Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

I purchased the Omnivore's Dilemma at a thrift store for $2.00 a few months ago, and it had been sitting on my shelf for awhile.  I delved into it one lazy weekend, and although it took me the better part of a month to read, it was very eye-opening and enjoyable.  I first heard about the book, through the film Food Inc, which I highly recommend as well.  Both works cover the modern food industry, which is very different from the rest of human history's food, and the resulting effects on our planet and our bodies.

I obviously care about food a great deal, as I believe what you eat is literally what you are.  If you constantly eat crappy fast food and sweets, then thats what you become.  Food expenditures in the US these days are at the lowest percentage of family income of all time, and the plethora of options available at the supermarkets has never been bigger.  The Omnivore's Dilemma helps us to navigate this new situation, and helps us to understand how the food gets to our table, and the answers are surprising.

I do not want to give the book away, but Pollan discusses the world's most plentiful crop corn, which is in nearly everything we eat.  He discusses how this organism has evolved to be perfect for human needs and allowed it to take over vast amounts of land.  He also discusses the organic food system, and how at its ideal, this is an excellent way of thinking about food, but in practice mirrors many of the less tasteful things about the rest of the industry.  Next he lives with Joel Salatin (pictured above), owner/farmer of Polyface Farm, which is my favorite section of the book.  Finally he examines hunting and foraging, which is how human ancestors ate for centuries, before agriculture.

The book is great, and is a good read, as Pollan is able to make the topic very readable.  It is also enlightening, especially about something that we spend a good portion of every day doing, but maybe do not think about enough...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Use Natural Lighting and "Air Conditioning"

This is part of my series20 Ways to Go Green that Make a DifferenceThis series discusses practical ways we can go green in our lives, that will have a measurable effect on the environment.  This is an alternative to the many lists that offer 100+ suggestions, many of which are not easily applied to our lives or the impact is minimal. 

The summer is coming, and that means long days and hot weather.  For many people this means high bills from central air conditioning.  This is one of the most wasteful and unnecessary creature comforts that human society has.  While it is comfortable and pleasant, there are plenty of ways that we can mitigate the environmental waste and damage caused by these creature comforts.

Since summer is coming, the days are going to be much longer.  This means that we will not need to waste as much electricity on lighting, since days are going to last longer.  It is important to harness as much natural light in both office and residential settings.  Large, well placed windows will allow us to bath in the radiance of the sun, and avoid wasting electricity for artificial lighting.  This is fairly straight-forward, but the design of many buildings does not effectively take advantage of the free solar lighting offered.  To make this change, demand windows and natural lighting.  Also, if you have it available to you, make sure to take advantage of it, and consciously turn off lights if they can be avoided.  Furthermore, get out and enjoy the sun, especially for those of us who live in the northern part of the country, take advantage of long summer days and get outside in the evenings rather than watching TV indoors.  Have a bar-be-que, play sports, or just lounge outside with a book.  Free lighting everywhere!  I also try to take advantage of this in the winter, by going to bed earlier, so I do not need to waste electricity at night.  Candles are great, especially before bed!

As far as natural "air conditioning" this is a bit more difficult.  Obviously, everyone loves the cool comfort provided by central air and fans, but do we really need it?  No, humans are well adapted to warmth, and we sweat out all of our excess heat.  Instead of using a fan or the air conditioner, open up the windows!   This goes for both the car and the house.  No need to waste gasoline by using your air conditioner, just slow down and roll down those windows and drink in the breeze.  Although there is a chance that pests may get in your house, its not much of a bother, just get a screen!  If it gets unbearably hot, try to use low levels of air conditioning, rather than cranking it up to the highest setting.  Most of the time, you just need a little bit of conditioning rather than the frigid cold in the middle of July!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Green Investing

This is part of my series20 Ways to Go Green that Make a DifferenceThis series discusses practical ways we can go green in our lives, that will have a measurable effect on the environment.  This is an alternative to the many lists that offer 100+ suggestions, many of which are not easily applied to our lives or the impact is minimal.

Today's topic is something many of you have probably not considered in the course of your green education.  That topic is green investing.  You may have a 401k for an employer, an IRA from your parents, or an account at a brokerage.  Your investments make a difference.  Just like every dollar you spend, every dollar you invest is a vote of support for that company.

There are many ways to invest greenly.  You could invest directly into an alternative energy company, but that opens you up to the risks of not being diversified.  To counter that you could consider a green mutual fund like Gabelli's SRI Green Fund.  This fund invests in socially conscious firms and you benefit from having professionals in the investment world managing the day to day of your money for a marginal fee.

iThere are a number of organic and natural foods companies you may want to consider directly investing in.  These include Whole Foods Market, the organic grocer, or Lifeway foods, makers of Kefir and other healthy foods.  It is also as important what you do NOT invest in as what you do actually make an investment in.  Things to avoid are industrial farmers, makers of GMO altered foods or seeds.  I am not going to list their info here, as I do not want it to be misconstrued as support, but do your research and make sure not to invest in companies or in funds with holdings in these types of corporations.

A final option you may want to consider is a micro-loan.  This is a direct loan to an individual, often in a poor country, for them to make a business.  Kiva is the largest marketplace for this type of a loan.  Although many do pay back their loans, I would not consider this a viable investment strategy and should be considered more as entertainment or charity.  I have heard success stories and it is an option you may want to consider.


As always, it is important to think about what you are doing and to act intentionally.  Although all investors are in search of the "green," not all of them care about being green on the way to profits.  You can make a difference by both NOT supporting the offenders and by supporting the green energy firms who are creating new products and services to make our planet better!

Disclaimer: Although I do work in the investments field, I am not a registered investment advisor.  These are solely my opinions and should not be taken as investment recommendations.