Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book Review: You Are Here

I wanted to take a moment to review a book I just read called You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet

I am of mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I think the message is a vital one. The author, Thomas M. Kostigen takes journeys to some of the most environmental fragile and ravaged places on the planet. He shows us directly the outcomes of our actions, the actions we take on a daily basis. It's depressing as all hell. If you want to feel like you should just drown yourself in your Yerba Mate', by all means pick up this book. I know the author means really really well, and his most urgent hope is that by reading this we will feel called to act. Unfortunately, he doesn't tie what he's seeing and experience to direct and very real things that each of us can do. He tries to, but this is where the book falls completely flat.

In some places, he makes sweeping pronouncements that most anyone who would buy this book probably already knows, like "We've yet to realize that the global village people have talked about is for so long is here. Now the question is, how do we all live together and make the best of it?"

In other places, he offers us vague and unachievable aims like "With an oil palm sustainability label on products, consumers could make informed choices about the products they eat and/or buy at the supermarket. It's these types of solutions that will make the difference" So, how exactly am I supposed to get such a label on products, how does that "expose the vital link" between my actions and the outcome (deforestation in Borneo due to palm oil plantations).

But my biggest beef with this book is the shoddy quality of the writing. God, are there no book editors left on this planet?

Check out this "paragraph" for an example:

From an environmental perspective, the past is the best measure of things to come. It always has been. Certain weather cycles exist as they have for centuries. Certain wind patterns occur at the same time each year. On a very basic level, the change of seasons informs us of temperature changes because we've experienced those seasons before. Think about the first time someone lived through winter. I bet the next year they buttoned up.

I dare you to give me the author's theme for that paragraph! What the heck is he trying to say? is something I asked myself frequently while reading this book. Sometimes I had to go back and read a paragraph over to make sense out of it.

Here's another example:
Still, exaggeration and alarmism are too frequent in environmental writings. Like everything, the conditions that plague Mumbai are complicated and consist of many factors, not just one or a few. We are, after all, talking about a society that has existed for five thousands years. But there are parallels and there are consequences, which are very real. We can take preventative steps -- even little ones count.

If not for the political slant of this book, I would wonder if it was ghost written by George W. Bush, so convoluted and confusticating is the prose. And after that last little homily about little steps counting, the author fails to name even one that we could take, to avoid whatever he's talking about in Mumbai. Instead, he jumps right on to another subject.

All in all, this book shows some interesting things. The author has taken bold steps to visit logging camps in Borneo or remote villages in Alaska that are sliding into the sea. But aside from making us all want to slit our wrists in depression, he accomplishes nothing whatsoever with this journey that he takes us on. What I would love to see is real actions tied to the horrific environmental catastrophes that he takes us to.

Bottom line: not recommended. Treehugging, spotted-owl-saving, recycling liberals will be depressed and non-liberals will just be confused.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Day To Celebrate

The buzz in the air was unmistakable, we ate a hurried breakfast and then walked down the street to our neighbor's house. She had baked coffee cake, my husband brought the french press down to make some more caffeine, and my friend next door had some yummy smelling banana bread. The younger kids played on the floor as we listened to the pre-speech festivities. Another neighbor rushed in breathlessly at 9:00 am to tell us that Obama was already president, since it was noon in D.C., even though he hadn't been sworn in yet. Tears and hugs, and then there it was - Obama saying the words and becoming the next president of the United States. Along with Aretha's hat and scat, Yo Yo Ma, and the touching image of Rev. Lowry seeing the completion of a dream he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not so many years ago.


That called for an impromptu inaugural parade of our own, so with pots and pans and a joyful noise being made, we headed around the neighborhood, stopping at friend's houses and whooping it up.

Late that night I walked down to our neighborhood market and there was a veritable hugfest going on. People still in shock, still smiling from ear to ear. I gave and received a few more hugs for this awesome day. We all worked hard to make it so, and as President Obama didn't fail to point out, we have much more work to be done. For today though, we celebrate.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Out-Of-Time Laundry Approach

We're crazy-busy right now with our robotics team going to the State Championships this weekend in Hillsboro. I'm probably the crazy-busiest of all, given that I'm
A) The Mom
B) The Coach.

Poor Wayne just had hernia surgery, so he's not really able to be helpful in any meaningful sense, except for offering suggestions about things that I could be doing. And...um...that's not really helpful. So everything falls on me right now - dishes, food, sweeping, laundry, yadda yadda yadda. The nice thing about having kids this age is that they can pitch in a lot and really help out. There's nothing like being able to say "Could you please go clean the bathroom" and actually having it look clean afterwards (even the toilet!)

Laundry is perhaps the biggest time-killer, especially if you're trying to hang it all out to dry, especially in this damp and cold season when it can take a couple of days to do so. These are the times I'm especially tempted to just fall back on technology and fossil fuels and throw it all in the dryer for an hour or two of spinning heat. But I hit upon a solution that's a good compromise between this and laundry martyrdom. I run a load of laundry, then I take the heaviest slowest-to-dry items and put them in the dryer, but I don't run it yet. I get another load started in the washer and hang the quickest-to-dry items (like my polypro running gear) in the bathroom over the heater vent. The rest goes on the drying racks in the garage. I repeat this with load two and perhaps even a load three. By the time the last load is done, I have a full dryer and I run it with the heavy stuff. So I do use the dryer, but for one load out of three. My laundry work-time is cut at least by 30%, and that lands it in the "manageable" category. That's my out-of-time tip for the day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Trash Talk

I've been reading this book You Are Here, which I'll write a review of later this week. In each chapter, the author visits a different place on the planet, and ties it into our personal habits and practices. Right now I'm on the chapter on garbage. A quick search of the EPA website reveals this fact about Americans and garbage:

Municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in 2007 declined to 4.62 pounds per person per day. This is a decrease of 0.6 percent from 2006 to 2007. The recycling rate in 2007 was 1.54 pounds per person per day (an increase of 2.7 percent over 2006). Discards sent for combustion with energy recovery remained steady at 0.58 pounds per person per day. Discards sent to landfills after recycling and combustion with energy recovery declined to 2.50 pounds per person per day in 2007. This is a decrease of 2.7 percent from 2006 to 2007

They also noted that:

The tons recovered for composting rose to 21.7 million tons in 2007, up from 20.8 million tons in 2006.

This is all good news - Americans are recyliing more, decreasing the solid waste stream, composting more.

The scary fact really in that whole paragraph is that we still send 2.50 pounds of garbage per person per day to landfills, after composting, recycling, and trash taken out for combustion. 2.5 Pounds. Per person. Per day!!!

So I set out to discover this week how our family stacks up, so maybe we can find more ways to reduce our waste. This week I weighed every piece of compost, recycling, and garbage that went out of the house.

Here's what I found for our family of four for the week:

Garbage: 5.2 Pounds
Recycling: 7.5 pounds
Glass Recycling: 7 pounds
Compost and food scraps to chickens: 15 pounds

For our family, that brings it to

Garbage: .18 pounds per person per day
Combined recycling (glass and other): .5 pounds per person per day
Compost and chicken scraps: .53 pounds per person per day

Not bad compared to the national averages, but I know we can do better. For one thing, if we start making our own kombucha, a lot of that glass will go away because we currently buy it from the store in glass bottles.

Frankly, when I look at the amount of garbage and recycling that our household generates, it seems like a lot sitting there. I'm astonished that the national average is 13 times more garbage per person per day. That's really an incredibly huge mountain of trash per person. Surely we as a nation can do better than that.

So pass the word: weigh your garbage, start a compost bin, reduce the amount of stuff in packaging coming in to your house, recycle more. Let's see if we can get that number down, way down.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eeeeewwww, You're Drinking Fermented FUNGUS??

I've been scanning the internet this morning for instructions on brewing our own kombucha. I'd long heard about its probiotic properties and decided to try it for myself. Like many people I imagine, my first response was more or less "ick!". But it's an acquired taste and I guess I acquired it. Then I really got to like it. It's kind of like drinking a soda, but without the sweetness, and it's great for digestion and overall health.

Now of course Wayne and Mackenzie also became addicted to the stuff, so we're buying several expensive glass bottles of the stuff a week now. We especially like the Gingerberry flavor from Synergy. Time to make our own! I think I'm going to order this kombucha starter kit from The Happy Herbalist to get us started. You can't complain when your kids beg to drink something this healthy. Even if your daughter has been heard to say "Eeeeewwww, You're Drinking Fermented FUNGUS again???"

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Some Great Reading

Here's an excellent post on the No Impact Man blog about heating houses, sustainability, choices, and what it means to "Gaman" ("endure," or "tolerate") in Japanese culture.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Gardening Fashion Tips

So I told my daughter to put on some clothes appropriate for gardening, and this is what she comes up with... in January mind you! Luckily it's not as cold outside as it has been, but I'm still not sure its miniskirt weather, let alone leopard-print miniskirt with cowboy boots weather.

You can rest assured that I was wearing jeans, a thick sweatshirt, and sensible Wellies!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Dark Days Dinner: Last of the Garden

We've been spreading our leaves over the garden beds, so I'm pulling up some of the last of the produce. I was surprised at how good the carrots still looked. I'm planting even more carrots next year if they're going to last this long. They tasted delicious, not bitter at all!

For this weeks' Dark Days Challenge dinner, we had hamburgers (local beef) along with some beets from the garden, the last of the purple carrots, and another pumpkin pie from our garden pumpkins as well. Unfortunately the frost got the beet greens (my favorite part) so we only had the beets to eat.