We’ve got COOL, now let’s get … TAMS?

As of today, the new COOL (Country-of-Origin Labeling) law goes into effect.  Basically this means that any fresh produce sold in the US must have a label declaring what country it’s from.  The government is giving growers until spring before beginning to fine them, but you should at least begin to see the new labels at stores.  More details about the law and its implementation can be found here.

And that’s great.  I think it will promote consumer awareness and help alleviate some of the worries of food scares and give us a little more information about where our products come from.  But I want more.  I was thinking that I want to know when my organic radishes are from the farmer two miles away and when they’re from Texas.  I want to know where my veggies have been shipped before they came to me, and where they might have stopped in transit, and how long it took them to come.  Ripeness is an issue.  Health is an issue.  Environmental impact is an issue.  I want to track that.

I propose the Tracking and Management System.  I want to know where my stuff went, where it came from – including a little blurb about the farmer – and how long it took to get there.  I want to know details of its shipment, including how far it travelled and at what environmental cost.  Lastly, I want to know the conditions of its transport – was it sent in a refrigerated box?  Was it overheated?  Unintentionally frozen?  I know they’re doing this sort of tracking now with wine, and I know for more commodity items, it’s probably less fiscally feasible.  But still, I want it – and I think it’s something other consumers, even at a more speciality store level which would provide this kind of information, would want it.

Peace. Quiet. Solitude.

One of the greatest vices of the modern technological age is not leaving people well enough alone.  I’ve had friends who’ve taken ‘breaks’ from the internet.  I’ve had bosses unable to leave their Blackberrys at home while on vacation.  I’ve seen people on all modes of transportation with things in their ears, whether for business or pleasure.  Constant contact of one form or another is a tool that becomes a habit and eventually an addictive handicap.

It’s not that I think virtual instant contact is ‘bad’.  I can remember when my family first got cell phones.  We never used them to keep in touch, but they were kept in the car in case of emergency or accident.  In such a case, a cell phone would be serving a good cause and would allow help to arrive more quickly.  The internet made my two years in China more of an inconvenience rather than a burden.  New technology has also been handy in the research and the distribution of information, the selling of consumer goods, and increasing close communication worldwide.  But that reliance does eventually get in the way of what i think life should be.

Today the banjo man was playing at Davis Square T stop.  I saw him – I didn’t hear him play.  I had my noise-cancelling iPod headphones on, which are protecting my delicate ears from the screechings and engine turns of the trains.  But I also realized that since I got this shiny new toy for music, I haven’t been listening to the world on my way to work.  I’ve felt the wind, but only on the outside. I don’t necessarily know what my new neighborhood sounds like.

Earlier this week, Yellowstone officials revealed the new draft plan for increased cell phone coverage in the park.  The plan is aimed to address issues of preservation while still allowing for visitors and guests to have the convenience they expect from modern technology, at least in the more built-up areas.  This is probably a valid request, particularly since such an increase will also benefit park rangers who are committed to keeping the public safe and for whom instant communication might be a necessity.  As spokesperson Tim Stevens said, “it’s critical that Yellowstone continue to provide the solitude and peace and quiet that our first national park has to offer”.

Let’s take a moment and consider these three gifts a national park is supposed to provide.  Where do we get peace and quiet and solitude in our daily lives?  Do we take time for it?  Or do we let such things just traipse along by without it?  Are we using the excuse of safety and convenience too much?  Should we just leave our cell phones off more often?  I’m not sure, but I think a part of the answer comes naturally to me, in my own forgetfulness.  if I leave my cell phone at home, it’s really not that big of a deal.

Ahh, to live in a tree.

I’m a big fan of the treehouse.  Not just because of the secrecy of being above everyone else, or the hilarity of people who never look up.  Or for tree-climbing-as-sport.  Or for the views, or the way sunlight streams green through the leaves to wash your face.  Or from the accomplishment of building something yourself, with your own two hands.  It is all of these things, but also more nebulous (and idealized) getting in touch with my big backyard.

While it’s true that I may occasionally push through tangles of things, leave sticks in my hair, have grit under my nails, or eat bugs, I’m not a complete nature enthusiast.  I like camping, just not for weeks at a time.  I like coming home to a shower at the end of a grungy day or weekend.  As such, the treehouse is my ideal home away from home.  Cozy, quiet, and a bit removed, but still within shouting distance of all the conveniences of home.  So the thought of an actual tree home is appealing – it seems quieter somehow, more relaxed and at peace with itself.  Most likely, that’s all idealizations, but the Swiss Family Robinson has always been a little romantic to my way of thinking.  I almost want to be stranded on a desert island.

Thanks to aeroponics, I may not have to give up civilization for my ‘real’ treehouse.  Instead, we’re learning to grow houses made of tree from the roots up.  I’m all about the benefits of natural heating a cooling, and the pictures do look pretty good.  However, despite the fact that I’ve also been intrigued by geodesic dome houses, why are our treehouses roundish little bubbles?  If we’re training the tree how to grow, we can make it however we want, rather than like an airport terminal with leaves.  I like square shapes – they tend to fit the things I have.

But who knows?  Maybe by the time these houses are actually affordable (it will take 10 years for even a prototype to be ready, as we are growing these things from scratch), all the appliances, furniture, and random ‘stuff’ we tend to acquire will be fitted to this sort of curve.

Drilling down to the good stuff.

It’s been proven time and again – socially conscious products and services are officially a viable niche market.  Whether based on environmental impact or hunger or the disparity of wealth resources, people will pay for the feel-good of buying along ethical lines.  perhaps it’s no surprise then that eBay is launching a new site, worldofgood.com, that will host only those products and services.  In addition, the items listed on the new website will be integrated regular eBay searches, making the products accessible to a wider audience while still providing a venue where they can be more easily found.

What is more valuable to me is the amount of information available on the site.  Every vendor, producer, or product is reviewed by a range of outside organizations, each of which present thier own information regarding the the vendor, producer, or product.  For example, a purse that I took a look at was certified by IFAT, which is a group of global fair trade organizations, and Co-op America, which is an initiative that promotes an economic system that is good for both people and the environment.  So the producer of my particular purse met the standards in place for both organizations.  In addition, the vendors list thier own positive impacts in a separate statement.  this allows a vendor both to promote the positive aspects of their product.  Since the statements are pre-defined by worldofgood, it allows easy comparison between products.

True, if you really want to get the scoop on what each product does not provide, you’re going to have to look to outside sources and do your own research.  But this is definitiely a start.  Hopefully user feedback and ratings will soon be incorporated (just like on the main eBay site) to allow a little more word of mouth to fill in the gaps as far as specific product is concerned.

The Organic question.

Evidently there’s a study that was recently published that shows that organic foods are not more nutritionally valuable than foods grown by other methods.  I haven’t seen the study, so if you’re researching this area and would like to give a ltitle background, be my guest.  However, the idea that organic food is supposed to contain higher trace elements of nutrients we all need was new to me, as was the idea that I was supposed to be buying organic strictly to limit my impact on the environment.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m aware of the environmental impact of the manufacturing process and runoff implications of commercial pesticides and fertilizers.  I do think we should try and limit that impact.  But even if we were to stop using both immediately (an objective that isn’t currently realistic), some of the damage has been done.  There are already chemicals in our water supply that we don’t really want there, and I’m not sure how much impact a cease and desist would have.  But that’s never been the point of organic foods to me.

The point, in fact, is that I’d prefer to have as few of those commercial fertilizers and pesticides in my own body as possible.  Sure, I don’t really relish the idea of eating ‘night soil’ (to put it politely).  But there is a difference between eating something covered in waste products that, as far as I know, didn’t poison the living thing they passed through and eating something covered in poisons or chemical growth-promoters.  And that’s been the point of organics for me.  Sure, you may find a worm or two in your apple, but it seems better to find a live worm than to notice the half-bite a worm took out before it keeled over.

There may be other arguements as far as taste, buying locally, and helping those who farm with the most traditional methods of all, but really, I would only be motivated to buy organic out of pure self-interest.  I’ve had plenty of opportunities to wash the dirt off my lettuce, but there are other things that are not so easy to wash off.

I just don’t understand…

Trends in ‘modern life’ seem to swing back and forth between thrift and extravagance.  Take, for instance, foam soap dispensers.  AS far as I am aware, the whole point of this type of dispenser is to save soap.  Whether or not the ‘saving’ is for reasons of cost or environment I’ve never understood.  Soap really doesn’t cost so much that we need to use 70% less of it.  And as far as environmental impact goes, I’m sure there’s some in the manufacture of liquid soap, but nothing really in comparison to, say, batteries or fluorescent bulbs (did you know how much mercury is in those things?  Toxic, man.  Waaaay toxic. )  So I remain confused about the need to save soap.

Even more confusing is where ‘technology’ and soap saving combine.  here I’m talking about the automatic soap dispenser.  Not only does it foam into your hand non-wastefully, it makes sure you don’t over-squirt through the use of…needless electricity.  I can understand this non-wasteful gesture when imposed on water, or even paper towels, which I would prefer not to waste.  But soap?  Really?  Soap, in particular in my office bathroom, when niether the water or the towels are ‘automatic’?  If we can non-wastefully turn the faucet on and off, somehow I think we would be able to manage with soap.  but that’s just me.

One way or another.

I’ve never been a big fan of conservation.  The idea that all land should be put to good use has a certain pride inherent in it to my mind.  Who are we to say that our judgment of use is the correct one?  And, since conservation is not an exact science, how do we know we aren’t damaging the natural landscape, rather than protecting it?

A current example is the idea on the table to move endangered species to new habitats to preserve them from extinction.  While I mourn the extinction of any species, I wonder at the validity of the idea.  Obviously, those presenting it are aware of the difficulties inherent in such movement – species interaction in the new setting, and choosing between which species are saved, as well as the actual logistics of the movement.  But what happens when climate change or human encroachment threatens this same species again?  What happens, when despite our best intentions and most rigorous science, we make a mistake and destroy the ecology of a region?

It is time, and past time, to reject stopgap measures and really choose how far we are willing to push the world habitat.  We’re breeding like bunnies and taking over resources left and right  – how many species are worth that reckless expansion and waste?  I am human, and as such, I would have to say I would choose the life of a child over that of a puppy, or turtle, or rare endangered warbling crane.  But how far am I willing to to push that choice?

Why I love Greyhound.

Normally, I am an environmentally conscious person. I like doing things that don’t gouge the land. At the same time, I am also cheap. Sometimes these two things work together, as in forgoing the convenience of a car in favor of public transportation. Sometimes however, the cost to convenience outweighs the benefits, such as when they are working on the Longfellow Bridge every single weekend and what should be a straight shot train ride into the city becomes a train + shuttle + train ‘adventure’.

My recent weekend trip to Maine is a case in point. I had a wonderful time, of course, and the ride up, despite a little traffic, was pleasant. The return was less so. The driver was young and inexperienced, two qualities which I can understand and forgive. I myself was at one time inexperienced, and even my current level of know-how has not equipped me to drive a bus. However, he was also an hour late. Meaning if there was any traffic, I was not going to make the last train to the last bus back to Belmont. Still, I wasn’t terribly worried. I do have friends with cars who stay up late and could probably be coerced into driving me home. If not, there’s always taxis.

Once we left the bus terminal, the unpleasantness was far from over. I don’t know if many of you are familiar with bus terminals, but one feature that tends to be universal is proximity to an interstate, or at least a highway. There also tend to be giant signs telling the driver and others how to reach said highway. In Massachusetts these signs might be placed behind even larger trees, but in general they are still there. My bus driver decided to ignore the signs placed directly for his benefit as well as the directions given to him at the bus depot and take us on a tour of Portland.

After about 20 lefts, the driver pleaded with us for help. Did anyone know Portland or how to get back to the highway? Fortunately, somebody on that bus full of cranky, tired, and now severely annoyed patrons knew his way around. Unfortunately, the route back to the interstate went under two very low train trestles. Although I am a Christian, it is rare for me to truly reevaluate my life on a Sunday. Clenching my teeth and wishing I could shut my eyes as my inexperienced bus driver barreled under each too-low bridge marked one of the rare occasions.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy my trip. I loved going to Maine, especially to be able to afford going to Maine. And I’m sure I will someday take the bus again. In the meantime, I may just have to check out Amtrak.

Duck and Swimmer.

It is estimated that the North Atlantic shipping speed reductions proposed by US government scientists to protect right whales could cost over a million dollars.  While this is a hefty chunk of change, it is a relatively small percentage of the overall North Atlantic shipping industry’s profits (about $340 billion).  Still, the evidence that a reduction in speed will reduce whale deaths and increase the right whale population is strong.  So the only real question before the Office of Management and Budget should be whether this chunk will negatively impact shipping more than it will positively impact the most endangered of all whale species.

It’s a complex question, which may be why the proposal has languished with the OMB for so long.  Since the shipping industry is wide and diverse, are there companies that are going to be so negatively impacted as to go under due to this new speed rule?  Will shippers in a local area be unable to compete, due to a lower speed rule in places where more widespread shippers can make up the cost easily?  How will transatlantic shipping be affected, and will we be able to continue to compete in the international shipping market?

However, despite the plausible validity of checking all sides of the story before issuing a rule, shipper’s claims that less whales would be injured if shipping boats go faster seems to treat whales like randomly floating masses.  True, a faster boat will spend less time in a certain area of the water, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate less collisions.  Whales are perceptive.  When they see a giant thing bearing down on them slowly from the surface, they are not going to bonk into it headfirst, curious though they may be.  And any child can tell you it’s easier to doge a ball that’s thrown gently than one speeding with force.

Hopefully this is a conclusion the OMB will be able to realize soon.

The Wilderless.

In the past, the United States was a country of edgeless borders.  Thousands struggled to make a new life on ‘the frontier’, wherever that was and whatever it meant.  We fell in love with the romance of the cowboy.  We dreamed of riches and desolation in the Yukon.  Our hearts followed the young men still challenging the wilderness of the deserts, the high places, and the swamps.  As we ran out of space to explore in our own country, many of us longed for something we thought we’d lost – an innocence of the uncivilized world, or a fierce Mother Nature to pit our strength and determination against.

However, all has not been lost.  There are still some few remaining tribes in odd little corners of the world, in the mountain places or the rainforest of Brazil and Peru, that have little to no contact with the outside world.  I say ‘little to no’ because I feel some contact is evident in our observation and tracking of these tribes.  If we are flying above them in small planes and taking pictures, that’s contact 9especially when they respond by drawing bows).  True, there are efforts to protect these tribes and their traditional land areas from deforestation and illegal logging, and efforts to prevent direct contact that might spread disease.  But even with the awareness and indirect observation of these groups, we are having an effect on them which we cannot predict or change.
I am not saying such tracking is wrong.  I just can’t help but wonder if our best intentions will be realized, or if we will lose once and for all the the wilderness we at one time dreamed of by caring for the last dwellers in those remote places.  I wonder if we can help but change things, as teh toolmakers and dreamers we are.

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