Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Eco-Epiphanies: Personal Wastefulness and Societal Stupidity

For some, deep ecological truths are, looking back, arrived at in spectacular natural settings or dramatic experiences. For me, two anecdotes stand out as clearly pivotal, changing my thinking and my behaviors – hence, eco-epiphanies. The first was nearly thirty years ago, listening to Rabbi Arthur Green’s Yom Kippur sermon. I have no recollection what exactly his topic was, but his line: “American disposals are better nourished than many people with whom we share this earth” was so true and so jarring, that I vowed to start recycling that minute. OF course, recycling didn't feed people, but it was where responsible consumption started. Step by step, year-by-year, my consciousness about waste grew, until I became an environmental activist – fortunately, along with many others. However, I still thought of waste as a personal matter, that I should be more careful not to waste food to begin with, buy less packaging, that sort of thing. Virtue, as Dick Cheney would call it.

The second truth arrived in a story about Sudanese refugees, teenage boys settling in the United States. Survivors of great trauma, all orphans who had lived in refugee camps for many years, they were brought here and settled by Lutheran Services. Social workers helped them adjust, and it was educational for both these “Lost Boys” and those who helped them. One woman described taking them to a Big Box store to outfit them with American necessities. They stopped to look at a wall of hair dryers, unfamiliar to her charges.

On their first afternoon together, she took them to Walmart for clothes. They gaped at the endless rows of textiles and gadgets, including some that looked like futuristic handguns. “Those are hair dryers,” Bernstein explained. Benson couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Why would you buy a machine to dry your hair? It dries on its own.
Somehow that shocked me into awareness of how ridiculous much of our consumption is – looking at it through the eyes of the world’s have-nots. We Americans live in a bubble. We don’t question basic assumptions about how we use resources, and allow ourselves to be absurdly wasteful, spending time, money, and natural resources to do things that don’t need to be done. We could live a high quality of life much more resource efficiently, and certainly will need to do so if the planet is to survive the onslaught of the results of our over-consumption.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Muichic - Mucho Gorgeous and FairTrade, Too

Much as I love craft fairs and handmade clothing and accessories, I do try not to collect too many trinkets.  I've gotten good at admiring but not acquiring.  Today at a Home & Garden outdoor fair, underneath gorgeous sunny skies, I hit the jackpot.  This gorgeous necklace is made by Muichic in Colombia of natural materials, but let them tell you their story.  It's fun and funky, helps people support themselves, and preserves rainforests.  Trifecta!
muichic (moo·ee·sheek) is 100% natural, sustainable & organic jewelry ethically handmade in Colombia.
Tagua is our raw material. All of our pieces are made by hand from "tagua nut". The tagua nut, a botanical alternative to ivory (a.k.a. vegetable ivory), is a seed that comes from the ivory-nut palm which grows wild in the humid tropical forest of South America. Its use stimulates the local economies in the region providing an alternative to cutting down rainforests for farming.
Unique accessories that are environmentally friendly ; gracefully chic make up our natural bijoux collection...bold, playful ; colorful goodness for your body. All of our pieces come in different colors and like snowflakes they all differ from one another. Each tagua nut has its own distinctive grain and shape which gives a remarkably uncommon quality to each piece of jewelry. Quality ; individual variation on each piece are guaranteed.
  Check out this close up!  The boldness of plastic color, but with the elegant aesthetic of hard polished natural material.  I see why they liken it to ivory, with grains like wood.

PS - the necklace clasp broke, so I emailed Muichic.  They told me to just send it back for repair.  It was sent to Colombia, and I've just received it back.  That is great service!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My No-Disposable Vows

About a year or two ago, I decided I would simply not use disposable cups, plates, or silverware.  (So-called silverware, plastic forks et al) unless they could be washed and reused.  When I go to meetings and conferences, I bring a mug, my own silverware, et al.  Much of what I eat can just be consumed without utensils.  If I forget to bring a mug, I just don't drink anything.  I am able to stick to this personal practice pretty easily.  I see it as more than just a eco-habit and entering into a spiritual practice.

There are some situations which have proven to be too awkward in which to observe this prohibition, though.  When I am a guest at someone's house and they directly serve food to me on paper plates, I accept it.  Who wants to be the one at the birthday party to throw sand?  I have yet to have the nerve to directly confront someone and say, "Sorry, I don't eat on disposable plates.  In my book, they aren't kosher."  Maybe someday I'll get there, but not yet.  I suppose I could also take my bamboo plate to people's homes just in case the dreaded disposables appear on the table, but that does seem a little holier-than-thou.  And I would like to be invited back to people's houses!
Any one out there taken the pledge?  Just found a group online, called - cleverly - Refuse, the Plastic Pollution Coalition.  

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cooking: Ecological, Economical, and Better for You...

Cooking has never been one of my passions; it’s more a commitment which follows from liking to eat. This past year I find myself enjoying cooking more, and spending more time at it.  There are a number of contributing, idiosyncratic factors like my new sunny kitchen and its wall-mounted radio, so NPR can keep me company when I’m slicing, stirring, or mixing.  And my new IPad allowing me to easily download and listen to interesting podcasts and living near enough to Weavers Way Food Coop to shop daily. The fact that my children grew up means I both have more time and two fewer picky palates to please, also making the cooking process less stressful.
But there are some way simpler, replicable things which have contributed to making my cooking more efficient, and therefore more gratifying.  I did a budget check and realized how much we were paying to eat in restaurants, often because I just didn’t have the energy to decide what to make for dinner at the end of a long day.  Once I realized it would pay back, it justified my putting more time into meal planning.  I created a simple data base of weeknight menu combinations which we both enjoy eating, including any unusual ingredients and advance prep that facilitates getting the meal to the table.  By doing the thinking in advance and entering it in my google-doc, I can just refer to it, make a menu decision earlier in the day, and plan accordingly.  If it will be chili, I know I need to get the rice started in advance, that sort of thing.  Since I actually finding the menu decision more onerous than the cooking, this has made a huge difference!
A small investment in better cooking utensils has vastly improved the cooking experience.  Better knives, larger frying pans, a sturdy long-handled spatula and new goodies like a roll-up cutting mat have been so much nicer to use.  Purchasing a duplicate set of measuring spoons and measuring cups is an embarrassingly simple upgrade.  If some are in the dishwasher, I don’t need to rummage around to find them.  If I want to prepare two dishes in a row, I don’t need to stop and wash them. Duh!  Why didn’t I think of this 35 years ago?  The cost of this enhancement is paid for by one stay-at-home meal.
The internet has also livened up the cooking process.  Recipes, techniques, cooking blogs, even unusual products – these are all available with one click. If you’re someone with a large cookbook collection, you might want to join EatYourCookbooks, a site which features tens of thousands of indexed cookbooks.  Register the cookbooks you own and use, and when you search by recipe title or ingredient, it will find the recipe and ingredient list.  Where’s that great recipe for pecan lemon pound cake?  This site will locate it. It doesn’t bring up the recipe itself, but will tell you which cookbook it’s in.  The first five cookbooks are free; after that there is an annual fee. 
Eating at home is cheaper and healthier.  Another motivator, on the environmental front: at-home food preparation has a much smaller eco-footprint.  Unless you would walk to the restaurant, you save the round-trip drive.  Restaurants themselves are extremely high consumers of water, electricity, fuel, chemical cleaners, and disposables.  While the diner might focus on wasted food (portions which are ridiculously large, uneaten bread which can’t be reserved, Styrofoam clamshells to take home, double-wrapped in plastic bags) most of the waste is out of the diners’ sight.  There are some greener restaurants which compost, but most generate huge volumes of trash and food waste, none of which is reused or recycled.  Restaurants are not, by law, allowed to serve leftovers!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ectopic Heart Beat, Benign Palpitations, Cardio-Hiccups

This is a completely off-topic post, written  in hopes it may be of interest and help to people who have the same weird heartbeat thing which I have.  Starting in my 20's I very occasionally had a moment where I felt like my heart stopped and then went thud, followed by a nano-second of breathlessness. But before I could focus on my imminent death, everything went back to normal.  An EKG in a doctor's office assured me I was fine, nothing to worry about.  Hah!  Nothing to worry about, until the next time this happens!

In my mid-50's, I noticed it more, and once again had a physician check it out, same result.  Nothing to worry about.  Then a few months ago, around my 58th birthday, this started happening several times an hour.  Usually in threes, a few minutes apart.  I would be very conscious of my heart beating, a weird sensation.  Each thud would be followed by a slight flutter in my chest and stomach.  This began to drive my crazy, trying to figure out a pattern, what might be causing this uptick (pardon the pun!).  And lots of anxiety, since it is an unpleasant sensation.  The doctor reassured me it's harmless, and called an ectopic heart beat, as "in the wrong place".  No known cause, no cure.

Eventually the frequency made me so nervous that I asked for a referral to a cardiologist.  I just couldn't believe that something so scary-feeling could really be harmless.  He did another EKG and an echo-cardiogram, neither of which is invasive or unpleasant.  He pronounced me the healthiest lady he had seen all day, and described these as "benign palpitations".  Benign is good, but it sounds very alarming, really. There is no known cause, this is just one of those things that happens;  it's weird, but it's harmless.

I am slowly training myself to be less reactive to my benign palpitations; which at least will decrease my reactivity.  The most useful thing I've come up with so far is to rename them heart hiccups, since that in effect is what they are.  Somehow, hiccup sounds more friendly and normal than benign palpitations.
I do hope they go away just like them came; some days I have very few.  Other days I have a lot.  Just sharing.  By now I've discovered a few other people who have these too, and we're all alive and well.

Postscript: three years later.  I am incredibly grateful to the first commenter, who - years ago - wrote that magnesium supplements helped him/her.  I tried them and could feel the difference immediately.  I have continued to take them daily and it has taken the edge off my palpitations. When they occur they usually don't just happen once, but a bunch of time over a day or two, and I realize how long it's been since the last episode.  Eventually they stop, but I don't notice that they stopped until they happen again.

I reported this to my doctor and she said, basically "Cool."  Whatever works.  As in, no evidence it works but it can't heart.  I also told my acupuncturist and she confirmed that metals are good for heart function.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Ecology of Gifting

holidays are a time for families to be together
Gifting is an area where the material/ecological and human nature/psychology are at odds.
It's good to give, it feels good.  It's fun to receive gifts, and important for all kinds of symbolic reasons.  Gifting is ritualized; messing with it leaves people confused and hurt.  But!  Most of us have way more than we need, and the occasions for gifting have been multiplied and grossly inflated by retail marketing and advertising.  Choosing a gift that will truly please the recipient is a huge challenge.
There isn't a one size fits all answer, but here is a list of questions I am posing to a group where I will lead a discussion on this topic.  Thinking for a few minutes about your answers will likely surprise you.

  1. What was the best present you recall receiving?
  2.  What was the least appropriate gift you've received?
  3.  What strategies for ratcheting down the "Gifting Industrial Complex" have you or  your family employed?
  4.  Do you resent or enjoy gift giving?
  5. Calculate a quick estimate of the number of gifts you present in a calendar year.
What stood out for me is that there weren't many presents I could single out as having been terrific, despite all the wonderful and much-appreciated efforts people have made to please me over the years.  From this I generalize that the odds of choosing an ideal gift are slim, unless I am unusually picky.  That said, I would be very bummed if no one had ever made the effort.
This year I am actually including gifts in an expenditure spread sheet and it's amazing how much we lay out , even though I am highly evolved on this question and avoid material gifts as much as possible.  How much more are people in the gift-giving mega-sphere laying out - birthday parties, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, hostess gifts, birthdays - endless!
My nomination, by the way, for the least appropriate gift I've received was a donation in honor of my Confirmation in 1968.  I didn't mind that it was a donation, it's just that it was to The Cemetery Fund.  For a sixteen year old.  Creepy!!  (However, if the goal of a gift giver is to be remembered, it worked.  I still recall who it was from.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Self-Provisioning Resource Conserving Eco-Nut Next Door

Amidst the landslide of greening and sustainability books constantly being marketed and touted (get the irony?), two jumped out at me.  Reading them as a pair made it clear that Plenitude, by economist  Juliet B. Schor, and The Cheapskate Next Door by journalist Jeff Yeager are describing the same contemporary trends using very different language.  People can earn fewer dollars without their quality of life being diminished, IF they also experience an increase in free time.  This free time can be invested in social capital, healthy lifestyle, creative self-provisioning, and ingenious thrift, aided by everything from social networking to asking grandma to teach canning techniques.  Schor’s book is analytic; Yeager’s is  a how-to-do-it  manual.
Reading over and over again how we aren’t “over” this Great Recession because none of us are buying enough, hence the jobs producing all of it are lagging, has often made me wonder how that squares with the carrying load of the planet.  The fact that personal savings have actually increased seems like good news, not bad.  The fact that demand for fossil fuels has decreased – isn’t that the goal here?  Schor, an economist with an emphasis on ecological concerns and the author of two other terrific books, The Overworked American and The Overspent American, reviews the basic theoretical underpinnings of modern economics and concludes that they don’t square.  As developing world incomes rise, driving massive additional consumption, the world’s growth limits will be tested.  We can’t just keep on extracting finite resources on the cheap and expect it will all end well.  Likewise, she predicts there will never again be enough conventional jobs for all who seek work.  We’re becoming too efficient and productive for that, through ever improving and disseminating technology.
Schor’s solution,, that we cut back on workers’ hours, thereby employing more people over all, is not original. This has been tried in many places and times, often to avoid laying workers off.  Kelloggs of Battle Creek, Michigan, famously offered a six-hour day for decades which workers loved, along with all the others lucky enough to live there.  Schor’s original synthesis is to combine this with the new realities of environmental as well as social stress, to define a life of Plenitude less dependent on material excess.  By editing out the waste of American life, and utilizing the dividend of extra time, whole new micro-economies are evolving, allowing people to live healthier, happier lives that – paradoxically – are lower income.  She effectively decouples standard of living from quality of life, as happiness studies have been confirming is correct, once people move past subsistence.
She cites examples of lowering overhead by resource sharing, plugging Freecycle, CraigsList, carsharing, Open Source internet software – much of which I have written about over the years.  Local agriculture, from gardens to micro-farms, is a favorite example, written about glowingly throughout the book.  She describes people once again learning to cook, preserve, sew, and build their own downsized homes.  It all sounds very idyllic; I want to believe her, I really do.  Except that what she is talking about as a trend looks more like an interesting trickle of outliers (Hi, Anna!  How’s the honey going?).  OK, I grow a few tomatoes.  That doesn’t make me Ma Ingalls.  But perhaps a generation from now her manifesto will prove true.  If so, we will all be the better for it.
The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means is a charming hybrid of two terrific classics, The Millionaire Next Door and The Tightwad Gazette.  Those books were all about resource conservation from a financial standpoint – why leave good money on the table?  TheMND describes a value-oriented affluent population who eschews conspicuous consumption.  TTG was more about people scrapping together a nest egg, even on a tiny salary.  The secret of both is living beneath one’s means.  However, they were written before the age of environmental awareness.  All their strategies translate quite well to a new eco-age.  The Cheapskate took himself on a national book tour – by bike, CouchSurfing his way across the country. 
His book is a lot of fun.  My main takeaway is that if you create good habits, these too are hard to break.  One becomes  a  reflexively resource-conscious consumer [a description I prefer to “cheapskate”].  Case in point.  Two friends and I were at the beach in search of 1% hydrocortisone cream for my friend, suffering from a bee sting. We grabbed the first brand we saw.  But I couldn’t resist going back to look at the shelf, where I found a generic tube for half the price.  Then I saw a generic tube half the SIZE.  It is generally more economical, both financially and ecologically, to buy a larger quantity.  But!  Only if you will finish it all.  Having just thrown out boxes of unused, expired OTC meds from my old house, I knew the smaller generic tube was a good choice.  Time expended: 1 minute.  Amount saved: ~ $6.00.  Since I earn less than $6.00 a minute, it was a good use of my time.  However, you can’t send a child to college or pay for health care –America’s two huge and ever escalating price tags  - on small salaries supplemented by self-provisioning and judicious cheapskating. 
If you’re following these authors’ advice, be sure to check these books out from your local library soon!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cooking Coops featured in the NYTimes

Cooking Coops, groups of people who swap meals, have been around for awhile - they're wonderful ways to eat better quality food while building social capital.  You can read a lot of details about how they work in this article about them.  This describes four families swapping meals, each cooking a large quantity to feed 8 adults. That way you're covered for 3 nights in addition to your own.
It requires people with fairly compatible tastes and diets, who actually like to cook.  Not so easy to pull off, but worth trying, for sure.
In our crunchy community here in Mt. Airy, four households I know have a different version of this, Soup Group.  They meet once a week; the host family provides a seasonally appropriate soup + bread + salad, a nice casual peasant-style meal.  They now all have children, so the four families have become de facto extended family for one another.  Don't know if baby boomers, with all our travels and dietary restrictions, are on board with this.  Seems like more of a 30's phenomenon, when people settle in with mates and children.
Here is a book mentioned in the article, Dinner at Your Door.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wedding Registries: Reclaimed and Reframed

Two years ago I wrote a column about my love-hate relationship with wedding registries – appreciating their efficiency and loathing their impersonal, overly directive tone. Here I am two years later, based on recent developments, happily updating my report. Our son Zach just married the lovely Becca, and I have had a ringside seat in their gifting experience. New options for registering work beautifully, giving the couple an opportunity to express more than just a catalogue of items, while still allowing guests to enjoy the ease of a registry.

Wedding guests have been trained to demand wedding registries. They are convenient; gifters are assured they are sending something the couple actually wants, end of story. Brides and grooms are therefore conditioned to provide registries, even if they don’t need or want much of anything. Newly married couples who have been through the experience advise that it’s smarter to proactively choose things than be passive and see what comes. Guests seem to divide on the question of giving items versus money. If you’re a cash giver (more common in some ethnic groups than others), just skip this column. No brides and grooms ever dislike cash – it’s always the right size, right color, and right design.

For the rest of us gifters who like to pick an item for the couple, the simplicity of a registry is appealing. Their downside, which I emphasized back in 2008, is that they can come across as cold and greedy. Since then I have learned wedding industrial complex marketing strategies. Stores provide brides and grooms with all kinds of premiums and incentives and then send the couple through the store with a laser gun to literally zap any item they like. The laser gun zapper technique is the favorite part of the whole experience for some of the grooms who do not enjoy any of the rest of the wedding planning. I was told that one big box store has created a 3:1 “formula” for gifts to guests, though I can’t document this absurdity. The result is an endless list of completely unprioritized gifts, without any commentary or way of knowing anything about the bride and groom other than their taste in pots, pans and sheets – generally way more luxurious than the ones we’ve all been using since in the 70’s.

Zach and Becca used alternativegiftregistry.org’s smart, clever registry which allowed them to manage the process, instead of being controlled by big box stores. They wrote a bit about their thinking about gifts, building on their friends Ethan and Joelle’s manifesto:

You'll see that some of these gifts won't come in boxes. It would be a gift to us if you:

* gave a donation to one of the organizations [which were listed] or

* helped us with a few household items or

* did something creative we haven't thought of yet or

* any combination of the above!

But needless to say, this is a celebration of love, not stuff. The greatest gift is your presence in our lives and at our celebration!

That said, people do like giving gifts. One great feature of this type of registry is that the brides/grooms can pick the items and link them to the internet site which will be the best provider; it’s not managed by any particular store. They also put up suggested items without links. My personal favorite was their request for a knife sharpener. “We hear it’s important to have a good sharpener for our knives. We don’t know a thing about what’s a good one, but will trust your judgment on this matter if you know something about it and want to give us one.” In one case they posted a 12”skillet, along with a strange fact – on Amazon, the skillet cost LESS with a top than the same skillet without the top. It makes sense that the bride and groom would be better informed than gifters, since they are the ones doing the research. A flexible registry allows everyone to take advantage of better deals, and shop where they like. If a couple likes handmade things from artists or craftsmen without web capacity, they can include a link to Etsy (a portal for handmade things), another way to personalize an Alternative Registry.

Another nice feature of the Alternative Gift Registry is that as soon as a gift is spoken for, Team Bride & Groom takes it off the list. Hence those who visit are greeted with a half dozen or so suggested gifts, not hundreds, many of which are listed as already “taken.” It requires that the brides and grooms stay on top of it, but it works very well. Couples can be open-ended – listing their chosen stainless pattern but not how many place settings, for example. Zach and Becca included items which were very small and a few high-end ones. This is how they’ve acquired a Kindle and a very cool under-the-counter NatureMill composter. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

What about gift certificates, not quite money but not quite an item? They included a list of stores where they frequently shop, some quite near to where they live. Many people were happy to send them shopping cards to those stores. They can combine all those gifts and get larger items, so it seems like a win/win. Gifters aren’t spending a lot of money on wasteful, needless shipping. Stores like gift certificates so much they ship them for free; why not, since they get all the cash up front?One store, Powell’s Book Store in Portland, OR, carries a huge inventory of used books which can all ship in one order. Hey, Philadelphians, did you know you can buy and give a Weavers Way Gift Card? One piece of advice: keep careful track of all the serial numbers on the gift cards, in case they are lost or stolen.

Some people found their Alternative Gift Registry a little mysterious, since it required following unfamiliar instructions. In these cases, folks simply went to stores they like and sent whatever they wanted. That’s precisely what a lot of people do anyway. Alternative Registries can be used for any occasion such as birthday, graduation, birth or Bar Mitzvah.

image from www.OccupationGifts.com

Monday, May 31, 2010

Decanter Crud Meets Collective Wisdom

We have a few beautiful glass wine decanters. Coincidentally, two of them were drained to empty about the same time and both had a lot of wine debris left in the bottom. I remembered that the last time this happened, I found some creative, simple solution but couldn't recall if it had been vinegar, bleach, or some other magic potion, none of which worked this time around.

Obviously it was time for Google.
Reading a number of suggestions, the one which seemed easiest was to drop a denture cleaner tablet like Polident into the decanter along with some hot water and let it sit a bit. I liked the idea that this cleaner was clearly safe for ingesting. We tried it and voila! Within an hour the debris was all floating.
I never tire if the miracle of the internet, where we all share knowledge. This isn't up there with delivering a baby or building a windmill for power to a village in Africa, but it worked!