Archive for the ‘consciousness’ Category

Seafood Watch: Do You Eat Sustainable Seafood?

California Leopard Sharks

Leopard Sharks. Credit: MoonSoleil

I admired the jellyfish, the octopus, and the nudibranchs, but in the end, it was the California leopard sharks that won me over. They cuddled up against the diver and nudged their heads against her arm, taking squid gently from her hand. It was the first time ever a shark had elicited an involuntary “Aww” reaction from me.

I’ve been going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium since I was eleven. (Honor roll field trips FTW!) There are arguments against keeping animals in captivity, but for me, getting up close and personal with a leafy sea dragon reminds me why I care about this planet and inspires me to keep caring.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium earnestly promotes ocean conservation, particularly through its Seafood Watch program. Overfishing is one of the most critical issues facing our ocean ecosystems, and the MBA’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guide distills a whole lot of solid scientific data into a handy wallet-sized guide of which fish you can enjoy without guilt, and which you’re really better off avoiding. They take into account fishing practices, population, and impact on habitat. Your seafood choices matter! 

Seafood Watch. Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

I’m vegetarian and have fond memories of my pet betta fish (RIP, Superfishy), but if you eat seafood, please download the free pocket guide or Seafood Watch app and tell your friends about it. There are different regional versions that address the choices you’re most likely to face at the supermarket or in a restaurant.  They’ve made making good choices as easy as possible.

Since I’m nosy, I got in touch with Ryan Bigelow, the Seafood Watch Outreach Manager, and peppered him with questions about Seafood Watch. Read on for his thoughtful answers.

Q: How did the Seafood Watch program get started?
A: Conservation has always been one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s founding principles. Back in 1999, we were looking at our internal purchasing decisions. (The aquarium goes through a lot of seafood to feed its animals!) We started putting out informational placards on our restaurant tables about sustainable seafood. When those started disappearing, rather than hiring more security guards, we came up with the Seafood Watch pocket guide. Since then, we’ve handed out more than 40 million pocket guides and worked with major companies like Whole Food and Aramark, restaurants, commercial fisheries, aquariums, and other conservation groups. Basically, we provide the science behind the sustainable seafood movement.

Q: How’s the ocean looking in 2013?
A: There’s room for hope, especially in US, Canadian, and Australian waters – places where government regulations have been driven by consumer consciousness. More and more fishermen are on board. We’re definitely not out of the tunnel yet, but there’s some hope, including for species like the bluefin tuna.

Q: What are the most important factors that go into deciding how sustainable a species is?
A: Our scientists look at both wild seafood and aquaculture (farmed seafood) and evaluate their impact in a lot of ways. For wild seafood, we look at how a species is fished, levels of bycatch, habitat damage, overfishing, and more. For aquaculture, we go by what type of species is raised, what it eats, and how the farm affects the environment. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has 2,500 total recommendations, about 270 of which are online. A pocket guide has about 75. It’s incredibly difficult to condense so much information, but our goal was to offer enough information to help people make good choices without being overwhelmed.

Q: Would you ever put invasive species like Asian carp on the green list?
A: Yes, we absolutely would. The problem is that there is rarely an established commercial fishery for invasive species. And there’s potential that creating a market for invasives is that fisheries might not just fish until a species was gone – they might want to maintain it or even expand it.

Q: The pocket guide makes distinctions between fish raised or caught in different ways or places. What if we can’t get this information?
A: Sometimes consumers just won’t have the information they need, and this brings up issues like the need for better labeling. For example, wild salmon caught in Alaska might be processed in China before being sent back to the US. It can legally be called wild Alaskan salmon, but it’s probably not what you had in mind. Even though people won’t have all the pieces, we hope Seafood Watch gets people to think about the issues, ask questions, and start conversations. If you can’t tell if something is sustainable, we recommend not buying it. Most restaurants will have at least a few options that are on the green or yellow list.

Q: What about pet food? I have no idea what kind of tuna is in tuna for cats, much less how or where it was caught. Is there a way to buy canned fish responsibly for my cat?
A: We pay attention to what kinds of people are interested in our program, and pet owners keep coming up. The best answer I can give right now is that we’re looking into it. The problem with pet food is that it’s made as cheaply as possible, and that often means that sustainability was not a consideration.  A good rule of thumb  – not just for pet food – is that if it’s caught in an environmentally responsible way, it will be marketed that way. For example, troll/pole caught canned tuna is always touted as such.

Q: Why doesn’t the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommend just eating less fish?
A: That hasn’t been our message up to now; rather we recommend that people try to diversify the types of fish they eat, moving away from just tuna, shrimp and salmon . We work closely with fishermen and want to support those doing the right thing. We don’t want people to think that eating seafood is bad – we believe seafood can be sustainable if done well, and we want people to continue enjoying it.

Q: I’m a vegetarian. What else can I do to take care of our oceans?
A: Even if you don’t eat seafood, you can help get the message out, ask questions at restaurants and supermarkets, and advocate for the oceans. Any support is good support!


Thanks, Ryan! I hope you’ll take a moment to download the guide and tuck a copy in your wallet today. I’m planning to snoop around my local supermarket and see if they’re up to snuff and write letters if they’re not…

Do you eat seafood? Do you try to ensure that it’s sustainable?

Breaking up with eco-perfectionism

Tea ball. Evil incarnate? Photo credit: Jlodder

For the first six months of this year, I skirmished daily with my tea ball. Actually, make that tea balls. I am outnumbered 2 to 1. One has a tiny metal latch that you need to thumb closed. The other is spring-operated and shuts with the predatory snap (if not the force) of a bear trap.

Convinced as I was that my daily tea bag habit was trashing the planet, I was resolved to give up tea bags altogether in favor of loose leaf tea. Every morning, I awoke determined to conquer these simple kitchen gadgets that would make me a better greenie.

Yeah. And pretty much every morning, the score card looked like this: Tea ball: 2; Jennifer: 0.

These things are evil.  So evil that I am tempted to start calling people I dislike ‘tea balls.’ They sneered at my attempts to close the latch in my pre-caffeinated total lack of motor control. They snapped shut on my fingers. They leaked out bits of tea (rooibos was the worst) so that every cup ended with a gritty mouthful of dead leaves. They were a pain to clean, so I left them in the sink. In the morning, I would blearily dump out a sodden ball of tea leaves, attempt a quick swipe with a sponge, and start the whole process over again.

In June, I signed up for a class that required me to be out of the house and awake enough to drive by 7:30am every day. About halfway through, I made some quick triage calculations and caved. I went for a box of 100 Irish breakfast tea bags for the following reasons: 1) I am exactly the kind of tea drinker who scoffs at boxes of 20 bags; 2) Irish breakfast has a lot of caffeine; and 3) the more bags in a box, the less likely they are to be individually packaged.

Now it’s October. I’m not sure where my tea balls have gone. I secretly hope the dishwasher has eaten them.

I’ve struggled for a long time with whether tiny personal actions matter. My response has usually been to say that they matter in a symbolic way, as daily, personal reminders to live consciously. What I never thought to ask myself is this: what is the trade off of agonizing over spinach bags, tea bags, plastic dental floss boxes, the occasional disposable paper coffee cup (used to hold tea, of course)?

I think there is a cost, actually. Speaking for myself, I’ve always had a finite amount of head space. (Go ahead, make a crack at my intelligence.) I am totally the Anti-Multi-Tasker. If I’m concentrating on my blog, I can’t work on my novel. If I’m fully engaged at work or school, I can’t really do justice to my blog. There’s just not enough time or space in my head to go full tilt at everything I’m interested in at the same time. And what I’ve come to realize is that fretting about the small stuff leaves me with less energy, time, and headspace to do things that might actually benefit this planet. Like plant trees, volunteer with my local native plant society, get involved with local conservation. For me, the fact that there’s always more to fix in my own life has been a sort of excuse not to get outside of it. And finally, there’s the danger of that ‘OK, I’ve done enough’ complacency when I have arranged my life to relatively green standards.

It’s true that there is plenty of room for improvement in my own life. I still have a car. I still haven’t made an attempt to vermicompost indoors. I still haven’t switched to cloth toilet paper. I still use tea bags. But…you know what? I’ve been a vegetarian for years. I’m not having kids. I travel maybe once a year. I don’t shop much. I live with another person and share resources. For a developed world citizen, I’m doing okay on most of the big impact lifestyle habits. Actually, I’m tired of futzing around with the little stuff that might reduce my negative impact ever so slightly, and am finally maybe-kind-of-ready to leave my armchair.

My growing issue with focusing on green living is that it tends to start and end with one’s own life, and the problems we’re dealing with are so much bigger than that. They require education, research, legislation, and communication.

I’m delighted to announce that I am finally getting close, after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically literate is another. And after that? Who knows?

What’s your relationship with eco-perfectionism? Has it changed over the years?

Guest post: Farmer Haley’s Take on GMO Labeling

Earlier this summer, I wrote a post for farmer Mike Haley on what GMO labeling looked like from a consumer’s point of view — well, mine, specifically. He agreed to return the favor and talk about how labeling would affect his farming practices. It’s a perspective I haven’t seen elsewhere and that I think adds to the conversation on this complex and emotional issue.


Farmer Haley’s corn fields

Before I get into the post itself, I would like to thank Jennifer Mo for getting me thinking more about the topic of labeling foods that are derived from genetically engineered (GE) crops and the effects that proposition 37 in California will have on farmers like myself.

As a farmer who grows both GE corn and GE free corn, I often am asked how I feel about this labeling question.  I must admit while I lean towards no labeling, I also have mixed feelings as to whether or not this is the correct stance to take on the issue.  Rather than give my opinions, I want to share how this proposition would affect my farm.

There are several reasons why we plant genetically engineered crops on our farm.  In corn, we choose to plant a variety that was developed to resist insects naturally rather than having to use insecticides that are not as effective and can be very harmful to the handler (me) if a mistake is made when applying it.  Depending on the type of soil, history and current weather trends, we often decide that insects will not be a major issue in a field and plant a non GE variety allowing us to save money, if the trend holds true and we don’t have any issues with insects in that field.

Currently, when it is time to harvest, no measures are taken to completely segregate corn varieties that are GE as there is no premium to do so; we get paid the same price for both GE corn and non GE corn.  It’s hard to tell what would happen if Proposition 37 passed, but I am assuming that my mill would want me to find a way to separate my corn into batches of non GE as well as that that contains GE corn. In other words I would be expected to follow procedures of identity preservation (IP) of all the seed on my farm.

Sounds simple right?

Not really, as I would have to start this process early in the spring.  While planting my fields, I would have to completely clean my planter out when switching from GE varieties as just one seed could completely contaminate the rest of the field.  Then in the fall I would have to do a thorough cleaning of my combine, trucks and wagons when switching between the same fields. Furthermore, it would also be necessary to shut the combine down for about 24 hours while the corn dryer had a chance to catch up so I could clean it out and switch it to the proper grain bin to maintain the identity of the seed.  All of this is possible, but requires valuable time to accomplish and could mean the difference between getting our crop harvested before it snows or not.

It doesn’t stop there, as the real tasks occur after my grain leaves the farm.  Each truckload will have to be tested to determine if the genetic makeup of the grain has been engineered before the farmer would be allowed to dump it into its specified bin, making the lines and time spent at grain terminals longer, as testing delays the process. For the grain terminals, it would also mean having to build more infrastructures that can handle both types of grain without contamination of the non GE varieties.  From this point on, the grain would have to remain segregated.  From railcars to processors and packers and finally the grocery store where it can be labeled as containing GMOs, each step is important and a level of quality control will need to be added.

All of this adds up in cost that will get passed on to the consumer.  On my farm it would be an added cost of about $.50 per bushel on a normal year, or 10 percent, and I could only imagine the increased costs would be similar through each step, adding a huge cost to the amount of food individuals spend on food each year.

All that said, I truly believe that if individuals want labeling, it should be provided, and it is in several ways already on a voluntary basis.  If one wishes to avoid GE foods, it’s simple to purchase organic foods or even look for non organic foods that have the Non-GMO Projects label on them.  These choices may cost more, but that is because it costs more to raise food and preserve the identity of foods by those standards.  This is where I have mixed feelings. Is it right to force everyone to pay more for food just so those who are concerned can have more choices?

The USDA, EPA , FDA and hundreds of other experts say it is as safe as other plants found in nature as other food and from my experience on my farm, I know it has a favorable environmental profile. I’m completely comfortable with it. But I understand others may not be and I’m glad to know the market provides clear choices for them.


About Mike Haley

Farming’s n my blood! Love raising crops & Simmental Cows! N my spare time I enjoy writing, find me on Twitter @justfarmers & @farmerhaley email: farmerhaley(at)

Guest Post: Non-Violent Communication (part 1)

This is a guest post from Ian Peatey, a Non-Violent Communication Trainer, on a system of communication based on empathy rather than competition. I’m not qualified to write on this topic myself, though I have seen that it works and fosters real conversations instead of shouting matches. Environmental issues are complex, and many of us are deeply emotionally invested in our perspectives on them. Listening and responding empathetically are not instinctive, but they can be taught. I hope that non-violent communication will help us to listen better and find solutions.

Is there a better way to communicate? Image credit: Akuppa

I turn 50 next year (gulp!) and I can point to maybe a small handful of events so far that triggered really huge changes. One of those transforming moments was coming across Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in 2001.

On the face of it NVC is simple and obvious – deceptively so. Scratching away its layers and patiently learning how to integrate it revealed a rich, practical approach to myself, relationships and social structures. It also turned upside down some of the things I’d taken for granted all my life about basic concepts such as honesty and co-operation.

At its core is a positive and compassionate view of the human race. Yes, of course, there are plenty of people I could label selfish, aggressive, violent or mean – in fact, I might even use those words to describe myself from time to time.

NVC takes the view we are all doing the best we can to meet our needs and we all enjoy giving when we are free to do so. It maintains that how we’ve been educated to think, communicate and act sometimes interferes with this positive, compassionate orientation. And by re-learning some of this education we can choose modes of living that help us connect with others, resolve our differences constructively and seek peaceful ways of living.

Me and NVC (or NVC and I)

My introduction to NVC was pure chance combined with laziness.

I was sitting in the main hall at a very large conference, trying to decide which workshop to go to next. A guy came and sat on the edge of the stage, talked a bit, pulled out a guitar and started singing in a rather tuneless voice. I can relate to ‘tuneless’ but didn’t want to listen to 2 hours of it. I glanced at the programme and saw it was the beginning of ‘Nonviolent Communication’ presented by Marshall Rosenberg. It didn’t sound really appealing but I was just too lazy to move and by way of justification, told myself there might be more to it than crap songs.

So I stayed.

Fast forward and today my life pretty much revolves around NVC. I run workshops on it, write about it and do my very best to integrate it into how I relate to myself and those around me. I’m even married to it – my wife is also an NVC trainer. There are many different aspects of NVC that changed how I live and I’d like to touch on 4 elements that had the biggest impact on me.

1. Needs

Needs are central to NVC – not as a consumer driven or egotistical concept but as the very real things enabling us to survive and thrive.

Needs are what underpins everything we do and include basic physical needs (like protection, food and water) and more complex needs (such as belonging, meaning, understanding, beauty, emotional safety). They are also one way we can bridge the differences between us and find that  place where we meet as human beings. By finding the needs we’re trying to meet (my needs and your needs) we’re much more likely to find sustainable solutions than if we stick only with ideas and opinions.

This was quite a different way of looking at needs than the one I grew up with. I believe needs are often misrepresented. I mean, who wants to be seen as ‘needy’ or ‘selfish’ (only looking after their own needs).

I was brought up to put my own needs to one side and do things for other people out of duty and obligation – in other words, to be obedient. Obedience was promoted as a virtue – to parents, teachers, bosses and any other authority figure. I’d also bought into the notion of needs promoted by the mass media which got me to think I ‘need’ certain products, brands or services in order to fit in, be successful or get the girl!

From a certain perspective it’s not so hard to see why needs get misrepresented. People who are clear and assertive about their own needs tend to be quite difficult to control and don’t make compliant consumers!

Quick Exercise – think of something someone does that drives you crazy.

  • Which needs of yours are not met when they do this?
  • Which needs of theirs might they be trying to meet by doing this?
  • Are there other ways they could meet their needs while also valuing yours?

For me it’s people throwing litter in the playground where my kids play. My needs are for care, safety and health and I guess the needs of those throwing the trash are about ease and (possibly) being noticed/getting attention. Just getting to this step I find helpful and I feel calmer. I no longer see these (usually faceless) people as moronic louts who don’t care about anybody. I start to get a tiny glimmer of them as people, just like me, doing the best they can – albeit, it in a way I really don’t like.

Overflowing bin with doomed recyclables. Image credit: Ecstatic Mark

Jennifer: I get so angry when I see recyclables in the trash. Despite the fact that we have super-easy single-stream recycling, people still throw away their trash without sorting it, and their big white trash bags contain highly recyclable glass, aluminum, and plastic. I think it makes me even angrier that it often comes from families — Enfamil containers, other kiddie items — because surely they have the highest stake in the future? If their recyclables are easy to reach, I fish them out, but it’s really gross and gets my back up.

My needs that are not being met: the need to respect limited resources, for thoughtful behavior, and a planet-centered worldview. Their needs: convenience or to save time (I’m sure they are busy and sleep deprived). I don’t know what a compromise would look like — I can’t talk to them because I don’t know who they are, and I never see them doing it. Thoughts, Ian?

I’d love for you to try this thought experiment, even if, like me, the solutions aren’t immediately obvious. When it comes to environmental issues, what makes you angry, and what needs of yours aren’t being met?

Go on to part 2: Honesty

About the Author

Ian Peatey is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) living in Romania where he runs and writes for NVC World and does a bit of business training. Together with his wife, he runs
the Romanian Association for NVC delivering workshops and training courses aimed at supporting parents and couples as well as organisations involved with children. His main contributions to the environment are refusing to eat meat, walking a lot (and not owning a car) and buying local, natural wherever possible. On the other hand he does have 3 kids but he’s not willing to give any of them up.

He can be contacted here.

8 Delicious Uses for Ugly Fruit

Mutant bell pepper. Image credit: Moria

It’s no secret in the farming community that a lot of what they produce never sees the inside of a human digestive tract. Why? Because it’s ugly (or undersized, scarred, has a bruise, or is just on the wrong side of ripe).  As consumers, we want our produce to be both beautiful and tasty. And as organic peach farmer Nori Naylor points out, this attitude results in a lot of waste before we even leave the market. Even worse when consumers demand heirloom varieties and then refuse to buy them because they’re not as pretty!

I’d love to say that I slap on a blindfold and choose my peaches democratically, but the truth is that I’m that annoying person standing in front of the peaches who spends ten minutes looking for the perfect peach: round, beautifully blushed, fragrant, and practically glowing with its own inner light.

Food waste is a tremendous misuse of resources and how we choose our food — as well as whether we eat it once it comes home with us — makes a difference. Some of it is out of our hands (e.g. bird or insect-damaged fruit doesn’t meet safety standards), but some of it isn’t. Now that I think about it, most of what I love to do with fruit doesn’t require it to be beautiful. Here are some of my favorite ways to use ugly fruit. What about you?

(And the inevitable caveat: not all of these ideas are low energy, but they’re still more energy and water efficient than throwing it away. Probably.)

1. Salsa

This heirloom tomato kinda looks like an embryo. Image credit: ellenm1

Heirloom tomatoes are pretty gnarly looking compared to the perfectly uniform beefsteaks at the supermarket. Even if the shape doesn’t put you off, the splits might. Here’s a recipe from Jan at Slow Money Farm for salsa that’s awesome when you make it with ripe heirloom tomatoes (no matter how ugly).

about 1 lb of ripe tomatoes, chopped and seeded
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 oz green chilies, chopped (or another hot pepper)
1/3 c chopped red bell pepper
1/3 c chopped yellow bell pepper
1/2 c chopped green bell pepper
2 T red wine vinegar
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper (or to taste)
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
tortilla chips

Combine all, stirring thoroughly to mix. Can be done in a food processor and adjusted to be thinner / thicker as desired. Thanks, Jan!

2. Fruit leather

Paying .75 cents each for these highly plastic-wrapped bits of dried fruit is ridiculous.  When I was growing up (waaaay back when), we made fruit leather in big cookie-sheet-sized rectangles. We might not have saved any resources if we individually wrapped them for later — but that issue never came up. We ate it all right then and there. Here’s a basic fruit leather recipe. I remember that the stuff with raspberries and apples was especially good.

3. Applesauce (or other fruit sauces). 

Mottled organic apples. Image credit: Gudlyf

Here’s how I make applesauce. (I’m an imprecise cook. Sorry.)

  • Peel apples, cut roughly into fourths around the core.
  • Put as many as I have (at least 6) or will fit in my big 4 quart pot.
  • Add a little water to the bottom of the pot (dunno, 1/2 cup?)
  • Add a TB or two of sugar and a hefty dash of cinnamon
  • Simmer for about 30 minutes on medium with the lid on
  • Mash, and adjust sugar if necessary.

Need more precise directions? Here’s a basic applesauce recipe. I have it on the authority of a local heirloom apple grower that mixing apple varieties produces a richer, more complex apple flavor. (Read: whatever’s left in the produce drawer.) Applesauce can substitute for oil in some baked goods if you’re watching your weight; just store in the freezer.

4. Fruit crisp

Can’t use up those peaches in time? Image credit: orchidgalore

I make a kicky, zippy plum crisp every year when we’re inundated with plums from my mother’s tree. However, most stone fruits (and berries) make great crisps. Peach and strawberry, blackberry and apple…there are lots of possibilities here. You almost don’t need a recipe to make crisp, but I particularly like this one (I omit the bottom crust, which makes it both easier and healthier.)

5. Jams / conserves / jellies

I haven’t gotten into home canning yet. That’s why this section is blank. I’ve been told it’s fun.

6. Smoothies

Another obvious one. I tend to put in whatever fruit that needs using up with a splash of orange juice, sometimes some frozen fruit to round things out. It always ends up tasting fine. Then again, I avoid putting in vegetables. I can’t bring myself to drink anything dark green. (My lukewarm attitude towards kale and wheatgrass: yet another way in which I fail as a greenie.)

7. Fruity ice cream / sorbet

Imperfect plums. Image credit: bangli 1

My mother recently gave me a secondhand Donvier ice cream maker that had sat in her cupboard, unloved, for many years. Iffy as I was about yet another single-function kitchen gadget, I tried it and fell in love. Regular ice cream is too heavy and too sweet for me, but I’ve been mixing up tangy fruit ice creams using perfectly ripe summer fruit.  Slightly overripe or blemished would be fine as well. This recipe, for plum ice cream, is delightful (and easy!) and is a great base recipe to try other fruit ice creams.  (Go easy on the sugar if you’re using a really sweet fruit, like peaches — 1/2 cup is plenty.) Next up: coconut milk based ice creams.

8. Avert eyes. Proceed as usual.

I think my point is that very little of what we do with food requires it to be beautiful. I mean, it’s just going to end up being macerated, mixed with stomach acids and pancreatic juices, and dripped down as a whitish homogenized substance to our small intestines. (Just took a test on the digestive system and am full of details you don’t want to hear.)

Here’s my challenge to self: if I pick up a piece of fruit with a mild bruise or scar this week, I’m still going to get it as long as it passes the sniff test. If I don’t die, I’ll keep doing it.

What would you add to this list? Do you eat ugly fruit?

Finally, check out this ringspot virus infected watermelon. It’s perfectly safe to eat, but it takes the cake for bizarre looks.

Want to feel connected to nature? Go field sketching.

3pm at the barn. It’s at least 90 degrees in the sun, and I’m sitting under a willow tree by an overgrown pond, waiting for my friend as she visits with her horse and does mysterious things (not sure I really want to know what it means to ‘clean his sheath’). It’s a parched, dusty, yellow afternoon. Out on the pond, invisible frogs make thrumming noises that sound more like generators than croaks, an egret (or perhaps a crane or a heron — I don’t know my birds) stalks on long legs, redwing blackbirds swoop from above, and hundreds of blue and red dragonflies shimmy a few inches above the water. I am sketching to pass the time.

This is one of the plants growing by the pond. It’s called little mallow (Malva parviflora), and you probably have some near you.

Caption: ‘Mallow – edible but slimy’

(Here’s a real photo of little mallow. Nope, I definitely don’t have a future as a botanical illustrator. Oh well.)

As my friend Emily puts it, sitting quietly outdoors is a great way to reconnect with nature. 

I’m not a spiritual person, but field sketching is one way I connect to the world around me. I wouldn’t be an environmentalist if I didn’t have that appreciation of all the weird and wonderful things that call Earth home. I also like sketching because drawing switches off the noisy, word-oozing part of my brain, and lets me see without the filter of language. It doesn’t matter that I’m not particularly good at it. Every time, I rediscover how interesting everything is when I pay enough attention. And, while you’re being still, you might just see some other things you wouldn’t have seen.

So…I have a challenge for you, if you care to accept: go outside and draw something this week. I think you’ll come away with a different understanding of the ‘ordinary’ things you rarely really look at.  If you like, send it my way and I’ll post it here with a link back to your blog.

I talked to Emily, a science illustrator, for her top field sketching tips, and here’s what we came up with.

  • Be able to identify poison oak / ivy / sumac and know whether it grows in your area. You’ll be sitting while drawing. Picking the wrong spot is definitely capable of ruining your spiritual experience. Or any experience, for that matter.
  • Pack a picnic and go with a friend (if you like company).
  • Find a comfortable spot first. Then choose something to draw close by. While some things are worth discomfort, that’s not the point of this particular exercise.
  • Pick a good subject. Something stationary and relatively small, like a plant with countable leaves, is a good place to start.
  • Insecure or uptight about your drawing skills? Emily recommends a little alcohol to loosen you up. (I haven’t tried this personally.)
  • Don’t worry about the results. No one expects you to turn out fabulously detailed and precise sketches. It’s one of those journey-not-destination things.

Have you gone field sketching lately? Or do you feel inspired to go now? I’d love to hear about your field sketching experiences and see your drawings. 

Seeing through fuzzy lenses

Things look a little blurry?

This week, I’ve come across two articles on the ever-popular topic of sunscreen safety. The first presents some early research suggesting that zinc oxide may not be as safe as we thought. The second, citing the EWG, claims that nano zinc oxide based sunscreens have been given a green light for safety and effectiveness. How you respond to these articles probably has a good deal to do with your opinion of the safety of cosmetics to start with. If you believe most commercial cosmetics are unsafe, you are more likely to be alarmed by the first article and dismiss the second. If you believe that most commercial cosmetics are safe, you are likely to find the first unnecessarily alarmist and think the second reassuring.

(Where do I stand? I am a staunch supporter of staying out of the sun during peak intensity, wearing a hat and breathable clothes with good coverage, and if neither of those is possible, applying sunblock. And then not worrying about it. I defy any sunblock to cause measurable damage to my health in just ten or twenty applications per year.)

We all see the world through certain lenses of opinion, experience, background, and emotion. Objectivity doesn’t come naturally; maybe doesn’t come at all. But being able to identify your own fuzzy lenses is a helpful way to understand why you think and react the way you do. Let’s take one of my fuzzy lenses — one of the sillier ones — as an example. I like cats. I genuinely think they’re cooler than dogs.

The belief that cats are awesome influences my behavior in quite a lot of ways:

  • I have a cat
  • I volunteer at a cat rescue
  • I follow cat organizations on Twitter and Facebook
  • I read cat stories online
  • I surround myself with fellow cat people
  • I put more weight on articles that show cats to be superior lifeforms
  • I am more likely to be skeptical of articles that show cats to be inferior to / invasive / less intelligent than dogs

So, by limiting my exposure to things I don’t agree with and increasing my exposure to things I do, I’m reinforcing what I want to believe while (maybe) thinking that I am making a rational assessment. In fact, it’s more or less just ideology. In Jennifer-land, cats are cool, and there’s not much you can do to persuade me otherwise.

In his article on, cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski brings up this point as an ideology litmus test: what evidence would you need to change your mind about an issue? If the answer is that nothing would change your mind, you’ve stumbled upon some ideology.

Frankly, the anti-science tendencies of the environmental movement scare the dickens out of me. I came across a comment earlier this week about how the sun doesn’t cause cancer, sunscreens do, and the breathtaking disregard for a large body of scientific knowledge and consensus as to the effects of UV radiation on skin appalled me. The Skeptical Environmentalist, perhaps rightlysneers at our tendency to adopt binary beliefs (organic = good, GM = bad, for example) as a ‘litany.’ In surrounding ourselves with studies we want to believe and doubting the ones that don’t align with our beliefs, are we really that much better than climate change deniers?

It’s a sobering thought, and it prompted me to identify, if not completely clear off, some of my other fuzzy lenses:

  • I want to believe that a vegetarian diet is healthier, kinder, and more environmentally friendly.
  • I want to believe that organic farming is lower impact and more sustainable than high-efficiency conventional farming.
  • I want to believe that all industrial scientists whose data goes against my beliefs are corrupt.
  • I want to believe that natural is safer, more sustainable, and more effective.
  • I want to believe that our planet and its remarkable biodiversity is inherently valuable.
  • I want to believe that science is the most reliable way to understand our world.

I’m pretty sure there’s evidence that could affect my opinion for most of these, and I have already moved towards urging a more case-by-case consideration on farming practices and chemicals. I have been following the debate over Rothamsted’s GM wheat experiment with great interest and appreciate all the open conversation that is taking place between the scientists and the public.  But I don’t think you could budge me on the last two. I don’t think ideology is necessarily a bad thing, or an avoidable one, but it’s good to know where it is.

(By the way, the questions in this Baloney Detection guide, although aimed towards orthorexic vegans, are quite useful for evaluating information in general.)

What are your fuzzy lenses when it comes to all things green? What evidence would it take to change your mind?

Photo by Crunchy Footsteps

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