Posts Tagged ‘greenhouse gases’

Carbon Consciousness

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

These days, as part of my semi-nomadic life as a program planning and interpretation consultant for public gardens and nature centers, I’ve been offsetting a lot of travel-related carbon emissions. Like this week. I just got back from one of those places that seem to engender periodic bursts of human creativity. Call it karma or happy coincidence, these places suddenly  become magnets for artists, oddballs, and other rebellious types who, through a critical mass of their collective contrarian consciousness, change the course of history. Like Florence in the 15th century, or Baraboo in the 20th century. Baraboo??

Baraboo is a small city in south central Wisconsin with a population of less than 12,000. The surrounding Baraboo Ranges are all that remain of one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America, composed of Baraboo Quartzite, a metamorphosed form of sandstone that originated about 1.85 billion years ago in what geologists call the Early Proterozoic Eon. The Baraboo area is also the terminal moraine of the Wisconsinan, the place where this final glacier of the last Ice Age dumped its debris, creating impressive sights like Devil’s Lake Gorge, where quartzite blocks crunched up by the ice sheet cling tenuously to steep slopes.

It was in Baraboo in 1884 that the Ringling Brothers began their circus, a band of oddballs if there ever was one. Over six seasons, the circus expanded from a wagon show to a railroad show with 225 employees, touring cities across the United States each summer. Baraboo remained the circus’s headquarters and wintering grounds until 1918.

A few years later, in 1924, Aldo Leopold arrived in nearby Madison, and in the early 1930s he purchased a dilapidated chicken coop and a few hundred acres of Dust Bowl-ravaged land near Baraboo as a weekend retreat for his family. At the shack, as it was called, Leopold was inspired to write conservation classics like A Sand County Almanac, launching the fields of restoration ecology and land ethics. 

The Baraboo Ranges continue to work their magic. A couple of years ago, about a mile down the road from the shack, the Aldo Leopold Foundation built the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. The second highest-rated LEED Platinum facility to date, the Legacy Center also meets the 2030 Challenge, which aims to rapidly transform the U.S. and global building sectors from the biggest single contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate crisis by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, and constructed. 

The Legacy Center also happens to be the first carbon-neutral building certified by LEED. The initial carbon budget for the facility was based on projected emissions from combustion (including stationary sources such as wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, vehicles driven by employees to and from and at work, and estimated visitor vehicle use); on-site electricity generation from photovoltaic cells; wind-generated electricity purchased at night and on days when the solar array does not meet building demand; and carbon sequestered by the Foundation’s 500 acres of forested land. You can find out more about how the Center reduces and offsets its carbon emissions here.

The beautiful facility is located on the land where Leopold perished in 1948 while fighting a brush fire on what was then a neighbor’s property.

Another Reason to Eat Less Meat

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Scientific American marshals the evidence on how much eating meat, especially beef, contributes to global warming—a lot, more than either transportation or industry.

Pound for pound, beef contributes more than 13 times as much to global warming as chicken, and 57 times as much as potatoes.

The Carbon Footprint of Gourmet Dirt

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

An interesting story by Joel Achenbach in today’s Washington Post is, on its face, about how the price of potting soil has soared in the past year due to the high cost of the fossil fuels used to manufacture, package, and ship the stuff. But read between the lines and the story is really about how a once humble material has been transformed into an upmarket mixture of largely unnecessary components from across the continent and around the globe — and about how gardening (or at least the kind practiced by many Americans), an activity by definition assumed to be “green,” is anything but.

Bob LaGasse, who represents soil and mulch manufacturers as executive director of the Mulch and Soil Council, explains that consumers demand these high-priced designer mixtures, which a South Carolina-based producer calls “potting soil on steroids.” (Bob LaGasse also happens to be executive director of the Garden Writers Association, representing the people who recommend potting soils and other horticultural products to consumers.) 

It’s virtually impossible these days to find a bag of potting soil that isn’t loaded with synthetic fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer, as David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, has pointed out, is the typical gardener’s biggest contribution to global warming. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. And the use of nitrogen fertilizers (whether synthetic or organic) releases nitrous oxide gas, which in Wolfe’s words “has 300 times more global warming potential per molecule than carbon dioxide.” Yet American gardeners have been hoodwinked into believing that applying fertilizer to their plants, whether in containers or in the ground, is as fundamental as brushing their teeth.

In addition to organic matter, from composted clam shells to pine bark, which could just as easily come from local sources but is often shipped from far away, the typical bag of potting soil is also likely to contain perlite transported from the Greek island of Milos and coconut coir from Vietnam, if not peat moss “vacuum-harvested” from Canadian bogs. Then the concoction is packaged in plastic bags, which are piled up and shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets for shipping to nurseries and superstores. In short, the amount of embodied energy and greenhouse gases associated with a bag of potting mix is mind boggling.

All for a few petunia plants likely to end up in a dump after the first frost.