Environment


Did you turn your lights out for Earth Hour between 8-9 PM Saturday night? (I did.) Do you even know what I’m talking about?

Google’s Earth Hour Page

If you don’t listen to Canadian radio stations and weren’t curious about why Google reversed their usual bright white background, chances are you missed this initiative, which is a shame because it’s a good one.

If you live in Buffalo and were clueless about Earth Hour it’s necessarily your fault, though on some level each of us must ultimately accept responsibility for our actions even when the cards are stacked against us. And, boy-oh-boy, in the United States we are really behind the ball when it comes to taking a hard look at our impact on the environment. We represent a small percent of the world’s population, but use a large percent of its resources. Of course this says an awful lot about just how privileged we are to live in this land of plenty, but they also says an awful lot about how wasteful we are as a country.

For the most part, household energy use doesn’t make that much of a dent in our energy consumption (businesses and municipalities account for much more as reported here in the Toronto Star) as a whole, but turning off the lights for an hour raises awareness about the impact that each of have on our environment. And that’s why it’s a shame if Earth Hour came and went and didn’t make any dent in your activities because if any country stands to have a positive effect upon our environment, it’s us, the Pigpen of our planet.

I’ve been giving my environmental footprint a lot of thought lately because when I started teaching I made a conscious decision to let go of some of the good habits I developed growing up in the very green community of Ithaca, NY. I rationalized my decision by telling myself that it was a matter of survival. As a first-year teacher I faced 80-hour work-weeks, unpredictable classroom behavior, pre-tenure observations, new teacher meeting requirements, extra-curricular obligations, and the necessity of completing a graduate degree. The result? I decided that I probably wouldn’t have time to wash my plastic bags for a little while. (I also let my exercise and cooking habits slide, but that’s another story.) And given all that, maybe that decision was justified, but it’s been almost four years since that date and I’m still entrenched in my bad habits.

So, today I’m starting fresh. And right there is what is so cool about Earth Hour and why it must be expanded beyond a handful of target cities. (To read more about the iniative, check our the World Wildlife Federation page here.) My one hour of hanging out in candlelight gave me time to think about just how environmentally unfriendly my own habits had become–from not reusing plastic bags, to not purchasing environmentally friendly cleaning products, to eating too much takeout (the plastic containers are not currently recyclable and styrofoam is such an environmental disaster it ought to be banned outright)–and reminded me that it wouldn’t take much effort on my part to do better. Just like turning out the lights.

Here’s my plan: invest in reusable grocery bags, switch from plastic to cellulose bags for food and trash, switch my household cleaning products to ones that are environmentally friendly, all of which and more can be easily found online and in the organic section of most grocery stores. I’ll also gradually migrate from incandescent to flourescent bulbs, and figure out what adapter I need to hook my laptop to our TV and switch from renting videos at Blockbuster to Netflix’s on-demand program in order to cut down on my husband’s extraneous trips to the video store. I will continue to compost kitchen scraps, buy small cars and avoid using pesticides. (I also conserve energy by setting my thermostat at 65 and turning off the heat completely when I’m not home and at night. All of my major appliances have high Energy Star ratings too.)

What are you going to do?

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I really thought that I was done writing for the night, but after reading Gail Collins’ Op-Ed piece on the successful downing of an inoperational satellite by the Pentagon, I couldn’t resist making mention of it here. It is Vonnegut-worthy satire.

As Collins’ reported, the cost of knocking this hunk of metal out of the sky was a cool 60 million. Upon the Pentagon’s recommendation, the President decided that the tiny odds that this dysfunctional satellite would fall smack into someone’s back yard and filling it with an unpleasant gas justified the cost of taking it out. Mind you, I’m all for protecting my own little ecosystem out here in Eden, but as Collins points out, an estimated 17,000 things have already made their way from space to Earth through out atmosphere and the odds of any single one of them hitting us is several million to one. My back yard and I, for one, have yet to be hit.

Collins challenges her readers to imagine what they might do with 60 million to invest in protecting their personal safety. Here’s my two cents; and I’ll even stick to the topic at hand. Instead of playing star wars with defective space equipment, I would invest the 60 million in research grants to PhDs and postdocs for the purpose of creating environmentally friendly satellites, ones that would burn up upon passing back through the earth’s atmosphere without being blown to smithereens beforehand. Alternatively, my 60 million might support research and development of satellites with a longer shelf-life; these “environmentally friendly” satellites could be easily be retooled and upgraded as technological advances deemed necessary. And I’m not a scientist! Heaven knows there are better ideas out there!

Here’s a link The New York Times news story on the event. It includes a great picture. Here’s the critical Chinese response to the event as reported by The Times, and here’s a link to The Lede’s coverage of the event, which includes some direct quotes from Pentagon officials justifying their decision.

I was all set to write a post on tele-skiing, but our global warming-influenced weather patterns have so disgusted me that I’m afraid I’m still too annoyed to take up that topic without ruining my own morning. Suffice it to say that if our disappointingly warm winters keep up I informed Stan that we are going to have to move north or west. Winter should be about snow that arrives in December and piles up without much break until March, not snow, then freezing rain, then sixty-degree weather, then snow–you get the idea. How is a girl who loves winter sports to survive?

So instead, I decided to write about winter’s hardiest little denizens, the birds who don’t fly south. Stan and I are devoted backyard birders. Maybe when we have a little more free time on our hands, we’ll expand this interest into a real hobby, but for now we content ourselves with local avian activity. Not that there’s any shortage!

Our little backyard paradise in Eden is surrounded primarily by land that’s used for agricultural purposes. The land not used for farming is forested. The combination of these two environments means there’s ample habitat for a wide variety of North American birds. Our property includes a couple acres of a seasonally wet area that is partially overgrown with scrub brush and some trees. It attracts a lot of birds that like to live at the edges of the large fields that surround us and it really comes alive during the spring and summer months!

Bluebird

An eastern bluebird checking out the lay of the land on our bluebird box last summer.

Our winter birds are everything you would expect to find in this part of the state. They include, American goldfinches, chickadees, cardinals, slate-colored juncos, tufted titmice, house finches, white-breasted nuthatches, chipping sparrows, American crows, starlings, blue jays, hairy and downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and occasionally piliated woodpeckers, though they are a less frequent sighting because our house is in the open. Recently we’ve been getting common redpolls by the dozens too.

Redpolls

Common redpolls take over the niger seed bag on our pole feeder just the last week.

I love the winter birds because they are such survivors I get to waste hours watching their behavior on the feeders–we take them down in the summer to keep the squirrels and other opportunistic mammals at bay–but the summer birds are so much more dramatic! My favorites include the eastern bluebirds that nest in our bluebird boxes, the baltimore orioles that raise their family in the back yard, the indigo bunting that stopped by for one brief, exhilerating showing, the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that drum away with their uneven rhythm on the trees in the back, the little house wrens and black and white warblers that flit about in the brush, the beautiful common flickers that poke about in the grass, and the kingbirds that land on the electrical wires at the end of the day. We are also visited by sharp shinned or cooper’s hawks, though I have yet to discern which. (Egads, that’s quite a favorites list. I think in the future, I’d be better off listing what I don’t like!)

Baltimore Oriole

A showy male baltimore oriole feasting on grape jelly at our oriole feeder last summer.

If you know birds, you realize that there’s nothing spectacular or unusual listed above. But I’ve decided that I’m more than content with our backyard birds. Like our lives, they are ordinary and familiar, and that’s what makes them special. They cling to tube feeders that are whipped around in 50+ mph gales, they face sleet, ice and snow in order to make it to the next breeding season, and when spring finally does arrive, they shed their drab winter colors for the brilliant plummage that signals their desire to parent the next generation. They represent the ordinary indomitability of biological life and as such are divine.

If you think you’d like to learn a little more about birds, check out the website hosted by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. If you had all the free time in the world, you could not possibly take in all this site has to offer. Their wildlife preserve and visitor’s building literally a few miles from my Dad’s old place in Cayuga Heights. We would go skating on the pond in Sapsucker Woods when the winter weather was cold and snow-free.