Recent book reviews — June 2014


Title: How Bad Are Bananas — The Carbon Footprint of Everything
Author: Mike Berners-Lee
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

How Bad Are Bananas provides an honest look at the estimated carbon footprints of a variety of everyday items. This includes a defense of items that have been the target of vocal criticism, like bananas and paper towels, and items that are shockingly worse than we might imagine (like hot-house tomatoes and heated swimming pools). Berners-Lee is honest about the uncertainty of carbon footprint estimates, aiming for accuracy within an order of magnitude, and even this rough estimate is enough to reveal the comparatively large impact of our air travel, for example, compared to our microwave-versus-oven cooking efficiency decisions.

How should we deal with a situation in which the thing we need to understand [carbon footprints] is impossibly complex?

One common response is to give up…

An alternative response to the problem, and the approach that this book is all about, is to do the best job you can, despite the difficulties, of understanding the whole picture.

… the uncertainty does not negate the exercise. Real footprints are the essential measure and nothing short of them will do.

… that we find footprinting tricky is a problem for us all. The situation we are in is like sailing round the world with a map from the 1700s. How should we respond? Throw that map away and have nothing? Definitely not! Use a high-quality map of just a small part of the ocean and ignore the rest? No way. Use the maps we have but treat them with caution? Absolutely. This book is just an early map. Better ones will follow. And this book is trying to help you improve the carbon map that you carry around in your own head.

How Bad Are Bananas definitely achieves this goal. Highly recommended.

What follows are the numbers I found most helpful in refining my intuition for the carbon intensity of the things I use and do.

Cycling a mile
65g CO2e powered by bananas
90g CO2e powered by cereals with milk
200g CO2e powered by bacon
260g CO2e powered by cheeseburgers
2800g CO2e powered by air-freighted asparagus
> If your cycling calories come from cheeseburgers, the emissions per mile are about the same as two people driving an efficient car.

A mile by bus
15g CO2e one of 20 passengers squeezed into a minibus in the suburbs of La Paz
150g CO2e typical city bus passenger

A basket of strawberries
150g CO2e (or 600g per kilo) grown in season in your own country
1.8kg CO2e (or 7.2kg per kilo) grown out of season and flown in, or grown locally in a hothouse

A shower
90g CO2e 3 minutes, efficient gas furnace, aerated showerhead
550g CO2e 6 minutes in a typical electrically powered shower
1.9kg C02e 15 minutes in an 11-kilowatt, high-volume, electrically powered shower

A unit of electricity
60g CO2e from the Icelandic grid
220g CO2e from the Canadian grid
600g CO2e from the U.K. grid
660g CO2e from the U.S grid
900g CO2e from the Chinese grid
1060g CO2e from the Australian grid

A load of laundry
0.6kg CO2e washed at 30 degrees C, dried on the line
2.4kg CO2e washed at 40 degrees C, tumble-dried in a vented drier

A pair of pants
3kg CO2e my favorite old nylon traveling pants
6kg CO2e my cotton jeans

1kg of steel
0.42kg CO2e recycled general steel
2.75kg CO2e virgin general steel
6.15kg CO2e virgin stainless steel

A pair of shoes
1.5kg CO2e Crocs
8kg CO2e synthetic
11.5kg CO2e average
15kg CO2e all leather

A congested commute by car
22kg CO2e five miles of crawling each way in an average car
> A congested drive can cause three times the emissions of the same drive on a clear road

A computer (and using it)
200kg CO2e a simple low-cost laptop
720kg CO2e a 2010 21.5-inch iMac
800kg CO2e an all-the-frills desktop

13g CO2e per hour an energy-efficient laptop
69g CO2e per hour a 2010 21.5-inch iMac
165g CO2e per hour an old desktop machine

Photovoltaic panels
3.5 tons CO2e producing a solar roof capable of generating 1800 units (kilowatt-hours) of electricity per year
50 tons CO2e lifetime savings

A person
0.1 ton CO2e per year average Malawian
3.3 tons CO2e per year average Chinese person
7 tons CO2e per year world average
15 tons CO2e per year average U.K. inhabitant
28 tons CO2e per year average North American
30 tons CO2e per year average Australian

A house
80 tons CO2e
… This figure is for the construction of a brand-new bungalow with two bedrooms upstairs and a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen downstairs.

Having a child
100 tons CO2e a carbon conscious child
373 tons CO2e average in U.K.
688 tons CO2e average in North America
2000+ tons CO2e high-impact offspring


Title: Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money
Author: Woody Tasch
Source: LAPL
Interest: 1.5 stars

Despite my affinity for this book’s premise — the necessity adjusting our concept of capitalism to better value nature — I didn’t much enjoy the read. When my lending period ran out and I returned the book, I was only about two-thirds of the way through it. While there is useful and thought-provoking information scattered throughout, most of the book feels like a long series of emotional one-liners. To start with the good:

In 2007, total grant making by U.S. foundations was approximately $40 billion. Only about $1 billion went to environmental causes, the rest going mostly to churches, schools, hospitals, poverty programs, disaster relief, and the arts. $50 million or so went to organics and sustainable agriculture. … Meanwhile, the “corpus”, is it is called, that is, the $550 billion of investment assets the returns on which fund grant budgets, is invested with virtually no concern for either general issues relating to global economic growth or specific issues relating to a particular foundation’s mission.

We are not trying to reign in or correct or punish capitalism. We are trying to complete it.
Capitalism remained incomplete because resources seemed inexhaustible and consumption seemed to cause no harm. Now, as we reach a new juncture in our history on the planet, this is no longer the case.

However, these gems are surrounded by vague analogies and appeals to emotion that I found less compelling.

We will need to head, impelled by sudden and irrepressible insight, toward beauty and nonviolence.

There is something beautiful about organic garlic grown in Dixon and sold in Santa Fe. There is something beautiful about Davis Farm eggs at the Guerilla Cafe. There is something beautiful about Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese from Jasper Hill Farm. There is something beautiful in the manure between the rows of Fascianella almond trees near Noto. There is something beautiful …

There is nothing beautiful about bovine growth hormone or high-fructose corn syrup or Red Dye #4 or the parking lot of a McDonald’s.

Exasperated by the painfully long list of “beautiful” examples and arriving at the list of non-beautiful ones, I find myself feeling defensive. Would antibiotics be “not beautiful?” What does a skateboarder think of the McDonald’s parking lot, and isn’t it beautiful that a kid and a skateboard and creativity can turn a dreadful space into one of health and exploration? Much of the book feels similarly over-simplified and over-stated. I am all for the concept of “slow money”, but can’t recommend the book.


Title: Cool Tools — Cooking Utensils from the Japanese Kitchen
Author: Kate Klippensteen
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

This is a coffee-table book of beautiful Japanese kitchen tools. While gratifying to see many of the tools Hiro and I use (an Aritsugu knife from Kyoto and the simple but beautiful wire-wrapped “tawashi” bristle brushes, for example) the book didn’t contain anything we didn’t already know. Great for someone new to Japanese cooking, but not much here for the experienced cook.


Title: The West Without Water — What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow
Author: B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

The West Without Water is a great overview of water issues in California, both our over-consumption of water resources and the mega-floods that history suggests are bound to return to the area. The authors deftly elucidate the detective work of clever scientists using mass spectrometry and growth-ring data to piece together historical records.

I’m interested in determining what amount of water I might consider “sustainable use” in my lifestyle. What sources of water do I consider legitimate? How much water am I currently using? How do I factor in food production and the landscaping uses of my apartment complex, etc? Which are the high-volume uses I should pay attention to? (Determining a sustainable CO2 level is comparatively straightforward.) This is the first book on these issues I’ve read and I’m glad I started here.

The newly constructed Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Southern California allowed the population of Los Angeles to grow from 500,000 to 1.2 million between 1920 and 1930. … As the Dust Bowl drought continued unabated, Los Angeles voters felt they had no choice but to approve a bond measure to extend the Los Angeles Aqueduct farther north, into the Mono Basin. In the 1930s, the city of Los Angeles built diversion dams on four of the five tributary rivers that fed Mono Lake. As this water was diverted south to the growing metropolis over the next four decades, Mono Lake shrank steadily.

… certain forms of elements in lake water become more concentrated during evaporation.
One such element that is commonly used by geochemists is oxygen. Geochemists measure two forms, or isotopes, of oxygen (oxygen-16 and oxygen-18) incorporated into calcium carbonate minerals that precipitate in the lake or constitute the shells of organisms that live in the lake. These minerals and shells record the relative amounts of the two oxygen isotopes … During dry periods, more water evaporates off the lake surface than is replenished by river inflow. Evaporation causes the lake water to become more enriched in oxygen’s heaver isotope (oxygen-18). During wetter periods, rain and runoff into the lake are greater than evaporation, so the lake grows larger, and the lake water becomes more enriched in the lighter oxygen isotope (oxygen-16).

The [Owens] lake is now dry — not because of drier climate but because water managers, starting in 1913, diverted the Owens River south through the Los Angeles Aqueduct to Southern California.

Located in the southern end of California’s Central Valley, Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes until its source of freshwater was diverted for agriculture in the early twentieth century.

… the monumental changes to the region’s natural rivers, lakes, and wetlands have wreaked havoc on the natural aquatic ecosystems that these waters harbored. … Over three-quarters of the native freshwater fish in the West are either extinct already or listed as endangered. … Of the 129 native fish species in the state, 40 percent are in decline, 37 percent are eligible for listing as threatened or endangered, and 5 percent are extinct. Most of these species (60 percent) are found exclusively in California…

… California’s prolonged and deep Dust Bowl drought voters approved a bond to fund the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct, which was completed in 1941.

Particularly heartbreaking was the fate of the three ancient lakes — Buena Vista, Tulare, and Kern… More serious impacts on the lakes began in the early twentieth century, when the rivers that fed them (the Kern, Tule, Kings, and Kaweah) were diverted to irrigate crops in the Central Valley. … The remaining dry lakebeds were then ploughed and planted with crops, primarily cotton.

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. – President Lyndon B. Johnson (said while signing the Wilderness Act, 1964)

This [flood] scenario suggests that one-quarter of all homes in California would be destroyed and an estimated 1.5 million residents would be forced to evacuate…
The U.S. Geological Survey considers this extreme storm scenario to be the next disaster waiting to happen — even more catastrophic than the next big earthquake predicted to strike the region.

One of its signature products — beef — is the most water-intensive food produced anywhere. … Added together, the amount of water used to produce a single, six-ounce serving of steak is 2,600 gallons. Dairy products are equally water-intensive… Forty-nine gallons of water are used to produce a single eight-ounce glass of milk.

The success at Mono Lake provides hope that perhaps other regions of the West… will be revived… He proposes that 1 percent of Colorado River water be allocated for the delta every year in order to restore and maintain many of its key habitats.

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