Stop eating meat & dairy to save the planet. Really. Science* says so.

Researchers of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have found that reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products and improving agricultural practices could decrease global greenhouse gas emissions substantially. By 2055 the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture could be cut by more than eighty percent, to levels below those of 1995, if demand for  "livestock products" (i.e., meat and dairy) decreases by 25% over each decade from 2015 to 2055.

Early in June, even before the results of this study were published, the UN issued a report suggesting that "a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change."

In a study published today in the peer-reviewed journal, Global Environmental Change, climate impact researchers modeled the impact of future changes in food consumption and technological mitigation of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions on the effect on climate in a scenario over the next 45 years, to 2055. The global model combined information on world population, income, food demand, and production costs with environmental data on potential crop yields. The calculations show that global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., methane and nitrous oxide) increase significantly until 2055 if food energy consumption and diet preferences remain constant at 1995 levels. However, the agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases have increased steadily over time, and show no sign of slowing down. In fact, in 2005 they accounted for "14% of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions." Assuming world dietary preferences continue to shift towards animal-based foods, i.e., meat and milk, in regions and countries that have typically not favored these food sources, emissions will rise even more.

To gain an idea of how one person's food choices impact the climate, I consulted The Nature Conservancy's Carbon Footprint Calculator. As a baseline, "in 2004, the United States emitted 7074 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent green house gases. This equals approximately 27 tons per person." An "average" American's carbon emissions from diet, calculated only on the basis of a predominantly meat-based, non-organic diet alone, is 4.1 tons of CO2 and carbon-equivalent emissions a year. When I changed the selections to more accurately reflect my diet, or the diet of any "average" vegan or vegetarian, ("I eat meat in my diet... never" and "I eat organic food... most of the time") the CO2 and carbon-equivalent emissions decreased to 0.6 tons per year, 85% below average. The cumulative power of vegans and vegetarians to positively effect the environment is easy to calculate, even if you're not great at math. Playing with the calculator is fun, and informative. Even simply reducing meat intake to "Rarely" from "Most days" and taking the middle road with respect to organics, "I eat it sometimes" reduces individual emissions (again, from diet alone) to 1.3 tons per year, 69% below average.

If you're curious about how the calculator actually works, this gives a very detailed explanation of how your carbon footprint is calculated. The following excerpt about "Food and Diet" outlines the impact one person's meat-heavy, non-organic diet has on greenhouse gas emissions in very clear terms.

"Average: Agricultural activity (crop, land, and animal including management, and including farm vehicles) accounts for 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, with 91% of that being from methane and nitrous oxide emissions. 
Behaviors: Vegan and vegetarian diets emit 72% and 42% less than the typical American diet, respectively. A heavy meat diet emits 24% more than the average. For the organic food responses, "Most of the time" reduces your emissions by 29%, "Sometimes" reduces emissions by 15%, and "Never or rarely" is the average emissions figure."

It's pretty clear that every small choice makes an incremental, yet measurably cumulative effect on the environment, and for our future. Something to think about the next time you're in the grocery store. Start small: eschew the hamburger for a veggie burger once in a while.

*Source: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) (2010, June 28). Conscious choice of food can substantially mitigate climate change, research finds. ScienceDaily.

How Much Oil Has Leaked Into the Gulf of Mexico?

It's an incomprehensible amount, but this real-time ticker (source: PBS) gives one some idea of the rapidity of which entire ecosystems are being killed. It is easy to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of this massive disaster, but now more than ever, is the time to do something about it.  Politicians and big oil are playing the blame game, and the liability for this spill is already spinning out into a very complicated legal web which will no doubt result in one of the largest, probably most protracted legal battle in history. However, more important than who will pay monetary damages is to acknowledge that the earth, and by extension, we who inhabit earth, will suffer damages that are only going to get worse. It's critical to stop this continual gushing and more importantly, ensure it never happens again.

 

No other country consumes more oil than America. America consumes the majority (more than 20%) of the world's oil, but has less than two percent of the world's oil reserves. We need to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, our "oil addiction," and pour our efforts into developing clean, sustainable methods to power our lives. If our earth becomes an uninhabitable wasteland, it won't really matter who cashes out at the end of the day, or who lands in jail as a result of  gross negligence. Ultimately, we all will pay.

It's hard to remember, but before healthcare reform and related hoopla took over the country's attention last summer, the House had passed "the most sweeping climate change policy ever considered by Congress."  The bill aimed to incrementally cap America's production of greenhouse gases, reducing it by 83% by 2050, mandating that 15% of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2020, and investing in renewable energies and sustainable technologies. The effort in the Senate stalled last fall. When the Copenhagen climate summit came and went, with disappointing, diffident results, by the start of the year, climate legislation seemed to have reached a standstill if not taken several slides back.

With the Gulf oil spill gushing (it's still going! yet it started at the end of April. April!), President Obama began pushing publicly once again for an energy and climate bill. And in the aftermath of the spill, polls show that most Americans support strong actions to reform climate legislation.

Yet, a vote in the Senate this week suggests bleak prospects for any climate legislation change. The issue was a GOP proposal to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases. While that resolution (thankfully) failed by a vote of 47-53, the narrow gap  demonstrates that even in the wake of the massive oil spill, Congress still remains divided over how best to address climate change.

This is unfathomable to me; we couldn't ask for a more violent wake-up call for change than this oil spill. At least, I don't want to imagine one. Now, more than ever, it is critical to take a stand, make your voice heard, and contact your Senator, urging him or her to vote in favor of a change to support new, renewable clean energy. In addition to writing and calling your Senators and Representatives, you can add your name in support of President Obama's clean energy plan, and sign this petition (via MoveOn.org), which will be sent to the White House and Congress, demanding an end to America's addiction to oil.

Turn it Off Everyday - Inspired by the 4th Annual Earth Hour, 2010

Turn off the lights and join nearly 1 billion others in saving energy to raise awareness about energy consumption - during the fourth annual Earth Hour, March 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm - your time zone, wherever you are.
It's hard to imagine that something as easy as turning off your lights could have a real impact in combating climate change, but that’s the idea behind Earth Hour, a global event sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) designed to highlight the importance of energy conservation in the fight against global warming.

More than 1 billion participants on March 27 will help stage what has become a visually stunning event: People around the world, including whole cities and national monuments, will come together to make a bold statement about their concern for climate change by doing something quite simple—turning off their lights for one hour.

Participation is easy. By turning off the lights for an hour, starting at 8:30 p.m., on March 27, know that you are participating in a global movement that for that brief period of time, signals your commitment to combating climate change, even if it's just in your own home. If you missed Earth Hour, it's not too difficult to consciously integrate the concept into your daily life. Why not reduce the temperature in your house and put on a sweater instead? Make sure you turn off lights in rooms you're not using, and DEFINITELY unplug those unused appliances. Turning them off is not enough, especially for "transformers" - anything that has a large, black box on it, sometimes with a light. Those transformers suck about as much electricity when the appliances (computers, cell phones, etc.) they charge aren't in use as when they are. The amount of passive energy drain (or "standby loss") from unused plugged-in appliances and chargers is
astounding. For example, approximately 23% of the total electricity used by a TV is from standby loss.

A study conducted by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that leaking electricity from normal household appliances estimated for normal use across homes in the United States could light 25,984,000 homes. In addition, to really hit the point home, passive energy loss from appliances in all homes across America is responsible for more than 6 million metric tons of U.S. carbon emissions. For more specific numbers on energy loss per appliance, see this chart.

From the WWF website: "Last year’s participants made some bold statements in support of the movement. In Peru, the population woke on the morning of March 28, 2009 to see the national El Comercio newspaper with an entirely black front page, and it wasn't because the ink had run. Instead, it was a way for the nation’s most prominent daily newspaper to issue a call to action on climate change for Earth Hour." (Although the amount of ink wasted to run entirely black front pages was not, apparently, considered).

Here are some dramatic pictures of Earth Hour, 2010:

Seattle Space Needle (an iPhone photo from my living room window):



The Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza:


And my favorite, the new Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Here it is alit at night:

 

and dark for earth hour:  




See more pictures of Earth Hour 2010 via The Huffington Post.

To learn more about how to participate, get more information on the environmental impact of energy conservation, or to find out how you can support the WWF’s eco efforts, visit EarthHour.org

Using The Vernal Equinox As A Time of Balance

Today, March 20, is the first day of the solar new year, otherwise known as the vernal equinox, the first day of spring and one of two days each year when the hours of daylight and nighttime are equally long. The word "equinox" actually derives from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). As the earth's angle of inclination towards the sun changes throughout the year, lengthening or shortening the days according to hemisphere and season, there are two times a year when day and night are of nearly equal length: the spring and autumn equinoxes. These celestial times have been recognized for thousands of years among all cultures and have given rise to a significant body of seasonal folklore and ritualistic traditions. Across all cultures and spanning centuries, spring is celebrated as a time of renewal as lengthening sun-warmed days take the place of the short, dark and cold days of winter.

Though there are many superstitious beliefs around the equinox, one of the most prominent is that you can stand a raw egg on its end on this day, and this day alone. Apparently this phenomenon has been attributed to the "special gravitational forces" that arise due to the sun's equidistant position between the poles of the earth at the time of the equinox. 


It's not true. You can stand a raw egg on its end anytime. 

However, the principle that a feat of precarious balance can most easily be achieved on this day got me to thinking about the principle of balance and the notion of integrating more balance into our daily lives. What better time to start than on the vernal equinox, in spring, when the planet is most astronomically "in balance"?  

Hasn't the quest for "balance" become a constant refrain in our hectic 21st century, techno-driven, globalized world? The numbers on a clock mean very little now, with the ability to communicate 24 hours a day with people in time zones on the other side of the earth. Yet, people are forever striving for "work-life balance" even as they work more hours, blur lines between work and home, and utilize mobile and wireless technologies to stay "connected anytime, anywhere." As a result, people become mentally, physically, and emotionally drained and exhausted, throwing themselves even more out of whack as a result. 

Spring, specifically the vernal equinox, is the perfect time to reassess the balance (or imbalances) in your life and take stock of areas in your life that you need to replenish and renew, and reduce those that are depleting and draining.  If the unfolding events in most days seem to direct (and maybe overtake) you, it can be nearly impossible to even think about how to refocus and redirect your energy. Here are five simple ideas to help get you started on rebalancing... These are things I have integrated into my life that I have found help me regain a sense of balance and equanimity.

1) Spend a few seconds focusing on your breath. Note I didn't say "minutes" - just spend the "seconds" it takes to count just 10 breaths. I find that before I do anything else in the morning, focusing on my breath helps me focus my mind before I have to get up and face the day. Often, this simple act helps me to plan for, and subsequently approach the course of my day with a feeling of control and enthusiasm. Whenever you focus on your breathing, you're in the present moment. And what is balance if not being fully present in the moment? Focus on your breath anytime throughout the day, particularly in moments you feel stressed, anxious, tense, bored, or overwhelmed.

2) Plan and cook one meal a week. Think carefully about what you would like to eat, how it will taste, nourish your body, and energize you. Plan it out and take the time to prepare it from scratch. It doesn't matter if it's a simple salad, a pot of pasta, or a five-course meal. Just plan it out and "cook with love." I used to never cook. Now I cook meals from scratch four, sometimes five nights a week. I feel so much more connected to flavors, innovation and creativity, and my body. Not to mention, I have become a pretty awesome cook, if I do say so myself.

3) Spend some time outside each day. I know I can become fully "tunneled" into the virtual world of my computer screen, and find entire hours have completely slipped away. Whenever this happens, I usually find that along with the disappearing time, my neck and back have stiffened and cramped, my head is swimming, and my vision has blurred. These are all signs that it's time to physically get outside into the real world and inhale some fresh air. Connecting with nature has been shown to have a direct impact on people's moods and productivity. And not just when it's sunny, which for me, is a hard pill to swallow. But I try to get out, even when it's raining, or worse.

4) Get some exercise. Exercise is a natural mood-lifter, depression-antidote, fitness-enhancer, etc. We have all heard the benefits, yet many people still feel as though they don't have the time to fit a half-hour of exercise into their day. It's easy if you can integrate this with #3 above! Get outside a couple of times a day: go for a walk to grab your lunch, walk or bike to and from work if possible, walk your dog, plant a garden (hey, it's spring after all!), hike a trail - all of these are very viable forms of exercise that will also have you soaking up some Vitamin D from the sun and absorbing the benefits of fresh air and green space around you! 

5) Express gratitude. Psychology research has shown that one's level of happiness is very stable over the long-term, regardless of external events. That means that whether a person won the lottery or suffered a paralyzing accident, that person will return to their usual baseline level of happiness in approximately three to six months. It's not what happens to you in your life that makes you a happy (or miserable) person; it's your internal frame of mind. If you're a pessimist, reading this probably didn't do anything to raise your hopes of happiness.

However, one thing that can increase overall levels of happiness permanently is through consciously expressing thanks (yes, even for die-hard pessimists). A leader in the relatively new field of positive psychology, Dr. Robert Emmons, discusses the "psychology of gratitude" in his new book, Thanks, as well as his more academic text, The Psychology of Gratitude (Series in Affective Science). Emmons conducted an experiment in which he asked people to either 1) record things that they were grateful for, 2) record neutral events with neither a positive nor negative attribution, or 3) write down events that annoyed, angered, or upset them. The three groups did this once a week for ten weeks, and those who were in the "gratitude group" were 25% happier at the end of the study than when they started the study, and happier than those who recorded either neutral events or, the group that fared the worst, those who wrote down things they were annoyed or upset by. "People in the gratitude condition were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives, and they even did almost 1.5 more hours of exercise a week." Research has shown that the content of the event a person is grateful for is much less important than simply feeling grateful.  

Of course, taking time out each day to -- breathe, walk outside, prepare and eat food, and say thank you -- may be too overwhelming to consider packing into an already full schedule. 

...Or perhaps not. Taking the time for these obvious necessities of life may be just the first small steps to a more realigned - and balanced - life.