Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Year's Resolution: 12 Steps to Going Green in 2012

Sometimes I despair that enough people have the will to make the changes to prevent ruinous global warming; to change our habits so that future generations will not have to settle for pictures of wild polar bears and tigers and living coral reefs but will be able to see the real thing; and have clean drinking water and places to swim and healthy air to breathe. It is so discouraging to see our political leaders trying to push through the Keystone Pipeline, for example.

But then I remember all the people I know who have changed, or are trying to make changes, and all the organizations small and large who are doing the work that will lead to the consensus that's necessary. One of these is the Worldwatch Institute, a research organization based in Washington D.C.

Their good work includes a 12-step program for going green in 2012. Here are the steps, with their explanations and suggestions for what you can do, plus some additions from my own green tips.

1. Recycle
 In 2009, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to require all homes and businesses to use recycling and composting collection programs. As a result, more than 75 percent of all material collected is being recycled, diverting 1.6 million tons from the landfills annually----double the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge.

What you can do:
Put a separate container next to your trash can or printer, making it easier to recycle your bottles, cans, and paper. Keep a reusable shopping bag near the door and fill it with plastic bags that you can recycle at your supermarket.
(2) Turn off the lights

On the last Saturday in March----March 31 in 2012----hundreds of people, businesses, and governments around the world turn off their lights for an hour as part of Earth Hour, a movement to address climate change.

What you can do:
Earth Hour happens only once a year, but you can make an impact every day by turning off lights during bright daylight, or whenever you will be away for an extended period of time. In rooms that are too brightly lighted, remove some of the bulbs; use task lighting instead of filling a whole room with light. Install sensors that will turn off lights when you leave a room.
(3) Make the switch

In 2007, Australia became the first country to "ban the bulb," drastically reducing domestic usage of incandescent light bulbs. By late 2010, incandescent bulbs had been totally phased out, and, according to the country's environment minister, this simple move has made a big difference, cutting an estimated 4 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. China also recently pledged to replace the 1 billion incandescent bulbs used in its government offices with more energy efficient models within five years.

What you can do:
A bill in Congress to eliminate incandescent in the United States failed in 2011, but you can still make the switch at home. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) use only 20-30 percent of the energy required by incandescents to create the same amount of light, and now come in many versions for indoor, outdoor and decorative uses. LEDs use only 10 percent, helping reduce both electric bills and carbon emissions.
(4) Turn on the tap

The bottled water industry sold 8.8 billion gallons of water in 2010, generating nearly $11 billion in profits. Yet plastic water bottles create huge environmental problems. The energy required to produce and transport these bottles could fuel an estimated 1.5 million cars for a year, yet approximately 75 percent of water bottles are not recycled----they end up in landfills, litter roadsides, and pollute waterways and oceans. And while public tap water is subject to strict safety regulations, the bottled water industry is not required to report testing results for its products. According to a study, 10 of the most popular brands of bottled water contain a wide range of pollutants, including pharmaceuticals, fertilizer residue, and arsenic. 

What you can do:
This one is pretty simple: Fill up your glasses and reusable water bottles with water from the taps in your home.
(5) Turn down the heat

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that consumers can save up to 15 percent on heating and cooling bills just by adjusting their thermostats.

What you can do:
Turn down your thermostat when you leave for work, or use a programmable thermostat to control your heating settings. Plant shade trees on the sunny side of your house, turn off the central air completely, open the windows and enjoy fresh air! Install solar panels to heat your hot water (the payback on your investment is quick) or an on-demand gas hot water heater.

(6) Support food recovery programs

Each year, roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption----approximately 1.3 billion tons----gets lost or wasted, including 34 million tons in the United States, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Grocery stores, bakeries, and other food providers throw away tons of food daily that is perfectly edible but is cosmetically imperfect or has passed its expiration date. In response, food recovery programs run by homeless shelters or food banks collect this food and use it to provide meals for the hungry, helping to divert food away from landfills and into the bellies of people who need it most.

What you can do:
Encourage your local restaurants and grocery stores to partner with food rescue organizations, like City Harvest in New York City, Food Not Bombs on Long Island, or Second Harvest Heartland in Minnesota.
Go through your cabinets and shelves and donate any non-perishable canned and dried foods that you won't be using to your nearest food bank or shelter.
(7) Buy local

"Small Business Saturday," falling between "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday," was established in 2010 as a way to support small businesses during the busiest shopping time of the year. Author and consumer advocate Michael Shuman argues that local small businesses are more sustainable because they are often more accountable for their actions, have smaller environmental footprints, and innovate to meet local conditions----providing models for others to learn from.

What you can do:
Instead of relying exclusively on large supermarkets, shop at farmers markets, Consumer Supported Agriculture Coops (CSAs) and local farms for your produce, eggs, dairy, and meat. Food from these sources is usually fresher and more flavorful, and your money will help support local farmers. Take the Slow Money pledge and invest 1% of your assets in food growers and processors who work locally in place of a stock fund invested in who knows what, who knows where.
(8) Get out and ride

We all know that carpooling and using public transportation helps cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as our gas bills. Now, cities across the country are investing in new mobility options. Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. have major bike sharing programs that allow people to rent bikes for short-term use. Similar programs exist in other cities, and more are planned for places from Miami, Florida, to Madison, Wisconsin.

What you can do:
If available, use your city's bike share program to run short errands or commute to work. Memberships are generally inexpensive (only $75 for the year in Washington, D.C.), and by eliminating transportation costs, as well as a gym membership, you can save quite a bit of money!
Even if without bike share programs, many cities and towns are incorporating bike lanes and trails, making it easier and safer to use your bike for transportation and recreation.
(9) Share a car

Car sharing programs spread from Europe to the United States nearly 13 years ago and are increasingly popular, with U.S. membership jumping 117 percent between 2007 and 2009. According to the University of California Transportation Center, each shared car replaces 15 personally owned vehicles, and roughly 80 percent of more than 6,000 car-sharing households surveyed across North America got rid of their cars after joining a sharing service. In 2009, car-sharing was credited with reducing U.S. carbon emissions by more than 482,000 tons. Innovative programs such as Chicago's I-GO are even introducing solar-powered cars to their fleets, making the impact of these programs even more eco-friendly.

What you can do:
Join a car share program! As of July 2011, there were 26 such programs in the U.S., with more than 560,000 people sharing over 10,000 vehicles. Even if you don't want to get rid of your own car, using a shared car when traveling in a city can greatly reduce the challenges of finding parking (car share programs have their own designated spots), as well as your environmental impact as you run errands or commute to work.
(10) Plant a garden

Wherever you live, growing your own vegetables is a simple but revolutionary way to bring fresh and nutritious food literally to your doorstep.
What you can do:
Plant something--even just some lettuce in a window box. Lettuce seeds are cheap and easy to find, and when planted in full sun, one window box can provide enough to make several salads worth throughout a season. If you don't have a sunny spot or a lot of know-how, sign up for, or help start a community garden where growing conditions are excellent and other gardeners can provide help. One example of an organization doing this is the Long Island Community Agriculture Network that I co-founded two years ago.
(11) Compost

And what better way to fertilize your garden than using your own composted organic waste. You will not only reduce costs by buying less fertilizer, but you will also help to cut down on food and other organic waste.

What you can do:
If you are unsure about the right ways to compost, check out HowToCompost and the U.S. Composting Council.  And, stop letting landscape companies remove all the leaves from your flower and shrub beds! The leaves keep the ground warm--that's good for the plants in cold climates--and add organic matter to the soil when they decompose. The leaves taken off your lawn should go into your compost pile, not a landfill.
(12) Reduce your meat consumption

Livestock production accounts for about 18 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for about 23 percent of all global water used in agriculture. Yet thanks to concerted PR efforts that suggest a meal isn't a meal without meat, global meat production has been going up exponentially. Another important reason to eat less meat is compassion: cows, pigs and other food animals these days endure miserable lives in factories, not on farms, and are kept from succumbing to diseases with antibiotics.

What you can do:
You don't have to become a vegetarian or vegan. Simply cut down on the amount of meat you consume. As a start, consider substituting one meat meal a day with a vegetarian option.

Worldwatch points out that the most successful and lasting New Year's resolutions are those that are practiced regularly and have an important goal. With faith in each other and in the future, we can bring about the changes necessary to save our world.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Student Loans Abet High Law School tuitions

An eye-opening look at the cost of getting a law degree blames student loans for the ability of law schools to charge about $50,000 per year, when you include living and other expenses along with tuition. David Segal wrote in The New York Times yesterday that when combined with the prestige race pumped up by U.S. News & World Report's rankings, student loans have allowed law schools to disregard affordability.

The focus of the article, however, was the accreditation standards imposed by the American Bar Association. Segal writes that the standards have pretty much guaranteed that graduating lawyers have no choice but to charge high fees for their services.

If you've ever wanted to sue someone, you already know that unless you're after a minimum of $25,000, you should abandon the idea. It's just not worth it after you calculate what your lawyer will get.

The ABA's stranglehold on legal services prevents the U.S. from having categories of legal professionals who can charge less than lawyers who've passed the bar. In Britain there are other less expensive alternatives like legal executives who can appear before courts and represent clients in different sorts of matters.  Without having done any exhaustive research on the subject, it sounds like they are something like the legal version of physician assistants.

The bottom line is that although we all joke about lawyers and lament that there are too many of them, consumers could definitely benefit from access to less expensive legal help. Instead, anyone who dispenses legal advice without having gone to an ABA-accredited school (except in a few states like Tennessee) is breaking--you guessed it--the law.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Their stories: Slaves to Student Loans

They tell their stories with anguish, with anger, with hopelessness and with numbers. They are the victims of a student loan system designed to guarantee big profits to lenders for years to come while enslaving borrowers with outrageous terms of repayment.

You can see their pictures and read their words at a new Occupy Student Debt website. There's the 27-year old woman with $100,000 in debt who can't find a job paying more than about $12/hour. She wants to send her useless diploma to Sallie Mae.

There's the widow who went back to school at the age of 48 to get a Master's Degree and the chance at a better job as a school teacher. She's now 55. She figures that she'll be 77 before she pays off her loan.

There's the 63-year old father of 3, a physician no less, who even pre-paid tuition to lock in lower rates. But college for 2 of his children ended up costing more anyway, and he's now stuck with $42,000 in loans that carry interest rates of more than 8%, with payments in the early years going only for interest, not to pay down principle. He compares that to the terms of his home mortgage and home equity loan, both with interest rates under 4% and terms that make prepayment a smart idea.

These stories show how the banks succeeded in getting the U.S. Congress to make student loans immensely profitable for lenders and uniquely onerous for borrowers.

With interest rates so low now, refinancing a home mortgage, for example, can save a home owner lots of money, as long as they have a good enough credit rating to convince a bank to do the refinancing. You can also declare bankruptcy if you fall behind. You'll lose most of what you own, but at least you'll be able to start fresh.

But no, there are no opportunities to refinance a student loan at lower rates. Lenders have no reason to offer them. Nor can you go bankrupt. The law doesn't allow it. There is no escape.

Read their stories. 400 of them so far. Each one proof that our elected representatives care much more about banking industry campaign contributions than the plight of their constituents.

Monday, December 5, 2011

College Presidents' Pay Up Despite Economy

Thanks to the Chronicle of Higher Education, we have just learned that the pay of private college presidents continued up in 2009 despite the economy. As reported in The New York Times, 36 presidents had an average increase of 2.2 percent. Most interesting to me is the chart showing their compensation as a percentage of university expenditures, ranging from 1% to a high of 3.5% for a school I'd never heard of: Mountain State University in West Virginia.

This president, Charles H. Polk, pulled in $1, 843, 746 in 2009.

In defense of his and other million dollar plus pay packages, David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told The Times: "There is just a small pool of candidates who possess the skill set that is required and are willing to take on the stressful 24/7 nature of the position."

The Times reporter didn't bother to quote anyone critical of these pay scales, much less anyone from the Occupy movement.

So Mountain State must be an excellent school, right? Wrong. Instead, the school may lose its accreditation early in 2012. A show-cause order by the Higher Learning Commission cited problems of monitoring of student progress, governance, and--get ready for it-- availability of resources. Seems to me that with a performance like that, everybody at Mountain State should be questioning his "skill set."

The other interesting chart shows the presidents' compensation as a multiple of average pay for professors--not adjuncts, of course, but the full-time profs. That ranges from a high of 16.1 for Stevenson University in Maryland to a low of about twice for the president of Wabash College in Indiana. Five other presidents earned at least 10 times as much as their full professors.

Stevenson has been undergoing rapid expansion in the last several years so that may be why its board of trustees thinks president Kevin J. Manning deserves to be paid so much more than the professors, a rich package worth $1,493,655. If I were a student there with student loans, I'd sure want to ask them.