Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Curtain Falls on Dickens (and Obama)

The last curtain falls this afternoon, Dec. 31, on A Christmas Carol at McCarter Theater. It's a great new production, which makes me happy in general, but also for McCarter and the director Adam Immerwahr. Adam was the director of our Onstage community theater group for four years.

The production features a more diverse cast, and a large contingent of community members who mingle with the crowd before the show in period costumes, then appear in group scenes on stage. Ebenezer and the ghosts speak in less grand, echoey tones of voice than in the previous production, more everyday, bringing them closer to people we may know in our own lives.

How profound the contrast this year, between Ebenezer's transformation and the transformation about to occur in Washington, where kindness, generosity of spirit, and empathy are about to be sent packing. In the arts, we're so regularly exposed to happy endings, where good wins out, that we take for granted that the world will work that way, too. How hard the world is working to prove otherwise.

Meanwhile, I ran into the one and only original manuscript of A Christmas Carol on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in NY.

Dickens wrote the story quickly, but wasn't afraid to revise and hone the language.

Friday, December 23, 2016

FIGuring Out A Use for Old Carpets

When fig tree stems stand naked against the arctic air, the buds burn and the stems die back to the ground. Though new stems sprout in the spring, no fruit is borne. Three years in a row this has happened, for lack of protection. Finally, in the waning light one recent afternoon, with a 15 degree night approaching, Mr. Sustainable was finally moved to action. There was a new roll of burlap to wrap around them, but it wasn't long enough. What to do?

The internet called for wrapping them in old carpets, but where to get one?

What a coincidence that the Kurbside Kmart just across the street was having a holiday sale on discarded carpet.

It was hard for Mr. Sustainable to cut a decent looking carpet in two, even one that had been lying on the curb for three weeks. But cut he did, and the result was these two characters, or shall we call them FIGures, each wrapped around a fig tree.

But there was a third fig tree and no more carpet. What to do? Fortunately, Mr. Sustainable had retrieved discarded silt fencing from another Kurbside Kmart elsewhere in the neighborhood. It just looked useful, somehow. Little did he know how prescient that bit of scavenging would prove to be.

Silt fencing is that tough, element-proof fabric they install on building sites to catch dirt before it erodes into the street. One of the paradoxes of government is that we have elaborate controls on runoff from construction sites, while allowing spraying of fertilizer, etc. on lawns and dumping of leaves in the street, which create far more nutrient-rich runoff than erosion from these scattered building sites ever would.

But we were talking about figs.

The black silt fencing made a fine wrap for the third fig tree. The remaining burlap was wrapped on the outside, to better deflect the sunlight and avoid roasting the fig tree on sunny winter days.

Mr. Sustainable scored his third win-win a few days later when, needing some thick plastic bags, he thought of buying new bags at the hardware store, then remembered seeing a pile of bagged leaves down the street. The town doesn't pick up leaves bagged in plastic, and the bags might remain there for weeks before the owner caught on. A truckload of those gave Mr. Sustainable all the bags he needed, plus some leaves to pile on the last remnants of invasive english ivy along the fenceline.

There were imaginary high fives all around, with hopes for a fig or two come summer.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Straddling Two Worlds at the Gas Station

Compartmentalization was a trick of the mind that pundits would attribute to Bill Clinton, when he was having to attend to his presidential duties while fending off the endless attacks launched by the Republican Congress.

But it's something we all do to sustain our view of ourselves as basically good people while we contribute daily to the unraveling of planetary functions. We still have little practical choice as individuals but to unintentionally hasten civilization and the planet towards apocalypse. For that ethical bind, we can point to those cowardly, reckless and opportunistic politicians who deny the existence of and solutions for climate change. Through their failure to act, through their refusal to acknowledge that freedom must be accompanied by responsibility, we still have little choice but to harm our children's future by continuing to seed the atmosphere with CO2 just to get through the day.

Pause now to consider, with a sense of awe, how adept we are at compartmentalization. Even though most people acknowledge the grave risk posed by a radically altered climate, sanity requires an insulatory mechanism that keeps thoughts of climate change at a distance, much like the unconscious effort we constantly expend to shut out background noise, which as it happens is mostly generated by those same climate changing machines.

If you've ever been somewhere outdoors away from the machine sounds of cars and planes, you may have noticed your body and mind relaxing in a new way. That is how it feels to me when my mind no longer has to work at blocking out background noise. You don't even realize what a mental burden you've been under until that burden is removed. Imagine the feeling of freedom and relief we would feel, a deep inner release of tension, if we were no longer trapped in the role of hastening climate change as we drive our cars and heat our homes.

I began driving before warnings were sounded about climate change, and even though I think daily about the dangers of using carbon energy from underground, I can still pull into a gas station without giving a thought to the greater meaning of the transaction at hand.

Filling the tank seems like just one more thing to do, along with buying groceries. Unlike cigarette packaging, there's no warning on the gas pump. In New Jersey, we sit passively in our cars while the gas is pumped for us. The experience is completely sanitized. Then, on the highway, we're insulated from the noise of the engine. The exhaust pipe is hidden behind us, and the CO2 is invisible. We look ahead as we drive, intent on where we need to go, but where we're headed collectively is being determined by what's pouring out of the back of the car. And it's all perfectly legal. In a safety obsessed culture, it is (im)perfectly legal to contribute to future apocalypse. In fact, this behavior is our most visible public activity, a massive ethical lapse on full display for our children to wonder at, although they too will become expert over time at insulating their awareness.

Growing up with gasoline--the almost pleasant sting of its smell, the play of light as it flowed into the tank of the lawnmower--I remember feeling reassured that the main products of its combustion are carbon dioxide and water. Harmless, I thought, and how I wish now it were so, that the world's good and bad hadn't turned upside down. How I wish that my most lasting daily legacy, what the earth will still remember of me centuries and millennia from now, would be something other than the sequestered carbon I knowingly summoned from the pump and scattered to the winds, so that I could live a normal life in this abnormal age.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

From Farm Silos To Leaf Corrals

How much do our ancestors speak through our lawn care? One of my grandfathers was a farmer/carpenter. The other doubled as an urban chemistry professor and summertime country minister. What a surprise that I bring a country ethic to town living, and am drawn to physical work while preaching a mix of a professor's science and a farmer's common sense.

That yellow aluminum patio chair out next to the curb in the photo? A neighbor left it next to a dumpster, destined for the landfill. What a waste, said the farmer in me, who wishes to see everything reused or recycled. There's some good aluminum in that. And so it ended up on my curb for the next scrap guy who drove by.

And the leaf corral, filled to the brim with leaves, standing proudly in the front yard for the community to see, and maybe even emulate? The satisfaction of filling it goes deeper that adhering to what every farmer and organic gardener knows, that nutrients need to be cycled back into the ground, not wasted out in a noisy, fumey purging onto pavement where the leaves become a hazard and municipal burden. That column, a gathered harvest of sorts, stirs a feeling of rightness as rewarding as a silo filled with corn to feed the cattle through the winter. I see it and remember drives through the farm country of Wisconsin as a kid, the silos standing like exclamation points next to the barns.

After a long rain, the leaves have settled down, leaving room for more. A leaf corral's quick settling accommodates the leisurely pace with which nearby oak trees drop their leaves.

New Jersey seems culturally hardwired to blow/rake leaves out onto the street. Leaves, with such a mindset, are the enemy of tidiness, a curse from above, to be sent out of town like troublesome kids exported to a boarding school. A leaf corral, whether displayed or hidden behind shrubs, offers an alternative to the pavement, and allows not only a tidy yard but a tidy and safe street as well. The leaves in the photo, which had blown against the curb and started to clog the drain, got raked up and put in the leaf corral. Multiply that small gesture 10,000 times across the community and you end up with clean streets, lower taxes, and more nutrients for people's yards. But such win-win-win arguments are like leaves in the wind against the bedrock of NJ custom. No doubt my grandfather ran into similar depths of habit in his Sunday morning ministering.

You can see the different pace of decomposition among different species. Those are oak leaves on the upper left, a Norway maple from across the street on the lower left, and silver maple leaves already crumbling up and transitioning back into earth. If kept reasonably moist, they'll all become compost by next fall in the leaf corral, without any need to stir the contents.

A close look reveals that the center of the leaf corral is a column of critterproof hardware cloth where kitchen scraps go, to decompose odorlessly along with the leaves.

This 3' diameter leaf corral holds enough leaves to disguise and buffer the inner foodscrap composter. A 6' diameter leaf corral holds far more, in fact is sufficient for the entire front yard.

Who knows what my grandfathers, whom I never knew, would think of this front yard contraption. I like to think I'm carrying on their tradition in my own way, in a new place and for a new century.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gratitude for Sustainable Non-Acts of Kindness

On this day of thanksgiving, give thanks to all those sustainable non-acts of kindness. Remember when a gap in traffic finally opened up on Route 1 so you could change lanes? That space happened because someone wasn't using their car that day. And that uncluttered look of the curb on trash collection day? That was because someone didn't put the trash can out because it wasn't full yet. And that wonderful silence a few mornings ago when your neighborhood wasn't plagued by the din of leaf blowers? That was the morning a neighbor didn't hire a landscape crew, and raked their leaves instead.

Thanks to those who don't care that everything they do to make the world less annoying is invisible. It doesn't matter that their house looks the same from outside whether their furnace is running constantly or not. They keep the thermostat lower because it's the right thing to do. They don those slim, ultralight down coats and are as comfortable inside as they would be if the furnace were cranked and great gobs of invisible CO2 spewed from the chimney.

In a strange world where helping to save the planet is completely optional, what we value is made more sustainable by the kindness of strangers, or by what we ourselves do. Treasure those non-acts of kindness, the non-doing that makes the world a little quieter, a little roomier, and makes the life we love last a little longer.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Brings Out Crowds, Dogs and Icons to Vote

Please. No accusations of voter fraud. My dog Leo did not vote, although there are times when I think he is the reincarnation of Albert Einstein. Icons, particularly those as thoughtful and wise as Einstein, should be able to come back and vote any time they want.

Another icon, Rosie the Riveter, recently came out of retirement to endorse Hillary Clinton. "Every vote for Hillary is another nail in the coffin of the Trump campaign," she said, rolling up her sleeves. "And that lid needs to be nailed so tight that no one can ever open it up again." She said her decision to return was based on a deepening concern that democracy was coming apart at the seams. "And the only way to hold it together is to vote!" Her steely gaze cut me to the quick.

The vote for Hillary was by far the easiest. As Louis CK said on Conan, "If you vote for Hillary, you're a grownup. If you vote for Trump, you're a sucker. And if you don't vote for anybody, you're an a**#%!e." Being no doubt responsible for making the polling place more crowded than ever before, Trump, with his knack for saying increasingly repulsive things, has clearly been trying to unite the nation, against Trump, whether he's aware of it or not. Tonight we'll find out if he can claim this weird sort of victory through resounding defeat.

Meanwhile, democrats are shoe-ins locally. Leo was at the right height to spot this not so subtle plug for a certain mayoral candidate.

I actually brought Leo along to serve as my advisor on some of the more vexing decisions--the sort that make us hapless citizens wish for a benign dictator, or at least a friend who has the inside story--like who to vote for for schoolboard. And that Public Question #2, about whether the newly added 23 cents per gallon gas tax should be constitutionally required to be spent on roads, bridges and mass transit? My thinking, based on this article, resembles a Gordian Knot.  Some of the money will go to mass transit (good, particularly given Christie's decimation of state support for NJ Transit). But roads and bridges are climate change factories, so why support them? But good maintenance will reduce overall expense in the long run. And if we switch to electric cars and boost wind/solar energy, we won't feel like participants in global terrorism while driving down Route 1. And people prefer the independence of car travel, and trains/buses add to climate change, too. But potentially less so. Constitutional amendments reduce flexibility, but how likely is it that lawmakers will use flexibility wisely? The article says people angry about the gas tax increase are voting no, but taxes on carbon are good, so maybe vote yes just to avoid sounding anti-gas tax. But then there's all those robocalls from "Road to Repair" paid for by the Engineers Labor Cooperative, who claim that groups opposed to the gas tax are voting yes on Public Question #2. Confusing, which is why I brought Leo along, hoping his canine intelligence would cut through all of these layers of complexity.

Wait a minute! Who's supposed to be doing the voting around here? Now you just know somebody's going to say the election was rigged after all.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Upcoming Onstage Community Theater Performances

The community theater group I'm in has a couple public performances coming up. This afternoon, Sunday, Nov. 6, we'll be at the Princeton Public Library Community Room at 3pm, and at Passage Theatre in Trenton at 3pm on Dec. 3. 

The group is based at McCarter Theater, and performs monologues and scenes based on stories collected in the community. It's a real slice of life. Afterwards, there will be a free-ranging discussion in which the audience can ask questions about our process, or tell about their own life experiences that the performance brought to mind.

This from the public library writeup:
The ensemble that creates documentary theater performances that explore the stories and issues of our community presents “First Time for Everything.” Members are all over 55 and perform locally, generating delight, insight, and affirmation about senior memories and experiences. A 30-minute “talk back” session will be held after the performance.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Dumpster Full of Denial

This is what happens when leaders, and the people who enable them, deny the urgency of environmental issues. This dumpster outside Princeton High School is filled with the warped remains of a performing arts stage--a stage my daughter's choir was supposed to perform on this past month. What's the stage doing in a dumpster?

The stage, as explained in another post, was warped by flooding caused by a sudden, intense storm in late July that caught the highschool staff unprepared. The flooding, which caused $150,000 of damage to the school basement, plus the expense of replacing the stage and accompanying disruption of school rehearsals and performances, was avoidable. In fact, a flood in 2009 caused the same destruction, and in the intervening years, I had offered a solution to two superintendents, a facilities director, a schoolboard committee, and town engineers, and urged them to act. Nothing was done, and sure enough, history repeated itself, as can be seen in this video.

I've been told that insurance will cover the expense after a $10,000 deductible, but you'd think the school's insurance rates would rise after recurrent claims.

My habit is to see problems coming--flooding, climate change--and offer practical solutions before it's too late. Oftentimes, those solutions include a way to save tax dollars while becoming more environmentally sustainable. Even so, the solutions tend to be resisted. Princetonians generally don't deny that problems like climate change exist, but there is a widespread denial of urgency. Life goes on with little attention paid to the insidious collateral environmental damage our lifestyles cause, day after day--the climate changing gases rising invisibly from our chimneys and exhaust pipes, the discarded plastics that sneak into stormdrains and waterways. We pretend that good people with good intentions couldn't possibly do harm. And besides, what could our little big town possibly contribute to solving environmental problems that are global in scope?

Interestingly, such problems as racism, child abuse, and bullying are also global problems, and yet we don't excuse those behaviors in Princeton on the premise that any progress we make here would have little global impact. Abuse of the planet, in contrast, is legal and unintentional; it's victims are distant in time and space; they lack names and faces. Some forms of environmental pollution are temporary in impact, but the climate change we feed is forever. Unlike racism and other abuses of humanity, our climate legacy will destabilize civilization and the natural world for 1000s of years. How could leaders who surely care deeply about children, their education and futures, deprioritize such a profound and troubling physical legacy? Each year the town council sets priorities and goals, and each year sustainability slips below the threshold.

What's missing is a deep sense of awareness and caring about the physical world that serves as the foundation for our lives. Is the building safe from inundation? Is our shared atmosphere safe from inundation of fossil carbon?

There is a denial, too, that solutions could actually save money. Inaction, as the high school discovered, can be expensive. Solar is free now. Lease some panels and they'll be installed on the roof for free, and your savings on energy begin on day one. And yet parking lots, school roofs, and residential roofs with good orientation and exposure remain empty. People must think it's too good to be true, or that the predicted consequences of continued dependence on fossil fuels must be too bad to be true.

Though I wasn't invited to attend, school and Westminster Choir College officials met with town engineers after the most recent flood to discuss what to do. Will they build a wetland in Westminster's (apparently unbuildable) field to divert future floodwaters safely away from the school?

In the meantime, sustainability in a prosperous, highly regarded town like Princeton is taking the form of sandbags.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Save Energy With This LED Retrofit for Recessed Lighting

One way heat escapes from a house in the winter is through recessed lighting that vents to the attic. Oftentimes, the "cans" that hold the light were designed with holes in them so that heat from the bulb wouldn't build up. Those holes allow hot air to escape from the house 24/7, whether the bulb is on or not.

It seems crazy to heat air with fossil fuels, then let it escape through all these holes. Back when I was on the board for Mountain Lakes House, I inventoried the recessed lighting and concluded that the heat loss through them all must be significantly increasing the house's carbon footprint and energy bills.

At the time, the only remedy was to build airtight boxes over each "can" where it vents into the attic--a tedious, expensive process. Just throwing insulation over the cans in the attic wouldn't stop the air loss. I crawled into my own attic and built a box over one, then ran out of patience.

What a surprise, then, to stumble upon the solution years later, in the form of new LED inserts. Take out the old bulb, screw one of these things in, slip it into place,

and you now have a more efficient bulb that no longer leaks conditioned air.

They're called "recessed retrofit downlights", with lots of options for purchase locally or online.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Magnificent Lindbergh Exhibit at Morven Closes Sunday

Catch it if you can. The exhibit at Morven Museum (Richard Stockton's regal digs next to Municipal Hall) is well worth an eleventh hour visit.

The dramatic images and beautifully written prose speak of a dramatic life of worldwide fame and local tragedy, when the Lindbergh's first child was kidnapped from their Hopewell home.

I loved the patterns and textures in this photo of Lindbergh's welcome home after flying across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.

While covering his contributions to American aviation and devotion to good causes, the exhibit doesn't shy away from the more problematic aspects of his life: the multiple families he fathered on various continents, and particularly his fascination with the innovations and efficiencies of the Nazi air force.

A docent explained that multiple institutions have offered to provide a permanent home for the exhibit, but many of the artifacts need to be returned to the Smithsonian. At the least, they should create a digital version of the exhibit for the internet.

Kudos to Morven for this 1st class exhibit.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Dashboards and the Race to Tomorrow

Those ghostly hands floating in the photo are ghosts of travels past, like the invisible clouds of CO2 that rise from my exhaust pipe and mix with countless others in the air to erase all trace of my participation in collective planetary suicide.

Wow, wasn't expecting to write that! Major guilt trip to lay on folks needing "exhausting" machines to get through the day, which is all of us. But that's the box of perpetual guilt that political inaction locally, nationally and globally keeps us in, forcing us into exhausting mental gymnastics of denial and compartmentalization, just to maintain a positive outlook.

But it was the graph in the photo that was to be the subject of this post. On a Prius dashboard, you can see updates every five minutes on how much or how little you're contributing to aforementioned collective planetary suicide as you glide effortlessly forward in peace, comfort and tranquility, insulated from any negative feedback, thanks to the technological elegance of synergy drive. On the left is the first five minutes, when the engine was still cold and guzzling gas, if a Prius can be said to guzzle. Ten minutes in, the engine warm, the 25 mpg guzzles have turned to 60mpg sips, which one deep and persistent stream of thought would say is unamerican. A good American car should be able to drink lustily, take full throated swigs and slam that empty gas tank down on the counter, its weighty fossil carbon contents flown off on the wings of oxygen to hover above us, in airy peace and tranquility, while it effortlessly wreaks havoc for centuries. Carbon liberation! Combust, combust, until we go bust!

All of which was intended to say that those first 5-10 minutes of inefficiency with a cold gas engine feed the dream of electric cars for puddle jumping Princetonians, charged at home with solar panels. But oh how slow the change as we hurl forward towards the climate tyranny of tomorrow, in a nation that cherishes its freedom to pollute.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Mr. Sustainable Gets a Twofer

I've had two broken Sharp brand microwaves sitting around the house for awhile. It seemed a shame to throw them away. One just needed a new plate, the other a new doodad that triggers the door to open when you push on the button. The plate online cost not much less than a new microwave, and it seemed too hard to track down an order number for the doodad to open the door. So they sat in the basement, until one day not long ago I made a very promising find about a block away. Someone had thrown out a Sharp microwave. Even though it was a different model, I just had a sense this could be the long awaited solution to one of life's persistent problems.

I tried the plate. Bingo. One microwave fixed. Now it was like a slow motion bowling ball--sent rolling down the lane, hoping for a spare--that had already knocked down one pin and was headed for the other.

Freeze-frame for a few weeks of procrastination, because retrieving the doodad required some dismantling of the old abandoned microwave. A larger task requires a longer inhale of time before the exhale of action. Finally the day arrived when this seemed like the perfect project to do, in order to avoid doing something else.

The extracted doodad was similar to the broken one, as I had suspected, but similar enough? Out came the hack saw to shave off some excess plastic on the scavenged replacement part, and bingo, the piece slipped into place. The figurative second bowling pin went down,

and I was now the proud owner of not one spared microwave but two.

The rest of the donor microwave went out on the curb, hopefully to be taken away by some scrap guy driving by. Within an hour, the motor with its copper coil had been extracted by someone, like an aboriginal hunter plucking the heart from fresh kill.

The satisfaction that comes from making this sort of repair is out of proportion to any actual gain. Megafactories spit microwaves out like popcorn. Spending this time and ingenuity would make sense in Cuba, or some other country with limited access to new stuff. It's strange to have 3rd world instincts while living in a 1st world country, and yet the hard-wired satisfaction suggests a deeper psychological origin, dating back to a time before factories, before extraction from the earth, when nothing came pre-made, when resourcefulness, the capacity to see promise not in human discards but in nature's offerings of wood, sinew and bone could make all the difference between shelter and suffering, feast and hunger. To engage those core faculties of resourcefulness and creativity, even for a prosaic end, is to feel more fully alive.

It's also a great way to avoid attending to less satisfying 1st world obligations.

My rule is never to search intentionally, the better to experience that wonderful thing called serendipity, knowing that, as in this case, chance favors the prepared mind.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Half Mast Flag

Sometimes, the American flag hoisted in front of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad will fly at half mast. I assume it's to honor the memory of a volunteer who lost his or her life in the line of duty. This happens fairly frequently, though, and since this is the most visible American flag on our side of town, catching the eye as we pull into the Shopping Center, it can give a sense that the nation is repeatedly in mourning. A few weeks ago, the flag was remaining at half mast for a number of days running, and I finally stopped by to ask for some background. Turned out to be in honor of an officer who had lost his life somewhere else in the country.

Though I didn't express any opinion, they raised the flag back up within the hour, as if they'd forgotten how long it had been at half mast.

This raises the question of how to rightly honor those who risk their lives to protect us, without it beginning to seem, particularly in an election year, like a political statement that the nation is on the wrong course.

Might some other flag be flown at half mast for those times of mourning?

A few days later, I stopped by a friend's house and noticed his neighbor was flying the Thin Blue Line, which, according to Wikipedia, "is a symbol used by law enforcement, originating in the United Kingdom but now prevalent in the United States and Canada to commemorate fallen and to show support for the living law enforcement officers and to symbolize the relationship of law enforcement in the community as the protectors of fellow civilians from criminal elements. It is an analogy to the term Thin Red Line."

Flying this flag, or something like it that included rescue squads, either on its own pole or beneath the American flag, would make more clear what and who is being mourned.

As a bit of an aside, I later noticed a flag just down the street, relevant here because it, too, is a variation on a theme. Turns out it's La Senyera Estelada, an unofficial flag generally waved in Barcelona and elsewhere by supporters of Catalonia's independence from Spain. It's modeled after the flags of Puerto Rico and Cuba, which gained independence from Spain in 1898 and 1902 respectively.

Two worthy goals: An American flag more consistently flying high, and honoring those who have given their lives. Without too much trouble, we could have both.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Joys of Re-use

I had found this desk next to a dumpster in the neighborhood and knew it would soon be headed for the landfill if Mr. Sustainable didn't come to the rescue. Some careful maneuvering of its significant mass onto the ol' pickup safely transported it to our Kurbside Kmart location one block away on busy Harrison Street, where it sat, curiously unclaimed for several days, despite being in good condition. With people moving in to town, it seemed perfect timing.

As the furniture lingered in our front yard, I had begun to wonder about the aesthetics and practicality of this passion for re-use, when a knock came at the door. A young woman asked, with a tone of disbelief, if I was really giving away that fine desk. I said yes, and her eyes lit up. She and her mother had been passing by on their way home to a distant town, and decided it was perfect for their needs.

The next challenge was to fit it in their little hatchback. Part of the fun of repair and re-use is finding out how things work. Deciding which tools to use, finding all the hidden screws, making all the pieces fit in the car--solving all these physical puzzles has got to be good for the brain. This is basic resourcefulness in the service of saving resources. And serendipity, when it happens to oneself or others, feeds the soul and spares the landfill.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Local Trash Cans Overfloweth With Paper

Here's an example of hundreds of seemingly insignificant individual actions leading collectively to a big mess. This is small scale stuff, marring the view outside a cafe, but the same dynamic is at work in sealing the fate of our planet.

This overflow runs counter to other uses of paper in the digital age. Newspapers grow scarce, and we're often reminded not to print things out if we don't need to. There's talk of going paperless in the office. But when it comes to food and drinks, the use of paper is burgeoning. Trash receptacles overflow, in this case spreading over towards the relatively empty receptacle for recyclables. Paper feels ecological. It's from nature, unlike most plastics. It won't drift out to the ocean and work mischief with the food chain. We hear that plastics won't decompose in landfills, but sequestering the plastic's carbon underground can be a good thing. If paper decomposes in a landfill, it produces methane, some of which will escape and feed climate change.

For anyone who reads the fine print on the blue lid of the recycling receptacle here, it includes paper, which means most of the paper in this photo, separated from the food, could actually be stuffed in the recycling rather than the trash. Either people have really bad aim, or they didn't get the memo.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Rare Curbside Sighting

A surprisingly rare sight in front of our house is this trash can. Every month or so, if that, and on the small side--32 gallon capacity. Why it's so slow to fill is nothing we've kept track of, but likely has to do with a habit of thought that everything has a place--usually some place other than the trash can. By the time most items have landed in the recycling bin, or the kitchen counter compost bucket, or the plastic bag full of plastic bags to head to McCaffery's, or has been put out on the curb for reuse or scrap, there just isn't much left.

This blog post might more appropriately have a photo not of the trash can but of an empty, clean curb, for it's absence from the curb most weeks is what's most worthy of note. A lot of environmentalism has to do with seeing the significance in what is nowhere to be seen.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Princeton High School Flooded Again

Why are thousands of gallons of water flowing into the Princeton High School basement?

And more water flowing under the door that leads directly to the wood stage of the high school performing arts center?

The first answer is poor design by the architect, who didn't consider where stormwater would flow during prolonged downpours like the one we had today.

A big storm in 2009 damaged the wooden stage, which then had to be replaced at great expense.

Walnut Street was one foot deep in water after torrential rains this afternoon, and because the performing arts and science wings of the school were built lower than the street, water flowed towards the school rather than away from it, causing massive flooding.

Since 2009, I have raised concern with school superintendents and facilities directors, town engineers and a few council members, on five separate occasions about the potential for a destructive repeat flood. The only response that I'm aware of was that staff would place sandbags against the doors to block the floodwater. It was a bandaid approach, and when Princeton got hit this afternoon with a big downpour, there were no sandbags to be seen.

Here's a 2011 post that explains why the flooding occurs, and offered a solution. A now retired science teacher, Tim Anderson, and I explained the solution to school staff a year or two ago. How frustrating to see what looks like a repeat of 2009's flood, with no action taken in the interim.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Green Shade

Shade in a parking lot becomes very popular this time of year. Even better if the shade comes from solar panels, which are vastly better than trees at reducing overall greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (One estimate suggests an average home array is equivalent to growing 50 trees.)

We chanced by Orchard Hill Elementary in Montgomery Township while taking the scenic route home. What a pleasant oasis! Parking in its dappled shade for a few minutes, it was time to dream of a time when all parking lots might be so elegantly and productively shielded from the sun, and you can return to find your car not burning hot but recharged, ready to take you to your next destination. Then we'll really have it made in the shade, with shade made by energy makers.

This is one of several projects apparently paid for not by the schools but by Somerset County. Check out the site's energy production at this link.