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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: I am looking to finally ditch the old minivan and upgrade to an EV. What are the best choices out there nowadays in terms of up-front cost and fuel efficiency?

-- J. Wilson, Summertown, TN

Now is a great time to make the jump into an electric vehicle (EV)—those futuristic new cars that run solely on electricity instead of gasoline. Of course, EVs are still more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts, and re-charging facilities can be few and far between. But those gaps are shrinking, and if you can live with a few trade-offs, you’ll be saving money down the line by avoiding the gas station altogether while helping wean humanity off of fossil fuels.

If you haven’t surveyed the EV landscape in a while, you’ll be shocked at all the choices available nowadays. Thirteen different automakers now offer American consumers some 19 different flavors of an all-EV drivetrain. Tesla remains king of the hill, currently offering three different models that get at least 300 miles per charge. While Teslas aren’t the cheapest of the EV lot, ranging in price from $40k all the way up to $120k, the savings in gas money if you drive a lot may more than make up for the premium pricing.

According to the website Zutobi.com, Teslas are also the cheapest to drive, racking up about $3 in electricity costs on average for every 100 miles driven—meaning that your total fuel expense for a cross country trip of 3,000 miles would be about $100. (Finding places to recharge every 300 miles might be a challenge, especially in those states less inclined toward supporting green vehicles.)

Tesla is far from the only EV game in town. Audi, BMW, Ford, Jaguar, Mini Cooper, Nissan, Polestar, Porsche, Volvo, Kia, Hyundai and Chevrolet all have horses in the race. If range is your thing and you don’t want a Tesla, try Ford’s Mustang Mach-E California Route 1, a two-seater that can go 305 miles on a charge, and signals the classic American car company’s newly announced commitment to a future full of EV drivetrains. Other good choices with range in mind are Chevrolet’s Bolt EV, which tops out at 259 miles per charge, and Hyundai’s Kona Electric at 258 miles per charge.

If saving money up-front is your primary concern, the best deals going in EVs include the Mini Cooper Electric Hardtop 2 Door, Nissan’s Leaf, Hyundai’s Ioniq and Chevy’s Bolt EV—each going for a suggested retail price of around $30k. The downside to several of these cheaper EVs is shorter range—the Mini Cooper can only make it 110 miles before it needs a recharge. But if you use it for short to medium length daily commute, especially to a place where it can recharge all day, then the money saved up front can go straight into the piggy bank. Another factor to keep in mind is that Americans who purchase a new EV or PHEV can still get a tax credit for up to $7,500 from Uncle Sam depending on the automaker and the number of EVs they’ve sold to date.

CONTACTS: When Will Electric Vehicles (EVs) Outnumber Gas-Powered Cars?, emagazine.com/evs-outnumber/; The EV Miles Report, zutobi.com/us/driver-guides/the-electric-vehicle-miles-report; Puget Sound Energy’s Browse Electric Vehicles, ev.pse.com/vehicles/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are "dark sky havens" and are there any near me? -- D. Morris, Troy, MI

A bright moon hangs over the clear, terrestrial night sky permeated by winking stars, illuminating the town below with various hues of blue. While some can only fantasize of these beautiful night settings, these nighttime skies do in fact exist—in what is commonly known as “dark sky havens.”

In considering the necessity of these dark sky havens, we must first examine why most night skies are not all like this in the first place. In most populated, industrialized areas, artificial light from sources ranging from streetlights to factories to commercial properties cause intensive light pollution—casting a dusky yellow stain over the sky’s natural glow. This excessive artificial light cannot only harm wildlife and the earth’s atmosphere, but also people. For example, blue LED light can disrupt sleep rhythm and increase risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to the American Medical Association. Thus, many environmental advocates have pushed for state-level legislation on limiting artificial light, particularly in places like Colorado.

In addition to local legislation to restrict light pollution, acquiring a dark sky status requires direct effort from an entire community. While local governments need to measure light levels regularly and curtail public lights, community residents must reduce their own light usage—especially for any outdoor lighting that can spread to other properties. On a wider scale, residents can implement smarter, greener lighting with LED technology, which can reduce both your electricity bill and carbon footprint by maximizing energy efficiency, which consequently lowers greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Reducing light pollution and creating dark sky havens can be important elements in environmental preservation, economic development and public health. In many rural areas, dark sky initiatives promote tourism for stargazing and meteor-shower watching—luring more visitors and thus more money. Even more, preserving natural nighttime darkness is a worthwhile investment for public well-being. “A view of the night sky can soothe the soul,” says John Barentine, astronomer and policy director of International Dark-Sky Association. “In an era when so many people are suffering from the sensory overload of modern life, as well as what psychologists are calling ‘nature deficit syndrome,’ the night sky offers calm, quiet contemplation.”

Though the International Dark-Sky Association’s standards for managing artificial light are high and certification can take years, dark sky zone applications have expanded widely in Colorado, including the towns of Crestone, Cuchara, Paonia, Pagosa Springs, Naturita, Nucla and La Veta. In the surrounding Rocky Mountain region, towns in states like Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have filed at least 10 applications for dark sky certification. Along with the 25 dark sky towns in the U.S. that you can visit, there are also 77 dark sky designated parks around the nation where you can lay out a blanket after sunset and bask in the nocturnal wonders of starry nights.

CONTACTS: International Dark-Sky Association, darksky.org;“In rural Colorado, a growing push to preserve dark skies as artificial light spills out of cities,” denverpost.com/2021/05/29/dark-sky-towns-colorado-light-pollution-environment/; “Four more Colorado towns certified as “dark sky” havens,” denverpost.com/2021/01/17/colorado-dark-skies-preservation/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some quick and easy ways to make my home more comfortable and climate-friendly? -- Jane B., Tampa, FL

While the coronavirus pandemic has been a serous blight on the world, we’ve all learned valuable lessons about resource consumption from running around so much less. The lack of commuting has practically emptied the roads, helping temporarily reduce carbon emissions. But all the lockdown time has also made us painfully aware of the shortcomings of our homes. Now may well be an excellent time to make improvements that will benefit not only the environment but also your residential bottom line.

One key place to start is weatherizing. If your home is drafty, you may be consuming as much as 20 percent more energy than you need to keep the inside temperature to your liking.

“One simple way to hunt for indoor leaks is to slowly move an incense stick along floors, windows, doors, vents, and walls, and look for places where the smoke changes direction rather than rising straight up,” says Daisy Simmons of Yale Climate Connections. “Jot down the trouble spots, then address them...with either weather-stripping or caulking, depending on the location.” Outlets and switches, she adds, are often draft culprits, but can be sealed easily with cheap foam gaskets from the hardware store.

Beyond remediating individual drafts, adding insulation in general (to the walls, floors, ceilings, basements and crawl spaces) can boost household energy efficiency by some 10 percent on average according to the federal government’s EnergySTAR program to promote efficient appliances and building systems. Indeed, 90 percent of homes in the U.S. are under-insulated, leaving residents vulnerable to temperature swings (cold snaps, heat waves) not to mention noise, humidity and other external negatives.

Another way to reduce your impact and carbon footprint is to cut back on the amount of garbage your household generates. Zero waste home guru and author Bea Johnson says cutting out landfill-bound trash is all about the discipline to follow five simple rules: Refuse what you don't need (like freebies and junk mail), let go of what you don’t use or need in your home (boosting the all-important waste-busting “second-hand market”), reuse, recycle and compost. Her family has been able to reduce their annual landfill-bound waste to a few pieces of plastic and other debris that can fit into a small jar, and saves lots of money along the way. Johnson reports shaving about 40 percent off her overall family budget thanks to going zero waste.

There are tons of other ways to reduce your carbon footprint and overall environmental impact at home. Switch to cold water in the clothes washer and avoid the dryer as much as possible in favor of line-drying. Swap incandescent and even CFL light-bulbs for more efficient LEDs. Get a programmable thermostat that you can set to turn down overnight or when you’re not home. Upgrade curtains and blinds to help insulate and keep your home comfortable no matter the weather outside. With so many ways to green up your household and residential lifestyle, the hardest part might just be deciding where to start.

CONTACTS: “Tips: How to weatherize your home;” yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/06/tips-how-to-weatherize-your-home/; “This Jar Represents One Family's Waste For An Entire Year,” https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/20/zero-waste-family

Dear EarthTalk: How has all the wildfire smoke in the West over the last few summers impacted human health? And what can we do to stay safe amidst the smoke? -- B.K., Philadelphia, PA

Blanketing the atmosphere with thick veils of black smoke and turning skies a hazy orange hue, wildfires have ravaged the Western U.S. as long as anyone can remember. Though wildfires are natural and a critical component of a healthy forest ecosystem, unusually large and lengthy fires have now become the norm across much of the American West.

The year 2020 was record-breaking for wildfires in the U.S. The August Complex fire in Northern California alone torched more than a million acres of land—making it the state’s first ever “gigafire.” And Californians are bracing for more. With temperatures rising around the globe due to climate change, wildfires have only expanded in size and hazard, raising widespread concerns over the impacts of the smoke and how to mitigate the negative health effects.

Wildfire-released pollutants pose many ecological threats, which in turn have both short- and long-term health hazards for nearby communities. Most troublesome may be the PM 2.5 particulate, given that it is small enough to enter the lungs as well as the bloodstream, potentially impacting both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. In the short-term, these pollutants can lead to eye and nasal irritation, heart attacks and strokes, while longer term exposure can cause permanent damage to the heart and lungs.

While efforts in recent decades to reduce pollution from factories and automobiles have reduced the particulate pollution burden on Americans significantly, wildfires are bringing PM 2.5 levels back up into hazardous territory for many across the West, at least during wildfire season. Wildfire smoke also contains many other hazardous pollutants, like carbon monoxide and toxic ash, as well as carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.

The more we know about the potential health impacts of wildfire smoke, the better we can protect ourselves and our loved ones. Wildfire pollution can circulate in the atmosphere for weeks. During the warmer months, consistently check local air-quality reports and read visibility guides before heading outdoors. If you have to go outside in smoky summer weather, wear an N95 mask, which filters most PM 2.5 particulates. However, health-sensitive groups are always at a risk, even with N95 masks. If the surrounding air quality is rated hazardous, everyone should avoid the outdoors as much as possible and take preventive steps like installing an air filter indoors.

If you live in the West (or anywhere arid) and are hoping for a reprieve from smoky skies this summer, don’t hold your breath. According to scientists at San Jose State University, 2021 is looking to be an even worse year for wildfires than last year’s record breaker due to excessively low levels of winter moisture across much of the West. The upshot seems to be that we better just get used to it.

CONTACTS: Silent calamity: The health impacts of wildfire smoke, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/05/silent-calamity-the-health-impacts-of-wildfire-smoke; Could Wildfires Have Long-Term Health Effects? webmd.com/lung/news/20200925/could-wildfires-have-long-term-health-effects; Health effects of wildfire smoke in children and public health tools: a narrative review, nature.com/articles/s41370-020-00267-4; CDC’s Wildfire Smoke Info, cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/smoke.html.


Dear EarthTalk: What are the main contaminants we have to worry about in our drinking water? How can we know if we are being exposed and what can we do about it? -- L. Minto, Bern, NC

Today, most Americans get their water from their sinks or fridge filters, and it travels great distances to get there. On the way, it may pick up chemicals that are harmful to our health if not filtered out properly.

An analysis by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) using 2016 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that some 18 million Americans were living in areas with unsafe levels of lead in the water. In another report, USA Today found that 63 million Americans were exposed to unsafe drinking water from 2007-2017. Water pollution issues were also found to disproportionately plague minority and low-income communities.

Flint, Michigan has been a leading example of U.U. communities facing water pollution. Discolored and highly polluted water was piped into Flint for 18 months during which time residents experienced skin rashes, itchy skin and hair loss. Although complaints were filed by Flint community members, they were dismissed by government officials. Many felt the government’s response (or lack thereof) was rooted in prejudice as the majority of Flint’s population is black and two of five residents live below the poverty line. Michigan’s own Civil Rights Commission called the poor response a “result of systemic racism.”

One of the main poisons in Flint’s water was lead, which entered the water via corroded plumbing. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), says that lead exposure is especially harmful to kids, causing brain and nervous system damage, developmental, learning and behavioral issues and hearing loss. In adults, lead can cause high blood pressure, miscarriage, infertility and brain and kidney damage.

Some other common contaminants in drinking water are perfluorooctanesulfonic (PFOS) and perfluorooctane (PFOA), strontium and perchlorate. PFOS and PFOA are persistent man-made chemicals that can seep into groundwater sources and don’t break down easily. They’ve been linked to chronic kidney disease and several forms of cancer. Strontium can weaken bones and stunt bone growth. Florida, Texas and Eastern Wisconsin each have higher than normal percentages of strontium in their water because many reservoirs come from carbonate rock aquifers in these states. Perchlorate disrupts the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones. It has also been labeled a “likely human carcinogen” by the EPA. It is estimated that 11 million Americans live in areas with perchlorate concentrations that are higher than what is considered safe in drinking water.

If you’d like to know what’s in your drinking water, look online for free local water testing reports, or find a lab that will test your home water supply for between $20-100. Advocating for clean water to local, state and federal government agencies is also key to maintaining the community’s right to clean water.

CONTACTS: Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water, epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water; More than 2 million Americans exposed to high levels of strontium in drinking water, ehn.org/strontium-in-drinking-water-2651752809/removal-of-strontium-from-drinking-water; Perchlorate in Drinking Water, emagazine.com/perchlorate-in-drinking-water/; Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know, nrdc.org/stories/flint-water-crisis-everything-you-need-know.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions question@earthtalk.org


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