Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

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Recall Irony Roundup

| Wed Oct. 3, 2007 6:11 PM EDT

Two pieces of news about recalled products stood out today:

First off, there's RC2, the toy company (slogan: "compelling, passionate parenting and play for all ages") that recalled about 1.5 million Thomas & Friends toys in June. To the customers who surrendered their lead-laced toys, RC2 sent a consolation prize: shiny new railway cars.

The ironic twist: Last week, those "bonus gifts" were recalled because of—you guessed it—lead paint.

Then there's the line of canvas and vinyl lunchboxes made by TA Creations in China.

The ironic twist: In California, the lunchboxes are distributed to low-income families as part of the Network for a Healthy California program. The most cringe-worthy detail? The lunchboxes are emblazoned with the message, "Eat fruits & vegetables and be active" in both English and Spanish. Another cheerful health tip could read, "Throw away this lunchbox before it gets anywhere near those fruits and vegetables."

Bush Opts Out of U.N. Global Warming Talks

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 3:44 PM EDT

Guess who's coming to dinner?

In the case of today's U.N. climate talks, it's President Bush. Too bad he's skipping the rest of the day.

Yes, that's right, in yet another my-way-or-the-highway climate move, the president has declined to participate in a daylong U.N. meeting. The meeting's goal? To bring world leaders together to fight climate change. But instead of joining the party, President Bush is throwing his own, with a different theme: He wants each of the world's most powerful nations to set up its own carbon emissions standards. The embarrassing message: The U.S. doesn't want to cooperate, and neither should anyone else!

Does Eco-Tourism Encourage Child Labor?

| Mon Sep. 24, 2007 2:39 PM EDT

There may be no way to travel guilt-free.

For a while, carbon offsets looked promising—we were told (and we told ourselves) that by paying a little extra, we could make it as if our long-haul flights never happened at all! Well, as it turns out, not quite.

The latest bad news about carbon offsets: In some cases, child laborers may be paying for our supposedly ethically sound vacations. Climate Care, a British company that finances sustainable projects in the developing world, is at the center of the scandal:

Climate Care uses the money to help persuade families...to give up labour-saving diesel pumps and buy human-powered treadles instead. It claims that by using the treadle, a family will save money on diesel and hire charges, earn more from increased crops and cut the carbon emissions that would have been produced by the pump.

And in many of these families, the human that powers the treadle is a child (the London Times found a family who, because of financial circumstances, had a six-year-old child working half-hour shifts on the treadle).

So much for guilt-free.


The Price of Saving Homes from Forest Fires

| Thu Sep. 20, 2007 3:04 PM EDT

It takes money to fight fires, and the bigger the fire, the more expensive it is. With all the news of wildfires in the west, it's interesting to learn that it costs the Forest Service a billion dollars a year to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). High Country News has an interesting post today about a report on the cost of fighting fires in the WUI.

Some interesting tidbits from the report:

* Only 14% of forested western private land adjacent to public land is currently developed for residential use. Based on current growth trends, there is tremendous potential for future development on the remaining 86%.

* Given the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in recent years (on average $1.3 billion each year between 2000-2005), this potential development would create an unmanageable financial burden for taxpayers.

* If homes were built in 50% of the forested areas where private land borders public land, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion.

* One in five homes in the wildland urban interface is a second home or cabin, compared to one in twenty-five homes on other western private lands.

* Residential lots built near wildlands take up more than six times the space of homes built in other places. On average, 3.2 acres per person are consumed for housing in the wildland urban interface, compared to 0.5 acres on other western private lands.

Protecting the WUI from future development, it seems, would be a step in the right direction. But till that happens, there are some pretty interesting ethical questions to wrestle with. Here's one: Do second-home owners have as much of a right as first-home owners to build in the WUI, if firefighters must risk their lives—and spend taxpayer money—to save vacation cabins?

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