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.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Weekend Habits

Simple Katie wasn’t the only one who had a productive weekend. I am incredibly jealous of her quilting talent though. Yesterday was filled with the kind of home projects that make me feel like I am accomplishing something tangible. And I really need that satisfaction to counteract the equally tangible feeling of despair that I sometimes feel about what we’re doing to our children’s world. So in the spirit of accentuating those real, positive actions, here are the steps we took on our path to sustainable living this weekend:
  • Bought CFLs. We made one of our fairly rare trips to a big-box store this weekend. While trying to navigate through Target as quickly as possible with the Bean’s stroller, I stumbled on a display of GE CFLs in two-packs on sale for $4.88. We picked up two packages. For under $10, four compact fluorescent bulbs seemed like too good of a deal to pass up. I already replaced the bulb in the lamp in the Bean’s nursery. I’m thinking that we'll get the most bang for our buck by putting the other three bulbs in a bedroom lamp, our kitchen overhead, and the lamp in our den.
  • Baked bread. Thanks to breadchick, we are officially addicted to homemade bread! I’ve also been spreading the gospel about her no-fail recipe, and I see that OrganicVegetarian and SockknittingMama are getting on board too.
  • Drafted weekly meal plan. It’s the fourth week that I’ve been committed to planning out the week’s meals in detail on the computer. It makes the grocery shopping smoother, we save money, and I actually stand a chance of executing healthy, vegetarian meals after a busy day at the office.
  • Made yogurt. Yep, I finally broke out the yogurt maker and made my first batch yesterday. I was getting discouraged about the fact that I couldn’t find a single health food store in the Boston area that sold yogurt starter, and I was too impatient to order it online. Armed with online recipes, I used a container of organic plain yogurt from Trader Joe’s as my starter. It's delicious! And so easy!
  • Prepared granola. This week’s variation on my granola recipe includes almond extract and some ground ginger for flavor along with walnuts and chopped almonds. It tastes pretty darn good with the yogurt!
  • Tried 2 new yummy veggie recipes. Norene’s cabbage soup was a great Sunday night dinner paired with some chickpea veggie burgers with melted cheese served on fresh from the oven bread. A little slice of heaven when eaten with a smiling baby starting into my eyes.
  • Purchased book. I ran into one of our good local independent bookstores and picked up this book about making and storing your own baby food. The Bean had Earth’s Best organic rice cereal for the first time last week, so it’s time for me to start learning about freezing those organic pureed sweet potatoes!

I'm happy that some of these steps are becoming habits for me. As Norene said in one of the comments last week, "It's one thing to start something, but it's another to sustain the effort. " So true. My next steps on the homefront are to learn to add some flavoring to the yogurt and to make some of my own non-dairy milks. The packaging and price of nut, rice, and soy milks (not to mention the additives in some) are making me think that there's a more sustainable way to support my habit. If anyone has recipes, tips, or suggestions, send them my way please!

Last night I fell into bed with that tired, satisfied feeling that I usually get after spending a day working in the garden. A good honest exhaustion that was rewarded with an excellent night’s sleep with nary a peep from the Bean until I woke her up at 6:30 this morning to nurse before I left for work. No complaints here this Monday morning.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Crazy Debates

I've written before about the media-fueled "debates" about global warming (see here and here). Now, MSNBC tells us, there's a new debate about climate change: whether we're already at an irreversible tipping point that will lead to widespread destruction. Here's the spin:
This "tipping point" scenario has begun to consume many prominent researchers in the United States and abroad, because the answer could determine how drastically countries need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. While scientists remain uncertain when such a point might occur, many say it is urgent that policymakers cut global carbon dioxide emissions in half over the next 50 years or risk the triggering of changes that would be irreversible.
It's important, apparently, to determine if we're really, really doomed before we get off our seats and do something, do a lot of things really, about global warming.

The article goes on to tell us that the Bush administration scientists are still trying to determine if we're doomed:
"There's no agreement on what it is that constitutes a dangerous climate change," said [President Bush's chief science adviser, John H.] Marburger, adding that the U.S. government spends $2 billion a year on researching this and other climate change questions."We know things like this are possible, but we don't have enough information to quantify the level of risk."(emphasis mine)
I don't know about you, but I think that a better use of that $2 billion would be researching how to change our ways now. Or better yet, stop researching and use the money to start making changes. What am I missing here? This stuff is making me crazy!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Find Your Tree

I want to see a world full of people finding their own version of their "tree," committing to living their lives for something bigger than themselves, and creating lives of meaning, joy, and connection. - Julia Butterfly Hill

Most of us have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill, the activist who sat in the tall branches of a redwood named Luna to save it from logging. Taking such a magnificent stand requires a seemingly superhuman amount of bravery. It's the kind of thing that's easy to admire, to elevate to the unattainable level of "heroic" and then to forget about because it's far outside of the grasp in our daily lives. Julia has a way of making her time in Luna relevant for all of us. I found the website for her non-profit, Circle of Life, a few years ago and have enjoyed the blog about the We the Planet tour that she leads in her biodiesel bus. The idea is to bring connection and the idea of service to the planet, to animals, to nature, and to each other to people in an ongoing, ever-present way.

Recently, Julia's words have been speaking loudly to me. Take a few minutes and play these excerpts of her speaking. (By the way, they are from a fabulous website called Big Picture TV that has video clips of leaders in the sustainability movements. Lots of good inspiring stuff there.) She is also Grist's featured activist this week so there is an interview with questions from Grist's editors and also questions by readers. As usual, I think that the readers' questions yield more depth and insight. Some of what she says will surely sound radical to some:
Personally, I have chosen to have surgery to insure that I never procreate. I feel we have not earned the right to give birth to children, because we are not doing a good enough job taking care of the children who are already here or the planet into which they are birthed.
But it all seems to come from a place of deep caring put into action. I'll leave you with the following Q&A.

Q: Where do you see the planet in 50 years, both if the world follows the destructive path it's on and if more people start being more environmentally conscious? -- Mike Scott, Madison, Wis.

A: The future lives in the here and now through who we are being, the choices we make, and the stands and risks we are willing to embrace. We live our lives backward, saying that some day, if things are a certain way in our lives, then we can be what we want and create what we want. The truth is that who we are co-creates the world we are a part of. You want to know what the future will look like? Look in your life and see where your life and actions are in integrity, love, justice, peace, and commitment, and where they are not -- that is what the future looks like. Our greatest power in having a future that inspires us lies in living inspiring, connected, and committed lives now


Go and read the rest. And find your tree for the day.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Chowda Time

Not being a native Bostonian, I'm still taken aback when I hear someone talk about having a bowl of "chowda" for lunch after eight years in Beantown. I haven't eaten fish for six of my eight years here, so I haven't had much of the famed clam chowder. Come summertime, though, I usually get my chowder fix by whipping up a few batches of corn chowder with fresh corn on the cob and whatever herbs look good in the garden that day.

When I asked my husband for input on this week's meal plan, he asked for corn chowder. Hmmm...no fresh corn, no fresh herbs. Would it be worth it without the essential goodness of those ingredients? Turns out the answer is yes, especially when paired with some multigrain muffins from Moosewood Cooks at Home. SustainableGirl asked me to post my recipe. I'm always more than happy to share recipes as there's something satisfying and collaborative about someone cooking up a dish I make with their own touches. Like most of my soups, the "recipe" is really just a loose process that changes with what I have on hand and how much time I have. I learned this process from a newsletter stuffed between a dozen ears of corn in our CSA box from Stillman's Farm a few summers ago. It's best with fresh, milky sweet corn scraped from the cob moments before, but it's also an easy winter dish made with frozen corn and the promise of summer.

Corn Chowder

olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
flour
about 3 potatoes, cubed (I used organic Yukon Golds from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine)
corn (4 ears or about 1 1/2 - 2 cups frozen corn)
herbs (fresh thyme and oregano are great, but dried herbs to taste work well)
milk (I used some skim and some buttermilk, but richer milk would yield richer, thicker soup)
salt & pepper

In soup pot, saute onion in olive oil. Add some flour (maybe 1 T.) and whisk until thickened. Pour in about 1 cup of hot water and whisk. Add potatoes and just barely cover with hot water. Cover and let come to steaming point. Add herbs. Turn heat to low and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add corn and about half as much milk as there is potato water in the pot. Combine 1 1/2 T. flour or cornstarch with 1/4 c. milk and add to pot to thicken the soup. Season. Dream of August and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Lights Out

It seems that the universe is conspiring against the kind of thoughtful posts that I keep meaning to sit down and write. This time it was an electricity blackout that lasted for an hour and a half this evening. Unfortunately, the lights went out during the evening hours that are so crucial for getting things in order around the house. We were just putting the Bean to bed, and I was getting ready to do my normal evening tasks: prepare the coffee pot for the morning, pack up lunch and snacks to take to work tomorrow, pump breastmilk for one of the Bean's feedings tomorrow while I'm at the office, iron clothes to wear to work, and, for a little treat, some blog reading and posting. Well, the short blackout was a good reminder of how far away we are from truly living a simple life. We were halted in our tracks by not having lights for a little while. We did light some candles (we weren't that unprepared), but the lesson for me is how reliant I am on electric conveniences. Maybe it's a sign that I need to think outside the box (don't you hate that expression?) about reducing our energy consumption. Hmmm...food for thought.

Before the blackout, I opened up a couple of packages that were waiting for me this evening. The theme: Supporting fair trade leads to good stuff! The bag is for signing up for Coop America's Adopt-a-Supermarket program to encourage a local market to carry more fair trade products. (Thanks to Siel for the tip on that!) The fair trade coffee and tea is my prize, courtesy of City Hippy, for writing this post about fair trade tea and bananas. Can't wait to try those goodies!

In the meantime, I need to get cranking on those weeknight tasks.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Following Up

Posting has been sporadic because my mom has been in town for a long weekend. It's been a delight to have her around to snuggle with The Bean while reading her Where's Spot for the millionth time in a day and to make multigrain muffins and corn chowder with me for dinner. I've been meaning to write a post and to leave some comments to excellent posts I've read over the past couple of days, but I've been immersed in the easy rhythm of mothers and daughters, cooking, singing silly baby songs, reading children's books, and planning meals together. At various times, miscellaneous thoughts have popped into my head to blog about, and I keep meaning to follow up on past ideas that I've floated in posts. Since I don't have much time on my Mom's last night here, I thought I'd do some quick follow-up to a few recent posts. Forgive the bullet point mindset!

In looking over the list, two things are obvious. One: it's been all about the food recently! That's no surprise, I suppose, as the pleasure of sustainable cooking and eating is one of my true passions. Two: there are some things that I've meaning to get around to doing that haven't happened yet. I need to get moving on getting CFL bulbs, a coffee carafe, and a drying rack.

Oh, and since this is another monkey mind post, I might as well add an unrelated plug for great posts that I read recently from two of my favorite fellow bloggers. Check out Norene's beautiful tale of the power of love and what it can mean for the future of our earth and SustainableGirl's astute questioning of childhood consumerism, the inevitability of growth, and species extinction. Inspiring stuff!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Books, Bars & Philosophy

I got an email from a local organization I have occasionally volunteered with. It reminded me of how the simplest ideas can make a difference. And the Prison Book Program has a simple mission:

We believe that literacy and access to reading materials are crucial for the personal, spiritual and political development of all people. With 2 million people locked up in our nation’s federal and state prisons and local jails, and with educational programming being drastically cut, the need for our services has never been greater. Education is the only tool proven to help prevent people from returning to prison again and again.
PBP puts its mission to practice in a way that is accessible and easy to plug into -- there are no long volunteer orientations or bureaucratic steps to take. If you want to help send books to prisoners, you show up (no RSVP necessary) on Tuesday or Thursday nights (or on one of their special Saturday sessions), read letters from a prisoner, find some books in PBP's library of donated books and package them for mailing. Simple as that. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find the exact books that the prisoner is requesting, and that's a fulfilling moment. Other times, you just do your best to find the closest type of book to the one requested. If you love reading, you know the joy of sharing a beloved book with a friend. Well, finding the right book to share with someone desperate for reading material gives you that same feeling.

Before the Bean was born and life got extra-busy, I also used to visit with a young man who was trying to get his college degree through the Partakers College Behind Bars program while serving time in state prison. (I highly recommend checking out a prison visiting room for an insightful and sad window into our society. That's a post for another day though.) One of the striking things that I learned was how badly many incarcerated people want books, but they just don't have access to them. And many prisons have made the rules for sending books directly to the imprisoned complicated and intimidating to their families on the outside. PBP and programs like it navigate the system and get books into the hands of inmates.

I should pause here to answer the question that many have asked about prison outreach: why spend time and money helping those who have been convicted of crimes, in some case violent ones, when there are many "good people" who need our help and many worthy "causes" and "issues"? The answer is probably different for everyone. For me, it comes down to the philosophy that I have about how to walk through this world in a life-giving way.

My philosophy in a nutshell? It starts with the idea that there are no separate causes and issues. It's all connected. Global warming and inner city violence and factory farming and cancer all stem from a culture of fear that takes life rather than sustains it. Sometimes we can find a direct cause-effect relationship. For example, economic despair leads to desperate hopelessness and all the effects that stem from it. In other instances, the problem is a byproduct of actions taken in haste or in greed or in fear that lead to results that may be unintended. The lack of education and opportunity is the root of so many social ills. So is the feeling that there are so many different issues that are intractable and impossible to solve.

The hope in all of this, in my view, comes from the fact that we all have a limitless capacity for love in the broadest sense of the world. Nobody forces us to choose between caring for an AIDS orphan in Africa and helping a disadvantaged teen pass the SAT. We can be moved by different situations at different points in our lives. We just need to find the entry point that speaks to us at any given point on the path. Yes, our energy may be limited. But the love doesn't have to be.

If ending the cycle of imprisonment is an entry point that moves you, check out these resources. If not, there are millions of ways to affirm the best of humanity each day. Pick one and do it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

News Flash: Bush is Bad for the Earth

I was surprised to see that the main headline on MSNBC's homepage when I turned the computer on this morning had to do with the environment. That stuff is typically tucked neatly back under two menus. Usually you have to click on U.S. News, then the Environment subcategory. But today this headline screamed at me: "'Self-Destructive': Six EPA Heads Blast Bush on Global Warming." The story is here. Basically it tells us the earth-shattering (no pun intended) news that six of the former heads of the EPA think that global warming is a result of human activity and Bush isn't doing what needs to be done to slow it. Um, yeah...that's not news to most of us.

I suppose what got this story on to MSNBC's homepage (besides the lack of any breaking news of more corruption in Congress, which really isn't news anymore either...) is the fact that five of the six former EPA heads who spoke up about climate change are Republicans. The story is news because MSNBC, and probably most of its readers, assumes that environmental issues are strictly voted on according to party line, and we're all shocked to hear that someone on the right believes in even the most basic environmental tenet: climate change is accelerating due to human factors, and we're not doing what we can to stop it.

I suspect that there are plenty of Republicans who feel that more environmental protection is necessary. They're just not willing to vote for it at the polls for two reasons. First, other issues (like tax cuts for the rich...oops, I was trying to be nonpartisan in this post!) are more important to them. Second, they believe what the EPA's current chief and the Bush administration are selling them about the impending economic doom that will result from increased environmental protections. It's telling that when Stephen Johnson, current EPA chief, tried to defend Bush at the conference described in the article he said this:
"I know from the president on down, he is committed,” Johnson said. “And certainly his charge to me was, and certainly our team has heard it: ‘I want you to accelerate the pace of environmental protection. I want you to maintain our economic competitiveness.’ And I think that’s really what it’s all about. (emphasis mine)
That little gem about "economic competitiveness" is the reason that the U.S. is an international embarassment for not signing Kyoto (which doesn't even go nearly far enough, but at least would be a start) and the reason that every environmental protection in place since the 1970s has been weakened or is currently threatened.

We've got to figure out how to get past these political lines in the sand. Individual acts of conservation are not nearly enough in the face of Bush policy. We've got to do more of them, of course, but we also need to strategize on the political front whether we want to or not. As long as Americans believe that they will lose their jobs the second that Congress votes to strengthen environmental legislation, the news about the environment will be grim. Even if it's not on the front page,

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Save Coins and Make Change

Since driving habits have been on my mind, this AP story jumped out at me this morning:

Salt Lake City- Utah’s largest is joining a small, but growing, list of municipalities nationwide that offer free parking as an incentive for people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.

Salt Lake City is offering free metered parking to residents whose vehicles get 50 miles per gallon, have low emissions or are powered by an alternative fuel. Friday was the first day permits for the program were issued.

Utah already offers an income tax credit of up to $3,000 for residents who buy clean fuel vehicles and some gas-electric hybrids. It also allows those vehicles to use high occupancy vehicle lanes.

Read the rest of the story here.

I think this is a fabulous idea as it's obvious that we need to offer every kind of incentive available in order to start changing the prevailing habits that are sucking life from our culture and earth. I think an even better idea is to pursue ways to re-design communities to make alternative transportation options available and attractive. Lots of people would like to leave their cars at home even if their sole motivation is saving gas money. They just can't get to work without them due to the location of businesses and lack of alternative transportation. In the meantime, this kind of incentive is a glimmer of hope: some local governments are taking a step in the right direction. We each need to encourage these steps in our own municipalities. It's the perfect subject for a letter to the editor of your local paper. I'm off to write mine.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How Long Can We Go?

In an effort to make progress on my 2006 goals, I've been engaging in some little self-challenges recently. Besides the kilowatt game that I'm playing against myself (must get next month's electric bill below 160 kwh!), I'm trying a new eco-test to stay inspired and focused. This one has to do with the car.

I've written before about the car as a source of green guilt even though we use it relatively infrequently around town and a few times per year for trips to see family. We've grappled with whether it makes sense financially for us to sell the guzzler and get a more efficient vehicle. Having concluded that it's not feasible just yet, we're trying to further reduce our driving. The biggest impediments to reduced car use are the New England weather and the short winter days. Call me a wimp, but I'm not a huge fan of walking by myself in the city when it's dark and cold. But we're committed to this goal, so here's what we've been doing. I've been walking to the subway stop each morning and walking home each evening. It takes between ten and fifteen minutes, which really is nothing if you think about it. On the weekends, we're consolidating errands as much as possible. But I think the real kicker is that we've just gotten more comfortable hanging out close to home. We have a baby and a dog. We love to cook and read and write. We live within walking distance of a few lovely parks, good restaurants, and a couple of cafes. There is a lot to be said for staying local and enjoying the simple pleasures right before us.

So how have we been doing? Unlike the electric bill, the empirical evidence is harder to come by because I'm not sure how many miles we usually drive. The next time I'm in the car, I'll check out the odometer so that I have a baseline going forward. In the meantime, I'm using a very rough gauge of how much driving we're doing: how often we have to get gas. This month, I've gone to the pump once and put in $15.00 worth of gas on January 8th. I wonder how long we can go before we fuel up again?

Incidentally, this is yet another example of making an environmentally positive decision and reaping collateral benefits. In this case, it's guaranteed exercise each day and saved money. Those kinds of positive side effects always seem like the universe telling me to keep going, to do more. Will I meet the challenge?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Transformed Nonconformists

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes the Monday of a three-day weekend ends up being just another day filled with the regular errands that typically fill our Saturdays and Sundays. For some, sales provide a reason to hit the malls for some American-style holiday celebrating. I have many things to do today to get ready for the work week ahead, but I can't let the day go by without pausing to reflect on Martin Luther King's message as it applies to the environmental movement. Many more eloquent than me will surely make connections between MLK, the sad state of our nation today as we wage a seemingly endless and unnecessary war, and deteriorating social conditions in our own country and throughout the world.

Those of us gravely concerned with the state of our planet also have something to learn from Dr. King. For me, his focus on nonconformity provides a loud answer to questions about how to deal with a social and economic system based on plundering resources, economic consumption, and a disconnect from the earth. We can't stand by and accept the state of our communities and the planet as an unyielding truth with no room for change or improvement. We can't be helpless. We need to actively seek a different, better way of life right now even when it makes us stand apart from our neighbors and the existing societal norms. In time, the simple yet bold efforts of those who refuse to conform to an unjust, unsustainable way of life can force the norm to evolve. We have to believe that real change is possible, and we have to put aside our fears about stepping outside of our comfort zone for the greater good of all beings on our planet. In some way, today, I hope to refuse to conform to the status quo that perpetuates the lowest expectations about humanity's power. I want to be part of the nonconforming minority. It's my way of honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sweet Little Rollover

If children had a say, they'd vote organic. - Raffi

My daughter rolled over for the first time this evening. She had been flirting with rolling for a couple of weeks now: thrusting her legs high in the air and propelling onto her side. She usually just stayed on her side then flopped onto her back and the process would start again. This could go on for a long time. While I was kneading bread in the kitchen tonight, my husband called for me to come into the living room where the Bean was proudly laying on her belly after having made a complete back-to-belly roll. We sat smiling at her little bottom sticking up into the air. It was one of those simple parenting moments that fills me up with such a profound feeling of life, of goodness: the blessing of a mother dusting flour off of her hands and watching her husband and baby daughter roll around on the floor.

I suppose it was fitting then that I received my introductory package from Mothers of Organic (MOO) today. MOO is a project of Organic Valley, a nationwide organic dairy cooperative, and the Children's Health Environmental Coalition, a non-profit that aims to protect families from environmental hazards of all sorts. A little over a month ago, I found MOO's website when I googled Sandra Steingraber's organic manifesto so that I could find a printable copy of the essay by the biologist-cancer survivor-mother whom I admire so much. I was impressed with the content of the site which, although not extensive, ranges from stories about the "organic epiphanies" that members have had to downloads of Raffi songs. I registered to become a member and have since received a few email messages from MOO about incorporating organics in a family's meals.

Anyway, I grabbed the mail on my way in the door from what we call a "big shop" at Whole Foods this morning. I was still lamenting how high my bill was when I opened the welcome package from MOO. The contents of the envelope, while modest, reminded me of the value of organics: a Save Our Soil bumper sticker (I'm not inclined to use this on my car, but I think I'll stick it under my Vote For the Environment bumper sticker on an old painted bookcase in my den), a package of Mammoth Grey Stripe sunflower seeds, some coupons for Organic Valley dairy products that would have come in handy at the market earlier today but will surely be used in the coming weeks, and nicely produced booklets of Steingraber's manifesto and an essay by Dr. Alan Greene called "Fathers for Organic." The booklets are nice reminders of why deep organics (which go far beyond industrial monoculture sans pesticides) are so crucial for our children, their health, and the world we want to leave for them.

I thought that this was a nice gesture aimed at educating mothers about the importance of organics. I'm okay with the fact that MOO is a nice marketing tool for Organic Valley because the business is the type that deserves my dollar as far as I can tell. Organic Valley is a cooperative of 700 family farms that together produce and market all sorts of dairy products without pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones. We buy their skim milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, nonfat dry milk (for the bread!), eggs, and cheeses and have always been impressed with the quality. I also like the way that Organic Valley is run. Family farms that are members establish equity in the cooperative upon joining and are represented by regional committees that report to a national governing board. Profits from the cooperative are shared among the farmers (45%), employees (45%), and community (10%). While the cooperative enjoys the benefits of national branding and marketing, the milk is distributed regionally. Since I have not been able to find a local dairy farm to purchase milk and eggs from directly, buying Organic Valley products allows me to support farmers from my region. I've got no problem having a cooperative like that market its products to me while providing educational resources to mothers. (It would be another story if Horizon was behind MOO.)

Tonight I poured a thick glass of chocolate milk and daydreamed about showing my daughter sunflowers this spring. For now, I nursed my sweet little roller, savored the moment, and kissed her goodnight.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Powering Down

Analyzing my electric bill yesterday and reading the comments to my post about it got me thinking about ways to most effectively reduce consumption of energy.

Project Outlet Audit

I heeded baloghblog's advice and conducted a little audit of what's plugged in to the outlets in my apartment. Here's the lowdown by room:

Kitchen:


  • Outlet #1: (1) power strip that has microwave and toaster plugged into it; and (2) coffee pot
  • Outlet #2: refrigerator
  • We also have a dishwasher and electric oven. I use an electric coffee grinder each morning, and I also have a food processer and mixer. The small appliances are not plugged in unless they are in use.
Living room:


  • Outlet #3: (1) lamp with CFL bulb; and (2) cell phone charger [Damn! I've been trying to keep the charger unplugged when there's no cell phone connected to it.]
  • Outlet #4: stereo
  • Outlet #5: (1) power strip that has computer, printer, air filter, speakers, and desklamp plugged into it; and (2) lamp
Den:


  • Outlet #6: (1) extension cord with TV and DVD player plugged into it; and (2) lamp
Bedroom:


  • Outlet #7: answering machine
  • Outlet #8: extension cord with lamp, clock and dust-buster plugged into it

Nursery:

  • Outlet #9: cd-player
  • Outlet #10: lamp

Main bathroom:

  • Outlet #11: hair dryer

Second bathroom: no outlets

Expert Advice

Having checked out what we keep plugged in all the time, I think I have a pretty good sense of where the kilowatts on the bill are coming from. We rarely use the overhead lights unless we're in the kitchen or bathroom. Otherwise, we're table lamp kind of folks. Since I don't have one of these nifty devices for measuring kilowatts, I pulled out my handy Union of Concerned Scientists book to check out the chart comparing the electricity used in common household appliances. Here are some snippets from the chart which shows the average electricity use per unit (in KWH/year) of common appliances (when there are multiple units in the house, as with lamps, you'll need to multiply this number by the number of units):

Refrigerator - 1,155

Lighting - 940

TV - 360

Electric dryer - 875

Range/oven - 458

Microwave - 191

Dishwasher - 299

Electric washer - 99

Computer - 77

Once they figured in the impact of multiple units in a household, the UCS's bottom line is:

Overall, the top contributors to the environmental impacts of household lighting and appliances turn out to be, in descending order of importance, refrigerators, lighting, televisions, and far down in impact, electric dryers and stand-alone freezers.

What to Do?

The UCS says that using electric appliances as little as possible is good practice, of course. But the even better practice is to choose the most efficient unit as possible before you bring it in the door and get it plugged in. Since I'm not in the market for any new appliances, I started to feel like I was doomed to have higher wattage than I'd like for awhile. But the UCS also emphasized the benefits of CFL bulbs. I knew that my regular incandescent bulbs were bad. What I didn't know was that only 10% of the electricity used by regular bulbs produces light while the rest goes to heating the filament. Not much bang for your coal use, especially when you consider this incredible statement about the benefits of CFLs:

...if the mix of fuels used to produce the electricity is typical, just one compact fluorescent bulb will eliminate the combustion of three hundred pounds of coal.

Hmmm...I think that I'll have to rethink yesterday's conclusion that I'll wait until my regular bulbs burn out to replace them with CFLs. Instead, I think that I'm going to get two CFLs, for starters, to put in the nursery lamp and the overhead lamp in the kitchen. From my audit and the information from the UCS, it looks like making changes in the lighting department will result in the biggest impact.

By the way, I didn't mention the cost of my electric bill for the 160 KWH month. It was $30.62. Not exactly astronomical, but I know that we can do better. Plus the pollution from coal-burning power plants is just not something that I want to contribute to any more than absolutely necessary. And now that I've made my electricity stats public, I've got an incentive to get that number down before I have to post next month's usage. The bar graph doesn't lie.

I think it would be kind of fun (in a nerdy way) to make a little game out of this. If you're so inclined, let me know what you're monthly KWH usage is from your last bill and then report back when the next bill comes in. Maybe we can hold each other accountable for bringing those numbers down a little bit each month.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bright Lights, Big Bill

Goal #2 for 2006 is to reduce our household's collective energy consumption on as many fronts as we can. I thought we'd start with electricity since that's the only utility that we pay for in our apartment. (Yes, I know that we have to be just as concerned with the fossil fuels that we don't pay for with our greenbacks but which our earth dearly pays for. But I'm all for starting somewhere, and the utility that affects my pocketbook seemed like a logical place.)

Step One: Data Collection. I finally signed up for online access to my account with our electricity provider. Why didn't I do this earlier? Now I can save paper by not getting bills and save money by not using stamps. Duh. After an easy online registration, my account information popped up on the screen. Here, in a handy bar graph, is our apartment's electricity usage over the last year:

I also downloaded this chart of our kilowatt usage for the past 12 months:

01/06/06 - 160
12/06/05 - 116
11/04/05 - 201
10/04/05 - 201
09/06/05 - 179
08/04/05 - 139
07/06/05 - 112
06/06/05 - 112
05/10/05 - 90
04/07/05 - 90
03/08/05 - 114
02/05/05 - 139
01/06/05 - 86

Step Two: Data Analysis. A couple of things are pretty obvious from this data. First, the kilowatts used in January 2006 (160 KWH) are almost double the kilowatts used in the same month last year (86 KWH). Second, I can't blame the high kilowatts of the past few months (December doesn't count because we were out of town for a few weeks) on the short days of winter when January, February, and March of last year saw much smaller electricity usage. Third, the electricity usage increased in September when our daughter was born.

Step Three: Conclusions. While we think that we are doing well with electricity conservation, we obviously need to do better. We certainly can do better because, well, we did just last year. What could have caused this spike? I think we've gotten a little lax about leaving the computer on during the day rather than putting it on sleep mode. Also, the Bean goes to sleep with music on and sometimes the small cd-player in her room is, um, left on during the day. We also seldom used the guest room that is now converted into a nursery. That means we're using electricity in another room.

Step Four: Action Items.

  • Turn off the darn lights! And computer! And stereo!
  • I love the idea of CFL bulbs, and I have one in a lamp in the living room. I plan to replace the other bulbs as they burn out. I just can't bring myself to replace them before then. You know, the whole waste not, want not thing.
  • Finally get that carafe I've been wanting so that we don't have to leave the coffee maker turned on all morning.

Step Five: Solicit assistance. I'm determined to get February's kilowatts below 160. So tell me: what else can we do? What am I missing? And how many KWH is your household using per month?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Monkey Mind Tuesday

I seem to have a case of monkey mind today: my interest has been piqued about a bunch of things that I've read and wanted to follow up on, but I just can't settle into any one train of thought long enough to extract any wisdom. Instead, my mind just flitters on to the next thought or a new idea. Instead of fighting it, I'm going to give into the monkey mind today in the hope that there is something to be learned from my mental wanderings. Let's see:

With my post about GMOs still fresh, I was quite interested in the surprisingly informative newsletter put out by Seventh Generation (you know, the company that makes the more benign kinds of paper and cleaning products). This edition has a blurb about two new studies showing that GMOs may be as harmful to human health as some have long feared. In the first study, researchers in Russia fed rats flour made from Monsanto's Round-Up Ready soybeans while the rats were pregnant and nursing. 55% of the rats born to the mothers who were on the GM diet died within three weeks while only 9% of the control group died during the same period. And the surviving baby rats in the test group were stunted. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, upon hearing of these preliminary results, became greatly alarmed. And with good reason! Over 78 million acres are planted with Round-Up Ready soybeans. The second study wasn't exactly reassuring. But when I started to read about it, the monkey was ready to move on to the next topic...

This interview in Grist made me really pine for a bike. The Xtracycle sport utility bicycle looks cool, and I know that $999 is a bargain compared to the price of cars. Just when I was trying to wrap my head around why that amount of money for a bike seems completely out of reach when most cars are over $30,000 and my own car payment is not exactly cheap, I read this Q&A in the interview with Xtracyle's president:

Q: What's your favorite TV show?
A: I think current television is so integral a part of the Wheel of Destruction and breeding the culture of insatiable desire that this question should not be asked in this forum. It's like asking: What's your favorite exploitative big-box retailer? Your favorite SUV for short trips? And in so doing, inadvertently using environmental
activists to legitimize the very behavior that we think might not be good for the world.

Hmmm...what is the role of television and mainstream media? Is he right that the question makes some assumptions that tell us something disturbing about the norms in our society? Or does his answer just make us non-cable-subscribers look irrelevant to most of the populace?

I got a few late afternoon hunger pangs and thoughts about media, television and the modern environmental movement were rudely interrupted with thoughts of the dinner I had planned for tonight: a stew of chickpeas, potatoes and carrots served over rice. The extra rice will work well in the lentil casserole I'm going to make tomorrow to serve with a butternut squash gratin. And if all goes as planned, the savory onion, chard and cheddar bread pudding will be assembled tomorrow evening to be popped into the oven on Thursday evening for that night's dinner.

A little while later, I took a sip of tea and popped over to Siel's site for a moment. I was thrilled to have won some fair trade tea and coffee from City Hippy for this post about the Starbucks Challenge 3.5. (Thanks again!) Elated at having won a great green gift, I began to muse about the connections I've made with people in the blogosphere since I started Ardent Eden back in November. Of course, that reminded me of Norene's post about the community of bloggers that seems to have sprung up around her. I had to go back to reread this insight of hers: "One of the things I'm coming to realize is that any power we have as individuals is power that is granted to us by our communities." Well-said! How can I foster a greater sense of community? Wasn't that one of my goals for 2006? How am I doing with those goals anyway? What can I do to dig deeper? Will I finally figure out how to make a series of showings of eco-documentaries in my home happen? Will anyone show up? Will the monkey mind ramblings ever evolve into a post more intelligently designed than this one? Hey, that reminds me of an interesting topic...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Simple Preparations

Sunday is a day to relax and unwind, but also the time for preparations for the week ahead. I'm learning that organization goes a long, long way towards making simple living possible and enjoyable. If I don't do a little planning ahead, there's no way that the canvas bag is going to be in the car, the leftovers packed for lunch, and meals made from scratch. Instead, there will be hand wringing at the impromptu market stop when all of the items must be juggled out to the car because I just don't want to say yes to a bag, purchases of expensive and packaged lunches, and orders of take-out placed for dinner.

So as the snow fell lightly this morning, I started making some preparations. As the hours passed, I was in a nice rhythm and was enjoying the tasks of the day. What did I accomplish? I made a batch of vegetable stock from the scraps that I keep in a plastic bag in the freezer. Some of the stock was measured and frozen for future use, and six cups were kept out for tonight's lentil soup. I started putting together breadchick's no-fail bread recipe. Ah, the catharsis of kneading! While the bread was rising, I mixed up a batch of whole wheat pizza dough and set that to rise. The dough recipe makes enough for two pizzas, so I stuck the two balls of dough into plastic bags in the freezer for a weeknight meal. Then, I got really anal...er, organized. I sat down at the computer and started to think about how I could cook meals from scratch for the rest of the week with the ingredients that I had purchased at the supermarket. I crafted a meal plan for the week and sketched out what needed to happen in the evening before bed and in the morning before work in order to make dinner appear on the table. It all seems very do-able and, yes, obnoxiously detailed. But the funny thing is how enjoyable the day has been. Taking care of home matters and getting organized isn't just preparing for good times in the future...it is the essence of the good life.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Daydreaming Saturday

Photo of New Zealand eco-village from www.converge.org.nz

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. - Henry David Thoreau

Maybe it's the fact that there was no coffee in the house this morning when I woke up with the Bean at 6:00 that set the stage for my daydream. Because once I finally did get that cup a few hours later, the caffeinated thoughts started flowing fast and furious. Last night I read this post by madcapmum before bed. The idea of neighbors sharing a cow for milking seemed so simple, and just makes pure sense. That vision must have been dancing in the back of my mind because as soon as I had that first cup of joe in my hand, the wild dreaming began. Here's what I started to imagine:

In all of those so-called communities which are really nothing more than big and blah tract houses on carved-up pieces of former farmland or forest, we could take the idea of private property and turn it on its head. I'm not delusional enough to think that folks are going to give up their right to own property and do with it what they please. My thought, instead, is that the people who live in these houses could come together -- acting like neighbors rather than individual material accumulators -- and think about better ways to put the huge lawns to work. Each family could keep their lawn and land, of course. They would just have to decide on ways to put some of that land to use for the good of the neighborhood and wildlife.

What would this look like? Well, let's think about a typical subdivision a little differently. The neighbors agree to get together and rethink the ways that private spaces could be used for the public good. And "public" could be defined to, gasp, include creatures other than humans. Think about this: two houses have swingsets set up in the backyard. Instead of every household in the subdivision with children purchasing its own swingset, the two households that already have them agree that their private property - the swingset and the part of the yard on which it sits - could be used by the kids in the other houses. Now the kids wouldn't necessarily need to have free reign to yell like crazy at 7:00a.m. while playing on this swingset. There could be some basic ground rules for the use of the swingsets. The idea, though, is quite simple: sharing the resource of the swingset in the community. In exchange, the swingset owners would receive all kinds of resources from other families in the subdivision. Maybe one household could get some chickens to raise for eggs. Homeowners who have green thumbs could talk about the best way to cooperate in order to grow a range of food on parts of their land. Others could convert some of their lawn into wildlife sanctuaries with planned plantings to attract native species. Each family could have something to offer. There wouldn't be strict rules per se; just a sense of shared commitment to making better use of the spaces that are being wasted with huge chemically-dependent lawns. I'm not advocating for getting rid of lawns either. Some families could opt to keep their whole lawns intact with some set-aside areas for the neighborhood's kids and pets to play under the same guidelines as the public use of the swingsets.
Maybe this rethinking of the use of space could lead to a rethinking of the way we relate to one another too. The person who bakes tasty breads shares her bounty with the neighbor who is a handy carpenter. Informal exchanges of goods happen alongside the participation in the mainstream economy of cheap imported goods. This bartering leads to the exchange of ideas as well...and soon you're on the slippery slope toward a real community that supports life in the best of ways.

What could result from sharing even a small part of our private property with our neighbors? Less use of the resources that it takes to maintain large lawns. Food grown and raised closer to home. Kids playing with each other rather than in isolated islands of green behind their own homes. Neighbors talking with one another and collectively deciding what's best for their community. Less driving as more basic needs - for food, recreation, companionship - could be met in the neighborhood.

We recently watched "End of Suburbia," and you don't have to be an expert in peak oil to know that the auto-centric way of life we are living is not sustainable based as it is on the presumption of an endless supply of cheap oil. You could fall into the Jim Kunstler camp of extreme cynicism about our prospects for working together to get out of the mess we've created. Or, we could do what Bill McKibben argues for in an excellent piece in Orion magazine. McKibben exhorts us: "With a little lead time, we can put in place the no-regrets kinds of policies that make sense for a less spendthrift society." What would these no-regrets policies look like? McKibben says that they are different from a survivalist hoarding of resources to prepare for a world where global warming and peak oil are a daily reality in all aspects of our life. Instead, he tells us,
The no-regrets options are different, and seductive. They all involve communities learning to fend more powerfully for themselves—communities ratcheting down their dependence on the overstretched and oil-dependent lines of supply that mark a globalized economy, and ratcheting up the semiforgotten, close-to-home economies that might prove more stable in an energy-starved world. Some of this work is already underway, but it will be given a new urgency if the price of oil just keeps on leaping.
What does this all mean? Is it just a utopian fantasy or the bright side of the doomsday scenario that may be just beyond the horizon? How can we work to make this happen? Madcapmum really got me thinking about this. It's a testament to how the seeds of another world can prosper when they land on fertile ground. It's time to dream a little dream about what could be...and figure out some unique ways to put the foundations in place that will make it happen.

Friday, January 06, 2006

It's Not Just for Coffee

Many people who know about fair trade* associate it only with coffee. While the benefits of fair trade in the coffee market are becomingly increasingly well-known, it's time to take another step and seek out a fair trade certification on the other agricultural imports that we regularly enjoy.

Check out this brief piece from Grist about the benefits of fair trade for workers on India's tea plantations. And since the Ideal Bite tidbit in my inbox a couple of days ago touted the slimming benefits of drinking a few cups of green tea per day, I thought that it was a good time to order up one of the organic, fair trade selections that the gals recommended. Turns out that the loose Hamstead tea is on clearance right now, so I'm also satisfying one of my 2006 goals to be frugal. Plus loose tea leaves mean less packaging. I'd say that this adds up to a good green purchase!

Bananas are another fair trade item that I've been seeking out recently. Transfair has a backgrounder on the importance of bringing fair trade to banana plantations here. Like coffee, bananas are a widely consumed product. According to Transfair, 96% of American households buy bananas regularly. That's an exciting number because there's a potential for a huge impact if even some of these households switch to fair trade bananas. Here's a list of where you can find fair trade certified fruit. After seeing the fair trade label on a bunch of bananas at our local co-op, I've been making it a point to buy bananas for my oatmeal there. (If you don't have time to peruse the list, it may be helpful to know that Wild Oats carries fair trade bananas at all of its stores. I wonder why Whole Foods doesn't follow their lead...) While I'm on the subject of bananas, thought I'd plug one of my favorite documentaries: Life & Debt. The film does a good job of showing the effects of global corporatism and monetary policy on the small island, including a segment on the banana market.

*Astonishingly, some people who you would expect to know about fair trade coffee, such as these Starbucks baristas, have never heard of it. If you would like to help increase consumer demand for fair trade certified coffee at Starbucks and pressure the company to educate its sales staff about Cafe Estima, the only fair trade certified blend served at the chain, take the Starbucks Challenge 3.5.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Sustainable Eats, Beantown-Style

I often tout the power of cooking wholesome food as an antidote to stress, a means of fostering everyday creativity, and a sound way to limit your ecological footprint. That said, I sometimes find myself daydreaming about times (pre-Baby Bean) when my husband and I enjoyed a margarita and some good Mexican food out at a restaurant. Let's face it: we're all going to eat out or get take-out every once in a while. It's a pleasurable treat, and one that shouldn't have to compromise your green principles. Besides the inevitable search for yummy vegetarian options, I long for restaurants that serve up local, seasonal cuisine with organic ingredients. Oh yeah, since frugality is a cornerstone of my own personal sustainability mission, it has to be affordable. Tall order if you're not on the west coast, huh?

We've found three standout gems in the Boston area. I hope that places like these serve as a model for other sustainable businesses.

Centre Street Cafe in Jamaica Plain often has a long line snaking down the sidewalk at about 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays as hungry brunch-goers wait for the 9:00 opening. The line is a fixture the whole morning on most weekends, even when the cold Boston winter is bearing down. If you're stuck outside waiting for a table, though, you can always run in and grab a mug of Fair Trade coffee to bring outside to warm you up. The wait is worth it for huge portions of huevos mexicanos, waffles piled with fresh fruit and maple whipped cream, and, if you're lucky, a cuban scramble special made with eggs or tofu, together with sweet potatoes, plantains, black beans, and tortilla strips. Besides getting two delicious meals worth of food from one order, the best part about Centre Street is the focus on sustainably grown and raised food. A full page of the dinner menu is devoted to information about the farmers who supply their produce. Mark, the head server for weekend brunch, will happily tell you all about the heirloom tomatoes that comprise the salsa in the summer. At dinner, they've got a bunch of veggie options plus organic wines and my favorite organic beer, Wolaver's.

On one of our dreaded trips to the land of big box stores for baby supplies, we stumbled upon a little treasure in the most unlikely of places. Big Fresh Cafe is tucked into a hideous strip mall in Framingham right in the shadows of every cheap, chain restaurant serving pre-made muck to suburban shoppers. I couldn't believe that this little cafe was serving Equal Exchange coffee, glasses of organic Frey wines, and a bunch of freshly prepared organic meals. I knew I'd like Big Fresh when I saw a magazine rack by my booth while waiting for my meal of satay tofu, collards, rice pilaf, and stir-fried veggies to be cooked up behind the counter. The magazines? Co-op America Quarterly, Mother Jones, and Sierra. Big Fresh isn't fancy, but it's exactly the kind of neighborhood spot that you long for in your own neighborhood. I'm not sure what it says about our communities that this place is located in a strip mall, but the tofu Thai curry is pretty good stuff.

The third place is more upscale and well-known, and I think the accolades are well-deserved. Oleana in Cambridge is owned by chef Ana Sortun, who creates some delightful Mediterranean-influenced seasonal meals with organic ingredients. The ricotta and bread dumplings with kale and porcini are scrumptious.

My philosophy is that trying to live a greener life should be joyful and rich. What better way to introduce a friend or family member to sustainable cuisine than to share a meal at a local restaurant that focuses on tasty, environmentally-sound food? Now, I'm off to cook up some peanut noodles for our dinner. Hey, a girl can dream about eating out, right?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

OK, Maybe I'm Crunchy

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. — M. F. K. Fisher, The Art of Eating

Seems a lot of folks are shunning the chemically-dependent, agribusiness-run food industry in favor of the slow, delicious goodness of cooking from scratch using wholesome ingredients. Even better if you can grow, raise, and preserve those ingredients yourself. Madcapmum made her own cottage cheese, Norene is making yogurt, and spiral and breadchick have shared bread recipes. I'm re-inspired to commit to taking more steps to move further off the supermarket grid. This tidbit from a summary of Marian Nestle's book Food Politics gives a flavor for the corporate environment that drives what appears in the pantries of many supermarket shoppers:

Like manufacturing cigarettes or building weapons, making food is very big business. Food companies in 2000 generated nearly $900 billion in sales. They have stakeholders to please, shareholders to satisfy, and government regulations to deal with. It is nevertheless shocking to learn precisely how food companies lobby officials, co-opt experts, and expand sales by marketing to children, members of minority groups, and people in developing countries. We learn that the food industry plays politics as well as or better than other industries, not least because so much of its activity takes place outside the public view.
Buying "health foods" doesn't mean that big corporate powerhouses are not reaping profits. Check out the tangled web of corporate ownership of the organic brands we buy, for instance. Why do we care that big corporate money is behind our Odwalla juice, Muir Glen tomatoes, or Boca burger? Because those multinationals wield a lot of power in defining what "organic" means and, indeed, they are all too happy to profit from a weaking of the standards. Plus homemade food has less packaging, and less preservatives and other funny ingredients. And, as said so well by madcapmum here, a meal prepared at home with love and intention is indeed a sacrament.

Today's step? Making my own granola for the first time. While the $3.99 box of Cascadian Farm's Oats & Honey Granola is yummy, the recipe that I created is really very good. It's cheaper, has a lot less packaging, and isn't made by a company owned by General Mills (a GM executive was recently appointed as "consumer representative" to the National Organics Standards Board after the company lobbied for weakening the organic standards). And the house smells scrumptious.

Ardent Eden's Easy Granola
As usual, I started by reading over a few recipes to get an idea of basic process and proportions. Then I looked in our pantry to see what ingredients I had on hand. The result is the following easy recipe; it's simple, doesn't use a lot of ingredients, and has a nice subtly orange-flavored crunch.

Combine the following ingredients in a large bowl:

3 1/2 c. oats
1/2 c. slivered almonds
1 c. coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 c. wheat germ
1/2 c. roasted sesame seeds
1 1/2 t. cinnamon

In a small bowl, whisk together:

1/4 c. canola oil (make sure that this is non-GM!)
1/4 c. honey
zest from 1 orange (it's especially important that it's organic since you're using the peel)


Pour the oil/honey/orange mixture over the oatmeal mixture and stir very well to coat. Spread in a shallow layer on two baking sheets.

Bake at 200 for 55 minutes. Store in air-tight container.

Enjoy!

Monday, January 02, 2006

10 Years of Frankenfoods

Do you ever have the experience of reading or hearing something, thinking that you should blog about it/tell someone about it/research it further/etc., and then noticing it everywhere? It's like the universe is telling you to get on it already! That just happened to me. I've had my nose in Jane Goodall's new book for the past couple of days, and I just finished the chapter on genetically modified foods yesterday. It re-ignited my ire about the fact that so much of the United States food supply contains GMOs and there is no way for consumers to know about it because the biotechnology companies have succeeded in convincing the folks in our govermnent not to require labeling. Stop and think about that for a second. I have been mulling over what we need to do as citizens to take control of this situation. Then, I just happened to notice this article on MSNBC as I was doing my daily mainstream media news scan. MSNBC reports that it's been 10 years since the GMO experiment was started on the American food supply. If that anniversary is not a sign that I better get off my duff and dive into this issue, I don't know what is!

OK, so let's review some background about GMOs. As usual, the Union of Concerned Scientists has published an excellent primer on the subject on its website, and the Organic Consumers Association also has a worthwhile overview of GMOs. The basics:
  • GM foods are created when the genetic materials from one species of plant are inserted into the DNA of another species. The point of doing this is not to cultivate naturally vigorous hybrids in the way that farmers have for ages; rather, the purpose is to create plant species that are resistant to some pests and, most alarmingly, herbicides and pesticides created by the same company (typically Monsanto) that sells the seeds. My common sense tells me that making a seed (for profit) that is resistant to the chemicals sold by the same company (for more profit) does not create conditions where the environment and health are of paramount importance. [In response to a great question, I've clarified what I mean by this chemical resistance in the comments.] Even without looking into GMOs further than this, it seems pretty reasonable to conclude that engineering food plants to withstand an even greater chemical onslaught just does not make sense on any level. Period.
  • The effects of GMOs on the human body are largely untested. Yet the FDA says that genetically modified foods are just as nutritious and benign as traditional crops. Once you start reading about the testing of GMOs, however, you will come across stories about a man named Pustztai and his potatoes. Arpad Pusztai is a scientist in the United Kingdom who tested the effects of feeding genetically modified potatoes to lab rats. To his surprise, Pusztai found that the rats began to experience health problems, including stunted growth, damaged immune systems, and smaller hearts, livers and brains. He called for more testing, but in many ways human beings (especially Americans) are the lab animals ingesting GM foods each day.
  • GM foods make up a huge portion of the US food supply. MSNBC tells us that, despite the risks associated with GMOs:
    Still, acreage planted with biotech crops around the world is increasing and this year topped more than 1 billion acres sown to soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and other crops. In the United States, 52 percent of all corn, 79 percent of upland cotton and 87 percent of soybeans planted in 2004-05 were biotech varieties, according to the USDA.
    Rice, the staple food for many people in the world, is the next frontier for genetic engineering. In the meantime, eating processed food from the supermarket often means eating genetically engineered ingredients. The Center for Food Safety estimates that 70-75% of processed foods contain GMOs.
  • The US public is still in the dark about GMOs. The Center for Food Safety reports that 80-95% of Americans want GM foods to be labeled as such. The FDA, however, doesn't think that it's necessary. That means that when you buy a crackers containing soybean oil, for example, you're likely buying GMOs -- you'll just never know it.
  • Introducing GMOs into an ecosystem could very well wreak havoc on the environment in ways that we can't yet begin to understand. We know that pests respond by becoming stronger and resistant to the ever-higher levels of pesticides that GM crops are sprayed with. How will the complex web of nature respond to genetically engineered seeds traveling from the farmer's field and contaminating traditional crops? We do know that the USDA is not doing its job in monitoring field tests of GM crops. We also know how agribusiness responds to the cross-pollination of its GM seeds into traditional farm fields. In a well-known case, a farmer named Percy Schmeiser found that his organic crop was contaminated with Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola seeds. Monsanto's response? To sue Schmeiser for patent infringement claiming that he stole the company's seeds.
  • The promise that GM foods will bring an end to world hunger is empty. Again, profit is the driving factor in the push to sell more genetically engineered seeds. If ending hunger was the goal, then the biotechs wouldn't try to sell farmers in developing countries so-called "terminator seeds" that can't be saved from year to year in the sustainable way that generations of farmers have done.

There is much more evidence that leads me to believe that corporate profits are being put ahead of health and the environment...again. So what can we do about it?

  1. Take heart that other citizens in other countries have successfully fought agribusiness on this issue and won. We can too. Swiss citizens just voted for a 5-year ban on GMOs. There is a bill pending in Vermont which would would hold seed companies liable for damages from cross-pollination by GM crops.
  2. Stay informed. Bookmark this daily GM-related news round-up and this one. There's tons of information on the web about GMOs. I've also found the following books to have highly readable information on the subject: section IV of The Food Revolution, chapter 4 of Harvest for Hope, and the book Eating in the Dark.
  3. Mobilize to create local ordinances banning GMOs. Resources and links to local organizations are here. Fight to protect GE-free zones, like the one the citizens of Mendocino county in California voted for. Sign a petition here.
  4. Urge the FDA to require safety testing and mandatory labeling of GM foods. A letter to the FDA is here. The FDA currently supports voluntary labeling. Uh...I'm not going to hold my breath waiting to see those voluntary labels anytime soon. Why not also drop your Congressional representatives a line too at this link?
  5. Donate to organizations working to regulate and limit GM crops. Many environmental organizations are involved in GM-related campaigns. Here are just a few: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Alliance for Bio-Integrity, The True Food Network and Organic Consumers Association.
  6. Pressure supermarkets and food companies to refuse to include GM ingredients in their products. Whole Foods labels its house brand products that do not contain GMOs and Trader Joe's has a policy to keep its private label brands free of GM ingredients. Let your local supermarket know that you don't want to buy products that contain GMOs and that you won't buy the house brand if it does. Tools for taking action with a variety of supermarkets can be found here.
  7. Shop smart. Use this guide to find out which brands are GMO-free.
  8. Buy organic. The national organic standards forbid the inclusion of any GM ingredients in products labeled organic. (That means we've got to continue to fight to protect the standards. Read about that and take action here.) Sadly, there are documented instances of organic foods being contanimated with GM foods, such as when Terra Firma Inc., an organic food company in Wisconsin, had to recall its organic tortilla chips because they were contaminated by GM corn from another farm. The only way to ensure that you are not eating GM ingredients, then, is to eliminate their presence in every food product.

Whew! I'm glad I got THAT off my chest!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Bright Ideas for 2006

As I sat down to compile some thoughts about my goals and personal aspirations for the new year, a clear theme seemed to emerge. 2006 is all about energy: both the personal kind of energy that will enable me to work on carrying out some of my ideas for living more simply and sustainably, and the kind of energy that fuels our economy while at the same time depleting our earth's resources. In short, I need more of the former and less of the latter! I guess I should be a little more specific than that though. Here goes:

  • Putting down roots. This is the biggie. At long last, 2006 is the year when we plan to buy a home with enough land to do some small-scale homesteading. We would love to find a place that will let us grow more of our own food with room to do some organic market gardening eventually. At the same time, concerns about the unsustainable way that Americans are draining our energy resources mean that location will be key. I don't want a long car commute from a rural area to work, shopping, restaurants, etc. We're going to have to be creative and patient. Once we get settled, we can lay out plans for converting a yard into a permaculture-based system and gradually implement compost bins, set up rain water barrels, and plant fruit trees.
  • Decrease our energy reliance. We've been toying with selling our car in favor of a more fuel efficient model, but I'm not sure if it makes financial sense for us at this point. Either way, we need to continue trying to reduce car usage as much as possible. I plan to buy a bike this spring for starters. We'll continue with small steps in our household too. We don't use AC (and if I didn't use it while 9 months pregnant in August, I don't think I need to start anytime soon...) and we're conscientious about conserving, but there's much more we can do. I'm going to track our monthly kilowatt usage and make a game of it. Someday we'd love to install solar panels. Um, I think a house may be necessary for that. First things first.
  • Make it local, organic and whole. I plan to continue with the next steps laid out here. I'm going to need to learn to preserve and can food, bake bread (any tips on getting in the habit of bread baking? easy whole grain recipes?) and other items from scratch, and I'm going to have to practice what I do know how to do. That means being organized about cooking on the weekends and planning ahead. When the time comes soon to start the Bean on solid foods, my goal is to make them myself with a food mill and some ice cube trays for storage. (I need to be on the lookout for this book at my favorite used book stores.) I want to really limit the processed foods that we buy - even if they are organic.
  • Cultivate my frugal side. I'd like to continue to decrease our family's role in the consumerism that seems to rule the day. I also know that if I want to make the goals outlined above work, we're going to need to be more frugal than ever (this is where my husband shudders!). The time has come to re-evaluate the budget. That means tracking expenses for a while. I don't mind spending money where I believe that I'm voting with my dollars, but I want to have some more dollars for the big projects that are ahead. I suppose that our new house ought to have furniture, yes?
  • Build community. We obviously can't go it alone. The support of our family and friends has helped us get to this point. We'll need their encouragement to take the next steps. We'll also need to build a community of people who share our beliefs and can help encourage us, teach us new skills, and make us laugh in the process. We also want to offer what we know and have learned to others. This blog is a good start, and I hope that you'll help feed the energy that I have for 2006 and that, in some small way, I can do my part to feed yours!

Peace and hope for 2006!