Archive for February, 2009

Former Guantánamo Guard Tells All

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

I have seen and done many horrible things, either at Guantánamo or in Iraq, and I know what it is like to try and move on with your life. It’s hard.

—Spc. Brandon Neely, from the UC Davis Guantánamo testimonials project

Harper’s Magazine‘s Scott Horton takes a look at the prisoner abuse perpetrated at Guantánamo, as described by Private Brandon Neely, a guard with firsthand knowledge of what took place there. It’s as bad as you think.

Army Private Brandon Neely served as a prison guard at Guantánamo in the first years the facility was in operation. With the Bush Administration, and thus the threat of retaliation against him, now gone, Neely decided to step forward and tell his story. “The stuff I did and the stuff I saw was just wrong,” he told the Associated Press. Neely describes the arrival of detainees in full sensory-deprivation garb, he details their sexual abuse by medical personnel, torture by other medical personnel, brutal beatings out of frustration, fear, and retribution, the first hunger strike and its causes, torturous shackling, positional torture, interference with religious practices and beliefs, verbal abuse, restriction of recreation, the behavior of mentally ill detainees, an isolation regime that was put in place for child-detainees, and his conversations with prisoners David Hicks and Rhuhel Ahmed. It makes for fascinating reading.

Neely’s comprehensive account runs to roughly 15,000 words. It was compiled by law students at the University of California at Davis and can be accessed here. Three things struck me in reading through the account.

First, Neely and other guards had been trained to the U.S. military’s traditional application of the Geneva Convention rules. They were put under great pressure to get rough with the prisoners and to violate the standards they learned. This placed the prison guards under unjustifiable mental stress and anxiety, and, as any person familiar with the vast psychological literature in the area (think of the Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance) would have anticipated produced abuses. Neely discusses at some length the notion of IRF (initial reaction force), a technique devised to brutalize or physically beat a detainee under the pretense that he required being physically subdued. The IRF approach was devised to use a perceived legal loophole in the prohibition on torture. Neely’s testimony makes clear that IRF was understood by everyone, including the prison guards who applied it, as a subterfuge for beating and mistreating prisoners—and that it had nothing to do with the need to preserve discipline and order in the prison.

Read the whole article here.

LISTEN: Mat Stein on The Reality Report from Global Public Media

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

In this podcast, The Reality Report’s Jason Bradford talks to author Matthew Stein about his book, the encyclopedic When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency. The two discuss contingencies for natural catastrophes, green living, the “survivor personality quiz,” and which are the tastiest bugs to nosh in a pinch.

Listen Now

A Utopia Made Real in Colombia

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

If they can do it in Colombia, why can’t we do it here?

Working with the land, rather than against it, Paol Lugari was able to help the village of Gaviotas become a sustainable, self-sufficient, and financially successful model for other eco-villages, all while repairing the land and doing their part to heal the Earth. It’s an inspiring story.

From the National Post:

Colombia is a country dominated by gun violence, drug trafficking, kidnapping, illness and poverty. But in the midst of all this, there is one small village that remains healthy and prosperous.

Here, visitors will find windmills instead of machetes, fields of trees instead of cocaine and clean drinking water instead of widespread intestinal disease.

Gaviotas, situated about 240 kilometres from the capital city of Bogotá and accessible only by prop plane – or, if you’ve got a sturdy stomach and about three days to spare during the dry season, by Jeep – is a model of sustainability and peace, a functioning utopia that exists in spite of, and to some degree because of, the surrounding strife.

Perhaps utopia is the wrong word, though. As Paolo Lugari, who founded the village in the late 1960s, said: “Utopia literally means ‘no place,’ it’s just an idea; but Gaviotas is real. We’ve gone from fantasy to reality.”

That fantasy began some 40 years ago when a group of local engineers, academics and scientists traveled to Colombia’s eastern Llanos region in an attempt to transform an empty and remote plot of land with no arable soil into a self-sustainable and productive community.

The experiment was so successful that it continues to this day. Amongst the features of Gaviotas: a children’s seesaw that doubles as water pump, which can tap aquifers six-times as deep as conventional pumps using far less effort; homemade wind turbines and solar panels, which are particularly suited to the Colombian climate and crafted from cheap building materials; and locally brewed biodiesel, which fuels the handful of vehicles that aren’t bicycles.

As well, the people of Gaviotas have planted 80 sq. kms of trees to regenerate the rainforest – a feat that was, at first, considered impossible by experts at the prominent Yale University School of Forestry on account of the high acidity of the soil, which used to have a pH of 4.

The solution lay in Caribbean pine trees, which have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungus that helps to keep them alive in acidic conditions. Once these trees took hold, greater shade was produced, more rain came down, and there was a reduction in the ultraviolet rays penetrating the earth.

In the end, these factors combined to create fertile soil with a pH of around 6.8, which means a range of agricultural foods can now be grown there, such as coffee. On top of this, the trees produce resin, which can be tapped and exported for various industrial and cosmetic uses.

But perhaps one of the most impressive feats Gaviotas has accomplished is the solar-powered hospital that was in operation through the 1980s and early ’90s.

Read the whole article here.

In These Times Interviews Not One Drop Author Riki Ott

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, it dumped tens of millions of gallons of oil into the bay, marring the Alaskan coastline, destroying natural habitats, and plunging the residents of Cordova, Alaska, into a grueling and demoralizing decades-long court battle with one of the largest corporations on Earth.

In this interview for newsmagazine In These Times, Riki Ott (Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill) discusses “‘invisible losses,’ the shift from victim to survivor mode, and the battle against corporate rights” with interviewer Silja J.A. Talvi.

In Not One Drop, you write that the damages caused by the oil spill was far more toxic than the obvious damage to the environment and the local economy. You write of the “invisible losses” that the community incurred. Can you elaborate?

The truth is that Cordova gutted itself after the spill, especially after our fish runs collapsed in 1992 and 1993. The stress manifested itself in all manner of horrible things, including substance abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, depression, PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], isolation, divorce and suicide. These are the so-called “non-economic losses” in a court of law.

For sociologists who came in and studied us after the spill, Cordova became a case study of what happens when a whole community of people is traumatized. We had a massive increase in PTSD in Cordova, as well as general anxiety disorder, and, of course, this trickled down to the kids. We’re very tight with the children here, and we have always taught them as a community, not just as individuals. Some of these kids own fishing boats when they’re 15 and 16, and it’s the same thing with the native people of this region, with an emphasis on subsistence harvesting, sharing and celebrating resources. We don’t have ageism in Cordova, it’s a very fluid sharing of life across the generations.

So, the adults here were plunged into this situation, and the kids were, as well. The younger generation saw their mothers and fathers change drastically. This external, financial hardship ate people up internally, and the stress manifested in all manner of horrible things. People stopped visiting their friends and family members. Divorces and suicides went up. It was an ongoing disaster.

How did you begin to recover?

After our fish runs collapsed, we had nothing more to lose. When you reach that point, it’s very freeing … you have only each other. You look around at people, your neighbors, and you say, “What are we going to do?” There were groups of people who sat down and started to talk with each other about the possible solutions, the changes we needed to make to our economy and in our own emotional lives.

We had to rebuild our whole reality. Eventually, the way to mitigate this kind of harm is to shift people from victim to survivor mode. We inadvertently created what the sociologists came to study and call “peer listening circles.” This same approach was then used with the survivors of Katrina.

We began to form nonprofit organizations to deal with the grief, the cultural and social damage. It started to draw us out of this bubble of misery. We began to figure out how to diversify our economy without opting for short-term solutions. There were, for instance, proposals to strip-mine, which were ultimately rejected because we would have trashed our chances for future fisheries.

Instead, we began working on building a sustainable economy, and realizing that this is about getting off oil. In order to have a livable planet and pass something onto the next generations, we absolutely have to transition off oil. There’s no other choice.

Out of that effort came “The Copper River Watershed Project” to support the growth of local fishery, sustainable forestry and tourism over 26,500 square miles, encompassing one of the last, intact watersheds in North America. Among many other goals, we sought to protect salmon and upriver habitat from widespread clearcutting.

Read the whole article here.


Related News: Read the Durango Herald article on Riki:

Alaskan oil spill prompts action

Save Money: Grow Your Own Veg—How to Start Plants from Seed

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting by R. J. Ruppenthal. It has been adapted for the Web.

Starting plants from seed does not have to be difficult or time-consuming. Sure, it will take you a season or two to get the hang of it, but after that the process will seem simple. You will need a space indoors that has natural light from a window, or else a tabletop area above which you can mount a fluorescent light. If you want to start seeds outdoors with climate protection, you could use a grow-frame, plastic cover, or small hobby greenhouse. If you need an indoor light, do not spend the $200 for a hydroponic setup; simply head to your local hardware store and buy a cheap 2- or 4-foot-long fluorescent light that can be mounted under a cabinet or on a chain. The light wavelengths that these bulbs produce will not get you all the way from seed to fruit, but it is sufficient to give your young plants the foliage, roots, and start that they need. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are fine as well, though normally these produce a single point of light rather than a row. The row of light works better unless you only plan to start a small handful of seedlings.

Your next step in preparation should be to find out the last average frost date for your location. This is the approximate, but very crucial date that is referred to on the back of many seed packets (for example, “Set plants out three weeks after last average frost date”). To find your last average frost date, check online or with your local nursery or agricultural extension agent. Victory Seed Company has an online frost date selector based on data from the U.S. government; it is available at Another online chart is available for major cities from the Farmer’s Almanac here (U.S. states) and here (Canadian provinces). One warning: Microclimates vary significantly, and in my area a distance of a few miles can extend the frost date by a month. Keep an eye on the temperatures where you live and how much they vary from the closest point listed on those charts. The charts also show the first average frost date in the fall, which is good to remember when planning the length of your main growing season.

You will need some containers to start your seeds in. Think of the small seed-starting trays that seedlings come in when you buy them at a nursery; you can either purchase some of these seedling trays, or you can use any other small containers that can be filled with 2 or more inches of seed-starting medium. Small yogurt containers or cutout milk cartons are effective, and you can start a dozen small seedlings in a cardboard egg carton. You also can reuse plastic pots, even larger ones, and plant as many seeds as you can fit in the space. (Do not pack them in too tightly, though, since root growth is important and you will need to get them out without destroying the root system.) Punch a few holes in the bottom of any plastic containers you use to allow for proper drainage, as too much moisture buildup will kill seedlings. Another option is to use peat or coconut (coir) fiber pots, which can be placed right into the garden soil, alleviating some of the stress of transplanting.

For planting times, follow the recommendations on the back of your seed packets coupled with what you have learned about your last frost date. To maximize your chances of success, you can try two or three plantings of the same seeds, each spaced a week or two apart. This way, when your first pepper plants are ready to go in the ground, your next set is only two weeks behind. If it turns out there is a late frost and your first wave of peppers dies, then you have a backup set that’s ready to go. Using this method, you can save time and also challenge the seasons with a little more confidence: If you don’t stand to lose everything by planting your seedlings early, then you can take some chances on a very early planting.

Put some seed-starting medium into the containers. This can be garden soil, as long as it has enough organic matter to be fairly light, but it should be sifted so that any large pieces of material are kept out. Sifted peat makes a good starter medium and you can also buy good seedstarting potting soil from nurseries (overpriced, but one bag will last you a while). I always mix in a spoonful of compost or worm castings when I start seeds; you do not want to burn young plants with fertilizer, but these amendments are slow to release nutrients and they help strengthen the young plant’s immune system. Another option is to use the seed-starting blocks or pellets that are sold by some seed companies and in nurseries.

For anyone using peat products to start seeds indoors, I have two pieces of advice:

  1. Some people believe that peat moss is harvested in a manner that is both unsustainable and environmentally irresponsible. If, after examining this issue, you agree, then look for a nursery or online retailer that sells the coconut (coir) fiber alternative, which works just as well and is sustainably harvested. Another company has introduced seed-starting pots made from composted cow manure, which is certainly a renewable resource, and if you cannot find these locally, then check out
  2. Peat pots and growing disks often are contaminated with the eggs of root maggots. This can be a big problem if you are growing seedlings in your own home, because you will get little worms eating your seedlings’ roots and a cloud of fruit fly-like insects within a few weeks of planting. To sterilize the peat medium before using it, either drench it in a 50/50 solution of water and hydrogen peroxide (give it a day or so to evaporate before planting) or nuke your wet peat products in the microwave for two minutes on high, which also should kill everything. (Keep an eye on it so you don’t start a fire since cooking times may vary, and make sure your significant other is not home at the time because your kitchen will smell very earthy.)

Plant the seeds according to the directions on each seed packet. (Do not bother planting beans and peas; they do not transplant well and are better sown directly in the garden.) You can plant two or three seeds per container or block and then thin the plants later, or you can take your chances and just plant one. Early in the season, even indoors, seeds will benefit from some heat and humidity for germination. Putting a plastic bag over the containers is one good way to make this happen. A clear plastic food tray also makes a good cover. Bottom heat speeds up the process and makes it possible to start seeds earlier; you can get a heating pad for seedlings from a nursery or place them on a warm surface such as the top of your refrigerator. As soon as the seedlings start to emerge, take the bag off and start giving them a little light. If you have a sunny window, put them there with a little protection. (A curtain, napkin, or plastic bag well-placed will allow some diffuse sunlight that will not burn young plants.) If you’re using a light, your fluorescent or CFL bulb should be on for 12 hours per day (more is okay also), and this should be a few inches from the tops of the seedlings so that they get enough concentrated light. Water the seedlings gently, either from the top of the soil or by placing the seedling containers in a tray of water until their soil seems moist. Make sure they are draining well, and do not overwater; this is a major cause of seedling failure.

Pick only the strongest (bushiest) plants and thin out the spindly and slower-growing ones. Many people suggest that, when the seedlings are up and growing, you run your hands over the leaves whenever you go by to mimic the wind and stimulate the plants to grow stronger in response. A week or so before you plant your seedlings in their final earthly destination, they need to be “hardened off.” This is a step that people too often neglect, and it basically means allowing the plant to slowly adjust to the temperature and climate of its new home. You do this by putting the seedlings outside for a short time each day and gradually lengthening this time period. Do not put them in a bright sunny or windy area at first. On the first day, put them outside in filtered sunlight for half an hour. The second day, leave them out for an hour. The third day, leave them out for two hours. Then half a day, then a whole day, bringing them in at night. If they are destined for a windy location, you can begin giving them a little of their customary wind, protected at first if need be. Wind actually can help make a seedling stronger and more vigorous, but only in small doses. After a week of this, let the plant stay out for a whole day and night in its new location, and then plant it the next day. For a peat or coco pot, place it directly in the soil; for other potted seedlings, wet down both the pot’s and destination’s soil first, then slowly take out the plant with its soil, and be sure not to damage the stem or leaves as you transfer it to its planting hole. If the night temperatures are still near freezing when you set out your plants, then cover each of them at night with a plastic yogurt container, milk carton, or soda bottle that is cut in half: These can make inexpensive season extenders if they help you get your plants in the ground earlier. But when in doubt, do not risk that your plants will freeze: Wait just a little longer to set them out until the frost danger has passed (unless, of course, you have another set of seedlings ready for backup purposes). Before I plant warmer-weather veggies, I always look at the weather report and make sure that their first week in the ground will be a warm one; this helps them get off to a strong start.

If you manage the “hardening off” well and allow the young plant to adapt slowly to its new conditions, then it will produce food for you more quickly than a direct-seeded plant. Using transplants also can allow more growing time for your last cycled crop. But if the plant becomes stressed during transplanting, its yield will drop and it may not survive at all, which negates any time saved from starting it indoors.

Remembering Dana Meadows on the 8th Anniversary of Her Death

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Today is the eighth anniversary of the death of Donella Meadows, a scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world’s foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth—the 1972 book on global trends in population, economics, and the environment that was translated into 28 languages and became an international bestseller.

To commemorate the day, blogger Dormgrandpop rediscovered a gem of an article written by Donella for her weekly column, Voice of a Global Citizen:

Buddhists remember death aniversaries as a way of acknowledging and celebrating people that were important in their lives. For me, and many others, Dana (Donella) Meadows was one of those.  For many years, she shared herself in a weekly column entitled ‘The Global Citizen’. Here is a column that particularly captures who she was – and is.

The Donella Meadows Archive

Voice of a Global Citizen

We Don’t Need Leadership to Know Right from Wrong

“Assaulted by sleaze, scandals, and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings,” the cover of the May 25 Time magazine says. The essay inside describes how the Reagan administration has failed in moral leadership — or, more precisely, how it has succeeded in promoting “mindless materialism” and a “values vacuum”.

Given the national confusion on ethical issues from Baby M to the defense of the Persian Gulf, we could use some moral leadership. But if I’m a typical example, I’m afraid we are likely to look for it in the wrong place.

My all-American public-school education was not exactly heavy on ethical analysis. In fact, since I took mostly science courses, my moral confidence was systematically eroded. Every day I absorbed strong messages — values have no place in the laboratory; observe what is happening outside you, not inside you; your feelings have no validity.

My scientific training taught me to determine rightness and wrongness from outside, from measurable criteria such as economic profitability, not from the promptings of an invisible, unquantifiable conscience. And my elders provided me with hundreds of examples of how to rationalize glibly just about any act I might want to commit.

Then I was asked by my university to teach a course on ethics. I didn’t know how to begin. How could I lead students through the thickets of moral controversy about population growth, nuclear power, acid rain? And yet what could be more important than to provide them with some ethical grounding?

To prepare for the course I sat in on philosophy and religion classes. I read books on ethics. I talked to pastors, priests, and gurus from many religions. I looked outside myself for moral leadership.

What I discovered was that I had known right from wrong all along.

Religions and ethical theories all have lists of moral rules. The rules generally boil down to the ones we learned at our mothers’ knees. Don’t hurt people, don’t steal, don’t lie. Help each other out.

The rules are not the primary authority, say the ethicists. They derive from something we all have within us, a clear sense of rightness, a sense that is given many names. We can get in touch with it whenever we want to. Prayer and meditation are ways — not the only ways — of getting in touch, of listening for moral guidance.

What that guidance says is consistent and simple. You are precious and special. So is everyone else, absolutely everyone. Act accordingly.

Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you. Don’t do what would cause society to fall apart if everyone did it. Try to do what you would want done if you were someone else — a homeless person in New York, a child in Ethiopia, a Nicaraguan peasant, a Polish dockworker.

You don’t want your spouse to commit adultery, so don’t do it yourself. You don’t want to raise a family on a minimum wage, so pay your workers decent incomes. You don’t want to live near a hazardous waste dump, so don’t create one. If everyone cheats on income tax or insider-trading laws, the government and the stock market wouldn’t function. So don’t cheat.

It’s really not hard to see what’s right. What’s hard is to admit how much of what we do is wrong.

Read the whole article here.

Chelsea Green Authors Warn: You Are Still Being Lied To

Friday, February 20th, 2009

For the new updated edition of the cult classic You Are Being Lied To (disinformation, 2001), editor Russ Kick tapped the talent pool at Chelsea Green. Will Allen contributed a piece about the history of pesticides in our food and the PR onslaught of the chemical companies, from his book The War on Bugs. From Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq, Peter Laufer tells the real story of the Iraq War, from the perspective of the soldiers who are fighting it.

Faithfully transcribed from the back cover:

In 2001, the classic You Are Being Lied To came out of nowhere, ruthlessly smashing idols, challenging consensus reality, and laughing at the received wisdom. It became a surprise bestseller, a college textbook, and a touchstone of alternative culture.

Years have passed, but guess what? You Are Still Being Lied To. In this newly revised edition, over half of the articles are either new or updated. You get the best, most timeless of the original material, plus loads of new pieces on the Iraq War, the drug war, corporate skullduggery, the educational system, Islam, AIDS, and a lot more.


Related Articles:

Lynn Margulis Awarded Illustrious Darwin-Wallace Medal

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Scientist and author Lynn Margulis (Luminous Fish: Tales of Science and Love; Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time; Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature) was recently honored by the Linnean Society of London with the Darwin-Wallace Medal for “major advances in evolutionary biology.”

Until 2008, the Darwin-Wallace Medal was awarded to only a select few, every 50 years, beginning 1908, the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Darwin and Russel Wallace’s reading of the joint paper “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” July 1, 1858.

We here at Chelsea Grenn send Lynn our most enthusiastic congratulations on receiving this great honor. It’s no stretch to call it a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

From Professor Margulis’s bio:

Margulis’s theory of species evolution by symbiogenesis, put forth in Acquiring Genomes (co-authored with Dorion Sagan, 2002), describes how speciation does not occur by random mutation alone but rather by symbiotic détente. Behavioral, chemical, and other interactions often lead to integration among organisms, members of different taxa. In well-documented cases some mergers create new species. Intimacy, physical contact of strangers, becomes part of the engine of life’s evolution that accelerates the process of change. Margulis works in the laboratory and field with many other scientists and students to show how specific ancient partnerships, in a given order over a billion years, generated the cells of the species we see with our unaided eyes.The fossil record, in fact, does not show Darwin’s predicted gradual changes between closely related species but rather the “punctuated equilibrium” pattern described by Eldredge and Gould: a jump from one to a different species.

Here’s the full list of 2008 Silver Medal Winners (the Gold was awarded once only, in 1908):

Nick Barton
Mark Chase
Bryan Clarke
Joseph Felsenstein
Stephen Jay Gould (posthumous)
P. R. Grant & Rosemary Grant
James (Jim) Mallet
Lynn Margulis 
John Maynard‐Smith (posthumous)
Mohamed Noor
H. Allen Orr
Linda Partridge

ASK THE EXPERTS: Insulating and Moisture-Proofing Your Home

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

UPDATE: John wrote a nice response to this article, and to the news of the free book we’re sending him. I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m reprinting it here without permission, but I just had to share:

Hi Dennis,

Wow! I was thinking it would be a long shot to even get a response. I guess that explains why I like the books your company publishes so much. It’s the people that work there that make the difference! I will check the web page tonight.

“The New Ecological Home” sounds great.

Thanks so much,


[End of update]

From time to time, readers will send us their sustainability questions via the feedback form. Most questions we can answer. But some require a greater degree of specialized knowledge than we lowly Web-folk possess. In those situations, we punt the question over to one of our many authors, each an expert in his or her own sustainability field.

This week, reader John W. has a question for author Dan Chiras. And because we selected John’s question, he wins a free book by this author (either The Natural House: A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy-Efficient, Environmental Homes or The New Ecological Home: A Complete Guide to Green Building Options—I don’t know yet—I’m waiting to hear back from John).

I am working on an extreme retrofit of an existing home. I already built a new passive solar house based on Dan’s book [The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling—D.P.] and it works great! I live in Boise, Idaho, which is dry (about 12 inches of rain a year), has cold winters, and sometimes hot summers. I would like to do this retrofit as affordably as possible. My thoughts were to add additional walls, floor, and ceiling inside the house. For example, on top of the existing walls add EPS foam, a vapor barrier, and then sheetrock. I’ve seen other people doing this, but on the outside of their house. I would like to do it on the inside to keep the cost down and reduce the interior space that needs to be heated.

While rereading Dan’s book, the area I find of most interest is about vapor barriers and dew point. My understanding is that in the climate I live in it would be best for the vapor barrier to be inside of the insulation. The people who are adding walls on the outside are putting the vapor barrier on the outside of the existing wall, then adding the insulation, and then re-siding the house. It seems to me that, doing it this way, the existing wall and insulation will get damp from the moisture in the house. On the other hand, they believe that adding the insulation and vapor barrier on the inside of the existing walls will cause the dew point to move into the insulation of the existing walls.

Thanks for any help you can offer,


Here’s author Dan Chiras with his reply:

John, insulating a home from the inside with rigid foam insulation is an excellent idea. Rigid foam provides the highest R-value per inch and is resistant to moisture—that is, it acts as a vapor barrier. Even so, I would probably install a vapor barrier on the inside of the wall—against the furring strips and over the inside surface of the foam.

I should point out, however, that vapor barriers are highly overrated. Vapor barriers are installed to reduce the movement of water vapor through walls and into insulation. In a wall, however, the majority of the moisture travels through penetrations like electrical outlets and light switches. In ceilings, it travels primarily through penetrations such as recessed lights and other light fixtures. Very little moisture travels directly through the wall, so vapor barriers are, as I just said, highly overrated.

My advice is to install a vapor barrier anyway on the inside, even though it is probably not necessary, but be very careful to seal the walls and ceilings with caulk. Seal any penetration with caulk or foam. Also, be sure to seal the junction of the wall and ceiling and floor and wall. This will have the greatest impact on the movement of air and moisture into a wall cavity.

You may also want to look into applying paints containing insulating paint additives like Insuladd. It is much easier than adding insulation and much less expensive. Many tests have been preformed on this product, including some of my own, and all show that insulating paint additives significantly reduce heat movement into and out of walls.

If you want to learn more on insulating paint additives, you might want to check out my new book, Green Home Improvement: 65 Projects that will Cut Utility Bills, Protect Your Health, and Help the Environment. This book is being sold through Mother Earth News’ bookstore, my web site, in many Lowe’s stores, and can be purchased on line through and

Best wishes,

Dan Chiras

Do you have a question for one of our authors? Use the feedback form to send us an e-mail with “Ask the Experts” as the subject. If your question is selected, you win that author’s book! Please let us know if you would like us to use your full name or a clever pseudonym of our choosing. Questions may be edited for length or readability.


Related Articles:

5 Tips to Turn Your Icebox into a Low-Carbon Super-Fridge

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

I don’t need to tell you why climate change is very, very bad. You’ve heard the litany dozens of times (melting ice caps, rising sea levels, more unpredictable and stronger storms, water shortages). But what can you do?

First, it’s important that our government adopt a saner climate change policy. Fortunately, early indications are that this will happen, with a new president willing to set climate policy according to the scientific data rather than political ideology. Ideally, the government will create some sort of cap-and-dividend system, similar to what has been proposed and advocated by Peter Barnes (Capitalism 3.0, Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide).

Well, that’s all well and good, but what can you do, you—an individual, not a government—in your daily life to cut carbon and make the world a little bit safer?

Plenty. Private homes, added together, are a huge contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere, and the little steps you take to cut your emissions can have a big impact. Let’s start with the fridge.

The following is an excerpt from Climate Change: Simple Things You Can Do to Make a Difference by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert. It has been adapted for the Web.

What do your refrigerator and freezer have to do with climate change?

Electricity used for refrigeration and air conditioning units comes from power plants, most of which burn coal, gas, or oil to produce it, emitting large quantities of CO2 in the process.

Less electricity used for refrigeration = less CO2

Refrigerators and freezers are never turned off—although they may not appear to use much energy, in an average home they can be responsible for up to 1/3 of the total electricity bill.

What can you do about it?

  1. Wait until hot food has cooled down before putting it into the refrigerator.
  2. Keep refrigerators and freezers well away from heat sources such as stoves, dishwashers, and washing machines. If possible, put refrigerators and freezers out of direct sunlight, as your appliance will use more energy trying to keep cool in the sun.
  3. Try to keep your refrigerator and freezer full; they will use less electricity. Keep bottles filled with tap water on hand to take up the empty spaces; fill any empty spaces in your freezer with scrunched-up paper or bubble wrap to stop warm air circulating when it is opened.
  4. Defrost food by putting it in the refrigerator the night before you want to use it. This will cool the refrigerator down and reduce its power consumption.
  5. Keep the metal grids (condenser coils) at the back of refrigerators and freezers clean and dustfree, and not jammed up against the wall; this allows the air to circulate more easily around them, and makes them more efficient. If you have a fitted kitchen with a built-in refrigerator or freezer, make sure there is ample ventilation to allow for air circulation around the condenser coils.

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