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Exploring Earth Day's Origins
Apr 22nd, 2012 by Chris
Growing together

Growing together.

Scientists estimate Earth to be about 4.5 billion years old and yet today (April 22, 2012) marks just the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, which obviously means that we have a few billion years of neglect to overcome.

Rectifying such an oversight with an annual observance is a noble gesture, but it seems much of the general public has yet to totally embrace the concept.  In fact, most people know very little about Earth Day’s history or true purpose.

By American standards, Earth Day is certainly not a traditional holiday.  There’s no time-off from work or school, for one thing; and the typical excesses connected with such festivities seem counter-intuitive to appreciating our exhausted Earth.  Decorations, fireworks, holiday spending sprees, even feasts appear wildly inappropriate.

There’s also no jolly elf, magic bunny, winged cherub, or leprechaun to sell the story of Earth Day to our kids.  And, what exactly is the story of Earth Day?  Shouldn’t it have some sort of folk-tale or myth to explain its creation and convey its true meaning—something to build our traditions around?

The real story of Earth Day involves student activism in the 1960’s, the city of San Francisco, a maverick U.S. senator, and a “luminary with a major passion for peace, religion and science.” It also contains a small measure of controversy.

There are actually two dates officially recognized as “Earth Day.”  Two men are credited with creating separate Earth Days at approximately the same time, and their unique, competing visions of the same concern both shaped the sentiments and practices commonly associated with the event held today.

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John McConnell (1915- ) is an intriguing, American character—a New Age, Christian peacenik with traces of counter-culture bohemian marbling his earthy righteousness.  He developed a concern for ecology while working for an early plastics laboratory (1939).  During WWII, McConnell delivered religious services aboard Merchant Marine vessels, taking the position that “prayer and love could be more powerful than bombs.”  Since then, McConnell has dedicated his life to “relieving human suffering and promoting the common good.”

McConnell’s philanthropic activities, which included the highly successful “Meals for Millions” campaign, eventually led him to the 1969 National UNESCO conference in San Francisco.  It was in this historic city, named for St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, that McConnell unveiled his idea for an “Earth Day—to celebrate Earth’s life and beauty and to alert earthlings to the need for preserving and renewing the threatened ecological balances upon which all life on Earth depends.”

McConnell proposed Earth Day to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which eventually issued an “Earth Day Proclamation.”  McConnell drafted his own Earth Day Proclamation for worldwide use which quickly gained the support of the United Nations, and the initial event was celebrated in San Francisco (and other cities) on March 21, 1970.

If there is a spiritual element to how we view or celebrate Earth Day, it most certainly originates from McConnell.  In his interesting (and visionary) essay, 77 Theses, McConnell outlines a path toward a utopian global village where citizens serve as “Trustees of the Earth.”  He combines religious sensibilities with an idealistic faith in humanity’s ability to liberate itself from its seemingly unenlightened existence.  While acknowledging tremendous challenges, he suggests a possibility for redemption by embracing an “inner point of unity”—a collective concern for the Earth and each other.  “The greatest challenge in history,” he writes, “is the present challenge of destiny involving all humanity; a challenge to reclaim the Earth for all peoples and to free them from the fear of war and want.”

Clearly, Earth Day’s overriding sense of community, inclusiveness and shared responsibility for the well-being of the planet comes largely from McConnell’s passionate vision, but what about the other guy?

Gaylord Nelson was known as The Man from Clear Lake.  He was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin at a time (1963-81) when being a Democrat with liberal leanings wasn’t considered such a bad thing.  Born in 1916, he fought in WW II and served as the 35th governor of his home state before becoming a senator.  He was largely responsible for side-effect warnings on birth control pills (“Nelson Pill Hearings”), in addition to being a strong advocate for small business and, of course, initiating his own Earth Day.

He was said to have been motivated to create an “environmental teach-in at university campuses” after witnessing the devastating effects of a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif.  The original concept was shaped in a large part by the protest movement blazing across college campuses throughout the turbulent 60’s.  Nelson, considered a conservation activist, envisioned an event similar to the highly effective Vietnam War teach-ins going on at that time.

“I am convinced,” he said, “that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically.”

Nelson announced his intentions at a couple of 1969 speeches including a meeting of the United Auto Workers (which donated $2000 to the cause!).  He invited Republican representative, Pete McCloskey, to serve as the co-chair of a non-profit organization, Environmental Teach-In, Inc., and a front-page article in the New York Times (September 29, 1969) declared, “Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”

Nelson recruited a Harvard graduate student, Denis Hayes, to organize their first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) on a nationwide scale.  Nelson claims the name “Earth Day” was suggested by “a number of people,” but whether intentionally lifted from McConnell or not, the mass media preferred it to “Environmental Teach-In Day.”  Hayes, who became an influential leader in the environmental movement, did an excellent job as approximately 20 million Americans participated in this first Earth Day, and it has been called “the beginning of the modern environmental movement.”

Nelson receives credit for using his government muscle to increase Earth Day’s visibility across the United States.  He made public education, awareness and youth involvement key elements in the Earth Day Movement.  Nelson’s outline for Earth Day also suggests a 60’s-style “stick it to the man” kind of militant edge,  or a “We’re not going to take it!” reaction to environmental concerns.  His Earth Day certainly contains a solid streak of social activism.

Both of these pioneering environmentalists contributed equal measures toward the establishment of not just an Earth Day, but an Earth Day Movement; and both should be simultaneously acknowledged for their efforts.  Nelson’s approach, strongly rooted to democratic principles of free speech and public assembly, compliments nicely with McConnell’s ideas about mankind’s collective discovery of the inner point of unity.

So, what’s the deal with the dates?  Nelson carefully selected his date to maximize collegiate involvement.  With spring break, Easter and any other holidays out of the way, most universities would be in session.  McConnell chose his date to coincide with the March Equinox, calling it “nature’s special day of equilibrium.”  His motivation was once again a unification of public interest and concern.  By choosing the vernal Equinox, when the length of night and day is equal in all parts of the Earth, McConnell hoped to show “no statement of the truth or superiority of one way of life over another.”

While McConnell’s choice undoubtedly makes more sense symbolically, Nelson’s political clout made the April date stick.  Many still prefer to observe the more metaphysically-aligned “Equinox Earth Day” instead.

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So, now that we know the story, have we gained a better understanding of what comprises a proper Earth Day?  Should we go all “Age of Aquarius” and act like we’re in the Broadway musical Hair?  Should we attend a protest march or a lecture?  Perhaps we should think more practically and organize a nature walk with neighborhood kids, or maybe a clean-up crew?

Whether it’s March 21 or April 22, we’re still talking about spring, and that’s the traditional time to bust out the dust-brooms, shake off the winter lethargy and start cleaning things up.  Lunchsense would like to mark the occasion by reminding everyone that “Reduce” comes first, even before “Reuse” and “Recycle,” so how about celebrating Earth Day by clearing out some of your old, unused stuff?  Why not spend the afternoon making your own little part of Earth a cleaner, happier place?  Simplify your life and for the good of the planet, keep only what you need.  Start becoming an environmental activist in your own home.

Here’s Walter Cronkite’s 1970 commentary on the event … Happy Earth Day!

Adding Lunch to the Lesson Plan
Apr 13th, 2012 by Chris

classroom cafeteria 2

Darn near every moment is a “teaching moment” for me and my kids.  In fact, my boys will tell you that I’m pretty much teaching them something all day long, except they call it “yelling.”  Seriously though, the first time Junior says, “#$@!” and everyone giggles and looks at Dad, we all realize that behavioral modeling is a huge factor in shaping our children’s lives.  My sons watch me, and they listen closer when I’m not even talking to them.  The see how I work, how I play, how I dress, how I interact with my friends and my wife, how I maintain our household, what my priorities are, and yes—even how I eat.

In a recently published interview on Nourish, Cook for America co-founder, Kate Adamick, suggests we view school cafeteria staff as Lunch Teachers, reminding everyone that “what students are fed at school teaches them how to think about food, what to think of as food, and how to behave while consuming it—all lessons that they will carry with them for the remainder of their lives.”

While not exactly a revelation, Adamick’s statement is still, for many, a necessary prompt.  Each meal is an opportunity to show our children how to live.  Proper nutrition is a fundamental skill that is essential for enduring health and well-being.  The kitchen and the school-cafeteria are classrooms where kids learn (or don’t learn) how to select, prepare and eat the right kinds of food.  And yet, as Adamick notes, “frequently, school administrators appear to have forgotten that students don’t stop learning just because it’s lunchtime.”

While a good school-lunch program is imperative and can make a difference for many poorly nourished kids, I believe that I’m in the best position to teach my children the importance of proper eating.  Parents are overwhelmed much of the time and can make a habit of depending on schools to cover the gaps and keep their kids well-directed.  For the most part, given their limited resources, public educators do a wonderful job, but considering the litany of concerns regarding most school-lunch programs (in the U.S.) this is one subject where Father/Mother probably knows best.

Eating, cooking and even shopping together provides wonderful opportunities for shoulder-to-shoulder activities that can positively shape a child’s development.  Health, creativity, earth-consciousness and self-assuredness are just a few of the traits that can be nurtured by sharing good eats.

Preparing home-packed lunches for my boys ensures that they’ll be taking a piece of me along with them to school.  It enables me to influence them at a critical (under-supervised) point in their day without even being there.  It’s this type of unobtrusive, indirect instruction (modeling really) that makes the biggest impact on my kids, and there’s no “yelling.”

If you’re looking to home-school the “lunch” portion of your kids’ curriculum, Lunchsense provides the perfect platform—pack a lesson plan in every box:

  • Easy to use, encourages kid involvement, interactive learning.
  • Portion-sized food containers simplify balanced nutrition.
  • Clever design supports bento-style, eye-catching creativity.
  • Waste-reducing, reusable; promotes sustainability.
As if we needed another reason to ban BPA
Feb 17th, 2012 by Nancy

Most cans have BPAA new study about BPA hit the presses recently, indicating links between it and the obesity and diabetes epidemic. It’s very worthy of a read, but if you’re pressed for time, I’ll cut to the chase: researchers in Spain believe they have shown that BPA, by mimicking estrogen, compels the body to release almost double the insulin needed to break down food.  Previous research by others indicates that increased insulin production may lead to weight gain and the onset of type II diabetes.

I’m glad to see such a finding making its way into the popular press, I’m a bit disappointed to report that the rest of the article is more editorial than scientific by mentioning implications and suggesting some thinly supported conclusions.  It’s conjecture, not science.

I struggle, furthermore, with some of the comments, mainly those that do more to reveal ignorance than shed light on the topic.   Should we just just eliminate plastic from our lives because of this report?  Well, notwithstanding that the bulk of our BPA exposure comes not from plastic, but through canned foods and cash register receipts, I’m afraid eliminating plastic would be an overreaction to this research.  Yes, this is further evidence that BPA has some very serious issues that warrant a cold hard look at whether any benefit that BPA might offer is outweighed by its cost.

To wit: recall that canned foods are a major culprit for BPA in our diets.  Would you rather have home-grown tomatoes that are canned in glass jars (but the only lids available to seal the jars have BPA), or organic tomatoes packaged in tetrapaks that are BPA-free BUT aren’t recyclable?

In all honesty, I do not have an answer for that – not for myself, not for you.  maybe the only answer is “don’t eat tomatoes out of season.”  Sigh.

Not all plastics have, or are produced using, BPA.  Polycarbonate is the resin of concern, and even then many polycarbonate items have removed BPA from its production.  Polyethyene (#2 and #4) and polypropylene (#5, the plastic used for the food containers in Lunchsense) do not contain BPA.  What’s more, the alternatives to plastics have their own issues that should not be ignored.

Returning to BPA and this most recent finding, you may ask, “Just how much research do we need to convince everybody that this is nasty stuff and it shouldn’t be used?”  Great question, and one that scientists grapple with all the time.  Here’s a recent interview with a researcher who has strong opinions (supported with research) about the dangers of BPA; others draw different conclusions from similar research.

It begs the bigger question still:  ”Can the scientific method, in light of the extraordinarily complex network of causes and effects we have created in our modern life, even adequately examine these relationships and draw meaningful conclusions?”

I’m just chock full of questions.  No answers here today, I’m sorry to say.  Whether we’ve chosen to do so or not, we all have to live with uncertainty brought about by our modern living.

So NOW what do we do?

Avoid BPA whenever possible: Personally, I feel that there’s enough evidence to steer clear of it whenever possible.  I strongly encourage you to read this excellent summary of BPA sources (part one and part two).

Be informed: Just like our food intake should be varied, so also should be our information intake.  Please don’t allow one report dictate your every move, but do give several reports undertaken by independent facilities that reach similar conclusions a measure of credibility.  Furthermore, give yourself permission to think long and hard about these topics.  If there were simple answers we might have found them already.

Help inform others: Share the links.  Discuss, civilly.

p.s.  I chose to title the post as I have because it does indeed reflect my stance on this chemical.  However, I also have another opinion which I feel passionately about, but it makes a really lousy post title: “Living with Ambiguity.”  It’s what we do, so we should learn to abide with it.  Embrace it, even.

American Giant and Small Business
Feb 3rd, 2012 by Nancy

This came across my sights the other day:

How American Giant Hacked the Supply Chain

For years, it was cheaper to produce goods overseas. But Bayard Winthrop believes that’s changing, in part because of one big culprit: The Internet.

“There’s a general growing comfort level with not only consuming online but buying things like shoes and apparel online,” says Winthrop. “I think one of the reasons we’re so excited about what we’re doing is that we’re in a new time now in that for the first time you can begin to really assess the non-manufacturing related costs. Even two years ago you couldn’t do that.”

American GiantIn a nutshell, start-up clothing manufacturer American Giant, which opened its ‘doors’ this week, is doing the improbable – high quality, reasonably priced, American made clothing – by only having them available online, thereby short-circuiting the overhead of retail space, distribution, and everything else that goes into getting products into traditional brick & mortar retail.

Market forces and cultural forces have conspired against US garment manufacturing for decades.  However, with that loss has been the unfortunate loss of quality and durability.  Sociologist Julie Schor has verified what many of us have assumed for some time: garment prices have flatlined or dropped in the last 20 years, in large part due to cheap overseas labor but also because of cheaply made, low quality materials and deferred environmental costs. We therefore buy many more garments now than we did in the early 90’s, partly in response to the lower (real) prices, but also in part because of diminished quality and durability – the old saw “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to” is quantifiably, verifiably true in the garment and other soft goods industries.

Thanks to the reach of the internet and the comfort level we have achieved with online shopping and financial transactions, however, it’s very possible to do an end-around the biggest costs of bringing a new item to market – namely, renting retail space, hiring and training staff, or hiring sales reps to shlep your shiny new thing to stores in hopes they will add it to their inventory.

I’m really delighted to see this hit the big time, and I strongly encourage you to take a look at the link in the title of the quote above – there’s a succinct video demonstrating the plight of, and the hopefully bright future for, American manufacturing.  The U.S. is full of the hand skills, the machinery, and most of all the people who can, simply put, manufacture great stuff.

I’m also compelled to say, “It’s about time somebody else caught on to what we at Lunchsense have been doing all along, and why.”

After the design for Lunchsense lunchboxes came into being and I realized I wasn’t the only person on the planet who needed a better way to pack lunches, I started scouting around for local manufacturing.  I hit paydirt with Oregon Sewn Products – they are the right size in the right place and the right price, and wonderful, entertaining individuals to boot.

It’s noteworthy to temper my enthusiasm with a shot of reality, though.   If everyone were to do what American Giant is doing, it would be at the expense of American retailers.

I do manufacture a fair number of my lunchboxes in Vietnam, at a factory I visited (trip of a lifetime!) and vetted for its labor standards, working conditions, and environmental initiatives.  I’m pleased to say the factory not only passed muster but holds SA8000 certification.  Yes, the lunchboxes I manufacture overseas cost me far less than the US made lunchboxes.  They do allow me, however, to sell lunchboxes to stores, which then can sell them to you, which allows us both to make an appropriate profit in the endeavor. In other words,

I manufacture in the U.S. (and support a local manufacturer) —–> I sell to you, directly, on the internet

I manufacture overseas —–> I sell these lower cost (but identical quality) items to stores (and support a local retailer) —–> they sell to you.

Doing it this way allows me to support both U.S. manufacturing AND U.S. retailing.  I wouldn’t want to cut either business type out of my model. There are plenty of folks who just want to buy a lunchbox off a store shelf, and I am happy to meet their needs.  There are plenty of others who are fine with buying things online, and I’m here for them too.

Lastly, note that if you want a lunchbox assembled in the U.S., just say so in the comments field when you place your online order, and I promise you will get exactly that.

I wish American Giant all the best, and I really hope they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, because their success is my success, and ultimately, yours as well.       

The Plastic Files: Episode One
Nov 5th, 2011 by Chris

The Truth Is Out There …

We’re about to embark on a gripping adventure.  A confounding mystery has thrust itself into the offices of Lunchsense World Headquarters, and we, driven by an unyielding determination to shed light on any dim corner of obscurity, feel obligated to inveDetective-with-smoke-flippedstigate.  It’s a bewildering complexity that involves multinational corporations, government agencies, public health groups, environmentalists and possibly even mad scientists.  The wellness of the planet and the sustenance of our species could hang in the balance.

The story begins with the kind of woman you cross the floor and light a cigarette for (if people still smoked).  “Hey, I kinda like your lunchboxes,” she says off-handedly before shooting me one of those straight-to-the-gut stares that suggests more than it delivers.  “But,”—there’s always a hangnail, a stickler, some pain to snap me out of it—“are these plastic food containers safe?”

Ah, there’s the rub; the stopping point for many potential lady-friends and forward-thinking fellas alike.  It seems plastic has recently transitioned from its gilded, “better living” period to a much darker phase of skepticism and mistrust.  Who crashed the Tupperware party?  Do we have good reason to be afraid?  Is plastic another asbestos—a toxic substance that surrounds us, masquerading as modern convenience?  Or has public anxiety been heightened egregiously by the rampant spread of misinformation via nefarious, unqualified sources?  Who can be trusted?

Since selling plastic food containers is a part of our business, and since we’re human and live here too, Lunchsense has decided to put our considerable resources (this blog space) toward determining exactly where the truth lies.  Combining Nancy’s scientific/research background with my own journalist’s instincts (shaded by a gumshoed-sleuth persona), we’re certain to crack the case.  We’ll leave no stone unturned in our quest to discover what is known and unknown about this seductive, synthetic substance.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts related to the safety of plastic food containers, and we’ll be looking at the most viable alternative (for our purposes), stainless steel.  We’ll outline and weigh their environmental impact, both in the manufacturing process and in the post-consumer period.  We’ll also examine any health risks involved with using plastic (or stainless) food containers.  Finally, we’ll discuss what qualities consumers use to determine “good” from “bad,” how those impressions are influenced, and where (we think) our food containers rate on that scale.

It’s sure to be a heart-pounding thrill, so stay tuned for our next installment, a short, historical primer entitled: Plastic Fantastic? We’ll explain what plastic is and how it’s produced.  We’ll describe the different types of plastics and discuss the chemicals used in the manufacture of these types, including their toxicity and any associated health risks.

The truth is out there, so don’t you dare miss a single upcoming episode of our revealing series: The Plastic Files!

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