For the Conservation Curious

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Why I Live Downtown and Maybe You Should Too! September 16, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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“Downtowns are dying out,” wrote one journalist. A day or two later I read, “Downtown populations are growing quickly, far outpacing more rural areas.” Well which is it, and should we care?

While I love the outdoors and the calm serenity of country life, I am a city girl at heart. There are two main reasons, and they are interconnected – walkability and amenities. I walk to work, to bars and restaurants, along the river trail for exercise and stress relief, to the corner store or farmer’s market for a few grocery items. I can walk almost anywhere for my typical daily needs. My city has museums, sports teams, parks, theaters, festivals and other amenities that keep life fun and interesting. You really could find something to do within walking distance to keep you occupied each weekend.

(Photo: Harrisburg, PA Source – Wikimedia)

You can’t say that about suburbia. There, if you don’t have a car, you’re stuck watching TV as your main form of entertainment, unless you can access public transportation, which let’s face it, in this country is subpar. Suburbanites (and I was one when I first moved to this area, not to mention for most of my life… not knowing which neighborhoods in the city were safe and which ones weren’t) tend to eat at chain restaurants and shop at big box retailers. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – after all I am a fan of Target – but I just think the suburban way of life is somewhat limiting.

Living in the city, especially if that’s also where you work, is very environmentally-friendly. My carbon footprint is pretty small – not only do I drive very infrequently, using little gasoline, but city residences, like mine, tend to be on the smaller side so I use less electricity to heat, cool and illuminate my place. I have no lawn, so I don’t use any gasoline to maintain my back “yard” (really a brick patio with native plants along the outside). Sure I have to sacrifice my desire for a bit more land to grow a veggie garden (although I know plenty of people who do so in raised beds and containers, or rent community garden plots) but that’s something I’m willing to give up for all the benefits of city living.

More people, especially the younger generations, are seeing cities in a new light. They like the convenience and culture of it. Plus in many developing nations, cities are the only place where there are jobs and a potential way out of poverty, so people flock there en mass. So cities worldwide are growing, even if some of the ones here in the U.S. are showing a decline – think Detroit, for starters. But even in Detroit, where the vacant land seems to outnumber the number of occupied houses in many neighborhoods, large companies are moving back and promising a better future for the Motor City.

(Photo: Detroit, Source – CNN)

What keeps people in the U.S. from considering a move downtown? I can think of many reasons related to my own city… higher property taxes, poor schools, the perception of crime, the desire to have huge houses with sprawling lawns, etc. and I’m sure they’re the same for a majority of cities in the U.S. And many of those reasons are valid. Yes, my taxes are higher than most of my suburban counterparts but I save a lot of money on gas, parking fees, and other commuting costs, making it a wash. The public schools in cities do tend to underperform their more rural counterparts, but there are options for those living in the city with kids. There is crime everywhere, including the suburbs, so I don’t hold that as a valid excuse. I’ve lived in this city nine years and yes, my apartment was broken into once, but the house I grew up in, in the suburbs, was burglarized also, so again it’s a wash for me. Of course anywhere you have more people the chances of crime happening increase, so it’s a numbers game more than a location game, in my opinion.

Ok, that’s enough ranting about how much I enjoy living in a city and why I think you should too. I’m not asking you to up and move tomorrow, but if ever you find yourself really sick of your commute, or you’re relocating for a new job or to be closer to your grandkids, consider city living. I think you’ll like it.

 

Flying Squirrels do Exist in PA September 8, 2014

I would like to share with you some information about a fascinating creature: the flying squirrel. I was lucky enough to see one of these small, grey mammals a handful of years ago. It was late and I was standing outside my parent’s house, when all of a sudden I saw a streak across the night sky as something landed on the large, old sugar maple in front of me. I looked up and saw what I thought to be a flying squirrel, but at the time I didn’t know that we had flying squirrels in Pennsylvania. I did a Google check the next day to make sure my eyes didn’t deceive me. Yes, in fact I had seen a flying squirrel!

There are two species of flying squirrels in Pennsylvania – the northern and southern squirrels. I saw most likely a southern squirrel, as they are the more common of the two. Both species are nocturnal, meaning they only come out at night. That’s one of the main reasons most people have never seen one, and why only my active social life at the time granted me the opportunity to see one. The squirrels spend the night eating lichens, moss, fungi and other goodies, gliding from tree to tree (they don’t really fly… bats are the only mammals that can do that) at average distances of 20 to 40 feet.

Both species are a light brown color on top, with a whitish belly. It is very difficult to tell the two species apart. The northern squirrels are slightly larger, but when one is gliding quickly past you in the dark of night, chances are you won’t get a good enough look to determine its species type. Southern squirrels are generalists in their habitat preference, living in suburban areas as well as wilder areas, while the northern species, rare in Pennsylvania, prefers remote coniferous forests.

And as you might know, Pennsylvania’s confer forests are facing a serious, invasive threat – the hemlock wooly adelgid. This tiny insect attacks our state tree, the eastern hemlock, and has killed thousands of them across the state. When the hemlocks die, the northern flying squirrel loses a home. As hardwood trees move in to fill the vacant niche, so too come the southern squirrels, which carry a parasite that is lethal to the northern squirrels.

All is not bleak, though, for the northern squirrels. Researcher Carolyn Mahan from Penn State received funding from the Wild Resource Conservation Fund and Game Commission to study reforest areas of the state with red spruce, a conifer tree that the northern squirrels seem to like. Hopefully through these efforts the northern flying squirrel will be able to hang out and perhaps even thrive in Pennsylvania, able to withstand the unintended bad habits of their southern cousins.

I hope so. Not only would I like to check-off the northern flying squirrel from my mammal life list, but it’s just good to know that the efforts of dedicated people can postively impact the survival of species.

 

Would You Eat an Insect to Save the Planet? August 27, 2014

In my last two blog posts I discussed eating a diet more closely attuned to vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. In the U.S., where fruits and veggies are plentiful (unless you live in an urban food desert, of course), it’s easy to live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, what are people to do in places where droughts, expensive fertilizers and lack of viable seeds make growing their foods a challenge? How can they obtain enough protein for their family members when raising livestock is a privilege of the more affluent?

If the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its way, those people will eat more insects. And perhaps we in the U.S. will follow suit?

In 2013, the FAO published a report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”. In the report they estimate that at least two billion people worldwide make insects part of their regular diet. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is practiced from Australia to Africa to Asia, but tends to skip places like Europe and North America, aside from novelty snack items like cricket lollipops. Are we missing out on a diverse and tasty source of protein? The report notes that 1,900 different kinds of insects have been documented as being edible, from caterpillars to grasshoppers to flies and ants.

The FAO wants more people to eat more insects for a variety of reasons, but the underlying reason is this – the population continues to grow and unless we find new ways to feed people, more and more people will go hungry. Eating insects is a way to fill those hunger gaps. Insects are an inexpensive source of protein that doesn’t come with the high cholesterol, fats and other harmful substances that meat may have. If insects were grown on farms like other livestock, the environmental impacts would be much lower than those animals. The greenhouse gas emissions from insect rearing are lower, the waste generated is less damaging, the inputs needed to feed the insects are much fewer, and they can be raised on a much smaller scale than animals like cows, thus reducing the amount of land converted.

Yet how can we get past the “gross factor”? If eating insects is to take off in any way in the developed world, that is a significant hurdle to jump. Insects are viewed as creepy and dirty. They are a pest of our foods, not a food themselves. The report does address what they call the “disgust factor” and ways to overcome it. They believe that the opposition to eating insects stems in large part from the western view that eating insects is a desperate act of the very hungry, not a conscious decision of people to eat well. They note that arthropods like lobster and shrimp were once seen as “poor man’s food” in the West, but now are sought after. I’d like to point out that spiders are arthropods… so really, are we that far away from eating insects if we eat relatives of spiders?

I ate a couple meal worms once in a chili. I don’t think I chewed them, and I tried not to think too hard about what they were as they went down. It was a novelty act; something done so I could say I did it. Would I eat insects on a regular basis, given that there are so many other choices of things to eat? I’m not sure. I appreciate the fact that they are more environmentally-friendly than other sources of protein. I like that they are lower on the food chain, so they are healthier for me and don’t raise the moral guilt issues as much as I get from eating fish. But I think they would have to be highly disguised in order for me to eat them with any enjoyment. For instance, there is a product called cricket flour, made from ground up crickets. If that was added to a brownie, that might be ok, but could I eat a fried cricket, legs and all, doubtful!

If you’ve eaten insects and enjoyed it, let us know. What was it and how was it prepared? Were you on vacation overseas or somewhere in the U.S.? I’m curious to know your impressions. Thanks!

To read the full FAO report, go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm.

 

Environmental Benefits of a Vegetarian Lifestyle August 22, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 11:00 AM
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In my last blog post I talked about the origins of my vegetarianism. Now I’d like to discuss why I think everyone should embrace the vegetarian lifestyle for at least a portion of every week, if not every day. Not only will it help your health (assuming you don’t eat pizza and French fries like I did in college practically every day) but it will help the environment. How so?

The average consumption of meat in the U.S. is eight ounces a day, which is twice the average of the rest of the world. That equals 200 pounds of meat per person per year. The meat and dairy-based diets that we have in the U.S. are very resource intensive; and it’s not just a problem in the U.S. In places like Brazil, where they consume a lot of beef, it is estimated that 1,250 acres of rainforest were cut down in just a five-month period to create grazing land for cattle. If that continues unabated for a year that’s at least 3,000 acres lost and most likely unrecoverable. Nearly 20 percent of the land across the world (not counting that covered with ice) is used for the growing of livestock.

So eating meat uses up a lot of land that could otherwise be used for wildlife habitat, growing vegetables and fruit for the ever-expanding world population, setting aside parks for recreation, and a whole host of other, better things. But it’s not just land conversion that’s a problem with the meat industry. According to an article in the New York Times on January 27, 2008 by Mark Bittman:

“To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”

So the raising of livestock is a very energy intensive industry. It also has a huge impact on water resources. According to an article in the Cornell Chronicle on August 7, 1997, animal agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of water in the U.S.:

Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters (26,417 gallons) of water for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters.

With the droughts that have been ever-present these last few years in the Western and Southern United States, where many of our grain-fed cattle are raised, this will continue to be a major issue as reservoirs and groundwater reserves dwindle.

David Pimentel, an ecology professor at Cornell University, said that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grain that we instead feed to our livestock. A wholesale switchover would never happen, but imagine if we converted even a fraction of the soybean and corn fields to growing other vegetables and fruits instead? But with the current manner in which the federal government provides subsidies to large scale farmers that grow corn and soybeans, and not to small scale veggie farmers, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. That will be fuel for a future blog post…

In the meantime, please allow me to introduce you to the Meatless Monday movement. Meatless Monday began in 2003, launched by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In May, 2009, Ghent, Belgium, became the first non-U.S. city to go meatless. Shortly thereafter, Paul McCartney introduced the U.K. to Meat-Free Mondays. Meatless Monday is now active in 34 countries. The website, http://www.meatlessmonday.com, has a wide variety of tasty recipes to prove to you that eating vegetarian dishes can be just as enjoyable and filling as one with meat in it. Check it out and let me know what you think.

And for those times when you know you’re going to eat meat, consider eating as efficiently as possible. What I mean by that is choosing animals that are better at converting their food to flesh. Pimentel found broiler chickens to be the most efficient, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. Other ratios range from 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs. And of course if you select locally raised animals, especially grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, a deer that you hunted yourself, etc., you will have a lower carbon footprint than if you choose a steak from a feedlot in Colorado.

Many people ask me, “Don’t you worry about not getting enough protein?” No, I don’t. I know that I can get enough protein from the veggies and legumes I eat, and the studies agree. According to Mark Bittman’s article, the average American consumes close to 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance (which others suggest is larger than it needs to be). Out of that total, 75 grams come from animal protein. We could easily live off 30 grams of protein a day, with all or most of that coming from plant sources. So giving up meat for Meatless Monday won’t leave you feeling tired or sluggish. Not to worry.

So what are you waiting for? Give it a go! The planet, the animals and I will give you a big round of applause.

 

How and Why I Became a Vegetarian August 19, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 12:46 PM
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During my senior year of high school I watched a documentary on HBO about animal cruelty. I can’t remember the name of the film but its content has stuck with me ever since. The very next day after viewing the disturbing images I vowed not to eat meat anymore. Sure, the things the video showed were graphic and gross (I won’t get into that they showed) but what really affected me was something that was said… the narrator talked about people in Asian countries eating cats and dogs and they said, if you find this disturbing, why is it any different than eating a cow or pig. That really struck me. It was so true.

Our culture dictates what we consider food versus pets versus wild animals. We would be appalled to see dog on a menu here in the U.S., but consider that pigs are just as smart, and in fact may be even smarter, than dogs. People here even have certain pigs (Vietnamese pot-bellied ones) as pets. So can we really, in good conscience, judge people who eat dogs as more inhumane than us?
I didn’t like how that question made me feel. I had spent the first seventeen years of my life eating all sorts of meat (the kind deemed ok by our society, at least) yet when confronted with the question of what makes it ok to eat one animal versus another, my beliefs were shaken. So I gave up meat cold turkey, no pun intended.

Has it been easy all these years? No, certainly not. Eating out was always the hardest part, especially in the early years. A restaurant’s idea of a vegetarian meal was a salad or bland pasta, and I am not a fan of pasta whatsoever. So I became a pizza and French fry kind of vegetarian all through college. Not very healthy, I’ll admit! But I lived that way for more than ten years without eating any meat at all. The only thing I really craved was my dad’s pork chops with minced garlic. Even today the thought of them makes me hungry… but I remain strong.

Yet I have to admit that I am no longer a “true” vegetarian. About ten years ago I couldn’t take it anymore. Eating out had lost all joy for me. I missed shrimp, fish and other seafood. I caved and became a pescatarian, which means someone who is mostly a vegetarian but will eat fish and seafood. And no, I am not one of the many people who says fish isn’t meat (hello Catholics, I’m talking to you!). I agree that it is a meat. It is a living animal made of flesh/muscle so it is meat. I probably still haven’t totally come to terms with my decision, especially when I look at the cute fish swimming in my tank at home, but I did what I did and know I must own it. I tell myself that any reduction in meat consumption is better than no reduction at all. And I tend to eat fish/seafood at most a half dozen meals a week, and that’s usually a few sardines in my salad for lunch. I try to remain vegetarian for 80 percent or more of my time.

However, I know that a majority of people in the U.S. would find my way of eating quite difficult, if not downright unpleasant. I don’t usually preach about why I eat this way, but for my blog readers I did at least want to point out why eating lower on the food chain is better for the environment and how the Meatless Monday movement is making small strides to get everyone to eat a little less meat, recognizing that making people give something up completely usually doesn’t work (hello Prohibition!). So look for that in my next blog…

 

Where Does Your Water Come From? August 15, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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Do you know where your drinking water comes from? That is a question that I didn’t know the answer to a year ago, even though I have lived in the same city for 10 years now. I knew who managed the water and sent out the utility bills for it (my city, until recently, now a municipal water authority) but I wasn’t sure whether the water was coming from the river that I can see from my window or if there was some reservoir somewhere supplying us with the water. For someone in the environmental community to not know this didn’t bode well for the rest of the public knowing the answer.

Why does it matter that people know where their water comes from? If you know where it comes from I think you can better appreciate it and will be better aware of the potential threats to the water supply. If your water came from XYZ River and then you hear about a spill in said river, well then you would be concerned, right? But if you had no clue that your drinking water came from XYZ River than you might not bat an eyelash over it. Thinking that drinking water just comes from the tap, that it’s always there and always will be, in a clean manner, is foolish but not uncommon. In the Northeast, we are spoiled with a very reliable source of drinking water.

My city’s water comes from a man-made reservoir about 20 miles upstream. The city owns 12 acres of watershed around the lake, helping to protect it from pollution, erosion and other nasty things that we don’t want in our drinking water. The water travels via gravity through pipes to a treatment plant, then on to holding tanks located under a park, then on to the city. Then I can turn on my tap and drink the award-winning water. So simple, yet so complex.

Other people outside of the city get their water from a national water company, which takes water from the nearby river, treats it, then sends it out to tens of thousands of homes and businesses. While there’s nothing wrong with drinking that river’s (treated) water, I am a bit glad to know my drinking water is coming from further outside the developed area of our city. Call me a water snob, I guess.

Regardless of where your drinking water comes from, it is important for you to know the source. Look up that information and share it with those you know. An educated consumer (yes, we are consumers of the water, even if we can’t really shop around for where we get our tap water, unless of course we move) is a better consumer.

 

Don’t Cross the Extinction Threshold August 7, 2014

Over the past few weeks I have read articles about some species on the brink of extinction, their numbers dwindling in the low thousands or even hundreds. At what point does a species have no chance of recovery? Does it vary depending on whether the species is a mammal, bird, plant or otherwise? I thought I’d look into those questions and discuss what I’ll call the “extinction threshold” – the point of no return for a species.

Small populations of any species are generally at a much greater risk of extinction than large populations for several reasons. With fewer individuals there is a greater chance of inbreeding and the issues that creates. Small populations feel random variations in birth and death rates much more significantly than a large population would. And environmental fluctuations like predation, disease, and natural disasters take a much greater toll on small populations than large ones. Imagine if one wolf died out of a population of 100, that’s 10 percent. In a population of 1,000 wolves, however, that’s only 0.1 percent. Quite a difference! It’s like a slippery slope… once a species starts to decline those factors weigh more and more heavily on the population, leading to even greater declines.

So is there hope for a species that is sliding quickly down the slope towards extinction? Shaffer (1981) coined the term “minimum viable population” (MVP) to refer to the “smallest isolated population (of a given species in a given habitat) having a 99 percent chance of remaining in existence for 1,000 years. Populations smaller than the MVP are at significant risk of sliding down the slope to extinction. It can be difficult to determine where that MVP line is… and that is far too technical to get into here… but just know that it exists.

What really matters in terms of the long-term viability of small populations is their ability to disburse. If individuals from a small population can leave their habitat and find a new population of the same species to breed with, then there may be a chance for survival. This immigration brings more genetic diversity to both populations. However, given how habitats are fragmented by roads, transmission lines, housing developments and other man-made structures, many small populations don’t have the luxury of moving to find new mates.

Back to my question about “does it depend on whether a species is a mammal, plant, etc.”, well it depends. It depends on where that species is located, more than anything. But a bird would more easily be able to fly to a new habitat than a small rodent could crawl to one, and a lizard can get up and go far more easily than a plant (obviously plants can’t move, but they can spread their pollen and seeds, thus spreading their genetics on the wind or water). The more easily a species can get around in general, the greater are its chances in beating the “extinction threshold.”
Then there is the species’ charisma factor. Think about a cute, fluffy pike (a small, bunny-like create of alpine habitats) versus a poisonous snake. If you could only protect one of them from going extinct, which one would you choose. A majority, I will guess, would choose the pika, even though they will probably never see one in real life. Why is that? Because it is cuddly and charismatic. So if a species is attractive people may be more likely to try and help it survive, which would keep it above the “extinction threshold,” at least for a little while longer.

 

 
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