Give It Up

I just read Mary Carlomagno’s “Give It Up: My Year of Learning to  Live Better With Less.” I must say I ended up liking the premise better than the book. The author gives up one habit or item each month for the duration of the month — taking cabs, cellphones, eating out, cursing, alcohol, whatever. But it doesn’t seem to result in long-term simplification of her life, reduction of waste, or addition of meaning on many fronts. She seems to go back to each thing she gave up once the month is over, at least to some extent. (And from a literary standpoint, she really needed a good, professional editor.)

Still, it is New Year’s Resolution time, and I am intrigued with the idea of making a number of small changes  over the course of the year as opposed to making them all at once. So I’ll keep the premise and ditch the book.

It’s the 3rd of January today, so I’m already late with picking my 12 things. Figures. And I don’t want them to be things I do only for me — I want them to be good for society and/or the planet also.  Another difficulty: some of the ideas I have are going to take more than  a month to implement. So there will be some overlappage.

A challenge:  come up with your own list of 12 and let me know what it is!  And they don’t have to be subtractions only — you can add things to your life. You could, say, commit to eating two vegetables per day instead of denying yourself something.

Goals Met, Habits Changed

Here are a few steps in the right direction I’ve noticed that we’ve made around here, waste-wise: for about the last 8 months, we’ve ended the week with exactly one bag of garbage, but our recycle bins have been full to over-flowing. Christmas morning we threw away exactly one handful of detritus — everything else was either saved for reuse or recycled. No “live” tree for us, either — just can’t justify it. (Interesting bit of framing, for those of you who are familiar with the concept of framing — calling a tree you have just killed by cutting it down “live.”)  We gave up the electric can-opener, because the hand opener works just as well. We unplug some vampire appliances every day and only plug in things like the computer printer when we’re actually going to print something.  Our electric bill plummeted after we did the two-degree change, and plummeted further when we firmly established the habit of only running either the heat or the AC when we were actually here.  I did not set foot in Walmart all year. We did not buy into the alleged “need” for cellphones — neither of us has one nor wants one.

A Couple of Things I Know We Want to Do This Year

On the home-energy front — the first big thing is to finally get off our dead asses and get the new fridge. A refrigerator can be a horrible waster of energy if it’s old and leaky (ours on both fronts).

On the organic/ sustainability/ self-sufficiency front: I’ve found some interesting heirloom tomato seeds and am going to grow my own this year in our atrium. This is also intended to strike a blow for bio-diversity — so many varieties of all kinds of vegetables are disappearing. It’s time to bring them back! (A note: the vanilla we’re growing hasn’t bloomed yet but this year it might actually get big enough to do so — it’s thriving and has tripled in size this last year!)

On the simplifying front: This year, I know one focus of mine is going to be on finishing the many unfinished projects that are well, all over this house.

And I’m going to continue to actively resist my bad consumerist habits. Book buying is a specific vice! So I gave myself permission to buy books during the week between Christmas and Jan 1, and from that day forward, I read what I have all year with only two exceptions — one trip to each of the local FOL booksales, spring and fall. With a little self-discipline, I should wind up the year with a net book deficit. (We’ll see!)

Tell me what you’re doing this year!!

The End of the Argument

November 8, 2007

No matter where you sit on the discussion of global warming, watch this video. It won’t change your position — it’s not about that and I’m not trying to do that. It is, however, about how to decide on a course of action in the absence of the ability to be able to predict the future.

glumbert – The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See

The title sounds sensationalist. The video isn’t. Seriously — watch it. It will be nine minutes well spent.

Blog Action Day

October 15, 2007

Today is Blog Action Day, on which thousands of bloggers have committed to blogging about the environment in an effort to bring it even farther into the light than it already is. I’ve been reading some entries around the web, full of advice and philosophy and tips and exhortations and so forth. It would be difficult to add to that. So my entry is a question: what did you do today that was environmentally sound?

I asked myself. Here’s my answer.

1) I recycled my junkmail and some plastic packaging.

2) I put the coffee in a thermos instead of leaving it in the pot and leaving the pot turned on.

3) I remembered to unplug the vampire appliances (tv,  dvd, cable box).

4) My bedside clock is battery operated.

5) Instead of meat for dinner, I had a cheese sandwich.

6) I bought used books today, instead of new, and rented some at the library, instead of purchasing.

7) I didn’t run the AC.

8) I remembered to turn the computer off when I left the house (not always a given!).

9) I ate cage-free eggs and drank organic milk.

10) I used a hand can-opener instead of the electric one.

11) I limited my driving to two trips. Not as good as one, but better than some other days I can remember!

12) I read the paper online instead of buying a paper copy.

13) I signed some petitions and action initiatives for environmental causes at the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists websites.

14) I donated money.

15) I educated myself a little further — for example, today I learned I shouldn’t use cypress mulch because it’s made from fresh-cut trees that are needed for water conservation/absorption purposes in their native soils.

None of these was the least bit of a hardship. None, I fear, made a great difference, but it’s the little differences that add up, and therein lies my comfort.

Once again, my commentator has left me a response that has made me think. (See his comment on my entry, Perspective.) He and I don’t seem to agree on much, but I will say this: he clearly thinks about the world, just as I hope it is clear that I think about the world. Even if our conclusions are different, I find much to admire in other people who understand that this life and this planet deserve a mindful, thoughtful approach, and that a life lived mindlessly is a life wasted.

I think Brutus has read me way wrong in one way, I think — I have nothing against prosperity and in fact am pretty prosperous. My point is also not strictly about environmentalism although specific posts may be, and it may be skewed in that direction at the moment because that’s where my head is. (Now, next month when I write the article the DBNJ commissioned from me about decluttering your life, you may see a shift!)

Two things: one, I don’t think what big business tells us we should equate with prosperity is making very many of us happy. It doesn’t work — at least, not for anything except the corporations’ bottom lines. Part of the reason I started this blog is because of how many people I saw around me who seemed to be in the same boat I’m in — overwhelmed by stuff and meaningless commitments, tired of being told to ignore the little voice inside that says “buying that will not make you happy,” and disgusted at the recklessness of our lifestyles with regard to the wellbeing of other human beings — as well as, admittedly, to other species and the world as a whole.

But that’s only part of it. Another point (not the only other point, but another point) is this: if you listen to the world’s oil experts (the scientists, not the paid mouthpieces), you’ll hear some disturbing truths about the difference between what actually exists and what OPEC says exists. Some of my “slowing down the rampant consumerism” rant and “making changes now” rant have very much to do with how little prepared we are for an economy or a lifestyle post-peak-oil, and how very much I don’t want to have to walk nine miles to work every day or have filling my gas tank cost the equivalent of pimping out my ride.  So yes, I think the time is now to give up the SUVs, not just because of global warming but because they get crappy gas mileage. And yes, I think the time is now to reexamine how much we really NEED a new cellphone every six months, because the oil that makes the plastic (not to mention the 6000x its weight in oil/gas every computer chip uses up just to get itself made) is non-renewable and we’re going through it like that doesn’t matter.

Nowhere have I said that our entire lifestyle should be turned upside down. Do I believe that until we get past some of our challenges, everyone is going to have to change some habits? Yes. Do I believe it would be easier and less painful ultimately to do so in small ways now, rather than getting slapped hard later? Yes.

Look at Atlanta. Did you see the news last week (and for the last several months) about its water shortage, now deemed so severe that one of its main sources may be dry by next year? They’re looking at regulating laundry, dishwashing & showers for literally almost half the state, as well as forbidding ALL outdoor water use. Bye bye garden, bye bye yard, bye bye swimming pool. Ok, I could live with that — but bye bye doing my laundry when I want?

What haunts me is not that I might have to make difficult changes at some point in my life. It’s that I could have made a bigger difference sooner by doing something smaller, earlier. And its hugely this: I’d rather make easy changes voluntarily than have the hard ones visited on me by circumstance and authority.

It’s also this — a reordering of priorities. If you ask me which is more important to me, having a teakwood desk or having a world where scarlet macaws still exist, the macaws are going to win every time. Now, that’s my choice, my priority, and I’ll live by it — but someone else may choose differently.

Brutus, my boy, I think in the end that the primary difference between us is where we believe circumstance will lead us. I’d love it if you were right and we COULD maintain the status quo, and that even if we chose to make improvements here and there, they would be done from choice and not necessity. I’d love it — but I’m not betting the farm on it. And either way, I’ll probably choose to live more simply and more thoughtfully because it feels better, for me, to do so. (PS — the last sentence in no way implies that you don’t live thoughtfully. I think if you see paragraph one, you’ll realize I have formed quite a different opinion of you.)

To my other readers — sorry it’s been so long, I’m working on novel number two, and I’ve written 42,000 words in the last two months — just not many of them HERE. I’ll try to do better.

Perspective

September 23, 2007

I talk a lot with my friends and acquaintances about all the issues covered here. Something that repeatedly comes up is how overwhelming it all is, and how impossible to stay informed and keep up with all the fronts where we’re in trouble, as a society, as a planet and in our personal lives. I absolutely see that. It is overwhelming to think about global warming, dependence on foreign oil, erosion of our civil rights, incursion of marketing and consumerism into our minds, health challenges, our lack of time & the enormous number of demands on it, the horrible environmental and humanitarian crises worldwide, pollution, wastefulness and you name it.

It’s tempting to be immobilized by it.

But I see two things.

One, on how very, very many fronts we’ve taken a wrong path. Indeed, it’s hard to find an area of life where we couldn’t stand to find a less selfish way of doing things and where we don’t need to take a good look at the long view and the bigger picture and adjust our behavior accordingly.

But two — the fact that we are so overwhelmingly screwed up is very freeing. It means that we have a huge range of possible improvements to make, an enormous number of possibilities for changing things in a way that works for us. Thousands of places where our money, time, effort, and voices can make a difference. Not all starting places are easy for all of us. But each of us has some starting places that are simple, virtually painless, and worth doing.

One of my friends still shops at Wal-Mart (no matter how many nasty and uncalled-for cracks I make about it to her face, and I’m hoping to reform her yet) but she also knits squares that make charity afghans for disadvantaged people and baby hats for a local neo-natal intensive care unit.

My parents both drive small SUVs — they don’t want to, but they can’t get into and out of low-to-the-ground cars anymore. Yet they recycle.

Another friend built a house 30 or so miles (maybe more!) from where she works. But she bought a Prius.

As for me, well, I’m documenting our good changes. But we have weaknesses — I still eat meat (although I object to it philosophically and it’s an enormously wasteful source of fuel for humans because of the amount of food that has to be grown to raise a single beef cow, pig, or chicken). I gave up walking to the grocery store this summer (temporarily) because of a bad case of plantar fasciitis. And I can think of a host of other ways in which I’m wasteful or environmentally or humanitarianly (I’m sure that’s not a word but you know what I mean) inconsiderate, wasteful or prone to perpetuating the problem.

But I, like many other people I know, have at last made a start. Let’s keep going.

I see this as a series. Here’s the basic idea which we’ll explore in many posts: The healthier you are, the less of a drain you’ll be on the world’s resources, in oh, so many ways.

For example:

• You won’t be sucking down prescription meds that 1) cost a fortune, 2) generate a tree’s-worth of paperwork at some doctor’s office and some insurance office; 3) use up oil in being developed and transported and encased in oil-based plastic bottles; 4) cause side effects that, themselves, have to be treated; 5) take up expensive doctor-time in a world where in many places doctors are scarce, etc.; and, which, in many cases 6) are intended to be taken long-term, thus compounding the costs to our resources.

• You won’t be as reliant on oil-based transportation because you’ll be healthy enough to walk where you need to go more often, or healthy enough to make taking public transportation feasible (you’ll be able to climb onto the bus or negotiate the stairs to the subway, etc.).

• You won’t be using a host of resources relied on by the unhealthy — meds, social services, medical services/ facilities and the host of drains those pose on resources, equipment (everything from special shoes to those little carts people drive in the grocery store, all of which require oil and resources to manufacture and transport), special (read, usually, “large and gas guzzling”) vehicles, and the energy of those around you who must do more to compensate for your having to stop at doing less.

• You won’t be using a host of non-prescription meds, which have all the same sins as the prescription medications above, except for those which are doctor/insurance-related.

• You won’t be using as many of other resources. If, for example, you’re overweight, by losing the weight you will not only probably solve your involvement in many of the above-listed problems, you also require less cloth in your clothing — and the savings redounds to the planet’s credit on a host of fronts. A field of cotton goes farther making size 8 clothing than size 24, and size 8 weighs less, so it costs less to transport (or more of it can be transported at the same time, which is more efficient). Your car will weigh less when you drive it — therefore it will be more fuel efficient. You may be able to drive a smaller car. You’ll doubtless eat less, leaving more for others and using fewer resources throughout the food industry and its host of support industries. Another example: If you smoke or drink, you are not only harming yourself, you are using resources unnecessarily and probably repeatedly, and it wouldn’t hurt to remind yourself that more than just your health is at stake.

• You won’t be as limited in your ability to choose earth-friendly and society-friendly options.

• You won’t be as limited in your ability to give back.

I find this idea especially cogent as we’re in the juxtaposition of two phenomena: the largest generation of Americans ever is about to enter late-middle or old age, and the world is in serious environmental and climate trouble. We are not going to be able to solve this as a society if a huge segment of us prematurely becomes unable to take itself to the john, thus tying up another huge segment of us in care-taking. I’m not saying that everyone can be healthy. I’m saying all of us can try harder to ensure that we are as healthy as possible for as long as possible, and for reasons outside the benefits to our personal lives.

For those of you who live in the Gainesville area, the Second Street Bakery apparently sells shade-grown coffee, in addition to organic baked goods. Or so I hear. I’m going down this weekend to check it out!

Bags!

August 15, 2007

I’m killing two birds with one stone. I have a LOT of fabric (I’m a quilter). One of the changes I’m working on recently is to reduce the amount of stuff I have around (and the concomitant mental stress of not having dealt with it yet). So I’m reading the books I have instead of buying more, and using up my craft stuff, and finding good homes for things I don’t use.

First bag pictureI’m also trying to kick the plastic grocery bag habit, (see this link from Salon for some information on just how bad this is!) and encourage others to do so too. So I’m making bags with the quilting fabric — good sized, lined and batted, so they’ll stand up to some use. (See picture of the first one.) They’re colorful, they’re cloth (so they’re easy to fold and store) and they’re re-usable and washable. Many people I know can expect to get them as gifts soon, and if I really make a pile of them, I may sell a few on ebay just to give them a good home and de-clutter my life at the same time.

Terrapass

August 10, 2007

I’ve been looking into Terrapass. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Terrapass is a company that invests in clean energy projects like wind farms and so forth, while at the same time providing investors with the opportunity to offset their carbon emissions.

Here’s how it works: you go to their website and calculate your vehicle, home, or air flight annual carbon emissions rate. Then you can buy a terrapass based on your emissions that will support a clean-energy project sufficient to offset your emissions. The flight offsets were really good news, because I know someone who flies overseas about 40 times a year for business.

Now, I admit that when I first heard about this I had some misgivings. First of all, global warming seemed too big a problem to just throw money at without making other lifestyle changes. But the fact is, my significant other and I ARE making lifestyle changes. Still, it seemed like a too-easy way to assuage our guilt.

Second, it seemed like it could too easily be a scam. Here, just send us your money and stop feeling guilty!

But I checked them out — they’re independently audited, and they offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee. And for about $50 bucks, I can offset my car’s carbon emissions, and for about another $150, my home’s.

So here’s my thinking: we’re doing (or about to do) whatever we can that’s practical and affordable to reduce our emissions ourselves, and beyond that, investing in something like Terrapass to accomplish the rest seems like a good stopgap while we make other changes. (Need to remember to invest annually, though!!)

And I don’t see why we should stop with only our own mess, either. I’m a great believer in everyone doing what they can, even if they end up giving more than they actually owe — so I might just invest enough to clean up someone else’s car too, because taking as much action to reduce global warming as possible is in my best interest sooner rather than later. I see no reason to wait for some of the rest of the world to get with the program and hope that they’ll do it in time. (What was that thing Churchill said about entering a period of consequences?)

www.terrapass.com. Check it out.

PS — for those of you who use Splenda and are interested in reducing packaging as a way to cut your use of resources and your pollution-generation, Splenda is now available in tablet form — one little plastic (recyclable!) container about the size of a packet of Tic-Tacs. No longer necessary to use up all that paper in those individual packets!

Shade Grown Coffee

August 3, 2007

Here’s something I read the other day:

Unlike shade-grown coffee, most of the $4 billion worth of coffee imported by the United States each year is grown under conditions that severely damage the environment and jeopardize wildlife, especially migratory birds. By contrast, organic, shade-grown coffee plantations are environmentally supportive and provide critical habitat for as many as 200 species of birds, as well as dozens of species of insects, amphibians, and plants.

The piece went on to talk about the relative benefits to the earth of drinking shade-grown coffee:

Organic coffee and shade-grown coffee plantations provide many advantages. For example, shade-grown and organic coffee farms:

    • help maintain soil quality

      • can produce coffee beans for up to 50 years, while sun-grown coffee bushes are good for only 5 to 10 years

        • control erosion

          • facilitate natural pest control, as shade-grown coffee requires little or no chemical pesticides or herbicides

            • provide natural mulch and thus reduce the need for chemical fertilizers

              • provide critical habitat for migratory birds, plus many different species of insects, amphibians, and plants

                I went looking for shade-grown coffee at the grocery store (dream on!) but no dice. Here’s a link to a list of web sources, though. Downside — it’s expensive (well, what did I expect?) but I’m thinking I can at least work it into my coffee routine as a portion of the total.

                BTW, I found this information (including the above-quoted material) on a wonderful site: www.charityguide.org. There’s an animated button for it in the link list on this site — check it out!