Science

How climate-conscious podcaster Sophia Li lives sustainably

Location: Brooklyn and Upstate New York

Sophia Li is a journalist and climate advocate based in Brooklyn and Upstate New York. She is the host of Meta’s podcast Climate Talks and co-host of the climate talk show All of the Above. She just bought a house 40 miles outside of Manhattan with her partner and is balancing the new responsibilities of being a homeowner with being an engaged citizen in the climate movement. Her climate journey was ingrained in her as a child as she grew up with family members in China who practice the Buddhist ideology of existing in a symbiotic relationship with all living things.

Happy Lunar New Year! Woke up in Cabarete in the Dominican Republic. Spent the past five days here with dear friends from New York who were smart enough to plan ahead and spend the winter months based here in the sunshine. Today we work up to a downpour.

Went to the local clinic to get a coronavirus test before flying back to New York in the afternoon. Before leaving for the airport, I took one last dip in the ocean just as the sun peeked out. Whenever I can, and especially when I feel overwhelmed in the climate movement, I connect to nature. This time, while standing in the ocean, I felt the urge to scream. Happy screams. Followed by gratitude screams for the warmth and saltwater.

While I type this on the flight en route to JFK, I understand how contradictory it is to start a climate diary on a plane. I’ve gone through this thought process and rabbit hole countless times: How can an environmentally conscious person travel? That question in itself seems like an oxymoron, and there’s no simple, blanket answer in 2022. Everyday people can’t sail on a carbon-neutral yacht like Greta Thunberg every time we want to cross an ocean. The answer, I found, read more in strategy, frequency and intention, not the action in itself.

Sustainability does not have to be binary. Here are the questions we can ask ourselves before flying: Can I extend my trip so there’s the same amount of travel over the year but fewer flights? Can I choose a greener airline? Can I combine work and play in one flight?

For more tangible answers: I fly economy, as it’s comparatively a smaller footprint. I chose JetBlue for this trip as it is a greener airline. And at the end of each year, I use Gold Standard to cumulatively offset my annual flight footprint.

I’m back at our home in Upstate New York. My partner and I moved in right before the new year and haven’t unpacked much as we’re replacing all the 1960s carpeting with hardwood floors. We were searching for properties for more than a year and had very firm requirements for the house going into the buying process.

My partner, Lawrence, is a first responder with the Fire Department of New York. His background is in civil engineering, and he is also certified in passive house design. A passive house is considered to be the highest energy-efficient certification a home can have. It’s more popular in Europe, but more homes and residential buildings are being built here with the five principles of the passive house in mind: 1. super-insulated envelopes, 2. airtight construction, 3. high-performance glazing, 4. thermal bridge-free detailing, and 5. heat-recovery ventilation.

We didn’t have the budget to build a passive home, so we took in some core passive house principles in our house hunt, like shape-factor ratio, which indicates the ratio of the volume of habitable space to the surface area of ​​the exterior . Simply put, rectangular or cube-shaped homes are usually more energy efficient than houses with archways and curves. Those extra design elements increase energy usage. Some may call it aesthetically boring, but we love our rectangular, low shape-factor home.

Today we spent time adding spray foam insulation where there are leaks in doorways and windows. It’s not sexy, but one of the most energy-efficient things you can do for your home is having proper insulation.

Outside our kitchen window, we have two bird feeders. We have grown quite attached to all the birds that feed here.

We recently discovered a family of woodpeckers that live in the tree immediately facing our kitchen window. Sometimes we’ll see a squirrel try to crawl into the hole the woodpeckers excavated inside this tree trunk, and they duke it out over their territory as we watch while eating oatmeal. I used to scroll on my phone during breakfast or lunch breaks during the week, but now I’m fully immersed in observing what’s happening in our local ecosystem right outside our windows.

To my dismay, the exterminator came today. Lawrence and I would sometimes see ants the size of my thumb in the kitchen. They’re the biggest ants I’ve ever seen, and he started getting concerned that they are carpenter ants. Carpenter ants get their names because they build nests inside wood and eat through it, destroying wooden structures; our home is entirely made out of wood.

We had a minor argument. I was trying to make the case that the ants are just passing through and perhaps not building a home in the infrastructure. I’m worried the exterminator will introduce toxins that might be brought back to the greater ecosystems around us. We decided it was better to get a professional’s opinion just in case they are carpenter ants.

The exterminator confirmed they are carpenter ants and ensured us that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have strict regulations on the formulas exterminators use so they don’t impact the environment at large. He also explained that exterminators all go through an intensive, month-long course about environmental protocols.

Three of Lawrence’s best friends from college are visiting us this weekend. They are driving up from DC, and it’s my first time meeting them, so I’m keen to make a good impression. I wake up at 7 am excited and eager to start cleaning. I opt for cleaning solutions that are refillable and cleaner formulas that are effective but don’t use bleach or ammonia.

As soon as there’s more sunlight, I start to see dead ants all over our living room and kitchen floors. Although we had only seen a handful alive since moving in, there were probably 40 or more scattered over the top floor. I guess I was a bit naive in thinking these ants were just passing through, but I’m glad I took the time to ask the exterminator all those questions.

Lawrence returns home from work, and we start preparing dinner for when our guests arrive. Every day, we put out a “compost bowl” where we gather our compost scraps on the kitchen counter. At the end of the day, we put it in the freezer until we can take it outside to our compost bin. We use an Exaco Juwel compost bin. It’s an Austrian brand, has a bear lock top and can hold an insane amount of compost. We’re looking forward to growing a small garden come spring using this compost soil.

Today, we took our friends for a hike at Harriman State Park. A partial ice and snowstorm occurred the day before, so the trails are still a bit icy. As we maneuver carefully up the hiking path, I find myself stopping every five feet enamored that every part of nature is encased in its own igloo of ice. Mushrooms, branches and leaves, dead flowers, and even a waterfall all frozen in time. Hiking down the mountain proved to be quite slippery and dangerous, so we opted to slide down as much as possible on our butts.

After the hike, we drove to Saturday Junk Shop, a local thrift store. I want to source the majority of furniture and interiors for our home secondhand. Our design aesthetic for the home is based on the Japanese philosophy of “wabi sabi.” When applied to design, this philosophy evokes a connection to earth and natural materials, with a focus on authenticity. The biggest barrier when it comes to shopping secondhand is simply our own patience. We have accepted that some rooms may be bare for a while until we find the right furniture.

Our friends leave midmorning, and Lawrence heads off for a 24-hour shift at a firehouse in Brooklyn. I decide to take a nap in the afternoon and wake up realizing that the temperature in the house has dropped significantly.

Lawrence messages me that when he left for work the hot water wasn’t working in our showers. We think something is wrong with our water heater but have no clue where it may be. I call the previous owner, who we have a friendly relationship with, and he directs me to a corner in our basement. Our air and water are heated via gas, and sure enough, the pilot flame had turned off. After a few hours and a neighbor’s assistance, we finally got the heating and hot water running again.

Another part of buying a preexisting home is that you have no say in whether it is powered by gas or electricity. Our home is heated by gas, which is a fossil fuel, of course. Tonight, it was top of mind to dig further into converting into an electric home, so I ecosia-ed (ecosia is a search engine that uses its ad revenue to plant trees) the pros and cons of an electric home. Choosing a gas vs. electric home isn’t that straightforward. Lawrence and I decide to do an energy audit of our home before converting anything.

One of the phrases I live by is “sustainability is a spectrum.” There are no one-solution answers in any scenarios.

Mondays are trash pickup days.

Most of our waste is food waste that is composted, but I have also felt a lot of guilt over how much waste is going to landfills just by replacing our carpet with hardwood floors. It’s 1,400 square feet of carpet and composite boards that went to landfills in total.

The carpenters we asked said carpet can last anywhere from five to 15 years, depending on the quality, while the hardwood floors in our living room have been here since the home was first built over 50 years ago. That made the choice clear. Researching the different types and grades of hardwood is when it got more complicated. We got in touch with five hardwood flooring companies local to the area. Due to supply-chain issues, the majority of floors are on backorder, including bamboo. Most said they would have to reach out to milling companies to execute our order. One floor company we found in New Jersey had Tauari Brazilian oak in stock in the quantity we needed. We opted for this hardwood because it was an existing inventory just an hour south of us and didn’t have to travel that much further to reach us.

Recycling has also been something that is top of mind: Our municipality here no longer takes glass recycling as it kept breaking. So every week we collect all the glass recycling in a separate container and take it back to Brooklyn to recycle.

Sustainability is a lifelong journey, and as displayed in this one week of dilemmas, there’s never a straightforward answer. My philosophy of what sustainability means evolves as I do.

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