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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12 Most Toxic Fish (For Humans and the Planet)

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Food & Water Watch just released its 2010 Smart Seafood Guide to the safety and sustainability of more than 100 kinds of fish and shellfish. Now I still love the Monterey Bay Aquarium's pocket guides and searchable Seafood Watch site (the only place where you can geek out with a trawling fact card, as far as I know), but the Smart Seafood Guide has a few unique features worth pointing out.

For starters, while some guides only address human health issues (like mercury) and environmental problems (like overfishing), Food & Water Watch also considers seafood's socioeconomic impact. "For example, lobster is a a key part of the economy up in Maine," says Marianne Cufone, director of Food & Water Watch's fish program. "Knowing that fact is really important to some consumers."

Another handy thing: It's organized by texture and taste, so you can figure out the safest and most sustainable options in categories such as "mild" and "steak-like." This makes it easy to figure out substitutes for recipes. 

Here's Food & Water Watch's "dirty dozen" list of seafood that failed to meet at least two of the group's criteria. For more details, plus a list of alternatives for each verboten species, check out the guide. In no particular order:

1. King crab: Even though crab is abundant in some parts of the US, imports from Russia—which aren't well regulated—are much cheaper and more common.

2. Caviar, especially from beluga and other wild-caught sturgeon: Overfishing and poaching of this coveted species is very common.

3. Atlantic bluefin tuna: Extreme overfishing, plus concerns about mercury and PCB contamination.

4. Orange roughy: May contain mercury and "is particularly vulnerable to overfishing due to its long lifespan and slow maturation."

5. Atlantic flatfish (e.g. flounder, sole and halibut): Seriously overfished.

6. American eel: Concerns about mercury and PCBs.

7. Atlantic Cod: Overfished, and also has major bycatch problems.

8. Imported catfish: Much of it comes from Southeast Asia, "where use of chemicals and antibiotics is barely regulated."

9. Chilean seabass: Concerns about mercury, plus illegal fishing in Chile damages marine life and seabirds.

10. Shark: May contain mercury, also overfished.

11. Atlantic and farmed salmon: Concerns about contamination with PCB, pesticides, and antibiotics. Also, waste and germs from salmon farms often leaches out of the cages and can harm the surrounding marine life.

12. Imported shrimp: About 90 percent of it comes from countries where the seafood industry (waste control, chemical use, and labor) isn't well regulated.

Do Cheap Airfare Specials Hurt the Environment—or Help It?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A while back, I griped about the environmental irresponsibility of a recent JetBlue promotion that offered $20 last-minute round trip fares to various US cities. A bunch of commenters pointed out that in a way, specials like this actually save CO2 emissions, since they put butts in would-be empty seats. But I was still skeptical: Even if cheap fares help fill seats, don't they just create more demand for flights in the long run?

The short answer is that it depends on the nature of your trip. Mikhail Chester, a UC-Berkeley post-doctoral researcher in civil and environmental engineering, points out that sometimes cheap fares can actually help prevent car trips. "If you were planning on driving from San Francisco to LA, but you decide to hop on a cheap flight at the last minute instead, that's one less car trip," says Chester. "But if you buy a cheap ticket on a whim, that's different." Let's say I had gone to Austin for the evening, like my roommate wanted to. All of a sudden, we're talking restaurants, bars, hotel stay, and maybe even a car rental—all of which create emissions I would have avoided by spending a quiet evening at home.

But the long answer is more complicated, and it helps to understand why airlines offer bargain fares in the first place. Chester's colleague Megan Smirti Ryerson studies airline-ticket pricing models. Ryerson explained to me that although airlines typically don't make money on these deals, cheap flights do help them stay competitive. At many airports, each airline is alotted a certain number of take-off time slots every hour. "If you don't use your slot 80 percent of the time, you're going to lose it to one of your competitors," says Ryerson. So in the long run, it makes more financial sense for an airline to keep all of its slots than give them up, even if the flights aren't completely full. "It would be so much more efficient to get everyone on a larger plane and have less frequent flights," says Ryerson. "But in order to be competitive, airlines have to oversupply frequency to assert their market dominance."

Cheap fares are also an excellent marketing strategy, says Ryerson. "JetBlue tweets to their millions of followers about the deals, and those tweets get retweeted," she says. "It gets people to the website. And even if those people don't use the cheap fares, maybe they are looking for another flight."

Bottom line: Considering that planes will probably take off regardless of whether they're full, indulging in a cheap flight once in a while is okay, especially if you're saving a car trip. But don't allow those JetBlue specials to let you forget about air travel's giant carbon footprint. If everyone flew less overall (which would be a whole lot easier if our rail system wasn't so inconvenient and slow), maybe airlines wouldn't find it worth their while to send all those half-empty planes up into the air in the first place.

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

Are Email Attachments Bad for the Environment? Part II

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Last week, I wrote about the environmental impact of email attachments. This stirred up lots of discussion among commenters here on the Blue Marble (almost as much as the oatmeal and Greek yogurt Econundrums) and also over at Kevin Drum's blog, Andrew Sullivan's blog, and the New York Times' Freakonomics blog. While some of the the comments did tend toward the all-caps "you idiot" end of things, many readers made interesting points. For example, one of Sullivan's commenters says:

I can't say for sure (given that her source didn't go into the details about his 17.5 kettles number), but that seems more like a lifecycle-analysis assuming the pictures are kept rather than viewed and deleted to free up memory space.  The same thinking can apply to the power use of the devices used to view the e-mails: I'm using my computer all day, so the marginal power consumption caused by receiving an e-mail with four attachments is probably negligible, and could even be negative; if I were running a program that required all of the computing power of my machine, but replaced some of that time with looking at LOLcats that my friend had sent me (without shifting the higher computer to another time), then distracting e-mails could actually prove a net power saver.

Matthew Yeager, a data storage expert who works for the UK data services and solutions company Computacenter, was my main source for the piece, and he has responded to some of the points that readers brought up in an email. Here's a portion of it:

Yes, at first glance I agree that the context of boiling a kettle 17.4x being equivalent to emailing a 4.7mb attachment seems too fantastic to believe...as does the worldwide datacentre industry being at parity with the airlines for CO2 production with 2% of all man-made CO2 comes from computers and communications technology.

The sources for both of these statistics can be found both directly in the body of the blog post as well as below for the BBC interview.

(Sources: Life-cycle analysis carried out by Mark Mills of Digital Power Group, translated into kettle boilings with help from the Energy Savings Trust [UK]; Green IT: A New Industry Shock Wave by Simon Mingay [Gartner])

It is important to remember that the point of the BBC piece was to discuss the 'data deluge' and how the creation of data is affecting our planet and, in this instance, Computacenter customers. Indeed, a recent statistic putting data growth in perspective has us creating as much data in two days as we did in all of 2003. "The real issue is user-generated content,” Schmidt said. He noted that pictures, instant messages, and tweets all add to this. (Source: Eric Schmidt, Google)

I note that in many comments (as well as the Andrew Sullivan commenter) commentators give what they believe to be well thought out arguments and related mathematical equation, however your focus remains on the server alone and does not take into account the power/cooling and related environmentals for the datacentre where the server resides, the networking equipment required to connect the server, the data storage array(s) attached to the server, et al.

It is important to take into account that the power calculations come from existing equipment and not the power to deploy them in the first place; there is much wastage at all levels of a traditionally deployed technology infrastructure of siloed storage, servers, networks, et al which can be calculated largely from the product datasheets as well as physical measurement such as that conducted and verified by the Digital Power Group [citation above].

Equally, a traditional datacentre can further complicate and exacerbate power issues...only 30% of the power entering a datacentre is actually spent powering the computer chips, whilst 70% of the energy is spent cooling the processors and removing the heat they produce with better than 99.9% of energy entering a microprocessor turned into heat. (Source: Bruno Michel, manager of advanced thermal packaging at IBM Zurich Research Laboratories.)

Hence we must also factor in the physical inefficiencies of the datacentre and the equipment therein to arrive at the 17.4x kettle boil statistic.

In my experience of working with hundreds of customers worldwide, it is not uncommon to find datacentres which have been incorrectly laid out [e.g. hot rows, cool rows] as well as ageing datacentre equipment which take up more power as well as require more power and cooling to service than that which you reference.

I've asked Yeager whether a PDF of the Digital Power Group study is available; I'll post it later if it turns up.

OK commenters, go nuts! (Respectfully nuts, that is, of course.)

Update: Here's an interesting piece from Wired UK (PDF) on the Internet's energy use. (Credit: Wired UK, July 2009, page 41)

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

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