Friday, November 21, 2008

How I chose to live greener

A lot is being said lately about going green but the fact of the matter is that a few of us have been living greener than most for quite some time. Quite honestly we look at it as a good personal decision and don't make any fanfare.

This past week, I surprised a few friends of mine with the details of how I've made greener choices they didn't even knew existed.

For example, I have an office out an in rural area of North Carolina known as Saxapahaw. Most people have never heard of Saxapahaw and even fewer can spell it correctly the first time. When i was looking at the area, a few things intriqued me.

First, the Saxapahaw River Mill was restored instead of being torn down. Something that examplified the death of the textile society in North Carolina was converted into townhouses, apartments, business spaces, and soon condos. In the process of the conversion there was conservation. Brick walls were kept and restored. The old hardwood floors, posts and support beams were kept and restored. Wherever possible, as much of the old skin of the building was retained while upgrading key components (like windows) for efficiency. Plus the super high ceilings provide a natural cooling effect in the warmer months.

Then there is the particular location. I had found myself driving between Roxboro, Burlington and Chapel Hill. Saxapahaw is located almost exactly half way betweeen Burlington and Chapel Hill. So locating there instantly cut 1/2 of my driving - and fuel consumption. And even deeper cuts in fuel consumption were made possibly by my being able to work so close to home now that I don't need to drive at all some day. Even in the midst of tremendous gas price increases, I managed to cut my monthly fuel budget by 40%.

Now what surprised my friends was how the Saxapahaw area is powered - hydroelectric. Back in the days of the cotton mill there was a hydroelectric dam which provided power to the mill (and originally provided sheer mechanical energy through wheels and pullies before the days of electrification).

The hydroelectric dam had set unused from 1964 until 1980 when a group known as Haw River Hydro Company bought the dam and began the process of restoration. In 1982, the generator was brought back online, a contract was signed with Duke Power and it began distributing clean energy into the Duke Power grid - and subsequently the surrounding Saxapahaw area. The dam generates enough power to continuously provide clean power to about 700 homes. This means that Saxapahaw is carbon neutral for its electric power... and we don't even have to pay extra for it.

More importantly though, this same sort of restoration is beginning over at the old Glencoe Mill on the other side of Alamance county from here. Glencoe, like Rivermill, has a small hydroelectric plant that is being brought back online to generate clean electricity. Glencoe promises to become an interesting mixed use community. Again turning something that was lost in the community into something valuable and sustainable.

Other greening projects are underway here in Saxapahaw. Some are simple - like changing out all of the incandescent lighting that was historically in the building to use florescent and compact florescent bulbs. Some are a bit more complex - like water conservation and sewage mitigation. Since Saxapahaw runs its own water system, conservation is able to take a local flavor and truly reflect the community here.

On a closing note, I must admit I get a little giddy thinking about the fact that when I turn on my electric baseboards or heat pump, there is a little turbine up the street in the river that's generating the power which is providing me heat. And nowhere along the way is a lump of coal or a therm of natural gas -or a gram of plutonium - being consumed.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Michelle Obama: a new type of First Lady

That rather sad, muffled noise you hear behind the whoops and cheers of Democrat America is not the sound of defeated neocons mourning the passing of trickle-down economics; it is the sound of sobbing in the Élysée Palace. For Carla Bruni, reigning queen of First Ladies, the game is finally up. Cindy McCain would have been a push-over; even Sarah Palin she could have coped with, sexy specs or otherwise. But in Michelle Obama, Ms Bruni has truly met her match. This is a First Lady like none before.

In truth, from the moment Michelle Obama stepped on to that podium at the Democrat convention what seems like, ooh, about three million years ago, we all secretly knew which way this race was going. Sure, he had big, sticky-out ears; sure, all those luvvies made that embarrassing YouTube song about him; but if Michelle thought that he was OK — if she chose him — then he just had to be a good man.

Everything about this woman speaks to the modern, post-feminist woman: she is manifestly clever, independently minded, attractive in a normal, accessible way (and not in a scary, plastic-fantastic Cindy way). Her demeanour is a reassuring mixture of sassy and self-deprecating; her easy, confident dress sense neither too sexy nor too self-conscious. Most of all, however, she appears to be the personification of sanity, a woman who, while clearly supportive of her husband’s quest for world domination, is nevertheless not afraid to point out when he is danger of drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.

The evolution of the role of First Lady is a fascinating one. Until now, they have essentially been available in two flavours. The first is the meek, supportive grin-and-bear-it model, as exemplified by Laura and Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Mamie Eisenhower. Often Republican, invariably well-coiffed, they seem to simultaneously be at the centre of the action yet a million light years away from power. Often, this impression is grossly unfair. Laura Bush’s favourite writer, for example, is Dostoevsky — not that you would have known it from the press release: too intimidating, too intellectual for the wife of the man everyone wanted to share a Bud with.

The alternative is the two-for-the-price-of-one First Lady. These tend to be ball-breaking Democrats such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. They have their own careers, their own lives and their own minds.

There is one exception: Jackie Kennedy. She was pure style, a fashion clothes horse who still, 40 years on, has the power to inspire double-page spreads in Vogue magazine.

What makes Michelle unique is the way she so skilfully unites all three: supportive, independent and a fashion icon. Sarah Palin blew £90,000 on her campaign wardrobe but let’s face it, it is that blue shift dress that we all remember.

In the last American election, the big question was this: who would you most want to share a beer with? In this one, it was more like: who would you like to share a Martini with? The answer of course being Michelle. (Barack could maybe make himself useful by popping out for some crisps.) Michelle is not only invigoratingly intelligent, proud of her urbanity, but also unafraid of showing her abilities. She is certainly the only wife of a presidential candidate I can remember who, instead of playing herself down, played up the general uselessness of her husband in matters domestic — and in doing so not only held her ground intellectually but also reached out to all those women who, while devoted to their spouses, also find them slightly useless in matters of sock-tidying.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Michelle however is what having a woman lawyer like her in the White House means. For it is not often one can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that there is an educated, intelligent, sensible female voice being heard in the corridors of power.

At the 2004 Democrat Convention in Boston, when the unknown Barack Obama stepped up to the plate to deliver the keynote speech, she famously said to him: “Don’t screw it up, buddy.” One cannot help hoping those words were repeated last night.