Odds and Ends

August 3, 2009

Hi, all.

No set topic here: lots of little ones.

We’re closing in on a year since Mom died and my brother said something to me yesterday that a friend of his, whose mother has been dead for a decade or more, said to him — that actually, it gets worse after the first year because if you don’t live near your parents, you’re used to not seeing your mom for a year. It’s year 2, 3, 4, and 5 where you start to really notice it. We’ll see. This is my first experience with close death, and I find it’s always somewhere in my mind but not eating me alive, that I have a lot of moments where I miss her and that some things make that worse than others, and that I know I thought about her a lot when she was alive but I don’t know how the extent to which I think about her now compares to that. Did she really cross my mind this much when she was still around? I cannot remember. But I’m taking care of one of my ex-cats this week, and holding a cat really brings her back to me. She loved cats.

On to business.

Sustainable living is more than that which sustains the planet, although that is where most of us need the most improvement. It also means sustainability for ourselves — and I would argue that a signal point of sustainability for ourselves has to be happiness.  I’d also argue that for many of us, the attempt to do too much, the presence of too many obligations and pressures, and the stress caused by these get in the way of actual happiness. That, in a nutshell, is my argument for why simplification enhances personal sustainability — in addition to how it often enhances planetary sustainability.

I’m reading Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less” — Leo, for the uninitiated, runs a blog called Zen Habits which has taken the blogosphere by storm. The book is about accomplishing more by setting limits & priorities, and being able to focus on the important by shedding the unimportant. I’ve only read the introduction so far but will keep you posted — and I’m anxious to see how he advises those of us who have simply ridiculous professional pressures to set these limits and priorities when our time is not our own!

Also reading Alan Greenspan’s “The Age of Turbulence.”  He’s not just Republican, he’s Libertarian — although he proves what I’ve long said, which is that I can like and admire anyone of any political persuasion if they are thoughtful  in their approach to life, even if I disagree with some of their opinions. I happened to see Greenspan yesterday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” and I think it will prove valuable that someone as respected as he, and with his political leanings, was as supportive of the statements made by Timothy Geithner (who appeared ahead of him on the show and spoke about the U.S.’ financial outlook) as he was. That’s what I mean by thoughtful — he followed a Democrat who was speaking about a Democratic economic platform, and he gave an opinion that was NOT party-based.  I confess that during the George (W, not Stephanopoulos) years, George so infuriated me that anyone tainted with his political leanings got short shrift from me. But he’s gone and I’m over it and I find that what I actually react badly to is partisan expressions of opinion that parrot the nonsense on FN or otherwise show an inability to actually consider whether an idea has something to offer, not just who it comes from.

I’m also reading Eric Alterman’s “Why We’re Liberal” — and folks, he’s saying a lot that needs to be said. Highly recommend this book. This historical perspective on how liberal became a dirty word and the forces of history that fragmented liberalism, plus the examples he provides of why progressive ideas add value to a society are timely — we have to get past the history and state our case better.

Also reading Laszlo’s “Chaos Point” — about the worldwide societal tipping points we’re approaching on a variety of fronts — and Lappé’s “Getting a Grip” which is about sustainable, individual democracy. Interesting juxtaposition, here, because the first does nothing if not show that individual actions on a mass scale are needed, and the second does nothing if not show how possible individual action is.

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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 Silver Lining

December 7, 2007

I just finished reading Matt Bai’s “The Argument” and below is the comment I sent him about it (because I’ve been meaning to post about this for awhile):

I just finished reading “The Argument,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. And yes, it is going to make a fine Christmas gift.

One of the exciting themes of the book is the extent to which the frustration of the ordinary American with the non-responsiveness of our government has resulted in people voluntarily becoming involved with the process and speaking out. (By non-responsiveness, I mean, how often have you thought that some of the citizen uprisings of the sixties, which in many cases had a profound effect on events like the civil rights movement or our attitudes toward the Vietnam War, would now fall [and in fact are falling] on deaf ears? I watch all these anti-war marches now and think, W has cottoned on to the fact that he can get away with ignoring what the people want, and these demonstrators don’t seem to realize it.) I love seeing the increased involvement in the debate, and the extent to which progressives are not only demanding change but are willing to be the change they want to see.

A tandem trend I’m seeing is this: people are so frustrated with the lack of action by the current administration on truly pressing problems, they’re taking action themselves over and above speaking out. A good example is the issue of climate change — W refuses to do anything constructive about it, but nationwide people are changing their own habits and voting with their dollars in ways that will make a difference. I believe some of these problems (climate change is a good example here, too) are going to require intervention on two levels — governmental policy and citizen activism. I also think that it would be easy for citizens to bow out if government had taken the lead (“Well, the government is taking care of that so I don’t have to do anything.”). So, ironically, by failing to take the lead on these major issues, our non-responsive government might actually have done us a favor, by frustrating the citizens to the point where they themselves take the lead. By the time the government follows suit, the two-level intervention will be firmly in place.

Another area where this is happening is in helping Iraqis who are displaced or economically harmed by the war. There are funds out there through which ordinary Americans can make loans to Iraqis to help them get started again, and these funds (and other opportunities like them) have been publicized nationally in such places as ABC’s World News Tonight. No small feat.

Yet another — the program whereby U.S. teachers post projects they lack funding for, and citizens can voluntarily fund them, thus providing educational opportunities for children who otherwise wouldn’t get them. Education funding is cut, and the citizens, frustrated by the government’s failure to act on this priority, are taking action themselves.

I guess the silver lining is this: the failure of the GOP to behave in the best interests of Americans, and the failure of the Dems to come up with a solution, has, ultimately, opened the door for citizens to stop relying on government to solve everything and take some accountable, responsible, community-minded action themselves. Our government’s failure is making better citizens out of us, and in ways that I think harken back to the best characteristics of the founding fathers.

Anyway, enjoyed the book!

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.

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.

Some Tidbits About Obesity

September 5, 2007

BTW — I’m not beating anybody up here. I need to lose 20 or 25 lbs myself, and the reading and research I’ve been doing started out being for my own benefit. I think the more reasons I can give myself for exerting the self-discipline necessary to lose the weight outside my own appearance, health and psychological need to win this battle, the easier the weight will be to lose. But it falls in line with my theories about getting healthy as a way to help the planet, so here it is:

I just finished reading “Fat Land” by Greg Critser (excellent reading, by the way). The data I’m sharing here comes from his book and, I think, lends a small idea of the scope of the problem.

“Obesity takes its toll on our daily quality of life too. Between 1988 and 1994, the number of days of lost work due to obesity increased by 50 percent – to 39 million days, worth $3.9 billion. There were also 239 million restricted-activity days due to obesity, 89.5 million bed-rest days, and 62.6 million physician visits, the last equivalent to an 88 percent rise over 1988. As A. M. Wolfe and G. A. Colditz of the University of Virginia concluded in a study of such costs among a population of 88,000 U. S. residents, “The economic and personal health costs of overweight and obesity are enormous and compromise the health of the United States (emphasis added by Critser).”

Oh, and long as we’re looking for practical applications to personal health, take these two pieces of advice from Critser — ditch the palm oil and ditch the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Palm oil is so highly saturated that “its proponents secretly touted it as ‘cow fat disguised as vegetable oil.'” HFCS, in addition to a number of other problems (like, for example, its high caloric content), apparently actually helps increase insulin resistance — which can lead to blood-sugar regulation problems like diabetes and make obesity harder to combat. (I’m greatly oversimplifying here: Critser explains it beautifully and if his explanation doesn’t make you immediately start reading labels at the grocery store, start having yourself psychologically examined for a death-wish.)

Also, it turns out that constantly bombarding yourself with frequent small snacks and meals (instead of eating periodically and allowing yourself to actually become hungry between meals) probably contributes to insulin-resistance also — yet another way we are actually making ourselves fat. (This one is often done in the name of increasing the likelihood that a diet will be successful. Go figure.)

Oh — one last thing. That stuff that came out in the 1990s about how it was ok to be heavier if you were older? Bunk. Absolute bunk. Some Harvard scientists went back and looked at the data the original researcher had used to draw his well-publicized but erroneous conclusion, and found severe biases, chief among them the failure to control for cigarette smoking (which is more prevalent among thin people). I quote from Critser here (who is himself quoting from the Harvard reworking of the studies):

“‘After controlling for smoking,” they wrote,”the risk of death…increased by two percent for each pound of excess weight for ages 50 to 62, and by one percent per extra pound for ages 30 to 49.’ The same conclusion was reached after reanalyzing an American Cancer Society survey of 750,000 men and women: There was no basis for recommending more lenient weight guidelines. In fact, the numbers suggested just the opposite: Weight guidelines needed to be stricter.”

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!

My Terrapass entry got a lengthy and thoughtful comment yesterday (see it here) from someone who also runs a blog (the point of which seems to be exploring a healthy skepticism about global warming, in a calm and non-shrill way) and it has made me think quite a bit today. (I just tried to go back to the commentator’s site, “thankgodforglobalwarming.com” and it seems to have disappeared. Weird.) Anyway, I’m going to address the comment because I believe thinking about the questions it raised is useful.

First, guilt. Pat (the author of the comment, and as I have no idea if Pat is male or female, this could get awkward) asked me where my guilt comes from and at what point to I stop feeling guilty? The simple answer is a) from being part of the problem and not part of the solution for so long and b) when I am more a part of the solution than of the problem. But it goes deeper than that. It’s becoming increasingly obvious on a number of fronts that from where the planet sits, humanity is a cancer — just as rampant, just as destructive, ultimately just as potentially fatal. This is admittedly a nihilist view.

Read the rest of this entry »

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!