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Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet by John C. Ryan

1999; 98 pp. $12.95., Sierra Club Books.

A couple of years ago, while I was doing something else, I heard snatches of a radio program in which Alan Durning, the director of Seattle's Northwest Environment Watch, talked about the "Seven Sustainable Wonders of the World." Clever concept, I thought, but afterward I could only remember three of his wonders:

The bicycle : The most energy-efficient form of transport ever devised. It doesn't emit pollution, it runs on renewable energy, it makes its user healthier, it's easy to repair, it requires little in the way of pavement or parking lot, and 80 percent of the world's people can afford one. (Only 10 percent of the world's people can afford a car.)

The clothesline : Even more affordable than the bicycle, runs on solar energy, no wires, no electricity, no pollution, and your clothes come out smelling sweet.

The ceiling fan : The air conditioner of the tropical world, which I fondly remember turning slowly and romantically in rooms all over India. A fan makes a space feel 9F cooler than it really is. A typical ceiling fan draws no more than seventy-five watts, about as much as a single incandescent light bulb, only one-tenth as much as an air conditioner. And it doesn't make the air stale and clammy, the way air conditioners do.

Now what were Alan's other four Sustainable Wonders? I couldn't remember. I kept meaning, and forgetting, to call him and ask. So I was delighted to see that he passed his idea on to a colleague, John C. Ryan, who has just put out a little book called Seven Wonders . Here are the other four:

The condom : Protects against some of the world's worst diseases, gives potential parents control over the size and timing of their families, helps control population growth. "Those are big jobs for a flimsy tube of rubber," says Ryan. One sustainability problem with this item is that it's discarded after just one use. But it's made from natural rubber, a renewable resource.

The public library : The written wisdom of the world at anyone's fingertips! The average American pays $20 a year in taxes to support public libraries, and can save that much by borrowing instead of buying just one or two books. A book that is loaned ten times cuts not only cost but paper use per read by a factor of ten.

Pad Thai : The highly seasoned Asian dish made of noodles, garlic, and vegetables, sometimes with bits of chicken or shrimp thrown in. Ryan doesn't mean to celebrate that particular dish so much as the basic principle of "peasant" cooking around the world: Start with starch, mix in veggies, add great seasonings, and use meat sparingly if at all. Could as well be tortillas and beans, curry and rice, or spaghetti and tomato sauce. Healthy, cheap, do-it-yourself, easy on the planet, delicious.

The ladybug : Constantly searching out and destroying plant pests, without charge, without environmental damage. Your average ladybug scarfs up forty to seventy-five plant-sucking aphids a day. Multiply that by 75,000 beetles per gallon, which farmers can order through the mail, and you've got one heck of an efficient pesticide. Something like 98 percent of sprayed chemical pesticides never even hit a pest, but ladybugs zoom right in on the aphids and nothing but the aphids.

After I finished reading Ryan's book, which is full of interesting facts about these wonders, I started seeing Wonders of Sustainability all around me. There's no reason to limit the list to seven. Here are some more:

The root cellar: Temperature-controlled by the Earth, a way of storing potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, squash, turnips, beets, apples, dahlia tubers, and gladiolus corms (that's what goes in my root cellar) without moving parts, canning jars, boiling, or freezing.

The basket: Someone once told me that no one has yet succeeded in mechanizing the making of baskets. Whether or not that's true, baskets?made all over the world by skillful hands out of renewable, biodegradable material?are lightweight, strong, beautiful, and reusable over and over.

The olive tree: It can live hundreds or thousands of years in dry, hot climates; like all trees it recycles carbon dioxide breathed out by us animals and turns it back into the oxygen we need; its roots hold the soil; its leaves break the impact of the rains; and it produces tasty, healthful olive oil.

The sari: ...and the sarong and the shawl, made of uncut, unsewn cloth, colored and patterned as gorgeously as a butterfly, gracefully draped, comfortable, cool, adaptable. You can suspend babies or melons or firewood in it. You can hitch it up for wading, tuck it around your legs for bicycling or running, pull it over your face if you want shade or to be modest or to flirt. Never out of style. Easy to wash and dry. One size fits all.

The compost pile. The knitting needle. The canoe. This is fun. I could go on with this list, and so, probably, could you.

What do all these wonders have in common? Well, their kindness to the Earth and to human health is what qualifies them for a sustainability list. They are accessible to anyone, inexpensive to obtain and maintain. Many of them serve not only practical but also esthetic needs; they satisfy the eye, the palate, or the soul. Most are old in concept, though they may have modern variations. Something like them has evolved in many different cultures. Most are objects you can buy, but usually from a local maker, not a multinational corporation.

Maybe that's why we don't much appreciate the humble, sustainable wonders around us. Their value is too obvious to need touting. You only have to spend billions "marketing" something if its worth is in doubt.

"Those old-fashioned manila envelopes that close with a string are the cutting-edge of Earth-friendly pack-aging. Covered with spaces for writing and crossing out addresses, they are designed to be reused 30 times or more (before being recycled). They put modern recycling?and the shipping industry?to shame.

"In 1960, less than a fifth of American households, and only an eighth of Canadian households, had automatic dryers. Today three fourths of both nations' households have dryers; only 15 percent of U.S. households even occasionally line-dry their clothing. Many apartment buildings and homeowners' associations have gone so far as to ban clotheslines entirely. They apparently fear that sweet-smelling, freshly washed clothes billowing in the sun will somehow bring down their property values.

"...With the mix of fuels burned to generate U.S. electricity, the average household dryer puts almost a ton of climate-damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. (The same dryer in Canada would send up less than 500 pounds [about 200 kilograms] of carbon dioxide but create more river damage and nuclear waste.) The heating coils in most dryers (20 percent of American dryers heat with gas) require about three kilowatt-hours of electricity per load, enough to read by the light of a 60-watt bulb for two days or work on a laptop computer for a week.

"Condoms that include spermicide usually contain nonoxynol-9, a chemical that kills off not only sperm and diesase-causing bacteria, but the "good" bacteria that keep other bacterial populations in check. As a result, regular use of nonoxynol-9-coated condoms can triple a woman's odds of getting urinary tract infections....

"While researchers learn more about the endocrine-distrupting effects of chemicals like nonoxynol-9, condom users wanting to avoid the health risks associated with spermicide can look for plain lubricated condoms. (Irritation caused by unlubricated condoms can also lead to urinary tract infections.) And to minimize the risk of pregnancy, it is important to follow the instructions on the condom package to prevent spills or tears. The supercautious can also use condoms in combinations with another contraceptive for double safety.

 

ISBN: 1578050383

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