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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that Americans waste a huge amount of water and energy getting their clothes clean and dry. Do you have any tips for greening the laundry process? – B. Jones, Troy, NY

It’s true that Americans use huge amounts of water and energy to keep their clothes clean, dry and soft. Indeed, the average U.S. home expends about 12,000 gallons of water on some 300 loads of laundry per year. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that as much as 20 percent of the water used in our homes goes down the washing machine’s drain. Meanwhile, roughly10 percent of a home’s total electricity use goes toward laundry. No doubt, tightening up this one aspect of taking care of ourselves could make a serious dent in our carbon footprints and overall environmental impact.

Perhaps the quickest way to energy- and water-savings is to upgrade from an older laundry machine. Conventional washing machines (built before 2011) use some 40 gallons of water per load, while newer “HE” (high efficiency) machines can do just as good or better on 14 gallons or less. And since these HE machines have so much less water to heat up and are designed for maximum efficiency, they also use 50-80 percent less energy. They also spin faster, which removes more water from the clothes and thus saves dryer time. Whether or not your machine is HE, set it to the “high spin speed” or “extended spin” setting to remove excess moisture from clothes to reduce the amount of time and energy needed in the dryer.

Line-drying clothes is by far the most energy-efficient route, yet most of us (80 percent) rely on dryers to do the job quickly, despite the impact. While HE washing machines have been around for a decade now, it wasn’t until the last few years that more efficient clothes dryers became widely available. Newer units, especially those that meet the federal government’s stringent EnergySTAR efficiency standards, automatically sense how long to run and when to shut off based on the size/weight of the load.

If you have an older (conventional) dryer, consider purchasing a SmartDry sensor which attaches to the inside of your machine and then sends you wireless alerts when the load is dry, when delicates should come out, or if the machine has stopped working. The $60 device saves an average of 15 minutes of dry time per load. While it’s no replacement for a new machine, it can help you keep an older one from clogging up the landfill while putting off the expense and resource use of replacing it for a while.

Another low-cost way to reduce your laundry’s environmental impact is by using a Cora Ball, an ingenious little recycled/recyclable plastic ball that catches plastic microfibers that shed off fleece clothing in the washing machine before it winds up in our waterways and oceans.

And if you like fabric softener but don’t like subjecting yourself and those around you to harsh chemicals—most fabric softeners use dipalmethyl hydroxyethylammoinum methosulfate, a synthetic chemical with softening and anti-static properties—try one of Friendsheep’s Eco Dryer Balls, which naturally softens and fluffs laundry by gently tumbling in the dryer alongside your clothes, separating the fabrics so heat can flow better, reducing wrinkles and static cling while reducing dry time.

CONTACTS: Saving Water And Energy Through Clothes Washer Replacement,
nrdc.org/resources/saving-water-and-energy-through-clothes-washer-replacement; Residential Clothes Washers Qualifying Product List, library.cee1.org/content/qualifying-product-lists-residential-clothes-washers; SmartDry, amzn.to/3zJfTQG; Friendsheep Eco Dryer Balls, amzn.to/3xcxVZM. 

Dear EarthTalk: Is so-called “Off-Earth Manufacturing” really the environmental panacea that Jeff Bezos and other proponents say it is? -- M. Traney, Smithfield, RI

In July 2021, Richard Branson rocketed into suborbital space aboard a craft he helped fund, launching a new era of commercial space travel. Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket emitted plumes of white smoke and tons of kerosene, releasing more greenhouse gases in a few minutes than a typical car would over two centuries. It also emitted black carbon—or soot—into upper layers of the atmosphere, contaminating the air for years to come.

Space companies counter environmental concerns about space flight with promises to construct greener spacecrafts and to transform space into the newest global economic powerhouse. “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space and keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is,” said Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos after returning from his own first trip into orbit a few weeks following Branson. Bezos’s vision, otherwise known as “Off-Earth manufacturing,” centers around the transition of planet-exploitative industries into space.

Many materials extracted on Earth are also available in space. Celestial bodies like asteroids and the Moon contain water and water-derived propellants that can be used for in-space infrastructure. With the global mining industry tumbling from a market value of over $1.6 trillion in 2010 to $656 billion in 2020, space resources appear as realistic alternatives for mining. A report by Goldman Sachs, asteroid mining has costs “comparable to traditional mines.”

“Off-Earth manufacturing” does drive energy and mining industries away from exploiting the finite resources on Earth, but the construction of such complex systems in space poses many challenges. Apart from the huge expense of launching materials into space, architects familiar with normal conventions of physics will be forced into a foreign field of designing for zero-gravity spaces. Additionally, large amounts of materials need to be produced and transported that are incredibly durable, able to withstand extreme temperatures, and that transmit information without loss.

The road to space commercialization is long and arduous, but the launching of SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets is a key stepping stone. As expenses of space travel continue to decrease, interest and investments in the global space industry will only increase. Bezos has already announced he is spending $1 billion every year on Blue Origin. Venture capital firms are pouring money into space startups. According to recent data from Space Capital, almost $38 billion has gone to space infrastructure companies over the past decade. On a wider scale, the global space industry is expected to generate over $1.1 trillion by 2040 in a report by Morgan Stanley, up from the $447 billion in a 2020 report by the Space Foundation.

Will time tell if Off-Earth manufacturing can help ease environmental pressures down here on our own planet? One has to wonder why we are so concerned with moving our polluting industries off-planet when we could concentrate instead on cleaning them up down here or eliminating them entirely.

CONTACTS: “Can we get to space without damaging the Earth through huge carbon emissions?” latimes.com/business/story/2020-01-30/space-launch-carbon-emissions; “Why big business is making a giant leap into space,” knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/commercial-space-economy; Making Stuff in Space: Off-Earth Manufacturing is Just Getting Started, space.com/40552-space-based-manufacturing-just-getting-started.html

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the current drought across the American West and how does it compare with past dry spells? -- S. Diamond, Methuen, MA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) database, found on Drought.gov, reports that as of August 31, 2021, 39 percent of the U.S. is in drought, with 30 states experiencing Moderate Drought or worse. The USDM uses a five-category system to classify drought severity, from Abnormally Dry to Exceptional Drought. The percent area of the western U.S. in extreme to exceptional drought peaked at 59.5 percent on July 20, 2021, while the percent in moderate to exceptional drought peaked at 90.3 percent on July 27, 2021. This value exceeded the previous peak in the 21-year USDM record that occurred in August and September of 2003.

These significant drought conditions have dropped several bodies of water in the Western United States to record-breaking lows. On July 23, 2021, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, one of the largest bodies of water in the U.S., reached its lowest water level since the U.S. Geological Survey began taking measurements in 1875. The previous low was set in 1963. Additionally, as of August 22, 2021, Nevada and Arizona’s Lake Mead reservoir had dropped to just 35 percent of its capacity, and the Lake Powell reservoir that spans across Utah and Arizona is now at just 31 percent of its capacity. This current lake elevation data comes from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs, and other portions of the Colorado River watershed. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently decided that, given the historic drought, the Lake Mead reservoir will operate in what is called a Level One Shortage Condition for the first time ever in 2022. This will mean reduced water throughout 2022 to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

As water levels drop and become hotter during drought, cyanobacteria in algae blooms thrive. These toxic algae blooms, which can appear blue-green in color, or sometimes a reddish-brown color, can harm the nervous system and liver, and can be fatal if ingested. The 2015 study Drought-Induced Water-Level Reduction Favors Cyanobacteria Blooms in Tropical Shallow Lakes projected a warmer and drier climate in the future will reduce water quantity and quality, increasing the risks of cyanobacteria blooms. The Idaho Conservation League reported in August 2021 that heat waves, drought, and excessive pollution are contributing to what could be the worst year ever for toxic algae in Idaho.

This summer’s drought conditions are also contributing to poorer air quality and a spike in aggravating adverse allergy and respiratory symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the dusty, dry conditions that accompany drought increase the number of particulates suspended in the air, irritating bronchial passages and lungs. Increased air pollution may potentially play a part in surging mortality rates from COVID-19, according to recent studies out of Harvard. A separate study out of Stanford University in 2014 warned of the rise of amplified air pollutant accumulations due to drought and increased difficulty in meeting air quality goals.

CONTACTS: Climate Change Indicators: Drought, epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-drought; Health Implications of Drought, cdc.gov/nceh/drought/implications.htm; National Current Conditions, drought.gov/current-conditions; Drought-induced water-level reduction favors cyanobacteria blooms in tropical shallow lakes, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10750-015-2578-5.

Dear EarthTalk: Whatever happened to the Yukon to Yellowstone (Y2Y) wildlife corridor dream that was in the news years ago? -- Jos. Meredith, Bozeman, MT

Conservationists’ dreams of a wildlife corridor stretching from the Yukon to Yellowstone (Y2Y) where “charismatic megafauna” like bears, wolves and caribou can roam freely and have enough continuous undisturbed habitat to thrive is slowly becoming a reality thanks to the dogged determination of thousands of concerned individuals and over 450 partner groups behind them. Since the project’s inception in 1993, green groups, indigenous groups and government agencies have worked together to preserve upwards of 500,000 square miles of the intermountain west for this project, with hopes of adding much more.

The core of Y2Y is all within the Rocky Mountains, the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia, and the Liard Plateau in northern B.C. Scientists have collaborated as well to expand Y2Y into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Columbia Mountains of eastern B.C., the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, given their similar ecological characteristics.

Unlike other animal crossings, Y2Y is a large area across mountain ranges without a hard boundary. Since natural ecosystems are entirely interconnected, conservationists have drawn soft, flexible boundaries in conjunction with evolving patterns of seasonal movements by wildlife. These untouched areas serve as safe highways for the diverse range of species to feed, breed and migrate without outside interference.

In other sections of the Y2Y region where development has been more commonplace, partner groups have worked to create wildlife-friendly infrastructure to facilitate crossings of roads and other man-made obstructions. They have also set up tracking mechanisms for some species to monitor their success. Meanwhile, other partners have been focused on acquiring real estate parcels that can be left in a natural state or converted back from development to be included in the animal-friendly network of corridors.

In the Y2Y region, conservationists and scientists have focused on the preservation of grizzly bears—an “umbrella” species. Since grizzly bears roam such an expansive area of land in search of food and mates, they play a central role in maintaining the healthy functioning of an ecosystem. Given the population declines and genetic diversity loss of the region, conservationists have especially pushed for wildlife corridors to alleviate the habitat loss and fragmentation among grizzly bears.

Achieving the Y2Y vision has not come easy. Much of the region stretches across private lands. To accommodate both humans and wildlife, conservationists have worked with private landowners to ensure safe passage for wildlife without interrupting human lifestyles. Many oil, gas and mining projects also require access roads, which often cut through natural landscapes and degrade wildlife habitat.

While the Y2Y mission has come far in preserving the natural environments from Yellowstone to Yukon, the initiative calls for further collaboration from diverse communities. Whether it’s volunteering from local groups or partnerships with larger organizations, Y2Y aims to continue its vision of harmonizing a wild and wooly 2,000-mile swath of the North American West.

CONTACTS: How Wildlife Corridors Protect Animals and People, pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2021/01/22/how-wildlife-corridors-protect-animals-and-people; Y2Y, y2y.net.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org

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