Countdown on Climate Change

TED is a conference that features short but powerful talks from scientists, entertainers, teachers, and other thought leaders. Those giving TED talks have included luminaries such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Madeleine Albright, Bono, and many notable speakers. 

Countdown is a new global initiative from TED to accelerate solutions to the climate crisis. The Countdown talks were originally live streamed back on October 10th, but you can still watch the talks for free at https://www.ted.com/series/countdown

The Countdown talks are loosely arranged into five areas or topics: urgency, leadership, transformation, breakthroughs, and action. Under urgency, you will find talks like “Why is the world warming up?”, “The state of the climate crisis”, and “The case for stubborn optimism on climate”, among others. Leadership features “Kids are speaking up for the environment. Let’s listen”, “Europe’s plan to become the first carbon-neutral continent”, and “The city planting a million trees in two years”. 

Transformation includes “Where does all the carbon we release go?”, “Fossil fuel companies know how to stop global warming. Why don’t they?”, and “24 hours on Earth — in one image”. Under Breakthroughs, you will find “The global movement to restore nature’s biodiversity”, “Community-powered solutions to the climate crisis”, and “How we could make carbon-negative concrete”. Finally, action features “Why act now?”, “The race to net-zero emissions by 2050 is on. Can we count you in?” and a talk entitled “Our moral imperative to act on climate change — and 3 steps we can take” by none other than Pope Francis.

The Countdown talks I have already watched have been both inspiring and educational and I am planning to dig in and watch them all. In fact, I am hosting a series of virtual meetings to watch and discuss the Countdown talks in the coming weeks. The first TED Countdown discussion meetup will be held Sunday, November 29th from 3-4:30 pm. Please consider joining us by RSVPing at https://www.meetup.com/SeattleClimateChange/events/274682032

Working together, we can help take care of our common home. 

Paul Litwin

A life on our planet

I just finished watching a powerful documentary on Netflix that I wanted to share with you and urge you to watch as well. The name of the film is David Attenborough: A life on our planet. In this 1 hour and 23 minute documentary, David Attenborough, who was 93 years old when it was filmed, presents the highlights of his career as a documentary maker and shares lots of footage from his life’s work. If you subscribe to Netflix, you can watch it for free.

You get to see David age over the course of “A life on our planet,” and you also get to witness  the aging of our planet, and you will undoubtedly note that the earth has aged rather poorly during David’s lifetime. 

The film includes a number of wonderful clips from David’s documentary career, including some particularly troubling footage. Like Pope Francis, he raises the alarm concerning climate change and the troubling loss of biodiversity across the planet.

If we don’t change course, we are headed towards the earth’s sixth mass extinction. In the previous mass extinctions, the carbon buildup had taken over a million years to cause cataclysmic climate change and the extinction of a large number of the planet’s species; but the current carbon buildup from the burning of fossil fuels and the troubling loss of both wild habitat and biodiversity have happened over a mere 200 years. The film imagines what could happen during the next 100 years, if we do nothing.

Some quotes from the film that thought were noteworthy:

“If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates, ultimately to a point where the whole system collapses.”

“This is a series of one-way doors bringing irreversible change.”

“It’s crazy that our banks and pensions are investing in fossil fuels, when these are the very things that are jeopardizing our future that we are saving for.”

“The planet can’t support billions of large meat eaters. There just isn’t the space.”

“To continue, we will require more than intelligence, we will require wisdom.”

It’s not all doom and gloom; according to Attenborough, the solution is quite straightforward: 

“To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity…We must re-wild the world.” 

How do we do this? David believes we must phase out fossil fuels and embrace sustainable energy, create no-fishing zones in the ocean, radically reduce the land area devoted to farming, change to primarily plant-based diets, greatly increase the efficiency of growing plants, halt deforestation, and replant native trees on as much land as possible.    

I found this quote at the end of the film to be particularly poignant:

“We need to rediscover how to be sustainable; to move from being apart from nature to becoming a part of nature, once again.”

Working together, we can help take care of our common home. 

Paul Litwin

Lockdown, A Poem for the Pandemic

Brother Richard Hendrick, a Capuchin Franciscan monk living in Ireland, wrote a poem entitled “lockdown” and posted it to Facebook on March 13th. I was so touched by it, I wanted to share it here: 

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
But,
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighborhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
Sing.

Paul Litwin

Taking Care of the Planet during the Pandemic

The website earthday.org recently published an article on actions you can take for the planet even while practicing good social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here is a slightly-edited version of the list. I hope this list inspires you with at least one great idea:

  1. Go plant-based. More than likely you have extra time on your hands since you were sent home from work and asked to minimize your time outside your home. Why not take this time to explore a significant change to your diet for the benefit of the planet and your health? You might find this site helpful: https://plentyvegan.com/how-to-go-vegan-starter-guide or see this prior post on eating more plants.
  2. Reading over streaming. How about reading more and watching less? Reading uses less electricity and will likely leave you smarter. Don’t have any books on your bookshelves? The library building might be closed, but most libraries, including Seattle’s at spl.org, have extensive online offerings, which are just a few clicks away.
  3. When life gives you lemons… make disinfectants. Grab your lemon, vinegar, and baking soda and get cleaning. Need some recipes, check these sites out:
  4. Switch to green power. You don’t need to install solar panels or a windmill to benefit from green power. If you live in Seattle, check out SCL’s Green Up program here: https://energysolutions.seattle.gov/renewable-energy/green-up/
  5. Take stock. Now’s a good time to check what’s in the back of your closet or the bottom of your dresser drawers. Perhaps, that forgotten piece of clothing is ready to see the light of day again. Or maybe not. In that case, toss it in your St Vincent de Paul or Goodwill box.
  6. And make stock. Time to start a bag of vegetable scraps in your freezer. Then next time you need some stock, just dump the contents into a pot, add water, and an hour later you’ll have some tasty stock and have saved yourself some money too.
  7. Do an eco-friendly activity. See the original article (below) for lots of activity ideas, perfect for all ages.
  8. Keep your body moving! The gym might be closed, but since you’re not spending all those hours commuting, you now have time to go for that long walk or run. Just be sure to maintain your distance!

Check out the original post here: https://www.earthday.org/11-actions-for-the-planet-during-a-pandemic/

Working together, we can help take care of our common home.

Paul Litwin

Opening Up to What is Possible in a Crisis

As I mentioned last week, the coronavirus pandemic is challenging all of us. And many in the world are suffering and even dying because of Covid-19. In addition, many more people throughout the world are suffering because of the efforts to reduce or stop transmission of the coronavirus. These efforts, while saving lives, have, unfortunately,  adversely affected people’s livelihoods. In addition, some people can no longer get the medical care or other services that they need. This brings me great sadness, of course, and should not be minimized. 

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At the same time, our effort at social distancing has actually done some good, in terms of our carbon footprints. In a recent article in the NY Times, Christopher M. Jones, lead developer at the CoolClimate Network, an applied research consortium at the U.C. Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, said that “all these extra precautions that schools and businesses are taking to keep people home are saving lives, and that’s clearly what’s most important.” He added that these same actions could have a benefit to the environment.

In fact, the efforts of so many have reduced the carbon footprints in a number of areas, including transportation — both commuting and airplane travel are way down. People have reduced their shopping and their eating out too, which also should have a positive effect on climate change.

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The net effect is a reduction in our carbon footprints, but perhaps just as important, is the realization, that people can rise to the occasion and change their habits when it is important. Let’s hope that the lessons learned from this pandemic can empower us when the emergency is over and we again turn our attention to the climate crisis. 

Until then, please continue to hunker down, practice social distancing and good hygiene. And don’t forget that acts of kindness are always appreciated, as long as they don’t put you at unnecessary risk.

Paul Litwin

On adjusting but not abandoning your goals

These are trying times. And in these trying times we may need to adjust our goals, alter our approach, and exercise more caution and patience than we normally would. 

For example, Suzanna and I had to cancel our Eat for the Planet talk that was set for March 8th. It was certainly disappointing and required an adjustment of our goals. On the other hand it hasn’t stopped me from thinking about improvements I would like to make to the talk, because I know that we will reschedule the talk for a later date. Even Pope Francis has had to adjust too. On a recent Sunday, he prayed from the Apostolic Palace and live streamed his prayers, rather than from the balcony in St Peter’s Square, to reduce the crowd size.

The Coronavirus pandemic is challenging each of us. That challenge can be answered in a couple of different ways. I can adjust my approach, adding a healthy dose of patience, while maintaining my focus on my goals. Or I can just give up, put everything on hold indefinitely, and abandon my goals. 

The current health crisis has forced many of us to temporarily increase our use of single-use items. Starbucks and many coffee shops are refusing to fill customer’s reusable cups. Similarly, the use of disposable masks and gloves, and chemical disinfectants have increased significantly. But these are temporary (and understandable) setbacks in reducing our carbon footprints. This doesn’t mean that you should abandon all sustainability plans and actions. 

On the contrary, fears of the Coronavirus have forced many of us to adjust our routines, and maybe the silver lining here is that we can actually use this crisis to lower our carbon footprint. Since many of us are now forced to work from home, we won’t be commuting, so that means less of us needing transportation. In addition, the pandemic may force many of us to eat out less, travel less (goodbye, Italian vacation), delay making purchases, conserve more, and consume less. 

Once again, we are at a crossroads. We could always take the selfish, wasteful approach: eating, drinking, stockpiling, and consuming with reckless abandon since we have lost all hope. Or, we could go for the ecological conversion espoused by Pope Francis in Laudato Si and take the opportunity to pause, reflect, reduce our carbon footprints, and actually do a better job of taking care of the planet and our neighbors, albeit safely. It’s our choice.

Paul Litwin

Alternatives to Plastic


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that purchasing and using plastic has numerous negative consequences, including the release of a significant amount of greenhouse gases and pollution from the production of plastic, the entanglement and poisoning of birds, fish, and other animals, the increase of toxins in our food chain and our bodies and the bodies of our children. I also pointed out that the most insidious type of plastic is the single use item. 

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Before getting into plastic alternatives, you might wonder why plastic is such a big deal if you recycle your plastic. The truth of the matter is that most (around 90%) of the plastic we use either isn’t recycled or can’t be recycled, and even when it can be recycled, remember that recycling itself exacts a carbon footprint. See my recycling article for more on this topic.

A better approach is to reduce your consumption of plastic. Start by taking an accounting of the plastic in your home and office. Walk through each room of your house and note what items are made of or housed in plastic. Then start replacing those plastics, especially single-use plastics, one by one. 

Ideas for reducing plastic usage:

  • Refuse to purchase single-use water bottles. Carry a metal or glass water bottle with you when you are away from home.
  • Say no to straws. (Seattle has banned plastic straws, but remember to stay vigilant when travelling elsewhere.)
  • Stop using paper cups (usually lined and topped with plastic) at your coffee shop. Bring your own steel coffee mug to your espresso stand and to work.
  • Bring metal flatware and reusable dishes to work so you can avoid single-use plastics.
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  • When purchasing food, look for items in bottles, boxes, or cans (not lined in BPA plastic). As much as possible, purchase bulk items in reusable containers and store them in glass jars.
  • Purchase cloth shopping and produce bags. We use organiccottonmart.com
  • Get rid of vinyl shower curtains, pillow, and mattress covers and replace with natural fabrics.
  • Consider replacing your foam mattress with a natural cotton mattress.
  • Replace plastic food storage containers with glass (even with plastic lids, they are better), metal tins, or reusable alternatives to plastic wrap such as etee (shopetee.com).
  • Purchase cosmetics and other bathroom supplies in non-plastic containers. Buy bar soap rather than liquid soap.
  • When purchasing appliances look for ones that have minimal or no plastic.
  • Download the Detox Me app on your phone to get more suggestions on reducing your exposure to plastics and other toxins (https://silentspring.org/detox-me-app-tips-healthier-living).

Paul Litwin

The Problem with Plastic

Many aspects of our lives are dependent on the use of plastic. Most of the food we purchase is wrapped in plastic. And our leftovers are often stored in plastic bags and containers. The cords we plug into the wall, and the things that attach to those cords are frequently plastic or made primarily of plastic. Our toothpaste tubes, ketchup bottles, sponges, cosmetics, baby bottles, shower curtains, mattresses, cups, power tools, garbage cans, laptops, and automobiles are usually plastic or made up of plastic parts. Most medical equipment, containers, and devices are primarily plastic. And let’s not forget that many synthetic fabrics are essentially plastic too.

It’s no mere coincidence that the word plastic also can mean “phony,” because the overuse of plastic crowds out natural fabrics and substances and comes with a significant price tag. Plastic exacts a heavy carbon footprint, especially for single-use plastics that are used once and then thrown away. 

Plastic is manufactured from oil and uses a large amount of energy in the process. Furthermore, plastic waste is a major ingredient in our landfills and our oceans. But the story doesn’t end there. That landfill plastic slowly breaks down, becomes microplastics, and enters our water tables and our oceans and the food systems via the tiny sea creatures who consume those microscopic plastic particles and then who are consumed by larger sea creatures and the fish that ends up in our diet.

But it’s not just microplastics that are wreaking havoc to ecosystems. An article from 2019 in the Washington Post profiled a massive die off of hermit crabs on islands in the South Pacific caused by the crabs mistaking plastic trash for shells. And we’ve all read about birds being regularly strangled by plastic six-pack rings.

Plastic enters our bodies through the aforementioned microplastics, but also via utensils, bottles, cups, and containers we use to consume food and beverages. BPA plastic is surprisingly still quite prevalent in our food system, lining most of the cans in our grocery stores. 

Reducing the use of plastics has numerous advantages: less plastic means lower greenhouse gases, less environmental waste, less chance to entangle birds and other animals, less toxins in the food chain, and less toxins in our bodies and the bodies of our children. Yes, despite its convenience, our planet and the life on it would benefit from far less plastic. 

Next week, we will talk about how to reduce our exposure to plastics.

If you live in the Seattle area, you may be interested to know that Suzanna and Paul Litwin will be giving a talk entitled Eat for the Planet on Sunday, March 8th, 2020 at 7pm in the Admin Building at St John’s Catholic Church at 106 N 79th Street, Seattle 98103. Please consider joining us for lots of tips and tricks on eating more plants.

Paul Litwin

Eat More Plants

We make many decisions in our lives each day that impact our carbon footprints. Surprisingly, one of the most significant decisions to affect climate change is the food on our plates. 

The food on our plates you say? Yes, and here’s why: The raising of livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 15-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. According to the EAT-Lancet report written by a team of 37 leading scientists and published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal in 2019, “A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

So how do you shift your diet towards plants? There are a number of different approaches, but the key is to be motivated (you are!) and to take the first step. 

As a first step, focus on adding more plants to your diet. Add fruit to your breakfast. If you only eat salad with your dinner, consider adding a small salad to your lunch as well as your dinner. And eat an apple, orange, banana, or other piece of fruit for a midday snack. Try a plant-based milk in your coffee.

Once you make these small additions, shift to slowly removing animal products from your diet. Replace the eggs and bacon on your breakfast plate with whole grains like oatmeal and fruit. At lunch, replace your cold cuts and cheese sandwich with a bean burrito, veggie burger, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At dinner, move to meat as a condiment rather than the main course. Replace your typical meat pasta sauce with a meatless red sauce and add more vegetables to your plate. 

Beans and lentils are your new friends. So are greens, tofu, and more veggies. There are a plethora of vegan cookbooks and websites to help you on your journey. Try the recipes here: https://www.meatlessmonday.com/favorite-recipes/. Another great resource  is the Vegan Starter Kit from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine at https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/plant-based-diets/vegan-starter-kit.

You’ve likely been eating the Standard American Diet for a long time (i.e., your whole life), so don’t expect to be able to ditch meat, eggs, and dairy in a single day. Go slowly; give your body, your palate, your biome, and your mind time to adapt to the change. And any step you take, no matter how small is a step in the right direction.

If you live in the Seattle area, you may be interested to know that we will be giving a talk entitled Eat for the Planet on Sunday, March 8th, 2020 at 7pm in the Admin Building at St John’s Catholic Church at 106 N 79th Street, Seattle 98103. Please consider joining us for lots of tips and tricks on eating more plants. 

Paul & Suzanna Litwin

Recycle

As I mentioned in prior posts, my approach to consumption of resources can be summed up with these five words: reduce, reuse, renew, reconsider, and recycle. In prior columns, I discussed reduce, reuse, renew, and rethink. It’s time now to talk about recycle.

It’s not an accident that I put recycle last on my list of words. Certainly, recycling is admirable and you should not throw away recyclable materials. Nor should you muck up your bins by practicing what is called “wishful recycling,” when one ignores the rules and throws non recyclable items in the recycling bin according to recent article on kuow.org:

Industry-wide, an estimated 20 percent of what we recycle is trash, according to the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association.

Even when you get it right, recycling is not a panacea:

Alli Kingfisher, recycling coordinator for Washington state, said no one should be too smug about their recycling. “Recycling is only one step above disposal,” she said. Don’t get her wrong: recycling is important, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of green living. If you really want to increase your overall environmental impact, try to reduce or reuse before you even get to the recycling part,” Kingfisher said.

Are you practicing wishful recycling? Perhaps it is time to reread the Seattle recycling/composting rules and teach your family members (including children) to follow the rules. You can view an online version of the SPU recycling guide at https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/SPU/Services/Recycling/EnglishRecyclingdodont.pdf.

What about reducing your usage of single use items such as plastic water bottles and utensils, even when they are potentially recyclable? When possible, are you using reusable containers and purchasing bulk items that reduce packaging waste?

Reducing your consumption, reusing an item multiple times, or not making a questionable purchase is always better than purchasing an item that can later be recycled. But when you do use a recyclable item, make sure it ends up in the right recycling or compost bin.