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Blue Bungalow Farm

Heather Zydek writes about life on the east side of Tosa.

Transitioning with the A/C

Green Neighbor, Home Energy Efficiency, Power Down, Air Conditioning, Energy for Tomorrow, Transition

Today I caved and did something I've only done a few times over the last four years: I turned on my air conditioner. It's not particularly stifling according to the thermometer, but after 24 hours with a heat index in the mid-to-upper nineties, it was steamy inside my house. The six of us (including one 90-pound, long-haired dog) were starting to wilt. 
 
This moment of weakness seems an especially grave sustainability sin because it occurred, unwittingly, during Power Down Week, when local sustainers are challenged to "make their carbon foot print as small as they can" from June 25 to July 3. The week concludes with Energy Independence Day at Gordon Park in the Riverwest neighborhood of MKE. I've been away from my computer a lot these last few weeks, working on various gardening projects, so I missed the Power Down announcements on Facebook and various e-mail lists. 
 
Though using my A/C (especially during Power Down Week) may hurt my eco-cred, I don't feel too guilty about it. Why? Because to me, this is what transitioning to environmental sustainability is all about. I fear that for some, sustainability can become a "more radical than thou" sort of exercise, a kind of competition to see who can tough out a higher degree of energy independence. Don't get me wrong – the fewer fossil fuels a person uses, the better. And events like Power Down Week offer fun ways to raise awareness about the transition movement. But the extremism required to suffer through a heat wave without A/C doesn't come naturally to most Americans, who have been coddled by comfort and convenience for generations. Can those blessed with A/C realistically be expected to revert to nineteenth century discomfort overnight? Judging by the responses of many of my A/C-loving friends to the concept, I think not.
 
Enter the transition movement, a philosophy that emphasizes weaning oneself off of fossil fuels. This is the concept behind Transition U.S., which posits that "life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise." It seems clear that fossil fuels like oil and coal -- extremely potent sources of energy that have powered the pace of human progress over the last 150 years -- are unsustainable resources, especially at the rate we are using them. And yet, to a certain extent it is unrealistic to ask Americans to quit their fossil fuel addiction cold turkey. That might be possible for a radical minority, but not for the masses. With this in mind, should the more radical among us simply shake our heads sadly and wait out the end of the modern world in our wind-powered eco-villages? Or should we take the hands of our less willing friends and families and help them baby step toward sustainability?
 
Having many reluctant transitioners among my loved ones, I choose the latter option (though the former does have its appeal). That's one part of the reason I turned on the A/C today. Sure, part of it was because, after a sleepless night dousing my head in cold water every half hour, I reached such a point of overheating that I could not function normally. But instead of toughing it out until the cool air returned, as I've done in the past, I chose to use the perfectly good air conditioner I own, if just for a day or two. Doing so, I feel, helps keep me honest and human. It helps me to empathize with those who don't think they can lead more sustainable lives because they don't want to give up their creature comforts. It also helps me to strike a balance. I can enjoy the A/C when I really need it, while also turning it off as soon as the extreme heat passes. 
 
To me, this is the essence of transitioning. The Transition movement is about using the resources we have more sparingly, more judiciously. It is about slowly adjusting to a slightly less comfortable existence. For me, transitioning means keeping the thermostat set at 63 to 67 degrees in the winter, instead of 75. It means mowing half my lawn with a manual "reel mower" and the other half with a gas-powered machine. It means using both rain barrel and municipal water to hydrate my gardens. And it means only turning on the A/C when there is a heat index above 95. Transitioning makes our conversion to energy independence slow but sustainable. It is a luxury we now have while energy is still relatively cheap and readily available. 
 
Part of transitioning involves "powering down," a little bit at a time. Another part involves shifting from using fossil fuels to using sustainable energy sources. This can be difficult for those of us who lack the funds to purchase wind turbines or solar panels. Thankfully, we can support renewable energy to fuel our A/Cs, furnaces, lighting and appliances by participating in WE's Energy for Tomorrow program. For $10 a month, a household can help fund WE's use of renewable energy (biomass, hydroelectric, solar, and wind), reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 15,264 pounds annually (and reducing waste of limited fossil fuels). Our family just enrolled. We are thrilled to know that when we cave and power up instead of down, we're supporting renewable resources when we do so.
 
Want to learn more about the transition movement? Here are a few more resources you might find helpful:
 
Green Neighbor
Sign up for the Energy for Tomorrow program through the Green Neighbor website and get a $5 gift certificate to Alterra Coffee!
 
Sustainable Tosa
 
Transition Milwaukee
 
Wauwatosa Energy Committee
 
WPR interview with Patricia Benson, Board Member, Transition U.S. 

A Fishy Trip to the Beach

water pollution, alewives, Lake Michigan, Areas of Concern, dead fish, clean water

One of our favorite perks of life in the Milwaukee area is easy access to the shores of Lake Michigan. We moved here in 2006 from land-locked Champaign-Urbana and soon formed a habit of visiting the lake, sometimes daily, to dip our feet in the water at Bradford Beach or walk along the shore at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay in search of sea glass and cool rocks.

Despite our love of the gorgeous expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, we rarely wade further than our knees into the great lake's waters. Very few locals swim in the ice cold lake – partly because, well, it's freezing, and partly because of the unimaginable things one might find in the water. Like blobs of algae, garbage, maybe human and pet waste (really). Never mind the unseen poisons in the water thanks to industrial dumping by BP in Indiana and others. 
 
At a recent trip to a Milwaukee beach, we confronted all of the above pollutants – including pet waste (someone's unleashed dog trotted by and peed in the sand right in front of us). But the most memorable pollutants were dozens of shiny little fish baking on the shoreline. 
 
 
When we first arrived, we found a decent spot in the sand and watched our three girls run to the icy water to wade. Almost immediately, one of them was able to catch a fish with her bare hands. She brought her prize to us and I suggested that she temporarily place the small silver fish in a plastic cup lying in the sand so she could study it (the cup was one of many pieces of trash laying on the beach). She placed the fish in the cup and watched it float, belly-up. "It looks dead," I said, wondering if the process of being captured was too much for the creature to handle. She dumped the fish into the water. Then, a few moments later, she caught another fish. And then another. "Why are these fish so easy to catch, and why do they all look half-dead?" my husband and I wondered. We speculated that the "living" fish our girls caught were sick and about to join their dead brethren on the shore. 
 
Of course, given the local lore about Lake Michigan pollution, our first thought was that the fish were dying because of something in the water. We grew increasingly squeamish watching our girls play in what we assumed to be a polluted lake. The longer we sat, the more the odor of the dead fish, along with sea gull feces, overwhelmed us. To make matters worse, biting flies surrounded us. Then that dog trotted along and peed. The dog pee was the last straw. We packed up and moved our party to Alterra on the Lake. 
 
We were perplexed for days about the dead fish, wondering what caused this phenomenon. Any time creatures die en masse, humans speculate. Were the fish deaths caused by industrial waste dumped into the water? By global climate change? Is it an omen? My overactive imagination gravitated toward the worst. 
 
Then came an answer to why this seemingly mysterious phenomenon is occurring. We learned from a WISN report that the fish are called alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus), a smallish, invasive herring. According to the report, alewife deaths are common this time of year. The die-offs are probably caused by temperature fluctuations in the water. Still curious, I did some googling and found a few articles on the subject of the alewife die-off, including a recent piece by the Associated Press and WISN's web coverage. Both reports claim that the deaths are a normal phenomenon that occurs with this invasive species every so often.
 
But isn't Lake Michigan so polluted as to be deadly to some of its fish? This is a popular assumption on the part of many beach-goers, myself included. I asked the DNR's Southern Lake Michigan Fisheries Supervisor Bradley Eggold about pollution and whether it harmed the alewives. His answer? It is "very, very remote" that water pollution is a factor in the alewife deaths. "Alewives are very sensitive to changes in water temperature, especially at this time of year," he said. "These water temperature changes occur every year. Other major reasons why these alewives die-off every year include 1) they are native to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore live in saltwater. They can have trouble regulating their salt/water in their bodies, 2) spawning stress and 3) low food availability."
 
Harvey Bootsma, Associate Professor of the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agrees that pollution is "highly unlikely" to be a cause in alewife deaths. "This is a common occurrence on the great lakes, and it's almost always due to changing physical conditions in the early summer."
 
Temperature fluctuations, says Bootsma, are normal, and not necessarily caused by global climate change. "Alwives have been doing this ever since they entered the great lakes."
 
Regardless of what is causing the alewives to die, the fact remains that our beaches can sometimes feel as dirty as the nearby public restrooms (if you've been at the public restrooms by the lake shore on a busy summer day, you know what I mean). That goes for both the shoreline and the water itself. Although pollution may not be the cause of alewife deaths, it certainly contributed to an unpleasant beach experience. The amount of litter on the beach alone bordered on disgusting. All that filth on the shore made me wonder how clean the water is. 
 
I asked Dr. Bootsma whether pollution in Lake Michigan is a problem. "The water itself is quite clean," Bootsma said. "There are some areas where there are localized problems, called 'areas of concern'. You can read more about them at http://www.great-lakes.net/envt/pollution/aoc.html." An Area of Concern (AOC), according to Environment Canada, "is a location that has experienced environmental degradation." This map indicates that in MKE the Milwaukee Estuary is an AOC, due to "significant contributions of toxic substances to the Milwaukee Estuary AOC from upstream sources" (e.g. the Menomonee River).
 
The bottom line is that it's fairly safe to swim in Lake Michigan water if you're not in an AOC – that is, if you can stand the cold. And it's probably not a big deal for kids to be catching half dead alewives in the water, as long as they're not handling the ones that have been dead for a while. But many of our beaches are filthy -- there's no doubt about it. The sand is littered with waste, as well as bacteria from the feces of abundant sea gulls who gorge themselves on our garbage. 
 
What might we do about our filthy beaches and our AOCs? While some of these issues are perhaps too deeply rooted for us to change on an individual level, Bootsma suggests a few things average citizens might do to help clean up Lake Michigan: "1. Mercury comes from coal burning power plants and other industrial (and natural) sources…reducing energy consumption helps, and people should also be careful how they dispose of hazardous waste; 2. Some near-shore problems are caused by excessive phosphorus loading to the lake. Some of this comes from urban runoff, so if people apply fertilizer (or any herbicides or pesticides) to their lawns, they should do it sparingly. A video that highlights some of the work we have done in this area can be viewed at http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/29499314; 3. Water quality is sometimes affected by overflows of storm sewers or sanitary sewers, so water conservation methods (using rain barrels; disconnecting sump pump drains from the ditch) can be helpful; 4. Be careful about what we flush down the drain. Unused pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and paint should be disposed of properly; 5. One of our websites has more useful information on beach water quality:  http://www.glwi.uwm.edu/documents/non-pointdweb.pdf."
 
Seems to me that the simplest thing any beach-goer can do is to pick up trash off the shore. That and avoid feeding the gulls.
 
Beyond these measures, the DNR's Bradley Eggolt says it can be helpful to get involved through education and activism. Educate yourself by seeking out a range of sources on these issues. Then look for opportunities to become active. "The best advice I can give is to get involved," Eggolt explained in a recent e-mail. "Whether it is because you are a beach goer and want clean beaches or you are a fisherman and you want to catch salmon and trout, read and learn about the issues and attend meetings where these things get discussed… It could be a local fishing club, environmental group, nature center, etc.  With that said, you would not have to join a group or go to those meetings, just read and get involved in whatever way that person feels comfortable doing."

It's HOT, ya'll! (Or, how to run an A/C responsibly in Wisconsin, Texas, and everywhere)

Air Conditioning, Home Energy Efficiency, Heat Wave, We Energies Energy Partners Program, transition movement, Kilgore, Texas, oil

We’re in the midst of what is so far the worst heat wave of the summer here in Wisconsin, which, if you’ve been following weather news, is lucky for us – our heat waves have been short and few compared with those in our southern states. Nonetheless, 95 Fahrenheit with a triple digit heat index in Wisconsin is only a bit more tolerable than it is down south. I can personally attest to this, having just returned from a trip to Kilgore, Texas
 
A few weeks ago I shared that I rarely run my A/C, but that the heat then was so uncomfortable at over 90+ degrees that I couldn’t take it anymore. After a sweltering trip to the Tosa Farmers Market I returned home and did something I do *maybe* once a year: I turned on my air conditioning for about 12 hours. Thankfully, that heat wave moved east and soon it was cooler outside than in. We turned off the A/C, opened our windows, and welcomed that typical summer evening smell of campfires from the neighborhood and the cool Lake Michigan breeze.
 
Now we're in the middle of a much tougher heat wave, the kind where advisories flash everywhere and the weather reporters are a-buzz with warnings to avoid heat exhaustion. In the past I have suffered through such hot spells without the A/C, but this year, I don't know if the heat is worse or my resolve is weaker, but my husband and I decided to use our working central air -- just a little. As stated in my last post, this is what transitioning is all about: moderation, not extremism.
 
That said, I really hate running the A/C, for three main reasons:
 
1. It's expensive. We save hundreds a year not using our air conditioner.
 
2. It's not very green. Running the A/C constantly increases a household's carbon emissions and wastes dwindling fossil fuels. 
 
3. It's isolating, disconnecting us from life outdoors. My husband and I wait all winter to enjoy opening our windows to the sounds and smells of summer. Hiding out cooler indoors in the summer feels like February, or like hanging out in a restaurant refrigerator all day.
 
Part of what I love about life in Milwaukee is that stifling heat doesn't last too long. It's easy to withstand a few days of heat when you know the winds will soon shift, bringing in lake breezes from the east or rain from the west. So traveling to Kilgore was a little unsettling, and not because of the abundance of non-ironic cowboy hats and drive-through daiquiri stands. It was unsettling because of the rampant abuse of air conditioning. Granted, it was ungodly hot in all the states we passed through on our way to see my little sister Meaghan perform in the Texas Shakespeare Festival, including Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas; the typical heat index was over 100 daily. Texas was the worst: as my dad observed, in East Texas it is both uncomfortably dry and humid at the same time. Standing in sun is a bit like being a vampire at daybreak. Your skin feels like it's going to burst into flames. 
 
It's downright uncomfortable, ya'll.
 
The strange thing to me, though, wasn't the heat. Most of the U.S. is uncomfortably hot right now. The thing that got me is how cold all the buildings we entered are kept. It is normal to go from 105 to 65 upon entering a commercial building in Texas. That kind of temperature shift can't be good for a person, nor for the energy grid.
 
These big box stores, malls, movie theaters, hotels, and restaurants are so cold they make the outside feel hot as hell. Why would anyone go outside when they are chilled and surrounded by screens, pretty products, and junk food? We saw almost no one on the streets in Kilgore. It was kind of like Wisconsin during a blizzard, but with green leaves on the trees.
 
After being cooped up for 48 hours, I was determined to experience the (not so) great outdoors in Kilgore. So I decided one evening to walk from our hotel to Texas Shakespeare's presentation of Hamlet. It was hot. There were no sidewalks, which was scary because I wore sandals and had to walk through a lot of grass. Know what creatures tend to live in Texas grass? Fire ants. The scenery consisted mostly of some of the nation's most omnipresent chain stores (McDonald's, Dollar General), a fair share of abandoned gas stations, and dozens of oil derricks*. At one point on my walk I smelled rotting hamburger in front of an abandoned building. I looked down and there was a dead tabby cat baking in the heat. By the time I arrived at the theater a mile up the road I was covered in slimy sweat and gasping for air from the humidity. 
 
 
It's not an understatement that my walk was a harrowing experience. It made me understand why folks hide out in giant refrigerators this time of year. And yet, that walk was the first time of our five-day road trip where I felt alive. In addition to all the less-than-pleasant sights (and smells), I also saw an abundance of gorgeous crepe myrtles in full bloom lining the streets, a variety of birds, and lots of dragonflies. I heard the happy sound of cicadas rattling in the trees. Aside from that one patch with the dead cat I smelled that sweet late-summer odor of fully mature flora. And I was getting some much needed exercise, to boot. Sure, it was hotter 'n' I've experienced in a long time – maybe ever. But I got out of my hotel room isolation and encountered real life. 
 
My only regret was how lonely it felt that late afternoon -- the only humans around were tightly sealed inside the refrigerated cars that whizzed by.
 
Now, I don't mean to judge. Perhaps a majority of Texans find this summer lock-down enjoyable. I found it depressing. And I couldn't help but wonder if this hyper-air conditioned lifestyle is on borrowed time. It is an unsustainable kind of existence, seems to me. Its time will end as did the time of the active oil derricks in downtown Kilgore, which, thanks to the East Texas Oil Field, was once home to the "World's Richest Acre." 
 
The thing that gets me most about this is how cold the commercial buildings are. OK, so air conditioning, if a person can afford the luxury, keeps the elderly and infirm safe during wicked heat. It keeps the rest of us comfortable and sane. But does the temperature really need to be in the 60s inside our buildings during a hot spell? Wouldn't the mid-to-upper 70s be OK? While I will admit that it feels very refreshing to step inside an ice-cold building during a hot spell (kind of like jumping into a pool), after a few minutes the air inside begins to feel as cold as autumn "sweater weather." Is this necessary? I think not. Surely just bringing up the thermostat a few degrees would save money and fuel and even be more comfortable. It would also reduce the extreme gap between indoor and outdoor temperatures. I don't know about you, but for me, moving between extreme temps tends to give me a headache. 
 
Right now, believe it or not, the Blue Bungalow's thermostat is set at 78. This is just enough to take the edge off the stifling heat. Sure, it's stuffy in our house, and I don' t love it. But I do love that our energy bill will remain low, and that I am not so adjusted to the cold that I can't stand being outdoors when it's above 80 degrees outside. I can still walk my dog and weed my garden without going into complete shock. 
 
Adjusting the thermostat even a few degrees does make a difference. We Energies' most recent blog post currently addresses heat waves and AC efficiency tips, including this tidbit: the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy "estimates that air conditioners use 3 to 5 percent less energy for every degree you raise the thermostat. ACEEE recommends a thermostat setting of 78 degrees or higher when you’re out." If you want to reduce energy consumption and save money while running the A/C, in addition to turning up the thermostat you can participate in We's Energy Partners program, through which you'll receive bill credits from WE for allowing them "to turn off your AC compressor during rare times...of extreme electricity demand." 
 
Despite the heat, I enjoyed my trip to Kilgore. I enjoyed it even more when I decided to brave the outdoors and walk outside. My lil' sis Meaghan and the rest of the Texas Shakespeare company rocked. Their performances of Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, The Beaux' Stratagem were top notch. Major props to my sister, too, for spending her entire summer in the hellishly-hot Kilgore AND running, OUTDOORS, almost daily. She's an example of how one can live well during a heat wave. 
 
*Kilgore's oil derricks, I learned, are fakes: Kilgore became a boom town in the 1930s and, at that time, the skyline consisted of hundreds of real wooden oil rigs. They eventually came down when the boom went to bust. Decades later, in the late twentieth century, a group of folks erected dozens of ornamental steel replicas of the original derricks. See www.khpf.org/derrickproject.html). 

On Peak Oil and Edible Landscaping

Peak Oil, Edible Landscaping, A Crude Awakening, M. King Hubbert, the Oil Crash

In the summer of 2008 I learned about the problem of peak oil, thanks to the documentary A Crude Awakening. The peak oil theory, first proposed by the geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, suggests that the discovery of petroleum and ensuing extraction and refinement into useable products will peak at a certain future point because it is a non-renewable resource. When oil production peaks, it will go from being cheap and readily available to increasingly expensive and scarce. The scarcity of oil will have a potentially disastrous affect on worldwide economies and the way of life of those in the "first world," where we've come to depend on petroleum and its byproducts to survive.
 
The peak oil concept, if you think about it, is logical. It's not exactly what I'd call a shocking revelation, that the world's oil supply is eventually going to taper off, and that this will have catastrophic consequences to Americans, who depend on oil for almost everything. And yet, this idea hadn't occurred to me until I watched A Crude Awakening. It was only then that I began to consider the origin of my fuel, food, clothes, shelter, and the countless needless things I buy from Target each week. Petroleum products are a part of nearly everything we buy, from plastic bags to vinyl to synthetic fabrics. Look around your home and try to determine what products could have been made without oil and you'll probably come up with a very short list. Even the food we eat arrives on our plate thanks to oil, from the petrochemicals used to grow vegetables to the plastic packaging of convenience foods and the transport of nearly everything we eat from far-away places. 
 
Once I recovered from the initial shock-and-panic of realizing I was utterly dependent upon a dwindling resource, I resolved to learn how to become more self-reliant, to create an existence for myself that didn't rely completely on petroleum. I don't have the money to buy solar panels and go off the grid, so I figured I would start my journey toward sustainability by cutting down on energy usage and growing as much of my own food as possible. 
 
That's when I discovered edible landscaping: the idea of planting a yard not with ornamental plants but with fruit bearing trees, shrubs, and perennials that provide sustenance for a home's residents. I chose to fill my tiny lot with edibles in the event that supermarkets can no longer carry affordable, healthy food. Doing so would help me learn how to sustain myself using traditional food growing methods and, in the process, I' be able to eat organic on the cheap. So I went to garden centers and bought as many fruit plants as I could find. I bought white and red grapes, June and everbearing strawberries, blueberries, apples, cherries, and black berries. I planted four raised beds with veggies and herbs and purchased a few dwarf varieties of fruit shrubs (pomegranate, fig, orange, coffee) to grow in pots indoors. I also discovered that I had a mulberry tree and chokecherries in my yard, which was nice, I thought, because if need be I could use those fruits to make jams and jellies.
 
Of course, it takes a few years for newly established perennials and shrubs to bear fruit. There's an adage about perennials that goes like this: "first year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap." I've found that to be about right; the first year I reaped maybe a handful of raspberries and blueberries and an apple or two from my yard. I patiently watered and pruned. I amended the soil in my yard with compost I created myself from yard waste and kitchen scraps. As I waited, I planted more edibles: red and black currants, arctic kiwi, another apple and cherry, hazelnuts, an herb garden, and lots of veggies. I also continued to plant "ornamentals" (a mix of native and exotic perennials), because not only are they beautiful but they attract pollinators that will be beneficial to my edible plants. They also lend to the biodiversity of my yard.
 
As my shrubs and perennials mature and as my skill in raising fruits and vegetables increases, my harvest has improved little by little. This year I am finally seeing the fruits of my labor. Just the other day I was able to harvest a colorful cornucopia of first fruits from my backyard, including green beans, peas, zucchini, basil, red currants, and a few raspberries:
 
 
This is encouraging. When I first got the sustainability bug, I thought I was going to go off the grid overnight. I soon learned the depressing reality that it is very difficult to go off the grid in an urban setting, and it certainly doesn't happen overnight – not without a substantial amount of money. Over the last four summers I've learned that it may take a while to grow a large volume of food on a small lot, but with patience and persistence, I can reap quite a bit of fruit from a tiny property – perhaps not enough to completely sustain my family of five year-round, but enough to reduce my number of trips to the grocery store at the very least. Am I living sustainably? Not quite. But for me, these steps are all an important part of transitioning – a luxury those with foresight are offered as we live off the glut of oil while preparing for times when that oil will be scarce. I'm not off the grid, but I'm building my knowledge of how to grow my own food in the event that access to grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and the gas to get me to these places is limited or gone. In that event, I would actually have some idea of how to provide for myself. This is important, as there is nothing so disturbing to me as relying on massive, impersonal institutions like the oil industry for sustenance, as opposed to relying on myself, as well as my neighbors. In our nationwide narcissism, we Americans tend to assume implicitly that the institutions we create are impenetrable, unfailing fortresses. But in reality, they are as capable of decay and failure as anything fashioned by mortal hands. When our institutions fail us, which history tells us is inevitable, what, then, will be our options? 

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