Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Carbon footprints, global warming, green living — are these phrases an inconvenient truth that keep you awake at night, wondering how you can live in a more environmentally friendly way? For many people, merely contemplating these things is enough to make them give up trying to help the earth before they even start! But before you allow yourself to become discouraged, there is a book out there that will inspire you to make changes in your life that are beneficial to the earth; Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2009) by Vanessa Farquharson.

This amusing and chatty book is both educational and irreverent, putting to death the notion that all environmentalists and “greenies” take themselves far too seriously. The idea behind writing and publishing this book was to provide inspiration to everyman, to convince the public that we all can make small changes to our lives that result in less damage to the environment, and to show people how easy (or difficult) those changes are to make.

Farquharson is a journalist with a taste for the finer things in life. But unable to shake her growing environmental worries three weeks after watching Al Gore film’s An Inconvenient Truth, she decides to change her life to become more environmentally friendly. Her strategy is to make one change each day for one year, announce it to the public on a blog created specifically for this purpose, and to write about that change; how it helped preserve the environment and how disruptive to her life that particular change ended up being. The author makes small changes, like giving up paper towels, to large changes, like unplugging her refrigerator (something that I have long contemplated doing, but cannot due to the wildlife roaming my apartment). Farquharson’s cat also makes changes, like changing to corn cob litter, which the author enthuses about. (After years of pet care experience, I always recommend corn cob litter to all my cat and small animal clients as being the best litter to use in small NYC apartments.)

Farquharson’s rather dry and sometimes sardonic sense of humor combined with a wonderful storytelling instinct makes her book more than just a “how to” guide or checklist; it is a personal journal/journey; informative and interesting in turns, and always amusing. I often felt like we were friends, sitting in a coffee shop and talking about a variety of topics from how to save the environment without smelling bad to looking for love. She writes about how certain “green” lifestyle changes didn’t work out so well for her (but could work better for other people) and discusses what I think is her strongest criticism of the green movement: the inability of individuals to calculate how important each lifestyle change is to the environment, which leaves those who wish to change their habits floundering around in the dark trying to decide which changes have the most impact. I agree with Farquharson that it would be immensely satisfying to be able to visualize the importance of one’s changes, and would likely broaden the appeal of the environmental movement overall.

There were a few lifestyle changes that Farquharson made that were not well explained, and I mention these because I was genuinely confused, not because I am trying to split hairs. The author doesn’t say how giving up chewing gum or stopping Q-tips use help save the environment, for example, and I always thought that using a microwave was more environmentally-friendly than using either an electric or gas-powered range, yet she advocates not purchasing one (but there is no explanation why).

This humorous book provides an accessible and realistic look into one woman’s struggle to make personal lifestyle changes that benefit her community and her world. Even though this book originally was published as a series of blog entries, this is the first example of a book that I’ve read that successfully makes that magical leap from blog to book. Additionally, unlike a blog, it is possible to read this book on the subway or an airplane, or when you lack internet access. And without getting eyestrain. Since I am also trying to “reduce, reuse and recycle,” and because I think you will really like this book, I am happy to mail my copy of Sleeping Naked Is Green to the first person who emails me or comments here asking for it.

Vanessa Farquharson is an arts reporter and film critic at the National Post, based in Toronto, Canada. Her blog, Green as a Thistle, tracked her year-long green adventure. She has been published in Eye Weekly and the Ottawa Citizen, profiled on Treehugger.com and featured numerous times on CBC Radio.

Comments

  1. #1 Vern Morrison
    June 28, 2009

    Sounds like an interesting book. I’d be glad to have your copy if I’m the first to ask for it.

  2. #2 MadScientist
    June 28, 2009

    I’m slogging through James Lovelock’s latest book: The Vanishing Face of Gaia. I’ve always condemned climate modelers for not being able to make any meaningful predictions and have always advocated for more and better measurements in hopes of at least getting an empirical handle on things. Lovelock is very polite in damning the modelers (or at least their results) and also in condemning politicians and “green groups” for promoting feel-good but worthless schemes. He paints a pretty bleak future in which the effects of the changing climate are wore than what modelers predict and his arguments are quite believable. In his vision of the future humankind will struggle merely to maintain civilization, and even so there is no guarantee that there will not be a global collapse and that humans essentially revert to a stone-age era.

    What I find disturbing is that Lovelock has independently come up with many if the ideas I (and doubtless others) had developed over the years. The earth is simply overpopulated. Forget about “sustainable growth”; if growth were altogether halted tomorrow we can’t expect to sustain the current state of things. Oil will run out relatively soon (even the oil people put reserves at a mere 70 years). Even for those who deny global warming (or human-induced warming), it is simmply foolish not to develop alternatives to fossil fuel consumption. As oil runs out we will need to process coal for vital hydrocarbon fuels (this had been done over 70 years ago, but we certainly will need to improve on those old currently unused processes). What Lovelock adds is that living organisms modify the environment to such an extent as to influence climate, and the current increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and the accompanying warming may push the ecology to a point where beneficial regulation of the environment turns to a degenerative feedback which makes the environment far more hostile to its remaining inhabitants.

    Lovelock’s description of much of the “green” literature and current political escapades: “piffle”.

    I can see Lovelock’s point; the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has been a costly sham resulting in no reduction in emissions whatsoever (but some groups become wealthy on the sham and everyone gets a warm fuzzy feeling). Other proposals I see which seek to plant trees to offset carbon have me screaming hysterically (planting trees is good, but planting trees to ‘offset’ CO2 is delusional).

    Any significant action taken to avert a Malthusian catastrophe within the next 4 generations will not be easy; costs will go up and jobs will be lost (job loss is transient, but it is a big problem). We need to plan for a gradual reduction in population, and what leader of a free nation wants to set a limit on the reproduction of its population – and yet if no reductions are enforced we will be no better than bacteria in a petri dish poisoning and overcrowding our environment until we destroy ourselves. As Lovelock points out, people need to give up the silly notion that humans are somehow priviledged – we are just another life form on this planet and the only priviledge we have is our intelligence.

  3. #3 Paladin
    June 29, 2009

    Of course you’re right MadScientist. If you’re living as green as you could, but have 2-3 kids that will have each 2-3 kids of their own, then someone who owns a Hummer, takes a jet trip each week and leaves the air conditioning on and the window open, but has no children will in the long run consume less resources and have a smaller impact on the enviroment.

    But that’s an unplesant thing to say, and those people that are “atuned to the enviroment” will be terrified: just look how cute their 5 kids are, in the home made sweeters, carring plastic bottles to the recicle bin.

  4. #4 Neil
    June 29, 2009

    Why is planting trees to offset emissions delusional? Genuine question, not a snark.

  5. #5 Bria
    June 29, 2009

    Vern beat me to asking for your copy, but I’m looking forward to hunting down my own and reading it. Thanks for the review.

  6. #6 "GrrlScientist"
    June 29, 2009

    hang on bria, for just one day before purchasing a copy. i know i was sent two copies, but i might have lost one on the subway .. but let me look around in all my usual book hiding places before you purchase a copy.

  7. #7 Paladin
    June 29, 2009

    Planting trees do not offset the carbon emissions from burning oil/coal because it does not fix that carbon that was previously out of the atmospheric cycle. It just stores it for a little while, but sooner or latter the CO2 will be released back, when the tree is burned or dies and decomposes.

  8. #8 Jason A.
    June 29, 2009

    Planting trees do not offset the carbon emissions from burning oil/coal because it does not fix that carbon that was previously out of the atmospheric cycle. It just stores it for a little while, but sooner or latter the CO2 will be released back, when the tree is burned or dies and decomposes.

    So then planting a single tree is only helpful for the life of the tree, but a replinishing population of trees* would be a sustainable fix. As individual trees die off, new trees grow to store the carbon released from the dying trees.

    *normal people would call that a forest

  9. #9 MadScientist
    June 29, 2009

    @Neil: Paladin and Jason A. provided part of the answer. Basically, for planting trees to be effective you need to establish forests which are very close to natural forests with a diversity of complementary species of plants and animals. The forest must, like natural forests, sustain itself with no human interference after the initial establishment; these forests must also be preserved in perpetuity.

    That’s the easy part of the problem. The biggest part of the problem comes in when you consider reality. Forests in developing nations are often (but not always) simply eradicated by logging corporations with no intention of replenishing the forest. The soil is often not well suited to growing new trees, but with the logging practices used things are even worse. Land slippage frequently occurs when it rains and this leaves large areas which are no longer cultivable because they are basically solid rock (the topsoil having washed away). Erosion by wind is also very effective and can often strip a landscape to bedrock in only a few years. So – many former forests logged by devastating means cannot simply be replanted; an effective recovery program for such an area may take hundreds of years.

    So where would the bulk of land for planting trees come from? Well, from agricultural areas of course. Tree planting will compete with our food supply.

    If we look at how existing tree-planting corporations work, they often acquire agricultural land on a 100 year lease (the Kyoto protocol only suggested forests be guaranteed for 100 years, not in perpetuity, but 100 years is not good enough). These corporations for the most part will plant extremely dense monoculture plantations in order to maximize profits. As the timber industry has known for over 100 years, monoculture plantations need constant care because they are highly susceptible to destruction by specialized pests (not to mention other problems). In addition to that, if you can start a fire in such a forest, the fuel loading is likely to be about 10 times what you would have in a natural forest. Earlier in the year, Australia had some large fires rip through natural forest; in about a month perhaps 3-7 times Australia’s annual CO2 emissions were released by these fires even though in the overall scheme of things the burnt out patches weren’t all that large compared to the actual extent of the forests. Planting fire hazards to reduce CO2 is silly.

    I think it would be great to put some effort into large scale experiments to rehabilitate areas and to reclaim dessert, but dense monoculture forests will simply not do. Sensible projects will invariably be far more costly than current tree-planting operations and will not store anywhere near the amount of carbon in the short term. Such projects simply cannot be justified on the basis of CO2 storage even though they would be very good projects and beneficial to the future. If you’re lucky you might start seeing some beneficial effects within a generation, but odds are the greatest benefits will only be seen after several generations.

    I didn’t even throw in the logistical issues of planting trees to offset CO2. I’ll give a few details. Let’s take Australia since I’ve already done the calculations for that country. Using the official CO2 emissions from 2005 and assuming dense monoculture plantations of the Canadian Pine which magically appear (no nursery to start the plants, no energy spent planting, clearing, spraying, watering, transporting stuff, etc) and the forest also has the magical properties of not a single plant dying and no fires and no pests, Australia would still need to plant a forest about 82×82 kilometers every single year to reduce its emissions by 50% assuming that overall emissions do not grow at all since 2005. Yeah, right, as if that’ll ever happen.

  10. #10 Ian
    June 29, 2009

    I can’t help but wonder, GS, how dedicated to living green she is when she, having already published her observations online, then turns around and puts it into a traditional book. How green was the book? Even if it used recycled paper, how much CO² did the act of publishing put into the atmosphere?

    Much as I confess that I love the weight, small, texture and feel of a traditional book, there would appear to be very little, if any, excuse these days for publishing traditionally.

  11. #11 "GrrlScientist"
    June 29, 2009

    Ian — i see your point and i also thought about that, but the fact remains, i prefer to read books even if i can get the same content on a blog (i did not did through her blog to see if the content had been rewritten and edited from her blog, but i’d guess that it has been). it is possible that other people share this preference. and i also would like to gain the courage myself to publish a book in the traditional print media, despite the fact that i too, have a blog.

  12. #12 Rob W
    June 29, 2009

    One nice thing about a published dead-tree book is that you get money for it — generally an advance followed by royalties with a bit of luck.

    Being paid in return for spreading solid information about what we all should be doing to improve the environment means that she can thus dedicate MORE time to this pursuit.

    In which case, the results of that time (however many people were influenced to do some good… some of those people perhaps with some real leverage) all sit on the positive side of the scale, against the negative of printing & distributing the book.

    …gotta at least try to paint the whole picture…

  13. #13 Neil
    June 29, 2009

    Madscientist, your Australian calculations just seem to show that planting trees isn’t going to solve any problems, not that it won’t help at all. I guess it might be worse than nothing, if it leads people to think they can then consume without guilt.

  14. #14 MadScientist
    June 30, 2009

    @Neil: As I wrote – there are many good reasons for planting trees (but not ultra-dense monoculture forests), but CO2 removal and storage is not a valid reason. Personally I think governments should run very large scale experiments planting self-sustaining forests if only to see what effects this has on the local environment and climate. The problem I have with planting trees is that the idea is being sold as a solution to the CO2 problem, but that claim of being a solution really has nothing to do with reality. In my opinion planting trees will always be the most minor component, and people need to understand that it is not a significant contributor to controlling CO2.

    James Lovelock in his latest book wrote: “When I am warned that my pessimism discourages those who would improve their carbon footprint or do good works such as planting trees, I’m afraid I see such efforts as at best romantic nonsense, or at worst hypocrisy.”

    It is a genuine problem – if people believe they’re doing something significant to reduce CO2 by paying a corporation to claim that it had planted some trees (really, how many people have the space and time to actually plant and care for trees themselves), they are deluding themselves and the real problems are not being addressed. My colleagues tell me I’m schizophrenic – on the one hand I say “trees need to be planted” and on the other hand I say “planting trees to reduce CO2 is potentially one of the worst ecological disasters in history” – but it’s not schizophrenia – there are different problems to address and planting trees addresses some problems, but CO2 control is not one of those problems.

  15. #15 Harald Korneliussen
    June 30, 2009

    I’m glad the author cares about comparing the relative merits of efforts, and glad that you care even more (since you ask about microwave ovens!). I read a different “going green” book, A Life Stripped Bare by Leo Hickman. It was amusing, but annoying in that it swallowed all the advice from the “experts” (including homeopathy!) as equally valid and effective.

    I have come to the conclusion that there are three big “going green” challenges that are worth taking, when considering effort/inconvenience vs. environmental impact – needless to say, unplugging the fridge is not one of them! My three choices are

    1. Not owning a car, relying instead on public transportation.
    2. No more plane trips, going by train instead.
    3. Phasing out meat in favour of sustainably caught/farmed fish, and veggies.

    The first is easy, the second is a bit harder, the third is difficult. If anyone thinks I should focus on different things, feel free to tell me why. (If I don’t reply here, it might be that I forgot to check back; mail me at vintermann gmail com to ensure I see your reply)

  16. #16 MadScientist
    July 1, 2009

    @Harald:

    1. no car: fine if you can genuinely do without one (and can conveniently hire on the rare occasions you need to). Unfortunately historical development has resulted in many cities where you can’t get along without your own car. Many governments are loathe to put up the money to (re)develop a working public transport system. I have seen cities which, despite growth, actually had more rail infrastructure 60 years ago.

    2. train vs. plane: fine for continental journeys, but problematic for overseas trips. That used to be my preferred transport when airfares cost a fortune (and you can make it the preferred option by taxing the air industry until it dies back).

    3. land animals vs aquatic animals: the seas are overfished; where do we find the space for sustainable fisheries? The overfishing is a huge problem; we’d seen the industry around Monterrey Bay wiped out in the first half of last century and a multitude of problems continue. Be careful about shifting from land animals to aquatic animals.

  17. #17 "GrrlScientist"
    July 1, 2009

    1. i really like NYC because of the extensive public transit system they have here. i do not own a car, and most NYCers don’t even know how to drive (shocking, but true). i also really like Seattle because of their extensive bike trails system and generally bicycle-friendly drivers (unlike NYC, where you are taking your life into your hands when bike riding on the streets, and bike theft is a very real risk if you lock your bike up while going into a store, etc.)

    2. as i am flying to finland in a few hours, i must point out that i would drown if i took the train instead.

    3. most people eat far far too much meat, regardless of what sort of meat it is. at this point in time, i have mostly given up eating all seafood (and i dearly love seafood), especially after reading the very well-written and researched book Bottomfeeder, which details the myriad problems with seafood and the seafood industry. currently, i eat chicken once per week, as part of one meal (usually in the form of progresso’s chicken with wild rice soup). this is not a perfect solution, so i am still working on how to eat enough meat to stay healthy on my frugal budget — while causing the least environmental and personal financial damage?

  18. #18 Ren fruoken
    July 1, 2009

    About replacing meat in your diet:

    I looked into the impact once and it’s not as large as I thought. I forget exactly, but it’s less than not driving a car.

    The problems are that your protein has to come from elsewhere anyway (that’s the hard part when it comes to replacing meat.)

    The fdas mypyramid thing says, if you do some math, to consume about 60 grams of balanced protein per day from meat.

    Tofu is too expensive.
    Nuts have a protein:fat ratio that is way too high.

    I discovered “soy nuts”, which are a bit expensive but have a lot of protein in them. If you could put them through a peanut butter grinder they would be an awsome meat replacement and they’re pretty tasty after you get used to them (though I thought they were awful at first)

    Skim milk powder would really the way to go, except that liquid calories are processed by the brains satiety centers differently than solid calories (that jellybean study.)

    I’ve been wanting to try removing the fat from peanut butter. Perhaps placing some peanut butter in a coffee bodem and putting a coffee filter over the filter and a weight on the plunger overnight would seperate enough of the fat out.

    2% milk is not too bad. Yogurt has no more protein in it by weight and is much more expensive, so no good there.

    You can get cheese made with 2% milk which is not a direct replacement, but is usefull in increasing the protein in a diet, 18%mf mozza (there are two common types of mozza in grocery stores), or kraft has a low fat cheddar that is quite tasty.

    Also, one peice of advice if you’re mucking with your diet is to get a scale that measures in 1-2 gram intervals asap. They are cheap on ebay but you can get them cheap in grocery stores too sometimes (30 bucks.) I use mine all the time – apparently all cooking in europe is done by weight and it’s the way to go.

  19. #19 Inquisitive Raven
    July 1, 2009

    Ren Fruoken: Legume/grain combinations (think the traditional beans and rice here) are a perfectly viable method of getting cheap protein and in the US, even vegans have no problems meeting their protein needs. More of an issue is vitamin B12 which is just not available from non-animal sources, unless you’re talking about nutritional yeast grown on an enriched medium. I’ve seen it claimed that miso and tempeh are viable non-animal sources of B12, but I’ve also seen claims that the molecule identified as B12 is close, not identical and doesn’t fill the function.

    Also, why the elaborate mechanism to remove fat from peanut butter? Get a brand that doesn’t have emulsifying agents in it (Whole Foods carries a few brands), and let it sit; the fat will separate out on its own, and you can pour it off.

    Lastly, I don’t know about continental Europe, but certainly in England all recipes are measured by weight. This, I have first experience with, having lived there for a few months.

  20. #20 Ken
    July 1, 2009

    I find it slightly ammusing that I can not get this book in electronic format for my kindle. Apparantly I can only purchase the dead tree version.

    Still I will give it a read.