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General comments on the January/February 2009 issue

The cover is a pretty green, but your artist needs a lesson on where solar panels go--on the roof facing the sun. Note shadows: the collectors are on the wrong side of the house.
Tom Niccolls
Sebring, OH


I was pleased to see all of the fine articles in January/February 2009 Sierra about green building, energy efficiency, architecture in a climate-challenged world, etc. All important stuff for those of us looking to the future.

And then I turned a page and discovered the Sierra Club outings for 2009. Numerous expensive and energy-demanding trips to exotic places: South America, Asia, Antarctica, Africa, and so on. Am I alone in seeing a curious inconsistency? Is the Sierra Club leadership interested in conserving energy or in using it for pleasure? Saying one thing but doing another? Can the Sierra Club have it both ways.

(Incidentally, I've been a member of the Sierra Club since 1949, one of the three instigators of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Committee in the 1970s, and coauthor of Geology and the Environment, a college-level textbook.)
D.D. Trent
Claremont, California


Your most recent issue on living a more sustainable lifestyle is certainly needed. However, we need to define "green" intelligently. For example, glass buildings reflect more sunlight and noise than traditional materials, neither of which are ideal in an urban environment. They are often designed without windows that open, or open only minimally. Not only must the inhabitants use more energy for air circulation/cooling/heating, but in our increasingly airtight homes, we are exposed to formaldehyde from particle board, solvents from rugs and glues, flame retardants from our furniture, and VOCs from paint. Not surprisingly, the incidences of "Sick Building Syndrome," multiple chemical sensitivity, as well as asthma are increasing.

The use of recycled materials must be done with caution. For instance, reused rubber from tires for flooring outgases toxic chemicals, and the glues used for installation are unhealthy as well. People with green intentions reused lumber from railway tracks for children's play areas only to discover that they were laden with arsenic. Has anyone tested recycled plastic used as decking for chemicals when it is baking in sunlight on a hot day? Will these chemicals leach into our air and water?

In addition, although I care deeply about the health of our planet, I will not use compact florescent bulbs until the mercury is removed, and the color and flicker are improved.

One can hope that with the new administration, we will work together to solve these challenges with thoughtfulness and care, not just expedience.
Catherine Gura
New York


Some readers of the Building Better articles (Sierra, January/February 2009) might be interested in a recent study by the American Physical Society, "Energy Future: Think Efficiency," September 2008. It discusses a lot of good, technically possible recommendations, as well as pointing out ideas to get them implemented better.
Dr. Edith Borie
Karlsruhe, Germany


The article on green housing in the January/February 2009 issue was informative and interesting. I was particularly attracted to the "Itty-Bitty Houses" segment on page 35. One of the original tiny (and mobile) houses was built by Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, currently located in Sebastopol, California. Keep up this cutting edge reporting.
David R Voltmer


"Nearly Perfect and Almost Painless"

I was disappointed in the essay by Pamm Higgins. The self-centered absorption of her scornful thoughts did not lead me to think that she is enjoying her fortunate homesite. Her disparaging comments about architects, neighbors, union wage-earners, and her own brain were dispiriting to read.

The magazine is read by people who want to protect the planet. The piece you included seems wrongheaded and snobbish. Give us food for thought and provoke us to explore the natural world. Take any one of the slogans (local eating/recycle/save endangered species/tear up concrete) and write about folks who are doing the work.
Anne Fuller
Juneau, Alaska


"Stay-at-Home Green"

I was pleased to see Frank Schiavo's home highlighted. A model of green living, it emerged when most people thought green was simply a crayon color. I toured his home several years ago, absorbing its simplicity, warmth (both physical and personal), and environmental concern.

Frank also did battle with the local waste company. He was expected to pay for waste pickup, despite the fact he had none. Composting, recycling, reuse, and NO use narrowed his weekly waste to a small paper lunchbag, which he disposed of responsibly in a nearby trash can. Thanks for acknowledging individuals who believe in the "power of one" . . . and live it daily.
Patricia Kaspar
San Mateo, California


"Cool Products for an Eco-Home"

My husband and I were researching new mattresses when we received our Sierra magazine. Lo and behold the "Eco-Home" section profiled Keetsa, and so we went to the showroom in Berkeley. Very impressive. Not only are they an eco-alternative to the fire-retardant laden mattresses we all grew up on, but they also ship their mattresses in tiny (relatively, of course) boxes of recycled cardboard. The bed frames are recycled steel, as well.

Not only was it a great experience (very knowledgeable staff, friendly, and not at all pushy) but they also donate goods to foster kids transitioning into independent living. They don't advertise this--it's just something they do. Thanks for the recommendation!
Alissa Shaw and Robert Zardkoohi
San Jose, California


The gas used in manufacturing liquid crystal display (LCD) flatscreen televisions could cause more global warming than coal-fired power plants, according to a report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Nitrogen trifluoride's climate-warming effect reportedly could be 17,000 times stronger than that of carbon dioxide, and production of the chemical could double to 8,000 tons next year, according to atmospheric chemist and report co-author Michael Prather.

You are not going to tell me that the Sierra Club didn't know about this. To go ahead and tout a 42-inch TV based solely on electrical consumption alone and not at least a hundred factors is simplistic, naive and ignorant.
Charles Herrick
Bellingham, Washington


"This Green House"

The illustrated article "This Green House" has an unfortunate green error. A balloon that explains the greater energy efficiency of LED lightbulbs points to an outdoor fixture in the green house's backyard. This fixture has glass around its sides, and as a result, needlessly wastes electricity even with the use of LEDs.

All outdoor lights should shine downward and only downward. When they do not, lumens out the side of a fixture create glare, which actually reduces visibility at night. To overcome the glare, people invariably resort to brighter bulbs in order to see what the lighting was intended to illuminate in the first place.

This is not a nitpicking issue that I am raising here. Glare coming out the sides or the top of outdoor light fixtures contributes to light pollution, which damages the environment in a number of ways. But above all, lighting up outer space from planet Earth is just plain a waste of energy, putting millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year.

Unlike most other forms of environmental contamination, light pollution is very easy to stop. We need only use outdoor light fixtures that shade the bulb on the sides and top. The cities of Tucson, Arizona, and Hilo, Hawaii, among others have proven the feasibility and effectiveness of this low-tech solution. For more information, please contact the International Dark-Sky Association. Thank you very much. Sorry to deliver this bad news about your otherwise excellent article.
Jim Baker


"The Dirt on Coal"

I appreciated very much the article "The Dirt on Coal" by Silas House. The timing of the publication could not have been better. The problem with coal apparently is more widespread than strip mining in Kentucky. In the New York Times (12/30/2008) appears the article "At Plant in Coal Ash Spill, Toxic Deposits by the Ton" by Shaila Dewan. It is apparent that the Environmental Protection Agency has not been as aggressive in its mission as it should have been in East Tennessee either.
Richard Reinke
Madison, Wisconsin


Silas House's article graphically depicted the carbon consumptions for a number of common home applications. It shows that about 1.7 tons of carbon are consumed by an "average" family of four over one year. Nevertheless, this family can only have a marginal impact on this carbon consumption through conservation.

Now you need to publish a similar article showing the piles of carbon that are emitted when someone takes one of the Sierra Club Outings listed starting on page 54. The Club obscures these carbon emissions behind a NativeEnergy offset opportunity. But if Sierra Club was up front on this issue it would show the carbon emissions alongside the ad for the trip.

I calculated some carbon emissions from the NativeEnergy Web site for some typical Sierra Club Outings. Here are the results, assuming a round trip flight from Washington, D.C. Mexico City: 1.5 tons Los Angeles: 2.4 tons London: 2.9 tons Buenos Aires: 4.2 tons Tokyo: 5.4 tons New Zealand: 7.1 tons

These tonnages, for one passenger, dwarf the emissions from the family of four that House highlights. Why aren't such data shown right on the Sierra Club Outing ad? Why are they hidden several pages and a Web site away? Doesn't Sierra Club want the members to know how carbon intensive the Sierra Club Outings are? Or does Sierra Club have a conflict of interest? Offsets are not conservation.
M. Kravitz
Rockville, Maryland


I read with interest your story on coal use by Americans. However, I am a bit confused by one of the statistics provided. On page 45 you state that the average American household consumes 1,140 lbs of coal per month, which produces 3369 lbs of carbon dioxide. I am no physicist, but it intrigues me that burning coal can actually create more matter that was in the coal to start with. Unless the laws of physics are violated by coal combustion, how can 2,229 lbs of carbon come from "nowhere"?

Many of the statistics are used by readers to support arguments or stimulate discussions regarding environmental issues, often (and unfortunately) without consulting other sources of data, making it important that the information you provide be accurate. Let's hope this was a typo that slipped passed the editorial review and wasn't a misleading exaggeration for the sake of advocacy.
Chris Rowe
Mechanicsville, Maryland


Thanks for the article on coal. I had no idea it was such an efficient and effective source of energy. Nor did I know that it defied the laws of physics and could produce nearly three times its own weight in waste (1,140 lbs. of coal results in 3,369 lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions). Now there is something that should be exploited! Not to mention the cinders and fly ash which could be spread on roads instead of that nasty salt. And the wisdom and insight just kept coming. Mr. Green informed me that not only does Bush have "big oil" buddies, Cheney has "big dirt" buddies. Wow! Who knew? Keep up the good work.
John Morgan
Pittsburgh


The article by Silas House, "The Dirt on Coal," raises a red flag. I appreciate the sentiment and objective of the article; but not being a chemist, the boxed information on page 45 of the article raises a red flag. I understand that combustion involves combining of various constituents with oxygen, however the claim that 1,140 lbs of coal generates 3,369 lbs of carbon dioxide, with no caveats or substantiation whatsoever, seems a gross exaggeration. I assume that there is some sort of editorial and technical review of submitted articles.
Dwain Butler
Vicksburg, Mississippi


To put things into perspective regarding your article on "clean coal," as I grew up in the '40s and '50s there were 150 million people in the U.S. There are now 300 million plus. We heated homes with coal, 11 to 15 tons per year, or 33 to 45 tons of CO2. But, we didn't have lights and TVs and appliances with constant on circuits. Electricity use was low. Lamps were few and were turned off when through. Buses and streetcars (electric) were our transportation. And WALKING.

Our homes were small, maybe 1500 square feet for a family of four. Not behemoths of 3,000 to 5,000 square feet with lofty ceilings. Yards were 40 feet wide. not 1/2 acres or more. We were community. And NO A/C. When we rid ourselves of the coal furnace we put in forced air gas. Everything else stayed the same except for a 10" B/W TV. And we used solar dryers (sheets on the clothesline). The latter are prohibited in some communities. Don't fit the profile.

My point is, with Cleveland and 700,000 people, or so, we kicked out a heck of a lot of CO2. We're more efficient now but we've magnified our use by just population alone. T. Boone Pickens told us how he'd do wind generation, till the credit crunch fell on him. He wants to use natural gas for transport. Sounds good. Good for him since he sells gas. Hey, wait a minute, Natural Gas heats my home, and its price has increased by 2 to 3 fold in recent years. Don't touch MY GAS! Enough already.

I recently traveled in Croatia, Greece (islands) and Turkey. They have wind generation, solar power for water heating--most homes--and solar electricity. They are not rich countries. Why don't we? Is it because the power generating companies have a major say in their profits and government policy to their advantage? We drive a Prius. Ford bought the technology from Toyota.

Just one view of the world around me. Don't think I'm against conservation. I am not. But people are affected by economics. CO2 can be contained. There are chemical studies to use it for a fuels source. I question the containment in deep wells. CO2 and water form carbonic acid. Will it react with the substrate (limestone?) and cause other problems. Gas wells in our area have caused problems with water table (wells) supplies. And homes have blown off foundations due to gas seepage through the water system.

The problem is not simple. And I agree that the U.S. should work on alternative energy. Forget about the fuel cells and all electric cars. That's R&D for the future. That was only to use government funds for research. Hybrids would solve a lot of oil use. Sorry about the length of the letter. "Clean coal" is not a simple subject.
Paul Lidrbauch
Lyndhurst, Ohio


"Lost and Found"

Your fact checkers are asleep! In the article "Lost and Found," there are two photos that are not from the Santa Rosa Mountains. The first, on page 47, is of the San Jacinto Mountains--you can tell by the granite formations. The other, on page 50 (and also on your contents page), while very picturesque, is of another desert altogether--Joshua trees are found only in the Mojave Desert. The photo looks like Joshua Tree National Park.
Elizabeth Van Zandt


"Spout" (January/February 2009)

Just got my Sierra Club magazine and came across the article "Drill, Obama, Drill." Your editor in chief, Bob Sipchen, writes: "But if the United States' first black president." What's wrong with you people? The guy is half white and half black, so why do you call him black? Are you white people having an inferiority complex or what? Maybe you can explain it, but I sure cannot. In Australia we call it "fair dinkum," or call a spade a spade. The new president's mother is white, so he can be called the first president of mixed race.
Carl Zdenek
San Jose, California

I write this after seeing a piece written by T. Boone Pickens in the January/February 2009 Sierra magazine. Let us not forget that Mr. Pickens was a high-dollar sponsor of Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth, an organization that spread false information about the combat record of presidential candidate John Kerry. That helped get us another 4 years of the failed policies of George W. Bush. To smear Kerry or any other veteran in an attempt to further one's political agenda is unpatriotic, at a minimum.
Dale Glowacki
Brookfield, Illinois


I was rather distressed to read the "Spout" page in January/February 2009--an issue I was excited to read because of its focus on green building. But in "Drill, Obama, Drill," the writer is thirsting to watch Obama rip out beautiful old wood floors in order to install bamboo transported from across the world? This focus on high-end, new construction, which continued, with a couple small exceptions, throughout the magazine, is not an accurate picture of what really constitutes green building and of what can work for all of us.

Here are some facts I pulled from Shay Solomon's excellent book, Small House for a Small Planet. I hope you'll feature these in a follow-up.

  • A typical new house generates 3 to 5 tons of landfill waste and adds 30 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. This does not include the landfill and CO2 figures for any tear-down involved or for the infrastructure required for a new house in a previously unsettled area. Renovating an old house generates 1 to 2 tons of CO2.
  • DOE statistics show that houses built between 1940 and 1997 use fairly similar amounts of energy; new homes, being so much larger than homes of the past, basically break even on efficiency improvements by the efficiency losses generated by larger size.
  • Old houses are often part of older communities not built around cars. Thus they require far less driving and form the fabric of walkable, designed-for-community communities.

Census figures from 2000 suggest that there were at least 10.5 million empty housing units in the US at that time. The greenest communities already exist; we just have to restore them.
Evelyn Polesny
New York


I was pleased to see Paul Mayer's letter about the packaging of Prilosec. The generic equivalent omeprazole is packaged in the identical manner. Each smaller box contains just two, not several blister packs. I have been outraged by this excess ever since the medication was prescribed for me nearly a year ago. Packaging of this sort also raises another serious question in my mind: namely the unstated potential hazard of a pharmaceutical that is packaged in a manner that makes it so difficult to access. What am I not being told that this sales format suggests?
Marvin J. Ward
Williamsburg, Massachusetts


"Create" (January/February 2009)

I confess with some trepidation in this forum that I'm conservative by belief and temperament, but I'd like to believe that at the end of the day I'm as hopeful and optimistic about the future as the next guy, even if that guy (the estimable Carl Pope) is still bragging about being a field coordinator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of all things, and that as Mr. Pope says, quoting Mr. Obama, "investing $15 billion a year in clean energy...will help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating 5 million new green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced."

I hope it is not considered too impolite to ask where $15 billion a year is going to come from, how many years we're going to be spending it, what these "new green jobs" are, what "pay well" means, how long these jobs are supposed to last, and so on. As much as I'd like to believe this green transformation will come to pass as foretold, I also thought we were going to transform the Middle East. I sure hope the green transformation goes better. But isn't now a time when we should be moderating our expectations? Shouldn't the change we're all anticipating include being realistic? And if we're going to be realistic, shouldn't we admit we're broke?
Bruce Carnes
Springfield Virginia


Carl Pope says that Bill Clinton served as an incrementalist, a fair description. While Carl obviously knows what changes are needed (see Sierra January/February 2007 for one of the best U.S. magazine issues ever, in its ability to effect progress if read widely), it's a mistake to approach Barack Obama as though he were currently in step with sound principles and the nation's actual leaders. On Afghanistan, Iran, environmental issues, etc., he is basically Hillary or Bill with a different style.

His cabinet choices signal an incrementalist. He talks renewables, but is open to nuclear power, which will drain billions of dollars away from the easy path. Unlike Bob Schildgen (Mr. Green), he does not counsel us on the ease of cutting electric usage, the step to take before spending money on solar or wind power. Any clear look at the U.S. reveals that the negawatt, not the megawatt (green or otherwise), is our cheapest, cleanest, speediest tool in addressing carbon emissions today. Best use of the negawatt will underline a heavy excess in power capacity.

The White House and nation need to be focused on which power plants to close, not which ones to build. On almost every other issue, the change we need will only come if Obama is very firmly guided toward the easiest, quickest measures.
Jim Shackelford
Bloomington, Indiana


"Hey Mr. Green" (January/February 2009)

In your column "Hey, Mr. Green" you discussed sodium bentonite for kitty litter as not being an eco-friendly choice. What is more important is that this litter kills cats. Just like jamming up the city sewage system with sludge, it does the same thing in cats intestines, turning to a cementlike substance which cannot be passed and therefore eventually kills them. Please post this as it is direly important for any pet owner. We talk about this in our book Super Nutrition for Dogs n' Cats, which has been out for many years and has helped many owners to make a better choice for litter. Nina Anderson, Howard Peiper


I am surprised a copy editor for the magazine of the Sierra Club did not review the answer to Mr. Green's kitty litter question. He may not be a fan of cats, and believes they are destructive, but let's remember history. If Europeans had not been killing off cats, because they believed they were followers of the devil and his witches, they would have been able to fight off the rats carrying the fleas of the Black Death.

I believe it is us humans who are a more destructive to the hawks and owls than the cats. Mr. Green's bias towards cats caused him to fail in answering the question. How can cat lovers proceed in reading the rest of the answer, that actually has interesting factual information, when the teaser paragraph degrades the species?
Nan Luck
Denver, Colorado


"Explore" (January/February 2009)

Interesting article in the current issue about the Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park. I'm putting it on my see-someday list. The article says 3,769 eagles were counted in a single day, but at the BEPP website, it just says that was their bird count was 3,769. Wouldn't that have been for the whole year? Or does that term imply for one day? Thanks. Just curious...
Maurine Simpson
Colfax, Washington


"Grapple" (January/February 2009)

Thanks to Paul Rauber for the invaluable chart showing the climate impact of different eating habits. While it is always a good idea to eat locally grown food, his article and illustration show clearly that a plant-based diet is the way to go. Meat, dairy and other animal products are the worst things we can eat in terms of keeping our air and water clean, regardless of how close to the slaughterhouse or feedlot we live.
Patti Breitman
Fairfax, California


On page 21 of the January/February 2009 issue, there is a graph showing the greenhouse gas impact of various aspects of different foods. It's not entirely clear, but it appears that the normalization of each column ("red meat", etc.) was chosen to correspond to the typical amount used in a household annually. This is a very poor choice of normalization, and you would have been better served by telling the amount of greenhouse gases per million food calories, or per thousand pounds or kilograms.

As it is, there is no way to tell if differences are due to the kind of food or how much people eat of them. (For all we know, "red meat" is only higher than "fruits, vegetables" because people eat less of the latter category. I don't think this is true, but the current plot can't tell me that.)
David Syphers
Department of Physics University of Washington


There is a much healthier and effective way to reduce "food miles" and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from beef consumption than substituting vegetables for beef one day a week, as suggested by Paul Rauber. Get to know your farmer and buy as close to home as possible. Buying a year's supply at one time saves on cost and transportation expense. Buy organic, exclusively grass- and hay-feed beef. Raising beef animals on grass requires substantially less fossil fuel, no herbicides, pesticides or commercial fertilizer, and they produce very little greenhouse gas in their digestive systems. Beef animals feed grains, conversely, are a major contributor to green house gases.

In the process of saving the environment, you could, also very well spare yourself or a family member from a heart attack or stroke. Eighty five to ninety five percent of heart attacks and strokes are caused by blood clots. Diets high in carbohydrates, commonly called low-fat diets, elevate insulin levels, which in turn stimulate the blood-clotting mechanisms that cause clots. Essential fatty acids abundant in exclusively grass- and hay-fed beef animals are in a near perfect balance for regulating healthy blood viscosity. Look for a breed that marbles well on grass.
David Mulvain, MS, LDN nutritionist


You state on page 23 of the January/February 2009 Sierra that folk are protecting their solar panels with .22-gauge shotguns. Can this be right? The smallest shotgun I am aware of is a .410. Do you mean 12-gauge? Or a .22 rifle loaded with birdshot, which is not too effective on people. Just wondering.
Mark Pipes
Reno, Nevada


I hope that the Sierra Club is taking action to support the courageous act of Tim DeChristopher in disrupting the Utah oil lands auction. We need more such heroes!
Jean Carlson


The efforts of the Sierra Club, in the words of Rick (Casablanca), "don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" unless strongly linked with human population growth. Attempting to save species from extinction, rescue ecosystems from destruction, reverse global warming, stop polluting, etc., while the human population continues to increase almost geometrically, is virtually useless.

In my humble opinion, the Sierra Club and other ecosystem- and wildlife-saving organizations would do well to find common cause with the Population Connection and Negative Population Growth. Forget about Planned Parenthood. If a couple plans, can't they plan for 3, 4, and more? Without factoring human population increase into this very complicated equation, our planet will have only jellyfish in the oceans and cockroaches on land.
Aaron O. Wasserman
City College of New York


"Last Words" (January/February)

If the picture (page 116) is of a place where Chinese people live, I am curious to know why the stop sign is written in English. Please answer if possible.
Tom Brady Wyckoff
New Jersey

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