Sunday, November 30, 2014

Changing how we talk about the Earth

Lately I've been thinking about mental frames. Frames are powerful tools for persuasion that work at a nearly subconscious level. We use frames every day, often without thinking about it.

What is framing?

To briefly illustrate how framing works, I'll summarize a clever study done by two researchers from Stanford (see endote for citation). 

Two groups of students each read a fictitious news article about crime. In one version, the article refers to crime as an infection; in the other, crime is a wild animal. In all other ways, the two articles are otherwise identical. After reading the article, the students are asked what they think should be done to prevent crime. 

Students who had read about crime as a "beast preying on the city" thought that there should be more enforcement. Students who read about crime as a "virus infecting the city" thought more should be done about social reform. When asked to identify what in the article had influenced their thinking, most students pointed to the stats in the article, not the metaphor. 
So what do frames have to do with environmentalism?

Lately, I've wondered if we are framing our relationship to Earth in the wrong way. We always say "Mother Earth". But, at least in the United States, you do not take care of your mother. You respect your mother, but your mother is not your responsibility in the same way your child is your responsibility. 

The connotation of mother brings along other images besides one of respect. For example, I associate my mother with caring for me and for punishing me when I've been naughty. Let's explore those two frames a little more. 

The "caring mother" frame is pretty obvious to identify in mainstream media-- take, for example, movies like Avatar. Interestingly enough, the "punishing mother" frame is ALSO frequently reflected in the general media. For example, apocalytpic movies like The Day After Tomorrow show Mother Earth as finally reaching the breaking point and giving us a really bad spanking. Alternatively, Mother Earth can ground us (sending us to bed without dinner, not letting us watch TV, etc) by turning into a post-apocalytpic world wherein our old standards of living can not be met. We see examples of this type of "punishing mother" frame in movies like Water World or Wall-E. 

What I am wondering is if maybe there is a better frame for Earth. What if we thought about the Earth as our BABY? If the Earth was our child, it would be our responsibility to care for it. It would also bring up feelings and images of parental love. These sorts of feelings, I believe, are often associated with campaigns protecting charistmatic mega-fauna. That these campaigns have worked well would suggest that we should capitalize on this framing. 

Seems like an idea at least worthy of a little more exploration. Your thoughts?

Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS One 6(2).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Make this one small change to your cosmetics (for a safer you and a greener world)

Okay, again, I admit, this is a steal from this month's beauty guide section in Real Simple. Again, apologies for not posting a link, but I think it is too recent to be on the online version.

Real Simple interviewed Jody Villecco, the coordinator for Whole Foods Market on global quality standards (pretty cool job!) about which small change to your cosmetic line up would have the biggest bang for the buck.

"If you would like to keep as many of your conventionally formulated favorites in your routine as possible but still minimize your exposure to synthetics, body lotion is the best switch to make." This is because it covers the largest percentage of your skin.

The article doesn't mention this, but I would imagine, you use more lotion in total than other products, so using a biodegradable/non-synthetic lotion is better for the world too. 

How can I dispose of nail polish safely? Three solutions

The Question

You buy a huge pot of nail polish, only to wear it a couple times. Why does the polish container have to be so big? Does anyone actually ever use all of it?!? Then it just sits there, making you feel guilty for buying it in the first place. How can you get rid of it safely?

The Answer

Alternative 1: I recently read the solution in Real Simple. This month's edition has a section on environmentally friendly cosmetics (Sorry! I can't find the article on their online edition, otherwise I would put the link here). Real Simple found someone from EPA to ask! Enesta Jones, the US EPA spokesperson, said that you should take your old polishes to a household hazardous waste facility (see my blog article about that here and even more about it here). You should also drop off your unused hair dye there too.

Alternative 2:  Here was another good tip the article gave, "If there isn't a HHW facility in your area, let the polishes dry out by loosening the caps and leaving them outside... for 48 hours, then throw them away. This process allows the solvents in the polish to break down and evaporate, which means that they won't seep into the groundwater surrounding a landfill, says Doug Schoon, the president of Schoon Scientific, a company that provides regulatory technical consultation tot he beauty industry."

I admit I don't know who this Schoon guy is, but the advice makes sense. Oxidation -- either through air, sunlight, or fire -- is a good way to break down bad chemicals. This is why so many of the toxic chemicals taken to HHW facilities are incinerated. (FYI, the other way to break down nasty chemicals is by having bacteria eat them up and digest them. I've heard about this being used to break down used plastic baby diapers! Yucky!) Anyway, if you take them to the HHW facility, then poor people can use the nail polishes that you don't want anymore but aren't so old as to be crusty and gross.

Alternative 3: Then, searching on the internet, I found this other cool thing. There is a nail polish company called Zoya that holds an Earth week nail polish exchange, so you can bring in your old polish and exchange it for new ones. They take care of properly disposing the old stuff. Sounds pretty cool, assuming they are sincere (here is the link). I guess the Zoya prides itself on making nail polish that is less hazardous than normal polishes. I've never tried them, so I can't vouch for their products, but it seems like a nice thing to do.

Speaking of which, have you seen some of the Earth Day nails out there? Woah. Some people really get into it. (See youtube tutorial here for the nails pictured below. Holy crap, I could never do that in a hundred years.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

One easy thing you can do to combat climate change

The Question

What is one easy thing I can do to combat climate change?

The Short Answer

This one thing is so easy, you'll want to start doing it today. In fact, it is so easy, you'll think it doesn't really count. But if you read the long answer, you'll see why it does count and why you should pat yourself on the back every time you do it. Ready for it?

Tell someone you know that you believe in climate change and so do your friends and neighbors. Tell them that you support taking action against climate change -- and so do 80% of your fellow Americans.

The Long Answer

I recently read a great book that had absolutely nothing to do with climate change. It is called, "Smarter than you think: How technology is changing our minds for the better", written by Clive Thompson. It is a great book that I highly recommend. But why am I talking about it here? 

Well, one of the topics Clive discusses is "ambient awareness". In other words, social media allows people to be more aware of what the other people in their lives are doing or thinking. Ambient awareness can work at a very small or a very big scale. For example, Chinese protesters stopped a copper smelting plant from being built. A small group of citizens used social media to bring the problem to the attention of their community. When everyone in the community found out and realized that everyone else was against it too, the crowd reached a tipping point and took action.

Clive talks about racial segregation in the US in the '60s. At that point, there were laws against it, but people were still engaging in racist behavior. Sociologist Hubert O'Gorman researched the issue, polling Americans across the country. He found that most people did not support segregation, but many people thought that their neighbors did support segregation. In other words, most moderate Whites thought they were surrounded by a bunch of racists and were afraid of upsetting the status quo.

This made me think of the recent sea change on gay rights. Suddenly, a whole bunch of Americans (and their legislators) realized that not only did they support gay rights, but so did their neighbors (and employers and fellow church goers, and so on). The president came out for gay rights (May 2012), DOMA fell (June 2013), and all the while states across the country are repealing anti-gay laws or putting in place laws protecting gay marriage.

Wouldn't it be amazing if something like that happened for climate change?

The amazing thing is that it could. Everything about communication research tells us that this is right. George Lakoff, celebrated cognitive linguist, said that the most important thing we can do is keep climate change top of mind (he also says we should frame it as a climate crisis, not as global warming, but more on that here).

Or take for example the cognitive scientists studying risk perception at Yale Law School. One of their studies showed that conservatives who are the most educated are the most polarized on climate change. Science literate conservatives have a strong personal interest in having beliefs in line with their friends and family, but because they are science literate, they have to work extra hard to find faults with climate science (Read more about it here).

The team behind Yale's Project on Climate Change Communication does a lot of public polling on America's attitudes about the climate crisis. As a professional survey methodologist, I have great respect for their methods and reporting. Their reports show that not only do the vast majority of Americans believe climate change is real, but they want to take action against it. (Read their reports here). In November 2013, that figure was above 80%. That's awesome!

Now all we need to do is spread the word. You don't have to evangelize, you don't have to confront a climate denier. Just quietly and consistently mention it. Put a post on your Facebook about it. Discuss a related news item with a coworker.

See, isn't that easy?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

In the news: Uplifting stories III

In the last few months, I've read a number of inspiring stories in the news. Here is a quick recap (with links) of what I've learned.

The BBC does a great job of reporting environmental news that is truly newsworthy -- personal, prompt, and prominent. Here are some recent articles that caught my attention.

Apple to use ethically sourced materials -- yeah! Read it here.

The city's impact on wildlife is not as bad as we thought. Endemic species still manage to survive. Find the article here.

Logging laws can be hard to enforce. A new application allows tree loss to be detected in near real time. The system uses both satellite imagery as well as citizen reports to update a map showing tree cover. Indigenous peoples of the Brazilian rainforest are already using smartphones to flag illegal logging. This is the next step in citizen reporting! Again, from the BBC.

Chicago to eat the Asian carp into extinction. Finally, an invasive species gets what is coming to it. Read more over here.

Why is the weather so horrible all of a sudden? This great article from the BBC explains it in lay terms.

Poorly designed cities are bad for your health. Read it here, then go support local green space initiatives near you!

Distant planet terrified it may one day be infested by humans. Okay, this one is just for laughs. From the Onion.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Is fluoride safe?

The Question

A friend of mine asked me to check out this article:
"I am wondering how different the amount China's environment has compared to toothpaste...or US fluorinated water..." 

In other words, should we be worried about drinking fluoridated water or using regular toothpaste?

The Short Answer

There are two types of risk to consider here: acute fluoride poisoning and long term exposure to fluoride.

1. Acute: Most people in the United States are not at risk for acute fluoride poisoning. High levels of fluoride can cause brain damage in children similar to mercury or lead. If you have a young child, use fluoride-free toothpaste until you are sure your child can spit out the toothpaste.

2. Long term: this type of exposure to moderate levels of fluoride may cause teeth and bones to weaken. The risk is real, but small. Some areas of the country do not even bother to fluoridate water, so check with your local water district before starting to worry. If the levels of fluoride in your local tap water are higher than 2ppm and you drink a lot of tap water (versus juice, sparkling water, etc), consider reducing your exposure to fluoride by switching to fluoride-free toothpaste. 

The Long Answer

First of all, let's cover some basics. How does fluoride work and why do we bother with it?
Remember back to chemistry class when your teacher taught you that nature works towards equilibrium? For example, salt will cross a membrane until the solution on both sides is equally salty. The same thing happens with teeth and bones. If there is a lot of acid in your mouth (from sugar or plaque) your teeth will start to lose minerals. If you eat lots of mineral dense food and water, minerals like fluoride and calcium will sink back into the teeth. If there is too much, though, teeth can be hypermineralized meaning there is not enough collagen in the tooth matrix to keep it strong. This can make teeth or bones too brittle and more likely to break.
This hypermineralization from overexposure to fluoride is called fluorosis, and, again, children are more susceptible to this risk than are adults because their teeth and bones are still developing. Children under 6 years of age should not use toothpaste or mouthwash with fluoride [WebMD on fluorosis]. However most adults do not need to worry about this unless they live in an area where there is too much fluoride in the water.
What about the article your friend mentioned? The article is a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies conducted in China where there are high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in the water. Elevated levels of fluoride were linked to small problems in brain development, similar to what is seen with exposure to mercury or lead. The article does not mention specifics, but it seems like they are dealing with cases that are closer to acute toxicity than to what we might see in the USA with long-term damage from lower levels.
The article also seems to skip a lot of other details that would be useful to know when trying to draw conclusions. For example, what other factors might also explain the phenomenon? Water with high levels of naturally occurring fluoride might also have elevated levels of lead or mercury. Also, the study does not discuss what type of fluoride occurs in the water -- there are many different types of fluoride isotopes, and this naturally occurring fluoride may not be equivalent to what is typically added in toothpaste or public drinking water. In other words, natural fluoride might be more chemically reactive and therefore more dangerous.

So what other information do we have? A study from the National Academy of Science sheds a little more light on the topic. Their brief states that the EPA level of max 4ppm of fluoride in water is too high for people who drink fluoridated water over their lifetime. But again, the risk here is long term exposure to low levels. No mention is made of problems with brain development for children. The report also estimates how much fluoride exposure comes from water and how much comes from toothpaste and mouthwash. From what I've read, it looks like switching to fluoride-free toothpaste could reduce your ingestion of fluoride from anywhere between 10 and 40%.

Peeps in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. You have no need to worry. Santa Clara county water district started fluoridating their water in 2011 [see their website], but levels are at 2 mg/lt (milligrams per litter which is nearly equivalent to parts per million) [see their Jan'14 report]. San Mateo's 2012 water quality report showed 0.17 ppm of fluoride.

Will my Brita water filter remove fluoride?
Nope. Only distillation and reverse osmosis will remove fluoride. But, again, check with your local water district's water quality report before deciding if you need to make any changes. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How do I take care of my period in an environmentally friendly way?

Over the last two years, I have been quietly evangelizing the diva cup to my close female friends. So far, all of them have had positive reactions, so I think it is time for my advice to go prime time. 

The Question

How do I take care of my period in an environmentally friendly way?

The Answer

Most women in the United States deal with their period by using tampons or pads. For a long time, I thought that these were the only options. However, there is a third, superior option that is popular in Canada and other Western countries. It is called a menstrual cup. 

What is a menstrual cup? Good question, I'm glad you asked. A menstrual cup is a small cup made of medical grade silicone that you insert in to yourself in order to catch your flow. It can stay in for up to 12 hours before you take it out, empty it, wash it, then re-insert. A single cup can be used for several years. 

Where do I buy one? There are two menstrual cups commonly available on the market called the moon cup or the diva cup. I found mine at Whole Foods, but they can easily be ordered online through Amazon. A cup costs about $40 and comes in one of two sizes -- narrow (for women under 30 who have not had children) and wide (over 30 or who have had children). The size is important because the "channel" widens as you age or after you have children. 

The cup takes some time to get used to because it can be tricky to learn how to insert it. However, once you get used to it, you will never go back. For me, it completely changed the way I thought about my period. I only have to think about it twice a day -- once in the morning and again before night. Also, some women report that using the cup reduces their cramps. Even women who hate tampons say that they can easily forget that the cup is there at all. Again, all of the female friends I have told now use the cup and love it. 

Of course, this solution is environmentally friendly, because you are using fewer resources. Also, it is ideal for avid backpackers, because there is no trash to throw away -- you dispose of your flow in the same way that you dispose of your poop (i.e., in a hole, preferably in the same hole as your poop). 

Try it for yourself, I promise you will not be disappointed. 

-- Your personal green expert

Friday, January 3, 2014

In the news: Uplifting stories II

In the last few months, I've read a number of inspiring stories in the news. Here is a quick recap (with links) of what I've learned.

1. The Economist covers a new business model for R&D designed to spur green technology -- in this case, the paper industry. Businesses from one industry pool resources to develop a cleaner technology, then each company races to put the developed technology into production.

2. The Hollywood Reporter states a Captain Planet movie is in the works. Need I say more?

3. Taiwan builds an enviro-friendly stadium that looks like a dragon, as shown in the blog GreenBuzz.

4. Philipinne delegate to the climate talks goes on hunger strike after typhoon destroys his homeland, as covered in the BBC News.

5. Elephant whisperer. Yeah, that's right. This 14-year old girl saves towns in India from lost and rampaging elephants. Reported by the BBC News.


Are artificial sweeteners safe?

The Question

A friend of mine recently asked about artificial sweeteners. Are they safe? Do they have any environmental impact? Which, if any, should I use?

The Answer

Short answer: Eat real food, use honey as a sweetener, train yourself to prefer less sugary food.

Long answer:The fact is that we don't really know if artificial sweeteners are safe or not. Just because they are allowed on the US food market now, does not mean they are not harmful to consume. The US Government assumes that if there is no proof that it hurts consumers then it must be safe. Unfortunately, there have been many cases where something once thought benign turned out to be toxic after many, many people had suffered (e.g., cigarettes, chemicals in hair spray, BPA in plastic). 

Let's keep in mind that not all countries treat their citizens like guinea pigs. For example, in the European Union, they follow the Precautionary Principle. If there is a reasonable assessment that some new product could be dangerous, then it is up to the industry to prove that it is safe. Of course, this decision is weighed against other considerations, such as, is there a viable alternative (e.g., some new medical procedures or medicines carry great risk, but there is no current alternative, so the procedure or medicine is approved). 

So the question is, is there a reasonable assessment that sweeteners are risky to consume? And if so, is there a viable alternative?

Understanding how artificial sweeteners work and are made is the first step to evaluating the risk of consuming them. First, it is important to know that sugar is very inefficient at delivering the perception of sweetness to our taste buds. Artificial sweeteners have the same calorie content as sugar or honey, but because they are so efficient at delivering the perception of sweetness, only a tiny amount is needed to get the same level of perceived sweetness as in sugar. Most of the powder in a packet of sweetener is actually just filler, like sand, so that the sweetener can be measured out.
Yeah, that's right, sand. Look for it on the label as "silica". But, honestly, that is probably the safest part of what you are consuming. 

So, how do they get such an efficient perception of sweetness out of such a small amount of material? For every sweetener on the market, with the exception of stevia, it means chemically processing some existing sweet thing (like sugar) so as to strip off the part that has the calories. Because these chemicals are used as part of the "process" they do not need to be labeled as ingredients, but there are residues in the food. For example, some estimates put the arsenic in Splenda to be about 2% of volume. Keep in mind that arsenic is a bioaccumulator. That means it builds up in the body over time. Scary!

What was that you said about stevia? Right. So, stevia is the only sweetener currently available on the mass market that is made through a physical process rather than a chemical process. It starts as a plant that grows in South America; the leaves get harvested and dried, then soaked in water to extract the part responsible for sweetness. The processing sort of reminds me of how we get caffeine out of tea leaves or coffee beans. Overall, pretty harmless. 

BUT (you could feel the "but" coming, couldn't you?), there is still reason to be cautious. Some people (including nutritionists, doctors, and scientists) are concerned about what the fake sweets are doing to our bodies. Keep in mind that our bodies evolved for thousands of years only knowing sweetness as fruit and honey, and knowing that there would be calories and essential vitamins and minerals in those foods. Scientists are now studying how the body reacts when it perceives sweetness but then does not get the associated calories and nutrients. So far, the results are still out -- not enough evidence has amounted one way or the other. 

So what does that leave us with? In my opinion, the healthiest thing you could do is just eat real food. No soda, no candy, no pastries, no meal-replacement bars... not with sugar, corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners. If you want something sweet, eat fruit or add a little honey. You can train your body not to like overly sweet things (same is true for salty things). It might be hard at first, but you will be healthier in the long run for it. 

If you want to read more about which foods to eat and not eat, I highly recommend In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. It is very easy to read, but very well researched and presented. It gives clear advice on what to eat and why.

And if you're in doubt, ask your personal green expert.