Green as a National Park

Solar Panels in Denali Visitor CenterWill and I were lucky enough to travel to Alaska last month with his family and visit several amazing national parks.  Denali was probably the coolest (grizzly bears!  caribou!  huge mountains!) but I also was super impressed by the Kenai Fjords National Park with its coastal glaciers.  It’s pretty humbling being next to a giant river of ice and to watch an immense chunk break off with a loud “CRACK” and fall into the ocean.  Amazing.

While we loved the wildlife and the beautiful landscapes, we also enjoyed seeing all the ways the parks strive to be green, including quite a few renewable energy technologies.  It seemed like every building (even the outlying bathroom structures) had a solar panel on it.    Eielson Visitor Center, deep into the tundra of Denali National Park and with spectacular views of Mt McKinley, was the most impressive and is a LEED platinum building.  It’s essentially built into a hill with tundra plants growing on the roof to help it blend even further into the landscape.  One of their challenges (and motivations) is that there is no electric grid available 66 miles into the park.  So, the building uses several different energy sources (solar panels, hydroelectric generator in a nearby stream, and small propane generator) and was designed for maximal passive heating and lighting.  One advantage they have is that the center is only open for four summer months (June – September) because it is snowed in the rest of the year.

We happened to visit on the summer solstice, when the official sunrise was at 3:45 AM and official sunset was at 12:21 AM the next day (a 20 hour 36 minute day) but it never got truly dark –  just dusk-like.  You can generate a lot of electricity from solar panels on a sunny day in that part of the world!  However, they also have a lot of cloudy days so it has been an experiment to see how solar electricity and solar hot water work for the center.  I think it’s awesome that the parks are able to try out different technologies and do the best they can to have a minimal impact on some of the best natural landscapes in our country.

Electric Car for RangersIn Kenai Fjords, I snapped a quick picture of an electric car driven by the rangers.  I expect it makes a lot of sense for traveling between their two visitor centers that are about fifteen miles apart over flat paved roads (as opposed to driving through the backcountry).  We are still intrigued by the idea of getting an electric car for our household since so much of the driving we do is short distances on city streets with low speed limits.  However, it doesn’t look like it will bubble up to the top of the priority list anytime soon.  I guess we’ll let the parks work out all the kinks and then we’ll adopt the refined version.

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The Last Wild Giraffe Herd in Western Africa

We interrupt your regular greencouple postings for an update from Maggie, who is doing volunteer work in Niger.

peekaboo_giraffe_webI’ve been in Niger for almost a week and I’m starting to adapt. Several people have told me that Niamey is the calmest capital city in all of Africa but it feels pretty active and chaotic to me so I’ve enjoyed being able to get out to the villages and visit the bush country. Today I was very happy that my host and translator Boubacar was able to arrange a trip out to the Koure giraffe preserve to visit West Africa’s last wild giraffe herd.

To get there, you drive about 60 km (24 miles) east of Niamey down a very well-paved two-lane highway, passing several villages but also many stretches of open land. There was one security-checkpoint-slash-toll-booth but the toll was less than $1 and they waved us through quickly enough. When we reached the preserve, we stopped at the main headquarters to pay our 10,000 CFA entry fee (about $20) which consisted of tickets for each of us, permission to take photographs, permission to drive the car through the park, and a stipend for the park guide. They have about a dozen guides who are sort of combination park rangers and tour leaders. Their main job is keeping tabs on the roughly 300 giraffes in the preserve so they know where to take the tourists.

giraffes_dark_lightFrom there, it was all dirt roads or total cross-country travels. I felt a little sorry for our driver but I think he enjoys the adventure of back-country driving most of the time. We went past a few villages and Boubacar explained that part of the entry fees go to the village treasuries which means the locals are very motivated to protect the giraffes and report any problems such as people illegally cutting trees. He asked if there was any problem with the giraffes eating the villagers’ crops and our guide said that during the rainy season the giraffes naturally migrate to a more gravelly area further from the villages where there are plenty of tasty trees for them to nibble so that has never been an issue.

After we drove for awhile, our guide got out and rode in the back of the truck so he could scan the horizon for giraffes. Once he spotted a herd, he used a big stick to reach across the top of the truck and gesture to the driver which way to turn. (It sounds simple but I thought it was a pretty ingenious method of communicating without trying to shout over the engine.) As we got close, he would direct the driver to zigzag towards the giraffes so we wouldn’t startle them too much.

giraffe_herd_webOur first group was about four female giraffes and three juveniles around 5 months old. They were fairly calm as we approached and let us get a lot closer than I expected. Our guide said for the most part the males keep to themselves except during mating season. When a female giraffe goes into heat, her urine takes on a distinct smell that summons male giraffes from miles around. They battle for dominance and the winner gets to mate. He said that female giraffes can live as long as 60 years but that the males generally only live about 35 years. I think I may have misunderstood his explanation why but what I thought he said was that the males get so distracted by the possibility of mating that they don’t eat during mating season and thus weaken themselves.

acacia_webGiraffes eat something like 80 different kinds of trees, most of which have thorns. Boubacar (who is a forester by training) identified about four trees that the giraffes were nibbling on while we watched, including acacia (shown here). I didn’t get any good photos of giraffe tongues but they are quite impressive and allow the giraffes to pull leaves easily off branches. However, our guide says they are a bit picky and they prefer young leaves that don’t have an accumulation of dust so they sometimes have to search pretty hard during the dry season.

mother_baby_webOur second encounter was with a mother and her calf, who the guide thought was less than 10 days old. Baby giraffes are not exactly small but they are very cute! They were a little more skittish than the first group so we took a few pictures and then moved on. I had asked if it might be possible to see some male giraffes and our guide said it was hard to find them but we plunged gamely onward into the bush. It felt like we had driven forever and I was starting to feel guilty for making the suggestion when our guide got in the back of the truck again and started leading us cross-country. The truck got stuck in the sand once and we pushed it out and kept going. I was really feeling ready to call it a day when we suddenly came into view of a huge herd of giraffes, 17 in all, including three gigantic males.


Male giraffes are about 3 feet taller than females, have bigger horns, and have a big bump in the middle of their foreheads. They are REALLY TALL. This herd was extremely mellow and let us get quite close to them, watching us curiously with big deer-like eyes. There were even several giraffes sitting under a tree, which the guide says is unusual to see. (It really makes me want to have two sitting giraffe statues in front of my house instead of the typical lions.)

He also explained to me that there are two races of giraffes in the park, a dark one and a light one. It took me awhile to see the difference but there were a couple of young giraffes that had pretty distinctively different coloring. We wandered around taking pictures and I was really shocked by how close they were and how big. Their faces remind me a lot of white-tailed deer but they are so much bigger! They were also fairly slow to bolt although when they did run it was impressive to watch and I have no doubt they could cover a lot of ground in a hurry if they wanted.

giraffes_sitting_webAfter a long period of gawking, we headed back to the front gate to drop off our guide. I tried to ask Boubacar how much I should give as a tip but he didn’t want to impose by quoting me a number so I spent ten minutes frantically trying to calculate in my head what might be reasonable and decided to shoot higher than lower. I grossly overtipped but, hey, it was a spectacular experience and I certainly won’t regret a few dollars in years to come. I just hope the giraffes continue to thrive as the country continues to develop.

curious_giraffe_webNiger is going to see some major changes in the next few decades as the population matures. Right now 50% of the population is under the age of 15 and there is a lot to be done to find ways for them all to thrive as adults. I think it can be done and I hope it can be done in a more environmentally sensitive way than we’ve done in the United States. I’d love to find that level of appropriate technology for both countries that provides comfort and safety without being wasteful or destructive.

And if that’s too much to ask for, I hope that the last wild herd of giraffes in Western Africa will continue to survive.

For more photos, check out our flickr account.

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Oregon Inspirations

I have always had a travel bug and I have always been attached to the school rhythm schedule – long summer break, short fall break, relaxing Christmas break, cabin fever spring break.  We almost always went to Florida over spring break and somewhere along the line I started imagining an orange-blossom scent floating on the Indiana breeze every March, summoning me to warmer climates…

This year I was ready for a break but decided to focus on visiting old friends and inspiring places so I headed out to the Pacific Northwest, abandoning Will and the dog.  It was a bit of a whirlwind trip – a day in Eugene, a day in Corvalis, two days in Portland, and two days in Seattle – but it was a wonderfully rejuvenating trip.

Mostly I was traveling to to catch up with old friends and revisit some old stomping grounds (including McCredie Hot Spring – ahhhhh).  Partly I was there to attend a Farm to Cafeteria Conference, which was very cool except that it made me realize how much work there is still to do regarding local/healthy food.  And lastly I was there to soak up the progressive ambiance.

Bloomington is pretty darn progressive, especially for the Midwest, but it just can’t compare with Portland or even Eugene for cool, green, hippie stuff.  I was able to jaunt around car-free using trains, buses, light rail, and trolleys with bicyclists zooming by at every opportunity.  (There were several bicycle rickshaws around but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hire someone to pedal my sorry butt around.)  There was organic vegetarian food everywhere.  The level of consciousness just seemed incredibly high!

Sometimes people ask me why I don’t relocate out west and the only thing I can respond is that I’m very attached to my home state.  Indiana sure isn’t perfect (no hot springs!) but it’s home to me.  I love the flora and landscape around Bloomington and I love being surrounded by my extended family.  So I content myself with dreaming up ways to bring more of the northwest home.

I picked up a few green living directories in Oregon and am debating how they might work in Bloomington.  Portland has a very cool “ReDirect Guide” that I initially thought was a guide to recycling but it ended up being a sort of yellow pages for green living, totalling 322 pages.  Eugene has a more modest 144-page version called the “Natural Choice Directory.”  They both use a pretty broad definition of sustainable living that includes everything from soy-based insulation to electric cars to holistic health care to bicycle shops. All of it is totally awesome stuff and yet I’m not sure I could fill more than 30 pages of Bloomington content.

Still, maybe it’s worth it just to have it all in one place?  Or maybe I published it with some blank spaces for things like “Electric Car Rental” and “Bionic Hydrotherapy” then eventually my fellow Bloomingtonians would fill in all the gaps?

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Extreme Green: Travel By Cargo Ship

Cargo ShipMy friend Scott has been dreaming of taking a pilgrimage for several years so it was no surprise when he announced his intention to hike the Camino del Santiago in France and Spain this past summer.  He does not like to fly, largely because of its negative environmental impacts, so he spent some time trying to figure out alternatives.  We both had heard a presentation from a guy who took a cargo ship to Europe and then traveled the mainland by train and bicycle.  It sounded a little extreme but also kind of exciting.  We heard another friend tell her story of getting a deal on a cruise ship that was relocating from Florida to Europe and decided maybe the boat ideas isn’t totally crazy.

It is, however, rather long and expensive when compared to flying.  Scott did some research and decided that the cheapest way to go is to take a tramp ship.  Most cargo ships have set routes (say between New York City and Lisbon, Portugal) and have a buyer who is responsible for filling the ship with goods on either end and selling it on the other end.  Tramp ships are wanderers who pick up cargo where there’s a surplus and deliver it where it’s needed, with much more flexibility.  It can be a bit riskier since these are HUGE ships that are ridiculously expensive to operate, but on the other hand they can take advantage of big market swings and buy up cheap commodities in one place and take them wherever they will sell well.

Scott booked himself passage on a cargo ship leaving Chicago via Lake Michigan and headed across the Atlantic Ocean.  All they could tell him in advance was that the ship would pick him up somewhere near Chicago, sometime in the second half of August and that it would drop him off somewhere in Europe or Northern Africa, with an estimated travel time of 20-30 days.  The ship that he ended boarding on August 17th was 200 meters long, 23 meters wide, carrying 20 crew, up to around 15,000 tons (yes, tons) of cargo, and one passenger – him.

The adventure began when the Polish chef could not be made to understand the request “vegetarian food” but it snowballed from there.  Normally, the ship would pick up either grain or steel from the Great Lakes region and then cruise through Lake Huron and Lake Erie, on up the Saint Lawrence River, and head across the Atlantic Ocean. However, things did not go as planned:

Because of the strange state of the U.S. economy, the ship was, for many days, paralyzed at sea without cargo.  At a cost of many thousands of dollars per day just to maintain the ship drifting, the pressure was on the owners to find some cargo to justify the two week trip across the Atlantic to Europe.  Nevertheless we found nothing viable in the Great Lakes.  The captain, who had been one for 39 years, nor any of the crew, had ever heard of a Polsteam ship NOT finding cargo in the Lakes – a tribute to the unsurpassed peculiarity of the U.S. and world economic crisis that we have now heard so much about and which few if any of us actually understand.  So it was that we had to travel all the way around the Eastern Seaboard to New Orleans (or ‘NOLA’ in shipspeak) to load corn.  What was more, once we motored down the east coast and rounded Florida, Hurricane Ike followed us into the Gulf of Mexico, and though thankfully its destructive center missed us, it still eventually slowed our access to NOLA ports.  Ike’s several days of unrelenting 25-50mph winds effectively dammed the water that ordinarily flowed down and out of the Mississippi, creating a gigantic temporary lake, above which peered houses, trees, cars, boats, etc.  Ports and roads were closed, some evacuations occured, a traffic jam on the Mississippi resulted.

Even more unfortunately for Scott, he was being charged by the day for his passage, even though he wasn’t getting any closer to his destination.  He was also getting further and further off his timeline of hiking the Camino and then catching a flight back to the U.S. to attend my wedding.  On September 25th, 38 and a half days after boarding, Scott disembarked in New Orleans and made his way back to his hometown of Austin, Texas, pilgrimage unfulfilled.

Well, he would say that in one way it was a really significant pilgrimage; just not the one he expected!  I haven’t asked him yet if he would ever try the boat trip again.  It sounds totally overwhelming to me although I do find the idea rather romantic – tucked away on a ship filled with tons of exotic cargo, hanging out with a crew who speaks no English, being totally cut off from the Internet and TV and radio, enjoying days of quiet contemplation in the middle of the ocean.  Of course, I also once fantasized about stowing away with truck drivers, traveling the country with my laptop writing the next great American novel and hanging out in tiny towns along the way, so I know the romantic in me can get a little crazy…

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Finding a Sustainable Schedule

Grandpa and Mary in FloridaBy the time this article posts, Will and I should be lounging on a beach in Florida with my grandfather and my aunt.  Well, more accurately, we should be stumbling out of the car after a long day on the American interstate system.  This trip won’t rank high on our sustain-o-meter but we’re ready to get away for awhile and are hoping to spot some sea turtles hatching.

I feel like I keep saying that it’s been a crazy busy month but that it keeps being true.  September will be no better since we’ll return from this trip, have ten days at home, then take off again to spend two weeks in North Carolina attending two weddings and a food conference.  Then we’re back home in time for another wedding, then a couple weeks to finish preparations for our wedding, then we’re off for our honeymoon.  Perhaps November will be calm.

I’d love to get back on a more regular schedule but the other big issue is that I am constantly juggling my schedule to accomodate my different jobs as well as my participation with various non-profit groups like the Center for Sustainable Living and the Citizens Advisory Council for the solid waste management district.  I suggested to Will that we should try to reestablish our cooking schedule at least but he pointed out that this fall I’ll be gone every Wednesday for an organic gardening class, I have one board meeting the first Monday of each month, another the second Tuesday of each month, another the Tuesday preceding the second Wednesday of every month (no, I’m not making that up) plus random job meetings and other commitments so it’s hard to come up with a weekly routine.

Whew.  Are you tired just reading all that?  I am.  Still, I want to be involved in the community.  I think I would get restless and lonely if I stayed home as much as Will does.  So how do we find a schedule that feels sustainable?  I’m not sure yet, but I am looking forward to November…

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Living Car-Free in D.C.

Maggie riding the busI’m up visiting my best friend in Washington, D.C. She has lived here for almost three years and has been living car-free for almost one year. It has been challenging but she feels it makes a huge amount of sense both financially and ecologically.

Being in a big city makes it easier to live without a car in some ways but harder in others. There are many different public transportation options here – a bus system for each county, the D.C. metro system (which encompasses subway and buses), a car-sharing program (Flexcar and Zipcar recently merged), a brand new D.C. bicycle rental system, an informal carpooling system called “slugging” that helps folks share rides from Virginia into the city to take advantage of carpool lanes, and taxis. Of course, that means there is a lot of options.

She focuses on taking the bus and subway for commuting to work and doing most of her travel around town. She usually takes the D.C. metro buses but sometimes will take the local county bus. Of course, there are some places that are still very complicated (or impossible) to reach by public transportation (especially on the weekends) and it can be pretty awkward to take the bus when buying groceries or other bulky items so sometimes she calls upon friends with cars. She signed up with Zipcar but hasn’t used it because it seems prohibitively expensive ($14/hour, which means a trip to the grocery store would be about $30).

She chose her apartment largely on the basis of having good access to the Metro line that takes her to work and also having some nice restaurants and stores within walking distance. (There was also that whole affordability issue; always huge in a big city.) I was impressed by the number of little stores and shops within easy walking distance but of course a lot of them were places I would go to only a couple times a year (liquor store) or never at all (hot yoga studio) and there were some basic things missing like a major grocery store.

I asked if she felt the car-free lifestyle was working and she said it is. She really enjoys having the ability to use her commute time for knitting or reading and it doesn’t take too much longer than driving. For anyone who is considering it, she says the key is figuring out your commute to work by public transportation. Everything else you can figure out one way or another. There are still some things that are really difficult (going to the doctor) and some places she just doesn’t go because it’s impossible to get there without a car. She has a friend who takes public transit to work but uses her car sparingly in the evenings and weekends, which seems like a reasonable compromise.

We didn’t end up taking public transit much during my visit because we were trying to cram a lot of activity into two short days. Today we traveled to Georgetown and decided to take the car since there were four of us but this evening, just the two of us took the bus to Silver Spring (see photographic evidence). It was nice to see buses getting some use (unlike the last time Will and I rode the bus, when we were the only riders). I love to see public transit really work and I love urban neighborhoods where people can walk to their neighborhood stores. If only big cities didn’t have so many people, I might be tempted to move.

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Communal travel decisions

HighwayIn my last post, I wrote about carbon emissions for different modes of travel on my trip to WI. Arduous picked up on my last paragraph about how these are potentially unreliable estimates and expanded that into a thought-provoking piece on calculating carbon emissions.

Basically, the problem relates to fixed versus marginal costs. For you non-economists, marginal costs are the cost for one more unit, whether producing another widget at your factory or, in this case, adding one more person to a bus. My article focused on fixed costs, but the real question is which marginal cost is more. Even if a bus produces more CO2 per person on average than a full car, it’s going to produce basically as much whether I ride in it or not. As Arduous puts it:

… driving a car is only the most carbon efficient method IF the carbon emissions Will and his friends’s weight cause on a plane, bus, or train is GREATER than the TOTAL emissions of the car. Which seems pretty unlikely.

Since none of us weigh much, especially compared to a bus, I think Arduous makes a really good analysis. The problem at an individual level is that your decision depends on factors you can’t know about in advance (basically, how many people will join you on a bus, plane, or train, and whether or not these trips will be cancelled if you don’t go). This seems like a good place to apply rule utilitarianism, even if it doesn’t make sense in the general case.

In basic utilitarianism, you do what creates the most happiness (or in this case, produces the least CO2). Since it’s so hard to figure that out, rule utiliarian provides some simple rules that help you act in a timely manner. Things like “don’t kill innocent children” or “always ride the bus when possible” increase happiness overall but also makes it so that you don’t have to actually spend the time to run the calculations every time. Which is good, because we can’t, as I mentioned above.

To move from utilitarianism to rule utilitarianism in this case, we need to stop looking at it from an individual point of view and start looking at it communally. The question changes from “how can I travel to reduce my CO2” into “how can I travel to reduce my community’s CO2?” It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes the math easier. 🙂

To decide that, let’s calculate the break even point between a bus system and a system of cars. Unfortunately, the source for my carbon calculator determines the CO2 production of planes and trains by dividing their total CO2 production by the total number of passenger miles which makes the data useless for this. For buses and cars, I was able to grab the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative (GHG Protocol) data that my calculator from the other day uses.

According to their spreadsheets, a 30mpg car produces 186.6g of CO2 per km (yeah, different units from last post, but it doesn’t matter; it’ll all come out in the wash). A bus, on the other hand, produces 1492.5g of 2! The difference is so large because buses get terrible mileage (6.7mpg average in the US). This difference between running a bus and running a car is almost exactly a factor of 8. This means that it takes eight cars driving the same distance to equal the emissions of one bus.

If you assume that there are generally about two people in a long-distance car trip, then the bus will have to have 17 people in it before it actually reduces carbon emissions.

This gives us a good break-even rule for travel. If you take a bus and it has much fewer than 16 people in it, don’t ride that route anymore. That’ll discourage the bus company from keeping that route going. If the number is closer to 16, it might be worthwhile to keep riding the bus and encouraging others to join you. If it’s more than 16, you can relax, secure in the knowledge that not only are your carbon emissions low individually, but you’re helping reduce your community’s emissions. Note that this is true no matter how many people you would otherwise cram into your car because whether or not the bus produces less CO2 depends only on how other people would act, not on how you’re acting.

On a community-wide scale, this helps you make decisions about when to add buses and, perhaps more importantly, what type of buses to get. Small buses, like those sometimes used as school buses, can never be better than cars. It only makes sense environmentally to create a route with a large bus and only if over 16 people will ride each direction.

Increasing bus mileage would help too. Bloomington has started trying out hybrid buses and some nearby parks use propane-powered vehicles. These methods can help reduce the break-even point.

This same analysis should be possible with planes and trains if you can get hold of overall emissions rather than data per passenger-mile. And, naturally, carbon emissions are only one facet of the much larger issue of sustainable living. Even if a bus produces more CO2 than a car, it might be worth it for other reasons, like traffic reduction.

Personally, I find the carbon calculators valuable for determining which technologies are approximately the same. Driving a packed car versus riding a bus are approximately equal, so I don’t feel bad about the occasional long roadtrip and I also feel good about encouraging additional buses.

On the other hand, rail and plain emissions are so much higher than car emissions that I don’t feel like we’ll be able to meet their break-even points anytime soon. So while it’s true that I, individually, won’t produce more CO2 if I fly, I’m helping support an industry that might require up to 60 people to break even.

The break-even point is also a sliding scale. As cars get better, it requires more and more people on a given flight, train, or bus to reduce the overall amount of CO2.

To make a long (and perhaps boring) story short, it makes sense to encourage high-volume busing and discourage low-volume busing even if that puts some more cars on the road. At least from a carbon perspective.

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What’s the best way to get from here to there?

HighwayThis past weekend, I drove up to Wisconsin by way of Chicago to participate in PlayExpo 2008. It’s too late now, but in the car I got to wondering what the most environmental way to travel up there would be. There were three of us in the car through Chicago and then four from Chicago to Whitewater, so we’d reduce the carbon emissions per person that way. The best would probably have been to run veggie oil from Maggie’s car, but none of us drive shift. A car with better miles per gallon (like a Prius) would also have been good, but we were stuck with Ian’s car, which gets about 30 mpg highway.

With Ian’s car as a base, I used the Native Energy CO2 emissions calculator to figure out how much pollution each mode of transportation would produce.

There were three main legs to the trip: Bloomington to Indy (50 miles), Indy to Chicago (186 miles), and Chicago to Whitewater (106 miles). The first and last had to be done by car (either our own or in a rented taxi sort of situation which would be worse in terms of pollution). The drive from Bloomington to Indy produced 32 lbs of CO2, while the Chicago to Whitewater leg produced 70 lbs, or 102 lbs overall. The car emissions are computed per vehicle though, while plane, train, and bus are computed per passenger. There were three of us going from Bloomington to Chicago and four from Chicago to Whitewater, so the per-person numbers are 10.6 lbs and 17.5 lbs or 28 lbs total.

Those 28 lbs of carbon would be produced no matter how we got from Indy to Chicago, so we’ll ignore them for now. Our drive between Indy and Chicago (186 miles) put 70 lbs of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s 23 lbs per person.

The flying distance from Indy to Chicago is about 25 miles less than the driving distance. However, planes create a lot of CO2 and they create it in the upper atmosphere, which multiplies its impact. A plane ride would have create 212 lbs of CO2 per person. That’s almost ten times as much as driving!

Okay, conventional wisdom is upheld. Planes are bad. Surely trains are better.

Sure enough, trains are better. Travelling from Indy to Chicago by train produces 108 lbs. per passenger. The travel distance is slightly less with the train than when driving, which helps. If we’d had to take the train as far as we drove, the train would have produced 122 lbs. per passenger.

Even the smaller amount is 5 times as much as driving.

There’s a cool European bus company, Megabus that now services Indy to Chicago. If you order far enough in advance, you can get your tickets for $2.50 (that’s $1 plus their $1.50 service fee)! Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know we were going until the las minute, so the tickets would have cost us $20 each.

But enough of cost. How much CO2 does the bus produce? Travelling over the same mileage as the car, the bus produces 68 lbs. of CO2 per person. That’s a lot better than even the train, but it’s still 3 times as much as driving. Hmm… 3 times. That sounds familiar. In fact, that’s how much I divided the driving portion up because there were three of us in the car. It seems like it would have produced about as much CO2 for a single person to drive as to take the bus.

I have to admit that I’m pretty astonished with these results. I knew flying would be bad, but not that bad. The train was also worse than I’d expected. The big shock was that the bus was almost as bad as driving by yourself! Apparently, the average mpg in the US is about 23, which would adjust things in favor of the bus. If you have a decent car, or a hybrid, you’re better off driving even if you’re by yourself! And if you’re sharing the ride, driving is by far the best option.

Here are the final results, including travel to Indy and Whitewater:

Plane: 240 lbs. of CO2
Train: 150 lbs. of CO2
Bus: 96 lbs of CO2
Car: 51 lbs. of CO2

Overall, the trip would have produced twice as much CO2 if we’d taken the bus rather than the car, three times as much if we’d taken the train, and five times as much if we’d flown.

This really underscores the idea that protecting the environment is a many-faceted concept. Even if cars produce less CO2 for a trip like this, there are other problems connected to them like all that wasted space used for parking lots and garages. Even worse is all the frustration and wasted time caused by gridlock, which would be alleviated by reducing the number of cars on the road.

Of course, I’m aware that these are all estimates. A plane, train, or bus isn’t going to produce that much less CO2 just because we’re not riding. Still, the concept is useful when trying to decide what sort of long-range travel options we should support!

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How to Travel Sustainably

I have been contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a couple of friends but am having trouble figuring out the greenest way to get there. At first I thought maybe I could combine it with a trip to Raleigh for Will’s brother’s wedding but it sounds like that’s not going to work out. (Will and I are planning to drive to Raleigh either in my mom’s Toyota Prius or in my greasecar and from there I would only be driving about five hours on my own.)

The other obvious option is flying, which has remained oddly affordable despite rising fuel prices. My gut feeling is that flying has a really bad environmental impact but I have read very mixed studies about it. Laura forwarded me a great article from Salon about air travel and their conclusion is that it’s probably a better environmental choice than driving but that the bottom line is that the world would be a better place if we traveled less. He did mention that it’s difficult to evaluate the full impact of jet exhaust since it is released very high in the atmosphere and is suspected to have different effects than, say, car exhaust.

He also suggested that train travel is the most efficient option but alas, it is a challenging proposition from Bloomington. The nearest train station is in Indianapolis and pretty much all the trains go to Chicago, except that mostly they have been replaced by buses. (I guess it’s become a pretty common trick for Amtrak but it always shocks me a little when I pull up a train schedule and it says “Bus.”) So I would need to drive to Indianapolis, take the train to Chicago, hang around for a few hours, then take the train overnight to D.C. with a total travel time of about 24 hours and a total cost of over $150 one-way. Not very encouraging.

So I’m continuing to weigh my options. Perhaps it would make sense to fly and purchase some carbon offset credits, or perhaps I could justify the trip by hauling some more of Laura’s furniture to her, or maybe I’ll just make my friends come to me (although that’s really just another way to pass the buck). I do feel pretty blessed that most of my friends and family are within biking distance so I can probably justify the odd plane trip or two a year. And maybe one of these years I’ll get really hardcore and buy myself a horse and buggy. Maybe.

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New Zealand? No way!

For the past several months, Maggie and I have been asked where we plan to go on our honeymoon.  I suppose it’s the only obvious question left now that people can’t ask when we’re planning to get married (and nobody wants to know about the hassle of organizing the wedding).  And, for the past several months, we’ve been answering New Zealand!  Maggie has friends and relatives there, it’s a beautiful place, and the weather should be perfect in October.

Compass on a mapIn the past several days, we’ve discovered that we’re no longer very excited about NZ.  The lack of a definite agenda worries me a little (I’m easily bored and would prefer not to spend the honeymoon playing with my laptop).  But far and away the most troubling issue is the flight there.  16 hours in the air and a full day of travel on either end of the trip makes it much less appealing.  That’s also a lot of jet fuel to pump into the atmosphere.

Following our own advice on gifting, Maggie and I have started thinking more about experience honeymoons, like food-tasting through France or going to a B&B while learning to cobble.  What would you do, given two weeks of freedom?

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