Dear EarthTalk: Some green groups are promoting the simple notion of sharing as a way to green communities and combat waste. Can you explain? — Becky Lipscomb, Centereach, NY
The convergence of environmental awareness and consumer culture has created a whole new movement today whereby sharing is cool. Indeed, some environmentalists view sharing as key to maintaining our quality of life and our sanity in an increasingly cluttered world.
“Sharing is a relatively simple concept and a basic part of human life,” reports Janelle Orsi on Shareable, an online magazine that tells the story of sharing. “What’s new is that people are applying sharing in innovative and far-reaching ways, many of which require complex planning, new ways of thinking and organizing, and new technologies. In short, people are taking sharing to new levels, ranging from relatively simple applications of sharing to community-wide sharing initiatives — and beyond.”
“In a shareable world, things like car sharing, clothing swaps, childcare coops, potlucks, and co-housing make life more fun, green, and affordable,” reports Shareable. “When we share, not only is a better life possible, but so is a better world.”
The non-profit Freecycle Network, which runs a Craigslist-style website where people can list items they want to give away, pioneered using the Internet to facilitate diverting reusable goods from landfills when it launched back in 2003. To date, more than nine million individuals across 5,000 different regions have used the group’s freecycle.org website to find new homes for old items.
According to Shareable, other examples such as Zipcar, Wikipedia, Kiva and Creative Commons show how successful sharing can be. “They show what’s possible when we share. They show that we don’t act merely for our own good, but go out of our way to contribute to the common good. They show that we can solve the crises we face, and thrive as never before. They show that a new world is emerging where the more you share the more respect you get, and where life works because everyone helps each other.”
Shareable and the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit that highlights the connections between consumption, quality of life and the environment, have collaborated on the production of the new “Guide to Sharing,” a free downloadable booklet loaded with practical ideas about exchanging stuff, time, skills and space. Some of the ideas in the guide include: organizing a community swap; starting a local toy, seed or tool library; launching a skills exchange where community members can swap professional skills like carpentry or grant-writing; or setting up a food, transportation or gardening co-op. Some other sharing tips include car-sharing, gift circles, sharing backyard chickens with neighbors and launching a “free market” where people meet to trade skills and stuff.
For her part, Janelle Orsi envisions a future where public land is dedicated to community gardening, public libraries also lend tools, equipment and other goods, and citywide bike sharing, carpooling and wifi programs are all the rage. Orsi and others warn we had better get used to sharing, as it is here to stay.
Dear EarthTalk: Hurricane Sandy brought more sea water onto shorelines than I’d ever witnessed before and many communities near where I live are now being required to raise their homes up. What is the prognosis for sea level rise in the years immediately ahead? — Scott P., Fairfield, CT
Since sea level measurements were first recorded, in 1870, global averages have risen almost eight inches. The annual rate of rise has been 0.13 inches over the past 20 years, which is close to twice the average from the previous 80 years. Future estimates for sea levels vary according to region but most Earth scientists agree that sea levels are expected to rise at a greater pace than during the last 50 years.
Predicting the amount of rise is an inexact science and depends on many factors including climate change and ice sheet flows. The U.S. National Research Council predicts a possible sea level rise of between 22 and 29 inches over the 21st century in the U.S. sea levels are anticipated to continue rising for centuries.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land elevation changes also have a large impact on the effects of rising water levels. Subsidence (sinking) or uplift (rising) of the land can help determine the relative sea level rise. The EPA’s relative sea level estimates, assuming a two foot global sea level rise by 2100, are 2.3 feet at New York City, 2.9 feet at Hampton Roads, Virginia, 3.5 feet at Galveston, Texas and one foot at Neah Bay in Washington state.
The main factors contributing to sea level rise are thermal expansion (created by an increase in ocean water temperatures) and the melting of ice caps and glaciers. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, combined with natural activities, have contributed to the rise of the earth’s surface temperature over the past century. According to National Geographic, about 80 percent of this additional heat is absorbed by the oceans. The above factors are well studied, but more research is still being done on how climate change will impact large ice sheets in areas such as Greenland and the Antarctic. An extra foot of sea level rise could be a possibility depending on what happens with these larger ice sheets.
Even small changes in sea levels can have adverse effects on coastal areas. Erosion, flooding of wetlands, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination and habitat loss for fish, birds and plants are all problems resulting from rising sea levels. Also, higher sea levels usually mean more destructive weather events as storm surges get bigger and more powerful and devastate everything in their way. Coastal communities will suffer the most, as flooding from rising water levels will force millions of people out of their homes.
As for what can be done, reducing our collective carbon footprint is no doubt the first and most important step. Individuals should drive and fly less, walk and bicycle more and take advantage of public transit. But sweeping policy changes will have the most impact: A recent commitment by the Obama White House to require coal-burning power plants and other large industrial operations to minimize greenhouse gas emissions should finally help get the United States started on the right track, but many wonder if such moves represent too little too late.