The Obsession with Lawns

May 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

It’s lawn mowing season! And with that, let’s look at the obsession with lawns.

I lived in Santa Cruz, CA at one time, and it was while living there that I discovered that a lot of people did something very different with their lawns: instead of a grass lawn, their yards were vegetable gardens.

Lots of people were growing corn in their front yards, along with squash, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, berries, and all kinds of edibles.

The perfect lawn

The perfect lawn

Now I live in upstate NY, in – egads! – suburbia. And here, it’s the typical obsession with the lawn. Cut it, fertilize it, herbicide it, water it, Chemlawn it.

My neighbor mows his lawn three times a week. I mow my lawn every 10 days to 2 weeks.

My neighbor has a spotless lawn, with no weeds and nary a dandelion in sight.

My lawn has all kinds of things growing in it: crabgrass, clover, dandelions, plantain, and all kinds of other vegetation.

I used to live next to a guy who was out mowing his lawn every Sunday morning at 8am. So much for a quiet Sunday morning.

I was once staying in a town in Germany for a few weeks, and that town had an ordinance that you couldn’t mow your lawn on a Sunday. Besides that, all the townsfolk’s lawns looked like either the lawns I saw in Santa Cruz, CA – filled with vegetables – or my current lawn – a ragtag grassy space that would not win any awards from Better Homes and Gardens.

So, what’s the deal with lawns?


Before the invention of the lawn mower, this is what lawns looked like

People have had lawns for a long time. Before the invention of the lawn mower, people let their animals graze on their lawn, and the grass grew along with the weeds. Many people also planted chamomile, thyme and vegetables in their lawn.

Toward the end of the 19th century in the U.S., suburbs appeared on the scene, along with the sprinkler, greatly improved lawn mowers, new ideas about landscaping and a shorter working week.

And thus was born the modern lawn.

Lawns are a standard feature of ornamental private and public gardens and landscapes in much of the world today. Lawns are created for aesthetic use in gardens, and for recreational use, including sports. They are typically planted near homes, often as part of gardens, and are also used in other ornamental landscapes and gardens.

Many different species of grass are used, often depending on the intended use of the lawn, with vigorous, coarse grasses used where active sports are played, and much finer, softer grasses on ornamental lawns.

There is often heavy social pressure to mow one’s lawn regularly and to keep all appearances tidy. Local municipal ordinances commonly require homeowners to keep grass cut.

But this obsession with lawns is killing the environment.

Kill those weeds!

Kill those weeds!

That’s because a hefty portion of the 100 million pounds of household pesticides and herbicides U.S. consumers buy every year goes straight to lawns.

But it doesn’t all stay there. Some of these chemicals leach into the groundwater, pollute the air, and get onto the skin and into the mouths of children, pets, and other creatures that come into contact with the treated grass.

To make matters worse, the tons of chemical fertilizers added go directly to the soil, and some of it runs off into waterways. Those nutrients that turn your grass green can cause vast algae blooms that kill fish and other aquatic creatures.

lawn mowerAnd there there’s the lawn mower: lawn mowers account for five percent of the country’s total emissions.

Research has found that cutting grass for an hour with a gas-powered lawnmower produces about as much air pollution as a 100-mile drive in a car.

Lawns are also contributing to the mysterious crisis of the disappearing bees. Bees are dying and disappearing at alarming numbers, so much so that the crisis now has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.

Bees need biodiversity, a wealth of different flowers to eat pollen from in order to thrive and have a healthy immune system. Lawns lack in biodiversity, being just one thing: grass, and mainly one or two types of grass seeds.

As National Bee Expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the state apiarist of Pennsylvania, said, “it’s astonishing how we decided that this green, flat lawn is a beautiful thing, when really it’s a sterile desert.”

Using push mower can help stop climate change

Using a push mower can help stop climate change

Another thing about biodiversity and lawns: they usually are composed primarily of plants not local to the area, which can further decrease local biodiversity.

There is also the water question. Maintaining a green lawn can require large amounts of water. In more arid regions of the world, such as the U.S. Southwest and Australia, lawn care has crimped already scarce water resources, requiring larger, more environmentally invasive water supply systems. And even in areas of the world that are not usually arid, there can be times when there are droughts.

There is now the reality that there will come a time when we reach peak water, and overuse of water to maintain lawns is contributing to the problem.

Grass typically goes dormant during cold, winter months, and turns brown during hot, dry summer months, thereby reducing its demand for water. Many property owners consider this “dead” appearance unacceptable and therefore increase watering during the summer months.

Some lawn alternatives

Some lawn alternatives

For those who still like the aesthetics of having a lawn, there are alternatives. You can use organic lawn care methods. You can replace your lawn with ground creepers such as Creeping Jenny. You can use regionally appropriate species of low growing or mowable plants in lawn areas such as clover, creeping Charley, or sedum instead of high-maintenance turf grass.

There are also many alternatives to lawns including meadows, butterfly gardens, rain gardens, and kitchen gardens. Planting trees and shrubs in naturalistic arrangements can help restore habitat for birds and wildlife.

The Human Powered Car

May 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

During this series on green/sustainable living, I’ve talked about various types of cars: electric cars, biodiesel cars, wind-powered cars, and even cars fueled by pee.

But how about a car powered by people? It gives new meaning to the term “Power to the People.”

Well, there is a car that fits that description. It’s called the HumanCar.

Now, when you think of a car, you probably include things like an engine, or at least a motor, gasoline, even batteries. But what if there could be a car powered entirely by human motion; one that did not need an engine, fuel, batteries, or even electricity?

That, my friends, is the HumanCar, and the Human Car, Inc. company, located in Oregon and founded by engineer Chuck Greenwood, are developing these new models of transportation.

The HumanCar FM4

The HumanCar FM4

HumanCar is exactly what it sounds like: a car (well, it has four wheels, at least) powered by people. The HumanCar FM4 (pictured above) has seats for four; the passengers “rock it like an engine,” which roughly equates to pushing and pulling on the amber-handled levers to generate speed (up to 60 mph, going downhill) and leaning to turn.

It’s street-legal, so try to not to act too surprised when one of these cars pulls up to you at a stop light.

Technically, according to the company, the HumanCar is powered by a simple yet robust control system. Conventional mini-contactors connect both motors in parallel for acceleration. Alternatively, they are reconnected in series when the brake lever is actuated. This creates a much higher output voltage that is temporarily stored in a small bank of ultracapacitors, and then re-regulated down nominal storage battery voltage.

Human Car Inc.'s sporty model - the Imagine LMV HumanCar® with BodySteer™ chassis and SyncGuideway™ compatibility, an exoskeletal safety cage chassis, dual electric motors, and variable human power input

Human Car Inc.'s sporty model - the Imagine LMV HumanCar® with BodySteer™ chassis and SyncGuideway™ compatibility, an exoskeletal safety cage chassis, dual electric motors, and variable human power input

The high end state-of-the-art system, the Imagine LMV HumanCar pictured above, uses a pair of 3 phase AC frameless motors along with a special controller adapted from machine tool industry, and 200 VDC NiMH batteries (or Lithium Ion if functional and available).

Check out the HumanCar FM4 in action in the above video, and you’ll see how well and fast it can move. Then get together a couple of your friends and go for a test drive yourselves.

To find out more, you can go to the HumanCar website, or to their Facebook page.

The Top 5 Eco Rock Bands and Other Top 5 Eco Lists

May 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

Today for this series on green/sustainable living, you’ll see a bunch of videos of top 5 lists, courtesy of the folks at Planet Green.

The video above is the top 5 eco rock bands. Can you guess who they might be? Here’s band #5 on the list:


The Dave Matthews Band

And now for some more top 5 eco videos:

The Top 5 Environment Films

The top 5 Eco-Contradictions

The Top 5 Green Predictions

The Top 5 Worst Oil Catastrophes

The Top 5 Green Celebrity Websites

The Top 5 Franken Animals

The Top 5 Epic Snowstorms

The Top 5 Superhero Animals

Is Pee the Future of Energy?

May 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

urine_as_source_of_energy_imageYesterday I discussed the possibility of an electric car powered by wind turbines. But there may be another energy source available in the near future that is plentiful, easily created, and requires no offshore drilling to harvest, uranium to mine, or coal to burn.

The source is urine – pee may be the future of energy.

Really, you may wonder?

Urine-powered cars, homes and personal electronic devices could be available in six months with new technology developed by scientists from Ohio University.

Using a nickel-based electrode, the scientists can create large amounts of cheap hydrogen from urine that could be burned or used in fuel cells. “One cow can provide enough energy to supply hot water for 19 houses,” said Gerardine Botte, a professor at Ohio University developing the technology. “Soldiers in the field could carry their own fuel.”

Pee power is based on hydrogen, the most common element in the universe but one that has resisted efforts to produce, store, transport and use economically.

Storing pure hydrogen gas requires high pressure and low temperature. New nanomaterials with high surface areas can absorb hydrogen, but have yet to be produced on a commercial scale.

pee-powerChemically binding hydrogen to other elements, like oxygen to create water, makes it easier to store and transport, but releasing the hydrogen when it’s needed usually requires financially prohibitive amounts of electricity.

By attaching hydrogen to another element, nitrogen, Botte and her colleagues realized that they can store hydrogen without the exotic environmental conditions, and then release it with less electricity, 0.037 Volts instead of the 1.23 Volts needed for water.

One molecule of urea, a major component of urine, contains four atoms of hydrogen bonded to two atoms of nitrogen. Stick a special nickel electrode into a pool of urine, apply an electrical current, and hydrogen gas is released.

Botte’s current prototype measures 3x3x1 inch and can produce up to 500 milliwatts of power. However, Botte and her colleagues are actively trying to commercialize several larger versions of the technology.

pee_jeepA fuel cell, urine-powered vehicle could theoretically travel 90 miles per gallon. A refrigerator-sized unit could produce one kilowatt of energy for about $5,000, although this price is a rough estimate, says Botte.

“The waste products from say a chicken farm could be used to produce the energy needed to run the farm,” said John Stickney, a chemist and professor at the University of Georgia.

For livestock farmers who are required by law to pool their animals’ waste, large scale prototypes could turn that urine into power within six months.

Smaller versions likely won’t be available until after that, so the average consumer probably shouldn’t start saving their pee just yet.

“It is not a solution for all our cars,” said Stickney, “but it is the kind of process which will find many applications and will make for a greener world.”

So are you ready for the new energy source of the future?

The Wind-Powered Electric Car

May 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

Last week, during this series on green/sustainable living, I told you about some upcoming electric cars.

Now the knock on electric cars is that they have to plug into the power grid to get their energy, and thus they are still causing a drain on the world’s finite sources of energy. That’s why some people are developing other sources of energy to power cars, such as algae and used cooking oil.

The Nemesis, a wind-powered electric sports car

The Nemesis, a wind-powered electric sports car

British entrepreneur Dale Vince, who made a fortune building wind turbines, recognizes this fact, and so is developing an electric car that can be powered up by wind turbines. He has developed a prototype that’s a sports car and is called the “Nemesis.”

You can learn more about it and watch the prototype Nemesis burn rubber after a few tweaks, in the above video.

The reason Vince wants it to be a sports car is to prove that an electric car – or in this case, a wind-powered electric car – could outpizzazz any gasoline-powered car. Vince’s goal was for the Nemesis to be able to go from 0 – 60 faster than a V12 Ferrari.

And in a recent test drive, Vince was able to prove his point, as he got the car up to 100mph very quickly!

Vince is an interesting personality, a risk-taking entrepreneur in the Richard Branson mold. In fact, in a recent poll taken in England, Vince defeated Branson and received 60% of the vote to win the honor of being considered Britain’s most inspiring business leader.

Dale Vince

Dale Vince

Dale Vince is founder and managing director of Ecotricity, the UK’s leading supplier of green energy. Prior to starting Ecotricity, he also founded NexGen, a manufacturer of wind monitoring equipment, and before that spent ten years living a low-impact lifestyle as, what he calls, a “new-age traveler.” He is a vegan, and continues to experiment with green energy and low-impact living at home.

In his own words, this is what Dale Vince has to say about renewable energy sources:

“Fossil fuels have their days numbered – there’s nothing else in the ground to replace them with and even if there were we can’t afford the carbon emissions that would bring.

“In the future renewables will be all we have – even uranium is a finite power source – it’s just a matter of how far forward you look, and how prepared we are – it may be ‘kicking or screaming,’ but our futures will be renewable powered – just as our past has been.

“Conservation of energy and efficiency measures are ‘the other side of the coin’ essential in the move to a more sustainable life – we could probably reduce by 50% the average amount of energy that houses use – and this would halve the number of windmills or other sources need to provide power. Essential.”

So, you may not be ready to drive a wind-powered electric car that can go faster than a souped-up Ferrari, but be ready for the next generation of vehicles that run on renewable sources of energy.

These are the low-impact, Low Density Lifestyle, waves of the future.

The Biodiesel Solution: Algae and Grease

May 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

In the previous article, Some Upcoming Electric Vehicles, I discussed and showed vehicles that were part of the new generation of electric cars – and folding electric bicycles – out in the marketplace.

But electric cars are only one solution for our need to get off the oil addiction, in order to move to a more sustainable society and world.

Why are we so beholden to oil? Because the big oils companies have donated over $130 to politicians over the last few years

Why are we so beholden to oil? Because the big oils companies have donated over $130 to politicians over the last few years

The mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” spouted so often by those who think we can offshore drill our way to a sustainable future, has shown itself, in the wake of the Gulf Coast environmental disaster, to be the worst possible solution.

One of the best solutions lie in the promise of biofuels, specifically algae and used cooking oil. Biofuels have gotten a bad rap in recent years because ethanol is also a biofuel, and ethanol as a fuel source has a lot of negatives in terms of the damage it does to the environment. Because of that, all biofuels have been lumped together and seen as not being part of the solution.

But there is a big difference. Ethanol cannot be a solution as a fuel source for building a sustainable future, while algae and cooking grease can.

Using cooking oil for your car as a fuel is not that complicated. All you need is a diesel engine that gets retrofitted to be able to run on cooking oil. Then you just find a source for the oil – restaurants are glad to have people take their leftover grease off their hands – and voila, your vehicle is now a biodiesel lean, green, grease machine.

The promise of algae may lead to a new mantra: "Grow, Baby, Grow."

The promise of algae may lead to a new mantra: "Grow, Baby, Grow."

Algae, though, may be the promise of the future. There are a number of companies involved in the production of algae for fuel.

Producing biodiesel from algae has been touted as the most efficient way to make biodiesel fuel. The advantage being that the land requirement for growing the biodiesel is very small.

Algae require neither fresh water nor arable land for cultivation. It is estimated that if all of the fuel in the USA were replaced with algae biofuels, an area no larger than the state of Maryland would be required to produce it – making algae a much more efficient user of land than corn or soy ethanol, for example.

Independent studies have demonstrated that algae is capable of producing 30 times more oil per acre than the current crops now utilized for the production of biofuels, such as corn for ethanol.

Algae biofuel contains no sulfur, is non-toxic and highly biodegradable. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content, in excess of 50%, and extremely rapid growth rates.

In the above video, Josh Tickell, author of the book From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and creator of the award-winning documentary, The Fuel Film, discusses using cooking oil and algae for fuel, and shows off his Prius that was retrofitted to run on algae and that he took on a cross-country road trip.

The below video is a trailer from his movie, The Fuel Film.

Some Upcoming Electric Vehicles

May 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

The series on green/sustainable living continues today with a look at some upcoming electric vehicles that will be coming soon to a roadway – and in the case of one of the vehicles – bike path near you.

These are some innovative vehicles, and in this day and age, innovative vehicles is truly the order of the day.

To live in a sustainable way, gasoline-powered cars have to give way to cars powered by other means: electric, ethanol, biofuels, and other methods.

An electric vehicle from the early years of the 20th century

An electric vehicle from the early years of the 20th century

The video at the top of the page is of the THINK City Electric Car, from Norway.

The next video is an interview with Tesla Motors’ Vice President of Business Development Diarmuid O’Connell who discusses everything from geopolitics to the future of transportation.

Tesla Motors, named after inventor Nikola Tesla, is a Silicon Valley-based company that engages in the design, manufacture, and sale of electric vehicles and electric vehicle power train components. It is currently the only automaker building and selling highway-capable EVs in serial production (as opposed to prototype or evaluation fleet production) in North America or Europe.And speaking of Tesla Motors, the next video is of their all-new family sedan electric vehicle, the Tesla Model S. The video is of the first test drive taken of the car, at its unveiling.

And finally, here is something a little different in the electric vehicle department: a folding electric bicycle. It’s a fun, unique and very cool vehicle, and on the simpler end of electrified transportation.

Nature in Time: Moving So Slow, Moving So Fast

May 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

Today the series on green/sustainable living continues with some beautiful videos that capture nature in action, moving slowly, yet moving fast.

Nature’s movements sometimes can be imperceptible to the eye, yet there is movement and change in every breath we take – we just may not see it.

Change is the great constant in life, so although we may not see it, nature is always changing, always moving, always seeking out the new and discarding the old.

The wonderment of nature - Aurora Borealis

The wonderment of nature - Aurora Borealis

Today’s videos are all time-lapse, so you can see nature evolve right in front of your eyes. From the change of seasons, to the movement of the Milky Way, to the wonders of Aurora Borealis and a lunar eclipse, all these videos will show you the power of nature, and the awe and respect we need to have for the wonderment of the natural world.

So sit back and enjoy the experience.

Peak Water

May 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

Yesterday, during this series on sustainable/green living, I discussed the topic of dirty water.

I said how in most developing nations, there’s a problem with water contamination due to poor sanitation/hygiene, and this leads to serious illness and death.

That by itself is a big problem. But probably the biggest problem with water, and one that is being experienced worldwide, is the problem of peak water.

We all know of the concept of peak oil, the understanding that there is only a finite amount of oil, and that one day it will peak and then begin to taper off.

worldwaterspongeBut peak water is also a reality. Peak water is reached when the rate at which water demanded is higher than the rate at which the supply is replenished.

There is a vast amount of water on the planet but sustainably managed water is becoming scarce. Much of the world’s water in underground aquifers and in lakes behaves like a finite resource by being depleted.

There is concern that the state of peak water is being approached in many areas around the world. If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.

Peak water is not about running out of fresh water, but the peaking and subsequent decline of the production rate of the water.

Fresh water is a renewable resource, yet the world’s supply of clean, fresh water is steadily decreasing. The world has an estimated 326 quintillion gallons of water but 97 percent of it is salty.

Nearly 70% of that fresh water is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland. Most of the remainder is present as soil moisture or lies in deep underground aquifers as groundwater not accessible to human use.

carrying waterLess than 1% of the world’s fresh water or 0.007% of all water on earth is accessible for direct human use. This is the water found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and those underground sources that are shallow enough to be tapped at an affordable cost. Only this minuscule amount is regularly renewed by rain and snowfall, and is therefore available on a sustainable basis.

The amount of available freshwater supply is decreasing because of climate change, which has caused receding glaciers, reduced stream and river flow, and shrinking lakes. Many aquifers have been over-pumped and are not recharging quickly. Although the total fresh water supply is not used up, much has become polluted, salted, unsuitable or otherwise unavailable for drinking, industry and agriculture.

Water demand already exceeds supply in many parts of the world, and as the world population continues to rise at an unprecedented rate, many more areas are expected to experience this imbalance in the near future.

Different countries around the world are experiencing water issues. Here are the situations in the three largest countries in terms of water consumption.

India has 20 percent of the Earth’s population, but only four per cent of its water. Water tables are dropping fast in some of India’s main agricultural areas. The mighty Indus and Ganges rivers are tapped so heavily that, except in rare wet years, they no longer reach the sea.

India has the largest water withdrawal out of all the countries in the world. Eighty-six per cent of that water goes to support agriculture.

China, as the most populous country in the world, has the second largest water withdrawal out of all the countries in the world. Sixty-eight per cent of that water goes to support agriculture and its growing industrial base is consuming twenty-six percent.

China is facing a water crisis where water resources are over-allocated, inefficiently used, and grossly polluted by human and industrial wastes. One third of China’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. Rivers and lakes are dead and dying, groundwater aquifers are over-pumped, uncounted species of aquatic life have been driven to extinction, and direct adverse impacts on both human and ecosystem health are widespread and growing.

peak waterThe U.S.:
The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, yet the U.S. uses almost as much water as India (20% of world’s population) or China (also 20% of world’s population). The industrial sector in the US consumes more water than the agricultural sector. There are 36 states in the U.S. in some form of water stress, from serious to severe.

The Ogallala Aquifer in the southern high plains (Texas and New Mexico) is being mined at a rate that far exceeds replenishment. Portions of the aquifer will not naturally recharge due to layers of clay between the surface and the water-bearing formation. The term fossil water is sometimes used to describe aquifers that are not sustainable because the recharge rate is extremely slow.

In California, massive amounts of groundwater are being sucked out of the Central Valley groundwater aquifers — unreported, unmonitored, and unregulated.

California’s Central Valley is home to one sixth of all U.S. irrigated land, and the state leads the nation in agricultural production and exports. This can have major implications for the U.S. economy.

Other parts of the U.S. are also experiencing water issues, due to shortages from overconsumption and lack of conservation.

chinatownLastly, remember the classic film Chinatown? Directed by Roman Polanski, starring Jack Nicholson as Los Angeles-based private investigator J.J. Gittes, it was a mystery based on the water wars that took place in the early part of the 20th century in L.A.

Nicholson’s character unraveled the corruption behind the power play to own the water rights to L.A., and it was based on the truth – water was like gold, and many unscrupulous characters resorted to whatever means necessary to own it.

Here is the trailer to the film:

Good Dirty Water

May 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Environment, Featured

The series on green and sustainable living continues today with a discussion about water.

The subject of water is actually an explosive issue worldwide, because there may be a day in the not-too-far future when we reach peak water, just as there’s talk of peak oil.

The subject of water is so important that in the future I will devote an entire series to it.

But for today, I want to discuss the subject of dirty water. Thanks to the folks at Good Magazine, there are a couple of videos on this page that explain the entire scenario.

In the developed world, water problems are caused by shortages or chemical contamination. But in the developing world, water problems are because of dirty water.

In a lot of the developing world, people don’t have toilets or latrines, which leads to fecal matter penetrating into the water supply.

A boy playing in dirty water

A boy playing in dirty water

The fecal matter contains massive amounts of viruses and bacteria, and if it contaminates the water, it will lead to various diseases.

The most common illness from contaminated water is cholera, which leads to explosive diarrhea, and is responsible for the death of 4100 children a day in developing nations.

Hundreds of millions of school days by schoolchildren are missed because of cholera, and many girls are forced to end their education to go out and help search for clean water supplies.

Now, as I said above, the U.S. and developed nations are also not immune to the problem of contaminated water. It’s just a different type of contamination – often caused by chemicals that runoff into waters.

But in the developed nations, it’s hard to conceive of people living with contaminated waters due to poor sanitation and hygiene. But that’s the problem – and it’s a big one – in developing nations.

So watch the videos above and below, courtesy of Good Magazine. The one above gives an overview, while the two below are movie parodies with a message.

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