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!!

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.


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.

Many of you know I just canceled my Hotmail account. I want to tell you why. Early in September, Hotmail stopped forwarding my subscription e-mails from Note the use of the word “subscription” there — I CHOOSE to receive e-mails from Truthout and, despite the fact that I’m well past the age of majority and legally able to make my own choices, AND that this country allegedly enjoys freedom of speech, HOTMAIL unilaterally decided to call my subscription “spam” and stop forwarding it.

Mind you, it did NOT stop forwarding me “get your viagra here” e-mails, phony stock-scam e-mails, “easy russian bride” e-mails or a host of e-mails offering me advice on how to enlarge my penis. (For those of you who don’t know, I’m a woman.) THOSE aren’t considered spam, apparently.

But my e-mails from Truthout — which generally consist of links to stories from respected news outlets worldwide — apparently are. I’m not talking the Wack-Job Sun Times, here, people. I’m talking about the Washington Post. The New York Times. The LA Times. The New Orleans Times- Picayune. The Miami Herald. Reuters. The Associated Press. The Christian Science Monitor. A host of foreign news outlets.

I asked Hotmail to justify its actions and it quickly put the blame on Truthout. But it admitted to Truthout that it was “blocking and throttling” its e-mails. And it’s doing it to everyone who subscribes to Truthout from a Hotmail account, not just me. (There are also allegations that it’s doing it to the Independent Institute, but I don’t have confirmation on that.)
There are also allegations that AOL is doing the same thing.

Guys, this is serious. Communication consists of a speaker, a listener, and a medium of transmission — be it spoken voice traveling through air or electrons passing over the Internet. Those who would control our access to information can’t stop me from listening, and they haven’t yet dared shut down the media outlets from investigating and writing, so they’re attacking the vulnerable link between. This is censorship. And it’s wrong.

Everyone, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, should be up in arms about this. The party in power in this country changes regularly. Our right to be informed by anyone we choose to listen to should not.

I CHALLENGE YOU TO DO WHAT I DID: Vote with your dollar. Ditch Hotmail. If you’re having the same trouble with AOL, ditch AOL. Tell them why. Donate what you would have spent on Hotmail or AOL to Truthout, so they can continue their effort to put a stop to this censorship. More is at stake here than just Truthout — they’re small, non-corporate sponsored, and vulnerable, which makes them a good starting point. They’re also the place where this needs to end.

Cross-posted at Buck Naked Politics.

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.”

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!


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?) 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: There’s an animated button for it in the link list on this site — check it out!

                I read something recently that said if you raise your thermostat by two degrees in the summer, and lower it by two degrees in the winter, you can reduce your annual carbon footprint by 2,000 lbs and save about 100 bucks on your electric bill. Well, simple enough — so we tried it for the month of June. It wasn’t uncomfortable. We vary it slightly by cranking the AC just before we go to bed (to get the house cooler) and then turning it all the way off, and I don’t turn it on again the next day until the temperature inside the house hits about 78, which some days is 10 a.m., and some days is around noon.   I also reset it to about 83 when I leave for work around 2, so it’s considerably higher between then and when my sig. oth. gets home around 6.

                We made no other big changes in our power consumption that month. Our electric  bill shows a “same month last year” comparison of kWh used, so when the bill arrived the first week of July, I took a look.

                We used 1/3 — ONE THIRD — fewer kilowatt hours this June than last, just by doing that one thing.  Try it!

                Check out this link:   Hardware by Renee. This woman makes purses out of recycled tires. I don’t even carry a purse and I totally want one. In fact, I already bought two as gifts for others. Give it a look!