LOCALLY GROWN: Your guide to sustainable living in mid-Missouri

Friday, June 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:55 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 4, 2010

This column is the first in a series that will address practical challenges that come up in trying to live more sustainably.

My home isn’t covered in solar panels — at least not yet.

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Next week's column will be about composting. What do you want to know about this process? Let us know and we can address it in next week's column or on the Locally Grown blog.

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My wife and I are new homeowners, but we passed on photovoltaic panels to pay off our car with our first-time-home-buyer incentive. However, we now have the opportunity to make our surroundings reflect our personalities — we’ve painted rooms (bamboo or peaceful reed — they look the same to me), we’ve planted flowers — and we’re ready to truly create a reflection of our core values using sustainable techniques and energy-saving upgrades.

We’re not experts by any stretch of the imagination. My toolbox contains a hammer, screwdriver, drill, level and a willingness to learn. Our sustainability efforts won't bring our net environmental impact to zero, but we’re not the “No impact family.”  Gaining some perspective overseas has inspired us to try to do more with less.

In the summer of 2006, my wife and I joined the Peace Corps. We sold our car, packed up our possessions and headed for the land of the eternal blue sky: Mongolia.

As Peace Corps volunteers in Bayankhongor, Mongolia from June 2006 to July 2008, we had many opportunities to work on environmental education projects. We coordinated our city’s first World Water Day and Earth Day festivals, worked with local science teachers to integrate more environmental education into their classrooms and taught three communities how to monitor their water quality by collecting and categorizing benthic macro-invertebrates.

In a water-scarce country, preserving the quality of the few water sources that exist is vital. Even in Missouri, where we have average rainfalls varying from 30 to 50 inches throughout the state, we could experience water quality scarcity issues within 20 years. Jason Hubbart, a MU forestry professor, says rising human population and development could lead to water quality problems. “The irony is we’ll have lots of water, but a growing proportion of it will be unusable if we continue with the status quo on water quality protection,” he says.  

Perhaps having my weekly water supply delivered by a horse cart made me more cognizant of my consumption habits, or observing Mongolians reuse their ketchup bottles as planters opened my eyes to reusing out of need, not because it’s the “green” thing to do, or never traveling in a vehicle that wasn’t completely full (imagine riding across the country in a VW-sized van with 21 people, their stuff and a goat). Put simply, the experience changed my way of thinking and has led me to make living sustainably a daily feature in my life, and I’m not alone in mid-Missouri.  

Barbara Buffaloe, the new city sustainability manager, recently addressed a packed house at the Boone County Government Center. She introduced her charge as funded by the Department of Energy to improve the efficiency of all city buildings and took questions for more than an hour about various sustainability issues ranging from improving recycling rates to carpooling from Columbia to Jefferson City. Achieving Columbia's renewable energy mandate, solving water-quality issues in urban streams, planning for Columbia’s growth and understanding climate change and how it will impact mid-Missouri are just a few of the environmental issues facing our area.

How to address those issues often leads to different, and sometimes antagonistic, viewpoints. I’m going to tackle them one topic at a time by introducing you to the innovators in our community and sharing their knowledge and by creating a forum where we can build on one another’s ideas. You can read, write and post links on that forum at CoMo Locally Grown. I’m not asking you to sell your possessions, head for the hills and start foraging for berries, but I am asking you to consider how your daily habits impact your neighbors, both on your street and across oceans.

It can be downright daunting to wade through all the claims of greenness that proliferate in our media. “All-natural, eco-friendly, made with the environment in mind” are just a few picks from the field of green claims. And while it's easy to recognize riding your bike is better for the environment then driving, what about upgrading your home — is it more important to make energy-efficiency improvements or go with solar panels first? Is it always better to buy local even if it's not organic? What should I do with plastics three through seven, which can’t be processed by our city's recycling facility? I'm here to provide those answers and many others that might be perplexing you about how to live more sustainably.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m dedicated to tracking them down for you. Want to find the best deal on paint that is free of volatile organic compounds? I’m your man. Evaluating what produce is most important to buy organic? I’ll point you to the greenest pastures.  Need tips for how to reduce your trash? I’ll give you a bag full.

I’ll be attempting some projects on this journey too. For energy savings, I’ll be adding insulation in my attic and basement, insulating pipes and replacing the weather strips on all the windows and doors. Outside we’re adding a second compost pile, setting up rain barrels, planting a vegetable garden in the front yard and possibly raising chickens in the back. I will share my successes and failures and hope you will do the same. I believe there’s great momentum stirring in this community, and I want to embrace it and build on it. But I need you help.

I need your input, your expertise and your questions. Share what you’ve learned and what you would like to learn more about.  Join me on this journey. You’ll learn ways to save money, live healthier and preserve our community for future generations.

Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, a graduate instructor and the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps.

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Derrick Fogle June 4, 2010 | 9:20 a.m.

Great job Mike! Good to see you on this subject, looking forward to more.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 5, 2010 | 4:14 a.m.

"is it more important to make energy-efficiency improvements or go with solar panels first?"

Energy efficiency is far more important to do first. Solar produced electricity costs about 5 times what coal produced electricity does, so you're very much better off making efficiency improvements first, so you need less solar energy.

"Is it always better to buy local even if it's not organic?"

It's been shown buy many government and consumer organizations that the main difference between conventional and organic is the price. Our collective chemophobia often tips the balance unnecessarily.

And it's complicated, also, because in some cases it may have less environmental impact to ship food long distances, as it may be easier, and require less unsustainable input, to grow a particular food far away from where it's consumed.

The most sustainable option is simply not to eat a particular food. But would we give up our chocolate and coffee because they have to be shipped long distances, for example?

I look forward to this column also, because I have a keen interest in sustainability. I think one of the most important concepts to present is the difference between efficiency and conservation, and the benefits and drawbacks of both. In that vein, I hope that benefits and drawbacks are always clearly pointed out in any analysis of a particular practice. Too often, in sustainability circles, solutions are proposed that are either impractical, needlessly expensive, or do not solve the problem they are intended to solve, for emotional and political reasons. Sustainability is too important to address any way but rationally.

Looking forward to the next one.


(Report Comment)
Kelsey Whipple June 9, 2010 | 11:52 a.m.

I really enjoyed your column, Mike!

(Report Comment)
Ben Datema June 15, 2010 | 8:57 p.m.

Great to see this, Mike! I look forward to reading more in the coming weeks!

(Report Comment)

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