I've been trying to stop writing for Fix for months. I had a recent conversation with my friend, who is an actor:
"Sometimes I feel like this environmental stuff and the blogging is distracting me from what I really want to be spending my time on. I mean, it's endless - I could always be more and be better - and it's not like it's hurting anyone...in fact, it might actually help the world and other people. Which I often doubt my art is doing. I actually tell myself it's better to be spending hours and hours figuring out exactly the best mattress cover to buy. But really what I should be doing is writing the next grant, planning the next project. Or even spending time with my friends.""Yeah," she says, "I know exactly what you mean - my meditation and yoga practice are the same way. I could always be more peaceful and more detached, and sometimes the pursuit of it takes over my life. But I don't really want to be a monk."
And I don't really want to be an eco-warrior. Or even an eco-writer (yet). I'll carry on the habits I've started, and maybe try some new experiments, like somehow tackling the food waste at work. Maybe if I'm not writing and planning my next post, I'll also have time to read and comment on the other blogs out there (see below). You can always keep up with what I'm doing on www.meganmetcalf.com.
I recently saw Phillipe Petit speak (go see the fantastic movie out about him now, Man on Wire). At the end of the conversation, he said, "You can make a bank robbery film or you can make a bank robbery.
I'd like to make some robberies.
I started blogging for a variety of personal, practical, and philosophical reasons. On the practical side, I thought that if I had a way to keep track of what I was doing, I would be able to see some trends and better reflect on how not buying anything new was affecting my life. I also thought that having readers would help me stay accountable and give me additional ideas. Furthermore, I felt that my particular circumstances weren't represented by the voices I was finding out there. I had the (largely unfounded) perception that most of the people doing non-consumerist experiments were either really extreme peak oil/freegan/activist people or rural families who had nothing better to do. I wanted to try a moderate experiment without the benefit of a book deal or partner supporting me. What would not-buying do to the life of a struggling artist and day-job worker who lived alone in New York City?
Not a lot - and a whole lot, as it turns out. The largest impact it's had on my life is becoming aware of all the people out there doing personal environmental experiments, who both write a lot or absolutely nothing about it. I googled something about junk mail in February 2007, trying to figure out how to still the incessant Anthropologie and J. Crew catalogs. One of the first things that came up was Colin Beavan's blog, which I was delighted to find right as he started to write. He did a bunch of media appearances around that time and suddenly thousands of people were reading his blog, making comments, and connecting to each other. It was pretty amazing to witness - and be a part of. I was introduced to tons and tons of approaches and voices - and quickly got overwhelmed by the cacophony. Every blog I went to had a million links and a million commenters - and everyone is so nice and helpful!
A few voices have stood out from the rest. I'm sensitive to self-importance, extremism, and a lack of perspective on the fact that all of this "personal environmental action" is ultimately a privilege. The following writers - and yes, they're almost all women, definitely a subject for more investigation - largely avoid these traps. I've really enjoyed these bloggers' stories and insights, and I hope you will too.
Arduous stopped buying stuff in August 2007 and is now moving to London, where she'll continue her ambitious green adventures. She's around my age, funny, realistic, and has great taste!
Green as a Thistle - I caught on to the Green as a Thistle craze kinda late in the game. Vanessa in Toronto made one lower-impact change every day over the course of a year, from March 2007 to March 2008. It's really fun to see her go from completely uninformed to low-impact expert as her experiment continues. The funny, low-key writer isn't single anymore, but since she (mostly) stopped writing when the year was done, I'm including the Single Green Female here.
Gee whiz there are a ton of "green moms" out there but the best is Crunchy Chicken, who seems to have limitless reserves of energy and good ideas. She's raunchy, irreverent, and clearly passionate about everything she does. She doesn't actually write about her kids that much, which might be one of the reasons I've stayed a consistent reader.
I've also been really impressed by burbanmom's humor and generosity - she recently started an online group for suburban moms wanting to make consuming/environmental changes, hosting challenges and putting people in touch with each other. I'll confess I haven't read a ton of her posts, but I read a lot of her comments and like her down-to-earth style.
Greenpa - Finally a dude! I know very little about this guy but his comments on other blogs are funny and on point, and I really appreciate the perspective of someone who actually gave up the work-to-spend wheel for real and doesn't pretend his farm is utopia. His view is a total one, including rants about finance and the media with posts about dogs and chickens and hay equipment - which are, of course, related.
New Voices (I haven't been reading them for very long but I'm liking them so far!)
La Marguerite - great analysis!
Greeen Sheeep - she's just started blogging, and I think it will be fun to listen to her views develop.
I hope you enjoy looking around and I look forward to when real "other" voices emerge in the green blogosphere. (If it ever happens!)
A few months back I wrote about a friend of mine who is teaching an eight-week lifestyle redesign course in California, aiming to help people "green" their lives in sustainable ways. I asked for readers' eight tips, and while I didn't get many responses, I thought I'd share my own thoughts anyway. What would you recommend to someone trying to make her lifestyle more sustainable in eight steps?
1. Do you really need that?
Seriously. New makeup, a little tchotchke for the house, new shoes - on sale! More space, a new car? Sometimes the answer is yes. Most of the time it is no.
2. Ride a bike.
Or rollerskate. Guaranteed to make you exercise and laugh, even if you can't switch to commuting to work by bike. And maybe if you fall in love with biking, you'll consider getting a little closer to the office on your next move.
3. Refuse the bag.
Probably one in ten times we actually need the bag: not enough space in the purse/backpack/etc, it is raining, whatever. Just carry your purchase around in your hand or throw it on the seat of your car - whatever it is, it's likely packaged enough already.
4. Spend some time with your trash.
Some good, quality time. Get to know what your city recycles and what it doesn't. And if there is a place you can take your scraps to compost. There really is no "out" or "away" when you throw something in the garbage - it's just going in someone else's backyard. And it basically NEVER decomposes in the landfill, no matter what it is.
5. Examine your food.
In my opinion, the US food system is one of the scariest
environmental and security time-bombs we have ticking. So I do my best with the farmer's market and organic options. Read some labels and ask, like Michael Pollan, if your grandmother would recognize the freaky stuff they're selling as food.
6. Take a look at the big picture.
I've recommended some books that provide background for the environmental "religion," written from various points of view. If you don't like my list, you can check out the reviews over at The Blogging Bookworm. I've also suggested some movies in the body of this blog, and another blogger recently compiled a great selection. You'll be motivated, disgusted, inspired, and you'll have some context for why people are all hot on a variety of environmental topics.
7. Get real.
Take a hard look at what you can manage given your time constraints, financial situation, living conditions, etc. Biting off more than you can chew only makes you frustrated and resentful. And not everyone loves canning. Or composting. Or cooking their own meals. Let the pros do what you hate and figure out how you can make the best use of your time and energy.
8. Do something.Something you really love. Not necessarily an environmental something. If you spend time doing something you're passionate about, you'll care about this world and the people in it. And you'll feel more motivated and optimistic.
And check out this link from my dad, who uses the wisdom of the ancients to keep his life simple.
I just spent a long time paging through Colin's blog, looking for a graph he drew with a bell curve, representing something like consuming vs. happy. He shows optimal points of happiness and resource consumption, demonstrating that you can take the consumption down a lot but at a certain point too much reduction becomes deprivation and the happiness dwindles.
Most people I know don't produce anything in their jobs; mostly they just push paper around. Somewhere down the line maybe something gets produced but often that's not the case. And I've noticed, among green bloggers and others, that when people produce things they're happy about - food from their gardens, clothes from recycled materials, tangible ways of helping others - they feel more satisfied and less desirous of things. Of course economists note that Americans don't produce much these days, and it might signal a big problem for the future. I'd like to think that if we become more productive - not in the modernist, perfectionist sort of way, but rather in an imperfect, grassroots kind of way - we might be less dependent on consumption. Consumption of things like tv, and gossip, and convenience products. Which, incidentally, have been known to be harmful to the environment and society.
For me, the production vs. consumption spectrum can get too productive and then somewhat destructive for me personally. When I have to come up with alternatives for every consumer product, and run all over town looking for some lower impact solution, my happiness also gets compromised. Everything feels hard. Which definitely isn't the point. And I'd like to leave room for the idea that not everyone wants to be a producer. It's difficult for me to watch wasters and haters let everyone else do the work for them, but I think there's something oppressive and wrong about assuming that everyone wants to be cheerfully tending a garden or making their own clothes. It's sad that personal trauma, bad luck, or simply a bad attitude keeps people from finding something they're passionate about making or doing, but I think it's a reality that active, involved people have to swallow, without getting too smug. So I'm not sure how a balance can be achieved, and for now I'm going to keep believing that one of the key ways of addressing our current environmental and social problems will be by transforming ourselves from greedy consumers into prolific producers - of ideas, art, magic, local goods, and positive, no-stuff solutions.
So there were some big winners and some big losers in July's Pseudo-Freegan Challenge...to begin with, Arduous totally kicked my ass (unless she's holding out on some undisclosed $400 purchase, which I doubt)! But despite spending $760 in a month where I was trying to spend nothing, I don't think I did all that badly. I spent a lot less than I did the previous month, and if I strip out the two events planned in advance, the birthday trip and the bridal shower, I end up with $241.52, way less than my usual set of expenses.
Like Arduous, I ended up feeling a little ambivalent about freeganism. I like the concept of reducing waste, especially food waste, but I also found myself in a weird bind in which I was trying to live as cheaply as possible. This precludes the habits I've cultivated since Fix ended, which require that I spend a little more on my day-to-day expenses, as with organic and farmer's market food, for example. In other words, cost became the only criterion for purchasing, which is the mindset I was trying to overcome with Fix -- I think we buy so much crap because it is too cheap. My preference for socializing over principles also became clear again: I would rather buy brunch with old friends than be the weirdo just having a coffee (which I buy all the time, btw); I barely gave these instances a second thought.
Still, the current economy and my financial goals might encourage me to continue for another couple of months, though there are some things I've already bought - a couple of nice dinners, some gifts, a reference book, etc. I will try to remain vigilant against needless spending and remember the winners and losers in this experiment:
1. The bike/MTA
I've already raved about biking to work more often: it puts me in a good mood, I get more exercise in an average week, and I spend more time in the sunshine. I would like to continue riding my bike and figure out how to get the right combination of Metrocard and riding so I save even more money in the future.
2. The fridge/freezer
I made a serious effort to empty my fridge/freezer: I got rid of a bunch of stuff by trying new recipes and making some weird meals. Because I end up eating the same things all the time, I don't ever touch the special/wacky ingredients I've socked away in the freezer and cabinets. At month's end, my freezer has a lot more room, I have some homemade veggie burgers for quick meals, and I've discovered a yummy pasta and bread crumbs recipe that will help me get rid of the million pounds of crumbs still in there.
Same issue with laundry. We all know I like wearing the same thing over and over, which means I do the laundry a lot. But if I actually wear all of the clothes I have, I really don't have to do laundry very often. And then my clothes would last longer. Bummer it's not more of a savings - I only saved $10 by waiting until Aug to do the wash.
I didn't buy any in July. I also didn't beg the bodega for singles. 'Nuff said.
1. The bike/MTA
Despite the benefits of riding my bike almost every day, it didn't end up being such a money saver...in fact, I saved a grand total of $2.80! I rode the subway more often than I thought I would and I spent my MTA dollars really inefficiently - I would buy cards with single rides because I decided to take the subway/bus at the last minute. I imagine with more practice I might figure out how to do this better. Or I could just stay home more often, which probably won't happen.
2. The fridge/freezer
Yes, I am so lucky to get food and leftovers from work. Between those and working on the fridge/freezer, I ended up in great shape for food last month. But I could go for even another month on the random things that are clogging up my kitchen. I'll lay off the leftovers and try to continue to be creative.
3. Homemade toothpaste
It's messy and tastes gross. I'll use up what I made and probably go back to Tom's. I gave it a good shot, but I'm afraid it's not a keeper.
It can really only mean one thing: pancracks! This lonely yogurt was hanging out at the back of the fridge - leftover from a work breakfast, I'm sure. I was thinking I'd have to wait until the end of the pseudo-freegan challenge to go buy some yogurt and try these babies, but it turned out I got to skip the PB&J and have something delicious for dinner on the last night. These pancakes are super-fast and easy to make - a big plus for a poor cook like myself. Singles, note: you'll be perfectly stuffed if you use the 6oz yogurt and multiply all the recipe's measures by .75.
I used another savory pancake recipe earlier in the week to clean out my freezer. From the great Vegetarian Planet cookbook, I'm renaming these the Anti-Food-Waste Pancakes, as you can literally use any leftover vegetables in these, as well as a whole cup of leftover rice. I had some spinach that was going bad so I cleaned it and steamed it for a minute and stuck it in the freezer - it went right into the batter and tasted great! I also had some carrots going south so I grated 'em up; zucchini would work well, too. The only veggie that doesn't seem negotiable is the green onion, but I'm sure a creative cook could come up with a good substitution.
1 1/3 c. water
1 c. unbleached flour
1 c. glutinous rice flour (or additional cup white flour)
1/2 t salt
1 c. cooked short-grain brown rice or 1 cup glutinous rice (any rice is fine, IMO)
8 oz. firm tofu, cut into small cubes
2 large carrots, grated
6 scallions, green and white parts chopped fine
3 T canola or corn oil
Whisk together the egg and water. Stir together the flours and salt, and then add the egg mixture slowly. Add everything else - and your extra veggies (diced or grated, cooked already could work). I also like to add sesame seeds to the batter. Cook pancakes in a skillet using the oil. Spread the batter with a spoon - it takes about 5 min per side.
Meanwhile, make some dipping sauce:
3 T soy sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
1 t dark sesame oil
1 t apple cider vinegar (or rice vinegar or lemon/lime)
1 pinch chile flakes or hot sauce
1 pinch sugar or honey
This is kind of approximate - it should be sweet, salty, spicy, tart in the relationship that you happen to like. It is important because the pancakes can be a little bland on their own. The batter will keep for a couple of days so you can keep whipping yourself up some fresh, tasty, veggie-laden pancakes. (Appx 3 filling servings)
The challenge has been great in getting me to clean out my fridge and use up the stuff in there that has been lingering unnecessarily. I found a pasta recipe that uses bread crumbs, something I have by the ton in my freezer; I also made some veggie burgers out of some beans, bread crumbs, and rice that had been sitting around. The truth is, I have about another month's worth of food in there - I may have to continue trying to eat freegan indefinitely!
Or Coffee. Or Movies. Once upon a time I was doing well on this challenge but no longer. I mean, it's summer and I really need ice cream. Especially if all I'm eating is PB&J.Actually, this weekend wasn't so bad in comparison to my June or May spending, but still I spent more than I thought I might. I took a friend out to a movie and met some other friends for brunch. And I took the subway a whole lot, mostly because I wanted to continue reading my book. I skipped the bike a couple of times last week and it's been a little tough getting back into the habit. I also realized this weekend that I forgot to cancel my Netflix! I had been using a gift subscription but decided I should probably put my account on hold for awhile. It's time to get real and use the library - I haven't watched a movie since April!
What would you like for a prize, Arduous?
Keeping it light for the summer? I recently tore my way through these three, which loosely qualify as 'environmental' but definitely qualify as fun.
A Year Without "MADE IN CHINA," Sara Bongiorni
Bongiorni's book is what it says it is: a chronicle of her family's year boycotting goods from China. She doesn't have any major revelations, just neurotic obsessing about China and funny anecdotes about her two kids and husband. It's a lot like Not Buying It, arranged by the months of the year but lacking Judith Levine's subtle pathos and pointed philosophic moments. I was astonished by the amounts of crap (Chinese or not) she and her husband declared they absolutely had to have, especially for their kids. Plastic Halloween decorations? Squirt guns? Either her freelance writing job and her husband's academic position are unlike any other in America, or they're in a mountain of plastic-induced debt - every time they go to Target, they walk away with a huge pile, seemingly everything in the store that's not from China. Despite her un-selfawareness about this fact and others, Bongiorni is funny and very readable - I couldn't put it down!
The Gospel According to Larry, Janet Tashjian
Someone posted about this one on Colin's blog, and I decided to check it out, however embarrassed I might be to carry around a YA novel. It's a great story, about a senior in high school who isn't into buying and brands and celebrities. He's got funny friends and funny habits, and the structure of the tale is quite clever. I'd recommend it for young teens or an adult who wants some low-impact reading.
After looking up the author's name again, I found a blog and Facebook page dedicated to Larry - a very canny marketing strategy for this particular book. It appears as if a couple of sequels have come out since.
The Monkey-Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey
Sex, drugs, destruction...and environmentalism? Yep. Long before we got all smug on these here eco-blogs, Edward Abbey was out in the desert causing all kinds of mayhem, in the name of conservation/preservation and general antiestablistmentarianism. This work of fiction chronicles the adventures and misadventures of four eco-terrorists in the Southwest in the 70s. His charming caricatures get caught up in increasingly more dangerous scrapes and take you, the reader, on a Hunter S. Thompson-style ride.
Of course it all depends on whose perspective you're looking through, and even with the feel-good vibe of the personal environmental movement, there is occasionally hostility towards people incapable of making the changes so celebrated on our blogs. OK, maybe they're lazy or distracted and you don't want to carry the lazy on your back. But maybe they're sick, maybe they're disabled, maybe they're poor. And when you're sick, disabled, or desperately poor, you probably can't ride your bike or grow/buy/prepare local food. Or maybe just I can't. I was given plenty of time to think about this over the weekend, in bed for a couple of days. I was too dizzy and weak to ride my bike when the work week started, and too hot and tired to make anything for myself after not having eaten for a couple of days. And I was super glad that the modern conveniences of the bodega, the subway, and Haagen-Dazs were readily available.
I started the weekend by going upstate to a party; when I asked the hostess if she wanted me to separate the watermelon rinds for composting, she wistfully noted that her parents had given up on taking care of the compost heap in their old age. (Being old - another reason not to be an environmental super-hero.) We celebrated a bride, a good reason to spend during the July Pseudo-Freegan challenge. But the whole wedding thing is so mysterious to me - this is one instance where I generally let the marketing get the better of me. Unsure about "traditions" and people's expectations, I usually spend a ton of money (though generally on experiences rather than stuff) and hope that I haven't come off terribly gauche or otherwise insensitive. Ick.
I can't think of a worse buzzkill than blossom-end rot. I've tended my tomato plant carefully, watched the magic green babies appear, only to see them literally rotting on the vine as they grow. So depressing! This happened last year, and I chalked it up to my housesitters missing some waterings. But I've been really careful this year and the same thing is happening all over again.
Anybody have any suggestions? I'd rather not have to buy some chemicals, but I'd love to end up with at least one home-grown tomato this year. I trimmed all the rotten babies and I'm slowly watching the new ones turn grey on the bottom...Boo hooooooooo....