Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Recovering from Oil Dependence: Urging the Feds to Get With the Program

This is the last in a series of 30 blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

For the 30th of my 30 posts in 30 days, I’m writing a letter to Congress. I’m not doing this because I look to the U.S. government – which has bumbled over energy policy for years – to solve our oil dependence problem. If you’ve read the last 29 posts, you’ll know I think we can do a great deal at the local and individual level to ease petroleum addiction. In fact, some of the most creative paths to oil freedom are being forged by citizens and communities.

That said, having the Feds get with the program would make recovering from petroleum dependence a whole lot easier. Our national government could do several things to help us get off oil. In my letter, I’ve included a few that make sense to me. Below is my missive; I’m sending versions of this to our local Congressional Representative, Bart Stupak; to Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow; and to President Barack Obama. I invite you to join me in a virtual letter-writing party and pen your own note to the Feds.

Dear Representative Stupak, Senator Levin, Senator Stabenow, and President Obama:

I write to urge the passage of legislation to help free our country from its costly, crippling dependence on petroleum. Toxic air and water pollution, massive military expenditures to secure oil supplies, and climate change concerns have already given us reasons enough to wean ourselves from oil. Now, we’ve added the stunning economic and environmental damage from the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to the list of reasons we so desperately need big changes in our petroleum-centric national energy policy.

I strongly favor the measures below to help us reduce our consumption of oil:

  1. Please pass some form of carbon pricing. I favor a robust carbon tax, phased in over time, starting low and increasing at regular intervals to discourage the use of fossil fuels and encourage the use of renewable energy. Such a tax could help fund alternatives to gasoline use. It could also fund recovery from some of the ongoing environmental and public health damage done by burning fossil fuels. In addition, it would provide a clear signal in the marketplace, allowing businesses to invest in cleaner energy with more economic certainty.

  2. Please eliminate all tax credits and deductions currently provided to the oil industry. I find it ludicrous that the most profitable companies in the world – ExxonMobil comes to mind – receive what amounts to about $4 billion per year in tax breaks from the U.S. government, as reported recently by the New York Times. These tax breaks are inappropriate favors to an industry that doesn’t need or deserve them. They also constitute a huge barrier to the competitiveness of alternative energy sources.

  3. Please significantly increase funding for transit, bicycling, and walking facilities. I suggest doing this with revenues from carbon pricing and from eliminating oil industry tax breaks. Since about 70% of the petroleum we consume in this country gets used for transportation, such measures have huge potential to reduce our use of oil and gasoline. They are popular at the local level, as well; a good example is the Safe Routes to School program, which has helped improve child safety and reduce the need for parents to drive. Safe Routes to School has also improved walking and cycling conditions for all community members. This and similar programs deserve to be expanded. I'd like to see Amtrak's long-distance trains included in this, as well.

  4. Please establish stronger federal tax credits for energy efficiency. The amount of energy our country wastes is mind-boggling and unnecessary. Other economies in the developed world consume less energy per unit GDP and rank more highly on quality- of-life measures. We can rebuild our economy more efficiently and effectively if we use energy more efficiently.

  5. Please improve energy efficiency in the transportation sector by imposing a national feebate/rebate system for car purchases. A system of high purchase taxes on gas-guzzling larger luxury cars, with corresponding credits on fuel-efficient vehicles, could be structured to be revenue-neutral; that is, the high taxes on gas guzzlers would pay for the administration of the program and for the credits to buyers of fuel-efficient vehicles.

The best thing you can do for the country now is to help pass a more rational energy policy that includes these and similar measures. I appreciate your attention to my concerns and look forward to your response.

Katie Alvord

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Town Recovers from Oil Dependence, Part 4

This is #29 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

In posts over the last few days, I’ve written of several changes in a town that’s taking steps to recover from oil dependence. Bit by bit, small efforts that individuals are pursuing to become more free of petroleum and cars (the heaviest oil consumers) are adding up to a bigger shift. Here’s what has happened in our town so far:
  • A cyclist started a bicycle repair program for youth, adding bicycles to the town fleet and getting more teens to cycle.
  • The repair program created a town-wide bicycle sharing project making it easier for yet more folks to bicycle.
  • Another cyclist started a bicycle delivery service which, with cargo bikes, can deliver up to a few hundred pounds of goods at a time.
  • Higher visibility of bikes has inspired more businesses to add bike racks.
  • A concerned parent and teacher got the school district to join Safe Routes to School.
  • Local schools took part in Walk to School Day.
  • Walking School Buses have formed to help kids walk safely to school on a regular basis.
  • Local Girl Scouts drafted a map of safe walking, cycling and transit routes for kids.
  • By participating in Park(ing) Day and using Street Reclaiming tips, a neighborhood group turned a few parking spaces into mini-parks.
  • With help from America Walks, concerned citizens started a walking advocacy group which has launched campaigns to assess the town's walkability and to get drivers to slow down.
  • One worker at a major business with a big but overcrowded parking lot convinced management of the benefits of starting a telecommuting program, which was joined by about a third of the company’s employees.
  • Another worker at the same company started a biodiesel vanpooling program.
  • Seeing the increased use of biodiesel for this program, a service station in town added a biodiesel pump, which encouraged more residents to use this alternative fuel.
  • With growth in telecommuting and vanpooling, the company was able to sell off part of its parking lot to a developer who built a solar apartment complex.
  • Company employees moved in to the solar apartments and started walking to work.
  • A carsharing business was established in town.
These cascading changes have begun with citizen and small business initiative, but now, with more people walking, cycling, telecommuting and sharing transportation, the town government has been inspired to do more. Here are some of the actions they take:

  • As they see the growth of cycling in town, they designate bike routes with painting and signage and also fund new bike paths.
  • After seeing the success of local vanpooling, they expand their transit system with biodiesel buses and collaborate with the school district to convert school buses to biodiesel as well.
  • They add a free electric trolley running a route in the downtown area similar to the low-fare electric buses in Santa Barbara.
  • They add bike racks to all buses in the system.
  • In response to requests from citizens groups, they increase traffic calming measures on neighborhood streets, using bollards, roundabouts, road diets, and other techniques that slow traffic and encourage walking and cycling.
  • They vote to increase parking fees but gives exceptions to carshare cars and vehicles not powered by petroleum.
  • They vote in a zoning plan to encourage mixed use zoning and higher densities near transit stops.
  • They approve plans to convert the town’s strip malls into village-like neighborhoods, turning some retail space into apartments and ripping up parking lots for parks, more homes, schools and libraries.
  • They enact an urban growth boundary to keep the town compact – which saves money on infrastructure such as sewers and streets and also saves energy.
  • They vote in a building code that requires energy efficiency measures in new construction, in remodels, and at time of sale for existing homes.
  • They start closing central streets in town one night a week for a community market selling local goods and farm produce; this proves so popular that ultimately it becomes a permanent car-free area.

All these changes give people many more options for getting around town without using cars and gasoline, reducing the overall amount of petroleum used in this town. All the measures I've listed here are based on programs that have been carried out successfully in towns around the U.S. and the world.

In a similar scenario I wrote for Divorce Your Car! I calculated that changes like the ones above could allow the vehicle fleet to be reduced to one-tenth what it is now – and in a manner that still met everyone’s travel needs. If such a reduced vehicle fleet can then be powered by alternatives to petroleum – a much more realistic prospect if we’re not trying to keep hundreds of millions of cars on the road – we can go a long way toward recovering from petroleum dependence.

As we watch the latest news from the Gulf of Mexico, where today oil is leaking from a seafloor damaged by deepwater drilling and experts have estimated that years will be needed for recovery from the spill disaster, it should be clear that this is a direction we need to go.

Thanks to www.pedbikeimages.org for the photo of school kids crossing the street. All other photos were taken by me.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Town Recovers from Oil Dependence, Part 3

This is #28 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Our saga of one town’s recovery from oil dependence left off yesterday with a pedestrian in a crosswalk getting hit by a car. Sadly, this is too often what it takes to motivate improvement of walking facilities. Now, as our saga continues, the senior citizen in our cast of characters is upset enough about her friend getting hit that she contacts America Walks for advice.

Based on their feedback, she and a few other concerned citizens form their own walking advocacy group and join America Walks. They start to network with other groups who are members. Based on strategies used in Atlanta by Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety (PEDS), they start a yard-sign campaign to encourage drivers to slow down, and encourage pedestrians to use whistles when crossing streets to get the attention of drivers. They also organize a sign-carrying campaign similar to the one used by the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition to educate drivers about pedestrian rights. More drivers start paying attention to pedestrians. As pedestrians gain more visibility, more people start to feel safer walking.

Our senior and her walking group go further by signing up for a free webinar announced on the AmericaWalks website, an online presentation on pedestrian safety from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) (this actually does start on Tuesday, July 20, 2010, and continues into the fall with biweekly sessions). They download the walkability checklist written up by the PBIC, FHWA, and Partnership for a Walkable America and walk their downtown streets to perform a walkability audit. They also start raising money to see if they can bring in Dan Burden of Walkable Communities Inc. to give one of his inspiring presentations on how much they might improve their town with walkability measures.

Some of the walking group members are volunteer leaders for Walking School Buses. They notice that the crosswalk where their friend was hit is also used by kids on the way to one of the schools. They team up with the local Safe Routes to School effort and get a little money through the federal program to make it safer. The crosswalk where our senior’s friend got hit is outfitted with pedestrian flags, which can be carried by walkers as they cross the street to raise their visibility.

Above: Dog carries pedestrian flag to help street-crossers. Photo credit: www.pedbikeimages.org / Jan Moser
Below: Pedestrian flags waiting to be used. A similar holder at the other side of the street holds flags after pedestrians finish crossing. Photo credit: www.pedbikeimages.org / Dan Burden
Photo credit for crosswalk image at top of post: www.pedbikeimages.org / Dan Burden

As conditions in our town are improving for pedestrians, conditions in a huge parking lot at one of the town’s major employers are getting more crowded. A couple of workers finally get so tired of circling the lot looking for empty spaces that they decide, independently of each other, to do something about it.

The first employee writes up and submits a telecommuting proposal to her employer, detailing how the company could benefit from such a program. The company agrees to a telecommuting trial, and enough employees love it that it grows. Soon, about a third of employees are telecommuting one or two days a week.

The second employee organizes a vanpool. After learning that there is a source of biodiesel not far away, he leases a diesel van, gets a few other commuters to sign on, and works out a deal with the company for preferential parking. The vanpool riders save money and stress, so pretty soon there are a few more biodiesel vanpools – enough that one of the filling stations in town adds a biodiesel pump. With this available, people with diesel cars and trucks start using biodiesel more often.

At this point vanpools and telecommuting have emptied enough of the company’s parking lot that management is wondering what to do with all the extra real estate. They sell off a chunk of unused parking lot to a green developer who builds apartments with solar photovoltaics for electricity, solar water heating, and permaculture landscaping. When the apartments open, some of the company’s employees move in and start walking to work.

This increases density in town enough to attract the attention of a carsharing business – maybe Zipcar. They establish a small fleet of carsharing cars parked in strategic locations around town, including a couple at the new solar apartment complex. The carsharing fleet includes hybrid cars and a biodiesel truck. Seeing how much time and money they can save by carsharing, people start joining. Several households find that they are able to sell their second cars and use carsharing instead when they have the need for more than one car at a time.

So far, citizens and businesses have initiated most of the changes in our town. Soon, though, the town government notices all the improvements wrought by these efforts and decides to make some changes of their own.

To be continued….

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Town Recovers from Oil Dependence, Part 2

This is #27 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

In yesterday's post, I began describing a fictional transition town in which a few citizens move toward greater freedom from car and oil dependence. We had reached a point where the local school district gets involved with Safe Routes to School and several Walking School Buses are organized.

These Walking Buses, plus a carfree vacation to Maine that includes a stop in the very walkable town of Portland, gives the local Girl Scout leader an idea. While traveling, she picks up a great little map produced by the regional government's Kids and Transportation program, "The Kids Guide to Getting Around Portland." She decides her troop can create a map fashioned after Portland's, showing ways kids can get around by foot, bike and bus, as well as the safest routes to schools, and earn merit badges in the process.

Walkable Portland, Maine
Photo credit: www.pedbikeimages.org/ Photographer: Dan Burden

When completed, the Girl Scouts' draft map gets written up in the local newspaper. This (and a grant proposal written by the Girl Scout leader) prompts the local community foundation to provide money to produce the map, and pretty soon kids are using it to walk, bike and bus around town. Soccer parents breathe a sigh of relief as their driving mileage drops accordingly; with less chauffeuring to do, they actually get a little time to themselves.

More people are biking and walking, but too many cars still speed on the town's streets, according to the town's neighborhood improvement group. One of the group's leaders has just read the book Street Reclaiming by David Engwicht as well as finding pictures on the web of Park(ing) Day, where people reclaim parking spaces as mini-parks. He enthuses about both the book and Park(ing) Day to other members of the neighborhood improvement group.

Turning a parking space into a park on National Park(ing) Day.
Photo from http://bike-pgh.org/2008/09/pittsburgh-parking-day-2008/

Park(ing) Day is held in September each year, and the neighborhood group makes plans to participate in the next one. In the meantime, the group starts a little psychological street reclaiming by hanging banners across the street; then they pick some strategically located parking spaces and turn them into mini-parks by furnishing them with potted plants and outdoor furniture. They notice that traffic slows near these changes; eventually the group leaves the plants and furniture out permanently in those locations. These communal outdoor living rooms become favorite hangouts for the neighbors. Other neighborhoods around town take notice and decide to do some street reclaiming of their own.

All this looks good to our senior citizen, but she's still having trouble crossing the street downtown; too many cars zip through ignoring pedestrian rights. She grumbles a little, but basically puts up with this. Then one of her friends is hit by a car while walking across the street in a crosswalk ....

.... to be continued tomorrow ....

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Town Recovers from Oil Dependence, Part 1

This is #26 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has a lot of us rethinking our relationship with petroleum. Could we possibly be on the verge of transitioning away from oil dependence?

Ten years ago when I wrote Divorce Your Car! I quoted British transport analyst John Whitelegg about the closely-related phenomenon of car dependence. Whitelegg believed that a critical mass of people recognized that:
"The time for change has arrived and that change has to involve a transition from auto-dependency and all that goes with it to lower levels of car use and higher levels of accessibility and environmental quality."
While Whitelegg pointed out that "the existence of such a critical mass ... does not guarantee that this change will take place in the short term," any change like this has more chance to manifest if it springs from the grassroots.

Looking at this today, I can only think that the Gulf oil disaster must have added to the crowd desiring freedom from car and oil dependence. If such a critical mass of people is growing, then small changes such as some of the examples in this series of posts -- as well as the many examples in Divorce Your Car! -- could be components of a bigger shift. Walking school buses, bike delivery services, transit investment, more telecommuters, and efforts to limit sprawl have the potential to add up to a tipping point and a major transition.

Let's consider how such a transition might happen and how it might look in a town of, say, 50,000 people. Suppose this town includes the following cast of characters (who will show up in these posts over the next few days):
  • two active cyclists,
  • some teenagers hanging around with nothing to do,
  • a parent concerned about the safety of his children walking to school,
  • a sympathetic teacher,
  • a neighborhood improvement group,
  • a Girl Scout leader looking for troop projects,
  • a senior citizen concerned about her own safety crossing streets, and
  • a couple of employees with parking hassles at work.
Starting with some simple actions from these people, this town – today a typical car-dependent community – could soon look very different.

Suppose one of the two cyclists notices the teenagers hanging around with nothing to do, maybe getting into a little trouble. This cyclist knows about youth bicycle repair programs such as those at Eugene, Oregon's Center for Appropriate Transport and the Boston-based Bikes Not Bombs. He teams up with the industrial arts programs at local schools to start a youth bicycle workshop. This expands opportunities for the town's teens, many of whom start cycling around town on bikes they've built or repaired themselves. Within a few years, the shop starts a community bicycle sharing program, which gets more townspeople cycling.

Our other cyclist decides to start a bicycle delivery service like the one mentioned earlier in this series, Pedal Express. She gets Jim Gregory's book Cycling for Profit, follows its instructions to start her business, and is soon delivering groceries, meals-on-wheels, and other items by bike. Within a few years and as she adds employees, she adds recycling pick-up and a diaper delivery service, featuring organic cotton diapers washed in laundry soap without scents or petrochemical ingredients.

Both these cyclists make bicycling more visible to the town's business community. When they suggest better bike racks at area businesses, several stores and offices comply. The bookstore installs racks inspired by the ones at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon; other businesses even supply bike lockers or covered bike parking. Seeing the bike racks and lockers, another few town residents start biking.

On a recent trip through Portland, Oregon, I was delighted to spot these bike racks sporting bicycle book titles in front of Powell's Books (above and below).

Meanwhile, our concerned parent reads about Safe Routes to School and Walking School Buses and decides these look like great ideas. He connects with the sympathetic teacher and together, they get the local school to participate in Walk to School Day. Its success leads the school district to affiliate with Safe Routes to School, and kicks off the organization of several Walking School Buses.

Walking School Bus in London, Ontario on International Walk to School
Day. Thanks for this image go to Green Communities Canada's Active and
Safe Routes to School program at www.saferoutestoschool.ca

Soon, groups of children wearing colorful scarves or caps designating their Walking Buses can be seen around town with volunteer adult leaders who deliver them to local schools. Many of the Walking Bus leaders are retired folks who love spending time with the kids and helping out with community safety. The kids and bus leaders all get healthier and lose a little weight, since they're getting regular moderate exercise on the way to school. Michelle Obama comes to visit and talks about this community as a great example for her Let's Move initiative.

To be continued ......

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Catastrophes and Transitions

This is #25 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

This morning's news reported a resumption in tests after yet more delays in British Petroleum's efforts to contain oil and gas spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. I scanned this story, then wandered into the burgeoning periphery of Gulf catastrophe reporting to read of related concerns – among them, contamination of crab larvae with spots of oil; the huge amount of methane in the water near the mammoth leak; and damage to the seafloor that appears related to the shattered Deepwater Horizon well.

One story lurking on the blogosphere examined the possibility of a catastrophic explosion of methane from the seabed of the Gulf. Based on geologic theories, wrote Terrence Aym on Helium, an explosive release of methane might decimate the entire region and lead from there to planet-wide extinctions. Changes in seafloor structure resulting from the Gulf disaster, said the story, might make such a catastrophe more likely.

I don't have the expertise to evaluate such a risk, but whether or not such a scenario plays out, we have plenty of catastrophes to address already. The disaster in the Gulf has widespread consequences that we are only beginning to see. And even before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, we were dealing with ongoing catastrophes like climate change, the economic volatility of oil production peaks, and the massive military costs of ensuring a largely-imported oil supply.

The catastrophe at the root of all these others is our entire petroleum economy, what some -- including Van Jones, who says this in Josh Tickell's movie Fuel -- have called the petroleum-industrial complex. Even without the BP blowout, even if climate change and peak oil and wars for oil aren't concerns, petroleum has still killed and sickened and poisoned the planet for the last 150 years. The air and water pollution petroleum creates, the toxic chemicals it releases just in the process of "normal" use, the geopolitical tensions it engenders, all are reasons enough to get off oil.

Here's the irony: giving up petroleum is not a sacrifice. In fact, we can be better off without it. Consider, for instance:

-Reducing the petroleum we use for food production by going organic and local gives us fresher, more nutritious food.
-Reducing petroleum use by avoiding petrochemical scents and synthetics in body care products reduces the risk of cancer, allergies and hormone imbalances.
-Using biodiesel instead of petroleum diesel in school buses reduces respiratory illness in children.
-Money invested in walking and cycling facilities helps people near those facilities to live longer and lose weight as they get more exercise – pleasantly, in the course of their daily lives.
-Money invested in trains and transit – including free transit – provides more jobs than building highways, and results in a more egalitarian transportation system, providing more mobility to more people.

I could go on – I could write a book – and oh, yeah, I did in fact write a book based entirely on this idea that we can live better by driving less and burning less oil.

If that's the case, why doesn't our society just do it? The problem lies in making the transition. In places we've begun to shift away from oil dependence, but there is enough money, power and inertia vested in the oil-addicted system to make this change a challenge at best. Look, for example, at California's AB32, the highly praised Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which has already increased investment and created new jobs in the Golden State's green economy. Now an oil-industry-funded measure seeks to overturn that law. California voters will decide in November whether to believe slick oil-company PR protecting the old system, or trust in the new cleaner energy paradigm; their ballots will affect prospects for recovering from oil dependence nationwide.

We have so many good reasons to continue a shift away from petroleum use, to recover from our oil addiction, but how can we navigate a transition with such difficulties? I like the potential that lies in the Transition Town Movement, or Transition Network. Begun in Ireland and England about five years ago, the movement originally sought to reduce CO2 emissions to address climate change and peak oil. It now has more than 300 member communities from around the world, including in the United States.

San Francisco is one of many Transition towns in the United States.

Transition towns are places that can bring together many of the specific measures I've written about in this series. They are places where people can see in action the kinds of programs and lifestyles that allow us to live without oil. I like the idea of transition towns because they start at the bottom up, without waiting for national government leadership. I also like the idea because transition towns can help people visualize how to live without oil.

In the last chapter of Divorce Your Car! I describe a sort of transition town, where a whole community becomes less car-dependent as a result of several small citizen initiatives. To write it, I took several real-life programs and combined them in one fictional place. I plan to revisit and update that material in the next few posts, because with all the oil-related catastrophes now underway, it's a good time to turn this kind of fiction into reality.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gulf Disaster’s Possible Health Effects: Environmental Illness?

This is #24 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

An engrossing recent report from Elizabeth Grossman paints a telling picture of conditions on the Gulf as workers attempt to clean up oil from the shattered Deepwater Horizon well. Grossman's narrative follows Captain Dave Willman as he heads out in his vessel to skim, recounting the captain’s actions, observations -- and some of his symptoms:

"They're flying dispersant over us. They're lighting fires sometimes starting at 6:30 in the morning," he tells me …. "There's smoke in the air. There's oil, there's benzene, there's dispersant ...."

In the heat and sun out on the water, he says, you can almost see the "sheen evaporate off the top of the Gulf of Mexico."

"And I feel really funky when we are out there," he tells me. "When I wake up out there, my heart starts fluttering. It's like you smoked a pack of cigarettes then held your breath," says Willman, who says he hasn't smoked in 9 months. "I get an immediate headache when I come in contact with crude oil," he says. "And my skin itches like it's cracking." His wife, Misty, says she's experienced what she calls "heart flutters," what she describes as feeling like unexpected rushes of adrenalin. "Everyone out there is coughing," says Willman. "People are spitting stuff up in the morning and you can feel your blood pressure."

"I'm 35 years old. I'm a healthy guy. But I don't feel myself. I'm light-headed and get dizzy. I'm getting headaches and my eyes burn. I get mood swings and I can't stop scratching…."

A number of these symptoms - headaches, dizziness, skin itching - are consistent with oil vapor and solvent exposure, explains Dr. Rose Goldman, associate professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It's a complex system," she says of potential exposure out on the oiled waters of the Gulf. There are volatile organic compounds coming off the oil. There may be an oil and water mist mixture. If there's burning nearby there will be smoke and particulates, and there's heat ….

"I don't want to be out there in this crap much longer," says Willman. "I want to know the long term effects of this stuff…." (from "Out in the Oil with Captain Dave" by Elizabeth Grossman, posted on July 8, 2010 by The Pump Handle)
Having spent the last few years helping a spouse deal with environmental illness -- also known as multiple chemical sensitivities, or MCS -- I can speculate on what some of those long-term effects might be.

MCS is poorly understood, but often seems to develop after chemical injury, or exposure to such a quantity of chemicals that a person's body loses the ability to function properly. A common phenomenon seen in MCS is "spreading" -- a progressive increase in reactivity to a wide range of chemicals beyond that causing the original injury, at lower and lower exposure levels.

Gulf workers who develop MCS risk becoming extremely sensitive to even small quantities of petrochemicals. They might reach the point of being sickened simply by standing too close to someone whose clothes have been washed in standard laundry detergent. They might become unable to walk into hardware stores, where the quantity of synthetic molecules off-gassing from home and garden products will bring on symptoms: perhaps numbness and tingling in extremities, perhaps loss of muscle coordination, perhaps migraines, for some even seizures. Walking through a neighborhood could become like walking a gauntlet, if one neighbor’s dryer vent is sending fabric softener scents into the air, or another’s lawn is wafting weed-and-feed fumes.

Not everyone exposed to toxicants gets this particular kind of sickness; as one specialist explained to us, genetic make-up might influence whether MCS develops in those who suffer from toxic chemical exposures (cancer and other degenerative diseases are also potential results from such exposures). According to an overview by Cynthia Wilson of the Chemical Injury Information Network, research now suggests MCS might be some combination of central nervous system damage (such as from chemical exposures) and detoxification enzyme deficiencies (possibly related to genetic make-up).

Our incomplete understanding of MCS makes dealing with the condition a challenge. So does the fact that it's not yet recognized as a diagnosable condition by the American Medical Association or the World Health Organization. It shares characteristics with Gulf War Syndrome; perhaps --unfortunately -- we will also see the development of Gulf Spill Syndrome.

For those who do end up suffering long-term chemical sensitivities or environmental illness as a result of oil spill exposures, below are a few resources that might help. Sadly, I suspect that full recovery from the Deepwater Horizon disaster could require helping many who develop this condition; cutting our use of petroleum products will also be an important part of that.

Chemical Injury Information Network – Provides support and advocacy for those with MCS. Maintains an excellent library of helpful reports on chemical injuries and MCS, and publishes the informative newsletter Our Toxic Times; the July 2010 issue includes significant coverage of the Gulf spill.

Human Ecology Action League (HEAL) – Another source of information and support for those with MCS; seeks to “encourage healthy lifestyles that minimize potentially hazardous environmental exposures.” HEAL’s newsletter The Human Ecologist has won an Utne Independent Press Award; the group also publishes a travel directory and materials about the health risks of fragrances.

MCS America (MCSA) -- Advocates official medical and legal recognition of MCS and provides resources to support those with the condition. Lobbies to reduce use of environmental toxicants. Now in the process of constructing an informational page on petroleum products, with links. Also links to referral lists of doctors, dentists and housing sources on its website.

American Academy of Environmental Medicine -- International association of physicians and other health care professionals interested in environmental health; provides research and education in recognition, treatment and prevention of chemically-induced illnesses. Practitioners who belong to AAEM may be more versed in treatments for people with MCS / environmental illness. The group can also provide training and assistance to non-member physicians. AAEM’s website allows you to search and find members by state, country, and member type.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Walking Away from Oil

This is #23 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

How much can walking help us to recover from our addiction to oil? More than most of us think, because driving even for short trips remains a habit in the U.S. Consider these numbers:

-More than a quarter of U.S. car trips are one mile or less; when Divorce Your Car! came out, 13.7% were a half mile or less.
-Looked at another way, about 60% of all U.S. trips one mile or less are traveled in a private car, truck, or SUV. (This came from a League of American Bicyclists analysis of federal travel statistics that was so helpful it inspired me to send in my way-overdue LAB membership renewal.)
-As of 2001, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports, private vehicles accounted for half of trips between ¼ and ½ mile taken to and from school.

Even for kids, ½ mile is generally less than a 15 minute walk. Something’s wrong when so many of us use petroleum to ferry kids such short distances. But here's the good news: these numbers represent a huge opportunity to reduce dependence on oil.

How can we do this? I like to think of it as recultivating a culture of walking. With our motorized mindset, we tend to underestimate what we can accomplish on two feet. Perhaps we can start by expanding the notion of "walking distance."

It might help if we recognized that driving short distances doesn't save much time. Consider one recent study that determined every hour behind the wheel leads to a 20-minute loss of life expectancy due to car crash risks. In addition, every car trip taken instead of a walk shortens life expectancy, because as numerous studies show, walking extends life spans. Factor in calculations by Ivan Illich of all the hours we spend maintaining, earning money for, and otherwise attending to automobiles, and we might even lose time by driving. As Illich famously figured, "The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles; less than 5 miles per hour."

We can also support a walking culture by giving pedestrians priority. I got early training in pedestrian rights from my father. In leading my sisters and I across busy streets, Dad would routinely glare at oncoming traffic and call out, "5-6-0-A!" At the time, this was the vehicle code section that gave pedestrians the right of way in California. He repeated this often enough to instill in me a sense of righteous indignation at any cars that might whiz by, ignoring the state-given rights so clearly important to my Dad.

Photo credit: www.pedbikeimages.org

Most states have pedestrian right-of-way laws like this, but they are too often ignored or unenforced. Some walking groups have worked to improve this situation; one creative approach used by the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition in Oregon involved successive Burma-Shave-style signs of doggerel verse. As group members carried these placards across intersections, motorists would read – sign by sign – verses like: "When Mary tried/ To cross the road/ Not a single /Driver slowed./ As you hurry/ Home today/ Give pedestrians/ The right of way."

Here are a few more groups, agencies and programs taking steps to support walking:

America Walks - A resource and umbrella group for local, regional and state pedestrian advocacy organizations from across the country; the only national group that works exclusively on pedestrian advocacy

America’s Walking – This PBS series hosted by walking expert Mark Fenton has a companion website with excellent resources on its “Call to Action” page

Let's Move – First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative has walking as part of the program to get active in communities

Partnership for a Walkable America -- National coalition of public agencies and private non-profits works to increase regular walking across the country; PWA started Walk to School Day, held every October and now celebrated internationally

Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center -- Provides information and training to engineers, public officials, walking advocates and citizens to support and promote walking and bicycling

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) – Now a federally funded program to help school kids walk and bike to and from school; infrastructure changes funded by SRTS help whole communities to walk more

Walkable and Livable Communities Institute – Helps communities find ways to become more walkable; non-profit led by walkability consultant Dan Burden

World Carfree Network – Promotion of carfree cities by this international organization aims to make public spaces more pedestrian-friendly

I'm sure I'm missing some, and invite you to add to this list in the comments section below. The work of these groups and the walking all of us do can not only reduce oil dependence but also cut traffic congestion, diminish pollution, work off extra weight and extend our lives. Why use toxic petroleum to fuel short driving trips when we can gain all that by walking instead?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Changing Fuel: Josh Tickell's Biodiesel Mission

This is #22 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday I wrote here about ways we can cut crude oil consumption as we eat. If you read that post, you might have noticed that diesel fuel supplies a lot of the petroleum energy we use to produce and ship food.

In fact, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service, 27% of energy for agricultural production comes from diesel. Additional diesel is used as we ship food items an average of 1500 miles from farm to table.

Josh Tickell, director of the award-winning documentary Fuel, wants this – and all the other ways we use diesel – to shift. With the slogan "Change Your Fuel, Change Your World," he advocates using biodiesel instead of the petroleum form, and has dedicated his (not yet very long) life to fomenting that switch.

I first wrote about Josh Tickell (he pronounces it Tih-KELL) in Divorce Your Car! when he was touring the U.S. in the Veggie Van. A Winnebago with a two-liter diesel engine, the brightly painted Veggie Van needed no alterations to run on pure biodiesel. The van towed a Green Grease Machine used to strain food matter out of used vegetable oil obtained from fast food restaurants, and then "crack" the oil molecules into smaller units for easier burning.

Fuel, which recently came out on DVD, has some great scenes of the Veggie Van on tour, especially as Tickell pulls into fast-food drive-thrus to ask for all their used frying oil. Later, the film visits Carl's Corner truck stop in Texas, one of many stations in the U.S. selling biodiesel, to interview truckers as they fill up on the light gold fuel. It also includes footage on the move to switch school buses to biodiesel, in part because diesel fumes can accumulate and concentrate inside buses. Children are particularly vulnerable to suffering respiratory problems – including lung damage – from petroleum diesel pollutants; for air quality, biodiesel is a big improvement, reducing emissions up to 75%, depending on the blend (generally ranging from 100% plant-derived biodiesel to a mix of 20% plant diesel with 80% petroleum diesel). To the extent that it cuts consumption of crude oil, biodiesel also reduces the risk of severe environmental impacts that go along with every stage of extracting, refining, and burning petroleum products.

If you follow biofuels news, you might be stopping here and saying, "Wait – what about the studies that determined biofuels are actually WORSE for the environment than oil?" Fuel covers that as well, recounting the political and economic fallout from the finding that biofuel production could generate more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels due to the clearing of natural land to grow biofuel source crops. About the same time, food riots and price hikes occurred because some biofuels production had already begun to displace food crops. With government support withdrawn, the biofuels market suffered.

This also sent Tickell back to the biodiesel drawing board, then out to find ways that biodiesel might be made without affecting the food supply or resulting in net increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel shows how he finds these, following him to interviews with researchers and entrepreneurs making biodiesel from algae, or from waste products. As with many things, we see that how sustainable biodiesel might be, and how much it might help us recover from oil addiction, depends on how we make and use it, and how much.

As he advocates biodiesel, Tickell acknowledges it can't do the whole job of getting us off oil. To his credit, he also talks about the need for energy efficiency. This echoes my own perspective that widespread conversion to any different fuel is not a panacea. We can benefit from powering motor vehicles as cleanly as possible, but we also – and especially – need to reduce how much we use them.

Tickell made this movie well before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It was particularly compelling, then, to see all the scenes this film shows of the oil industry in Louisiana. It turns out Tickell's mother comes from that state (his father's from Australia) and we see in the film how he was shaped by spending part of his childhood there. Well before the current Gulf disaster, Fuel tells us, oil drilling and refining had turned parts of Louisiana into a Cancer Alley; in Fuel, Tickell hints that some of his family members sickened and died for this reason.

Watching this film now, as millions more gallons of oil gush into the Gulf, decimating fisheries, fouling the air, and sickening people exposed, only lends more urgency to Tickell's message. Fuel is the story of one man's search for a way out of oil addiction. Others among us might find different routes, but it's the kind of journey we all need to follow.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eating Fewer Fossil Fuels

This is #21 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

I know. You’re probably thinking, “I don’t EAT fossil fuels!” In essence, though, you do – we all do – because our current food system relies so heavily on inputs of petroleum and natural gas at every stage.

Most fields are plowed and planted using petroleum diesel. Commercial farms use fertilizers manufactured from natural gas feedstocks, and pesticides derived from petroleum. Harvesting by machine consumes additional diesel. Processing and packaging require energy and petrochemical plastic while distribution consumes yet more diesel as well as gasoline.

A 1994 study led by David Pimentel of Cornell University examined these issues and calculated that feeding each American consumes about 400 gallons of oil equivalents per year. Based on that figure, each of us consumes a little over a gallon of oil per day when we eat – and as we do this, we feed the demand for oil that leads to risky deepwater drilling and the degradation of ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico.

Eating less petroleum is thus another important part of recovery from oil dependence. Fortunately there are several delicious ways to cut back on consuming crude when we eat.

1) Eat organic. About 2/3 of petroleum-derived pesticides used in the U.S. are used by agriculture, says a background report from the Congressional Research Service. You can avoid that by eating certified organic foods – which are better for you, anyway, based on recent research. A study from University of California at Davis, for instance, found that strawberries grown without pesticides contain more antioxidants – good news for all my friends who’ve been picking organic strawberries this season here in Upper Michigan.

2) Avoid processed and plastic-packaged foods. Processing and packaging consume fossil energy as well as adding petroleum-derived plastic to the food chain. Packaging food in plastic not only increases our use of oil, it can add undesirable chemicals to the food itself. As noted in this fact sheet from Berkeley, California’s Ecology Center, compounds in plastic wrappings can migrate into food; eating that food can expose you to hormone disrupters and possible carcinogens.

3) Skip the factory-farmed meats. As Michael Pollan has written in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it takes nearly a barrel of oil to grow just one factory-farmed steer to slaughter weight. All the hormone and antibiotic residues in factory-farmed meat are another good reason to avoid it. Even though I don’t have numbers I suspect the equation changes for locally raised, organic, grass-fed meat and hunted game, neither of which are likely to consume as much petroleum as factory farming. Author and organic grower Eliot Coleman, for instance, has argued that more fossil fuel is used and CO2 generated by “a vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil” than by local production of a grass-fed steer. I’m not advocating for or against vegetarianism here, just saying that the decision of whether to eat meat at all is complicated. However, whether to eat factory-farmed meats is much more black and white, as the evidence against factory farming is so compelling.

This Farmer's Market stall features organic produce.

4) Eat more locally. Like the meat issue, this can also get complicated. Writer Sarah DeWeerdt pointed out in a recent World Watch Magazine article that how much local eating cuts energy consumption can vary. Still, the petroleum we use to transport food is significant. Paying attention to where food comes from can help reduce the average 1500 miles that standard grocery items travel as they’re trucked from farm to table. Check labels in grocery stores to see where foods are from; get to know growers in your area and buy direct from them; attend farmer’s markets and buy from growers there. Farmer’s markets, often lively and beautiful events, have the added benefit of featuring many certified organic growers.

5) Grow your own. There’s nothing more local, tasty, and petroleum-free than fresh-picked organically-grown produce from your own garden. The garden photos in this post come from ours, which provides us with wonderful salads and vegetables. The kind of garden space we have is nice, but not required; even apartment dwellers can grow some of their own food by gardening in containers. And just about anyone can grow sprouts, a wonderful source of fresh, raw nutrition. It’s a favorite approach to food growing for my friend Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen, who gives these instructions for sprouting on her blog, along with her recipe for Rainbow Sprout Salad.

Our passive solar greenhouse helps us grow our own greens, like these collards and kale, during long winters.

There’s plenty more interesting reading about making our food more sustainable and less petroleum-based all over the web; one I like is the Locavores site, locavore being a coined word referring to one who eats from within a specified local area. One tragedy we are witnessing now is how drilling for oil has made the accessing of local foods – mainly fisheries – difficult, unhealthy and/or impossible for a big segment of the Gulf coast population. This lost access to local food is a big part of what shocked Gulf residents now lament. Like oil and water, oil and sustainable food don’t mix, and I’m hoping we will fully understand that before it’s too late.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Images of a Less Oil-Dependent World

This is #20 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Surrounded as we are by highways, cars, motorboats, jet planes and video feeds of yet more crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, it can be hard to imagine a modern world free from dependence on petroleum. Still, visualizing our recovery from oil addiction is an important part of achieving it, and good photography can help.

The world already contains counterpoints to oil dependence: ingenious uses of human power, like the cargo bikes in this post of mine and this one from Alan Durning; less costly and more efficient systems of mobility, like the carsharing I wrote about yesterday; places and events where pedestrians and cyclists take precedence over cars, like the street conversion organized recently by the World Carfree Network to top off its Towards Carfree Cities Conference in York, England. Good photography can remind us that such things exist, and can help us visualize more of them.

Enjoying the day on a pedestrian boulevard in Asheville, North Carolina.
Photo credit:
www.pedbikeimages.org /Dan Burden

One very nice source of reduced-petroleum pictures is the Image Library of the Pedestrian and Bicycling Information Center (PBIC). The images in today's post, downloaded from that site, illustrate pedestrian boulevards and fit my perception of what a world recovered from oil dependence could look like. It's encouraging to see these pictures and know that there are, in fact, places in the world – and even in the U.S. – where people can live, work and socialize without cars and without using so much oil.

A street for people in Utrecht, Holland.
Photo credit: www.pedbikeimages.org / Ryan Snyder

The PBIC Image Library includes a wealth of shots by several good photographers – one being Dan Burden, a former National Geographic photographer who now consults around the world to help make communities more livable and walkable. PBIC's photo collection features views of all kinds of bicycle and pedestrian facilities, as well as pictures of transit and other urban design features. The images are free to download for non-commercial use; the service asks users to include photo credits.

It's a great source of inspiration for visualizing our recovery from petroleum dependence, and for achieving an oil-free future.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Carsharing to Cut Oil Dependence

This is #19 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Today I applied to join Zipcar.

I've wanted to join a carsharing service for some time, but one thing has held me up: carsharing has not yet expanded into my area. However, Zipcar – currently the largest carsharing service in the world, and in the U.S. – has now grown enough that it's worthwhile for me to join and use when I travel. This morning I signed up for their "Occasional" plan.

Why do this? I travel car-free as much as I can, but for some trips, driving is the most practical option. In those cases I choose to rent cars, and try to get hybrids when I can. Sometimes, though, I only want a car for less than the full day most rental companies use as a minimum. That's when carsharing, which allows members to reserve cars by the hour, becomes a very useful option.

I'm also joining because I'd like to see the practice of carsharing grow. Studies show that more carsharing means fewer cars; the Zipcar website estimates that every carshare vehicle takes 15 to 20 personally-owned vehicles off the road. Not only does carsharing cut the number of vehicles, it also reduces miles of driving. Because carsharing is priced differently than car ownership, with members paying for their actual use of a vehicle and not for all the costs associated with having one sit in the garage, carsharing users drive more judiciously than car owners. In a retrospective study, Susan Shaheen and co-authors from University of California, Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center report that carsharing cuts vehicle miles traveled by about 44% on average. It also leads to greater use of transit, cycling and walking as well as reduced parking demand. That all adds up to significant reductions in oil and gas consumption.

A Zipcar sits waiting for use in its reserved parking space. Most carsharing services offer a variety of vehicle types for use by members.

Another big reason carsharing now enjoys sizable growth, and maybe the biggest: it saves people money. Zipcar estimates its members can save around $500 per month if they use carsharing instead of owning a car. Susan Shaheen et al found that carsharing members save $154 to $435 per month, a more conservative range but still substantial.

I like the way carsharing works. With Zipcar, once you join, you can reserve a car by the hour or by the day anywhere in the system. Reservations can be made by phone or online. A smartcard gives you access to the nearest car, parked in some central location in the area served. The company pays for the gas: your rates cover fuel costs, insurance, roadside assistance, and mileage.

A Zipcar member accesses a reserved car by waving a smartcard over a card reader inside the car's windshield.

Many members use carsharing in place of a second car, and some use it in place of owning any car at all. This second option works well for those who live in urban areas served by good transit, where car ownership is often a costly hassle.

When Divorce Your Car! came out ten years ago, carsharing had reached a healthy adolescence in Europe and the pre-teen stage in Canada, but was in early infancy in the United States. Today, the field is maturing, with 27 different carsharing programs in about 50 U.S. cities, nearly 7,600 vehicles and approaching half a million members. Besides Zipcar, a number of smaller carsharing services exist in the U.S., some for profit, some non-profit. You can check the CarSharing.Net website for a list of services and locations, with links.

I see carsharing as part of a new approach that can help us recover from oil dependence. Carsharing services tend to share that goal, thus using a high percentage of fuel-efficient or hybrid vehicles in their fleets. The Zipcar website lists a plug-in hybrid getting over 100 mpg as one of its San Francisco cars. A short distance to the north, in Sebastopol, California, SolarCarShare – a project of the Post-Carbon Institute – is about to launch with a small fleet consisting entirely of electric vehicles and hybrids. The service has installed electric charging stations around town with the intention of using renewables – solar and wind – to power them.

CityCarShare vehicles - a disabled-accessible van and two hybrids -- sit waiting for users in Berkeley, California, where the carsharing service shares vehicles with the city government -- see below.

I'm hoping it's only a matter of time before carsharing opens near me. Right now, the biggest growth market for carsharing is on college campuses, and I live not far from two universities. Zipcar currently has plans to expand, and as they do, I hope they'll look this way.

By the way, to sign up for Zipcar, cover the $25 application fee and pay $50 for a year's membership, I used my Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card, which sends Amtrak a cut of my purchases and nets me points to redeem for train travel in exchange. Instead of swiping my credit card at a gas pump, it feels good to have voted with my dollars for a different kind of transportation. It's one that gives me travel options without requiring car ownership; it has the potential to save me money; and -- hardly least on the list -- it uses a lot less oil.

Thanks to the Zipcar managers from Portland, Oregon, who originally supplied me with the top three images above for a presentation about reducing dependence on automobiles.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Toxicity of Oil

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts about recovering from the Gulf oil disaster and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

In the last couple of months, Gulf-area poison control centers have received 651 "exposure calls" related to crude oil toxicants. Symptoms reported by callers have included headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, throat irritation, eye pain, coughing or choking and dizziness. According to the Gulf Oil Spill page of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, most exposures have occurred via inhalation, with dermal contact also reported.

You can see some graphic documentation of crude oil’s effect on skin in a photo of some rash-afflicted legs posted yesterday with commentary by Riki Ott on the Huffington Post.

I viewed the rashy-legs picture after finishing yesterday's write-ups on the toxic petroleum byproducts contained in perfume, one on this blog and the other at the North Coast Holistics blog. At the same time, I discovered a fabulous piece by Stacy Malkan – ironically, or maybe not so, with the same title I had just given one of mine, "Petroleum in Perfume" – which eloquently relates toxic petrochemicals in fragrances to the Gulf spill disaster. It's a must-read, emphasizing the need to move away from past toxic practices and adopt new, greener approaches in all spheres of industry and life. Let's rethink petrochemicals, Malkan writes, and "move the entire economy toward renewable energy, clean production and green, safe chemistry."

As author of Not Just a Pretty Face:The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Malkan advocates that approach on a regular basis. The Campaign calls for elimination of toxic ingredients -- chemicals linked to birth defects, cancer, and other health issues -- in body care products. A recent analysis by the Campaign shows that top-selling perfumes contain hazardous compounds and secret petrochemicals.

That's not unlike the dispersant Corexit 9500 now being used to "clean up" in the Gulf. A few weeks ago, an article by Elana Schor in the New York Times (originally from Greenwire) reported that Nalco, producer of Corexit, had issued press releases noting that the dispersant's ingredients also occur in several common household products. Apparently fashioned to reassure the public, the release I found at Nalco's website noted that various unnamed ingredients in Corexit are also used in beverage mixtures, skin cream, body shampoo, and baby bath liquid.

This was not reassuring to me -- in fact, it had the opposite effect. It’s another indicator that the use of potentially harmful petrochemicals in common products has been undisclosed and unregulated for far too long. It's also another good reason to support the goals of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as well as all campaigns working to reduce our use of oil.

To tie this back to transportation, we also get plenty of personal exposure to toxic petroleum byproducts from cars. We're exposed at gas stations, in garages, and from tailpipe exhaust. Studies have consistently found higher cancer rates among people living closer to busy roads, where exhaust reaches highest concentrations. Inside cars, exposures might be even worse. Some studies have found pollution levels within cars to be higher than outside them. In addition, "new car smell" is loaded with endocrine disrupters, compounds that off-gas from petrochemical auto interiors, get into our bodies, and mess with hormone function.

We have some big reasons compelling us to end our dependence on oil, with the Gulf disaster, climate change, and the huge military cost of procuring oil all on the list. Petroleum toxicity is one more, and with the ever-increasing incidence of cancers and chronic illnesses linked to petrochemical exposures, it is no less important.