Archive for the ‘anti-consumerism’ Category

The Crankypants Guide to a Green Holiday

This is my idea of a Christmas tree. Photo credit: Humboldthead

Around this time of year, my Twitter feed explodes with things like, “Eco-friendly tree decorations!” and “Greenest stocking stuffers!” and “How to make eco-friendly tinsel out of Capri-Sun wrappers!” It’s all well-intentioned (or mostly; some of it is still trying to sell you stuff you don’t need and will never want), but at the same time, I have to wonder: how green can you really make the highest-impact, most wasteful holiday of the year by replacing things you don’t need with slightly lower impact versions of things you don’t need? 


Uh. Sorry. I think my Grinch is showing. But tongue firmly in cheek, I came up with a list of revised suggestions for a [more] eco-responsible[-ish] holiday. You know, for grouchpuss greenies. Extreme? Nah…

  • Be poor if you can possibly help it. (And if you can’t, I have to think that you’re not trying hard enough.) Poverty is the single best way to cut down on decorations, gift-giving, traveling, and impulsive holiday buys, like the bouncy inflatable Santa my neighbors down the street have. I’m finding that it also forces me to be more creative. Instead of buying stuff this year, I’m reusing, doing without, or coming up with creative workarounds and unusual presents (dress altering services, anyone?). Also, I hope you really, really like my pottery.
  • Stop traveling to see people you don’t like. Sharing DNA is not a good reason to spend your time or your carbon dioxide on people you can’t stand. I don’t recommend this as a networking strategy, but it works amazingly well if you want some extra time and peace for the holidays. And in the same vein:
  • Stop buying presents for people you don’t like. With regards to the people we don’t know well or like much, yet still feel obliged toward…can’t we just come to a non-gift agreement already? A plate of cookies and a card, maybe? A handshake to imply goodwill without the transfer of material goods?
  • Put off inessentials until the last minute. If you’ve waited till now to get up your Christmas lights, you might as well not do it at all because it’s so much effort for a two week show. I’ve had finals up until yesterday, so I’ve been putting off everything, with the end result that I am not likely to bake cookies, write cards, or make a mix CD this year. It’s okay. Every couple years is fine.
  • Try a non-meat-based holiday dinner. Taste-wise, Tofurky is somewhere between a rubber tire and a salt lick. But if you’re already feeling glutted (Thanksgiving was only a month ago) or guilty about the impact of your holiday ham, there are lots of tasty, meatless, or low-meat alternative holiday dinners. How about pumpkin and sage pot pies? A mushroom and tarragon pate? I have my eye on a couple of veggie holiday recipes to try this year.
  • Draw a line between doing things out of tradition and doing things that are meaningful to you. As the daughter of an angry ex-Catholic schoolgirl mother and a vaguely Confucian father, I can’t say that my family ever went all out for Christmas. But we did do the tree, the presents, the holiday ham. As a tree lover, I can’t bear the thought of cutting down a live tree just for decoration. As a tree hugger, I can’t see myself getting a fake tree. And as a vegetarian, I’m not about to go for the Christmas ham. So that leaves presents (but not many of them, because I’m poor), which I genuinely enjoy taking the time to choose or make, wrap, and give. Kevin and I also like to go for a drive in the redwoods on Christmas day, which isn’t very green, but has become a tradition that we’re willing to swap out others for.

My bottom line is the same as it usually is. Cut out the stuff that doesn’t actively, actually make you happy. Enjoy the stuff that does. And don’t let social expectations bully you into doing otherwise. Happy non-denominational winter holiday of choice!

I’m off school until the end of January, which is exciting because chemistry gobbled up all my brain bandwidth and left me gibbering about acid-base equilibria and stoichiometry and volumetric flasks. (You know this if you follow me on Twitter.) I have a few posts that I just haven’t had the brain space to write, so I’ll get those up and catch up with your blogs and resume normal functions until the next semester starts. Hope you’ve been well!

Why technology and energy efficiency will not save the planet

Greener than a Prius?

Let’s play a quick game of word association! I say ‘green car,’ you think:

a) Prius
b) Chevy Volt
c) Nissan Leaf
d) Model-T

David Owen, author of  The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, would go with D. His theory is that technological advances, including the ones that increase efficiency, actually tend to increase consumption. And also, good intentions don’t count for much. Case in point: New York City has a lower per capita impact than Portland because of high density living (shared utilities, no yards, less space = less stuff, really good, highly used public transportation). Your average NYC dweller might not care about vermicomposting, but probably has a lower impact than a treehugger living in suburban California. Feel-good vibes or not, the bottom line matters.

Let’s go back to the car thing for a minute. So, we have it on pretty good evidence that two things that effectively reduce driving are fuel prices and inconvenience (traffic, lack of parking). Getting a hybrid actually reduces your fuel price and, if you’re in an area where hybrids can use the carpool lane, makes it more convenient to drive.  Does getting a hybrid encourage you to drive more and offset your saved emissions? Or alternately, does the money you save get spent pursuing some other form of consumption? Same thing for air conditioning, solar power, EnergyStar televisions…If our technology is getting more efficient all the time, why are our emissions not heading satisfactorily south?

It’s a provocative question. David Owen suggests that looking to technology to save us might just be ass-backwards. For example, he thinks that a car that would cut down on emissions far more effectively than a Prius would be the following:

Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.

In other words, something kinda like a Model-T. Paired with today’s gas prices. And with most of the lanes on our highways closed and parking lots turned into high density housing. If this were the only car available, would you drive it? Or would you start looking for ways to live, work, and play closer to home? (This, more than just the emissions, is why cars make such a difference in our lives.) What if Australia were still a two year journey with 50% mortality away? Would you not cross it (and all other far away locations) off the list for your next holiday?

Neither galloping technological advances nor efficiency provides an incentive to reduce energy useQuite the opposite. Owen suggests that we need, if not mandated energy inefficiency that acts as a deterrent to the whole high-consumption structure of western civilization, then at least energy efficiency combined with enforced caps on how much we can use.

One problem is that the environmental movement emphasizes making small, voluntary changes. At the same time, technological advance makes it cheaper and easier for us to consume more, so it often comes down to individual willpower. Do I have the willpower to never fly for another holiday? Do I have the willpower to not drive my car, to not hit the button that turns on the AC on a hot day, to not take hot showers, to not use the electricity my condo is wired with, to not upgrade my 5 year old phone, to not replace my laptop? Even knowing the high environmental impact of each of these activities, I don’t think I do — at least not all the time. But a century or less ago, people did without these things and still had fulfilling, interesting lives. The more technology lowers the price of admission for all of these things, the more they start seeming like necessities rather than luxuries, the more the energy we use on them feels like a necessary expenditure.

One other interesting idea in Conundrum is how good intentions aren’t enough. It’s easy for us to point a finger at corporations for the planetary damage they cause, but how willing are we to make the type of big, infrastructure changes in our own lives that would make an effective difference? I’m not talking about changing a light bulb; I’m talking about the stuff that really matters personally and on a gut level: where we live, what we eat, how many children we have. Owen argues persuasively that high density living is the lowest impact option, while moving out to the country is essentially extending suburban sprawl. How ready am I to give up my dream of a cabin in the woods for the sake of being greener? I’m not.  Given how huffy people become when anyone suggests adopting a primarily vegan diet or having fewer kids, I’m skeptical that we will voluntarily make these types of changes on a species level.

No one likes to talk about sacrifice, and I don’t think self-sacrifice is going to be effective on the scale we need anyway. But something’s going to give eventually if we don’t want to live on a dead planet: maybe our free market economy, maybe our personal freedom to make unsustainable choices.

I guess my question is: at what point will sustainability become more important than my individual freedom to screw up the planet to the fullest extent of my financial limits? Would you support restrictions that sharply limited the amount of water, electricity, gasoline, and other resources you (and everyone else) could use — all in the name of sustainability?

Photo by Bill McChesney

4 Questions to Ask Before Buying Anything

A quick update on my no shopping, no buying March experiment: things are going fairly well, though I slipped up once and bought some locally made artisan chocolates (we were the only people in the shop, and having accepted a free sample, I found there was no getting out of it graciously — not that I tried very hard). I’ve also window shopped socially twice — a craft fair with a friend, a used bookstore with Kevin. Nothing too egregious.

Mostly what I’m finding out is that not buying is a matter of attitude. Previously, when I needed anything, my first impulse would be to go out and get it. Not having that option is making me explore other possibilities before buying. I’m thinking this is a good habit to get into and may extend my experiment into April. Here are four questions that I’ve been asking myself whenever I want to buy something:

1. Do I really need it? (This question, by the way, is a lot easier to ask before you see something you desperately want, so avoiding temptation is a good precaution.)  I thought I needed a new oven mitt because the neoprene bit on mine seemed to be melting, but I do have another oven mitt and lots of pot holders. I thought I needed a super lightweight cardigan/wrap to keep mosquitoes away in Hawaii, then realized that most of my wardrobe is lightweight but long sleeved anyway. I’m getting better at telling the difference between what I want and what I need…and I realize, once again, that I don’t need much.

2. Can I make it? I cook, sew, and, er, potter. (There must be a better verb for ‘flinging mud around and shaping it into usable items.’) Between the three of those things, the answer is often yes. (And if not yes, that I can jerry-rig something that works fairly well.) Two of my favorite potter’s tools at the studio are what used to be the steel binding straps around a package and an Ikea butter knife with a bent tip, made by my teacher. What the heck am I doing buying $10 tools at Clay Planet?

3. Can I get it for free?  If I can’t make it, I might have friends who can and would be willing to swap. Or they might have it and be willing to lend or give it to me.  Then there’s always Freecycle and the library. I was tempted by a book at the used bookstore yesterday called The Concise Book of Lying, all about the ins and outs of this most interesting human phenomenon. I put it down when the brilliant thought occurred to me that I could probably borrow it from the library. The fact is, our society is brimming with free resources that we often don’t even think to draw upon.

4. How much of my life energy is it worth? This question is taken from Your Money or Your Life (join the book club going on at Min Hus if you’re curious). It makes the simple but important point that we put a lot of our lives and energy into earning money, so we’d better make sure that what we’re spending it on is worthwhile. Pottery is absolutely worthwhile to me. But a new dress that will spend most of its time in the closet? A new oven mitt? Not so much.

There are other questions, of course. Questions about the item’s impact, about my long term plans for it, about how ethically (or not) it was manufactured. All of them are worth keeping in mind, too, but these four questions are often enough for me to decide not to buy something, and everything else becomes superfluous.

If you’re cutting back on your buying, how do you do it? 

(Also, I’ve been thinking about either adding a page on this blog or starting a separate blog for my pottery. If you’re interested in keeping up with my projects, which form would you prefer? Here’s my latest…)

5 Ways to Fight a Shopping Addiction

This month, perhaps after watching the video above, I’ve gone and done something essentially un-American: I’ve declared March to be a no shopping, no buying month for me. Food and other essentials like toothpaste that allow me to function as a normal member of society are excepted. I’m not a shopaholic to begin with, and my primary vice is cruising a thrift store or two once a month, but I know I still shop for bad reasons. (Most reasons are bad reasons when I already have everything I need.)

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with shopping every now and then, but as a national pastime that is wreaking havoc on the environment, it deserves some increased attention. How much of our happiness do we bank in shopping? How do we get off this track of ever increasing consumerism?

As a solution-oriented INTJ, I carefully catalogued all the bad reasons why I shop — and what to do about them. Which of these reasons do you identify with?

Bad reason #1:  Boredom with what I currently have. A quintessentially first world confession: I get bored with my wardrobe. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that I wear solid color 3/4 sleeve tees and jeans almost every day. If I go shopping, I am likely to find a solid color 3/4 sleeve tee in a shade of green I don’t have, or with a slightly interesting neckline. If I am sufficiently bored, and it is $5 at the thrift store, I am likely to buy it.

Solutions: Swap clothes with friends or attend (or organize) a local swap meet. If I’m not up for the sociability of a swap meet, I can always dig through the back of my closet to try on what I rarely wear.

Bad reason #2: A desire to get out of the house. I’m a homebody, but every now and then, the urge to get out overcomes my essential inertia. The thrift stores are the nearest and cheapest activities, so they’re a clear temptation.

Solutions: Make a mental list of activities I enjoy more than shopping (including walking in the woods, seeing a friend, socializing shy kitties, and going to pottery) and do one of them whenever I feel tempted to go shopping. Even if they’re a little further or cost a little more, they definitely bring me more satisfaction. I need to make more conscious decisions about how to spend my time. Shopping should not be a hobby.

Bad reason #3: Dissatisfaction with some aspect of my life. Frustrating day at work? Argument with the spouse? Cat being mean to me? We’re trained to believe in consumer therapy, even though I know from real experience that shopping tends to leave me in an exhausted, indecisive, zombie-like state.

Solutions: Address the core issues instead of seeking temporary distraction. Hah! Easier said than done, of course. Back when I was living at home after college, my dad would say or do something that would make steam come out of my ears — just about every week. Instead of confronting him, I went out and bought lip balm. One tube every time he pissed me off. I’m still working through my stash, and I moved out years ago. My current dissatisfaction is mostly with my job. Instead of going shopping, I should put the time into looking for a different job.

Bad reason #4: Keeping up with the Joneses. I hate to say it, but I am ever so slightly susceptible. I have one particular friend that this happens with (it’s a two way process). We’re often interested in the same things, but once she’s gotten one (or I have), the other is much more likely to want it. This year it was sweater dresses. A couple years before that it was the Celtic Woman CDs. Before that it may have been slightly broken and ‘unadoptable’ cats. (Hello, Brie!)

Solutions: Be more conscious about how buying decisions fit in with existing needs and interests.  I ended up getting rid of the Celtic Woman CDs. They never aligned perfectly with my interests (acoustic folk music), and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t actually like them very much. The sweater dress, on the other hand, is so comfortable and warm that I’ve been tempted to go to bed in it. It’s become one of my favorite winter wardrobe pieces.

Bad reason #5: Aspirational buying. I’m slightly ashamed to tell you how many pottery tools I have. In fact, I don’t even know the exact number. It’s a lot. I only use about five of them regularly. The others I bought for special projects, or because I thought they would do something they didn’t. For each of my hobbies, I’ve bought things based on aspirations I never actually carry out.

Solutions: Avoid ‘problem’ stores.  (Clay Planet for me, Michael’s for you?) Borrow tools from friends to test out before buying, buy only what I need for projects I have already started.

(?) Bad reason #6: Gift giving. This one, I think, I am least willing to fix. I enjoy giving presents, and I also enjoy looking for them. My gift list is short because I’m not close to many people, but I put a lot of effort into finding just the right things, and they’re usually well received.

Solutions: Switch to non-material presents like concert tickets, classes, meals out, and time spent together. Make more presents. Come to non-gift agreements with friends and family who are open to it.  When a material present is just right, compromise.

I believe shifting our time and energy away from consumerism can do a lot to make us happier and more fulfilled, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is. What are the bad reasons you shop? How do you deal with them?

The 8 Reasons We Don’t Go Green

Being in Target sucks up all of my optimism about our species’ environmental progress. Kevin and I needed Seventh Generation washing up liquid, so we ducked in and promptly found ourselves amidst endless rows of shiny plastic things, clothing probably made in sweatshops, processed foods, and conspicuous overconsumption. And we realized: this is how mainstream America still lives and shops. My life may revolve around very different ideas of consumption, but I am a minority.

It was massively depressing.

We’re up against so much in trying to shift towards a less consumerist, more sustainable lifestyle. It’s not about a few small, easy changes; it’s about embracing a whole different perspective. I’ve been thinking about my own green evolution and that of the people around me, and several clear reasons emerge why we don’t do more, lose bad habits, and otherwise get around to saving the planet already. Which of these do you identify with?

  1. We’re overwhelmed. The problems we face are so huge — ocean acidification, massive extinctions, climate change, fresh water shortages — that it already seems too little, too late for a lot of these things. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. And going green sometimes also feels overwhelming. There are too many new actions to consider, too many things to avoid, and too much guilt to deal with. The result: stagnation.
  2. We’re brainwashed. Most of us were brought up as consumers who spent a lot of time and energy thinking about buying things, even as kids. Opting out means leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of thinking patterns, learning new ones, and essentially breaking up with the dominant culture.
  3. We don’t think our actions will make any difference. This is one of my biggest stumbling blocks. Changing a lightbulb will not save the planet. Using a cloth bag will not save the planet. Even haranguing your congressman and starting a green movement will not save the planet. It helps, a little. Our individual ability to improve a huge, widespread, complex problem is limited.  That’s just the way it is.
  4. We can’t see the impact of our choices.  The shoppers at Target were probably mostly unaware of the environmental impact of the things they were buying. They didn’t know that their cookies contained palm oil that was grown at the cost of Indonesian deforestation. They didn’t know that the cotton shirts they were buying introduced a lot of pesticides into the environment and polluted waterways in third world countries. The links between environmental degradation and human rights abuses and shiny new things in a California store are far from transparent. And…
  5. We don’t want to know. I’ve offered to lend my copy of Food, Inc. to my parents and friends. They’ve refused. They’re not ready to know what really goes into their food, and I can’t really blame them. Our food industry is a strange and scary thing. It’s not just our food, but also just about every other major industry, from cosmetics to clothing. The truth is available, but we don’t go seeking it out.
  6. We’re too busy. It takes a certain amount of emotional space and head space to care about something as abstract as the environment. If your everyday life is busy, hectic, and full of other concerns, there’s no room left to care about something that seems far away and only tangentially connected to daily life. We’re also easily distracted. See celebrity gossip, sports, and shopping.
  7. We’re afraid. I often wonder how much of the climate change denial is simply rooted in the fear that we’ve deeply, truly messed things up this time. It’s interesting how we’re grasping at straws to disprove climate change, looking for any evidence that a) it’s not happening, or at least b) it’s not our fault. Instead of dealing with the situation, we’re looking for new ways to bury our heads in the sand.
  8. Change is hard. It is. And although I’d like to be encouraging and positive, making my life more sustainable has involved significant expenditures in time and energy. Greener choices aren’t always more convenient. They don’t always work as well as conventional options. They sometimes cost more.  And many of them involve significant changes to daily routines. Truth.
Of course, individuals are only part of the equation. At least as much of the problem are governments that either can’t or won’t act decisively to mitigate the impact of climate change, and corporations that prioritize immediate profit over longterm planetary health. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg kind of argument — do consumers control corporations and government, or is it the other way around?
I’m sure it’s both. In order to get to the point of influencing governments and corporations, we need to care about the problem as individuals. And for all its apparent ineffectiveness in the face of such a large problem, I think that’s why individual actions and attitudes still matter.

 If you think about areas of your life you haven’t tried to make more sustainable, what are the reasons behind your inaction? Have I missed any major ones?

The Grumpy Green Approach to Holidays

 I no longer celebrate Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, or St. Patrick’s Day. Christmas is on the wane, and Easter (except for the bag of Cadbury mini eggs given to me that I ate guiltily, thinking about child labor) is on the chopping block this year. I haven’t deliberately cut out all these major American holidays. I’ve just lost interest. Opting out of a lot of mainstream American values has meant opting out of many of the holidays they inspired. Consider that:

  • I am not Christian
  • I am not sociable
  • I don’t partake in conspicuous consumption
  • I refuse to spend time with people I don’t like
  • I don’t eat animals
  • I don’t drink
  • I don’t have or want kids
That leaves, what, Groundhog’s Day and Blind Cat Appreciation Day? Factor in my naturally unexuberant personality, and grouchpuss turns out to be an unexpectedly low impact lifestyle.

I wonder how many people celebrate holidays that they don’t really enjoy or find much meaning in simply because they’re expected to. It’s a ritual to spend two hours swearing at your tangled Christmas lights. You hate the smell of eggs, but you dye them anyway for Easter. You force yourself to spend Thanksgiving with the evangelical cousins who make no attempt to conceal their belief that you are a witch. (True story.) You eat too much, buy too much stuff, stress too much, only to find that you get absolutely zero out of these occasions.

Not only that, but holiday traditions, especially the newish ones, are extraordinarily wasteful. I’ve been reading all week on how to ‘green’ your Easter, from the basket to the grass, eggs, chocolate, and basket fillers. My conclusion: it’s a lot of work to turn a holiday centered around consumption into one that’s centered around [somewhat] sustainable consumption. Is it worth it? If your kids really love this holiday, or if you find it personally meaningful and need the fake grass to keep it that way, OK. But wasteful holiday traditions that you don’t even enjoy strike me as being completely pointless, especially from an environmental perspective.

Celebration (or commemoration) doesn’t require a lot of accoutrements. Get the people you love together and enjoy your time with them. Done. No plastic streamers necessary.

Or you could stay at home and play with the cat, if you’re not the celebratory sort. The point is this: tradition shouldn’t bully us into being wasteful. Or doing things we don’t want, or wanting things we don’t actually want. Making more conscious choices about how we consume and why is ultimately a big part of the lower impact equation.

Do you celebrate traditional holidays? Are they worth an attempt to ‘green’ them up, or would you be just as happy to opt out of some of them?

The Impact of Freebies: An Earth Day Post

The word ‘free’ has its own special magic for many of us. I’m the daughter of Asian immigrants who came to the US with nothing, worked hard, saved up, and made it into middle class tax hell. My childhood was full of extra napkins and ketchup packets saved from McDonald’s, red and white wet wipe packages from KFC, squeezy stress relief gadgets from computer conventions, and even the odd stuffed animal from a free bin at a garage sale.

Even with my commitment to reducing, free still has an undeniable allure for me. This time of year, I’m thinking about the impact of all the free stuff that gets handed out at Earth Day celebrations: T-shirts, reusable bags, reusable water bottles, flip-flops, key chains, and the inevitable Random Plastic Kitsch for the kids.

You’ll find two basic mindsets on Twitter about Earth Day. We have the ‘Yay, Earth Day!’ camp, and the ‘What a pointless, greenwashed excuse for shopping’ camp. As usual, I’m somewhere in the middle. I do think companies (even green ones)  who advertise Earth Day sales are kind of missing the point, and that consumers who see Earth Day as another shopping occasion are equally missing the point. But I won’t deny that Earth Day is a good opportunity to raise awareness and preach outside the choir.

But do we really need free stuff to do that? It is so easy to equate zero impact on our wallets with zero impact on the Earth. It’s like the environmentally conscious part of my brain switches off when it comes to free. I think, “I didn’t buy anything, so I didn’t mess up the planet more.” Not true.

Everything, whether it cost us money or not, has an environmental impact. Free is a myth. The reusable bag was probably made in China and may well contain toxic dyes and chemicals that leached into the atmosphere. The T-shirts are probably not organic cotton, but even if they are, represent a significant investment of natural and human resources for something we may not even wear more than a few times. Just because it’s being offered to us at an Earth Day celebration doesn’t mean it’s green, or that we should take it. (Case in point: how many reusable bags do you have?) I’m not much of an activist, but maybe even turning Earth Day kitsch down isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a way to get companies not to make it.

There are many ways to celebrate Earth Day that don’t involve conspicuous consumption. Many, many blogs have offered suggestions: go for a walk, plant a tree, pick up trash, or just get outside and appreciate the fine color of the sky and the texture of clouds. Being neither social nor celebratory, I’m not sure I’ll be attending any celebrations. But if you go, I hope you’ll turn down that extra reusable bag you don’t really need.

How are you celebrating Earth Day? Do you take the Earth Day freebies?

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