Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sustainable Food: It's All in Your Head, And on Your Plate

Our neighbors at the extreme-green Path to Freedom here in Pasadena recently posted an important reminder about the sustainable use of food. In one simple graphic they have captured several of the many factors that go into sustainable food use.

The first item on the list, Buy it with Thought, itself embodies several factors. I don't know what the Dervaes family had in mind when they wrote it, but to me the following questions come to mind in order to buy food "with thought:"
  • Will my family like it?
  • Is it healthy for us or is it something we should limit (e.g., high or added fats and sugars?)
  • Is the food organic, local grown or both?
  • Is it fairly traded or certified?
  • Is it heavily processed?
  • Is it chemically augmented?
  • Genetically modified?
Most of these questions go unasked most of the time, and the result, I daresay, is that we as a community support a food industry that it is not in our long term, personal self-interest to support. It is sometimes just too easy to compromise one's longterm interest in sane public policy when faced with an immediate need like hunger. But I have found that the more we practice thoughtful eating by thoughtful grocery shopping, the less likely we are to compromise and eat something sustainably-vile just because it is handy.

For me, Cooking with Care means using both sustainable and healthy cooking methods. The PTF folks make use of a solar oven regularly -- which is beyond my personal commitment level. But we choose to use natural gas for our stove and oven, since it is a more efficient and less "carboniferous" (lower CO2) method for cooking than an electric range. If we ever had a surfeit of solar electricity on our hands it might make sense to use an electric range; but we only do 70-90% solar annually, so not yet.

I also like the common sense reminder Don't Waste It (food); that's a no brainer, of course, since trashing edible food costs the local household budget needlessly, but it also affects the larger ecosystem. Where a community or country is particularly profligate, the waste can really add up to a level that moves food production into a non-sustainable place.

The other half of waste, however -- at least in my mind -- comes down to what one does with the parts of the food one does not eat. Trimmings from vegetable preparation, for example. The potato that went soft in the back of the bin. Even the green beans which no threat or entreaty could convince the three-year-old to eat. Can we avoid wasting them? You bet!

A small bin on the counter and simple compost bin in the yard or on an apartment patio (yes they do have a sealed compost bin for just such a situation) is a great way to reduce landfill mass and avoid wasting the excellent fertilizer and soil builders one might otherwise throw away. For a longer rant on composting, click here.

The final concept -- Homegrown is Best -- is both one of the easiest to achieve at some level and hardest to achieve at a significant level. But it is an excellent aspirational goal -- especially since you know that the food is organic, definitely local and fair trade. More interestingly, I have found I am far less likely to be wasteful with food that I have grown. I know how long it took to get that bowl of broccoli or pan of fried potatoes, and you will see me turn positively miserly when it comes to using up food I have invested months of time in!

In the end, most of these concepts come down to awareness; consuming while mindful of the real inputs and consequences of one's consumption, and of the options available to be a sustainable element in the natural system rather than a destructive and disruptive factor.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reusable Bag "Would-But" Remedies

The other night a lady spoke at a meeting of our city Environmental Advisory Commission, calling herself an "uncommitted reusable bag user." She had come down to the City Council chambers to support a proposal to prohibit single-use plastic bags and place a disposal and education fee on single use paper bags.

She commented that she had some reusable bags, but she would often forget them when she walked to the store. She asked for the prohibition and fee to give her -- and others -- some additional incentive to be mindful of their choices (and especially to help remember to bring her bags!)

Until such a gentle reminder is the rule in your area, here is a capsule summary of a few cures for the "Would-Buts."

  • Own reusable bags. It may seem obvious, but if you don't have a set of reusable bags you will never remember to bring them into the store. You can make them yourself -- as a surprising number of folks do -- or collect them from all sorts of advertisers, or just vow to buy one (1) each time you shop for, oh say, two months.

  • Own More Bags Than You Think You Will Need Reusable cloth bags get used for all sorts of things, especially transporting gear to special events or stuff to work or school. When a bag is otherwise engaged, it cannot be used for groceries. Also, we have found the most effective technique is to keep a set of bags in each car, and one or two sets in the house.

  • Use Fewer Bags Than You Thought You Would Reusable cloth bags hold a lot of stuff. Four Trader Joe's-size canvas bag hold as much 10-12 of the plastic flimsies. So, even if you only have one bag -- take it! It makes a big difference. (Note: If you buy eight bags as noted in "Own More" above, you will have two sets.)

  • Torture People If you have not yet come out as a green, reusable bags can be a little, well, embarrassing. So, turn the tables. Deliberately bring your reusable bag with you into a store that doesn't seem all treehugger-ish. Smugly watch the checker struggle with your reusable, maybe even trying to stuff their plastic bags into your cloth one. Kindly, but with unmistakable surprise and disdain, comment that those plastic bags will be illegal soon. Realize that now that you are outed, you can be your sustainable-self anywhere.

  • Torture People II Take your reusable into a store that sells reusable bags but is not yet particularly sustainable . Watch the people in line eyeing your bag. Feel paranoid and embarrassed at being such a Green Goofball -- for a split second. Then accept the checker's heartfelt "Oh good! You have a bag!" Answer the follow-up quip from the person behind you that they "never remember to bring their bags" with equanimity and encouragement. Remember that that person was you yesterday!

In all seriousness, the reusable bag would-buts fall into three major categories -- old habits, self-justification (not enough bags, too many needed), and embarrassment at looking like an enviro-loon. None are insurmountable. You know you have made it to the sustainable place when you make an unexpected stop, feel just a little upset that you had to take a plastic bag for something that you couldn't at least carry away without a bag!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Do Nothing, Save the World! "Black Friday" Goes Green on Buy Nothing Day

Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Of this triple mantra "reduce" is, in some ways, the hardest for folks to find quick and easy ways to implement in one's daily life.

Reducing consumption often feels too much like some sort of deprivation. For my grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression and WWII privations, the concept of thriftiness and making do with what you have was common sense.

But for that generation, and for many of their children, those days are over and the idea of voluntarily doing without where there is no imminent and identified threat is anathema.

Similarly, their grandchildren (my generation) were born in an era of plenty, grew up into the 1980s boom, and with the exception of gas rationing in the early 70's, have lived comfortably, even lavishly, without great difficulty.

Now, there are many ways to reduce consumption. But the whole thing starts with awareness. As noted in a previous post, The Story of Stuff is great introduction to the problem of over consumption. But it's not very specific, or personal. So here's a personal statement to make to remind yourself -- and our consumer driven culture -- that as people we are more than the sum of our stuff:

Celebrate "Buy Nothing Day," November 28

Stay home. Decline to participate in the consumer madness retailer's call "Black Friday," known as The Day After Thanksgiving to you and me. Stay home and make a present. Read a book (from the library of course).

Sure, plenty of people stay home to avoid the traffic and insanity, so don't celebrate Buy Nothing Day alone. Copy and reproduce the graphic below as your email signature for the next three weeks . . . remind folks -- and oneself -- that "reduce" is the first and most useful of the triple-mantra.

Going to miss a sale? Probably. But frankly, in most cases it will be cheaper later if you decide it is something you really do need. And by explicitly declining to participate in Black Friday we send a reminder to the industry and ourselves that a sustainable future is the, in the long run, the only future.

NOVEMBER 28, 2007

Going Green: Are We There yet?

We are a just one family trying to make the transition from an unsustainable lifestyle to a reasonable one, and this blog has chronicled some of our discoveries and experiences about the "easy" green things to do.

We still are not as green as some, much more green than others. The journey continues.

Meanwhile, contemplating what to do next it occurred to me that we had hit a plateau; we seem to have maxed out most of the easy options, and our next steps are all a bit bigger.

Buying that electric car, for example -- either the all-electric pickup truck here, or (the one I really want) the Aptera, here -- is a step we are not ready to take right now. (Mostly because we are not ready to buy a new car.) Or making a commitment to 100% sustainable food options --organic, local grown, fair trade, etc. (Largely because some clean foods are still priced in the region of luxury items, and we just can't justify the cost; in other cases we have our over-processed, chemically grown food vices we are not willing to give up.)

"What next?" I have recently asked myself.

It's hard to know where to go if you don't know where you have been, so in a coming post I hope to review the sustainable elements we already have in place, list-style, and "wish-list" those we want to implement, and set some goals and priorities.

In the meantime, I will note that we have achieved something like success on overcoming one of the three main obstacles to sustainability, a green mindset. We (and I include most of our family members most of the time in this "we") have reached a stage where we have internalized the concepts of sustainability such that when only non-sustainable options are available we at least have the good grace to cringe, and may, in fact, skip buying or using or doing something at all until we can do it cleanly.

Three Obstacles and an Objection

What are the three main obstacles you say? Well, one is obviously Mindset. This itself includes several elements, not all of which can be achieved at once: The recognition of the basic need to live sustainably is the beginning; an understanding and awareness of the natural cycles that affect our lives and make our lifestyles possible helps; a commitment to live so as to not affect those cycles adversely; and finally, the integration of those things into one's life so completely and seamlessly that it happens without much conscience effort, as a way of living not something layered over an existing non-sustainable lifestyle.

The next obstacle is Cost. This includes the sometimes actual additional cost of a more sustainable product, but also includes upfront costs on retrofitting sustainable solutions for long term savings. (The latter can be legislated away, in part, by rules requiring deeply sustainable new construction, for example, and retrofit-on-sale type rules.) Cost also includes the more common "wrongly perceived additional cost," which is related to (because it fails to account for) hidden additional costs and public subsidies for unsustainable practices.

Hidden additional costs include things like personal illness from chronic ingestion of chemical food, to higher costs of education for masses of kids developing learning disabilities due to poor chemical nutrition. Hidden costs include indirect subsidies such as allowing free waste "disposal" by dumping it into the air and water. And they can include taxpayer-paid subsidies for certain products or industries known to be unsustainable and which would be economically unsustainable but for the hidden subsidy.

Availability is the final obstacle. Sometimes one wants to do the sustainable thing, but finds that manufactured products or those one chooses not to make for oneself by hand, are simply not available. From time to time clean technology is hard to find; green options are not very green. One does what one can to encourage products and services in this vein, and moves forward. (This obstacle should not be confused with the false objection and/or "would-but" that relieves one of the need to find a sustainable product or service because it is more difficult to locate than the unsustainable variety.)

Finally, The Objection is a really any one or more of a large set of (false) rationalizations for ignoring the need for sustainability. The Objection has many causes and guises, and although rightly a part of the Mindset obstacle, often seems to act as a block to sustainability.

Within The Objection sometimes is a belief that the deity gave man dominion over the earth and its resources -- and thus humans may loot and pillage that trust property without guilt.

There is also the (sometimes deliberate) confusion of "Sustainable Impact" with "No Impact." Every plant and animal has an impact on the environment, and a role to play in natural cycles; we need not eliminate ours, merely change and moderate ours so that it does not threaten to destroy us and the system of which we are a part. The sneering taunt "your locally grown, organic hemp reusable bag used resources, so why should I feel guilty about a plastic bag?" is an example of this confusion.

Which bring up the fact that Guilt is another factor that motivates the basic Objection response. So much about sustainability implies that if one has been doing something in a non-sustainable manner for years one must be a bad person, stupid, or maybe even malicious. People don't accept guilt readily.

Finally, sometimes the Objection comes down to simple embarrassment: Caring for the environment is seen as a weak, touchy-feely, tree-huggerish, emotion-laden activity -- which is inconsistent with the aggressive self-image that seems to dominate popular culture.

One rarely encounters a person for whom The Objection can be removed directly. Largely it is a matter of finding a point of entry to an Objector's world view, and finding sustainable practices that are consistent with it. Once the Objection is overcome, even a little, it is simply a matter of working on the Three Obstacles one bit at a time.

With this grounding then, we can look to my households current and future practices and see where to go next . . . for a sustainable, not an undetectable, interaction with our biosphere.

Coming Soon: The Checklist: The Good, the Bad, the Etc.