The Right of the Environment

September 30, 2015

Pope Post Sept Pope Francis’ trip to the United States this month generated enormous interest and attendance at the events, with nearly a million people (including me) at a mass in Philadelphia. There were many millions more who watched the Pope’s events on television. While the interest in the recent Laudato Si encyclical on the environment was significant, the attention paid to the Pope’s words during his U.S. trip exceeded that.

In case you missed the Pope’s comments on the environment:

He spoke of the environment on multiple occasions and venues. In some cases he went even further than he had gone in Laudato Si. This was most notable when he proclaimed at the United Nations that a true “right of the environment” exists (analogous to human rights).

In other appearances, Pope Francis said a lot more about what this means. For example, “We Christians, along with the other mono-theistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental goal.”

He alluded to the creation of jobs and livelihoods as an outgrowth of business activity that contribute to the common good. “This common good also includes the earth.” “The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive, and sustainable.”

He warned us all that “A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” Francis is well known for his concern for the poor and for those “excluded” by society. “They [the poor] are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.”

He went further when he said, “The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species”.

At his concluding Mass in Philadelphia, he noted, “The urgent challenge of protecting our home includes the effort to bring the entire human family together in the pursuit of a sustainable and integral development.”

“Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity”

I agree.

A Broad Variety

August 31, 2015

paper-towels-roll-thEvery so often, it is fun to take a look at the broad variety of products (especially kitchen and cleaning) that are made from recycled materials, non-chlorinated materials, or are otherwise made with minimizing environmental impact in mind.

Lots of Environmentally Friendly Kitchen and Cleaning Products


Many More Sustainably Produced Kitchen and Cleaning Options

Flying Away

July 31, 2015

boeing PlaneUnited Airlines has a history of trying to incorporate non-tradition fuels into its fleet. This year, they have announced plans to integrate sustainable biofuels (derived from farm waste and animal fats) into a portion of their operations from Los Angeles, mostly flights to San Francisco, a major hub of theirs (LAX-SFO). The first of these was in July. The airline cites a 30%-70% biofuel/petroleum ratio and claims a 50% reduction in carbon emissions (life cycle basis) at a price similar to petroleum-derived jet fuel.

I hope this experiment works. LAX to SFO is a very busy corridor, so United will have plenty of flight data to examine!

United’s Alternative Fuel Information

Praised Be The Earth

June 30, 2015

planet earth Pope Francis had it right. His Papal encyclical, Laudato si (Praise Be to You — On Care for Our Common Home) makes a passionate case for environmental awareness, concern, and action. Most of the media coverage focused on the Pope’s commentary about climate change. The Pope’s strong statements in support of the scientific consensus are indeed notable—but not in my opinion the most important part of the encyclical. Laudato si’s most important aspect is the clear building of a moral case for sustainable development–sustainable in terms of including a far greater share of the world’s population than the current system does and sustainable in terms of treating the Earth like the treasure it is and not simply as a resource to be exploited and left for dead.

Part of the significance of Laudato si is, of course, the fact that its message is now part of the official teachings of the Catholic Church. It is true that environmental consciousness is not the encylical’s sole aspect–however this is surely the first encyclical where the environment plays so prominent a role. An environmental perspective is in fact part and parcel of a moral aspect that must accompany economic development. Simply by dedicating such a large portion of Laudato si to concerns of the environment, Pope Francis has ensured that many, many people will make the environment part of their concerns, also.

But Pope Francis raises issues far beyond environmental awareness. He challenges all of us (not limited to Catholics) to consider “the relationship of human beings to the world”–and by extension, one’s own relationship to the world. This is the foundation of adding a moral dimension to the environmental/economic equation. In the Pope’s view, much of the economic system of the developed world is built on a foundation of ultimate environmental degradation. The introduction of another dimension (in this case, a moral/spiritual one) can only help address the imbalance of economic prosperity (for some) at the cost of environmental desecration (for too many others).

The Pope is especially concerned about how humanity relates to God’s gift of the earth. He considers the earth as a “shared inheritance” for all humanity. Not unique to Catholic teachings, the Pope elevates environmental awareness to a core moral obligation, with a strong spiritual component as well. This moral/spiritual component transforms the economic/environmental discussion from a duopoly into a triangle. As the zone of discussion widens, the ultimate results will probably be different than what we have now in terms of development.

I have read several commentaries to the effect that the Pope’s words will remain that, simply words. They will fail in the realm of realpolitick, I think that is beside the point. The strongest impact of the Pope’s words will be how they are absorbed and repeated, both within the Catholic Church as part of significant Church teaching, and probably even more importantly, by laypeople (not just Catholics) who are inspired by the Pope’s message of adding a moral and spiritual dimension to their consideration of how economic growth and environmental awareness should interact.

Sustainable Communities

May 31, 2015

Star GraphicI recently learned that my township, (Abington), has been selected for the STAR Leadership Community Program. STAR stands for Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating communities. This is a program that enables communities to evaluate themselves on a range of livability/sustainability measures. These measures go across a wide variety of areas. These include areas with obvious environmental implications like “built environment”, “climate and energy”, and “natural systems”. However, it also includes areas like “Economy and Jobs”, “Education, Arts, and Community”, “Equity and Empowerment”, and “Health and Safety”. Some of the more specific items are “Public Spaces”, “Greening the Energy Supply”, “Social and Cultural Diversity”, “Equitable Services and Access”, “Local Economy” and “Food Access and Nutrition”, plus about 40 more.

I really had not thought a lot about a community’s sustainability before; I have been focused on how businesses (and I, in my daily life) have been incorporating sustainability. Thinking about sustainability from a community point of view is a different perspective. Thinking about what makes a community “sustainable”, vs, myself or a business is a very interesting process.

In my thinking, I start with the strictly environmental aspects. There are many good things happening in Abington on this front. Some of these are (as listed in 1 recent newsletter): A workshop for a bicycle plan for the township, an electronic recycling event, a listing of places for free mulch and compost (I picked up mine already), a website to find clean energy electric supplies (at a price cheaper than the wind contract I have), and a notice that Abington is now an official Audubon Bird Town.

From a community-wide perspective, sustainability goes beyond the environmental aspects. For me, it expands into “what makes this a good place to live, that others want to come to?” The natural first answer is economic vibrancy. We have many businesses here; some are unique mom and pop businesses, but we also have some national chains like Target as well as the Willow Grove Mall. All of these provide retail options for customers, some employment, and especially important from my point of view, tax revenues that help keep the Abington schools strong. Good schools are a proven way to keep a community desirable. I want the variety of retail options to stay here–for many reasons.

Beyond the economy, there are other aspects included in the STAR ratings that I should think about in terms of community sustainability. These include, but are not limited too, education/arts, social justice, and health measures. I classify these more under the “liveability” aspects of the STAR rating systems. Ready access to artistic outlets are proven draws for bringing people into communities. I see the social justice type rankings as measuring how broadly spread the benefits of living in a highly rated STAR community are. The health measures are easy to overlook; but if one thinks about it, it is difficult to imagine a viable community if its residents have an above average number of health problems.

The whole STAR process has expanded my thinking on the possibilities of what “sustainability” is. I do think there has to be a strong environmental component, but beyond that it has to do with your perspective. If you are an individual, you would probably tend to focus on the aspects that mean the most to you. In my case, I tend to focus on the environmental and the economic, even though I very much appreciate the fact that Abington Hospital is an easy drive from my house. If I were an artist, I would focus on the cultural outlets. If I felt locked out of the system, I would focus on the social justice aspects. The STAR system is broad enough to include many different perspectives, including mine, but not only mine. I’m glad I’ll have a chance to help in some small way.

The STAR Communities website

The City of Brotherly Love

April 30, 2015


Love Park is an iconic part of Philadelphia, centered on the famous LOVE statue which is practically a symbol for the city. Aesthetically and functionally, it has seen much better days. For several years, the City of Philadelphia and several design firms have been working to re-imagine and renovate Love Park. The final design features a significant expansion of green space as compared to the present Love Park. In addition, the welcome center at the southwest corner (known as the “saucer building”) will be renovated with many “green building” features.

The new Love Park will have not one, but 2 garden zones, a couple of lawns and a tree grove or two. All of this green space will surround a rebuilt main fountain. The main LOVE statue will remain, albeit potentially moved a few feet. The central visual axis of the park, which in effect connects City Hall to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and beyond, will remain.

The saucer building will be outfitted with new energy efficient translucent windows, a green roof, and significantly enhanced HVAC systems. This will reduce the building’s carbon footprint and help reconnect the building to the rest of the park, enhancing the experience of being in both.

If all goes according to plan, a new Love Park will be under construction in 2016, with the rebuilt Love Park opening by 2017.

The Design of the New Love Park

I’ll Have the Chicken

March 31, 2015

chicken graphic
I keep hoping for Spring, but if I can’t get spring, I’ll settle for a spring chicken. Actually, I can enjoy (not just settle) for chicken during any season. Most of the time when I have chicken, I am settling for what is likely industrially produced product with plenty of chemicals tossed in. So I was very happy to see a couple of articles recently highlighting increasing demand for organic chicken, or at least less chemicals.

Elevation Burger, a relatively small burger company with 33 locations near Washington D.C. is poised to become the largest fast food seller of organic chicken in the country. There has, according to USA Today, been a competition in the fast food industry to provide healthier, or “better for you” chicken. Elevation Burger has decided to only sell organic chicken. While 33 stores is not a huge amount, it still represents some economies of scale. Once this is complete, the company will be largest selling of fast food organic chicken and beef.

Maybe as a coincidence, another company (GNP, purveyors of Just Bare Chicken is significantly expanding distribution of their organic and “natural” chickens. Slated for April 2015, they had already tested the demand at select SuperTargets. Demand must have been sufficient, because the brand will be available in my area near Philadelphia (at least the “natural” chicken– no antibiotics, no hormones, and no animal by products in the feed. etc. In a very unusual twist, Just Bare even has a code allowing the consumer to know which farm their chicken came from.

It is hard to think of a greater scale than McDonald’s. Even they are (slowly) instituting some changes into how they purchase chicken. They had told their suppliers to not quite eliminate, but significantly reduce the amount of antibiotics in their chicken. This is not as far as the Elevate Burger and JustBare, but it does force the largest players in the industry to make some changes and make their chicken at least somewhat more “natural”.

The chicken industry has a long way to go to really make their product environmentally friendly, comprised of less artificial ingredients and more “natural”. But it is only spring, and hope always springs eternal during Spring Training.


February 23, 2015

bare tree It can be paradoxical to think that February is an important month for trees. It is a little difficult to imagine a tree canopy when the ground is covered by more than a few inches of snow, accompanied by polar temperatures. However, there are people all across Pennsylvania (and almost certainly other states) who can imagine tree canopies in times and places that most other people would not. There is in fact a formal program (in addition to many informal efforts) to increase the tree canopy by planting more trees across Pennsylvania.

The most widely known formal program is Treevitalize, which is currently coordinated by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. This statewide program grew out of a Philadelphia area initiative of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) in the mid-2000s to plant as many trees as possible. The program steadily expanded across the state over the next 10 years or so; by 2013 it was available in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. To date, the program has been responsible for planting more than 350,000 trees.

This is very impressive. Even more impressive is the PHS current program to Plant One Million Trees. These million trees will eventually spread across the 13 counties of southeastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and southern New Jersey. PHS is working with a variety of state and local government agencies in this initiative. The effort also includes an entire array of programs about how to plant and care for trees after they have been planted.

Tree and Roots One of those trees will be planted by my son and me. We got a tiny seedling from Morris Arboretum. They taught us how to take care of it in a pot and gave us a little plastic bag to use as a kind of terrarium until the seedling got bigger. Knowing my son, I knew I had to find a place for it in the yard. Fortunately, there was a spot where we had had to remove a dead tree several years ago. After a year or so in the pots (actually, a succession of pots), the tree will get moved to the front yard. The folks at Morris told me that the long term chances of survival are better if we transplant it into the ground next year instead of this year.

Another impressive effort is the work of the Philadelphia Orchard Project. They have planted and developed nearly 50 fruit orchards all across Philadelphia. Equally impressively, they will only plant an orchard when there are people in the nearby community who will be willing to maintain it. As I have learned the very hard way, it was one thing to be able to plant a fruit tree—or any other kind of tree for that matter. It is another thing entirely to actively maintain that tree.

Thinking of maintaining trees reminds that it is nearly time for my annual fruit tree pruning. I need to figure out how to prune the trees in the backyard. It is February, and in spite of the snow on the ground, spring will be coming in the foreseeable future. I need to get the trees ready–hopefully I’ll get some fruit this year!

Time to Eat

January 29, 2015

utensilsI have long wondered how plastic cutlery and sustainability can co-exist. Until quite recently, I have vaguely known that some cutlery is compostable (after I use it). While better than just tossing it into the inevitably easily accessible trash can, composting the product does not really lead to productive re-use. I have been wondering whether a “better way” existed, and recently I have learned about some products and processes that do just that. Some of the cutlery on the market today is either recyclable, dishwasher safe (or both), or even not made from petroleum based plastic at all, but rather from plant products.

Perhaps the most impressive brand are the various line of cutlery and plates/cups from, mostly because all of their products are both dishwasher safe and made entirely from recycled plastic (number 5 plastic). They even have a program called Gimme5 where they will accept number 5 plastics, which are in turn repurposed into a variety of utensils, plates, and cups. As their website says, some lines are designed for hundreds of uses, some are designed for thousands of uses. Another brand (Diamond) has a couple of lines of cutlery that are dishwasher safe (top rack). A reusable product, made from recycled materials, sounds like a sustainable loop to me.

Another option is to recycle the cutlery after use (probably after at least a quick rinse). While to my mind a little less sustainable than the dishwasher option, that does have the benefit of at least the plastic in the cutlery is being re-used somehow. Both the number 5 plasticware from Preserve Product, and the number 6 plasticware from Diamond are recyclable. All of Diamond’s lines of cutlery are recyclable, even if only some of them are dishwasher safe.

A different option is provided by the Sustyparty brand. Their cutlery isn’t made from plastic at all–it is made from plants. Actually, it is made from plants that are themselves renewable, or sustainably harvested, or from salvage plant material. Another aspect the company is proud of is that their product is compostable, such as in a home compost bin like mine. This is most effective if the cutlery has been cut up into smaller pieces first. For those who have a home compost bin, and are willing to cut up the used cutlery, this can be an interesting option.

Not too long ago, the only option for such cutlery was new plastic as the source and a landfill as the ultimate destination. It is very gratifying to know that I have additional options (dishwasher safe, recycled and recyclable, (somewhat) compostable, and even sourced from plants. Even better, all of these are readily accessible in any well-stocked supermarket (or website). These meals and events have become much more enjoyable.

A grocery store shelf nearby….

A grocery store shelf nearby….

A Steady Supply

December 31, 2014

The animals at the Philadelphia Zoo do not really take a vacation. While the Zoo may be closed on specific holidays, the animals are still being cared for. They are still fed, for example. And if they are still being fed, they are still processing that food and pooping out the parts they do not need (just like we humans). Some zoos (in addition to Philadelphia’s) have begun to think of creative ways to “reuse” the resulting “zoo poo.”

While zoos have both carnivores and herbivores in its care, only the herbivore manure can qualify to become “zoo poo”. The Philadelphia version of the Zoo Poo manure actually has a couple of interesting destinations. Part of it goes to Fairmount Park’s Organic Recycling Center, which in turn converts it (plus leaves, branches, grasses, etc.) into compost suitable for gardening. If you are a Philadelphia resident, then you can for free take home a 30 gallon can of compost. If you want more, you can buy more.

Another part of the herbivore manure goes to a local agricultural school, the W.B. Saul High School for Agriculture, part of the Philadelphia School District. The Saul School has a long established program that teaches students all about agriculture and food production. They take the Zoo Poo, along with other inputs such grasses and leaves, etc. and produce compost. The students also study the scientific properties of what makes good compost. Then they use it all around the Saul School Farm to help prepare the grounds for planting the next crop.


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