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The Monarchs of El Rosario

Monarch ButterflyJust over a year ago, after heeding the sage advice of the great American novel “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, my brother and I found ourselves high in the mountains of central Mexico, hiking through an ancient pine forest on the outskirts of a town called Angangueo, population just over 10,000. The town is small, quiet, in the middle of nowhere, and somehow charming, in a colorful, but dusty kind of way. Despite its obscurity and remoteness, it harbors one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and beautiful natural phenomena in the world. Within the forests surrounding the town are the main overwintering sites of the Monarch Butterfly, where a large portion of North America’s Monarch population comes to spend the winter months, roosting by the millions in the massive pine trees within the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve.

Whenever I reveal the purpose of my Mexican excursion, to see these overwintering sites, the reaction is generally a baffled “But…Why?” Yes, this may seem like the kind of trip only an entomologist or true nature-nerd could enjoy, but I can promise you that is not the case. Rather, seeing these butterflies in their innumerous masses was one of the most surreal, incredible, and awe-inspiring sights I have ever seen, or ever will see, and I’m willing to bet that would go for just about anyone who laid eyes on them, regardless of interests, background, age, whatever.

A tree trunk is completely obscured by a thick blanket of Monarch Butterflies.

A tree trunk is completely obscured by a thick blanket of Monarch Butterflies.

Although the forest itself is beautiful, the trek along the winding dirt paths between the towering trees began with disappointment. After a difficult trip just to get to the preserve, we had walked for what seemed like miles without seeing a single butterfly. However, finally, we stumbled across a bittersweet sign of hope laying dead in the path in front of us, a single Monarch Butterfly. Spirits suddenly lifted, we pressed onwards, only to find another dead Monarch, then two more, then ten more, then hundreds more. Suddenly, we saw them, gathered in huge, brown, motionless masses, clinging to the trees so densely you couldn’t see the bark or the pine needles, their numbers so great they bent and even snapped branches as thick as my arm. It reminded me of the way snow bends and breaks tree limbs after a huge snow storm.

As the morning sun began to break through the trees and fall upon the roosting masses, the Monarchs, one by one, opened their wings to the warmth, until, eventually, the tree branches had erupted into bright orange, pulsating carpets of butterflies. They enveloped the trees, filled the sky, and covered the ground. They ran into our faces and landed on our hands. Their numbers were so vast, we could even hear their delicate wings beating all around us. It was truly indescribable, an experience I will never forget for as long as I live. I really can’t do it justice here.

Unfortunately, this natural miracle is considered what is known as an endangered phenomenon, because the trees in the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve and surrounding areas are threatened by illegal logging. Angangueo is a town stricken with poverty and, for some residents, logging is the only means of satisfactory income. Thanks to the establishment of a preserve, logging is also illegal, but it hasn’t stopped the loggers who, willing to do whatever it takes to support their families, do most of their work at night and are frequently armed. Even though government-appointed guards patrol the forests with guns and bulletproof vests, protecting the trees has become a dangerous and difficult business.

A tree is completely covered by Monarch Butterflies, its limbs bending under their weight. Yes, those are all butterflies.

A tree is completely covered by Monarch Butterflies, its limbs bending under their weight. Yes, those are all butterflies.

Fortunately, we don’t need to don vigilante masks and stalk the Mexican forests for gun-toting tree poachers in order to help save the Monarch migration. How do we help? Go see it!Tourism can be a major source of income for the residents of Angangeuo, and the more money we can pump into the town through tourism, the less the residents will have to depend on logging, and the more they will make an effort to protect the Monarchs on their own. If you go, you’ll not only help preserve the migration, you’ll also get to see one of the most incredible things you’ll ever see in your life. It’s freaking awesome, I promise you.

If you do eventually make your way to the butterflies, however, be sure to stay on the designated paths to reduce habitat wear and tear.

Project Get Off the Grid: Phase III

Evolve’s Sleek, Low-Flow Shower-heads

One of Evolve's Low-Flow ShowerheadsIn Phase III of Project Get Off the Grid (for those who haven’t been reading previous posts on Project Get Off the Grid, click here to catch up), I haven’t made many changes. Differing variables in the 2008 and 2009 periods of Phase II, namely a ten-day trip to Mexico in 2008, during which I used virtually no electricity, have made a comparison of the two periods difficult. Therefore, in order to get a better idea of the effects my behavioral changes made in Phase II, I’m not doing anything drastic during Phase III.

I have, however, made one small change. I installed a low-flow Evolve shower-head in my shower. Low-flow shower-heads are officially classified as those that use 1.5 gallons of water per minute or less, and Evolve, a company strictly devoted to making eco-friendly shower-heads, has developed a low-flow shower-head that has another water-saving feature.

For whatever crappy plumbing-related reason, I have to run my shower for a few minutes before the water is warm enough for me to comfortably step in, which means I often turn my water on and then leave the bathroom to occupy myself with other things for a bit – checking my email, watching Sportscenter’s Top Ten, etc. More often than not, I return to a shower that is already spraying – and wasting – hot water. I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there like me.

Evolve’s sleek, low-flow shower-heads are specially equipped to turn off once the water temperature reaches a comfortable 95 degrees. When I’m ready to get into the shower, I simply pull a little cord on the shower-head and the water turns on immediately, already at shower temperature. That way, I can watch Sportscenter, check emails, and mess around with Pandora radio stations to my heart’s content, all the while not worrying about wasting any hot water. When I’m ready, I just get into the shower, pull the cord, and I’ve got hot water.

How does this relate to Project Get Off the Grid? Well, it not only saves hot water, it also saves energy, which is used to heat water. When hot water runs down the drain, we’re not only wasting water, we’re wasting energy, which gets tacked right on to our Duke Energy bills.

Although I think the low-flow and turn-off features of my new shower-head will probably save me some water, I won’t be able to quantify it, because I don’t get billed specifically for water use. I’ll admit the lower pressure probably lengthens my showers a bit, but not by much. As far as the energy savings go, I think they will be minimal, but hey, every little bit counts. Try out an Evolve shower-head and you’ll save water, energy, and, eventually, even money.

Purging Plastic: Results

My plastic experiment has finally come to an end. For those who haven’t read earlier Purging Plastic posts, here’s a quick recap. I spent ten days (was originally going to be two weeks, until plastic debris started consuming my kitchen) going about my regular routine and saving any plastic I went through, hoping to get a better idea of how much plastic I used and where I could make improvements. After the ten days was up, I spent another ten days making a conscious effort to, without inconveniencing myself too much, curb my plastic use, still saving all plastic I went through. At the end of the twenty days, I compared the results of the two ten-day periods.

The changes I made were easy, and they included:

  • If I had to purchase food or drink in a plastic container, I always opted for the larger version, if available
    -   For example, I brought two-liter bottles of Diet Coke to work, rather than purchasing a new 20 fl. oz. bottle every day
  • I bought a reusable coffee mug to use for my daily coffee (this got me a 10 cent discount, which was a pleasant surprise)
  • When grocery shopping, I tried, within reason, to buy foods with minimal plastic packaging
  • I ordered less take-out food and made an effort to prepare my own more often, using grocery store ingredients

And that’s about it. Here are the results, in picture form:

The plastic I used during the first ten days of the experiment, during which I went about my standard routine.

The plastic I used during the first ten days of the experiment, during which I went about my standard routine.

The plastic I used in my slightly altered routine, during which I made a few small, easy changes to curb my plastic use.

The plastic I used during the second ten days of the experiment, during which I made a few small, easy changes to curb my plastic use.

In examining these results, I had a few thoughts. One, considering how much plastic food container waste I built up over the course of the first ten days, I’m shocked that I’m not morbidly obese. I ate all that stuff? Two, I drink way too much Diet Coke. Three, most importantly, by making some very easy behavioral changes, I was able to significantly reduce my plastic use and, even though ten days isn’t a very long time, my “plastic savvy” mindset is already relatively second-nature to me. As an added benefit, I’ve found that the changes I’ve made have forced me to adopt slightly healthier eating habits, because I eat more fruits and vegetables and less pre-packaged, processed snacks.

Obviously, no matter the routine, one should recycle as much as possible. Unfortunately, though, not all plastic can be recycled, so the best solution is to simply avoid using plastic altogether. Try your own “plastic purge” experiment and see what happens.

Earth Hour 2009 a “Huge Success”

The Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, the current (but not for long) tallest building in the world, turns out its lights for Earth Hour 2009.

The Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, currently the tallest building in the world (but not for long), turns out its lights for Earth Hour 2009.

On March 29th, people from around the world turned off lights for Earth Hour 2009. 4,085 cities and 88 countries participated in the event, which is being described as the largest demonstration of public concern about climate change in history. Check out these pictures of international cities, monuments, and landmarks before and during Earth Hour. The lights on and lights off versions of each photograph are overlaid and will alternatively morph into each other if you click the picture. It’s a cool effect that lets you identify exactly where lights were off and what kind of difference they made.

Where were you and what were you doing during Earth Hour? Did you participate? I was on a train on the way into New York City, so I not only didn’t have any [of my own] lights on, but I was also using public transportation, an earth-friendly alternative to cars (OK, it was kind of by necessity, but still…).

Project Get Off the Grid: Phase II – Results

I just got my Duke Energy bill for the period of February 18 to March 19, so the results of Phase II of Project Get Off the Grid are officially in.

For those who haven’t read my old posts about Project Get Off the Grid, here’s a quick summary. During each Duke Energy billing period, I’ll be making specific changes in my everyday behavior to reduce my overall energy use. I’ll maintain all the changes I’ve made since the start of the project, adding new changes during each phase in hopes that the accumulated effects of these new habits will have an increasingly beneficial impact on my energy efficiency and, as a result, my energy bills. At the end of each period, to quantify the impact of the changes I’ve made, I’ll be comparing current energy bills to ones for the same period from last year, then posting the results.

In addition maintaining the habits I developed in Phase I of Project Get Off the Grid, I made the following changes in Phase II:

 

  • I resolved to leave my thermostat off, unless it got unreasonably hot or cold in my house
  • With two weeks remaining in the billing period, I replaced two of my five standard bathroom vanity bulbs with CFL bulbs (one of the old standard bulbs had burned out, cost: ~$9)

 

And that’s all. Nothing too crazy, nothing too complicated, nothing too difficult. Believe it or not, I never had to turn my thermostat on once and the temperature of my place never went below 67 degrees and never went above 76 degrees. All houses are different and weather varies by region, and I realize this may not work for everyone, but maybe it’s worth giving it a shot.

Anyway, here are the results:

 

Project Get Off the Grid: Phase 2 - Results

 

I apparently managed to cut my energy costs by 3% and my overall energy use by 11%, as compared to last year. Although my monthly charges were very low, the reductions in year over year energy consumption were actually smaller than they were during the previous month, when I had my thermostat on for the majority of the time and I hadn’t installed any CFL bulbs. It all seems somewhat counterintuitive. I’ve just implemented more energy-saving techniques, so one would think I’d be even more energy efficient.

However, I think I’ve identified the explanation for the disappointing, and somewhat puzzling, results; just over a year ago today, I took a ten-day trip to Mexico to see the Monarchs of El Rosario (highly recommended) and explore the Mayan Riviera, which probably kept my home electricity use down to just about nothing for over one third of the billing period. This could explain both the unusually low monthly charges, as well as the fact that I didn’t reduce my energy consumption as much as I did during the January-February period. It’s certainly a possibility and, hopefully, next month’s bill will show a spike in energy efficiency, supporting my suspicions.

In any case, even though I think it might be underestimating, if I can maintain last month’s energy-saving habits over the course of a year, I’d save about $12.50, or 3% (that’s incorporating Duke’s price increases) versus the year before. More importantly, that’s reducing my energy consumption by over 11%, or 475 KWH per year. I have a feeling Phase III of Project Get Off the Grid is going to yield the best results yet. Stay tuned for updates.

Purging Plastic: Update I

Overload

As I mentioned in my Purging Plastic post, I am temporarily saving all the plastic I use to, one, get an idea of how much plastic I actually go through on a regular basis and, two, identify where and how I can reduce that amount. I then intend to do the same thing while consciously making some simple changes to curb my plastic use. Let me start this update off by saying that I consider myself better than average when it comes to keeping my plastic use at a reasonable level. I don’t buy bottled water, I keep and reuse old plastic grocery bags, I use reusable canvas bags to carry my groceries, etc. However, despite these good habits, the plastic I have accumulated in the past week and a half is slowly taking over my kitchen and, therefore, I need to shorten the “status quo” stage of this experiment from the originally stated two weeks to a more manageable ten days. There, I said it. Doesn’t make me feel to good about my plastic use, but now I can finally get this crap out of my house…

Earth Hour: 8:30-9:30PM, March 28

Earth Hour: Vote Earth

In 2007, 2.2 million homes and businesses in Sydney, Australia turned off their lights for one hour to show their commitment to planet earth. In 2008, the message grew into a global sustainability movement, and approximately 50 million people around the world turned off their lights for Earth Hour. This year, Earth hour, with the support of WWF, hopes to attract over 1 billion participants who will turn off their lights for one hour, from 8:30PM to 9:30PM local time, on Saturday, March 28, 2009. They’re treating it like a vote – switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, leaving them on is a vote for global warming – which I think is kind of lame, but it’s an awesome cause anyway, meant to bring attention to the green movement, sustainability, the importance of protecting our planet, etc. I’ll be participating, and you should too (sign up here). If this works, I bet it would be awesome to watch from space, like “the wave” at a football game except with a big band of darkness slowly making its way across the surface of the earth. Hopefully, they’ve got some kind of satellite up there videotaping it…

A New Twist on CFL Bulbs

Plumen ProjectI have been and will continue to promote the Compact Flourescent Light (CFL) bulbs. It’s just one of those “why not?” products that I think any home, workspace, or whatever should implement. Now, a London-based boutique electronics company called Hulger has initiated The Pulmen Project, which is putting a whole new spin on the CFL. They don’t just view the bulbs as, simply, an environmentally friendly lighting alternative, they also view them as aesthetic, as an element of creative design that should stand out and add to a space, rather than something that should blend into it. To be honest, their products aren’t gonna fly in my house, but for those with an especially artsy, modern, or adventurous style, they’d actually be pretty cool, a conversation piece at the very least…

An Ominous Outlook

Fasten Your Seatbelts

A house boat stranded on what was once a tributary of the Amazon River.

A house boat stranded on what was once a tributary of the Amazon River.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve read a series of articles that, when considered together, paint a particularly scary picture when it comes to the condition of our environment and, accordingly, our future. Each article discusses the findings of a three-day conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in which nearly 2,000 researchers gathered from around the globe to discuss climate change.

The first of these articles, published by CNN, announces a central, and disturbing, conclusion of the researchers at the conference: the world is facing the risk of irreversible climate change. Irreversible…a heavy word. The scientists assert that temperatures, sea levels, acid levels in oceans, and ice sheets are already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability to a point, perhaps, that normalization will prove impossible, even if we do manage to make drastic, environmentally friendly changes. At a lecture I attended last night (to be discussed in later posts), I learned that political policy-makers hope to prevent, in an optimistic scenario, the doubling of carbon levels in our atmosphere by the year 2050, implying that ”back to normal” isn’t even in the cards. Essentially, humans have so dramatically altered the natural state of our environment that, in words that might be uttered by a middle school basketball player, we can’t stop climate change, we can only hope to contain it.

Given the self-reinforcing nature of global warming (if you’d like an explanation, I’ll be glad to give one or write a post about the topic), these conclusions don’t surprise me, but the implications are still sobering, some of which are discussed in the next two articles I point out below. Each article is published by the Daily Mail (which, admittedly, manages to make drama out of the DUMBEST freakin stuff, from Victoria Beckham’s shoe malfunction to celebrities without make-up, but in this case, is appropriate for relaying some pertinent news), and breaks out in further detail some of the findings of the Copenhagen conference.

According to this article, scientists have concluded that, under the most optimistic projections, temperature increases already set in motion will destroy 40% of the Amazon rainforests in the next 100 years. In the pessimistic and, apparently, most likely scenario, that figure rises to 85%. In either case, such destruction will have a devastating effect on the planet’s biodiversity and weather systems, and will, since the Amazon rainforests remove tremendous quantities of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, accelerate global warming, leading to more temperature increases.

Climate change also presents us with the prospect of rising sea levels, and the latest forecasted increases (also from the conference in Copenhagen), according to this article, are far greater than previously estimated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predicted in 2007 that the maximum rise in sea level by 2100 would be approximately 23 inches. Conservative or not, 23 inches is no walk in the park. But now we’re predicting, in a “low-emission scenario”, about 39 inches, due to thermal expansion of water (expansion of water as its temperature increases) and ice-melt run-off. To make matters worse, ice is highly reflective and reflects much of the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere, while water absorbs it. Less ice, plus more water, equals accelerated global warming. Combined with disappearing rainforests, we’re looking at a very serious self-reinforcing cycle of atmospheric warming - ironically enough, a “snowball” effect.

To truly grasp the impact such changes will have on us as a civilization, take a look at this slideshow. Using three-dimensional models of major cities throughout the United States, these slides allow us to visualize what a rise of approximately three feet will actually do to our country’s major metropolitan centers. Streets in New York City become rivers, New Orleans virtually disappears, and I’d be ankle-deep in water in the house I grew up in. Unfortunately, at this rate, these catastrophies aren’t something we can let our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren handle. These are catastrophes that we will be forced to face in our lifetimes, in our childrens’ lifetimes. To think that I could, one day, see water encroaching on the streets of Manhattan is just mind-boggling. Now that is some scary sh*t.

If we intend to avoid a future beset by flooding, drought, poverty, storms, and mass extinction of species, we need to make some SERIOUS changes at a very broad, pervasive level. And it won’t be easy…

Sorry for the long post.

Purging Plastic

I apologize for being MIA last week. Work was beating me down and I celebrated St. Patty’s Day far too aggressively this weekend. Anyway…

As I discussed in my Biodegradable Plastic: An Oxymoron? post, plastic, despite being tremendously useful, presents a number of serious environmental problems. However, it has become such an integral part of our everyday lives that I really don’t think we even notice how much of it we use and dispose of on a daily basis. I’ve never thought about it much, but I’m willing to bet that I use more plastic than I think.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be addressing this very issue. For two weeks, I will simply go about my regular routine. However, I will keep all the plastic I use, so, at the end of the two weeks, I can actually see how much I typically go through and, ultimately, end up trashing (in a recycling bin, of course). Obviously, I will post the results, in the form of both pictures and statistics/lists for your viewing pleasure, here on Green Light Reflections.

Once I’ve done this, I will devote the following two weeks to much of the same, going through my regular routine and keeping the plastic I use. This time, though, I will do so while making a conscious effort to, within reason, minimize my plastic use, finding ways to go about my standard routine without a dependence on plastic. Once again, I’ll post the results here.

In doing this, I’ll get a real life idea of how much plastic an average (and I would say somewhat minimalist) person uses, and how simple it is to reduce that amount. Hopefully, when this experiment is over, I’ll have developed some new, environmentally friendly – and easy – habits that will stick with me for a long time.

Updates to come…

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