Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

It's All Relative: Another Starbucks Challenge

I still haven't done the Starbucks Challenge myself, but I have been evangelizing about it quite a bit. It must be working because I got the following email from my sister-in-law reporting on the results of the challenge she took last Friday:

Store Address:
Galleria at Mt. Lebanon
1500 Washington Road
Pittsburgh, PA

Result:
Positive but not total victory

Description:
We waited in a line out the door of a Starbucks in a local mall on Black Friday for a coffee. No Fair Trade coffee brewed but once we asked for it, they immediately offered to french press one for us and indicated the display of Fair Trade coffee which we could purchase. It would have been nice if it was already brewed.

A quick question about the challenge: What if you want a cappuccino or latte? Particularly, this time of year it is nice to get a egg nog latte or gingerbread latte. Is the coffee used in these drinks Fair Trade? If not, is it possible to get the coffee in these drinks Fair Trade as well?

*****
My sister-in-law's questions about Starbuck's espresso beans are good ones, especially when it's obvious from any trip to a Starbucks location that many customers order the specialty coffee drinks that really make some dough for the company. Green LA Girl addressed this question here. The answer is that Starbucks does not use Fair Trade espresso. Seems that Starbucks is blaming the lack of Fair Trade espresso on a dearth of customer demand for it. The idea of the omniscient marketplace silently responding to customer demand seems a bit insincere given the way that many of the Starbucks locations have failed to provide Fair Trade coffee even when a customer asks for it. If you'd like to order a soy latte or some other expensive and yummy caffeine concoction and you'd like for the farmers who grew those espresso beans to be paid a fair wage, why not drop the folks at Starbucks headquarters a line and demand it? The comment form is here.

Field Notes from the Burbs: Part Two

Five of us spent the greater part of Sunday afternoon raking leaves. It's an activity that brings back memories of the sunny autumn afternoons of my childhood. Dragging a rake through grass for hours got me thinking about lawns and how very, very much of the green stuff there is in the suburbs. Seeding, fertilizing, and mowing the big lawns that surround American houses has become something like a national pastime. Perhaps those images of the Kennedy kids throwing the ol' football around on the lawn of their estate really inspired us. Whatever the cause, we've created large swaths of land covered in grass and often populated with a few conical shrubs and trees.

I had a hunch that all of this grass isn't the best for Mother Earth given the amount of chemical inputs that many weekend warriors pump into their lawns and the amount of pollution generated from gas mowers. This article gives the details on the impact of lawns on the environment.

Now, let's take a minute and envision the suburbs with less grass. Not none at all, just less. I imagine houses having kitchen gardens where fresh herbs and healthy veggies grow organically, ready to be picked as part of the family meal. Less time and money would be sucked into the Big Food industry and we probably wouldn't need all those plastic bags. I also imagine native plants, shrubs, and trees attracting songbirds and other wildlife. Perhaps a rainwater collection system would allow us to nourish all of these new plants without the full-time sprinkler approach that is necessary to support a lush lawn. And with people growing food and noticing wildlife, perhaps we'd start communicating with our neighbors a bit more: sharing that huge zucchini yield, commenting on the bluebird that landed in our crabapple tree.

Winter is approaching and with it the time for dreaming of spring. In the midst of the holiday craze, let's nurture ideas for a different, gentler way to live on our little piece of the earth. For some great inspiration, you can't beat what the folks over at Path to Freedom are doing on just a 1/4 acre in Pasadena. And check out the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat Certification Project for great ideas on how to create habitat for wildlife in suburban areas.

By growing some of our food (a subject I am passionate about) and creating wildlife habitats, we not only avoid some of the environmental pitfalls created by too much lawn, but we also send the message that we have not fallen for the empty promises of industrial agriculture and suburban sprawl.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Field Notes from the Burbs: Part One

After an eye-opening journey from Boston just over a week ago, we are still visiting family where I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Having lived in Boston for the past eight years, I can look at the suburban experience with fresh eyes. My thoughts about driving an SUV seem even more pertinent in the suburbs. In an urban area like Boston, I can to walk to the subway stop, take the train to work, run errands on foot, and get plenty of exercise at parks without having to travel ten minutes to a gym in my car.

When it comes to getting around, the contrast between the city and most suburbs is stark. Here outside of Pittsburgh, cars begin to feel essential- a dangerous state of mind that leads to complacency about America's reliance on driving. It begins to seem normal to crank up the car for a trip to the mailbox. It is so rare to see a walker or biker on the side of the road here! I guess most walking and biking is saved for parks...which everyone drives to.

It's not as if people who live in this area don't want to rely less on their cars. If nothing else, the Texas-sized gas prices have frightened people all over the country into thinking a bit more critically about transportation. The planning (or lack thereof) when the subdivisions went up in the 1950s did not include sidewalks or wide roads. And when sidewalks do exist in residential neighborhoods, they don't connect with the concrete jungle of big box stores where people engage in most of their economic lives. Despite our quiet neighborhood, I felt a bit nervous walking with a stroller and a dog the other day because I had to jump out of the way when a car whizzed past me. Forget about hitting the four-lane to walk to the supermarket!

What needs to happen? For one thing, we need to encourage better urban and suburban planning. Portland, Oregon seems to be doing a great job at encouraging bike commuting. Check out the Portland Department of Transportation's site for some inspiration. (I'd love to hear whether Portland's progress is real change or eco-hype from someone who lives there or visited recently.)

But what about the long-established suburban areas around the country like this one in Pittsburgh? How can we encourage people to drive less without adequate public transport, sidewalks, or bike lanes? Ideas?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Power of a Cloth Sack

I first noticed sideways glances and puzzled looks. Sometimes there were expressions of slight confusion from clerks: "You don't want a bag? You sure? Uh...ok." All of this makes me feel a bit giddy about the burgeoning revolution that could be in the works. We all know that the more than 500 billion (billion!) plastic bags consumed each year are terrible for the health of the planet. For a good reminder why, read this. That's why I have gradually tried to make the move to bringing canvas or hemp bags with me everywhere I go so that I never have an excuse for getting one of those pesky bags. I recently got a few of these on sale and I love them. I've found that if I always have a couple of bags rolled up in the car or in my diaper bag, it's really easy to use them. I still do use plastic bags for some produce at the supermarket so that I have pooper-scooper bags for use when walking the dog. (I know that there are biodegradable alternatives out there that I should look into as well.) All in all, bringing a reusable bag is an easy solution to a host of environmental problems.

Perhaps as important a reason to me for utilizing reusable bags when I shop is that it is a simple way to share my values with neighbors, strangers, and those I casually interact with during trips to the local market or drugstore. It's another opportunity to model the change that we want to see in our communities. Much like our choice of car can be a visible example of what our values are, walking home from the store with a canvas bag full of groceries or whatever items we've purchased shows others that we value the environment and that easy alternatives exist.

A note about cars as visible tokens of our values: I mentioned before that we drive an SUV that we purchased a few years ago for a variety of reasons. Would we make the same decision now? Probably not. Sometimes I feel incredible guilt about driving an SUV - and rightfully so. I'm acutely aware that driving - especially a vehicle that gets poor gas mileage - is up there as one of the single worst contributors to global warming and pollution. Thankfully, I can take mass transit to work and we only need to use our car for short city trips and when we travel to see family out of state a couple of times a year. I'm certainly not making excuses for owning an SUV. I doubt that my conscience will allow me to keep it forever. Part of my path is to figure out what changes I can make in my life as I move along the journey of learning and struggling to be the person that I hope to become. I'm not at the destination yet by any stretch. If we're honest, very few of us really are. But the revolution is starting with acts as simple and radical as choosing to bring a bag from home on our holiday shopping trip and supporting each other as we choose to make the small changes that will lead to the bigger ones. Onward!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Brewing Questions over Coffee

I saw this piece on Thursday but just didn't want to think about it on Thanksgiving. I was trying to focus on the positive that day because I do have so much to be grateful for. But no matter how thankful I am for all I've been given, it's difficult to avoid feeling the weight of these issues every day. It was all I could do not to grill my seventy-nine year old grandfather about what he was doing to save the polar ice-cap!

According to the Reuters article, "Ocean and so-called greenhouse gas levels are rising faster than they have for thousands of years..." And guess what? Much of what the scientists found in the study shows that human activity is the cause. Now, why get more upset about this? Isn't this something we know and accept as reality?

My reaction to the report was to read the headline on Thursday, then scamper off and busy my mind with myriad other thoughts, each just so crucial: Would having another cup of coffee make me jittery or pleasantly chipper for our holiday guests? Would the baby nap long enough that I could steal a short nap and forego the coffee? Before I knew it, the baby was calling (read: screaming) and the decision was made for me. Anyway, the point is that global warming was the last thing on my mind....and I'm someone who thinks about the environment a lot, especially after I've had one of those cups of coffee.

So what is it about the thought of global warming that makes people shut down in some way? Is the potential for disaster simply too large for most of us to willingly face? The paradox is that the larger the problem the more urgent it is that we think about it, talk about it, and do everything we can to fix it -- yet we often only focus on the smaller, easily accessible issues of everyday life (more coffee?) in the face of a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. How can we start thinking about the destruction of the planet in a way that is as tangible and accessible as the morning coffee?

I might not have given further thought to yet another article about climate change had the first sentence not ended this way: "...according to two reports published on Thursday that are likely to fuel debate on global warming" (my emphasis). I know that the energy lobby and the corporate-controlled media would like for us to think that there is room for debate on the causes of global warming. And I realize that our government still questions the necessity of the Kyoto Protocol, a measure which stops far short of what we need to halt global warming. I know these things, but I guess I still find it hard to believe that there is really a "debate" about the existence of global warming.

How can we get past this red herring "debate?" How can we start making progress? How do we get people to stop burying their heads in the mundane and start working together to fix this? These are the questions I am thinking of this morning as I drink that cup of joe.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Just a Walk

We went for a walk in a local park today. During the "off-season", some of the park roads that traverse steep hills and weave in between thick woods are closed. Closed roads meant that we could stroll on yesterday's layer of snow without cars racing by, without the roar of snow plows and salt trucks. Our breathing deepened just a bit. We spotted a bird, an American Kestrel my husband tells me, and stopped to admire it through the binoculars. We watched three white-tailed does stand atop a hill waiting for us to pass before making their way down to a stream for a drink. We listened to a woodpecker tapping on a tree somewhere out of sight. We exchanged pleasantries with a threesome walking arm in arm up the hill. We tried to identify some berries that had outgrown the boundary of the forest and spilled onto the road. We wondered about the animal that left tracks crisscrossing the road.

I guess you could say that we celebrated Buy Nothing Day with the simple gifts of nature on an empty road.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hey Mr. Congressman

At Andrea's behest, I snuck away from holiday preparations to write a quick letter reminding Mr. Mike Capuano that one of his constituents has a few things on her mind. Here's my letter. Who else needs an excuse to stop chopping celery and get a few things off their chest before loading their belly with Thanksgiving grub?


November 24, 2005


Office of Congressman Michael E. Capuano
1530 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

and

Office of Congressman Michael E. Capuano
110 First Street
Cambridge, MA 02141

Dear Representative Capuano:

I read with interest your op-ed piece in the Boston Herald on October 21, 2005. Thank you for continuing to oppose the unjust and unwise war in Iraq that is costing the United States its reputation for dignity and the financial security it needs in order to protect its citizens at home and respond compassionately to global need. But the cost is so much higher than reputation, or the vast sums of taxpayer dollars that are literally going up in smoke. The irreversible cost of this war is the many thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost or shattered. I look forward to learning your thoughts on policy going forward after the December election. I support drawing down our presence as soon as we can.

I am also writing to tell you about some issues that are on my mind as a constituent of the 8th district of Massachusetts.

1. The Health Care Accountability Act. I recently learned that half of all Wal-Mart employees are not covered by the company's health plan. This fact is appalling since we frequently hear that Wal-Mart’s profits and size are growing. The more surprising fact is that the uninsured employees of this profitable corporation are compelled to receive healthcare through the federal government. Every United States taxpayer, whether they support Wal-Mart’s policies or not, subsidizes Wal-Mart’s shortchanging of its workers and its failure to provide health care that is a real option for people struggling to get by on the low-wages paid by this company.

I urge you to co-sponsor and support the Health Care Accountability Act, introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Anthony Weiner. As you know, this bill will require profitable companies like Wal-Mart to take responsibility for their employees' health care. It will prevent them from holding the American taxpayer accountable for their irresponsible treatment of employees.

2. Safe Breastmilk. I am impressed by your refusal to support legislation that weakens longstanding environmental protections, evidenced most recently by your rejection of Rep. Richard Pombo’s attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act. In an e-mail letter I received from your office on November 18, 2005, you expressed your outrage at Rep. Pombo’s attempt to diminish this critical piece of environmental legislation. You also said, “We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards of the environment.” I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, our lack of environmental stewardship allows for breastfeeding babies to ingest toxic chemicals through their mother’s milk – the very substance that provides nourishment and sustenance – every day. We do not yet fully understand how these chemicals interact in the complex human body, especially in small infants. But the United States does not currently have a program to test breastmilk in order to determine what substances are in it, or what dangers they may pose.

We need government funds to research and monitor the environmental toxins that accumulate in breastmilk. We need hearings on this issue. We need to get serious about protecting the health of the youngest and most vulnerable among us.

I would be happy to discuss these issues with you or a member of your staff. I can be reached at the address, e-mail address, and phone number listed above.

Sincerely,

Lauren

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Toxic Bisque on Thanksgiving Menu

I'm bringing toxic chemicals with me to our Thanksgiving celebration tomorrow. The convenient thing is, I don't even need to pack the chemicals in any special container, and they're readily portable! And when my two-month-old daughter breastfeeds day and night, she gets them too. Even though I eat a mostly organic, strictly vegetarian diet, odds are that my baby is filling her twelve pound body with a semi- toxic bisque eight to ten times a day.

By virtue of their spot at the top of the food chain, babies are able to receive powerful antibodies and immune-building substances through their mother's milk. Through the wonders of biomagnification, they also get the most contaminated of any food consumed by humans. The contanimation starts well before a baby has her first taste of milk. The Environmental Working Group's body burden study has identified the presence of 287 chemicals in umbilical cord blood. The contanimants only continue to build as mothers and babies engage in the natural symbiosis of feeding and eating. While the research about the effects of all of these toxic chemicals is growing (though mostly focused on their impact on adult males rather than newborn babies...), the truth is that we don't exactly understand how all of the pollutants in our air, water and soil work together in the complex ecology of the human body. We just know enough to be afraid.

As a new mother, I am horrified, and I'm raving mad. And I suspect that most of us, parents or not, would never choose a world in which a baby fills her tummy with PCBs, dioxin, and other chemical substances. I want to do my part to create a society that is sustainable and life-giving. We know that the declining health of our planet threatens future generations. As a collective body of individual decision-makers, we also need to be aware that our children's health is at risk from the imminent danger of man-made toxins, as the sustenance that nourishes and gives life to the young and voiceless is threatening their future health in ways that we do not fully comprehend.

What can we do? I've thought of a few starting points that I'm going to explore:

  • Become educated. Sandra Steingraber's informative and very readable book (even for a non-scientist like me), Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, is a good starting point. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago, but I think it's time for a refresher course. If anyone is interested in reading it, I'd love to compare notes.
  • Keep the environment in mind every day in every way. Many of us know good steps that we can take now to minimize pollution and the release of environmental toxins into the environment: drive less, walk or bike more; choose safer cleaning products; switch to compact flourescent lightbulbs; unplug appliances when not in use; minimize trash and waste; use reusable cloth napkins, silverware, shopping bags, and coffee cups; eat a local, organic, plant-based diet. We know these steps and so many more. Let's infuse our daily decisions with the urgency of a parent worried about a desperate child.
  • Advocate for breast milk monitoring. According to the NRDC, there are still not enough comprehensive studies on the subject of environmental contaminants in breast milk. (And we all know that if we don't have thousands of scientists telling us that there's a problem, then we won't take any action. Oh wait, even when we do have thousands of scientists telling us that life on earth as we know it is gravely threatened by global warming, we still don't do anything about it....) Breast milk monitoring programs - like those established in Sweden and Germany - provide much-needed data about which pesticides and chemicals that get into breast milk and what the effects are. The United States doesn't have a monitoring system in place for breast milk. The NRDC's Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby campaign suggests writing Congress and state legislatures asking for hearings on the issue and research funds.
  • Tell the EPA not to weaken toxics reporting. The EPA's toxics release inventory program is a searchable database of toxic chemical releases in neighborhoods across the country. The EPA plans to scale back this program and make it more difficult for the public to be informed about toxic releases. Write a letter to the EPA before December 5th urging them to preserve the toxics release inventory. Physicians for Social Responsibility has a sample letter and more information here.
Let's work together. What are our next steps?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Starbucks Challenge: On the Road

We set off for the second leg of our trip yesterday - this time driving westward across Pennsylvania - with our baby and our dog. The drive went as well as could be expected: we talked landscape and birds, friends and faith; the baby slept soundly for most of the six hours; and we stumbled upon an opportunity to test a corporation's claims about social and environmental responsibility. We saw a Starbucks and decided to take the Starbucks challenge. As my motherly duty was called upon as we pulled into the parking lot, my husband valiantly agreed to take the challenge in my stead. His report:

Sideling Hill, Pennsylvania

Going along the turnpike through south-central PA, we saw a combo sign for Burger King, a Hershey's ice-cream stand, Sunoco, and a Starbucks. At first I thought, well this is a strange place for a Starbucks, but then I remembered what year it was (2005), what this company is about (global domination, with plans to bring outer space to its knees likely underway) and who their main competition in Sideling Hill is (?????Maxwell House?). My wife is never surprised to see another link in the Starbucks chain, only alarmed. She soon had that determined look she gets when she's thinking about sticking it to either me or some clear-cutting corporation whose tracks of greed have stretched far beyond main street and into places named after the side of a hill. "Oh man, we should take the Starbuck's challenge!" she said.

Ten minutes later, having been debriefed about green la girl and the Starbucks challenge and having agreed that it was a great idea and something we needed to do, I was told that I would be challenging Starbucks on this occasion. Our baby in the back seat was just then performing the kind of wild head rotations that mean trouble, and Lauren insisted on staying behind to feed her. I could do it, no problem, she said -- all by myself. So I left the car with our travel thermos feeling a little nervous. As I walked toward the glass doors of the rest station, a sort of crowded food court/toilet depot I thought: Sweet Jesus. There are a lot hungry people who really need to pee going in and out of there. What if I'm in line, demanding they brew a cup of fair trade coffee, saying things like "let's have an equal exchange" and "a fair shake for farmers," and some group of truckers who forgot to go to the bathroom before getting in line start doing the bladder dance and joining with other annoyed customers into some kind of coalition of the impatient against me? Do I have what it takes to handle something like that? Then, as I approached the front door, I had to wait for a family of about fifteen to get in there in front of me. After the last one entered, I took a step to get the door handle, but the little boy had stopped and was propping it open with his back, looking at me as if to say, "Are you coming in?" I was touched, and felt a little better about a lot of things. I decided that a kid holding the door was a sign that people were inherently good before their parents made them watch fox news or the president's state of the union address, and that I was the man to challenge Starbucks after all.

It wasn't much of a Starbucks, frankly. Just a large counter and a meandering rope-line to conduct us to the register, single file. It was a good, orderly line, with about ten people settling in behind me right away. I looked for solidarity in the faces there, but it was again proved true that no one enjoys being stared at. After ten minutes of rehearsing the lines Lauren had provided me to say, I reached the register. The following is a nearly actual transcript of my exchange with two very nice, unaccomodating employees:

Starbucks 1: "Hi. Can I help you."
Me: "Yes, may I have this (travel thermos) filled with your fair trade blend?"
Starbucks 1: "Yeah."

Here, after taking the thermos and turning toward the brewed coffee, she turned around and asked me what blend I had asked for.

Me: "Do you have a fair-trade blend?"
Starbucks 1: "No...Let me ask."

Starbucks 1 was already rattled by her last customer whose order she had sabotaged, a case of misfiring synapses. In her defense: She was young, perhaps inexperienced; she alone took orders and filled them; it was busy in there; there was reason to believe that it was always busy in there; she was working at the sideling hill rest stop; people were always coming off the highway to order complicated and expensive coffee-based cocktails with long, confusing names that were somehow very similar to each other. I felt bad for her. I could tell she was like "Fair trade! I'm hung over, what are you doing to me!" Anyway, she walked over to where a co-worker was standing. The co-worker had been writing something out, taking something into account when she was interrupted. I dared not think about the line behind me, which was now -- no exaggeration -- fifteen strong.

Starbucks 2: "Yes."
Me: "Yes, I'd asked for a fair trade blend."

Interestingly, after I'd been dished off to the superior, it was as though I'd been shut off from the side of the counter that had anything to do with the pouring of coffee. Indeed, Starbucks 1 had quickly taken the next customer. And although I'd only drifted to my left about three feet toward Starbucks 2, I felt that I'd been subtly dismissed into a different area, an invisible pen for grumblers to be dealt with apart from the easy flow of operations. God I'm paranoid!

Starbucks 2 simply said that they didn't have fair trade but that they sometimes do -- that they're limited to what they have brewing by the size of the store. I asked, "So it's not here?" She answered that it was not right now. Since it was clear to me that it was either not in the store, or she was not about to say that it was and give herself more work to do, I asked if they could fill the thermos with their "normal stuff." Later, thinking about how uncombatative and pleasant I had been, I became angry with myself and wished that I had yelled something like: "Oh, no fair-trade coffee today, huh, well just give me your best dark-roasted blend. You see, I've been in the mood to support working conditions in Africa and South America that are as close to slavery as you can get without actually holding hands and summoning Jefferson Davis back from hell."

So Lauren says that they failed the challenge, but those two women did nothing wrong. They were nice, and they were working hard at their job, and only one of them seemed to know what I was talking about and I can forgive her if she didn't take it as seriously as she might have or start sweating under the heat of (absent) protests. But her bosses at headquarters should be taking this a hell of a lot more seriously, and for them, my forgiveness is not so easily given. What is stopping them from having fair-trade coffee as an option for the throngs of tired consumers travelling down the highway? Indeed, what is keeping them from choosing, for an entire month, Cafe Estima as their "featured blend?" These are questions I have as a result of taking this challenge. Maybe someone can answer them.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Ones Who Are Not Awake

He or she who wakes up and understands is called a Buddha. It is as simple as that. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Yesterday morning, my husband and I packed our car to the brim with all of the essentials necessary for our first road trip with our new baby. We had the bouncy seat, the stroller, the huge supply of diapers, food for our dog...hell, I even packed a few canvas bags for shopping and some cloth napkins to try to limit the environmental impact of our trip.

So, despite getting little sleep the night before, I was feeling on top of things when we stopped to nurse the baby and grab some lunch two hours into our trip. As we pulled back onto the interstate, I casually asked my husband how much room the dog had in the back of the SUV with all of the baby gear (yes, we have an SUV; maybe the cloth bags and napkins are a way to ease some of that green guilt, but that's a post for another day). We looked at each other and had one of those moments when two people realize the exact same truth - a shared understanding of something unspeakable, and a shared vision of something unthinkable - at the exact same half-second: our dog wasn't in the back of the car. We had left her in Boston. We could only hope that Dixie -- our dearest baby before our girl was born -- was two hours away in our apartment and not outside on some city street, where she might be searching for us as we sped down the highway listening to NPR and admiring the last red leaves on the Scarlet Oaks.

My husband found an illegal way to turn the car around while calling a neighbor who would check our apartment to see if the pup was in there and not following us southward. He hung up, and we let the shock set in. Where were our heads? How could we have forgotten her? Isn't there a reason you're not supposed to operate heavy machinery on so little sleep? What would our lives become if the worst happened to her?

We had to distract ourselves from the guilt and disbelief that had sucked the air from the car and were choking us as we raced back home. So I reached into one of those canvas bags I'd packed and pulled out a book on tape that we borrowed from the library without much thought a few days earlier while checking items off our trip to-do list (next time, the list will include the words "pack dog"!). The tape was a series of lectures by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh called The Art of Mindfulness. Right away, Thich gently urged us: "be conscious of your in-breath, out-breath." After a few moments of measured breathing, he began talking directly to my husband and me. He spoke of the need to nuture mindfulness by being in the present moment, by being aware. Forgetfulness, he reminded us, is the opposite of mindfulness. Forgetfulness is being somewhere other than the present. We recognized that we were being given a lesson from Thich, but also from something beyond him. We felt aware of the universe, of God. And, just in time to receive the heartbreakingly wonderful news that our dog was safely waiting in our apartment, we began to wake up.

I think that for the rest of the trip we were the mindful beings that Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about. We saw a flock of blackbirds flying low over a city graveyard, we saw slate-purple swaths of cloud form a backdrop for the smoke billowing from a factory near Providence, Rhode Island. Just further south, we were aware of a hawk in the branches of a stately Spruce alongside the interstate bordering at least twenty acres that had been clearcut and were marked with a banner screaming "Coming Soon: Wal-Mart!". We were awake and aware of what surrounded us: unspeakable beauty next to the uspeakably dismal. Meanwhile, the good monk spoke about the ability of an awakened person to hold two truths together simultaneously: the positive truths that bring us joy, peace, and nourishment and the negative truths that encourage us to transform ourselves and our world. The ugliness of a landscape stripped of its berries, brush, pines and hawks - the future home of another Wal-Mart - could nourish our compassion if only we would be mindful of it, be aware. We needed to abandon our forgetfulness, our sleepy state where awareness is missing, where easy anger is present. We needed to wake up to the present paradox of beauty and ugliness. We needed to feel reality in its fullness and use it all for our good purpose. Only then will we be nourished by both the light and the dark and develop the compassion to help heal our planet and ourselves.

So we returned to Boston, retrieved our dog, and set off for the same journey, again - this time a bit more awake.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Concessions of Conscience

It's pretty easy to be cynical about the fact that the House passed a budget bill early this morning that cuts programs from the weakest among us. And it's even easier to be cynical of media coverage that touts the concessions made by Republicans to get this bill passed.

Do these concessions mean anything to a struggling family that won't be able to reliably put food on their table without food stamps? What do they mean for an elderly person forced to choose whether to go to the doctor and face a higher Medicaid co-pay or save that money for the heating bill this winter? What about for the kid who won't be able to get health screenings because his family of four is above the federal poverty line even though they can barely make ends meet on $20,000 a year?

Instead of lots of talk about the political concessions made by House Republicans, we need to talk about the concessions being made each and every day by poor Americans. Read this to understand how little the political concessions will change the fundamentally painful cuts that will be directly felt by those struggling to get by. And then call or write your senator today and make your voice heard before the bill goes to House-Senate negotiation later this month. Let your senator know that you are not ready to concede your conscience.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bring Fairness to the Table

If Wal-Mart is a prototype for the destructive power that interconnectedness can wield, then fair trade is the counterpoint: a hopeful example of how our purchasing power ripples through issues of corporate globalization, big business, and agriculture.

Thanksgiving is a fitting occasion for promoting a sustainable global economy on a local level by encouraging the supermarket where you shop to stock more fair trade products. Co-Op America and Oxfam America are asking consumers to use Saturday, November 19th as a fair trade day of action at supermarkets since it’s one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the year. Inspired by green LA girl's post about not being able to get a fair trade chocolate bar at Trader Joe’s and having looked for them many times myself, I wrote a letter to the east coast headquarters. It would be a worthwhile first step if, in our Thanksgiving grocery shopping, we purchased some fair trade coffee or tea to serve after the meal. Even better, we could go beyond this act of conscientious consumerism by encouraging the supermarket chain where we shop to carry fair trade products. If the chain where you shop is like Trader Joe’s and stocks fair trade coffee and cocoa, you could compliment them on those products and ask for others. If we all bought one fair trade product, wrote one letter to our supermarket’s headquarters (addresses for major supermarket chains are here) and filled out one comment card at the market, we could possibly come a step closer to a fair economy in a tangible way. Taking one but preferably all three steps this week expresses gratitude for the work of the farmers who make your morning (and afternoon, and evening....) brew possible. And believe me, these farmers need more than gratitude. Being able to purchase fairly traded items is a norm that we should expect, but our society is just not there yet. Let's be thankful there are ways that our expectations can help shape a new reality...and then let's do something about it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Low, Low Spirits, High Expectations

I joined in the Wal-Mart Week of Action by attending a screening of Wal-Mart: The Movie. I’m not surprised that I left the film feeling angry and distraught over the pervasiveness of the social and environmental problems that Wal-Mart not only exacerbates, but also creates and sustains so powerfully all over the world. What did surprise me was that I saw the faintest glimmer of hope in the darkness. More on the hope later. First a word about the anger.

The rise of Wal-Mart is a good case study for the power of interconnectedness. Of course, in Wal-Mart’s case, that power is being used to the detriment of people, communities, and the earth. It’s not an overstatement to say that entire ways of life are being destroyed by the power of this behemoth. Wal-Mart’s policies affect all of us, whether we choose to shop there or not. In other words, we are all paying for the “low, low prices.” When Wal-Mart comes to town, there is little room for small businesses that have been built by families over generations. Yet, the local government often paves the way for Wal-Mart to destroy its own community by handing them large subsidies to help build mega-stores and create the necessary infrastructure (roads, sewage, etc.). In many cases local officials, knowingly or not, actually choose to pay for the demise of their own towns.

If you ask the local business owners, as the creators of this movie have, they know plenty about what happens when Wal-Mart comes in. Because the arrival of Wal-Mart has become inevitable in most small towns, many local businesses try to prepare for it the best they can, but the typical result is that the family business is liquidated, debts are barely covered with the proceeds, and the community loses a piece of its heritage. While townspeople may have liked their local grocer, hardware store, or bookstore, some may still be giddy with the prospect of a new Wal-Mart. After all, the low prices on t-shirts and microwaveable dinners are good for hardworking people, right? Plus there’s always the promise of jobs for those areas of the nation left behind by the information economy or stranded by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. They shop in the store or even apply for a job at Wal-Mart, loading up on cheap goods or working as a full-time “associate.” Trouble is, that full-time position doesn’t always result in enough hours per week or enough salary to pay the bills. Or, if they do end up working more than forty hours a week they are systematically denied overtime by management strategies such as shifting overtime hours to the next pay period, a period conveniently lacking the hours to qualify for overtime. The gleaming promise of health insurance and benefits for their families quickly evaporates as employees realize that they cannot afford to contribute to Wal-Mart’s health coverage on the low wages paid by the store (and forget about organizing because of the honed union-busting tactics employed by the kind folks at corporate headquarters in Arkansas). Not to worry, though, the store managers are prepared with literature on how employees can collect public assistance. The taxpayers can help pay for the Wal-Mart employees to put food on their table with food stamps, buy formula for their babies through the WIC program, and take their kids to the doctor through Medicaid. Everyone in America pays for Wal-Mart whether or not we shop there. Those low, low prices are not so low after all. But the Wal-Mart ethic of burdening local and national taxpayers and their own employees with the cost of operation is low, low indeed.

And whether or not we shop there, we also pay with our conscience. We pay if we know that the cheap goods sold at Wal-Mart are made by poor desperate people who want the same things for their families as Wal-Mart employees and shoppers want for theirs. But they must work in Wal-Mart certified sweatshops in China and Bangladesh, straining inhumanely to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for the cheapest goods from its suppliers. We pay when we know that Wal-Mart will often abandon one store and move to another location after the community has subsidized its growth but before real revenue reaches the local government. We pay when this wasteful sprawl eats up our green space at an alarming rate, chomping it up and spitting out another ten acre box store and parking lot. We pay dearly each and every time this store comes to another new town.

I’ve known some of these things about Wal-Mart. Yet the film was still worth seeing to connect the dots through the stories of individuals directly affected by Wal-Mart’s reign. So what is the take away message for someone like me who already refuses to shop there? Wal-Mart is among the worst of the corporations pilfering our society and earth with its artificially inflated size and breadth and the sheer greed and determination of those who run it. But it’s nevertheless a model taught to future executives in business school and one that is employed by businesses around the globe. Worse, it’s a business model that even progressive consumers often support directly or indirectly. Does it ease our collective conscience to have a new Target open rather than a Wal-Mart? Do we know what kind of campaign contributions they make? Where their goods come from? How much their workers earn? Is our earth any less stricken by a new Bed, Bath & Beyond, Home Depot or fill-in-the-blank box store being built? To vote with our dollars, we need to move beyond Wal-Mart. The holiday season is the perfect time to recommit to buying local, to discovering where your money goes after the cash register (check out www.buyblue.org) and to contributing to a sustainable economy. Shopping for a better world has its limits, of course. But in lieu of responsible government and sustainable business development, it’s a potent start.

What’s the next step? And where’s that sweet dose of hope? For me, the hope comes from the words of the people in the film who would not consider themselves progressive in the typical sense of the word. They may be life-long Republicans and true believers in the marketplace. But the words they spoke of how Wal-Mart afflicted their community can give hope to all of us. They declared that the owners of Wal-Mart should “spread out the wealth.” They said that we need regulations to “stop this rampage.” These self-proclaimed “conservatives” and “staunch Americans” said that this kind of business is not good for the people of our country. Here’s that glimmer of hope! If we can start talking to each other about the common values and concerns that we all share as American citizens, we might find that we’re not as far apart as the red state/blue state rhetoric the media would have us swallow. If we raise our expectations for what those “different” than us think and feel and find a way to connect with each other on our deeply human, common interests we will all win. In Frances Moore Lappe’s new book, Democracy’s Edge, she says “Wal-Mart’s approach stems not from an iron law of international economics but in large measure from what our expectations ‘normalize’.” It’s time to get together and talk about our dreams for our country and our democracy. We can far exceed our low, low expectations and in the process spread hope for an invigorated democracy.

Joining the Chorus

At long last, the time has come for me to raise my voice. I’ve been reading thoughtful, enraging and inspiring posts on other blogs and saying “Yes!” for a while now. What’s taken me so long to find my voice?

I have always been drawn to seemingly disparate causes and issues – from the death penalty to animal rights to education. As my senses have been heightened by the wonders of the natural world, protecting our environment has taken on greater urgency for me. But it’s not just that I’ve become a more ardent environmentalist. Over the years I’ve begun to put together the pieces that connect the fragile yet sustaining beauty of our earth with the catastrophic threat of agribusiness, the cancer of suburban sprawl, the soul sickness that flourishes due to human action or inaction on social issues, the mind-numbing plague of blind consumerism, and the gnawing hunger facing a third of the people on our planet. With a mix of rage and determination, I’ve been caught between feeling like a personal commitment to action is futile in a world so afflicted by consumption, debased politics and deep inequality and being convinced that community involvement and simple everyday action can truly create possibilities for necessary social and environmental change. Perhaps like many others, I’ve been stranded between these competing worldviews. But I’ve been someone who leans more and more toward optimism and hope about the capacity for change when engaged individuals work together. So I took a deep breath and started writing letters to corporations and to Congress, reading and thinking about solutions and not just the problems, and voting with my dollars, while hoping that someday I’d find a way to share and explore ideas that could inspire collective problem-solving. Because all those disparate issues? Turns out they’re connected. And the feeling of futility? It stifles a voice that could reach someone. I am gravely concerned about where we are but hopeful that we can return to a better place in our society, in nature, and in ourselves if we would each add our voice to the chorus. I’m in. What shall we sing?