Prairie Writers Circle

The Tide Is Changing on Bottled Water

I remember when the name of the game at my gym was pump 'n' swig. Weight lifters and treadmill sloggers routinely carried with their sweat towels expensive water in plastic bottles.

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5 Steps to an Environmental Revolution

I am not prone to tirades or radical behavior. I have never participated in a public protest and refuse to sign most petitions. In the classroom I offer both sides of an issue. I have a stable job and hope to someday spend the money collecting in my retirement account. In British America in 1775 I would have been a loyalist.

But as an applied philosopher -- I know that sounds like an oxymoron -- poking around modern civilization's foundation and plumbing for two decades, I see cracks and leaks growing, and ever faster. I see that the past half-century's wonderful ride, an amazing and blazing run on the carbon bank of coal, oil and natural gas, is sputtering out. But not before we clog our carbon sinks, particularly the atmosphere, triggering global climatic disruption that is already under way.

We want to see our current problems as part of the usual ups and downs of the business and climate cycles. But in the past three years oil production has remained steady while the price has doubled. Oil supplies will soon fail to keep up with ballooning world demand. Then the other fossil fuels will flare out too. But not before adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide already a third higher than pre-industrial levels and strongly tied to a long, abnormal rise in global temperatures.

I have come to this perspective reluctantly, but am now convinced: We are living in revolutionary times! We must change to a way of life as inconceivable to us as the invention of the modern factory or heart transplant would have seemed to a peasant or professor in medieval Europe.

The good news, if I can call it that, is that only by accepting this challenge in revolutionary terms will our odds of succeeding in this change go from "fuggedaboutit!" to "long shot."

"Well, change, yes," you might say, "but revolution? What about technological progress and efficiency? The environmental and sustainability movements? Isn't all that enough?"

In "Common Sense" Thomas Paine recognized this reluctance: "Until independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done ... and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity."

Efficiency tweaks won't save us. Ever since England in the 1800s grew efficient with coal, only to use ever more of it, efficiency has led to higher consumption and more atmospheric carbon. Even if every car in the world were a hybrid, and every light bulb a compact fluorescent, growing demand would dwarf savings.

And though Toyota, General Electric and Wal-Mart tout their green efforts, their need to profit by increased consumption of their products is not questioned. This system can't fix the problems it has created or fit our emerging realization that Earth has limits, any more than King George could have encouraged independence-minded Colonials, or medieval scriptural authority could have embraced 17th century scientific discoveries.

Our challenge is to make a new Enlightenment, rejecting belief that we can master Earth and treat it as our unlimited supermarket, playground, laboratory and dumpster. Every human enterprise and standard needs reorientation to recognize the boundaries of our sun-powered planet.

We don't have to be violent about it. But we must be as single-minded and insistent as someone yelling "Fire!" when there is, in fact, a fire. That's not radical, that's prudent and morally required.

It's so much easier to hope for a miracle. But our best hope lies in embracing revolution -- to, in John Adams' words, "start some new thinking that will surprise the world."

Here's a short "to-do" list:

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So You Think You Can Just Add a Clothesline to Your House? Dream on

Susana Tregobov dries clothes on a line behind her Maryland townhouse, saving energy and money. But now her homeowners association has ordered her to bring in the laundry. The crackdown came after a neighbor complained that the clothesline "makes our community look like Dundalk," a low-income part of Baltimore.

Tregobov and her husband plan to fight for their right to a clothesline, but the odds are against them. Although their state recently passed a law protecting homeowners' rights to erect solar panels for generating electricity, it is still legal in Maryland for communities to ban solar clothes-drying.

Twenty percent of Americans now live in homes subject to rules set by homeowner associations, or HOAs. These private imitation governments have sweeping powers to dictate almost any aspect of a member's property, from the size of the residence down to changes in trim color and the placement of a basketball hoop.

In the view of HOAs, people hand over control of such things when they buy their home, so they have no legitimate gripe. But a growing number of state and local governments are deciding that when HOAs ban eco-friendly practices, they violate the property rights of their members and damage everyone's right to a habitable planet.

In recent years, a dozen state legislatures have passed laws that restrict the ability of HOAs to ban solar panels and solar water heaters. Florida and Colorado now protect the rights of homeowners to replace irrigated, chemically dependent lawns with more natural landscaping that requires little or no extra water or other artificial life support. And Colorado has become the third state to give legal protection to people who dare to defy their HOAs by putting up that most economical of all energy-saving devices, the clothesline.

The more restrictive HOAs cling to outdated standards that treat necessary features of an ecologically resilient future -- renewable energy devices, clotheslines, fans in windows, awnings, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, compost bins, natural landscaping -- as eyesores to be buried under restrictions or banned outright.

Meanwhile, HOAs commonly mandate large, centrally air-conditioned square footages, two-car garages, lawn sprinkler systems or synthetic lawn fertilizers and weed-killers. You'd think that in 2008, community leaders would be embarrassed to enforce overconsumption and pollution, but these property cops seem determined to impose their narrow aesthetic preferences on everyone else.

Critics say that only a strong federal law can effectively protect America's 60 million HOA residents from antigreen rules. One bill, the Solar Opportunity and Local Access Rights (SOLAR) Act, is designed to do just that, but it languishes in Congress with only one co-sponsor.

The energy to restrain overbearing HOAs may have to come from the grassroots. As families struggle in coming years to keep up with rising grocery and utility bills, on top of their mortgage payments and HOA dues, they may well put the heat on lawmakers to protect their right to money-saving conservation, renewable energy and edible landscaping.

A small but growing number of HOAs are actually encouraging green practices. But let's see them push harder: Set strict limits on house size, ban pesticides and leaf blowers, maybe even discount association dues for energy conservers. These are rules we all can live with.

They also raise a dilemma. Rousing appeals to individual freedom and property rights can be effective in, say, winning Susana Tregobov her right to dry in Maryland. But as a vehicle for environmental causes, the property-rights argument can backfire. In its more fatuous forms, it can be a favorite weapon of anti-environmentalists, who would doubtless use it to obstruct green HOA rules.

We can debate the details of the rules, but we have to keep our eye on the ball - that blue-green ball we all live on. We must enforce universal rights, not just individual rights. With human-made climatic catastrophe looming, neighborhood groups have an ethical responsibility not only to protect their own turf but also to lighten the burden we all put on an ecosphere that belongs to everyone and to no one.

The Truth Behind Tainted Spinach

Not long ago lettuce came only in heads and spinach in bunches. For a salad, someone else might do the growing, but you still did the trimming and washing. You had some control -- and responsibility -- over the process. Now salad comes prewashed and bagged. You just pour it on a plate, dress it, put it in your mouth and chew.

This convenience adds risk. You give one more job over to someone somewhere else, trusting that they are concerned as much about product quality and your health as about the bottom line on the quarterly report.

But the business of food is now big business, and it might be making us sick. Witness the spinach tainted with E. coli bacteria that is blamed for more than 180 people infected in 26 states and Ontario, Canada, including one death.

The first mixed salad greens and loose spinach were from small, local growers who hand-cut the young greens and rushed them to market, organ-transplant style. Now we have a multimillion-dollar salad industry that consolidates raw ingredients from many big producers and has little control over growing methods. Washing salad ingredients on this scale requires facilities more like municipal swimming pools or public bathhouses than where our food should come from. And if you remember sixth-grade biology, you know that stuffing fresh, green leaves into sealed plastic bags is a great way to breed bacteria.

The spinach scare has prompted cries for better regulation and inspection. But the drama over one microorganism distracts us from something much bigger: a vast industrial food system built on cheap, empty calories -- from government-subsidized corn, for example -- that feed epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. Sometimes it seems a system more interested in finding ways to pump more high-fructose corn syrup into kids' breakfast cereals than in providing fresh, whole foods to nourish their growing bodies.

The day after the spinach story broke, I was selling at the local farm market. My tables were loaded with the abundance of fall: strawberries and melons, French beans, squashes, onions, heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers, lettuce, chard and spinach. The spinach drew the most attention. Deep green leaves, each the size of small dinner platters, filled five bins. By midmorning they were empty. All buyers had heard about the tainted spinach, but none hesitated to fill their bags.

I didn't have to explain why my spinach was different from that recalled from supermarkets. Neither did other market gardeners across the continent. We are part of a broad movement reclaiming food from faceless, long-distance industrial providers. We're demanding not only that it be safe, but that it taste good -- and that it be grown in a way that honors the land and those doing the work. And while it's true that we could slip up and make someone sick, the results of any carelessness would be smaller, more local.

Food safety doesn't hinge on monitoring tiny bacteria. It depends on the most fundamental aspect of a healthy food system: relationships -- biological, personal, ecological and local. Those relationships are on a scale small and, so, familiar. My local customers don't need federal inspections, more regulations, sophisticated sampling and analysis, or even an organic label. They know me, they know my farm, they know the care and attention I place in every step.

If we are truly concerned about food safety, we need to know the folks who grow our food, know that they are paid a decent wage, know that the land they farm is well cared for and protected, and know that the food they grow has not been irradiated or genetically engineered or exposed to pesticides. It is this knowing that will truly nourish us and keep us well.

The Richest Inheritance

The Senate plans to act soon on a bill that would permanently eliminate the federal estate tax. The bill would benefit about one percent of taxpayers.

My friend Ed belongs to the other 99 percent. The Midwestern farm where Ed (not his real name) grew up, and which his parents still run, is not large enough to fall under the estate tax.

But farm-raised Americans like Ed -- whom the American Farm Bureau and other lobbying groups have portrayed, falsely, as estate tax victims -- exemplify some of the best reasons for keeping the tax. 

Even with his parents alive and well, Ed has already collected his most important inheritance. During those years of living and working on the family farm he acquired the essential means for making his way in life.

What he inherited goes far beyond the know-how to adjust a combine or milk a cow. It includes his thrift, his knowledge of both technology and nature, and his ability to fix just about anything. But that's still only part of it.

Ed carried from the farm the wisdom that takes nothing for granted, that knows hard work and cleverness aren't enough. He was bequeathed the knowledge that we're fundamentally dependent on soil, water and vast, unseen biological networks. He's schooled in the tricky business of taking from a farm's ecosystem what's needed, without crippling it.

Most of us, whether we grew up rich, poor or in between, on a farm or in a town, big city or suburb, have inherited tax-free, inflation-proof estates, differing in content but of comparable value to Ed's.

By bringing that heritage rather than material wealth to the forefront, defenders of the estate tax can retake the philosophical terrain they have lost to its foes.

In their 2005 book Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth, Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro argue convincingly that lobbyists for permanent elimination of the estate tax are prevailing because they have appealed to "fairness and virtue."

Those who would preserve the tax are faltering, write Graetz and Shapiro, because they have appealed only to narrow self-interest -- by saying, in effect, "This tax will not affect you. It burdens only the wealthy few, so you should support it."

Government statistics show that only a tiny fraction of families pay the tax, and that it does not destroy farms and other small businesses. This has carried little weight in Washington. The anti-tax movement is perceived as having a moral message with stronger appeal, Graetz and Shapiro say.

But only in a society where virtue is measured in hard currency, stocks and bonds can it be considered a moral imperative to eliminate taxes on all estates -- not just those under $2 million or $10 million, but ones that reach into the dozens of billions. 

For almost 90 years, taxation of the nation's wealthiest estates has helped hold down taxes on middle- and low-income people, and check ascendance of a wealth-based aristocracy.

Meanwhile, it has never hampered the ability of parents to hand down to their children the means -- financial and otherwise -- that they need to make it in the world. In the current, possibly decisive battle to save the estate tax, it's time to trump the repeal forces' phony "moral" arguments by emphasizing skills and values like those Ed's parents have passed on to him -- items you don't find cataloged in a last will and testament.

The hour is late, but there is still time to convince senators that the estate tax is a crucial part of an economy that protects every family's legacy, including those treasures that have nothing to do with material wealth.

Our Reckless Chemical Dependence

Telling people to wash their faces with DDT would be like the insult "go jump off a cliff." We all know the chemical is extremely hazardous both to humans and wildlife. But it is said that 50 years ago, in the agronomy department of my university, some faculty argued the pesticide was indeed that safe.

In the same way, a fellow student in my plant breeding graduate program hurled an unintended insult last fall when he said Roundup, one of the most commonly applied weed killers in the world, was safe enough for me to drink a glass daily. I was seven months pregnant at the time. In the past few months, two published studies showed Monsanto's herbicide kills some amphibians and might cause reproductive problems in humans.
 
Since its introduction in 1974, Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, often have been touted as harmless to human and ecological health. Glyphosate, most often sold under the Roundup commercial name, is now the second most commonly applied herbicide in the United States. Nearly 113 million pounds of it is used annually on farms, in parks and around homes, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. From 1990 to 2000, its use increased tenfold because of Monsanto's introduction of Roundup Ready crops: corn, soybeans and cotton genetically engineered for glyphosate resistance.
 
Proponents say that Roundup Ready crops reduce the need for nastier herbicides. Farmers can spray their fields, kill everything but their resistant crops and not worry about causing any harm to themselves, their children or wildlife.

Roundup might be less acutely toxic than other herbicides, but safer isn't the same thing as safe. A study published in June by Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, showed that Roundup killed human placenta cells in lab culture at one-tenth its concentration for field use. At concentrations one-hundredth of intended use, the herbicide inhibited an enzyme crucial to sex hormone regulation.
 
And an April paper in Ecological Applications showed that Roundup, when applied at label-recommended concentrations, was "highly lethal" to amphibians, wiping out tadpoles of two species and nearly killing off a third.
 
Monsanto insists that the herbicide's chemical properties make it unlikely to leach from soils into groundwater or persist in surface water, a claim that might ease fears about the real-life ramifications of these papers. But several studies have detected significant concentrations of glyphosate in streams near farm fields, some up to four months after application.
 
Roundup's full potential to cause health problems for humans and wildlife populations is unknown. But these studies make its unbridled use and promotion as a "safe" choice terribly reckless. We don't understand enough about the effects of pesticides on human and ecological health to claim that any chemical is completely safe. Developing an agriculture that depends on large scale chemical application, like Roundup Ready crops, means we're playing a game whose outcome we cannot predict.

Rather than seek out "less harmful" pesticides, we should be making an agriculture that cuts or ends our need for such chemicals. We should look to organic agriculture and to farming techniques that use more natural systems of pest control. Crop rotations that incorporate greater diversity than just alternating between corn and soybeans are chemical-free ways to control weeds. And incorporating livestock into a farming system contributes chemical-free fertilization and can be a natural check on pests.
 
Our experience with DDT should have taught us long ago the fallacy of making assumptions about the safety of any agricultural chemical. And rather than spouting glib comments that discount the potential hazards of pesticides, we -- agricultural researchers, parents, consumers -- need to support safe alternatives through actions like buying organic food and promoting chemical-free farming and home landscaping.
 
We already have enough evidence on Roundup to be concerned about its effects on human and animal health. The time to take action is now, before the next round of studies comes out.

Turn Off the Spigots

It is no mystery why Great Plains farmers irrigate. My farming father and grandfathers struggled against the weather odds in our dry western end of Kansas their whole lives. It seldom rained enough, and each year they took a gut-wrenching gamble planting their wheat.

In the late 1960s, technology came to the rescue. My father put in his first irrigation well. With well water, he could engineer his own rainfall and also grow more lucrative crops such as corn and soybeans. When his old heart finally failed him 30 years after he began irrigating, he owned five wells.

Our farm's original well happens to be among those monitored by the Kansas Geological Survey. I visited the agency's Web site recently and was as dismayed by a graph there as I had been watching my father's failing vital signs on the hospital monitor. Both tracked the approach of death -- with one significant difference. My father died naturally at the end of a normal human lifespan. We are killing much of the Ogallala Aquifer, draining water that took thousands of years to accumulate. Without this waste, the water would sustain life for many generations to come.

During his evolution from dryland to irrigated farming, my father became part of a system that can't be sustained, because it depends on burning nonrenewable energy to pump nonrenewable water from this ancient aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Most of this energy and water goes into producing corn that is then fed to cattle.

To grow corn, farmers plowed up more of their grass.

"How else could we feed the world?" my father would say when I lamented the loss.

But he could have fed the world more healthfully and less wastefully if he had skipped the corn and shipped beef directly from his grass to the table. Compared with grain-fattened feedlot beef, grass-fed beef is much lower in artery-clogging saturated fat and contains more omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to aid cardiovascular health. When we eat meat from grass-fed animals, we profit from their ability to convert protein from a self-renewing resource, the grasses that grew here in the first place.

I used to accuse my father of being environmentally insensitive. He knew that the aquifer was finite and allowed that "they will have to stop us eventually" -- they being the government.

"Until they do, though," he said, "I got mine!"

He loved to infuriate me with that response. I especially hated that the federal farm program underwrote the waste by offering price supports for corn.

But as one of my father's profiteering heirs, now I too am part of the entrenched and inefficient system. Turning off the spigots would reduce the flow of cash land rent into my pocket by two-thirds.

That prospect troubles me. But not as much as other numbers. There are more than 880 irrigation wells in our county. Out of our five alone we have pumped more than 6 billion gallons of water. That's enough to keep the 5,000 people of Goodland, the town nearest our farm, in water for more than 10 years. An aquarium covering a football field would need walls over 2.5 miles high to hold that much water.

Our farm recently signed up for a government conservation program that is helping us cut our water use by 50 percent. But even at this rate we are wasting water.

The time has come for "them" to stop us -- all of us. Instead of price supports for corn, Plains farmers need help switching back to dryland crops or grass-fed livestock. Among the dryland crops may be seed sources of oil that could be turned into biodiesel, reducing our nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

I would vote for any legislator who pushes to end irrigation out of the Ogallala. I believe that I am not the only farmer or farm heir who would. We grew up on this land drinking this water, and know its real value can't be measured monetarily. We will rally behind genuine leaders who will argue their own consciences and awaken ours.

Our Fragile Food Supply

Food is full of paradoxes. Currently there is enough produced to adequately feed the 6 billion people on the planet. Yet nearly a billion are underfed. In the rich United States, 35 million people, including nearly 13 million children, experience hunger or the threat of hunger. Yet at least that many Americans are obese.

The best land in America produces two low-value commodity crops that are rarely directly consumed by humans – corn and soybeans. They are used instead for animal feed and increasingly for biomass fuel, such as ethanol.

Commodity-driven agriculture brings many ills – economic, environmental and social. The short list includes soil erosion and depletion, nitrogen fertilizer contamination of drinking water, fouled lakes and rivers, damage to the Gulf of Mexico's fisheries, pesticide contamination and feedlot pollution. Often not considered: the loss of farms because government programs favor consolidation and ever-larger farm operations, and the destruction of Third World agriculture, which can't compete against the subsidized farmers of rich nations.

Rather than address these problems, federal farm and export programs worsen them while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

Consider these further challenges:

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Uncommon Buffalo and the Buffalo Commons

Most Americans know that the American bison, commonly called the buffalo, was almost extinct by 1900, the victim of slaughter and expanding white settlement. In the past 20 years or so, the term "Buffalo Commons" has become a popular catchphrase that usually refers to another disaster: the death of the small towns of the High Plains, a result of an exodus of young people, a lack of economic growth and an aging population.

Frank and Deborah Popper, two East Coast professors, proposed the term when their study of High Plains‚ geographical statistics spotlighted sparse and declining population. Why not, they suggested, turn the most distressed areas of the region into a vast common pasture for its natives, the American bison?

At first, the term Buffalo Commons was a lightning rod, attracting doomsday prophets and defenders of civilized life in small towns and rural areas across the Great Plains. But in the past few years, the term has garnered a more optimistic connotation.

I've followed this debate with interest as I travel to lead book discussions for the Kansas Humanities Council. Often our reading leads us into conversations about the future of the Great Plains, particularly about the future of the place we happen to be sitting.

These occasions lead me to believe that the original Buffalo Commons model, which suggests an either/or face-off between civilization and emptiness, is really a false dilemma. Rather, the term can suggest a way of living already common on the Plains. When I ask people why they live in a place so unforgiving, I get straight, immediate answers: wide-open spaces, inconstant weather, even isolation, traits that would discourage many.

Bison know how to survive these harsh conditions, and the people who live in these places have proved equally adaptable. The decision to live among a scattered population requires careful attention to the way life is lived, for both animals and people.

When I spent some months in Chadron, Neb., I was reminded of distances daily. Even in January, a grocery clerk asked if I needed dry ice to preserve my frozen items. I was invited to join years-old Chadron dinner clubs. These examples reflect a commons concept: looking out for shoppers who might have long drives home and creating occasions to soothe isolation by coming together for good food and conversation.

For many people of the region, Buffalo Commons reflects affection for the place itself. I met young people who intended to leave, tired of living where people and opportunities are so sparse. But I also met people who moved back, unable to live for long anyplace else. The lack of physical barriers and the immense sky that intimidate some people invigorate those who choose to live here. Like the buffalo, Plains people know how to survive on their own in blizzards and drought – and economic downturns.

Recently I was back in Chadron at the annual meeting of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society discussing Sandoz's book, "The Buffalo Hunters." Historians, bison ranchers and the instructor of "buffalo management" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation told of their experiences with animals they have come to admire for their endurance and intelligence.

Today, almost 300,000 bison roam America's grasslands, most owned by private ranchers and Indian tribes who raise them for profit. Ranchers and researchers have observed their bison herds for decades and know their animals intimately. These people tell of family groups, the communal care of the calves and the animals‚ ability to survive any kind of weather without human intervention. No wonder the American bison is the iconic animal of the Great Plains. Their intelligence and adaptation embody the commons ideal.

The Buffalo Commons seems to be developing unguided by any grand scheme, and it may well be the future of the Great Plains. I imagine it not as a desolation of abandoned home places and empty pastures, but rather a region where people find rich reward in the face of challenge and adversity.

Warming the World To Dry Our Socks

Once, visiting a friend, I helped wash the dinner dishes. I soaped the plates and cups, and she rinsed them and stacked them in a dish rack. When we were finished, I asked where the dish towel was so I could dry. "Oh, don't bother with that," she said. "That's air's job."

This brings me to a very modest proposal, perfectly suited to summer. If you're wondering what (prior to Nov. 2) you can do about our deadly dependence on foreign energy, or about ever-rising utility bills, or about the flood of carbon into the atmosphere that's steadily raising temperatures, here's one answer: Let air and sun and wind do their job.

To be specific, buy 50 feet of clothesline and a $3 bag of clothespins and become a solar energy pioneer.

The average American family devotes 5 to 6 percent of its annual electric budget to the motor and heating coils inside its clothes dryer. Undampening your socks ties you into the vast world energy grid, with its legacy of mountaintop-removal coal mining, terrorist-vulnerable natural gas pipelines and all the rest. Which is OK – right? – because we all need dry socks.

But in fact we all had dry socks long before the invention of the clothes dryer. As late as 1960, according to Northwest Environment Watch, fewer than 20 percent of American households had automatic dryers.

And perhaps you've noticed that lint in your dryer trap. That's your clothes disintegrating from the endless tumbling. You won't find a small drift of lint under your clothesline.

Some people don't use clotheslines because they can't. According to the crusaders at a group called Project Laundry List, thousands of homeowners associations, condominium complexes and even whole suburbs ban clotheslines because they believe that clothes on the line are ugly. "It's akin to graffiti in your neighborhood," the president of the California Association of Homeowners Associations told reporters a few years ago. Property values could drop 15 percent, he estimated, if clotheslines flourished. Violators can be sued.

But even people who could hang out their laundry often hesitate. I was standing with another friend on the back porch in a pricy suburb not long ago. She had a perfect angle from deck to tree for a line, and I was all set to install it. "But everyone would be able to see our underwear," she said.

True enough. But drop by any mall: The average American teenage boy is fully devoted to displaying as much of his underwear as possible, simply by failing to wear a belt and buying jeans two sizes too large. MTV might as well call itself The Underwear Channel. Our grandparents may have been prudes by contrast, but when it came to their laundry, they let it all hang out.

There are a few signs that we're beginning to regain our courage. Fort Lauderdale recently passed a resolution designating a National Hanging Out Day, noting in its official proclamation: "For many people hanging out clothes is therapeutic work. It is the only time during the week that some folks can slow down to feel the wind and listen to the birds."

Some people think that clotheslines are simply old-fashioned – too low-tech. Like President Bush, they're waiting for something like a hydrogen car before they get around to saving energy. But say you dubbed it something sexier: a Solar Activated Linear Evaporation System, perhaps – maybe that would spur SALES.

Whatever you call it, the clothesline is the most elegant solution to the problem of drying clothes in good weather. And if it storms? Just leave them up until they dry again – you'll be able to boast about rain-washed clothes.

If we all used clotheslines, we could save 30 million tons of coal a year, or shut down 15 nuclear power plants. And you don't have to wait to start. Yours could be up by this afternoon.

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