Archive for the ‘saving the world’ Category

Saving the Planet with Storytelling

Is there something more effective than lecturing?

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my friend Emily, a science illustrator and blogger over at Walkabout Em. Unlike me, Emily is an extrovert and has a very different perspective on how to educate and inspire people to behave more responsibly. 

Saving the Planet, Emily-Style


Emily: I got home the other day and had a choice between tuning out to the latest episode of Desperate Housewives or watching a new documentary on national parks. The documentary had great footage, a pretty illustrated cover.

Jennifer: You watch Desperate Housewives? Really? Really?

Emily: [ignoring my outburst] You know me, I’m science-y and care about climate change. But I was tired and really just wanted something that my brain could flat line to, and I’ve been watching Desperate Housewives and following the stories of these women for four years. It’s a social thing — it has a narrative, character development, good storytelling. People are drawn to stories about characters they care about, not straight science.

Jennifer: Uh…I must be a sucky human. I don’t need stories or people with my facts. I read mostly non-fiction. I’m OK reading straight science.

Emily: Right, but most people respond to stories. And that’s where we’ve missed a huge opportunity to educate people about climate change and sustainability: by integrating it into the narratives and characters they already care about. Instead of product placement, we could do science placement, and use narrative storytelling to promote positive, doable choices.

Jennifer: So, kind of like brainwashing?

Emily: Well, the media already has a major effect on how we behave as a society. I read this study during a media studies class about a town with a huge gun problem that was tied to the idea of masculinity. Instead of banning or finger wagging or anything, the town started a program that offered money for guns that were turned in. It also produced a soap opera in which guns were for weak men, men who couldn’t defend themselves in any other way. Positive reinforcement plus monetary reward…they collected a lot of guns. It’s also pretty exciting when a bestseller takes a stand. In The Hunger Games, one of the traits of the antagonist is overconsumption.

Jennifer: Wonder how that will affect the teens who read it?

Emily: Right. We need people to be emotionally invested in these ideas. It’s not enough just to tell them, or to guilt trip or attempt to scare into action — if I have to watch another documentary about cute polar bears that we’re in the process of destroying, I’m going to scream. The problem is that there’s no budget for science communication, and without the money, the quality of the work just isn’t there. We can’t fund major projects or attract top stars. That’s my beef — there’s just no funding.

Jennifer: Whoa. I think you should guest blog about this.


Emily is actively canvassing, heckling, and cold-calling in the name of funding science communication, and I think she’s totally on to something about the social aspect of effecting change and educating the masses. (Surprised this never occurred to me? Don’t be. I don’t even watch TV, that’s how far out of the loop I am.) I hate to admit it, but maybe peer pressure works better than rationality.

If you’re interested in supporting science communication, Emily offers you these links to check out:

And in the meantime, I’m busy thinking about how I can be a better science communicator (without being a scientist myself). Is science communication through media something you could get behind? What do you think of effecting change through storytelling?

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Childfree Greenies vs. Green Parents?

Is there anything more wonderful than being outside in a wide open space, without another human in sight?

After my post on trees, David Milarch of the Champion Tree Project stopped by and we had a nice chat by email. He’s actually going to be speaking in my hometown this Saturday at TedX, although I was disappointed to find that you have to be a member to attend. He reminded me that we should all get off our butts and start planting trees in our own neighborhoods (agreed). Then he said,

 I have a saying I use in everyone of my talks for a closing. ‘We are all working for our grandchildren and I invite you to do the same.’

I was struck by how much this idea failed to resonate with me. It actually turned me off a little. As a childfree person, I don’t have kids. I won’t have grandkids. In fact, I have no biological investment of any kind in the future of humanity. Although as a writer, reader, potter, and general creative mess, I have a deep appreciation for human creativity, I’m also less emotionally invested in whether humans make it as a species or not.  The roots of my environmentalism lie elsewhere.

All of which made me wonder: are childfree greenies motivated by fundamentally different reasons than green parents?

I think the answer, at least for me, is an emphatic yes. Plenty of people begin to care about the planet once they have kids and realize just what kind of world we’re likely to leave them, and that’s fine, but it’s not my story. Here’s the truth: I’m just not that into humans. Never have been. Age 5: examined and sampled just about every plant in my mother’s yard. Age 9: wore only shirts with animals on them. Age 13: rescued a cat who became my closest and favorite companion for the next 12 years. Age 14: joined the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Age 22: adopted a strict policy to donate only to animal or ecological non-profits. Age 24: stopped eating animals. And so on.

My environmentalism has everything to do with the wonder of the non-human world: the head-clearing loam of an old growth redwood forest, spongy with fallen needles and coastal fog. The poison a catalpa tree exudes that only affects cheater insects, not true pollinators. The weird and improbable life cycle of parasitic fungi that produces zombie insects. The breathtaking variety of life on this planet, our intricately linked and balanced ecosystems, Earth’s close shave from sharing the fate of its sister planet Venus — these things are what make me draw a deep breath in wonder and appreciation. I feel lucky to be alive on a planet so interesting, unexpected, and vibrant. The urge to protect everything I love most about it is intensely visceral.

I do want to save the Earth. Not for humans — though I’d be delighted to see us develop a less parasitical, more healthy role on this planet — but for its own ineffable beauty, wonder, and complexity. I want to save it from humans.

Humans are a fascinating species, and I have no doubt that our culture, music, literature, and philosophy are unique in the universe. It would be a tremendous shame if our civilization went down. But I also believe in taking responsibility for our actions, and if that means that humanity has to take it in the teeth for burying our heads in the sand when we knew better, my sense of fairness is fundamentally okay with that. I just don’t want to take everything down with us, leaving behind a barren rock with cockroaches and plastic debris. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way; I came across this Grist article just today. Paul Kingsnorth, thank you for taking a stand for a less anthropocentric, more ecocentric view of the planet. I’m with you.

I want life to flourish on a stable, healthy planet. Not just humans, not necessarily humans.

If you’re a childfree greenie, what motivates you? And if you’re a parent, are your kids and grandkids your primary motivator, or do you identify with more ‘ecocentric’ reasons to protect the planet?

Why Trees Matter

If you turn your head to the side and squint, ash tree bark kind of looks like ocean waves at sunset.

On Friday, the city cut down the healthy 50 year old ash tree outside my bedroom window. The reasons cited: streetlight and minor pavement damage. I’m no Julia Butterfly Hill, but when the notice first went up, I complained to the proper authorities, who assured me that the site would be re-evaluated. That was the last I heard when the men with the saws came. For six hours, the  roar of the chainsaw ground through my bones. All day, I felt cold, queasy, and thoroughly ashamed at my species. What  kind of society values a streetlight and concrete over a beautiful, mature, living tree?

Part of it was the timing. I’m currently reading The Man Who Planted Trees by Jim Robbins, which is about David Milarch‘s quest to preserve and clone the trees most likely to survive in an inhospitable future.  I had just read this stunning figure: as of 2010, about 8 million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine in the US and 43 million acres in Canada have been killed by bark beetles. I can’t even imagine what 51 million acres looks like. Milder temperatures caused by climate change have extended the destructive beetles’ season from two weeks to six months, broadened their range, and increased their victims from mature trees only to saplings. There’s even some evidence that pine beetles are starting to attack other tree species. And warmer weather often means dryer conditions, which stress already vulnerable trees. The bottom line? 6.3 measly degrees is going to make a huge difference for trees. How much, we don’t really know — there’s an overwhelming lack of information when it comes to tree research.

Even if we stopped logging right now (78% of our ancient forests around the world have already been cut down), our trees would still be in trouble from climate change. As the author says, “The only thing harder on trees than beetles, it seems, is people.” Ouch.

If you consider yourself a tree person or even someone moderately invested in the future of humanity and this planet, you should be deeply concerned about a future with fewer or no trees. Trees matter. I’ve come up with an idiosyncratic and incomplete list of why. (Many are taken from Robbins’s book, which I recommend.)

  1. Trees have a net cooling effect in city as well as forest settings. According to the USDA, “the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-sized air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.” Unfortunately, warmer conditions under climate change kill trees, and losing trees leads to warmer conditions, and there you have it — a positive feedback loop and a perfect recipe for climate destabilization.
  2. Massive flooding in Thailand, China, and Pakistan has been partially linked to deforestation.  Trees ameliorate flooding, absorbing and slowing waterflow, protecting river banks against erosion and run-off, and replenishing water tables. Clear cutting these natural barriers aggravates flooding.
  3. Many trees are considered keystone or umbrella species that an ecosystem would collapse without. Protecting, say my beautiful coast redwoods, protects a vast array of animals and plants that redwoods support.
  4. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Duh. According to the USDA and the Arbor Day Foundation, “an acre of forest absorbs 6 tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.” I wonder what our current forest / human ratio is?
  5. Trees can lower energy bills. Plant them strategically to produce shade and reduce wind. According to Dr. McPherson of the Center for Urban Research, planting one tree on the west side of your house will yield about 12% energy savings in 15 years. (Yes, it takes a while. But as the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.)
  6. Trees scrub our world clean of toxic substances. They can clean up toxic waste better and cheaper than conventional cleanup. It’s called phytoremediation. The roots absorb and break down substances like ammonium, nitrogen, pesticides, and nitrogen run-off from farms that cause dead zones. They can even deal with things conventional methods can’t extract, like pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors. One willow can process 15 gallons of waste a day.
  7. Seeing trees makes humans less crazy. Going for a walk in the woods helps kids with ADD concentrate and increases anti-cancer proteins in cells. Proximity to green space reduces the rate of anxiety disorders. Even having a home view of trees cuts down on aggressive conflicts with family members. How do they do it? One theory is that tree gives off a chemical cocktail as an aerosol.
  8. Civilizations that cut down all their trees collapse. This is Jared Diamond’s theory, not mine, but he provides so much proof in Collapse that it’s hard to disagree with his central thesis that misusing our natural resources predictably comes around to bite us in the ass. Money is not edible. To paraphrase Diamond, “being rich just means being the last to starve.”

Trees plainly deserve more attention in the green conversation than they’ve been getting — more research money and energy, too. When I read my Twitter feed and come across yet more articles on miniscule impacts to human health (chemical x is linked to cancer / asthma / infertility / whatever human ailment), I just want to shout, “Hey! Other species besides humans matter!” And then I grumble in my head about why we’re wasting so much energy and money investigating infertility when, at 7 billion people + and rising, infertility is clearly not a major problem humans are facing. But I digress.

While writing this entry, I’ve decided that my next move is to harangue the city arborist again.  If the city budget won’t stretch to replace my cherished street tree, I’ll pay for it myself. It’ll be worth it, emotionally as well as ecologically.

When’s the last time you thought about trees? Did I miss anything major on my list of why we should give a damn about them? (Maybe just the fact that they’re beautiful and fascinating and we don’t really know that much about them?)

Photo credit: Redwood Canopy by Tolomea

Lessons in sharing and local currencies

Local currency: Ithaca Hours

Kevin likes to say that I was sick that day in kindergarten when we learned about sharing. Unflattering, but true. When we got married, I proposed having separate residences. (Vetoed.) I stopped lending out my books when I realized that no one else had mastered the art of reading a paperback without creasing the spine. (Isn’t that what opposable thumbs are for?) If I have a choice about sharing personal space or possessions, I generally don’t.

For the first time, I’m starting to feel kind of bad about my refusal to share. From an environmental standpoint, it’s acutely wasteful. Even if I got rid of everything I didn’t use, I still don’t use everything all the time. Not even close. Cat carrier: used twice a year. Camera: used maybe five minutes  a week. Clay tools: used once a week. Tall black highwayman boots (equally suitable for striding through deep puddles and impromptu swashbuckling): worn ten times a year. Because I don’t share, my own things sit around being useless most of the time, and other people go and buy their own versions, which also sit around being useless most of the time.

The point is, how many units in my complex have printers, power tools, food processors, bikes, whatever that are only used every now and then? Probably most of them. And how much money and landfill space could we save if we had a culture in which 1) people felt comfortable lending to and borrowing from others in their community for most of their needs; and 2) people took good care of whatever they borrowed and always returned everything?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I’m not sure how much further I would take it. Call me cynical, but I’m just not sure human nature is either that trusting or that worthy of trust. The communal tools at even my respectful and fairly tidy pottery studio are trashed. (Also, I think of how much contact with my neighbors that kind of system would involve and realize that I am utterly unsuited to life in a commune. No, thank you.)

What Comes After Money? I recently came across a more plausible and regulated form of community sharing based on local currency in the book What Comes After Money. Here’s the gist of it. A community prints its own complementary currency (yep — totally legal as long as it doesn’t try to look like the country’s currency) and sets a value. Ithaca Hours are worth one hour of work, or about $10 US dollars; Berkshares can be used dollar for dollar. Users can then spend the local currency at any participating merchant or amongst individuals in the community. The only catch is that the money needs to be spent within a limited area. Every time you spend local currency, you’re investing straight back into your community.

One of my favorite things about local currency is the way it makes better use of the skills and resources within the community. So many people are unemployed, yet have skills that other people in their community can use. Ithaca Hours are especially appealing because work is measured by length of time versus perceived value of the job. As a writing tutor, I often felt that the kids who most needed tutoring were the least able to afford weekly $50 one-on-one sessions. I wasn’t altruistic enough to volunteer my time, but I’d be happy to accept Ithaca Hours that I could then use towards fresh, homegrown veggies, pottery lessons, or a blog redesign (or just a design). Who cares what the market value is as long as you trade equal amounts of work and get what you need?

Idealistic, but Ithaca Hours have been in use for over twenty years now. I’ve been wondering how hard it would be to try it out on a small scale, say within a complex or an office. A larger community would offer a bigger pool of skills and workers but create more logistical issues with taxes, getting the word out, and convincing people to participate.

It’s becoming clear that our global capitalist economy is not pro-community, pro-equality, pro-sustainability, or pro-quality-of-everyday-life. The real question: what are better alternatives, and how do we get out?

What are your thoughts on local currency and our economic woes? Do you think a stronger and more cohesive community would also be a greener one?

Learning How to Heckle

I am socially inept. This is neither condemnation nor boast. You can confirm it with anyone who knows me. On most days, I am completely at peace with this fact, but there are times in which being an introvert is a major liability. I am not a good activist because I don’t fundamentally like talking to people. I am missing an intuitive understanding about how humans work. (Cats are different. I get cats.) As a consequence, most of my green efforts have been directed towards reducing the impact of my own existence. There will always be plenty to do in that department.

Unfortunately, I am not 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 it’s not enough just to change the things in my life. That was the easy part. Getting outside my own life is hard.

Case in point: a  relative I don’t know well was in town for a business trip last week. I was there when he bought a case of disposable water bottles and non-organic bananas and put them into a plastic bag. There was so much I could have said about any of these things, but I couldn’t think of a single way to say anything that wasn’t rude, pushy, judgmental, or overbearing. I couldn’t offer my [girly] reusable bag, since I wasn’t going to see him again this trip. The environment wasn’t even a factor in his buying decisions, and distilling that entire consciousness into a minimally offensive, maximally thought-provoking comment just didn’t happen.

Yep. That could take some time. I haven’t figured out how to heckle distant relatives, so I’ve adopted an intermediate approach: heckling companies. Via email, of course. Whatever your position on who holds ultimate responsibility — consumers or corporations — I figure I’m hitting both bases by first refusing to buy unsustainable products, and then telling companies that I’m boycotting their products and why, and how they can fix it. If this is your speed, please join me!

One of the things I heckle about is palm oil. While some sources may be more or less sustainable, any company that doesn’t highlight its  efforts to track down certified sustainable palm oil probably uses the cheap stuff that came at the cost of biodiversity and rainforest. (Phew! Nutella is safe.) Tonight I wrote the following note to Pillsbury, which has an all-natural refrigerator biscuit that I would totally buy on lazy I-need-hot-biscuits-NOW-days…except it contains palm oil.

“Hello! I really love the way your new Simply… line doesn’t have any artificial colors or flavors. However, I just noticed that palm oil was one of the ingredients. I am very concerned about the connection between palm oil and rainforest destruction. The increased global demand for palm oil has resulted in vast palm tree plantations that destroy crucial habitats for orangutans and many other rainforest species in Indonesia and Malaysia. Since learning about this connection, I have stopped buying products with palm oil unless the oil comes from certifiable sustainable sources.

Can you tell me about Pillsbury’s policy regarding palm oil, and if you have taken any steps towards finding sustainable sources or replacing the palm oil with other oils? I hope you will agree with me that any definition of wholesome ingredients should include the health of the planet as well as your customers!

Thank you for your time.



I hope a real person reads and responds to it. I hope other people are also upset that their biscuits destroy rainforests. And I hope other introverts will find that the internet is the perfect medium to start a career in environmental heckling. (But probably not.)

Do you already contact companies that sell unsustainable products? What are some other ways introverts can strike fear into the hearts of major corporations make their voices heard?

Collective responsibility and being ‘wisely selfish’

This post is the unlikely intersection of three very different things: Thin Mints (chocolate mint Girl Scout cookies around which cults have been formed), the American Constitution, and the half-baked thoughts on picking up litter and individual vs. collective responsibility that I wrote about weeks ago.

It started with the Girl Scout cookies. For a long time, I’ve known that palm oil was an environmental villain. I started watching out for it, but continued to make certain exceptions, including: Trader Joe’s French truffles, Meiji chocolate mushrooms, Nutella, and Thin Mints. (Chocolate is the common denominator.)  This week I finally drew the line and swore off buying anything with palm oil. Acting out of ignorance is one thing. Knowing the facts and continuing to support deforestation, even in a small, two-boxes-a-year way, is another.

For me, environmentalism is a sort of syncretism: simultaneously believing that my actions matter and realizing that the problems — and their solutions — are much bigger than one person. I can’t remember why I started thinking about the Constitution and our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, but once I did, I started wondering where this attitude fit in with what we were doing to the environment. See, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a private dash after a personal unicorn, a right to pursue happiness without considering the cost to anyone or anything else. There is nothing in our individual-centric culture to encourage thinking of our welfare as intimately connected with that of other beings. And when happiness started to be about the acquisition of stuff, things really started to go downhill. We are now a nation of people who feel entitled to do whatever we think will bring us individual happiness (even if it won’t) and deny even the possibility that, in doing so, we are damaging the world we live on. It’s almost unpatriotic not to be a mindless consumer.

As a loner who understands cats better than she does people, I’m an unlikely advocate for moving towards a more collective view of both happiness and responsibility.  But I’m starting to see that prioritizing individuality is profoundly damaging to the planet, both in causing harm and impeding solutions.

In my earlier post, I suggested that responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing should be seen as collective. Our individual actions and their consequences are so deeply interconnected that there is no way we can identify, much less fix, every aspect of our impact.  The more time we spend arguing about who is responsible for what, why your kids are more damaging to the planet than my cat (guilty!), or disclaiming responsibility for problems that we are not overtly involved in, the less we can see that the problem involves all of us and can really only be addressed on the same scale. Bandaid solutions just won’t cut it.

Some people promote green by making it about immediate personal benefit: save money, reduce the toxins in your blood, keep your kids safe, etc. And those reasons are fine to start with, because taking care of ourselves and the people we’re closest to has always been instinctive. But ultimately, I think a real shift will occur when (if) we learn how to be, as the Dalai Lama put it, ‘wisely selfish.’ I believe he meant that putting others first is ultimately taking care of yourself, but I’m going to interpret it a bit more, well, selfishly. For me, being ‘wisely selfish’ means doing what makes me happy within my realization that I am a part of a much bigger world in which all of my actions add to, or subtract from, the wellbeing of the system. It’s in my own interest to protect it. After all, a dead planet is not conducive to individual happiness.

What are your thoughts on taking collective responsibility? Is it even worthwhile to try to change attitudes from the inside, or should we be targeting corporations and governments instead? 

Giving Back to the Earth + Guerilla Gardening

James Lovelock, a scientist and environmentalist whose theories I occasionally raise an eyebrow at, has one really killer quote about the relationship between humans and the Earth: “I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth.” On bad days, I wholeheartedly agree. As a species, we’re not particularly good at acting for the greater good over the longer term. Resources? Use ’em till they’re gone.

However, we’re capable as individuals, if not as a species, of seeing what we take and wanting to give back. The responses to my last post on The Giving Tree suggest that most of us think environmentalism should be about not only reducing our impact, but also acting to create positive changes to foster biodiversity, balance, and sustainability.

I feel like a lot of the popular environmental messages — use reusable bags, switch to CFLs, wash on cold — have gotten a bit bogged down on the reducing impact side. Reducing impact is good; developing the kind of consciousness that will make ubiquitous ’20 easy ways to save the Earth’ type lists totally unnecessary is even better. But at some point, we also need to recognize that we won’t achieve zero impact unless we go back to living like our ancestral apes. (And given our present population, not even then.) However, we might still get the scale to balance if we adopt a more active type of environmentalism that goes beyond our own lives.

Trickier than changing a light bulb, that’s for sure. Especially if you happen to be an introverted homebody who would rather stay home with the cat than get out and do something (ahem). But as I see it, there are three basic categories for action:

  1. Volunteer. Plant trees and restore native flora to reduce soil erosion, spend a few hours a week weeding at an organic farm, participate in coastal clean-ups, trap and spay feral cats that decimate native songbird populations…bet there are some opportunities right within your neighborhood.
  2. Reach out. Get involved with your city government’s green department, provide information and advice to people who are already receptive to going green, talk to people who aren’t, start an office recycling program, be a shining example of imperfect but earnest, thoughtful, and respectful environmentalism. Oh yeah, and keep a green blog. 🙂
  3. Donate. The environmental movement can’t run on idealism alone. Some of our biggest problems occur in places far beyond our individual reach. Although large non-profit environmentalism organizations are not without their problems (Monsanto donates heavily to Nature Conservancy, for example), they do have longer arms and deeper pockets and have achieved significant victories for the environmental movement. Or, if you’d rather the money stayed local, find a small non-profit or environmental project in your immediate area and donate to them.

To put my money where my mouth is, I took a small step and made seed bombs this weekend. They could hardly have been simpler. As with my cooking, I didn’t measure anything, and I used materials I already had on hand. The recommended proportions are 5 parts clay to 1 part soil and 1 part seeds, but as long as you have more clay than soil and seeds, I expect you’ll be fine. You will need:

  • Powdered clay (I used potter’s clay)
  • Soil
  • Native, low-maintenance flower seeds (mine was a California coastal wildflower mix)
  • Water

Mix dry ingredients and add just enough water to moisten. Roll into balls and allow to dry. (Need more detail? Here’s a video on making seed bombs.) Toss into vacant lots, abandoned corners, bare dirt, and anywhere some color and native species would be appreciated. Guerilla gardening at its most basic. I already have several bare lots in mind…

What are your thoughts on making a positive impact? What are you already doing?

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