Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day.  This is an annual event to demonstrate support for environmental protection.  Started as several different events in 1969 and 1970, it eventually coalesced into a single event and in some places is even celebrated as an entire Earth Week. 
I was in the District (Washington, D.C., for those of you outside the Beltway) for Earth Day 2000.  That was fun, mostly for the concerts on the National Mall.  I saw classics like James Taylor and Carole King, along with then-new bands like Third Eye Blind.  Actor Leonardo Di Caprio was there early in the morning.  He seemed like a nice guy and still does a lot of work for the environment.  It was overcast and drizzly all day so I spent a lot of time under the exhibit tarps.  Lots of vendors demonstrating grid-tied and off-grid solar and wind power systems, environmentally friendly building materials, and energy efficient home design and construction.  Universities competed in a solar home building competition.  Efficient and comfortable off-grid living spaces made of environmentally friendly building materials. 
So what can a person do today to help the environment? 
I'd suggest recycling if it's available but no one wants to start a new city recycling program.  And it's simple economics, the margins are too low.  Recycling is so widespread now that there's very little profit for a business and cities trying to run it as a business end up putting in more money than they get out of it.  Expecting to make bank by selling off the products diverted from the landfill is bad budgeting.  City planners need to add a line item for the increased resilience in the waste management system.
You can plant native plants like trees or grasses.  Most developments during the recent housing boom were graded flat and all the existing plant life and even topsoil was scrapped away to make room for the buildings.  Then, to increase the selling price, landscaping was installed but was often only possible through large quantities of water and fertilizer, more than native plants would have needed. 
Enter systems like xeriscaping.  Often mistaken for replacing lawns with gravel like a desert, it is actually about smart application of water.  Place plants in zones with healthy water-holding soil and choose species adapted to the local climate.  A xeriscaped yard has a healthy micro-biome ranging from natural forest or desert at the periphery up to water filtering marshland in the wet zone.  Xeriscaping does not reduce the yard to zero water use, but uses relatively less water than the artificial environment of a lawn. 
Of course, native plants provide habitat for native animals.  Birds can nest in the trees and critters can forage in the undergrowth the way nature intended.  This is especially important when whole ecological systems are falling apart, like what's happening with colony collapse disorder.  There is growing implication that neonicotinoid pesticides are killing not only their target pest species but also native pollinators like bees.  Providing a safe habitat free from the indiscriminate application of pesticides can only help. 
Before any of that is available, you should start composting.  It can be done at any scale, from city-wide composting programs to individual backyard projects.  Start this year to have strong healthy compost to add to a raised bed garden or even small scale farming next year.  Just remember, don't put in any meat, only vegetable kitchen scraps and yard waste.  You'll lose the entire batch and have to start over.  The real achievement, beyond cooking up healthy compost is vermiculture, compost with worms.  You can add store-bought worms but healthy compost will attract native worms from the soil to move in.  Plus that guarantees you aren't introducing an invasive species. 
So get out there and start an Earth Day project today.