Category Archives: energy consumption

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.

 

 

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.

 

 

 

Let’s keep going as long as we can

One thing everyone can agree on:  Every single day, we’re all getting older.

But we don’t have to let that indisputable fact stop us from doing what we want to do.

I just came across a spectacular example of a 96-year-old scientist who keeps on going and going and going….

By sheer coincidence, he’s a man who’s worked for decades in the field of battery speed and capacity.  And he’s very much more than good enough to serve as an astounding example of enduring optimism and hard work.

A Wall Street Journal story in August profiled John Goodenough, who helped invent the lithium-ion battery that’s used to recharge cell phones and a host of other electronic products.  By introducing lithium cobalt oxide to the inner workings of batteries in 1980, he made batteries not only more powerful but also more portable.

At age 96, he now wants to kill off his own creation by removing the cobalt that allowed his battery to charge faster and last longer.  In April 2018, he and three co-authors published research that may lead to a new battery that’s liquid-free and cobalt-free.

Initial research shows that the new battery could potentially double the energy density of the lithium-ion battery.  That would mean that an electric car, for example, could drive twice as far on one charge.

“My mission is to try to see if I can transform the battery world before I die,” Dr. Goodenough says.  He added that he has no plans to retire.  “When I’m no longer able to drive and I’m forced to go into a nursing home, then I suppose I will be retiring.”

Goodenough works in an untidy office at the University of Texas in Austin, where he’s a professor of engineering.  He begins work between 8 and 8:30 a.m., leaves around 6 p.m., and works from home throughout the weekend.

He hand-writes his research and doesn’t own a cell phone, rejecting the mobile technology that his batteries made possible.  His car is a 10-year-old Honda that he hopes will last as long as he does.

His motivation is to help electric cars wean society off its dependence on the combustion engine, like the one in his Honda.

“He is driven by scientific curiosity, and he really wants to do something for society with the science he does,” says one of his colleagues, another engineering professor at UT, Arumugam Manthiram.

Isn’t it heartening to come across someone like John Goodenough, a remarkable human being who refuses to quit?

His story energizes me.  Although I’m considerably younger than Goodenough, it encourages me to pursue my passions no matter how old I get.

Does his story energize you, too?

 

[This blog post is somewhat shorter than usual because I’m currently in the midst of publishing my third novel, RED DIANA.  I’m hoping it will be available soon at bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.com.]

 

Be(a)ware of Vampires!

Vampires are roaming our landscape. Movies, TV, books, the Internet…it’s been hard to avoid the sight of those pasty-faced creatures baring their hideous fangs. But oh, how I’ve tried. The national obsession with vampires has simply never sunk its teeth into me.

I’ve always lumped vampires in with other imaginary creatures, like zombies, angels, and fairies. They don’t really exist, so why waste my time thinking about them?

I’m not opposed to the idea of magic. There genuinely seem to be times in our lives when magic, or–more accurately–good luck, rains down on us, and our lives are happier as a result.

But vampires? Forget it.

Now comes word of another kind of vampire. And this kind really demands our attention, even mine. The term “vampire” is now applied to what the Environmental Defense Fund calls “energy suckers” (as opposed to bloodsuckers). New devices like cable boxes and game consoles are so power-thirsty that, whether or not you’re using them, they consume enormous amounts of energy. One estimate is that each year they consume as much energy nationally as the entire state of Maryland.

Are you surprised to learn that we’re also sucking up power when we keep our chargers, DVRs, laptops, and microwaves on standby? EDF notes a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of suburban homes in California. The study found that these devices account for as much as 10 percent of a home’s energy consumption.

Shall we plunge a stake into the hearts of these vampires? We can do it by adopting a bunch of new approaches to our electronic devices. Some may sound inconvenient at first, but so did brushing my teeth with my (battery-powered) electric toothbrush till I got used to it. So let’s try at least a few of these.

First, we can do something as simple as unplugging our smartphone chargers. Unbeknownst to many of us, leaving those chargers plugged in uses energy. A more significant step? Turn off the power strips that supply energy to powerful devices we’re not using every minute. You can start by flipping the switch on the power strip behind your TV.

Even less inconvenient: Simply look for the Energy Star logo when you buy new appliances. The products that receive this stamp of approval can cut standby use by 30 percent.

But wait, there’s more. You can return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and use old-school methods that conserve energy. Dry your clothes on a clothesline instead of a dryer. And when you do use your dryer or dishwasher, make sure you’ve put in a full load. Try opening curtains, shades, and blinds during the day so natural light can brighten your home.

Two more things to consider: investing in a programmable thermostat like Google’s Nest, which won’t waste energy when you’re not home, and switching to an on-demand water heater (or insulating your old one).

Finally, look into apps that can reduce your energy bill. New smartphone apps allow you to turn on or off any device that’s plugged into an outlet, even when you’re away from home.

The ultimate goal, of course, is renewable energy. We’re moving slowly but inevitably toward the adoption of more and more ways to switch to renewable energy. In the meantime, you needn’t be a disciple of Al Gore to acknowledge this inconvenient truth: We don’t have to let modern-day vampires suck energy the way Dracula sucked the blood of his victims. Be(a)ware of these vampires, and save energy when you can.