Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Low Impact Travel: Going to the Snow

My feet in my snowshoes!
I think, a lot of times, people perceive a ecology-centered lifestyle (or green...I'm never really sure what terminology to use) as being restrictive.  It's not an outlandish conclusion to come to, really.  Essentially, when making decisions in an ecosystem context, you're thinking not just about yourself, but the system in which you live.  In that framework, sometimes the easiest, most convenient, or even funnest option isn't the very best choice.  This can seem like, well, a bummer.  However, I think you will find that with a little effort and proper prior planning you can still enjoy the activities you love!  I'll give you an example of an adventure I went on with some lady-ecologists this past weekend.

Not like the snow was deep or anything
One of my friends in graduate school, A, is from Florida originally, and since winter has rolled in she has been jonesing to get to the snow!  Lucky for her, I am always game for an outdoor adventure, and we quickly found a few co-conspirators.  With a little quick research, A found that we could rent snow shoes from the campus outdoor club for 10 dollars for the whole weekend.  Renting or borrowing equipment that you will only use occasionally is one excellent way to lessen the impact of your adventures.  You can think of it as reusing on the social level!  So, on Friday, after my TA meeting, I tottered on down to the outdoor adventure accessorizer, and rented my snowshoes.  Easy peasie.  I also borrowed a pair of gaiters from one of the other girls coming along because I lack proper snow-playing  gear (I'd been living in SoCal for 3 years).
Lake Tahoe from afar
Originally, A and I had planned to head up to Lake Tahoe on Saturday night with a full car of friends and stay at a fellow student's parent's cabin, and another group planned to drive up Sunday morning early and meet us for the day.  However, around 3:30 Saturday afternoon, due to a number of circumstances, the volume of passengers in the car dropped to just A and myself.  We regrouped and called the Sunday morning crew.  Did they all want to carpool together on Sunday morning?  The deal was done, and we all had more time to do work (oh joy).  Carpooling is an extremely important part of lessening the impacts of your adventures.  If your schedule is flexible, taking the train or bus are also great options!  I used this carbon footprint calculator to estimate the emissions from our trip.  With 4 of us in the car, I estimate we emitted 0.09 metric tons of CO2.  That's only 0.023 metric tons of CO2 each as opposed to 0.04 if we had stuck with the original plan and driven in pairs.  Additionally, considering the vehicle you choose to drive is key.  If I can avoid it, I never take my car on adventures unless it will be FULL of gear, surfboards, or people because the gas millage is not the best.

You have rented, you have carpooled, and now you are on your adventure!  Time to have a blast and/or marvel at nature (depending on the brand of adventure you have chosen).  Make sure you pack your own food and water to the greatest extent possible to reduce the unnecessary plastic wrapping associated with buying food on the go.  I go into some examples of the types of foods I like on the go here.  On this adventure, I had a few granola bars (weird composite wrapping, too bad) and lots of fruit!

Lower Echo Lake

How long could we have resisted?
After this weekend, I would highly recommend that everyone go on a winter adventure ASAP.  As we discussed on our hike, the deep snow makes LNT (leave no trace) hiking super easy.  You don't have to worry about messing up trails, damaging vegetation, or contributing to erosion because...you're just walking on top of the snow!  It was also wonderful to get out into nature as it really helped me to decompress.  I'm never sure how much to write about it here, but being a graduate student is really stressful.  I'm busy a lot, and that's why my posting here isn't super regular.  However, when I spend time on non-academic things on purpose, I'm much more productive during my week.  And running around this winter wonderland was a great use of my time!

Really guys, don't even try and park here.

Last Word:  Adventuring while living an environmentally conscious life is possible!  All you need is a little bit of creativity and desire to make a good plan.  Knowing I put in just that little extra effort makes me feel even more excited about my current/future endeavors   Over the last weekend, my major green decisions were to rent/barrow gear, carpool, and pack lots of snacks!  Next time you long for an adventure, try to implement at least one (maybe two!) of these strategies, and try to find a way to measure the results.  I love looking at the numbers and seeing the impacts of my decisions.

 What do you think?  Are there things you could do to make your adventures easier on the planet?  Any tips for low impact travel that I haven't mentioned in this post?  I would love to hear them!     

Monday, February 4, 2013

EcoNews Round-up: Feb. 4, 2013

I figured it was time again to share some of the science news I've been crunching on this last week or so.  Note, not every story occurred in the last calendar week.  Graduate student here, so I'm usually just a little bit behind the times.

I thought this graphic from the original article bore repeating.
Even scientists love LOL Cats.
First, I'd like to share two stories about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, privilege in the world of science.  This particular conversation about privilege in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering  and mathematics) was started with an article about privilege in the marine sciences and followed up by this insightful article about how access to these fields is sometimes closed to students before they even get to college.  I think the former article does a good job defining privilege and charting out some general territory where it can come into play once you are on your path to a scientific career.  If you are interested in reading about diversity in the sciences, I would suggest Dr. Kate Clancy's blog over at Scientific American or the always amusing Dr. Isis (a pseudonym!) over here.  The latter article, in my opinion, gets much more at the heart of the diversity problem in STEM professions.

My example of my own experience of privilege is always this:  When I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, I was working on some math homework.  It was some sort of word problem, I don't remember the details.  I asked my mother to help me (sign of privilege numero uno!) and instead of just helping me with that one word problem, she explained to 8/9 year-old me how to set up a simple algebraic equation to get the correct answer.  I recall being really annoyed with her at the time for not directly answering my question, but dang.  I am sure that my current position as a scientist is thanks to a million little interactions like this one.  I am privileged beyond belief, and I thank the authors of these two articles for pointing this out, and pushing scientists to think about these issues!

The next two articles are born out of discussions we had in my classes last week about food web ecology (my favorite!).  The first hits very close to home (geographically speaking) for me, and concerns the canceling of a class planned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife on predator hunting.  We talked at great length in class about how predator exclusions can really mess with ecosystem health.  The article makes this same point as well:

"In recent years, a flurry of scientific papers have pointed out the valuable role predators play in keeping ecosystems healthy, including preying on jack rabbits and rodents that can carry disease."

One thing the article fails to point out is the difference between a top predator (such as a mountain lion) and a meospredator (such as a coyote).  In some cases, both are positive for ecosystem health, but in other cases, removal of the top predator can relax pressure on the mesopredator, leading to other problems.  Food webs are complex ya'll.

Last, here is an article about how humans can really insert themselves into a food web.  This is the tragic tale of the Atlantic cod.  This story also highlights one of the real challenges of viewing ourselves in an ecosystem context; humans can be adversely impacted by recovery plans.  The short story is this, much like the passenger pigeon, we thought cod were an inexhaustible resource, but in recent years the fisheries have started to collapse.  In an attempt to recover cod populations, take numbers have been reduced, and eventually slashed.  I don't think anyone involved is denying the difficulties ahead of cod fisherman on the Atlantic coast.  However, without cuts in take (weight of fish brought to shore) the fishery will, likely, never recover.  Furthermore, it is possible that this entire issue (and the loss of billions of dollars in governmental aid in the US and Canada) could have been avoided if we had simply examined ourselves as part of the ecosystem.  Can we really expect to consume our resources at this break-neck pace and not see those resources depleted?  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but we must do better.

Wow.  I refuse to leave you guys on such a downer!  So, here you go, a sad, sad, nerdy break-up song with YEAST!  You can read an NPR write up about  this silly video here.          

Last Word:  This week I got to integrate two of my favorite topics, diversity issues in STEM fields and food webs.  How lucky am I?  Let's hope the news for the coming days is just as stimulating!

What do you think?  Are there any topics in the news you would like to hear me discuss?  If there is ever an issue that strikes your fancy (please say food webs!), I would be more than happy to expand it into a full post.  Just let me know!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Reduce/Reuse: DIY Salad Dressings

As most of my friends and relations can tell you, I'm a very easy going person.  But, there are a few things in this big world that make me squirm.  One of them (as I'm sure you have already gathered) is excessive waste in all its forms.  Another big thing that really makes me go "squee" and have a mini-internal crisis is paying a lot of money for something I know costs very little to produce.  And when these two pet peeves team up, I'm very likely to vote with my dollars and refuse to buy a product.  So, last week, this is how the scenario went down:

Stage 1: Realization- It's Saturday, grocery shopping day, and we are totally out of salad dressing.  Unluckily, all the available options at [insert the name of your local chain grocery here]:  (1) Are packaged in plastic, (2) Contain high fructose corn syrup, (3) Don't have 1 or 2 but do cost more than 5 dollars.
Stage 2:  Moral and economic dilemma!- I sweat, I ask D Lo to make a decision, I get frustrated and say I need time to think about it.*
Stage 3: Denial- I don't buy salad dressing and end up mooching off my roommate for the week, because she already bought it, so even if I have an issue with it...it's there...   
Stage 4:  Acceptance- The next Saturday, I resolve to pay a little more and buy dressing in a glass jar from the Co-op, because I'm lucky and I have that option.  I shell out $5 for a 12oz jar of dressing.
Stage 5:  A) It's delicious!- Eat my yummy dressing until I return to Stage 1, or B) It's super gross!- I paid 5 dollars, and I'm super disappointed in the product, but I soldier through because...you know...it cost 5 bucks!
Stage 6:  Overcoming Resistance- Resistance is the force that keeps you from doing things that you really want to do/know you really should be doing.  Every time I bought that 5 dollar bottle (or just bought the plastic, high fructose version because I am a poor graduate student), I knew there was a better way. 

*This is the part where I always feel INSANE.  Am I the only person who has a moral crisis over salad dressing?

And this, friends, is really why I wanted to start this blog.  I know there are other people out there who really want to make some changes in their lives, but they don't because they think it will be too hard/expensive/time consuming.  I totally feel you; I deal with that feeling daily.  What always helps me is reading a blog or talking to a friend who tells me how simple and fun these changes can be.  So, here is another small solution to our big ol' ecological problems.  And, in this case, the solution takes about as much time as comparing the labels on your standard store bought salad dressings!


Homemade Italian Dressing (modified from original instructions at Penniless Parenting)

1/2 cup of the vinegar (any type, I used ACV and some red wine vinegar)
~3/4 cup of olive oil or other oil (I used 1/2 olive oil, 1/2 cheaper vegetable oil)
1 Tablespoons of water
1/4 Tablespoon garlic powder
1/4 Tablespoon onion powder
1/4 Tablespoon honey, white sugar, agave nectar, or any other sweetener I would imagine
1 tablespoons dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 Tablespoon dried parsley
1/2 Tablespoons salt

* I halved the original recipe because my jar was not going to hold the original quantities.  I also doubt I added a full 1/2 T of salt because adding salt to things always makes me really nervous that I will destroy the product.  One too many slips of the hand I guess.

Homemade and yummy! 

The glass jar from your yucky-overpriced dressing...or any re-purposed receptacle
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons

Instructions and Tips:
Literally dudes, this took me less than 10 minutes to make, and that includes the time I spent looking for my freaking onion powder.  You just put all the ingredients in, and shake shake shake.  Quite honestly, not my favorite Italian dressing ever, but I do prefer it to the ones I have bought most recently in the store.  There are, however, TONS of salad dressing recipes online, so try your hand at recreating your favorite flavor. 


Final Word:  You can see the whole reason for why I think homemade solutions are more green here in my first DIY post. In this particular situation, it was all about not wanting to buy plastic (or a product pumped full of what I deem to be unhealthy ingredients) and not wanting to fork over a bunch of money. I literally had all of this stuff already in my kitchen. Major score, right?

What do you think?  Do you have any amazing salad dressing recipes?  Or maybe an inspirational story of overcoming resistance?  We'd love to hear it!
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