The art of the green compromise

As a hobby, pottery sounds pretty old school and traditional. Like organic agriculture, hand-weaving, and compost heaps, it’s been around for centuries. What could be more low impact and earthy than a craft centered around mud?

A whole lot. Here’s the wheel I use: it’s a Brent electric wheel, and it has horsepower. Horsepower. Like the other electric appliances in my life, it is powered primarily by dirty and non-renewable energy.

Next, there’s the kiln. If you thought refrigerators and ovens were energy hogs, they have nothing on the kilns in my studio. They are the size of industrial refrigerators; one is gas, the other is electric. Everything I make is fired twice, up to cone 10 (that’s around 2300F). It takes days for the kiln to warm up fully, and days for it to cool down. Although each firing includes many people’s work, it still works out to a significant amount of energy per person.

Finally, there’s the clay itself. Back in the day, potters set up shop around natural clay deposits, dug it up themselves, and refined it. Now the clay my studio allows is something called B-mix. I have been unable to find out how and where B-mix is mined, but if it’s anything like the clay that goes into kitty litter, it’s most likely strip-mined.

And there you have it. The one activity that makes me feel centered, exuberant, and in love with the whole world (that part clearly doesn’t last) is also acutely high impact. And even while I recognize this fact and wonder why, say, knitting reused plastic bags together couldn’t bring me the same happiness, I can’t imagine giving up pottery just to be greener. Eventually, if/when I have my own studio, I may be able to make some greener choices (local clay, kick wheel). But a kiln will never be low impact.

This is where the idea of compromise comes in. I disagree that going green should involve a high degree of self-flagellation — either in sacrificing the things that make us truly happy, or in feeling guilty over doing things that do. Life is a high impact activity. But if we can reduce our impact by cutting out the unsustainable things that don’t make us happier, there’s room for the things that do.

I’ve been thinking about this with regards to my car. It’s a hand-me-down from my father; a big, not particularly fuel-efficient sedan whose only claim to green is the paint color. I like it; I’ve anthropomorphized it to the extent that I am irrationally convinced that it takes care of me. But driving it doesn’t fulfill me or bring me joy. I am switching jobs to one that is literally a block away from the train station, and I’m starting to see that a single car household could be feasible. The car can go. Pottery stays.

Your green compromises might look different from mine. I don’t expect everyone to get the same enjoyment out of playing with mud. Perhaps your bliss comes from traveling around the world, or raising a family. Maybe you love going all out for holidays, or wouldn’t want to live without imported French wines. The key is to figure out those things (and I doubt there are that many) that make your life wonderful, rich, and fulfilling — and cut around them. Live what you love. Declutter the rest.

What do you compromise on? Do you also have a high impact love that you work around?


28 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by karen on 04/27/2011 at 08:59

    This is so scary. As I was replying to your comment on my last post, I was thinking that modern pottery making is not green at all. My best friend is a potter and my daughter loves to throw so I know all about not-so-green pottery hobby. But yeah, we rather have a very happy sane Jennifer than a grumpier (is that possible? LOL) Jennifer who is on the verge of insanity because she quit potting. No siree. Go on, sistah. Ditch the car and keep the wheel!!

    For me? It’s painting. Acrylic, oil, and whatever. It’s too expensive and time consuming to find eco-friendly paint for my once-in-awhile hobby.


    • Hi Karen,
      Hah! Yes, it is certainly possible for me to be grumpier! (You should see me when I’ve had to skip a week of pottery.) Happiness is worth quite a lot of impact. It’s just a matter of singling out those things that really do make a difference in your life — for me, those are pottery and my favorite little carnivorous domestic animal. 🙂 There’s a bumper sticker that says, “I’d rather be behind my potter’s wheel,” but I guess if I’m getting rid of the car, I don’t need it.

      The bowl was kind of a pain to carve (carving is always time consuming, but when it’s on the inside of a bowl, it’s especially hard on my hands), so I’m not sure I’ll be making too many more. Will let you know if I do, though.


  2. Posted by karen on 04/27/2011 at 08:59

    Love that bowl. Let me know when you give that away….in another giveaway.


  3. […] Full reference (Copyright acknowledge) This entry was posted in Declutter my Life on the Web and tagged around-mud, brent, craft-centered, electric-wheel, more-low, organic-agriculture, pottery-sounds, pretty-old, the-wheel, wheel. Bookmark the permalink. ← Garage Evolution – Sarasota FL – Verified Business Listings part 2 organize room! → […]


  4. Posted by Renee on 04/27/2011 at 09:36

    Gosh, I couldn’t agree more with this premise.

    And I cheer this *not* because it gives us on-the-way-to-green people an excuse to go halfway (or less), but because it’s realistic.

    We live in the modern world with all its attendant decadence. Most of us have homes in the suburbs or cities, not in an eco-village commune or an off-the-grid ranch.

    I’m not an apologist; I believe anything we can do helps. Like little green marbles rolling down a hill. There will be compromises all along the way. We just have to stay on the path.


    • Hi Renee,
      It can definitely be tempting to compromise on too much, but I also don’t see any point in being rigid or puritanical. We’re not going to be zero impact regardless of what we do; knowing what you’re willing to work on and what you need in your life to be happy seem like good starting points for making realistic changes. Love your attitude towards staying on the path even while acknowledging that compromises are inevitable.


  5. “Live what you love. Declutter the rest.” I love that line. The eco-guilt is very annoying. Ignorance is certainly much more bliss, which is probably why many of us choose eco-ignorance and don’t even think about these hard decisions. I have to draw some lines in the sand for my own life, and am still sorting out what that would look like.

    Good for you for thinking about giving up the car. I am a bus rider now, and loving the moments of peace I get when walking to the bus stop in the early morning (think birds chirping, sun shining) and then reading my book. 🙂


    • Hi Sherry,
      I used to be a bus rider, too, all throughout college. It was my time to stare out the window, think, read, or people watch. I learned to drive reluctantly and still don’t enjoy it. Unfortunately, the train station is still a couple miles away from me, so I haven’t figured out how I’m going to manage that. At best, I’ll get a bike. At worst, I’ll continue using my car for that shorter stretch.

      I haven’t drawn all the lines yet. All I know is that the cat and the pottery hobby aren’t going anywhere — they’re just too important to my happiness to give up for the sake of lowering my impact.


  6. By simply living we have a negative impact on the earth. So, in my mind, it’s not really about having no impact but rather minimizing our impact. So we take a look at what we do and how we live and we decide what stays and what goes. Then, we take a second, third and fourth look at what stays and find the least harmful impact of what we keep. For example, most of us are going to “keep” cooking … but how we do it matters. So we choose to cook in a manner that is the least harmful to the earth. Perhaps pottery, in itself, isn’t a “green” activity. But maybe there are ways to lessen it’s impact … perhaps running the kiln at night when draws on the electrical grid aren’t as high … perhaps there are choices in clays or glazes that are more Eco-friendly than others. It’s all about balance!


    • Hi Small Footprints,
      Agreed — zero impact isn’t going to happen, and making ourselves miserable just to strive for that doesn’t make sense. Right now, I’m at a pottery studio where I have to follow their rules. Only certain types of clay are allowed there, glazes are limited to the ones that are provided, and I have no control over how things are fired, or when. (Although it could be true that firing big batches of stuff is more efficient than the smaller batches I would fire in a smaller kiln.) Ideally, I’d like to have my own studio some day in which I could use local clay, or at least a mix of local and commercial clays, and learn to work with a non-electric wheel, but I don’t know when that will happen. In the meantime, there’s so much else wrong with other bits of my life that I am happy to change, cut out, or fix!

      I have the same attitude towards the cat. Her carnivorous diet has a significant impact on the planet (that’s how many pounds of meat?), but I’m not willing to not have a cat. With her, I can choose organic, US grown food, biodegradable kitty litter, and ‘toys’ from things that would otherwise be tossed out. It’s definitely not as low impact as not having a cat, but it’s a reasonable compromise.


  7. I totally agree that being green should be about compromise and balance. I too have cats, but I’m not going to get rid of them to become greener!
    We cannot have a zero impact, but if we are mindful about our consumptions we can thread more gently on our Planet.
    I love your bowl, by the way 🙂


    • Hi Cristina,
      Absolutely! Life without kitties? No way. If I wanted to be totally honest, I could admit that Brie would have ended up being much lower impact if the shelter had euthanized her after realizing she was blind and unsocialized. Most shelters would have. I’m so glad they didn’t. High impact or not, she adds a special type of sunshine to my life.

      Thank you for your kind words about my pottery. I know you have a well-developed appreciation for beauty, so I’m especially flattered.


  8. Oh Jennifer-what a beautiful post. You really hit the nail on the head and helped bring me back to reality. “…if we can reduce our impact by cutting out the unsustainable things that don’t make us happier, there’s room for the things that do.” I’m going to keep coming back to read that quote. It’s all about being happy and aware. I have a long list of things I can add to the compromise pile. I’ll have to give some thought to which are the first to go. I know the car has to stay. Keep on making those gorgeous pots!


    • Thank you, Lori! I could definitely be pushing myself harder to get rid of more unsustainable stuff I don’t need in my life, too. One thing I’ve been really resistant to for a long time is digital books and music. I’ve compromised by buying mostly used books and CDs, but I wonder if it’s time to reconsider my attachment to tangibility. Negotiating with myself is trickier than it seems like it should be.


  9. I’m married to a pilot. We would never be able to buy enough carbon offsets. But he has a job he LOVES that provides really nicely for our family, and planes aren’t going away. But… always eats at me and my planet loving heart.


    • Hi Andrea,
      Navigating the right compromise definitely sounds trickier for your situation. I have nothing riding on my high impact hobby except personal enjoyment, which makes it more of an indulgence than a job that is both loved and needed. I think it’s great that you’re thinking about carbon offsets (buying some is still better than buying none) and looking for ways to find the right balance. It’s not a competition to see who can come out with the lowest impact!


  10. I also love that last line – “Live what you love. Declutter the rest.” Life is definitely a high impact activity. So we must make compromises, keeping things we love, and thinking twice about the rest. Do we really need it? To make the logical argument, the greenest thing we can do is not live. But that’s not the point, so the best we can do is be conscious of our impact and try to live as lightly as possible. Your bowl is super cute!


  11. Hm, an interesting compromise. We definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about engaging in the activities that make us happy – then they’d stop making us happy!

    The trick is figuring out a way to analyze everything else without falling into the trap of justifying things that we’re addicted to but don’t genuinely make us happy, like cars: it’s often less convenient to use public transit or ride your bike everywhere, but who feels fulfilled by sitting in traffic or dealing with inept drivers on the road?

    That being said, driving to the train station and then taking the train to work is a great compromise. Maybe you can start to alternate between driving and cycling to the station?


    • Great point, Andrea. I agree that we’re not always good at distinguishing what makes us genuinely happy from the things that we’re merely used to having in our lives– it probably takes some degree of awareness to get to that stage. Kevin actually really loves to drive and finds something really therapeutic and calming about speed and an open road; I definitely don’t get it. I guess it all comes back down to consciousness again. Funny how my blog ends up spiraling around that central idea that we have brains and should use them.

      I’m starting to be more open about getting a bike, but I’m still terrified. Will let you know when the terror subsides (it may take a few more months for me to be OK with the idea…I’m slow that way).


  12. Posted by Amy on 04/29/2011 at 09:42

    I agree with many of the points here. Making compromises is better than giving up something that makes you happy. It’s easier to stick with a compromise than to give something up completely.

    I love books–print books. And I like having them to sit on my shelves so I can reread them whenever I want. I do feel guilty about all of the trees that died to become books, and the impact, but I’ve been more or less collecting them since I was a kid. I lend them out to people, and I buy second-hand whenever I can, so that’s part of my compromise. I’ve tried just borrowing books from the library, and 90 percent of the time, I end up going to the bookstore and buying it so I can have it! It’s bad…

    I try to be green in other ways though!


    • Hi Amy,
      Making ourselves miserable probably won’t encourage us to keep the changes we’ve made, so I see compromises are necessary and inevitable. I’m with you on the books. I love having them on the shelf, I love being able to thumb through them. I even like the crease on the back cover of my copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda that I know came from the time I stuck it in my backpack and forgot about it. 🙂 Material things have tactility and history, and I’m a sucker for both. However, I’ve been buying fewer and fewer books new. The library is great for screening out books; I end up returning most of them without a desire to own them. I’m also getting better at distinguishing between books I will want to return to, and books that I just enjoyed at the time and will probably never need to read again in my lifetime. That’s been helpful in paring down my collection.

      We all do what we can, how we can…I think that’s all we can ask of ourselves.


  13. Posted by Kris on 04/29/2011 at 10:46

    I’ve had the same argument with myself and others. I’m an avid reader and own almost all my books. If I want to read a book, I buy it. I don’t want an ereader, I don’t want to borrow from the library (except audio books). People who know I’m making an effort to be green constantly try to make me feel bad about my book collection. All the trees that are being wasted, all the ink being used, the delivery of the books, etc. But you know what..they make me happy. When I walk into my library, I’m at peace.’s cluttered at the moment since I just got bookshelves (handmade locally!), but even with the clutter I’m at peace. So no, I won’t stop buying books. But, I can make an effort in other areas of my life and that’s exactly what you are doing too. If only everyone else could start doing that.


    • Hi Kris,
      Woo! Handmade bookshelves! I used to just sit in front of my bookshelves — not reading, not touching, just appreciating my personal bibliography. I love the physicality of books and being able to flip through and reread favorite parts. I have some older and more collectible books, too, and the sense of history in their worn gilt bindings and slightly yellowed pages makes me pretty happy. I don’t think I’ll get rid of all my books, but I’m willing to buy only the ones I really enjoyed and will reread. Maybe, at some point, I will consider a Kindle. Not yet open to that, though.

      How annoying that people pick on your book habit. Can’t they find something in their own lives to pick on and fix?


  14. Posted by Emily on 04/29/2011 at 20:11

    I try in my day-to-day life to lower my impact on the planet and think it’s commendable that so many others are trying to to the same. I do believe that small, individual lifestyle changes can make a collective difference. But, I’m getting to the point where I feel like fussing over the little things is almost a waste of time and energy. Your clay, electric wheel, and kiln are NOTHING compared to the damages done by big corporations. Are the coal-powered electric power plants worrying about how to lower their carbon footprint? No. Are the factories in India and China blogging about how they can be more environmentally friendly? Are policies being put in place to promote localization of food and products, rather than shipping things across the world? No. Is BP going to start off-shore drilling again? Yes.

    These days, I feel that our collective time and energy would be better spent writing letters and emails, making phone calls, and signing petitions. I’m one to talk (I worry about the energy-efficiency of my crock pot of all things), but I think the next step for us “greenies” is to voice our opinions to the corporations and policy makers. We should let them know that environmental and health damage is not acceptable. This may be how we can make a BIG difference.


    • Hey Emily,
      Thanks for reminding me about the big picture. I find it harder to act this way because I’m so much an introvert — I have this attitude that I need to fix everything in my own life first and then worry about the outside, which definitely doesn’t take into account that the whole system is screwy, and that we as individuals are only part of the problem. I’ve started to be a little more proactive about writing letters to companies. I heckled TJs about the palm oil in their products and should keep expanding my heckling efforts.


  15. […] the problem, not really. Oh, I’m still plenty part of the problem; I have a car and a cat, a hobby that uses up indecent amounts of energy, and a serious internet/electricity dependency, but the problem is so much bigger than I am that […]


  16. Jen, have you thought of using a kick wheel?

    We used these at my college – had a whole row of them and they worked great. Powered only by the weight of the stone at the bottom and your leg to get it going.

    Also have you ever wood fired pottery? That takes a lot of wood and a more than 24 hours of stoking but doesn’t need any gas. If you can burn salvaged wood then you nix your gas consumption and don’t add any new load.

    Some potters don’t bisque their work – they fire green. Let the clay dry to leather hard and then kiln dry and fire all at the same time. You can apply glaze to a leather hard pot the same as you would apply a slip and then you’re done in one step.

    Another solution could be to do more low-fire work so the temperature doesn’t have to go as high. You could investigate pit firing as well? Use dung, straw, newspaper…. etc. Many possibilities that could produce interesting surface results and a fun experience!

    Alternatively you could just think of all the plastic bowls you are saving the world, and suddenly pottery becomes downright earth friendly. 🙂 Your bowls will last years and thousands of uses and are totally healthy, give off no weird chemicals when heated…. its in many ways a sustainable craft that has been practiced since pre-history.
    Love from another clay-lover! 🙂


    • Hi Julie,

      I had no idea you were a fellow clay junkie! 🙂 Yay!

      I used a kick wheel in high school (read: before I knew what I was doing on the wheel), and am fairly confident I could retrain myself to use one now. There’s actually one at my current studio that I could play with. They’re much heavier, so I’d have to get help moving it. I’m not yet to a point where I should be looking into buying wheels, but it definitely would make sense to try the kick wheel again!

      I have to say I like the smooth, polished look produced by conventional gas and electric kilns. Raku is beautiful but not all that practical, and pit firing sounds a little intimidating. They’re things I’d like to try sometime, but I would definitely like to have the option of a conventional glaze on a bisqued piece that I’m relatively confident won’t crack.

      Anyway…all this is somewhere in the vague future when I have the space for my own equipment. (Hope it’s not retirement…)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: