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.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

It's a Wrap!

As 2005 comes to a close tonight, I'll be ringing in the New Year on my living room couch with a glass of organic wine to toast the year's accomplishments. Uh...that is, if I can stay awake until midnight. Not sure if I've done that since the Bean was born a few months ago. In the event that I doze off before the ball drops, I thought I'd start the day with a recap of some of the steps -- big and small -- that I've taken on the path of sustainability and greener living during the past year.
  • Survived natural childbirth....and would do it again. Okay, so I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to do it again right away, but my biggest accomplishment of the year was obviously the birth of my baby. I'm especially proud that I was able to resist the urgings of the anesthesiologist who, in the middle of hard labor, gives one of the best damn sales pitches I've ever heard. (This should go without saying, but I'll do it anyway: the birth of any baby is a beautiful process that every woman experiences differently. Getting an epidural or other medical pain relief is a personal decision that I wouldn't dare judge for a second.)
  • Breastfeeding my baby. I know that I'm giving my baby a healthy start despite my horror at the toxins that accumulate in breastmilk. Seriously, we parents need to start getting really pissed off about this! Actually, why limit the ire to parents? This is one of those flashing neon signs about the state of our environment that is telling ALL of us to wake up. Rant aside, breastfeeding also has green benefits. (I'll pause for the same caveat as the one above here.)
  • Ate more organic foods. I've been buying organic for a few years. Perhaps it was my pregnancy that made me up step it up another notch. Now, it's very difficult for me to purchase a piece of produce that is not organic. I feel blessed to have the means to choose to buy organic most of the time, and I feel strongly about allocating funds to food choices that are better for my health and the health of farmers, song birds, streams, rivers, and the soil. We're a pretty frugal family, but I don't mind giving a bigger piece of the budget pie to sustainable foods. We just cut back in other places.
  • Made Fair Trade a Priority. It was the same thought process as the one about organics. I have been buying Fair Trade coffee for awhile now. In the past year, I've become much more passionate about refusing to buy coffee that is not Fair Trade and I've added bananas and chocolate to the list.
  • Grew more food. I wrote about our plot in a community garden here. I won't repeat myself except to say that food doesn't get more local than coming from your own garden. Growing food is one of those green actions that has a positive impact on so many levels: fresher food, reduced transportation and fossil fuel usage, stronger communities, and increased biodiversity for starters. For me, it has also added a little more beauty to my world.
  • Started this blog. Having an outlet for exploring my ideas more fully and "meeting" others who are doing amazing things in the little moments of their day has been so fulfilling.
  • Reduced waste. I've made some more small steps to decreasing the amount of waste that our household contributes to landfills each year: we use reusable bags (almost) all of the time, we've switched over to cloth napkins and dishrags, the amount of packaging an item has become a key factor in my decision whether to purchase it, we've replaced our coffee filters with a reusable hemp one, we're starting to use the teapot and filter some of the time rather than highly packaged tea bags, etc. (Anyone know of a source for Fair Trade loose tea leaves?)
  • Shopped local. We've become much more serious about buying items - from a humidifer for the nursery to holiday gifts - from local businesses rather than chain stores. We need to keep working on this, especially for clothes and baby items. It seems really hard to get get those things affordably at independent shops.
  • Learned more about nature and spent time enjoying it. This usually leads to action!
  • Got inspired to make some ambitious green plans for 2006. I've been inspired to go a bit further next year. Tomorrow I'll let you know what I'm planning.


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Learning Is a Road to Action

We're just back from a few lovely days visiting friends and family. (Unlike last time, we remembered to bring our dog along on the trip...) This holiday season has brought lots of thoughtful conversation/political rants and food for thought. I received two books that I have been dying to crack open: The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Harvest for Hope: A Guide for Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall. I must confess that I feel a pang of excitement when someone gives me a wrapped gift that is obviously a book. And when I saw these particular books, I was positively gleeful. The first one is a rigorous study by the UCS of what individual actions have the greatest impact (positive and negative) on air pollution, global warming, water pollution, and habitat destruction. Um, that's right up my alley (see here and here). Jane Goodall's book is another one that I had been salivating over in the local bookstore as it's about the power of our food choices - - another subject that really riles up my intellectual energy (see here, here and here). And once that spark is ignited, I start to feel more hopeful. Ah, there is so much to learn!

I've always been a bit of a bookworm, and one of those people who truly enjoyed school. But the real education - the one that gets me fired up - has happened informally after college and graduate school ended. As a student, I had never done much reading about sustainability, the environment, the sciences. I've fed those passions on my own. And once I started learning about our natural world as it intersects with human activity, the mundane actions of, say, a typical Wednesday started to mean something in a way that they hadn't before. I've started to appreciate the beauty of nature in a more profound way than I'd previously experienced because, frankly, I hadn't noticed the details. My reverence for nature expands when I know some of the specifics.

For example, my husband has started down the path of birding. Fortunately, he hasn't (yet) reached the obsessive level of the birders I've heard about who wear pagers to receive alerts from fellow birders about sightings. Since I've learned to identify some basic backyard and migratory birds through our studies of field guides and the knowledge shared by friends, a walk or time spent at a park is an opportunity to scan the trees, brush, and fields for birds. Even when I don't see any birds, I notice the berries holding onto a bush through the winter or the seed pods that have been picked clean by wildlife. My experience of nature is enhanced, and I yearn for the next expedition.

And the next step? Well, it's coming home and thinking about ways to protect the beauty, the purity, of the natural world that I have experienced so fully...that I feel like I know in a deeper way than I had before. This same circle of studying-experiencing-taking action starts again when I learn more about trees, wildflowers, animals, etc. It also happens when I learn about an heirloom veggie, engage in growing, cooking, and eating it, and then reflect on how to change our food system to promote this sustainable and delicious way of living and eating.

Whether it's the identifying characteristics of an American Coot or the recipe for a winter squash gratin, being a life-long learner involves much more than an accumulation of knowledge. It's an active process that helps me better engage my senses in the world around me, and then take action to preserve this fragile planet. For me, the road to change often begins with the ideas in a book, a conversation, or a documentary film. My hope is that it will end with a better world.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A Living Library

The death of an old person is like the loss of a library. - African saying

On Christmas Day, we spent an hour with a 98-year-old woman. We had never met her before. She lives in a nursing home, and didn't have any family planning to visit for the holiday. We arrived at the home just after 11:00 a.m., pushing a stroller and carrying bags full of gifts and flowers from the Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly organization that coordinated our visit and many others for the holidays. Most volunteers delivered meals. Since our elder (let's call her Mary) lived in a nursing home that provided food, we just brought the tokens of companionship provided by the Little Brothers.

We found Mary laying on top of her bed, staring into the air. She was, despite her position and the somewhat vacant look that she initially appeared to have, the picture of dignity in a fuschia skirt, ruffled white blouse, and fresh perm. Her hearing wasn't good, her eyesight shot, her body frail; nevertheless, Mary stood up to greet us and clear off some space on a chair next to her bed. For the next 45 minutes, we talked loudly and had a few awkward silences. But mostly we listened to a woman who was born in 1907 tell us snippets about her past, her family, her pets, and her life in the nursing home.

This last chapter in Mary's life has been hard. She missed her job and days spent interacting with patients at the hospital where she served as a caregiver. Now she depends on the aides walking past her door for every necessity. Her nieces and nephews, though living nearby, rarely visited anymore. She feared that her belongings and the gifts we brought would be stolen as they had been in the past. Most of all, she regretted being a burden.

I often write about trying to live in a life-giving way. For me, that means a daily struggle to make choices that affirm the life of the planet and those living on it. Sometimes looking to the oldest among us can provide a beautiful example of this path. I recently read in Ode magazine (a favorite source for alternative news stories that accentuate the positive) about old people gathering in public areas in China to practice tai chi together; they are simply enjoying life and companionship. On Christmas Eve, we took a walk in an urban shopping district and saw peace signs and colorful flags being waved. The people staging this public display for peace on earth? A group of senior citizens. And the original environmentalists? The people, like my grandmother, who lived through harder times when food was not wasted, reusing and recycling were daily necessities, and simple living wasn't a voluntary exercise. How much we have to learn from the examples of our elders! This Christmas, I witnessed the finest example of the life-giving spirit that I want to infuse my days exemplified in the simplest of scenes: a 98-year-old woman I had known for less than an hour smiling and cooing at my 3-month-old baby.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Playing Tag

I've been tagged for my first meme by Andrea. Here goes:

Seven Things To Do Before I Die

  1. Hike the Appalachian Trail -- not all at one time (I'm not that hardcore!)
  2. Live near the ocean for a summer
  3. Own a business
  4. Write something worth publishing even if it doesn't get published
  5. Run an organization that makes a dent in social and environmental problems in a community
  6. Learn to do more with my hands: knitting, sewing, canning, baking bread, etc.
  7. Enjoy many meals with friends and loved ones. Fresh food, good wine, a beautiful setting, children playing, a dog or two under the table, my husband strumming a guitar = bliss

Seven Things I Can't Do

  1. Sing (not that I don't love trying...)
  2. Dance (see #1)
  3. Keep dog fur off my floors, furniture, pants, etc.
  4. Vote Republican
  5. Cook meat (well, it's not so much "can't" as "won't")
  6. Stop talking to my husband while he's reading, writing, watching TV
  7. Write witty answers to memes
Seven Things that Attract Me to Blogging
  1. It's an outlet for the ideas swirling in my head
  2. Connecting with people I never would have met otherwise
  3. The discipline of writing for an audience
  4. Sharing what I've read and learned
  5. Reading and learning more
  6. Feeling inspired
  7. Getting comments!

Seven Things I Say Most Often

  1. Um, I think she needs to have her diaper changed.
  2. We really need to hustle.
  3. What do you feel like eating tonight?
  4. We don't need a bag.
  5. [He/she/it/fill in the blank] drives me crazy.
  6. Oh my.
  7. Where's the binky?

Seven Books That I Love (OK, so choosing just seven is an obviously impossible task. These are the first that came to mind.)

  1. Sophie's Choice - William Styron
  2. The Unsettling of America - Wendell Berry
  3. Where the Sidewalk Ends -Shel Silverstein
  4. Hope's Edge - Frances Moore Lappe & Anna Lappe
  5. All of Barbara Kingsolver's books
  6. Mountains Beyond Mountains - Tracy Kidder
  7. The Cloister Walk - Kathleen Norris
Seven Movies I Watch Again and Again (Caveat: I'm known for not watching movies more than once or twice. Here are some random movies that I like though.)
  1. Stealing Home
  2. Life and Debt
  3. Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, White, and Blue trilogy
  4. Sideways
  5. Cry Freedom
  6. The Way We Were
  7. Manufacturing Consent
Seven People I Want to Join In
I'm going to cheat here and just say feel free to join in if you are so inclined!

Whew! That was a rigorous assignment. Off to bed.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Pause for Gratitude

Since we've toned the consumerism of Christmas way down, our little family is free to celebrate the holiday tonight and tomorrow enjoying the simplest of pleasures: a walk on this unseasonably warm winter day, a delicious meal and a glass of wine this evening, gratitude for the profound blessings of the past year, and hope for the year to come. We'll also be visiting a homebound elderly person tomorrow morning through a local organization. Bringing a little warmth to another is the very best of the holiday season.

As you enjoy the holiday buzz of the next two days, some words from Mary Oliver that make me pause and fill me with the wonder and light of nature and love. Amid the problems that mire the world, beauty can sustain us. Happy Holidays!

The Sun

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone--
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance--
have you ever felt for anything

such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world--

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Tools of the Trade

Reducing needless consumption is one of my goals for the next year. If I step back and think about whether I really need to buy something, I often decide against it. Sometimes simply delaying a purchase accomplishes the same thing by reducing impulse buys that will clutter my home and a landfill someday. But there are times when purchasing something that will help reduce my consumption of resources in the future or is reusable seems worthwhile. So my current wish list of items to help me live a little greener each day follows. The criteria is that each item must help me to reduce or reuse resources in some way. Bonus if I can hit the first two Rs in one shot!

1. Indoor clothes line. Apartment living (and New England winters) means that an outdoor clothesline is out of the question. But I've read about how the enormous amount of energy a clothes dryer uses here (a good source for information on how much electricity various appliances use and how to reduce the electricity that you are using). So even though we don't pay for the electricity that powers our dryer, I've been feeling rather guilty about using it. I do try to limit the amount of time it's on, clean out the lint after each use, etc., but there's a lot of coal a'burning for me to get my clothes dry. A nice indoor drying contraption like this or this would be fabulous.

2. Cloth napkins. I have a set of four cloth napkins that I picked up on a clearance rack a few years ago. Since then, I've become a firm believer in the gracious simplicity of using cloth napkins for every meal and abandoning the waste of yet another disposable paper product. (Will I be able to go the next step and use these someday?) I'm all for making do without more stuff, but I do think that another set of cloth napkins would be a worthwhile investment. For those who sew, whipping up a few napkins with fabric scraps would be a good way to get a charmingly eclectic set of napkins. Until I invest in a sewing machine (yet another skill I'd like to learn...), this set made by artisans in Nepal or a few of these will be on my wish list. Not only are these cloth napkins reusable, they reduce consumption of paper products, and are fairly traded.

3. Coffee carafe. After reading a recent Easy Green tip about the electricity used to keep brewed coffee warm in the pot, the little orange light on my Krups coffee maker has been taunting me every time I walk past it. A good solution seems to be pouring the coffee into a thermos carafe like this one after it's brewed, so I can turn the pot off but still enjoy a hot cup of joe.

4. Produce bags. I have the canvas and hemp shopping bags under control, and I've successfully established the habit of making sure that I always have them with me in case I make a purchase. I need to work on establishing my husband's habit a bit more, however. As evidenced by the cupboard pictured to the left, we still have a long way to go as a household. Nevertheless, it's time for me to move on to advanced bag reduction by cutting out some of those pesky thin, plastic bags used for produce. When buying produce like apples or corn on the cob, it's easy to do without a bag altogether. But for items like greens and mushrooms, for example, a bag is necessary to contain the veggies and keep the moisture separate from my other stuff. I found these reusable produce bags which look like they'd do the job well.

5. Bike. Since this is a wish list, I might as well add one biggie that would make a real dent in reducing my ecological footprint: a bicycle. I've wanted one for awhile but have been somewhat apprehensive about riding on the mean streets of Boston. For short trips that are just beyond convenient walking distance, though, a bike with a basket would be a worthwhile investment. Bill McKibben said it well:
Our task is to demonstrate that to live simply is more elegant, more satisfying, and more pleasurable than consumer society. It doesn’t work to just tell people to get out of their cars to save the upper atmosphere. Instead we need to encourage them to ride a bike. It’s elegant. It’s fun. It makes you feel better.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Little Piece of the Earth

I want to plant a little garden with you now, take care of a piece of the earth somehow...Greg Brown

From the comments to yesterday's post, it seems that a lot of us have something in common: a love of fresh, locally-grown foods and the benefits that come from supporting sustainable agriculture. It was a few years after I became a vegetarian that I started to really think about food choices and the bigger environmental picture.

What good was it to eat a food that was strictly vegetarian but had been shipped over 3,000 miles to reach me? Sure, an animal didn't suffer in factory farming conditions, but there are myriad other problems with this kind of industrialized food system. From the genetically-modified seed to the pesticides coating the leaves of the plant to the pollution generated from a big rig driving across the country to the days spent languishing on a supermarket shelf, I started to think that most of the food deemed "conventional" really wasn't in line with any convention that would sustain our planet or our health. I picked up a memoir called This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. (Check out a Q&A with Gussow here on the Slow Food Forum.) Gussow tells the tale of growing an organic garden and eating locally from her suburban home on the Hudson River in New York. Before reading Gussow, I understood the problems, the theories about our food system. What I didn't know was the beauty of the alternative.

Being stuck in a series of urban apartments due to various circumstances didn't create ideal conditions for getting my hands into the dirt. So I continued to read and to search out farmers markets. Cooking seemed to go hand in hand with discovering the beautiful new-to-me heirloom varieities of veggies from small farms. I didn't (and still don't) have time to always seek out the family-farmed local option, but I did what I could and always felt better, more whole, when I created a meal from these delicious ingredients.

A couple of years passed, our passion for the pure pleasure (not to mention the environmental and health benefits) of natural, whole foods grew, and we decided that we were ready to take on the next step: growing some of our own food. Since we were still in an apartment, we tracked down a community garden in our neighborhood and signed up for a plot. Then the real love affair began. We poured over seed catalogs through the winter, cleared out and turned the soil in early spring, transplanted seedlings from our kitchen to the soil later in the spring, and enjoyed the harvest all summer and fall. We began to feel the seasons more acutely.

The small garden plot gives us a bounty of fresh, delicious vegetables. Now we grow multiple varieties of lettuce, beans, tomatoes (Oh Lord, the tomatoes!), kale, collards, chard, herbs and flowers. We are constantly amazed by the abundance that springs forth from a small plot in a vacant lot.

Next year, we hope to take our dream of living closer to the land a step further by buying a house with room to grow more food. We'll have a lot to learn. So for 2006, my next steps are:

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Just One Thing

I haven't been at this blogging thing for very long, but already I know that I need your help. The most satisfying experience for me as a blogger and you as a reader happens when we put our heads together and collaborate. In the month or so since I've started Ardent Eden, I have been amazed by the thoughtful comments and suggestions from people who have dropped by. There's a community of people who are thinking about and taking everyday action to make the world a better place. What a wonderful antidote to despair.

So I'm asking for your input -- even if you've never left a comment on the Internet before. (It's really not scary, I promise.) Tell me about the one thing, however small, that you are going to do to try to improve our world in the next year. It could be a way of building community that's as simple as meeting someone new, a way of expanding your thinking as easy as reading a new book, a way of taking one step for the environment as easy as using a travel mug, a way of recharging in the beauty of our natural world as easy as a weekly walk in the woods....You get the idea. I'm not much for New Year's resolutions because they seem made to be broken, so let's keep this simple and achievable. It's the small steps that empower the bigger ones, right?

Let's help inspire each other to stay on a life-affirming path in 2006. It can start with just one thing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Baby Steps

After throwing the "e" word around yesterday, I woke up with a refreshed perspective today: still distraught over the direction that our country continues to head in, but also renewed in my commitment to do what I can -- even if it seems like a drop in a bucket. Am I a glutton for punishment? Why do I continue to worry about getting a drying rack to use the clothes dryer less often (speaking of gluttons, the dryer is one of those greedy electricity gobblers that Roger was talking about the other day) in the face of a political process that can make citizens feel helpless? Why walk to the post office when our last American wildernesses could be opened for oil drilling anyway? Why shop for foods with the organic label when food industry representatives make the decisions about organic standards? In short, why do I continue to sweat the small stuff?

There are three main reasons why I continue to focus on the little things. First, I'm convinced that they will add up. Call it a tipping point, a ripple effect, the boiling point, the power of numbers or whatever other metaphor speaks to you. The idea is that we don't know when our actions will collectively start a tidal wave of change. We don't know if our asking for a cup of Fair Trade coffee for the 100th (1,000th? 1,ooo,oooth?) time at Starbucks will finally make the corporation realize that there is a consumer demand for it and decide to brew it everyday. While there still would be a lot of people drinking coffee that isn't Fair Trade, there also would be tangible effects in the lives of farmers. Real change for real people. That alone should make taking a small action worth it. I've read so many inspiring stories that don't make it to our mainstream media (see Ode magazine, the essays in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, the stories in Hope's Edge and You Have the Power, and the examples in Visionaries for starters). The root of these stories and why I keep coming back to doing whatever I can do on any given day - and that varies depending on what is going on my life, my mind, and my heart - is that we'll never know what is possible if we don't try. Paul Rogat Loeb reminds me why cynicism, while a natural response to the overwhelming problems before us, is not the way forward:
But as understandable as such moments of doubt and apparent impotence may be, especially in a culture that too often rewards cynicism and mocks idealism, they aren't inevitable. If tackling critical common problems seems a fool's errand, it's only because we're looking at life through too narrow a lens. History shows that the proverbial rock can be rolled, if not to the top of the mountain, then at least to successive plateaus. And, more important, simply pushing the rock in the right direction is cause for celebration. History also shows that even seemingly miraculous advances are in fact the result of many people taking small steps together over a long period of time.
The second reason that I refuse to give up on the small steps as a way to fight the larger battle of winning back democracy is simple: it's empowering. When I read the headlines in the corporate-controlled media, my head starts to spin at times. I risk not engaging in the struggle for a better democracy--that necessary underpinning that connects many of the issues that concern us most. But if I can walk into my kitchen and find organic ingredients from a local farm for a soup, serve a meal with cloth napkins rather than disposable ones, and buy Christmas presents from a local bookstore rather than the big box alternative, then I feel like I am doing something. However small, I am contributing. I am trying. I feel better and, on a good day, I feel ready to try to do more. To try to reach someone else and encourage them to take a similiar step, to build community, to vote with my dollars, to make a difference in the life of someone who lacks the means to choose to take these steps on their own.

Finally, the third reason for marching on is sitting on my lap right now. My daughter deserves it. Siel asked yesterday if being a parent makes one desperate to make the world a happier place. I was pretty desperate for a better world before I became a parent. But now I have the most beautiful reminder of all of the reasons why. You don't have to be a parent, though. You just have to care about the world that we are creating for others --young and old. And put one foot in front of the other.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Is Evil Too Strong a Word?

I don't like to throw around the word "evil" much. But I'm starting to agree with Harry Reid that this Congress may be the most corrupt in history. I woke up to the headline this morning that the House defense bill (that's right, a bill that is supposed to focus only on defense matters) contains a provision to open the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The defense spending bill also contained provisions for funds related to Hurricane Katrina and bird flu, apparently making it hard for some House members to vote against it in their bleary-eyed pre-holiday state. This makes me absolutely raving mad! Now it's up to the Senate to filibuster the defense bill. Now is the time to take five minutes and email or call your Senator and encourage them to do so. Email addresses and phone numbers are here. I've often said that I try to stay optimistic, but this sort of thing just blows my mind.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Chartering a New Course

We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of the Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. - Preamble to the Earth Charter

So it's Sunday morning and you have a piping mug of your a.m. beverage of choice* and your favorite newspaper sitting before you. But you're not quite ready to crack open the paper just yet and face reading W's defense of domestic spying or Cheney's talking points from his surprise trip to Iraq. Rather than risk descending into cynicism and despair when you should be enjoying the good Sunday morning vibe, why not read something different, something life-affirming? May I suggest that you spend half an hour reading the Earth Charter?

Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Earth Charter sets forth a set of guiding principles for a peaceful world. According to The Earth Charter Initiative:
It seeks to inspire in all peoples a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the larger living world. It is an expression of hope and a call to help create a global partnership at a critical juncture in history.
The Earth Charter is a people's treaty that is the result of a collaboration between individuals and organizations that started in 1987 when the UN World Commission on Environment and Development called for a charter to set forth principles of sustainable development.

The principles set forth in the Earth Charter are meant as a guide to the conduct of individuals, organizations, businesses, and governments. So what does the Earth Charter say? It states four broad commitments for the respect and care for the community of life:
  • Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
  • Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
  • Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.
  • Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

The charter then offers three categories of more specific principles which, if followed in decision-making at every level, would fulfill the broad commitments. The categories are: ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, nonviolence and peace. Reading the principles (often!) is a great way to remind yourself that there is a different, life-giving path that we can take. With thoughtfulness, collaboration, and sincere commitment, I am optimistic that we can get our society on to this path. In that spirit, I would love to hear your thoughts if you take a few minutes to read the Earth Charter.


* My hot beverage of choice is a cup of organic Fair Trade coffee with soy milk. (A decaf soy latte would be divine if I could find a cafe with Fair Trade espresso beans.) So I was quite interested in the discussion over at SustainableGirl's place about bleached coffee filters. I felt pretty good about my practice of using unbleached coffee filters purchased at my local co-op until I looked more carefully at the nearly empty box and found that they were a product of Sweden. Um, shipping coffee filters from Sweden doesn't strike me as the most sustainable choice. Ugh. I walked over to the same co-op yesterday and picked up a reusable coffee filter made of hemp by a family business in Washington State. For $4, I'm promised years of use. So far it has worked like a charm and is easy to clean. Highly recommended!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Evolution of a Vegetarian (Part 2): Why I Am a Vegetarian

I don't believe that we are isolated consumers, alienated from what gives life, and condemned to make a terrible mess of things on this planet. I believe we are human beings, flawed but learning, stumbling but somehow making our way toward wisdom, sometimes ignorant but learning through it all to live with respect for ourselves, for each other, and for the whole Earth community. - John Robbins

Yesterday I wrote about the reason that I became a vegetarian - - the gut reaction that I had to learning about the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals on the standard industrial factory farm. (If you want to test your own reaction, check out this or this.) Over the six years since I stopped eating meat, the reasons that I am a vegetarian have strengthened and broadened. It's no longer just factory farming at issue for me.

A lot of people asked a lot of questions about my vegetarianism. Some I could answer easily: Where do you get protein? Beans, tofu, eggs, nuts, etc. Don't you think that humans occupy a higher rung on the food chain because we're supposed to eat animals? Um, I don't have a problem with eating animals per se. But unless you're in the Vice President's office, being in a position of power doesn't justify systematic torture that is nowhere close to being natural .

Other questions made me realize that I wanted to learn more about where our food comes from. John Robbins' book, The Food Revolution, was an enormous help in connecting the dots for me. Robbins' description of the knowledge that led him to a vegan lifestyle echoed the path that I (quite unexpectedly) found myself on:
I was learning that the same food choices that do so much to prevent disease - that give you the most vitality, the strongest immune system, and the greatest life expectancy - were also the ones that took the least toll on the environment, conserved our precious natural resources, and were the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures.
I learned about the antibiotics fed to livestock and the pesticides that accumulate in grain-fed cattle. I learned that we're feeding nearly half of the grain that the world produces and 70% of America's grain production to livestock in return for only a tiny fraction of nutrients at the same time that we think about hunger as an intractable problem. I learned about the land and water use from meat production. (As compared to the resources used to make pasta, meat uses 20 times the land, and generates three times the greenhouse-gas emissions. Check out this Ask Umbra column.) For more background information on the environmental and health benefits of a vegetarian diet, check out the list of my favorite vegetarian resources below.

I discovered delicious vegetarian meals. I became more confident in my decision to exclude meat entirely from my diet. While much of the reading that I did also implicated dairy farming practices, I still eat dairy and eggs. Logical fallacy, perhaps? I admit that it would be ideal if I could eschew those animal products too. But life is a contiuum and a series of steps. The step that I can do and have done joyfully for six years is not eating meat. Becoming a strict vegan would require a drastic lifestyle change for me (no goat cheese! no omelets!). Instead, I try to be especially careful to buy dairy products that are produced in a sustainable way that doesn't harm the chickens or cows. Small, local, organic family farms are always the best and tastiest choice. I also really enjoy soy products, so switching from cow's milk to soy milk was pretty easy for me.

Being a vegetarian isn't a sacrifice for me. It's a way to align my values with the food on my plate. But I don't think I could do it without truly enjoying an abundance of delicious vegetarian food. Is being a vegetarian the answer for everyone? Probably not. Others may find a different place on the contiuum is right for them. Maybe it's eating one less meal of beef in a week. (According to New American Dream, for every 1,000 who do that, we save over 70,000 pounds of grain, 70,000 pounds of topsoil and 40 million gallons of water per year.) Maybe it's eating humanely-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat as my husband does. Maybe it's referring to a handy wallet card that helps you choose fish responsibly. The point is that we can all be aware of how our food choices have a profound impact on the web of life and then do what we can...joyfully.

A Few Favorite Vegetarian Resources:

On the big picture: The Food Revolution; Hope's Edge
On nutrition: Becoming Vegetarian
On yummy cooking: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone; Moosewood Cooks at Home; The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

Friday, December 16, 2005

Evolution of a Vegetarian (Part 1): Why I Became a Vegetarian

"So, why did you become a vegetarian?" Like most other vegetarians I know, I have been asked this question many times since I've stopped eating meat. I don't mind the question, of course, but lately I've been thinking about whether a more appropriate question might focus less on the impetus of my vegetarianism ("why did you become a vegetarian?") and more on why I have remained one for nearly six years ("why are you a vegetarian?"). It's not that the reasons have dramatically shifted so much as they've evolved. My thinking about vegetarianism is more expansive, more complex now.

(The second most common question is about exactly what I do eat, so I'll get that out of the way upfront. I'm not a vegan, but I am a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. That means I don't eat meat, poultry, fish or anything made with them. Dairy and eggs are okay, but more on that in Part 2.)

Ok, let's start with the first question. Why did I become a vegetarian? Around the holiday season six years ago, I was registering for courses for my last semester of law school. I had to fulfill a writing requirement, so I wanted to opt for a seminar that would allow me to research and write about something engaging, something different, something that would hold my attention longer than secured transactions... When I read the description of an Animal Rights Law class in the course catalog, it gave me pause. It seemed "out there" to me at the time, and the fact that the law school was offering the course for the first time in its venerable history (gag!) created quite the stir on campus. I had never given much thought to animal rights, but I did have a dog for the first time in my life. My compassion for animals blossomed with the faithful companionship that I shared with my pup. I never would have considered the class if I didn't have her. In a way, then, I guess my dear dog (rest her soul!) is the reason I became a vegetarian. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though.

Having signed up for the course and after enduring some raised eyebrows about my choice, I showed up to the first class in February 2000 without any preconceived expectations. The professor was Steven Wise, a practicing animal rights lawyer and author who waded through the political landmines of teaching Harvard Law School's first-ever class on animal rights law with great aplomb. His first assignment for the hodge-podge of students (some dedicated animal protection or environmental advocates, some interested students without a particularly well-organized set of thoughts about the role of legal protections for animals, and a few snarky right-wingers who would sign up for a course just to argue their point of view) was a thick binder of background reading compiled from a variety of sources. Over the weekend, I settled in on my loveseat, with my dog's head resting on my lap, and cracked open the binder. Good Lord! Professor Wise was pulling no punches here! He had assembled a history of factory farming complete with photos of artificially big-breasted chickens stacked atop each other in cages piled high to the rafters of huge coops, descriptions of the imprecise science of killing a cow for meat when the original stunning fails, depictions of pigs living in small wooden pens where they were unable to move or nurse their young. It was not for the faint of heart. And it didn't exactly make you want to enjoy chicken pot pie for dinner. After reading about the factory farm system for hours, I had the most basic of reactions: my stomach can't handle meat tonight with those pictures dancing in my head; veggie stir-fry it is!

When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I still wasn't ready to eat meat. It just didn't feel right. I walked my dog over to the local dog park to frolic, and a question occurred to me that was striking in its simplicity. If I believe that my dog can feel pain (which I was sure of after watching her recover from a painful hip surgery earlier that year) and the thought of her suffering makes me distraught, how can I abide contributing to the pain and suffering of another species of animal just because I don't share the same kind of emotional attachment to it? As long as the factory farm system continues, I thought, I really don't want to contribute to it. I dropped my dog off at home, walked to the bookstore, bought Becoming Vegetarian to bone up on the nutritional aspects of not eating meat, and called my parents that night to announce that I wasn't sure if I could meat again. But it turns out I was sure -- I haven't had meat since then.

So the reason that I became a vegetarian was quite specific and based on a visceral, compassionate reaction (one that I didn't expect to have, by the way): the treatment of animals at factory farms is morally wrong. As we all know, when you take an action that challenges the status quo in some way, some view it as a great opportunity to test the logic of your philosophy. I was quite unprepared for the barrage of questions intended to pick apart any lack of coherence in my reasoning. The most frequently asked follow-up questions: (1) Farm animals are raised to be eaten. That's their purpose. Don't you agree that humans are at the top of the food chain? (2) Do you wear leather? How is that any different? (3) Why not just buy meat that is not from factory farms? (4) So you don't eat sushi? What about scallops? How about calamari? Oysters? Mussels? Please don't tell me that you won't eat the crab dip!

I didn't have answers at the ready for these types of questions; I just didn't want animals to suffer because of my eating habits. Why was my diet being analyzed, sometimes by people I didn't even know very well? Why did this decision cause others to foam at the mouth in the hopes that my reasoning would be discovered to be faulty? In time, the answers came to me and my reasons for being a vegetarian broadened and became much more complex. Stay tuned for Part 2: Why I Am a Vegetarian.

(It's worth noting here that while I had always enjoyed eating meat, I also really liked every vegetable I had ever tried and a wide variety of foods (i.e, I'm not a picky eater) so making the shift to a vegetarian diet wasn't as difficult for me as I think that it can be for others. It also helped that the madgeneral was off "kickin' it" in Albuquerque at the time and not around to plea for my special meatloaf recipe. Which was damn good.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Rolling Right Along

While I should be making batches of biscotti a la Farmgirl for yuletide giving, wrapping up my holiday presents in recycled paper Spiral-style, or planning a beachy end-of-the-year getaway like Laurie (in my dreams...), I've been indulging in some excellent online reading. I've added a few of my latest finds to my blogroll. Check them out when a cup of coffee and thoughtful writing sound more appealing than trying to come up with an appropriate gift for Aunt Martha:

Spiral's been making good sense of simple living: from energy-efficient hairdrying to shopping local for the holidays.

A blogger that I used to faithfully read for her insightful and personal comments about her environmental awakening is back with a vengeance. If you drink coffee (and I know you do...), you must see SustainableGirl's posts about coffee filters and the chemical soup that comes from the bleached paper variety. She's also inspired me to finally purchase a copy of the End of Suburbia DVD rather than waiting for Netflix to upgrade it from "very long wait" on my queue.

I found Choosing Hope via firedoglake and knew that I might have stumbled upon a kindred spirit when the first post that I read was about Frankie Lappe. Walker's thoughts on stating the obvious are dead-on too.

And, last but not least, is my husband who is "making MacArthur look like Mary Poppins," as his tagline now reads at madgeneral. (I'm not sure where he gets this stuff...) In any event, his post on Wal-Mart makes mine look like a spoonful of sugar.

So, I'll keep reading, we'll all keep writing, and maybe we'll roll a little closer to a better world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Smile! It's Recycled and Recyclable

When our household finally kicks the killer cold strain that has cruelly descended upon us during the holiday rush, it'll be time to replace our germ-infested toothbrushes (lovely image, yes?). Throwing away a toothbrush is one of those mundane tasks that gives me pause when I consider that there is no "away" and the toothbrush will meet millions of others in a landfill somewhere. I recently read here that if we continue to discard toothbrushes at the current rate as recommended by our dentists, 50 million pounds of toothbrushes will end up landfills each year.

So I was quite pleased when I saw a local company's sustainable solution at Trader Joe's. Recycline's product is brilliantly simple: the Preserve toothbrush is made of nylon plus 100% recycled polypropylene from Stonyfield Farm yogurt cups. The really cool part (if you're into these things...) is that the handle and nylon bristles are recycled by Recycline when consumers return them to the company in the postage-paid envelope available at the store where the toothbrush was purchased. Recycline grinds up the toothbrush to make recycled plastic lumber for outdoor furniture.

Recycline has my wallet's vote in the dental department. Ethical consumerism won't change the disposable society that we live in overnight, but it's always encouraging to find a company who is doing things just a bit more sustainably.

Listen to the Silence

The climate summit in Montreal has come and gone. As I mentioned before, we didn't hear much about it even after Bill Clinton showed up to refute Bush's claims that Kyoto or any measure like it "would wreck the US economy." Even Bill McKibben couldn't get geared up for the talks. Check out his piece in Grist this week. Two lessons come to mind from the uproar that never was:

1. The bad news: corporate control of our government is out of hand. I know, I know--this is not an earth-shattering revelation. But McKibben's description of how the US representative in Montreal was handpicked by ExxonMobil and delivered to the administration on a platter is striking in its simplicity: the folks at our favorite big oil company send a fax to the White House and Dennis Hastert's senior aide is hired to serve as its chief climate negotiater. It's as easy as that. Ah, blessed democracy! (By the way, reading Ross Gelbspan's book Boiling Point is a good way to get fired up about this...just be prepared to have a glass of wine, take a walk, or do whatever it is you do to calm yourself down after reading a few pages of it.)

2. The good news: inspired individuals are not giving up the fight. In the face of our government's egregious blockade of meaningful progress on global warming (or any other environmental issue for that matter), McKibben highlights the efforts of young activists keeping the faith about the power of engaging in the work of democracy. They're taking the simple, optimistic steps from which I derive so much hope: holding meetings, handing out low-energy lightbulbs, and creating community. Just like the kids protesting Wal-Mart, the message is simple and clear. We need to change the way we live - now. Is anyone listening?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Let's Follow Their Lead

Come on Wal-Mart, don't delay, do what's right this holiday. - Chant of 5th graders protesting outside Framingham, Massachusetts Wal-Mart store

The Boston Globe reported today that a group of fifth-grade students showed up at a local Wal-Mart yesterday demanding that a letter protesting the store's purchase of items from sweatshops be received by the store manager and then sent to Wal-Mart's CEO. Read the story here. The simplicity of the arguments made by these kids is a good reminder of the pure compassion of the human soul. One ten-year-old put it best: "It's not that we don't like Wal-Mart. We don't like what they do. Basically, we're just here to get the message out: Stop shopping at Wal-Mart until they stop using sweatshop labor." When you put it that way, it's hard to argue with.

(A Wal-Mart spokesperson was quick to dismiss any allegations of sweatshop labor as a "major campaign by union-based organizations to tarnish our reputation." Hmmm...I didn't know that the fifth-graders were union operatives...interesting. This Daily Kos post has links to two mainstream press reports about Wal-Mart sweatshops, but you need only google "Wal-Mart sweatshops" to get many more stories.)

Grounds for Change

We often hear about the rising obesity epidemic among kids these days, and we also hear all about the causes of it: less time spent outdoors, no physical education classes or recess, the prevalence of excessively sugar-laden foods and sodas, etc. We also know that there are alternatives to this way of life. School gardens, such as Alice Waters' edible schoolyard in Berkeley, are a promising example of how we can help children connect the food they eat with the health of the planet and their bodies. These kinds of hopeful initiatives bring beauty to the barren lawns that have become standard issues at some schoolyards while reducing the pollutants pumped into the air from diesel trucks carrying produce across the country (or from New Zealand!) into our school cafeterias.

Despite the obvious benefits of these kinds of programs, we are stuck in the status quo where Coke, candy, and chips are sold to kids all over school grounds. The federal government is doing very little to stop junk food at the schoolhouse doors. (No surprise there given the power of the food industry lobby.) The good folks at Commercial Alert describe the current regulatory situation:

"Federal restrictions on the sale of junk food in school are extremely weak. The definition of junk food is narrow. It includes only sodas, water ices, chewing gum and candies made mostly of sugar. Even worse, the US Dept. of Agriculture can only stop the sale of these foods during mealtimes in cafeterias-- not in vending machines elsewhere in school, or school stores..."

Pretty pathetic, isn't it? A new piece of pending legislation called the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act would expand how "junk food" is defined for purposes of restricting its sale at schools. The legislation would also restrict the sale of junk food in all areas of schools.

This legislation is a good first step in changing the way that we teach our children about the food on their plates (or in their wrappers...). Why not write to your represenatives and ask them to co-sponsor this legislation? A sample letter is here. Then, we can move on to showing kids the beautiful and tasty alternatives that exist. Real change starts from the ground up.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Low Impact Holidays

Greenies may do a great job at all of those small actions that add up throughout the year but when December rolls around, things get sticky. Travel, shopping, traffic jams, shipping, etc. all seem like just another part of the holiday season that we can all too easily blindly accept at this time of year. I've been trying to remind myself that Christmas doesn't have to be completely at odds with ecological responsibility. For inspiration, I've been checking out New American Dream's useful tips on simplifying the holidays here.

Here are the main steps I'm taking this year to reduce my ecological footprint during the holiday season:

1. Location, location, location. Like others this holiday season (see good posts here and here), I am trying to support independent, local businesses when shopping for the Christmas presents on my list. I think that the idea of a buynothingchristmas is great, but putting that in to practice this year isn't going to happen. The discussion over at Laurie's pretty much sums it up for me too. My family exchanged gifts at Thanksgiving since we're not going to be together for Christmas, and we tamed the spending madness by setting a dollar limit. We were able to find gifts at independent businesses, and I think it was a success.

Now we're in the middle of shopping for my husband's side of the family, and the goal is to spend our dollars at local, non-chain stores. (By local I mean within a vicinity of about ten miles, but preferably even closer.) I like to buy gifts that educate, inspire or are practical in some way...oh yeah, and that won't break the bank. So we'll be hitting the great toy store down the street (filled with toys that don't require batteries or make the parents feel insane when the same song repeats again and again), a fabulous independent bookstore not far from here, a nearby book and cd shop that carries a diverse selection of music (and the owner lets you open up the cds and have a listen over the store's stereo first), and the local Ten Thousand Villages for fairly traded hand-made goodies.

2. Waste Begone! I have a passion for using reusable bags (hey, there's a great gift idea...), so I am determined not to be caught without one of my hemp shopping bags when a gift buying opportunity crops up. Our families are used to getting gifts from us wrapped in the Sunday comics or re-used wrapping paper with gift tags made from last year's holiday cards, so I'll be continuing that tradition as well. I'm going to have to ship some of the gifts though, so there's no avoiding packaging all together. I've been saving boxes and packing materials, so I can reuse those but it's not ideal.

3. A Spoonful of Hope. I know that I am blessed to have the luxury of contemplating how to have a greener Christmas when so many others will just be continuing the search for clean water, a stable food supply, and a warm shelter. So I've added another gift to my list: a package of honey bees and a hive from Heifer International for a family to use in creating a reliable source of income. (As an aside, Barbara Kingsolver wrote a great essay about Heifer's positive effect in Peru in the latest issue of Mother Earth News. The article is not online, but check it out at the library or pick up a copy of the magazine...then share it with a friend.)

Is this Christmas going to be an all-local, all-organic, all-independent, waste-free celebration of charitable giving? Not quite. But it is going to be a little greener and a little sweeter.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A Joyful Process

The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. - Howard Zinn

Lately it seems that I keep coming back to a familiar theme: how not to get bogged down in the despair that comes with caring, as Andrea so aptly put it. So the message that hit home for me in last night's brief interview with Frances Moore Lappe on PBS's NOW was quite simple: living an engaged life is the good life. It's not dull or boring to get informed and take action. It's the heart of what it means to be involved in society, and there is joy in connecting with others and trying to change the world. Of course, reading here that Bush's job approval rating is on the rise is enough to make even the most committed citizen feel more cynical than joyful. That's when we need to take the long view and realize that today's actions may not yield any results in the foreseeable future...but we have to keep faith that they will change things. And we need to feel joy in the process. After the program, I curled up (with a box of tissues -- the baby and I are both fighting a nasty cold) and re-read a Howard Zinn essay in the worthwhile collection, The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Zinn seemed to speak to my state of mind. Read a shorter, modified form of the essay here if you need to be reminded why being "hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is also based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness."

Friday, December 09, 2005

Intelligent Optimism

The slogan on the cover of Ode magazine caught my eye the other day: "for intelligent optimists". That's what I'd like to be! I find inspiration - and even optimism - in the elegance of simple solutions to complex problems and in knowing that people are making life-affirming decisions each day. In the face of the seemingly intractable despair that I could fall prey to if I let myself wallow in the worst of what is happening today, I turn to books, film, and media sources that tell the other side of the story. For example, I'd rather learn about the social factors inside a prison that contribute to a revolving door from a story that tells about someone who is trying to change those factors. It renews my faith in humanity and gets me excited to do my part too. It makes me hopeful, which is no small task sometimes. But my optimism is a hungry beast that constantly needs to be fed. Without a daily dose of inspiration, it withers under the scary stories of the status quo that are trumpeted by the media bullies. So I am always on the lookout for new sources of hope, inspiration, and optimism (suggestions appreciated!).

A few years ago I found the work of
Frances Moore Lappe. Lappe is best-known for her 1970s bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet, about the root causes of hunger in a world of plenty. Having never read that book, I wasn't familiar with Lappe when I stumbled across her 2002 book, co-written with her daughter Anna, called Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. It was a revelation to me! My passion for food as a means to connect all sorts of complicated issues through a medium that is essential to life itself was stoked by the stories of individuals and groups challenging our notions about the industrial food system and chemically-dependent agribusiness. I learned more about the systemic problems that our communities face (the prevailing food system is just one connecting thread to a host of social, environmental, and spiritual problems) in the context of optimism and hope. Later, I heard Lappe speak at an urban agriculture conference sponsored by the industrious and inspired teens of The Food Project, and I was hooked on her brand of intelligent optimism.

Yesterday I finished reading Lappe's latest book,
Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life. In it, Lappe expands upon the framework that she explored in her earlier works. She writes about how the lack of an informed, engaged citizenry leads to the social and environmental conditions in our society that none of us, as individuals, would want. She argues that we need to live democracy each day. We can do this by creating connections and community rather than accepting "thin democracy rooted in a narrowly individualistic, material view of life." In essence, we can create the world that we want by feeding the intelligent optimist within. It's a daily task that requires deliberate attention to seek out the life-giving examples in our midst and then to create our own path. Lappe's books have given me much-needed fuel to keep my fire going.

Frances Moore Lappe is appearing on PBS's
NOW this evening. I'll share my thoughts tomorrow, but I'd also love to hear yours. Let's expand the community of intelligent optimists!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Coming to Our Senses

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. - Rachel Carson

The frenzy of December always makes me feel more stressed than festive. I have a few secret weapons that usually help combat the craziness: copious amounts of red wine, cooking up soups and other warm dishes (the vegetable curry from the new Moosewood cookbook has done the trick recently), and taking long walks. Long walks in spring, summer, and autumn are easy in New England. Harsh winds and early sunsets make long winter walks more challenging. But somehow those cold strolls outside always leave me exhilarated. Maybe it's because I can notice the little things that the glory of springtime blooms, the lush green abundance of summer, and autumn's flashy colors obscure with their granduer. When I am aware of my presence as a part of nature by experiencing the natural world outside my windows in every season, a wellspring starts to trickle within me. I want to explore more, to learn be more worthy of the gifts of the earth.

For many, the sensory experiences that come from spending time in nature are the necessary precursors to effective environmental advocacy. I recently read a collection of correspondence between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. The two women were intimate friends who shared a deep love of nature -- not just the nature of grandiose mountain vistas or spectacular sunsets, but the nature found in a partially frozen tide pool on the coast of Maine in the dead of winter. In trying to explain the depth of feeling in her writing about the environment, Carson wrote to her friend, “I doubt that I could explain how any particular feeling or effect is achieved…but if there is any simple explanation I think it is that my sensory impressions of, and emotional response to, the world of nature date from earliest childhood, and that the factual knowledge was acquired much later.” Our experiences in nature create sensory responses and feelings that are powerful and formative. They make us hungry for more....and, if we're lucky, they make us the most effective advocates for our environment. What if Rachel Carson had not experienced nature as a child?

The problem is that many of us live lives that lack any regular contact with the natural world. Now, I realize that we all are nature; that is, we are a part of nature. Nature isn't something that we walk out of door into. That said, many of us spend our days in the car, in front of the computer, at the gym on a treadmill, back in the car, then in front of the television for a few hours before bed. It makes it pretty hard to see, smell, taste, touch, or hear the earth. The connection starts to wither, the well begins to dry. If we're lucky, we can call upon fond memories of time spent outdoors as children. We can renew those early moments when our senses ruled our time by walking while looking carefully at our surroundings, breathing deeply in the cold winter air, and slowing down to notice what is alive in nature in any season.

I worry that today's children will not grow up with those deep connections that can sustain us as adults and make us want to preserve and conserve the ecology around us. Richard Louv, an author and columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, wrote an excellent book called Last Child in the Woods about the disconnect between children and nature. Louv describes "nature deficit disorder," his non-scientific term for many children's lack of direct experiences in the natural world. Louv makes a convincing case that this way of living - apart from nature rather than as a part of it - affects kids physically and spiritually. And it's only becoming more common as wilderness areas, parks, and open space decrease at the same rapid pace that the calendars of our kids become booked. Time to explore or lay in the grass and daydream gives way to yet another sports practice or studying for the next state-imposed standardized test. At the same time, the amount of unhindered space dwindles, kids munch on processed food shipped from 3,000 miles away, and the television sucks away imagination. It's all connected and it makes my head spin! (Is it too early for a glass of wine?) The reasons for our collective nature deficit disorder - in children and adults - are a complex tangle of social and environmental factors.

The good news is that the solutions hinge on the flip side of this interconnection. Once we move society onto a more life-affirming path with less television and video games and more time in the woods, for example, there can be a ripple effect. So I'm going to bundle up and head out for a brisk walk and a dose of wonder. Then I'm going to get a hot cup of coffee and get to work on adding my drop to the bucket.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Demand Answers: Sign the Letter to Starbucks

I said in my last post that citizens are seeking to interact with corporations in ways other than the traditional consumer-supplier relationship. Shareholder activism, lobbying for changes to corporate law to permit (require?!) corporations to consider a triple bottom line, conscientious purchasing decisions, shopping local...and even meetings with global corporations to discuss whether their commitment to Fair Trade and social responsibility is as strong as their marketing department would have us believe. Green LA Girl has organized a meeting with representatives from Starbucks to discuss how the chain has failed the Starbucks Challenge over and over again. At the meeting, she will present the folks from the corporate social responsibility division of Starbucks with this letter demanding answers to some of the questions that the challenge has raised. This is your chance to make your voice heard. We may do lots of complaining about the unbridled power of corporations, but we've also got to be willing to sit down at the table with them. Consumers have more power than we know - let's use it! Please sign the letter at Green LA Girl or City Hippy today.

Monday, December 05, 2005

What's Your Bottom Line?

I spent a lot of time in the car this weekend traveling back home after a couple of weeks out of town. Watching the landscape go by out the window simultaneously inspires me (how resilient nature is!) and depresses me (how destructive we are!). Either way, a road trip always makes me think about the big picture. And recently I'm finding that I can't think about the direction of our society and earth without seeing The Almighty Market's presence on the horizon. Corporate responsiblity has been cropping up on a regular basis, it seems. From analyzing the Wal-Mart movie to taking the Starbucks Challenge, a lot of us are concerned about the effect of "global corporatism" (Frances Moore Lappe's preferred term for globalization) on our society and our planet. We've decided that our government is too busy with "staying the course" in Iraq and concocting immoral budget bills to focus on the growing feeling of disconnect between what we as individuals want from a just society and what is being served up to us in big box stores, fast food restaurants, and a corporate-funded media. It's time for individuals to interact with corporations in new ways that go beyond the consumer-supplier relationship.

The recent emphasis on the so-called triple bottom line is heartening. Check this out for a brief background on this new way to analyze corporate results. Instead of thinking only about quarterly earnings - the traditional bottom line that measures corporate success - analyzing the triple bottom line gets us to look at two additional factors: social responsibility and environmental sustainability. This big picture approach makes good sense as a way to invest our money and make choices about the goods we buy. Using this approach can also remind us to think about the consequences of all of our actions on "the big picture."

So I've started to look more critically at all of my decisions during the day, starting with the most simple and mundane: paper, plastic or cloth? drive or walk to the store? fill up travel mug with organic Fair Trade coffee at home or try my luck at Starbucks where only 1.6% of the coffee is Fair Trade? And what I've found is that the right decisions often end up being good for more than just the traditional economic bottom line. A few examples:
  • I take a large canvas bag and three smaller hemp bags to the grocery store. Turns out that what's best for the environment is also slightly better economically thanks to the (small) discount that the market gives for bringing your own bags. It also saves my kitchen from being overrun with plastic bags.
  • When I decide to buy Christmas gifts at my local bookstore rather than a big box bookstore or Amazon, I am not contributing to the demand that makes corporate executives think that another large, anonymous book warehouse is needed in a new shopping center, my dollars are going back to my community, and I get some great personal recommendations from the owner.
  • I brew a pot of coffee in the morning and fill up my travel mug. I don't have to use a paper cup with plastic top and cardboard sleeve, I am sure that I am getting Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown coffee, and I save myself some money.
  • When I walk to the local co-op to buy groceries, I reduce the amount of carbon emissions that I'm responsible for while also saving money on ridiculous gas prices, refusing to support oil companies, and getting exercise.

You get the idea. Considering the triple bottom line just makes sense. When you get down to it, the right decision starts to seem obvious even if it's not the norm in today's low-cost, convenience-driven society. It's not always easy, but I'm committed to asking myself about how my actions affect the big picture today. Let's start there.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Get on Board

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'. You don't need no baggage, you just get on board. - Curtis Mayfield

Isn't it interesting how little we've heard about the UN's Climate Change Conference in Montreal? Isn't it interesting that the administration put out a handy read at home guide to the Iraq war this week? I'm not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch (well, on a bad day I could be convinced that there are some pretty shady dealings going on behind the curtain at the White House...), but the timing of these kinds of things always seems a bit suspect to me. Anyway, we know that the media do a great job of keeping the debate going about whether global warming exists despite overwhelming scientific proof that it not only exists, it's getting worse with each passing day. We know that our personal choices do make a difference in the fate of our planet, especially when the decisions relate to how we heat our home, what kind of car we drive, how much time we spend behind the wheel, and what kind of food we eat. We also know that without broad-based pressure on the very structure of global corporatism, we're going to have a hard time sleeping at night knowing that our children and their children will have to live with our reticence.

So it's good to see this MSNBC article about the protests and activism scheduled for this Saturday, December 3rd. Most of the events are being organized by the Climate Crisis Coalition and many will be in Montreal. But events are being held around the country and around the world. Check here to see if there is an action planned for your area.

While many see demonstrations and public actions as a relic of the Vietnam era, hitting the streets is crucial for reminding anyone who's listening in Washington that the debate is over and the time to act is now. Global warming is not a distant problem that Americans don't care about. It's real. It's happening now. And it's our responsibility to fight like hell to stop it.