07/07/10 3:30am
07/07/2010 3:30 AM |

Entering the Williamsburg outpost of bike activist organization Time’s Up—through a narrow alley of cracked plaster and rudely exposed brick—feels a bit like entering the inner sanctum of a Shanghai black marketeer. The imposing figure of Gaylen Hamilton—the man with the shaved head and six-inch Fu Manchu—doesn’t exactly help either.

Mr. Hamilton is the head mechanic at this improvised, half-outdoor bike workshop on South 6th Street, the man in charge of a rotating staff of volunteer bike-fixers whose sole purpose is to take old bikes and rehabilitate them for sale (or rental). As Mr. Hamilton (who’s not such a scary guy once you start talking to him) tells me with vehemence, “This is not a bike repair shop.” Indeed, it’s not—but it is many other things.

Time’s Up has been advocating for a full-scale bike revolution since 1987 (with some guerilla gardening along the way), and over the last decade has been at the forefront of bike activism in New York. Along with organizing high-profile events like Critical Mass, Time’s Up provides free workshops for New Yorkers interested in learning how to take care of their bikes, a personal investment in transportation autonomy that Mr. Hamilton sees as integral to real urban bicycle culture.

For all the chaos normally associated with volunteer projects, Mr. Hamilton—who worked in finance for ten years before losing his job last year—seems to run a tight ship, relying on beer and pizza bribery and a no-nonsense disposition to get the most from unpaid labor. “I can be an asshole,” he explains. “[Time’s Up founder] Bill [DiPaola] has the whole organization to worry about—I have the luxury of direct communication.” Aside from his managerial asperity, Mr. Hamilton brings a Zen-like pragmatism to the undertaking, a fierce calm that came in handy recently when Time’s Up received a shipping container from Japan containing over 500 bikes, piled together in a thick bramble of metal and rubber. “There’s a Zen art to untangling bicycles,” he explained, “It takes time, but once you start to see it, it happens…”

So how does a cash-strapped grassroots bike activist group set up shop on a high-rent Williamsburg block? An orthodox Jew named Baruch Hertzfeld. For those keeping track of the Hipsters vs. Chasids bike lane wars of the last year, the idea of a bike-loving religious Jew letting activists use his backyard seems absurd, but Hertzfeld might just be the man to bring peace to South Williamsburg. As Hamilton tells me, Hertzfeld has been encouraging Chasids to borrow bikes so they can at least have the experience themselves. “And I never have a problem with those loaners,” continues Hamilton. “The Chasids are the best about bringing them back. Though I think a lot of them drive elsewhere to use the bikes.”

While a doublewide bike lane through the heart of Chasidic Williamsburg isn’t exactly on the horizon, this latest olive branch—in the form of a pair of bicycle handles—is a start.

06/09/10 4:00am
06/09/2010 4:00 AM |

In summertime an environmentalist’s thoughts turn to… water conservation. It’s been a long time since a summer passe
d without word of water shortages somewhere in the northeast. Here in the city, without lawns to turn brown and remind us of falling water tables, it can be easy to forget: the water just keeps coming out of our taps and showerheads, and we just keep using it.

Short showers are an oft-bragged-about green lifestyle modification, but the number one consumer of water in the home is—dunh dunh!—the toilet. The average person flushes 18.5 gallons of water a day (but only uses 11.56 in the shower). And it’s all drinking quality.

So, there are a couple of easy ways to cut your water consumption by thousands of gallons a year, and the first is to follow the 60s maxim, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” I recently joined the Department of Water/Natural Conservation (DWNC) on Facebook: it’s a group that’s produced some pretty slick stickers bearing that motto, soon to be seen all over town, encouraging more selective flushing.

But no one’s going to come and sticker your bathroom (I don’t think…), so you’ll have to retrain yourself not to hit the handle. If you live alone, you certainly don’t have any excuses, but even partners, spouses and roommates can be trained to accept, and even embrace, this rustic practice.

Of course, the brown/down part of the equation requires some water, but why use the perfect NYC drinking water that’s piped into the crapper? Toss a bucket or two into the tub, and use â�‚��œem to catch the water you waste waiting for your shower to warm up, or the overspray from the shower itself. You’ll be amazed at how much you can recuperate, even if you shower short. Each bucket-full will provide one flush: in our house we have three buckets in rotation, and end up flushing with tank water no more than once a month.

If two people normally flush 37 gallons a day, over a month we save 1,110 gallons of water, or 13,320 gallons a year. If two million New Yorkers could wean themselves off “fresh” flushes, it would save 13.3 billion gallons of water a year. Chez moi we even harvest enough extra greywater (that’s what they call used wash water) from our showers to water the houseplants, and a bunch of outside plants too.
But heed the advice of one who’s been doing this for a while. There will be “mellow” smells, so put a box of baking soda in the bathroom and give a sprinkle every now and then, post bucket flush. That’ll help.

Don’t forget to be mellow when you’re out in public too: just imagine the thousands of gallons a day that get flushed at a full bar or busy restaurant, as patrons line up, hour upon hour, to use the facilities. Resist the urge… and ladies, toss your paper in the bin, to keep the flushlessness on the down low. The drinking water you save may be your own…

05/26/10 2:30am
05/26/2010 2:30 AM |

It’s been up and down the last little while, but New York summer’s definitely around the corner. And with the heat and the long days, the traveling and the hanging out, summertime can either be a massively un-eco energy suck, or your big chance to live a simpler, greener way.

And with the neverending oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we all need to try a little bit harder to save energy and help move us as quickly as possible to an oil-free future. We aren’t gonna survive too many more super-accidents (it remains to be seen if we’ll survive this one).

Making greener choices in your day-to-day routine can be a lot easier in the summer: get into good habits now, and when the shorter days set in you’ll have a season’s worth of practice.

One low-tech, energy saving, summer option is line- or rack-drying your clothes. With any outside space at all, laundry dries in a flash in the summer sun. Even inside, hot days make short work of damp clothes.

If you have access in your building, install a line on the roof: all you need are a couple of wheels, a length of clothesline, and a bag of clothespins (there are also more creative options like tub-top racks or wall-mounted arrays). Team up with eco-minded (or just cheap) neighbors, and you can share the costs of the setup. You’ll save a fortune in electricity, and prevent a lot of wear and tear on your clothes. And if you ask me, hanging damp laundry is one of the few domestic chores that is a real pleasure…

Air-conditioning is a terrible waste: it takes a lot of energy, generates heat and leaves you less able to adjust when you go outside. Start by paying attention—open your windows when it’s cool outside (at night) and close them before it starts heating up. Draw the curtains on any windows that admit direct sunlight: consider buying a couple of darkening shades or heavier curtains if you get a lot of sun. Adopt a cooling routine to help you cope without the box: like Mr. Rogers, change your clothes when you get home, donning only light woven, loose, natural fiber garments and flip-flops. A one-minute cold shower can lower your core temperature, and a single fan can keep it down, and will give you the same sleep-enhancing white noise that the AC does.

Another way to stay cool and save some energy is to eat more uncooked food—no gas or electricity needed, no heating up your apartment, and a healthier meal to boot. Hit the local greenmarket for the freshest lettuce and vegetables, add some bread and a local wine, and you’ve got dinner—no sweat. If salad says ‘diet’ to you, remember all the hearty things you can add to make a real meal: beans, sauteed tofu, nuts and cheese. When you do cook, cook in bulk to keep the heat down: an entire package of noodles can be cooked and stored in the fridge for use in several meals (salads!); a dozen eggs hard-boiled at once can go in salads, be eaten as stand-alone snacks, or make egg-salad sandwiches over the course of a week.

Think cool for breakfast too. Smoothies are simple and healthy, and even coffee can be cold brewed: all you need is a pitcher, a smallish cloth bag (look for a drawstring bag at a kitchen supply store) and some finely ground coffee. Fill the cloth bag loosely with coffee, tie tightly, and soak overnight in cold water. In the morning you’ll have the best coffee you’ve ever tasted. No power needed. If you’re a tea person, you, too, can cold-brew—just toss tea bags into cool water and wait.

Got any stay-cool tips to share? Send them in… And happy (almost) summer!

05/12/10 3:00am
05/12/2010 3:00 AM |

For a couple of days, I just tried to ignore the Gulf oil spill, hoping that it would miraculously sort itself out, before it got “too” bad. People were on top of things, right? Someone had invented an oil-metabolizing bacteria, and that would put things right… Right?

Of course, I was living in a fantasy, the same fantasy we all live in, every day, as we take our plane trips, drive our cars, eat our burgers and schlep our cheap consumer goods home after a day’s shopping. Our benevolent capitalist overlords are not, it turns out, paying attention to the needs of ordinary people, or the planet. They are, in this case, asleep at the switch—or, rather, asleep at the switch that would have been there, had they not fought against having it, a $500,000 remote-controlled automatic shutoff mechanism, installed. Half a mil. For a company (BP) that made $5.65 billion in profit in the first quarter of this year, that’s hard 
to take.

So what’s a thinking person to do? The only good thing to have come from this mess is the reexamination of Obama’s offshore drilling policy. But the idiots and greed monkeys are still, amazingly, chanting “Drill baby, drill.” There are millions, I guess, who really think cheap gas to get to the mall is more important than life on Earth.

And even some of the green-minded among us are shaking their heads in resignation, saying that it would be better to drill here, in the U.S., where we have a modicum of regulation and oversight, than to shift production to countries that let bad things happen (ummmm?).

The only way out that I can see is lessening our consumption. There are alternatives. MANY alternatives. And there are things we can do, everyday, to lessen our dependence on the goo.

If you have money, you can take the big steps—hybrid cars, bio-mass-fueled heating systems, solar panels, and energy-efficient appliances. But the biggest and best thing you can do will actually SAVE you money: Consume less.

It’s really easy. Start with the things that are made of oil: plastics. Stop taking plastic bags, for anything. Carry a reusable bag. Use those paper sacks from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods for your trash. Use a “green” laundry detergent, made from plant oils, instead of Tide, which is made from petroleum. Ditto shampoo, conditioner, lotion, dish soap, and more. Seek out products NOT packaged in plastic: bar soap, powdered laundry detergent (it works fine, really) and bar shampoo. Use tin foil instead of plastic wrap.

Buy used stuff, when you need stuff: it’s already in the area, lessening transport costs, and it’s already made, lessening production costs. Whether it’s clothes or appliances, making stuff and then moving it takes oil, lots of it.

Travel less: instead of two or three short trips, take one long trip. Take the train, which is fantastically efficient, or a bus, instead of flying or driving. Walk or bike as much as you can. When you must use a car, be deliberate and plan your trips. Share your ride, over long distances or short. Take a vacation at home, or close to.

But above all, consume less. As my friend Reverend Billy wrote recently, “We must cut our consumption in half, and learn to live that way, and then halve it again.” We cannot live much longer in a world where, as happened to me this week, we find garbage bags (two!) filled with perfectly good clothes—which took barrels of oil, and as a result, countless lives, to produce—in the trash; where half our food is wasted, and as a result half the oil used to produce it.

The only way out of this mess is to sidestep the BPs and Exxons. Put the billions they’ve been “earning” to better use. Get our own houses in order, and let “them” know what we want. A clean-energy, oil- and coal-free future, for which we’re willing to change.

05/06/10 4:00am
05/06/2010 4:00 AM |

The following is the transcript of a speech given Amanda Park Taylor to the NYU Green Society.

Hi, Happy Earth Day!

My name is Amanda Taylor, and I write about the environment for the L Magazine. My beat is pretty homegrown and local: small things you can do to lessen your impact on the environment, green happenings in the city, and the like. I write about food-related issues, from permaculture to greenmarkets, a lot: besides being one of the chief pleasures of human existence, food is a great, and crucial, way of addressing, and lessening, our environmental impact. My love of food has played a huge role in my becoming more environmentally aware, and the state of the environment has played an equally big role in my thinking more about food, what to eat, and where it should come from.

So when I was asked what I wanted to talk about today, the easy answer was food; and the two food issues that most concern me, vegetarianism and food waste.

But to be honest, I really didn’t know how to tie the two together: I became a vegetarian when I was a teenager. While I later came to appreciate the environmental impact of vegetarianism, it began as an ethical issue for me. When I was a teenager, amazingly, no one talked about global warming at all.
Food waste is something I got into at an early age too, first as an occasionally dumpster-diving punk—it seemed terribly badass, as an adolescent from the Upper East Side, to pull stuff, especially food, out of the trash. Then as I got a little older, I saw it as a path to a kind of food justice, through groups like Food Not Bombs, which, if you’re not familiar with their work, feeds the hungry with food recuperated from the trash of markets, bakeries, and stores. Dumpstering, which has also come to be known as Freeganing, was a way to subvert various systems I found myself in opposition to: factory farming, industrial agriculture, and multinational food companies. Beyond the politics, dumpster diving was free, fun, and happened late at night: I was a poor night owl with anti-capitalist tendencies and a strong stomach, it was a perfect match.

Still, I’ve never really found the link between vegetarianism and freeganism—it’s a connection I feel, viscerally, because I care about these two approaches to our food supply, but planning this speech, I found it hard to articulate that connection in any real way, except to say that both were food issues that had to do with the environment.

Then last week I had a dream about giving this speech: in my dream I was brilliant, and the talk was full of great ideas—I had an enormously complex diagram of food systems that I explained to you all, and at the end I got a standing ovation. Marion Nestle, who teaches here at NYU, and Michael Pollan, two of my food heroes, were down here in the front row, and in my dream they stood up cheering. It was great, but when I woke up I couldn’t remember any of my presentation, except the first line ‘Where are we?’

It didn’t seem like much of a question. Or not the RIGHT question. I wasn’t going to get any help with this speech by tapping my subconscious, it seemed. But then I thought some more.

Where ARE we?

Well, for starters, we’re here in the United States, the meat-eatingest country on the planet. In the USA, in the year 2000 (the last year I could find detailed numbers for), we killed 8.9 billion animals for food—another 857 million died in food production, before slaughter. And that was 10 years ago—our meat consumption has been growing steadily. Wikipedia tells me that ‘around 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year in 5,700 slaughterhouses’ in the US.

04/14/10 3:40am
04/14/2010 3:40 AM |

I’ve been pulling things out of the trash since before I can remember. Clothes. Furniture. Food. Two croissants atop a cardboard box in a garbage can in Montmartre. A dozen loaves of organic bread in a Brooklyn dumpster last week. A door with a mirror that almost broke my back three summers ago. Towels. Rugs. An entire bag of clothes from J.Crew, my size. A small dresser with Tiffany and Co. sterling serving pieces in the bottom drawer…

I have become obsessed with all the things we throw out, and I have become obsessed with saving some of them.

The waste seems to be accelerating, a natural corollary of our ever-growing, ever-cheapening consumer culture. I started finding stuff daily, or very nearly, a few years ago, and ramped up my efforts at “placing” it—taking food to people who I knew needed it, towels and bedding to the local animal shelter, building supplies to a local materials-reuse group, and clothing to friends or the local thrift shop.

Now I’m immersed in the thrown away. I’ve started seeing patterns, knowing which buildings are profligate and which are not. I’m starting to have notions: reading about how much we waste here in the United States, and many other places around the world, I’m beginning to understand that our addiction to the garbage can is like our addiction to oil, or our addiction to eating meat—entirely unsustainable.

If we didn’t waste all the food we DO waste, we could both feed everyone who’s currently undernourished, and take a significant amount of land out of energy-intensive food production, and return it to a carbon-absorbing natural state (and provide a little space for wildlife in the bargain). We’d dramatically lessen our consumption of fossil fuels, of pesticides and fertilizers. There would be fewer trucks on the road, spewing less pollution, and less agricultural runoff causing fewer algae blooms and the resultant dead zones. Not to mention less fresh water squandered irrigating crops that will never be eaten. The best estimates put food waste in the United States at just below 50 percent of food produced. Many studies point to food—meat in particular—being the single greatest contributor to our impact on the environment. If nearly half of it is going to waste, we’re doing a lot of unnecessary damage.

If we could recuperate all the usable goods that get thrown out every day—all the clothes, shoes, textiles, dishes, etc.—how much energy could be saved, how many households provided for, how many charitable groups bolstered by donations of goods to use or sell or distribute? How many fewer ships would have to cross the oceans bringing us those products?

As any regular reader will know, I’ve covered this ground before, writing about freeganism in New York a number of times. The problem of waste is still here, though more and more frequently getting the attention it deserves in mainstream media. And I, part of the less-than-mainstream media, am going to be regularly adding my voice to the growing chorus of waste theorists.

For me, it’s time to quantify, or at least document, a small slice of the waste, and its diversion. For an idea of what can be found in the trash cans and dumpsters of this fair (and profligate) city, come visit me at my new blog,, where I’ll be digging, and dishing—in more ways than one—every day (you can also find my discoveries at, where I’ll be cross-posting). Depending on your inclinations, be disgusted, delighted, enraged or appalled, or just come and learn how to freegan, and what to do with your finds. Expect recipes, photos, and a place to talk about your own experiences in the land of the discarded (if you have them). Happy hunting!

03/31/10 4:00am
03/31/2010 4:00 AM |

Writing this column, week after week, I sometimes feel like all I do is complain, or apprise others of things to complain about. But, at long last, something to cheer about: the decades-long ban on beekeeping in New York City has been reversed. I wrote about the antiquated law last year, after having been put in touch with several of the groups that were fighting the ban. Bees are good for the environment, and with scores of New Yorkers already clandestinely nurturing hives, to no ill effect, why not do the right thing and encourage urban apiarists?

Well, common sense prevailed: bring on the bees (and local honey). This sweet victory left me wondering what other common-sense laws might be passed to improve life in the Big Apple, and improve the local environment.

The easiest place to start is a plastic bag ban and tax. Plastic bags last forever, and we use billions of them every year. They clog storm drains, choke (and kill) sea animals, and flutter endlessly in tree branches. They keep otherwise biodegradeable trash from biodegrading properly. And, of course, their production requires millions of gallons of oil, a non-renewable resource. We do not need them: there are 100 percent compostable versions available, made from plant-based materials. The 4th Street Coop recently took the laudable step of switching to these Biobags, eschewing the use of any new plastic produce sacks.

As if that weren’t enough, the taxing of bags in places that have banned them has raised significant money to further environmental causes. Ireland reduced its consumption of bags by 90 percent, and in the first year after introducing its Plastax raised nearly $10 million. Given the current economic situation here in the city, and the state, that’s money that could be used to replace decimated environmental and educational funding, right? Right. And it would end up relieving retailers of the need to spend billions on all those plastic bags, costs that are passed on to consumers.

Another common-sense quickie, in much the same vein, is the passing of an even Bigger Better Bottle Bill. I know, the recently expanded bottle bill went into effect last November, finally giving�ƒ�€š�‚ bottled water bottles the same five-cent deposit that soda and beer bottles and cans have had for years. One of the major improvements of that new bill was its reassignment of uncollected funds—the deposits paid that aren’t redeemed by returned bottles—from the bottling companies to the state: those deposits could shape up to be a real windfall for New York.

But lobbying by drink-makers kept some drinks off the list, despite the fact that their containers litter our streets by the millions: iced teas, sports drinks and flavored waters sidestepped the ban and remain deposit-free. And deposits aren’t just meant to lessen the waste stream, but also to encourage recycling and the attendant, significant energy savings. So why exclude some drinks? In fact, why not put a deposit on every recyclable container: wine bottles, yogurt containers, vinegar bottles—the more the merrier, and the greater the savings and revenue.

Finally, the most common-sense change would be to legalize marijuana and tax it the same way cigarettes and alcohol are taxed. All research points to pot being no more harmful than alcohol or cigarettes, and our attitude toward it is just like Prohibition-era attitudes towards booze: overblown and expensive. Legal pot would create a massive revenue stream that could be channeled into all kinds of environmental action, from building parks to cleaning up toxic sites. Not to mention the savings from fewer arrests, reduced court costs, and thousands of “criminals” kept out of jail. Pot growing would create green jobs, keeping land under cultivation rather than building on it, and produce an all-natural, high-value (teehee) product that can be produced locally.

As a treatment for illnesses from cancer to MS to anxiety, legal pot would be cheaper and less toxic than many pharmaceuticals—one serious threat to the environment right now is pharmaceutical residue that ends up in our water and soil. Pot-as-treatment might reduce our dependence on pharmaceuticals, and their presence in our environment.

So why not smoke green to go green?

03/17/10 3:20am
03/17/2010 3:20 AM |

The ASPCA recently sent me an email about the imminent demise of the state-funded spay/neuter program. As we all know, money is tight in New York, City and State, and sacrifices need to be made.

But abandoning low-cost spay/neuter for low-income residents is what a friend wryly called “penny wise, dog-pound foolish.” The fastest way to save money sheltering animals is to reduce the number that ends up at shelters. The most effective way to lower the number of unwanted animals is to promote spaying and neutering. The easiest way to get people to spay and neuter is to make the procedure affordable.

Some will tell you that people, especially poor people, just can’t be bothered to have their animals fixed: that they’re stupid, or lazy, or ignorant. Nothing could be further from the truth—many people (especially in the current economy) cannot afford the $125-300 cost of a private surgery. Anecdotally, I’ve brought animals to numerous low-cost mobile clinics and they’ve always been filled within minutes of opening: pet owners get up at the crack of dawn, wait in the cold for hours, to have their pets fixed. The need is there, the willingness is there. Will the clinic be there?

Experts have suggested that a single spay surgery can prevent 55 unwanted animals from being born—and eventually ending up in the shelter system. Remember that shelter costs are many: employees collecting animals; the maintenance of vehicles to transport them; employees to catalog and classify animals as they enter the system; others to care for them as they wait for adoption, rescue or death; veterinary care; euthanasia expenses;s and, finally, disposal of the body.

The average cost to handle each homeless animal that ends up in a shelter is $176. If a spay prevents 55 unwanted animals, that single surgery saves $9,680. If it saves even one unwanted litter (two to ten pups or kittens), it more than pays for itself.

More than $2 billion is spent every year by local governments alone to shelter millions of unwanted animals… and then destroy many of them. And then there’s all the money spent by private organizations, rescuing and re-homing animals, which easily doubles, but probably triples or quadruples that figure.

Last month an uproar broke out over the shooting of eight animals at a municipal animal control facility in Houston, Alaska. Four cats and four dogs who had been at the shelter since November were shot by a city police officer, at the behest of the town’s mayor, because the town did not want to pay to have them euthanized at the local vet’s office: the price of death had gone from $65 to $130.

Back here in New York State, our low-cost program, the Animal Population Control Program, or APCP, which is funded by the $3 extra license fee paid by owners of unfixed dogs, is about to be cancelled. I called the NYS Department of Agriculture to find out where those funds would go in the future, and what happens to other funds collected to support the program: you can order a special vanity plate with pictures of dogs and cats on it (that reads “Our Best Friends”), the purchase of which is supposed to donate $20 to the fund. My calls weren’t returned.

Please contact the Governor and your state politicians and ask that the program be reinstated. Or donate to the awesome Toby Project, which is positioned to pick up the slack when the city’s funding runs out. Across the state shelters and rescues can always use donations to support their spay/neuter initiatives. The lives you save…

03/03/10 3:15am
03/03/2010 3:15 AM |

Unless you were hiding out in a cave, without internet, it was hard to avoid the story of Tillikum, the killer whale who killed one of his “trainers” last week. Over the days that followed the event, comments spread on Facebook, the New York Times speculated on Tilly’s mental health, and calls to kill, or free, the orca popped up everywhere.

The keeping of animals for human amusement has a long and storied history, and the stories are usually about great suffering and cruelty being inflicted on the animals. Early zoos in China and Egypt were expressions of imperial power: the time, energy and money required to capture, transport and maintain (however briefly—mortality rates were tremendous) all those exotic animals could only come from an organized, centralized authority.

These days we’ve reinvented the zoo, and the animal exhibition, or at least put a different spin on them. Animals in captivity are “nature exhibits,” the places that hold them captive are “educational centers” for ” wildlife conservation.”

I grew up going to zoos, here in New York and elsewhere, a lot. The Central Park Zoo of my childhood was a nightmare I didn’t quite see—lions and tigers in concrete cells, lined up like their stuffed cousins in the Museum of Natural History across the park. I still remember the smells (not good), and the interminable pacing of the big cats measuring out their days in 12-foot lengths along the bars of their cages.

When I was older, I visited the zoo in Rome. Wolves in pens not big enough for my Jack Russell terrier, bears in such advanced stages of boredom and neglect that exposing children to their state was more abusive than educational. Why did hundreds of animals have to die slow, miserable, premature deaths so that we could watch them?

In the wild orcas live, on average, 30 years for males and 50 for females, with some making it to 60 or 70 years old. The Humane Society tells us that captive orcas seldom live past 20. In this respect Tillikum, the oldest orca in captivity, at about 19, is one of the lucky ones. The HSUS also lists the greatest threats to orca survival: among them, “capture for the public display industry.”

This isn’t just about Sea World (which is owned by the infamous Blackstone Group, btw) or the plight of Tillikum. It’s about a systematized for-profit abuse of animals. Orca shows are not educational, and they’re not good for the animals or, apparently, the people who “train” them. For every happy performer, scores have been captured, died in transport or captivity, or prematurely. Male orcas in the wild remain with their mothers for their whole lives, in large matrilineal groups, with lifelong familial bonds. They are not meant to live in swimming pools, with limited contact with others of their kind.

And what’s true for orcas is true for virtually all wild animals in captivity. They are bored and lonely, they are physically unwell: they fail to thrive and they die prematurely, all for our amusement. Some are carted around on trucks and trains to perform in circuses, others languish in roadside pens or zoological parks. I’m no longer amused.

As Jacques Cousteau famously said: “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.”

02/17/10 4:00am
02/17/2010 4:00 AM |

I know I don’t normally get embroiled in international trade issues, but last week I found myself riveted by a little article in the Times, detailing China’s latest report on its water pollution. Turns out there is far more pollution than had previously been documented, or even acknowledged. The most recent report has deigned to include agricultural waste—fertilizers, pesticides, stuff that seeps from landfills—as part of the total: these pollutants had long been excluded from any tally of pollution, presumably in an attempt to keep levels down.

Talk about a selective approach. Part of this is the result of expanded data collection, as well as the expanded definition of pollutants, but it’s hard not to think of China’s long history of industrial and environmental cover-ups and deceptions, attempts to keep their reputation unsullied, their products trustworthy, and consumers buying.

Put the words “China” and “agriculture” in the same sentence, and I immediately think of the disconcerting, nearly inescapable presence on U.S. shelves (and in U.S. freezers, fridges etc.) of “Grown in China” produce, and “Made in China” prepared foods. Sure, we all want some imported foods, but China has taken it to the next level, and then a couple of levels above that. One example is a deliberate, stated attempt to take over the apple market: we’ve let them (by buying their apples, at artificially low prices) despite the fact that some of the best apples in the world are grown just an hour from Manhattan (and throughout the northern states and Canada). Check out the frozen-vegetable section at Trader Joe’s if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

So we have the new breadbasket of the world finally coming clean(er) on just how dirty things are over there. And it turns out that much of that “dirt” has been generated growing, or producing, stuff for us. (The other half of the picture is industrial effluent, dumped by manufacturers into rivers and lakes. Same old, same old.) Though this country is hardly leading the way in pollution control, one of the reasons that stuff made in China is cheaper is that there are fewer controls, regulations and limits on the kinds of messes you can make manufacturing and growing. The cost of cleaning up isn’t factored into the price of the product.

The Times article, after discussing the dramatic upward revision of pollution numbers, went on to detail the total pollution capacity of China’s rivers. In brief, the amount of pollution being produced is three times the amount that the country’s bodies of water can absorb. Our consumption of Chinese products is leading, none too slowly, to the poisoning of a country on the other side of the world.

What does it mean that we’re exporting our pollution, and our environmental damage to another country, one apparently willing to take it? Is this really what we want to be doing to the planet, working diligently in the U.S. (some of us, at least) to tighten environmental regulations, and lessen our impact, both individually and as a society, as we continue to buy and buy, from China and many other places with cheaper labor and more lax regulation.

The sticking point is the buying: depending on who you listen to, as much as half of all the food in this country is wasted along the chain of supply, much of it towards the end of its journey from farm to table, either in the market or the consumer’s house. Assuming the worst, that means that half the food we import, half the product of those poisoned rivers, half the cause of that pesticide runoff, ends up in the trash before it’s eaten. And I know from personal experience (I’ve written about it here) that our garbage cans are often filled with perfectly good clothes, working appliances, unused cleaning products, and mountains of bedding.

It IS terrible, the state of the environment in China, and I’m glad the Chinese are working to clean it up. But we need to accept responsibility too, and look at our habits. The fridge doesn’t need to be full to feel secure, your drawers don’t need to overflow. Just because you can’t see the effects of your consumption doesn’t mean they’re not there.