th, even if the temperatures both inside and out would (according to common sense) demand it. And demand it they do: it has been well into the 70s and sometimes the 80s for more than the last 5 business days.

I don’t know that New York needs another law, about this or anything else, but I would propose it as a serious contender, an important counter-balance to the existing heat law. Perhaps our heating and air conditioning systems should become more energy efficient, and less damaging to the environment; that is a worthy goal, and could well be part of the legislation. For now, though, the situation seems to demand simple fairness: if New York can require landlords to heat us up, shouldn’t it also require them to cool us down, too?