Mr. Green's September 1, 2007, Mailbag Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers
Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
THROUGH A BULB DIMLY
My disparaging remarks about a Fox News report on compact fluorescent lightbulbs in the July/August mailbag brought a flood of comments, many of them defending Fox against my purportedly mean-spirited, angry, and divisive attitude. Here is a sampling of those responses:
Hey Mr. Green,
Before you rant that anyone with a different point of view from yours is demented, you should check out not only the condition of your own brain but also the depth of your knowledge and the sources of your information. ---Marilyn in New York
Hey Mr. Green,
Wow. There are people who care about the environment and aren't brain-damaged right-wingers, but aren't off-the-edge lefties either! I am a [Sierra Club] member and listen to Fox News. Stick to the facts and don't try to run off those of us who aren't so near the edge. --Clare
Hey Mr. Green,
It was quite disappointing to see Mr. Green exhibit his ignorant, narrow-minded bigotry by his discourteous name-calling and unfair bashing of Fox News. Although they could have presented their article a little differently, it was factual. As you may already know, Fox News is probably the most accurate news source on television, and they do make an honest attempt to present opposing views, which is refreshing, since most networks peddle their own.
But people like Mr. Green obviously do not want to hear the truth unless it is consistent with their own biased views and distorted beliefs. It is disappointing to see that the Sierra Club allows such inaccurate propaganda and stupid insults to appear in its publication. --Michael in Coldspring, Texas
Hey Mr. Green,
If you had been less snide and less concerned with attacking Fox, you might have been more convincing in defending the environmental benefits of compact fluorescent lightbulbs. I am legitimately concerned about the existence of mercury in CFLs, which you downplay and the Sierra Club appears to be trying to minimize. --Jonathan in Endicott, New York
Hey Mr. Green,
Your recent response to the inquiry about the safety of compact fluorescent lightbulbs reminds me why I let my membership in the Sierra Club lapse. I suggest that if this involved something other than CO2 buildup, you would have difficulty seeing the positive in adding to the already increasing environmental load of mercury. It is hard for me to see how this discussion makes the case for CFLs. --Brice in Berkeley, California
But I'm not sure that challenging Fox News makes anybody an "off-the-edge leftie." The network has been criticized by plenty of people who are miles away from the leftist fringe, as can be seen in interviews with mainstream journalists who rip Fox in Robert Greenwald's documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism.
Moreover, since Fox's headline reads "Junk Science: Light Bulb Lunacy," meaning it thinks fluorescent bulb advocates are bad scientists and nutcases, tweaking Fox for brain damage from mercury poisoning seems fair enough. I certainly didn't mean to offend anybody but Fox News, though the network's many dedicated viewers seemed to take my jabs personally. But come on, folks. Listing the EPA's detailed instructions on how to clean up a broken fluorescent bulb isn't "downplaying" the toxic problem of mercury in said bulbs. (In fact, I've harped incessantly on the need to recycle them).
This didn't satisfy some readers, who argued that the "difficult" cleanup procedures only go to show that fluorescents are too dangerous.
My advocacy of fluorescents is not motivated solely by concern about carbon dioxide emissions. It seems to me that what's getting lost in the debate about global warming is the basic fact that we ought to be (and easily could be) using a lot less fossil fuels anyway. Fossil fuels pollute the water and air and do tremendous environmental damage in many ways.
(To name a few: the destruction of entire mountaintops in West Virginia, the polluting of streams with coal slurry, wrecks and leaks from oil tankers, gas and oil residues in streams, forests harmed by acid rain from power-plant emissions, drilling threats to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and oil-driven urban sprawl.)
On top of this, the very fact that the fossil-fuel supply is finite ought to make us consume it more prudently-something we recognized more than 30 years ago during the energy crisis, when we doubled fuel efficiency in cars, but soon forgot, thanks to the malignant efforts of the energy and auto czars.
Finally, profligate use of fossil fuels shifts capital away from more essential and practical investments. In a sense, wasteful burning of fossil fuel is like burning money. Some would argue that if we didn't waste so much money igniting gasoline in the SUVs we drive across bridges, there might be more capital left to fix those structures.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Not all readers of my last mailbag wrote to defend Fox's honor. Some had interesting points to raise and embarrassing errors to point out.
Hey Mr. Green,
Your CFL article makes many excellent points. Here are a few more items that you might share with the public:
The EPA's Office of Solid Waste has slightly updated the cleanup guidelines you're linking to, so in case anyone asks about the minor differences, keep pointing them to the linked FAQ as the latest from the EPA.
The Office of Solid Waste has also introduced a new resource for finding local bulb-recycling programs that will continue to be updated, epa.gov/bulbrecycling. Hope this helps!
Finally, I hope that in the future you'll tell people to look for the government's Energy Star label on lighting. This indicates the longest-lasting CFLs out there, and in training people to look for the label on lightbulbs (the most commonly purchased energy-using item in the home), we also help them look for it on the more than 50 other types of products that can now earn the label, and set the stage for the next advances in energy-efficient lighting: light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. --Wendy Reed, Energy Star campaign manager, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
AND IN THE BEGINNING, MR. GREEN CREATED MATHEMATICS
Hey Mr. Green,
It seems you've done some creative mathematics in your discussion of CFLs. If incandescent bulbs are responsible for 1.2 tons of mercury emissions annually and the use of CFLs would reduce that by 0.9 tons, that still leaves 0.3 tons of emissions. When added to the 4 tons of mercury in the bulbs, that makes 4.3 tons of mercury. --Ed in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania
Yes, you're right, and I don't have anybody to blame for my lapse in logic, which is rather painful. The total maximum mercury release caused by fluorescents would be 4.3 tons, not 3.1.
Hey Mr. Green,
While we understand the nation's quest to better the environment, and we agree that much of the outcry regarding mercury in compact fluorescent lightbulbs is overzealous, we do want to point out another issue with CFLs that many people are not aware of. In the United States alone, 49 million people suffer physical effects from energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.
For individuals suffering from Irlen syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder defined largely by sensitivity to light, fluorescent lights trigger headaches, migraines, stomachaches, fatigue, eyestrain, anxiety, and irritability. Fluorescent lights can also negatively impact the immune system, literally making these individuals sick.
Energy conservation is an important goal we should strive to achieve, but individuals who are sensitive to fluorescent lights need the option of incandescent lightbulbs in their homes and work environments. So we ask that you remain open to incandescent lightbulbs as an alternative for individuals suffering from Irlen syndrome and the physical difficulties triggered by fluorescent lights. --Helen L. Irlen, executive director, Irlen Institute International Headquarters, irlen.com
This is news to me, but a number of readers share your concern. Any proposed legislation mandating more-efficient lightbulbs should take the possible health effects into account. The LED lights mentioned by the EPA's Wendy Reed may provide some relief in the future as well.
Hey Mr. Green,
I drive a Prius, I turn off lights when I'm not in a room, I take short showers, and I otherwise try to do my part to conserve energy and avoid creating excess greenhouse gases. However, mandating 100 percent use of fluorescent lighting (or at least banning incandescents) is a misguided idea.
I use compact fluorescents in many areas of my home. However, they are useless for referencing the color photos I print, for selecting clothing, and (for women, primarily) for applying makeup that will look good outdoors or in daylight-illuminated rooms. Fluorescent lamps provide highly skewed color references because even with complex phosphors, they are not full-spectrum lights.
Banning incandescents, which are full spectrum, would create a serious problem in many types of industry and retail environments.
Beyond that, fluorescents flicker, typically at 120 Hz, and this can stop or change the visual impression of rotating parts. In industry or even in a hobby shop, this can cause disastrous results. Horrific injuries can occur when someone thinks a part is stopped and it's actually still rotating. Since incandescent lamps glow continuously, they don't cause this problem.
Also, a significant percentage of the population suffers from various visual- or brain-processing symptoms that are exacerbated by the harsh colors and flicker of fluorescent lamps. Those who are afflicted with scotopic sensitivity syndrome (Irlen syndrome), some forms of epilepsy, and so forth will have no way to avoid the triggering effect if they are unable to easily procure standard incandescent lamps. In short, encourage use of compact fluorescents, offer financial incentives, and educate, but do not legislate against an alternative that has many safety and quality-of-life benefits for various populations and pursuits. --Gary Davis in Hidden Hills, California
Hey Mr. Green,
Your answer about getting off catalog mailing lists was incomplete. Before calling the catalog companies, you should first call every bank, credit-card company, or mortgage company you use. Ask for customer service and ask what privacy options are available for your account. These might include being taken off lists for internal marketing or not having your name traded or sold to any other company.
Also, call every magazine you have a subscription to and request the same privacy options. Often doing these things will significantly reduce the number of catalogs you get and help save trees. It takes a bit of time at first but is quite rewarding when your mailbox becomes noticeably less burdened.
Another thing you can do with any junk mail that includes a stamped self-addressed envelope: Remove the part that has your name and address on it, mark it "Please take me off your mailing lists," and send it back to the mailers using their postage. I take this very seriously and receive almost no junk mail. --Nancy in Tucson, Arizona
You propose one bodacious preemptive strike, in that you start by going after everybody who could ever provide your name to any mailing list even before you go after the folks whose mailing lists you're already on. "It takes a bit of time" might be an understatement for some folks, considering the number of credit cards many hold in our debt-ridden economy, not to mention the notorious difficulty of getting through to a real live person at these card companies. But in the long run, even this method might save time by creating a lot less junk mail to sort through.
Hey Mr. Green,
Some say organic farming is actually more climate-damaging than responsible "regular" farming, since it takes more land to produce an equivalent quantity of produce when chemical fertilizers are not used, putting more stress on the environment. This sort of issue should be taken very seriously. The Sierra Club and others should publicize the full consideration of this question, so members can be the kind of advocates who swing moderates and the unconvinced. What are the CO2 downsides of organic methods? I e-mailed an organic farming association and got a stock answer without any figures, research, or comparison data.
In general, data and citations of research are what is convincing, not just assertions. Our side should do a much more aggressive job of arming the public with data and stats.
For example, all too often what our side says is "Scientists agree that . . . " What we should be saying is "Our 2005 survey of 450 climate scientists from membership lists of this association yielded an 80 percent response; of these, 87 percent say thus and such about so-and-so."
You can help, Sierrans. You can demand that the Union of Concerned Scientists, the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and others give their members hard data. Our side needs to do a better job of playing to its strengths--given that the science (as well as common sense) is what motivates environmental activists--and helping us arm ourselves with research citations so that we can feed the actual data and its sources to sympathetic or open-minded politicians.--Mary in Sandy Springs, Georgia
Thank you very much for these perceptive comments. Clearly, things are not as simple a matter as we organic advocates often claim, though I also think that some anti-organic people overstate their case. We ought to take a closer look at the growing body of research into organic farming before we make too many exaggerated claims.
In general, at least for the major commodities that take up the lion's share of our cropland, it looks like organic farming can in fact match the yields of conventional farming. (Some specialty crops might be a different story.) For example, a study done by the University of Iowa showed only a small drop in soybean yields when the beans were farmed organically (from 48.4 bushels to 46.8). The corn yield in this study did drop from 160.6 bushels to 121.1, but the researchers said that was probably overstated due to some variables in the experiment.
The reason for such results might be that a soybean plant or a cornstalk isn't an environmentalist and therefore doesn't make moral distinctions between synthetic and organic fertilizer. Nitrogen is nitrogen, phosphorous is phosphorous, and as long as the organic field has as much of these elements furnished by organic fertilizer, it's going to roughly match the field that has synthetic fertilizer. The wild cards are pests and weeds, but apparently, at least in this experiment and others I've studied, organic farming techniques matched the effectiveness of chemical herbicides and insecticides.
The point is that organic appears to be competitive in terms of acreage required. A lot of confusion might occur because too many environmentalists with strong opinions about farming don't really know anything about it. Hence, they make black-and-white equations: e.g., old-fashioned farming equals organic farming, and modern farming equals toxic farming. This is, of course, complete nonsense (from which they would be quickly disabused if they spent an hour with an old-fashioned manure fork prying horse manure loose from the stable floor).
Old-fashioned farming is not intrinsically virtuous, as we well know from episodes like the dust bowl or the erosion of New England. And modern farming does require way less land than old-fashioned farming (the old-timers needed about a third of the farmland just to feed their horses!) while producing greater yields. We can now grow three or four times as much corn per acre as 100 years ago, thanks to hybrids and other improvements in corn breeding and cultivation.
But it's simply untrue to assume that because a modern farm grows modern corn, it also requires the use of toxic chemicals and chemical fertilizers. Corn growers can use modern methods and still grow crops organically. The two methods are not mutually exclusive. (And don't get me started on those overrated, under-yielding heirloom tomatoes!)
Adding to the confusion, some of the anti-organic commentators also fail to make these distinctions. They blithely (and maybe disingenuously) accept the false dichotomy of old=organic, modern=toxic and then deploy their comparisons to "prove" that organic farming will use far more land than conventional farming. But if you trace the funding to the think tanks some of them work for, you'll end up with a long list of chemical companies.
The big difference is in costs. At this point, organic is generally more labor intensive. It obviously takes more labor to remove weeds by hand or with a tractor cultivator than to make one pass through a field with an herbicide. And the organic method may be more energy intensive if it demands more cultivation, although it does save on the energy used to make fertilizers and pesticides. Comparisons in this area certainly should be explored, along with your other advice.
Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.
Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.