Posts Tagged ‘self awareness’

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?

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?

Are you a ‘true’ environmentalist / vegan / feminist?

Well, looks like I’m not a ‘true’ environmentalist. I still have a car, I still don’t buy 100% organic, I haven’t eaten the carbon-intensive blind cat, I’m still on the grid, and yep, there’s even still a roll of paper towels (recycled) in my kitchen — mostly for said cat’s occasional hairball.

I have a bone to pick with the word ‘true.’ I’ve seen it slapped on a bunch of different labels recently, and a certain pattern is emerging. I’m not a ‘true’ feminist because I have reservations about Slut Walk as an expression of equality and a demand for respect. Bill Clinton, who chooses not to eat animal products for health reasons, is not a ‘true’ vegan. Hell, I’m not even a ‘true’ vegetarian because I have clam chowder once or twice a year.

Let’s decode this. Can I suggest that, in each of these cases, by ‘true’ the speaker simply means conforming to beliefs s/he personally holds, things that s/he already does? By implication, anyone we don’t consider a ‘true’ [insert label here] is, well, lame. I won’t deny that there are different levels of commitment. There are. But using ‘true’ to describe difference isn’t about one’s own commitment to a set of values. It’s about stepping on other people in order to feel superior and exclusive.

Worst of all, it doesn’t help anything.  Instead of encouraging the people who are most receptive to learning and perhaps committing more to a cause, it alienates. Making people defensive is a terrible way to promote your cause. Instead of reaching out, it closes off. And worst of all, people are more likely to judge an entire cause as being preachy, intolerant, and close-minded after even a few bad encounters.

I’ve been on both sides of this problem. I used to scoff at buying organic because most of the people I knew who did so were self-righteous Whole Foods shoppers. After an unpleasant encounter with vegans on my college campus, I chowed down on a hamburger. At the same time, I’m pretty darn judgmental myself.  I judge the people in my condo who don’t recycle their plastic water bottles, people with lots of kids in tow, people who accept a plastic bag when buying a single item, people who still think they can somehow shop their way into sustainability.  Not judging, not labeling — now that’s hard. But shouldn’t we try?

Labels are convenient, but they present the appearance of unity without acknowledging that one person’s idea of being an environmentalist or vegan or whatever will not totally coincide with anyone else’s. (And that’s good, because adopting a label does not give you the right to stop thinking for yourself.)  Deeming a ‘true’ anything is completely subjective and particularly unhelpful. Let’s cut it out already.

Have you ever used ‘true’ with a label you identified with? What did you really mean by it?

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