Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive?

coal excavator

Open-cast mining of lignite in Germany. Germany is the world’s largest producer and user of brown coal.

Once again, real life is making it hard to find time to write. It’s a busy time of year—classes winding down, getting the garden in, school activities with the kids, dealing with the new bees, and then, to top it all off, a funeral for an elderly relative and related activities. (Just as an aside—if you find yourself checking this site to see if something new has been posted, then I encourage you to enter your email into the subscription box on the sidebar; it really works well and a little note will get sent to you when something new gets posted. Each email has an unsubscribe link if you decide in the future that you don’t want the notices.)  But in the midst of all of that activity, I’ve had plenty of sustainability thoughts. And I’ve noticed something lately—my musings have been repeatedly taking me to the same end point. To wit—we need a carbon tax.

At the root of this thought is the fact that we’ve had tremendous advances in the sustainability field, on all fronts, in the last decade. A whole array of better products and systems are now proven and available—practical and highly-efficient electric vehicles, net-zero houses, cold-climate heat pumps, permaculture agriculture systems, heat-pump water heaters, micro-inverters for solar panels, electric lawn mowers… the list goes on. I’ve adopted a number of these, and yet we live a totally “normal” life. We’re completely comfortable here, but we use a fraction of the fossil fuel that most families do. Better still, far from being an expense, most of these systems save money, with returns on investment that typically range from as little as 1 or 2 years (air sealing, cold-climate heat pumps) to about 12 or 14 years (deep-energy retrofits, net-zero systems). Once the investment pays itself off, the rest is gravy. Forever. The same is true for us, driving the Leafs. They are fantastic cars, and the fuel savings alone virtually pays for the leases.

So why aren’t more people making these changes? We could all be living in much more comfortable houses, saving money, driving smooth, speedy, quiet cars that don’t smell, AND making dramatically fewer demands on the environment. I’m not sure why it is that people don’t change quickly, but I can venture a few guesses. First, many of these advances are recent, and people just don’t know about them yet (though the word is getting out—cold-climate heat pumps, “mini-splits”, which can cut home heating bills by 40% or more, are being installed left-and-right here in Vermont). Second, many of the systems result in serious savings, but require up-front funding or investment, and many people don’t have the know-how to navigate financing options, or the means to pay up-front. But the biggest reason, I think, is simply inertia. We’re all busy, and the systems that we already have seem to work well enough, and the easiest thing for most people to do is to just keep using them.

In addition to the inertia of individuals, the entire economic system has serious inertia of its own. Millions work and make their livings in fields that need to disappear, and this is a difficult problem. Take for example this shift to cold-climate heat pumps. If done en masse, it would virtually eliminate home fuel oil delivery, and the refinement of that oil, and the manufacturing and servicing of fuel-oil boilers and hydronic systems, and a whole host of other specialties related to heating with oil. On the other hand, it would create other manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs in the heat-pump field. But while these new jobs will open up, these sort of shifts are difficult, and people resist them.

Speaking of inertia...

Speaking of inertia…

So here’s where carbon taxes work their magic—they help to tip the balance, and to overcome this inertia. Carbon taxes have a whole array of positive effects. They give people the nudge they need to switch away from oil and coal, but carbon taxes also spur efficiency, promote cleaner systems that pollute less, and encourage conservation. On a nation-wide scale, efficiency equates to wealth, and the taxes become a de facto long-term investment plan. Eventually, everyone winds up better off. When the revenue from such taxes are funneled into further efficiency improvements or are used to support renewable energy, the effects compound even faster.

Now, this idea of a carbon tax isn’t new (in fact, about twenty countries in the world already have some form of a price on carbon), and I’ve mentioned it before in various posts. But, despite all the positives that would flow from a price on carbon, I haven’t been expecting to actually see such a tax here in the U.S.; the political headwinds to such a move seem likely to be too powerful to overcome. But last night an article in the new issue of National Geographic caught my eye, “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” (their answer—not really). In the article it mentioned that the Obama administration was poised to propose new restrictions on carbon emissions, to be enforced via the Environmental Protection Agency. I was surprised, I hadn’t heard about this yet (a good overview at Politico— “President Obama’s Big Carbon Crackdown Readies for Launch” ). While I’d rather have a carbon tax, these other sorts of restrictions on carbon have similar effects, and this promises to be a huge step in the right direction. The details are expected to be announced in just a few days, on June 2nd. Stand by for political fireworks and lawsuits, the big carbon companies probably aren’t going to take this lightly. But, add these carbon restrictions to my list of changes underway. As I’ve said before, it’s like trying to push on the Titanic to start it moving; it isn’t easy. But, the system is indeed moving. Hallelujah.

I’ll close here with a quick return to daily life—a pic of spring flowers, the new bees, and one of the Leafs being charged with solar. And with regard to the latter, we might see a lot more electric vehicles and solar charging in a world where there are taxes on carbon. So when the fireworks begin in a few weeks, jump in to support those advocating a price on carbon. Just like with voting, every voice counts.

bee yard

I added a bear-repelling electric wire since I took this picture–we’ll see if it works.

Image credits: Top photo “Tagebau Garzweiler” by Bert Kaufmann, Flickr Creative Commons at
Hummer: “Sigh, or grrrr” by Payton Chung, Flickr Creative Commons at

The Very-Healthy, Trash-free, $1 Organic Breakfast

A meal that falls within my cost guidelines.

A meal that falls within my cost guidelines.

Ok, my first meal attempt that actually meets my two-dollar per-person budget criteria (see previous two posts, “Food: It’s Complicated“, and “Not With Your Mouth Full“). I’ll add a little detail about the ingredients for this one—

– 1/3 cup steel-cut, organic oats. From the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, from their bulk food department. I bring my own container, a Mason jar, and when it gets empty I go refill it. Zero-trash, zero-recycling… The oats were on sale this week for $1.19 lb, but I think sale prices are fair game for my effort here. Cost of oats– $ .15

– 1 Teaspoon local, raw honey from Singing Cedars Apiary in Orwell, VT. Raw honey is really good for you…  $.06

I bought a digital scale to make it easier to figure out these food costs.

I bought a digital scale to make it easier to figure out these food costs.

– 1 egg, fried. These eggs came from a friend in Lincoln who raises a variety of livestock and vegetables. Her chickens lead idyllic farm lives, and they’re fed organic feed. She charges $4 a dozen for the eggs, which works out to $.33 for the one egg. We all reuse our cardboard egg cartons, and trade them back and forth, so no trash or recycling is created here, either.

– .2 ounces organic olive oil to fry the egg, bought in the bulk department of the Co-op, another case of filling-the-Mason-jar. $.08. No trash, no recycling.

superfoods cover– 1 Fair-Trade organic banana. $.37. Peel goes in the compost (worm food). The extra few cents in price go straight to a farmer somewhere who probably needs the money.

– salt and pepper $.02

– one cup of organic, Fair-Trade, Nilgiri Blue Mountain tea, brewed from .1 oz. loose-leaf tea from the Co-op. Some of the best tea in the world, for only $.11 a cup. The tea is sold from bulk serve-yourself jars, and I bring my own container—zero-trash, zero-recycling.

…and a cloth napkin. (My wife’s idea. Though, we compost all the paper napkins we use.)

Ok, so it’s just slightly over a dollar– $1.12. But that’s cheap, and oatmeal is a “superfood” (and so is tea, for that matter). Cheap, organic, healthy, all the major food-groups, Fair-Trade, trash-free, virtually recyclable-free, and within my (somewhat arbitrary) budget. Ka-ching—meal #1 for my list.

And while we’re at it—the 39-cent, even cheaper, even healthier, even more sustainable breakfast—

thrity nine cent breakfast– Sauteed asparagus. Perennial, popping up in the garden daily, and will soon be coming in so fast in the 30-foot bed that I’ll be giving it away. Lots of food for not much work; the joy of permalculture systems. Cost—free.

– 2 eggs, scrambled in my cast iron skillet (I have to throw in the skillet part—cast iron lasts forever,  and imparts no strange chemicals into your food; I love my skillets). We’re down to two older hens, but they still pop out eggs from time to time. It’s probably time to get some chicks and start a new flock…). I’m not sure what it costs to feed to birds, but it can’t be too much (they free-range for some of their food). Ten cents an egg?

– .2 ounces organic olive oil to fry up the asparagus and eggs, $.08.

– hickory nuts. From the trees in the yard and woods; the kids and I gathered them up by the bucket-full last fall. Free, perennial, carbon-sequestering, decoupled, AND a super-food. The perfect ingredient. I’m going to plant more but they don’t bear until they’re about 40 years old. Hmmmm; I may or may not be around then… my kids or grandkids might be, though.

– $.11 cup of tea, same as above.

Fair-Trade tea---a few extra cents for a really good cause.

Fair-Trade tea—a few extra cents for a really good cause.

So, some good progress. Now I just need to come up with about 50 more meals… :)


Not With Your Mouth Full

One big bee problem--pesticides.

Organic food is produced without bee-harming pesticides.

Hmmm, I think I gave up too soon on the idea of not supporting the pesticide industry, and the herbicide industry, and the cruelty of factory farming, etc. (see my last post, “Food, It’s Complicated”) . You’ve probably heard that saying, “Don’t complain about farmers with your mouth full”. Well, I suppose my caveat should be, “Don’t complain about unsustainable agriculture with your mouth full of industrial food”. So, I think I need to double down on this, even though it’s a tough task. It’s not that our family buys all that much industrial food, but, rather, I think that we could indeed buy only the “best”, most sustainable choices if we put our minds to it, and manage to keep the costs within reason. The whole endeavor is important—because food is a large portion of what we spend money on, our food choices result in an out-sized effect when it comes to how we vote with our dollars, and voting with our dollars is by far the most powerful thing we do. And, I suspect that this is true for the vast majority of families out there—we all spend money on food, day after day, our whole lives. So, while I don’t think I can pull off a cold-turkey switch like I attempted the other week, I think I can chip away at this problem and eventually achieve success.

Like I said the other week, food is complicated, and goes far beyond just the word “organic” (a good article on just this topic— “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It”). While an organic label is a pretty good indicator, carbon footprints, affordability, whether or not something is grown in huge monocultures, other agricultural aspects like soil conservation practices, social justice, etc., are also factors. Two such factors, that I didn’t discuss last week, are the health aspects of a food, and the amount of non-recyclable, non-compostable waste that a food item generates (otherwise known as “trash”!).

To discuss that latter issue first, that of trash—this really came to my attention when I saw this video last week, about a Chicago restaurant that only created one bag of trash in two years (from Time Magazine article “This is How a Chicago Restaurant Went 100% Trash-Free“)—

Could we accomplish this same thing in our homes, and cook and eat in ways that produce zero trash? Some of this issue of trash pertains to how we consume food (foam disposable plates and Styrofoam cups?), but much of it originates from how the food we buy is packaged. If I bring my own container and buy in bulk at the local Co-op, (and bring my own shopping bags!) my waste from packaging is zero. When food is packaged, much of it is recyclable, but, as I’ve discussed before, even recycling is the “third-best option“, so the less we have to recycle the better. At the “bad” end of the scale there is packaging that isn’t recyclable, and goes straight into the trash.

A concise eating guide...

A concise eating guide…

Then, there are the health aspects of a particular food, which are in most ways unrelated to the sustainability of how that food was produced. It’s not really the purview of this blog to wade into that argument, but I think Michael Pollan sums it up pretty well when he says, “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much”. Organic ice cream, well, it’s probably still junk food.

So, to sum up, here’s perhaps what perfect food is, that Holy Grail of spending dollars to good effect—healthy, sustainably and humanely produced, low carbon footprint, affordable, and trash-free.

Nothing hard about achieving that. Ok, just kidding. To make it more difficult, every single type of food item needs, to some degree, it’s own evaluation. Within these overlapping and sometimes mutually exclusive standards (the best food sometimes isn’t affordable, etc.) a decision needs to be made about the best milk to buy, the best bread to buy, etc. More difficult still, my evaluation can’t be a substitute for yours, unless we live next door to each other, and perhaps not even then. What I can afford and what you can afford, what I can find locally and what you can find locally, etc., are likely to be different for different people in different situations or locations.

So my own particular task as I go forward—to identify, food item by food item, the best items according to my above criteria, and then, to be able to assembly tasty and affordable meals using these ingredients. My gut feeling is that I can do this, but that it’s going to take just a bit of practice, and more time in the beginning than once I get it mastered. And, I won’t be able to get by through subsisting on only dandelion greens and beans; I have three kids who sometimes think their dad’s ideas are kooky, and who can only be pushed so far in the food department before a general family revolt would surely occur. My wife, though an outstanding cook, is pretty busy, and isn’t a fan of daily shopping (my preferred food-acquisition method), so she probably won’t be leading the charge on this. So, it’s going to be up to me.

So here’s my thinking; my general plan of attack—we have a family of five, and currently budget about $800 a month for food. In the past we’ve tried to reduce that amount from time to time, but spending less seems to start dramatically impacting the types of food we buy, and we just aren’t willing to step back to Wonder bread and the very cheapest hotdogs. So the plan—if we spend $2 per person, per meal, then the family could eat for $10 per meal. This comes out to $30 a day, which is $900 a month; a bit more than we budget now. But I think it’s a reasonable aiming point. So the question becomes, what kind of meals can we fix with ingredients that meet all the criteria above, and yet don’t exceed the $2 per person per meal affordability cap? Or, are there meals that cost even less than this,  that would leave room in the budget for more expensive food from time to time?

I don’t have time to do this all at once, so I’ll experiment and calculate costs as I have time. I’ll start a recipe list, and when I come upon a great meal that hits all the goals reasonably well, then I’ll add it to the list. Eventually I’ll have a whole repertoire, so to speak, of go-to meals. If I can come up with enough of them, then we can “switch over”, and achieve this goal of only buying sustainably-produced food.

So, last night after I wrote that paragraph above, I did a proof-of-concept attempt for last night’s supper, which I felt would come close to meeting the goals—

Attempt #1-- I don't think I made it.

Attempt #1—Linguine with mussels and cream sauce. I don’t think I met the cost goal.

Last night’s menu—linguine with mussels and cream sauce. The cost of ingredients—

-1 lb. organic linguine                                                        $3.19
-sustainably raised Prince Edward Is. mussels, 2 lbs.       $4.90
-8 oz heavy cream*                                                            $1.25
-organic peas                                                                     $2.30
-Parmesan cheese                                                              $ .75
-2 cups white wine                                                              $1.75
-1 tbsp. butter                                                                     $ .20
-2 tbsp. flour                                                                        $ .05
– 1/4 of an onion, organic                                                    $ .40
– other spices                                                                      $ .15

* (side note—opinions about the health aspects of cream and butter are changing)

This made enough for almost exactly five plates like the one in the picture (enough for the whole family, with no leftovers), and it was a tasty meal. I thought the costs looked ok, but when I added them up— $14.94. As in, over my $10 goal. This, and the cream and the wine were conventionally produced. In terms of trash it came out ok, though the mussels got put into a plastic bag at the store so they wouldn’t drip, and the pasta came in a thin-film plastic bag that the local recycling company won’t accept.

I could probably make the cost of this particular meal work if I substituted milk for some of the cream, bought only one pound of mussels, used half the wine but more water to steam the mussels, or made my own pasta. Making pasta is a bit more work, though.

Then, almost on a lark, I did the same calculations with my breakfast this morning, which was a fairly typical one for me-

fairly normal breakfast; also over budget.

Fairly normal breakfast; also over budget.

-two slices of organic, local bread from Red Hen Bakery  $ .64
-one organic egg*                                                              $. 33
-small slice of local cheddar cheese                                  $ .36
-glass of organic orange juice                                          $1.80
-Fair Trade banana                                                           $ .37
-organic mayo                                                                   $ .20

* the egg was actually from our own chickens, but this is about what eggs cost when I buy the organic ones from the Co-op.

Boom, missed the mark again; this small breakfast totalled up to $3.70; way over my $2 goal. The orange juice was clearly the budget-buster here (but the organic OJ is really good!). I suppose I could drink less than this large glass full, though that alone wouldn’t bring the cost to below $2.

So I’ve got some work to do, and I might start at the other end of the affordability spectrum, with the likes of oatmeal and soups and bean burritos. And though it’s going to be difficult, it’s a worthwhile goal. I’ll keep tinkering with it. Like I said in my last post—it’s important.

 Top image credit: Occupy Monsanto, via facebook.