Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

My Love/Hate Relationship with Farmers’ Markets

I can count the number of times I’ve been to a farmers’ market this year. On my fingers. On one hand. (My time in Hawaii excepted, because the promise of tree-ripened mangos, papayas, and apple bananas can entice me into all sorts of things I wouldn’t normally do.) The discrepancy between belief and action surprised me until I realized that my appreciation of farmers’ markets is primarily intellectual. For all the good fruit, community-building, local-economy-supporting, environment-supporting vibes, I don’t like being there.

Blasphemy.

I took Beth’s Show Your Plastic challenge (well, at least the collecting part) this week, and found that most of my plastic waste is, in fact, packaging from delicate summer fruit: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. It’s all stuff that I could readily get at the farmers’ market with significantly less plastic; I just don’t feel much motivation to go. First world problem? Oh yeah.

I’ve identified the reasons I don’t go to farmers’ markets more often. Maybe you can help me come up with solutions.

Problem #1: I hate crowds.

As in hate hate. If you can have claustrophobia about being enveloped by people (small spaces without people = no problem), that’s what I have. Being stuck in a sea of elbows, bad perfume + body odor, and double-wide baby strollers makes my blood pressure rise and my mood plummet. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that my local markets enjoy such good business. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can only be at the farmers’ market for a few minutes before I start to shut down and look for an empty corner in which to whimper.

Problem #2: The good farmers’ market is at the same time as my pottery studio time.

There are two nearby weekend markets. The Saratoga market, which has reasonable prices, manageable crowds, and really good fruit, is on Saturday morning. So is open studio at pottery. There is very little that I prioritize over being elbow deep in mud on Saturday mornings. Seeing friends? Sleeping in? Buying food? Meh.

Problem #3: The other farmers’ market has an unacceptable level of smug. 

The Campbell farmers’ market: a little richer, a lot whiter, and a whole lot smugger. It’s like taking the entire weekly population of Whole Foods and concentrating it on three street blocks. Phenomena observed there: designer reusable bags, eco-sunglasses, bamboo baby strollers, crappy overpriced crafts, pedigreed dogs with non-toxic toe nail polish, yoga goddesses going on about their latest juice cleanse. I don’t particularly like the ambiance at Whole Foods, but the Campbell market is about ten times worse and just as expensive. Time it takes for this place to get my back up: 5 minutes. Time it takes for me to complete my shopping: 20 minutes. I’m rubbish at math, but even I can see that that isn’t a good equation.

Problem #4: I don’t like talking to people.

One of the touted benefits of going to farmers’ markets is getting up close and personal with farmers. Here you can talk to farmers about their growing practices, pest management strategies, crop rotation, colony collapse. It’s a terrific thing to know how your food is grown, but that doesn’t change an inherent personality flaw: I don’t like talking to strangers. I have a limit of maybe five new people a day, tops. So once I’ve talked to a few farmers, I’m done, and just want to mutely shove cucumbers into my reusable produce bags. In fact, I sometimes welcome the anonymity of buying from the supermarket, where I can’t be guilt tripped into paying $4 a pound for organic heirloom tomatoes that the grower wrested at great personal cost and effort from nematode-infested soils.

Problem #5: I can’t always justify the cost.

I would love to support my local farmers all the time, but it bumps up my grocery tab by as much as 50%. $3 for a small basket of strawberries, $6 for a dozen truly cage free, happy hen eggs, $2.50 for a pound of potatoes. Ouch. I still have no guarantee that they are grown more sustainably than the stuff at my local greengrocer. In The Conundrum David Owen has a rather harsh invective against farmers’ markets, but asks a question I would love to know the answer to: if lower efficiency farming uses more land to produce the same amount of food, is it really greener? It’s a complex question that has to take into account externalities from conventional high efficiency farming (higher levels of pesticides, nitrogen run-off) and whether the small organic farms take away land that would be otherwise available for wildlife (perhaps not), but once again, I find myself wishing sustainability were a quantifiable term.

What kind of relationship do you have with farmers’ markets? Got any clever solutions for me?

Photo credit: NatalieMaynor

Unpacking the idea ‘safe’

Are things either safe or unsafe?

It’s a common demand from the public to scientists: prove to us something is safe before unleashing your monster on the world. And on one hand, it’s a totally fair, reasonable request to not be treated as lab rats. I get that. I hate the idea of having big chemical corporations profiting off their creations that create long term problems for ordinary people and the environment. On the other, whether you’re talking about GMOs or synthetic chemicals, it’s a problematic request for a couple of key reasons:

  • It assumes a binary between safe and unsafe without regard to exposure level or other circumstances. Just about everything can be harmful under the right (or perhaps I should say wrong?) conditions. Take water, for example. Tons of evidence that it’s generally safe to drink. However, it’s still possible to die from drinking too much water. Even small quantities of water, if inhaled, can be deadly. It’s called drowning. Microbes also love water, which is important to know if you’re into DIY personal products.  Does that mean water (and do check out the dihydrogen monoxide website, if you haven’t seen it) is unsafe? Yes — if you define safe to mean that any level of risk from contact with water is unacceptable. Of course, dehydration’s not a lot of fun, either. Water is a simple example, but virtually any substance you can think of has benefits and drawbacks, conditions in which it has no harmful effects, conditions in which it does. That goes for everything from fluoride to Botox.
  • It doesn’t define safe in a way that science can address. Science is good at testing for one thing at a time, under controlled and specific circumstances. Safety is not a trait that can be directly tested for. We can’t run a chemical through a gas spectrometer and have that tell us whether something is safe or not; we infer safety from the absence of observable harmful effects in a fairly wide range of applications, test subjects, and experiments. To get meaningful answers, we need to ask meaningful questions. Instead of asking, “Is BPA safe?” we need to be asking things more like, “Do low doses of endocrine disrupting substances like BPA produce harmful effects on developing human fetuses?” That’s a reasonable request for information, and it’s something scientists could design experiments around to answer.
  • Scientists don’t know what they don’t know. You’ve probably heard of prescription drugs that were withdrawn when they eventually proved to have major, unexpected health impacts. It’s not that tests were necessarily done improperly; it’s that scientists didn’t know enough to ask the right questions before the issues became apparent. It’s impossible to test for lack of harmful effect for everything, at every level, in every remotely plausible circumstance. And although we mostly hear about the failures, when scientists haven’t anticipated and tested for a particular problem, there are many prescription drugs and chemicals that have gone on to establish very solid safety records and saved lives.

Science is limited in the answers it’s able to offer us. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the answers are inconclusive and pending further research. The scientific method can also be a bit clunky with its one variable model when it comes to looking at multiple factors and multiple exposures, which are inevitable in real life scenarios — one of the reasons we’re having such a hard time pinpointing causes for things like cancer and autism. And no, the media totally doesn’t get this. No one’s going to read a headline about inconclusive test results. It doesn’t make for an exciting story.

Instead of asking whether something is safe, I’ve begun to try (try!) to look at things on a spectrum of lower risk to higher risk and think about decisions as risk evaluations.  At the lower risk end, I would include things that have 1) solid, evidence-based records of few or no harmful effects, 2) relatively few/unusual circumstances in which it produces harmful effects, and 3) statistics favoring my likelihood of emerging unscathed.

Here are some things I would consider lower risk  within the parameters of my life:

  • Eating spinach. Yes, spinach contains oxalic acid, which is linked to kidney stones. But as a healthy person, I’d have to eat massive amounts of it all the time to develop significant health issues, and the nutritional benefits associated with eating moderate amounts outweigh the risks.
  • The preservative in my contact lens solution. Used in small quantities, well-tested, and far lower risk than putting something with microbial or fungal growth in my eyes. Definitely less risky than driving in my 10 year old glasses (time to get those replaced!).
  • Cleaning Brie’s litter box. Yes, she’s had toxoplasmosis. That’s why she’s blind. (I sometimes refer to her as Toxokitty. No brownie points for sensitivity there.)  No, she’s not shedding parasite eggs anymore, and no, I’m not pregnant.
  • Sunblock. Something I put on only when I anticipate needing it and can’t avoid peak sun hours or don a hat. In the quantities I use it, it’s not going to have an appreciable effect on my life. The dose makes the poison.
  • Taking allergy medicine. I used to pop an antihistamine daily in the month of May for allergies that otherwise left me a fatigued, sniffly, nosebleedy mess. Now I just go somewhere else on vacation. When I need an antihistamine, I still take it. There are side effects; they make my eyes dry and sometimes affect my energy levels. But I’m willing to accept that risk.
  • Baking in silicone. I bought silicone muffin cup liners a few years ago when I thought they might be greener than the paper I had been using. I’ve wavered in that belief (they take ridiculous amounts of water to clean, won’t biodegrade, and involve fossil fuels), but I still use them every now and then when they make more sense than paper. I’ve read the available studies, and I use them maybe five times a year, at relatively low temperatures.

Higher risk (somewhat likely to result in grievous bodily harm, more proof of harm, or harmful under more circumstances):

  • Driving or riding in a car. Hands down the most statistically dangerous thing I do on a regular basis. Car fatalities are down somewhat in recent years, but there were 32,885 in 2010. That doesn’t include injuries.
  • Drinking alcohol. I seem to be mildly allergic to alcohol and don’t drink, but if you look at the chemical properties of alcohol, it fits many of the criteria we use for calling other substances poisons. There are well-established acute and long term risks associated with drinking, yet we’re much more likely to get excited about the potential toxicity of a synthetic or newer chemical.
  • Eating unidentified wild mushrooms. Most mushrooms are not fatally toxic, but there are a handful that will really do a number on your liver. The chances of randomly picking an amanita to sample may not be that high, but the potential fatality is a deal breaker. For me, anyway. Maybe I’ll do a post later on how to identify an amanita mushroom.
  • Breathing in silica dust. There’s a reason why silicosis is known as ‘potter’s rot.’ Silicosis is not reversible or treatable, and some of the older potters I work with tell me that their lungs, x-rayed, look somewhat like smokers’ lungs. You’d think this would get me to wear a mask, especially when I’m carving clay. Not yet. I’m being stupid like that.
  • Cutting Brie’s claws. Almost inevitably ends in blood loss (mine). ‘Nuff said.

I’m surprised at how reluctant I am to put pottery on that list. A small voice in the back of my brain is protesting, “But I like pottery,” as if that influenced risk level in any way whatsoever. It also wants to add, “But clay is a natural substance,” which it is, and which also doesn’t influence risk level in any way whatsoever. Do you ever want to call your own brain a troglodyte? I do.

I haven’t done the research yet to be able to put other things I do (eat raw cookie dough, for example — I’m pretty sure my current salmonella-schmalmonella attitude is not appropriate) on the spectrum, and frankly, I still fall for naturalistic fallacy all the time. But I still want to point out that headlines don’t present information in perspective with the actual amount of risk something presents. It’s the other, ordinary stuff that’s really likely to get us: poor eating habits, lack of exercise, driving, and I think it’s helpful to keep that in mind when reading alarming headlines or studies. After all, life is one of those things in which no one gets out alive.

Do you classify things as safe or unsafe? What would persuade you that something was safe?

Photo credits: jma.work, ell brown

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 PersonalCareTruth.com, 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

A tale of mosquitoes and limited compassion

Female mosquito, unholy terror of the tropics

Nineteen.

That’s the total number of mosquito bites I received last week in Hawaii. Nineteen, despite trying to apply IPM with physical controls (long sleeves and long pants every single day — as a result of which I was bitten on the face, neck, fingers, and feet), cultural controls (dumping out any standing water and avoiding being outside from 5-8pm), and finally chemical controls (some all natural insect repellent that gave both Kevin and me headaches).

Of course, I started thinking evil thoughts about mosquitoes long before reaching 19. I’m not lucky enough to get small, well-behaved, M&M sized bumps. My bites turn into painful, raised hives 1-2″ across that itch irresistibly, swell into water blisters, and leave bruises (especially when I don’t touch them) that hang around for months afterwards.

hate mosquitoes. They, unfortunately, can’t get enough of me.

At 4AM one morning, I awoke to the sounds of tropical birds, soft rain, and the unquenchable itch of the many mosquito bites that had woken me up. As I lay there awake, willing myself not to scratch, I found myself fantasizing about creating a highly contagious mosquito virus that would scramble the DNA of all the little bloodsuckers. (Someone has beat me to it.) Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii, so I didn’t even feel too bad as I imagined wiping out every last mosquito on the bloody island. If that didn’t work, my busy mind considered engineering super flying geckos to eat more mosquitoes, or (more realistically) setting out a sacrificial dish of blood as a trap and directing a concentrated stream of DEET straight into the writhing mass.

(I’m actually cringing a bit writing this, now that I’m no longer unbearably itchy.) At that point, I realized that there was a definite limit to my compassion for animals and that I had definitely reached it.

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat animals. When asked why, my standard answer is that I like animals more than I like to eat them. This is generally true. The friendships I’ve had with my companion animals have convinced me that if I can be healthy without meat, I’d rather not have all that death on my conscience. My choice not to eat meat has very little to do with the environment. Instead, it’s about the relationship I want to have with the animals that I share this planet with.

But the truth is that I don’t like all animals, I don’t feel equal amounts of compassion for all animals all the time, and there are circumstances under which I would be willing to hurt or kill animals. Disturbingly, those circumstances are easier to reach than I anticipated. Under the veneers of language, philosophy, and morality, my brain still has a primitive us vs. them mentality.

Sometimes I wonder if my vegetarianism and compassion for animals is a product of a sheltered suburban existence in which I am almost never in competition with other animals. I live on a second story, in a fairly dry environment, surrounded by miles of asphalt. We have had minor issues with ants and carpet beetles, but no centipedes, fire ants, wasps, black widows, or anything dangerous. If we had those, I am 100% positive I would not be looking for a peaceful and compassionate way to co-exist. Does it even make sense to choose not to eat meat, yet mercilessly poison an entire ant colony with borax (after, admittedly, trying deterrents and other less extreme measures)? How close am I, are all of us, to being red in tooth and claw when our safety, territory, or even comfort are threatened? 

The relationship between humans and other animals gets a big check mark in the ‘it’s complicated’ box.

I’m curious how you navigate conflicts with other animals, especially if you follow a compassionate diet. Can you uphold that compassion when there’s a direct conflict of interest with another animal (mosquitoes, but also decidedly cuter, more empathetic animals like squirrels and mice)?

Photo credit: dr_relling

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

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

Hardcore Ways to Go Green

I saw an article on The Atlantic a few days ago  called ‘The Most Hard-Core Ways to Go Green,” and frankly, it was a bit rubbish. The suggestions were either not very low impact or not very hardcore. An expensive shower that forcibly ejects you after a few minutes? Unnecessary. DIY cleaning supplies? Check. A menstrual cup? Pfft.

Let me translate what hardcore seems to mean here: further than the writer is willing or able to go right now. In other words, hardcore is in the eyes of the beholder. Some of my lifestyle choices that seem very ordinary and do-able to me, like not eating meat or line drying my clothes, might seem hardcore to people more entrenched in a standard American lifestyle. And some choices that I haven’t wrapped my head around yet, like going car-free, no doubt seem very normal and unexceptionable to people who have been living that way for a while. Wherever you are on the green spectrum, hardcore is a moving target.

As it should be. Nonetheless, here’s a fun thought experiment: How far is too far for you right now? Here are a handful of changes that I consider hardcore. I have two basic criteria: 1) It has to be something with a significant impact on my environmental footprint, and 2) It has to be something that I haven’t done already. Ask me again in five years, and I hope I’ll have moved on to new standards of hardcore-ness!

Jennifer’s Hardcore Ways to Go Green

Switch to a composting toilet. Even with high efficiency toilets, we use gallons of clean, potable water to flush our toilets every day. If you don’t have a high efficiency toilet, it’s likely your biggest indoor water user.  A composting toilet takes water out of the equation. I was incredibly grossed out by the idea of one until I realized that the simplest ones were basically litter boxes for humans. Although I’ve never used one personally, I am in regular contact with a litter box. It doesn’t smell. It’s not a big deal. But my current home has flush toilets that I’m not intending to switch out.

Go plastic free. Beth Terry has my sincere admiration for remaking her life in a plastic-free form. When I look at how pervasive plastic is and how much time and knowledge is needed to avoid it, I feel a little daunted. I’ve cut down on my use of plastic greatly and choose plastic free options when available, but the issue doesn’t reverberate with me the way it does for her.

Swap my car for a bike. My car is one of the least environmentally friendly pieces of my life. I don’t drive very much, and I could theoretically bike or car share for the errands I need to run. I’m reluctant to; I have a completely irrational affection for my old ’97 Taurus and an equally irrational fear of biking in a busy street. Actually, it’s not totally irrational. Drivers here aren’t used to bikers and frequently don’t look when entering the bike lane. I’ve seen enough close calls to be worried.

Never fly again. As an acknowledged shut-in, I take about one round trip plane ride a year. In May, I’ll be heading back to the Big Island, Hawaii. According to the TerraPass carbon calculator, this equals  1,857 lb of carbon dioxideOuch. I don’t even like flying, though I do like looking at new and different plants and have favorite spots several places around the world. I’d be sad never to visit Durham Cathedral again, but I might eventually give up flying.

Get off the grid. Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic panels, rain water catchment system, composting toilet, the whole nine yards. I’m interested, but not quite going for it. For anyone who knows me, the thought of my voluntarily roughing it is laughable. I’m a suburbanite in the early stages of recovery.

Eat the pet. I came across this chillingly rational idea a while ago and was utterly revolted. I have a carnivorous pet who can’t fend for herself. Brie’s meaty diet has a significant impact; I acknowledge the fact that it makes ecological sense to have pets that double as food, but I absolutely refuse. I won’t do it. I can’t. And if I could, I think you should be scared to know me.

Boycott the grocery store. I used to enjoy looking at supermarket ads. Now, on the rare occasion that I have a flip through, I find that they rarely advertise anything that I buy anymore — it’s all high profit processed and packaged food. I’m not quite to the point where I get everything from the farmers’ market and the bulk bins, but I’m inching closer.

Grow most or all of my own food. I haven’t been bitten by the gardening bug yet. Partly because I live in a condo with no land, but partly because I’m just not that motivated. (If you want to see how another apartment-dwelling green blogger gets around her restrictions and grows tons of food, visit Living Lightly in a Wavering World.)

Buy nothing new. After I was patting myself on the back for going all of March without buying anything, I came across a year long buy-nothing-new challenge. Hardcore? Harder core for sure. I was getting a little antsy at the end of the month, although the terms of my challenge (buy nothing, including used items) were a bit stricter. I’d be up for a longer challenge, but a year or more is intimidating.

Reach out in my community. If you’re an extrovert, reaching out to, you know, actual people instead of words on a screen might not seem very hardcore at all. I’m on the extreme opposite end of extroversion. I hate talking to people I don’t know; I haven’t got the faintest idea how to network and make a difference for the people I actually live among. I have vague ideas of volunteering to be a naturalist docent at my local open space, or doing something with our urban tree organization, or helping promote scientific literacy. Instead, my volunteer work is currently limited to socializing cats, which involves — you guessed it — zero interaction with humans.

Get sterilized. This might seem like the hardest core action the list, but honestly, the only reason I haven’t gotten myself sterilized is that low cost spay/neuter days are limited to quadrupeds. Apparently humans don’t qualify for the discount, even though I’d argue that human overpopulation poses far more problems than cat or dog overpopulation. If it were only a matter of shelling out $50 to ensure that my carbon legacy ends with me, I would do it tomorrow. Or on Earth Day. I can’t think of a more effective way to ensure curbing my total impact.

That’s what hardcore looks like for me. What about you? What’s pushing your green envelope?

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