Everyone can turn a deeper shade of green

This blog is dedicated to all those looking to deepen their green--whether you are making a commitment to a greener lifestyle and need help taking the first steps or whether you're already a practicing tree hugger who is looking for practical advice on what steps to take next. Over the years, I've heard all the good intentions and all the excuses. I've also seen my fellow environmentalists sabotage the good intentions of others. I am making a commitment to you, dear reader, wherever you fall on the spectrum, to help you take the next steps to fulfilling your commitment to the earth, to your health, and to your well-being. Stay tuned for articles and interviews.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Becoming a Green Foodie in Three Easy Steps

It’s harvest season and I have food on the brain. Well, I always have food on the brain, but last week was different. I was obsessively harvesting, planting, preparing, and thinking about food—CSAs, Farmers Markets, community gardens (pic is of Little Sugar Creek Community Garden), food deserts, raw food recipes, gleaning, pumpkin carving, food policy gatherings, sugar-free Halloween snacks, and trying to figure out what to do with all the jalapeƱos in my garden.  I even dreamt about a garden. 

I don’t expect other people to think about food as much as I do.  And no, I’m not assuming you know what CSAs or any of those other things are. I DO think that all of us have a lot to learn about food, though.

Food is one of those arenas where we can have a significant impact on the environment.  We make choices about what to eat several times a day, so unlike housing, where our choice locks us into a daily environmental impact level until the materials decay or we make a new choice, we have a lot more room to choose well AND choose poorly with food.  Despite all the grumbling I used to hear from students about how expensive or challenging it is to make “greener” food choices, eating really is one of the easiest ways to reduce our impact on the environment. Does that mean we all have to subscribe to the same diet or go back to hunting and gathering? Absolutely not.  Read on (and follow the links for more)

Step 1: Quit wasting food!!! Be honest, even the card carrying members of the clean plate club waste food. Americans pitch 96 billion pounds of food a year.  If that number is too hard to wrap your head around try this one: each household wastes 15% of what we buy. According to findings from the Garbage Project, the percentage is even higher during times of scarcity, often due to improper storage.  The answers are endless and I found a great website out of the UK that seems really well organized: lovefoodhatewaste
The solution is simple: buy what you’ll eat and eat what you buy. Compost the unavoidable kitchen waste or take up dumpster diving to reduce your neighborhood grocery’s waste, if you dare.

Step 2: Eat more veggies.  If you eat meat and you have friends who don’t eat meat, they’ve probably talked to you about the amount of grain and water it takes for you to have that burger with your fries.  And your friends are right. And you still eat meat. So, let’s try this a different way.  Could you cut back to meat at only two or one meal per day?  Would you consider a Meatless Monday?  Or Wednesday?  Maybe you cut your portion size in half or make the most of a smaller cut of meat with a little help from a celebrity chef.  However you do it, whatever your starting point, reducing the amount of meat you eat (and looking for hormone-free, grass or organic fed meat if it’s in your budget) reduce your impact. Don’t believe me? Go back to your footprint and plug in your new numbers.

Step 3: Go organic when it matters most. The first two steps are more or less cost neutral and may even save you some money.  Eating organic, on the other hand, can get a little pricey.  I have two strategies for you.  First, you can grow your own.  It’s amazing how many tomatoes you can get out of a container plant.  Second, you can save those organic dollars for buying foods off the “dirty dozen” list.  Each year, the Environmental Working Group creates a list based on laboratory tests of the 12 most toxic foods and the “clean fifteen”—the conventionally grown foods that are okay to buy. The list changes from year to year and I like to print it out and keep it in the kitchen. There’s a similar list for seafood.

 I’ll have a lot more to say about food, but if everyone out there can commit to making these three steps permanent lifestyle changes, we’re off to a good start!

[note: NYT ran an article on food waste on the Monday after I posted this.  Read it here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Uncompromisingly green

You might have seen the Washington Post article, “Why going green won't make you better or save you money,” over the summer. In the article, Michael Rosenwald calls us out on our *$%!@. Even if you didn’t read it, you know exactly what I’m talking about—driving your SUV to the natural foods store, turning up the heat after installing a more efficient furnace, even the quintessential diet soda and a burger. We keep a tally of all our “good” behaviors and use them as an excuse for indulging in our vices. In the end, we may be no better off (our weight, our pocketbooks, our planet)!

None of us are perfect. I drive my car to the gym that’s a mere 15 minute bike ride from my house, rationalizing that it’s too dangerous for me to bike after dark. After reading Rosenwald’s article I committed to riding my bike for daytime trips under 15 minutes from my house. Of course that was in July in the South in one of the hottest summers on record so after 3 trips on the bike, I postponed my commitment until the fall. This was also our first summer with AC throughout the house and our electric bill tripled, not because we kept the thermostat ridiculously low (though it did take about two months for us to agree to temperature settings we could both live with). It turns out that even with an efficient system, cooling a whole house is still much more of an energy suck than using one relatively efficient and one horribly inefficient window unit.

So why is it that we rationalize and bargain away from what we know, or think we know, are the better choices? I don’t have THE answer, but I am starting to develop a version of an answer, with a little help from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. His basic premise is that we have a seemingly endless range of options, which makes us UNhappy. Why? Because there’s always something out there that’s better than what we chose. Because we don’t/can’t have what our neighbors have. He says we are maximizers—we our out to make the best choice possible from amongst the full array of choices available. Problem is, we lack complete information about what choices exist. He suggests that we become satisficers—that we settle for “good enough.”

“Going green” can be discouraging when you feel like you aren’t doing it “right.” “You mean your local beets aren’t organic and you dare to call yourself an environmentalist?” We’ve all met that person.

There are so many great green options out there and I think the only “right” way to go green is to find strategies that you can incorporate into your lifestyle permanently. To that end, I like Schwartz’s advice that we might be better off if our decisions were irreversible. He also recommends setting up some “voluntary constraints” on our choices, which in this case could be: “it has to be greener than what we’re doing now.” What comes to mind for me is the insulation in our attic and the CFL bulbs in our fixtures. Both were inexpensive and easy. Once you make the commitment, it’s done. The indoor temperature, on the other hand, is much easier to mess with when one member of the household is too hot or too cold. A backyard garden requires labor and planning, but scheduling a weekly trip to the local farmer’s market with $20 to spend on groceries for the week is a commitment you can be more consistent with, circulating more money within your local economy and getting fresher produce packed with solar powered nutrients.

Let go of the idea that every decision has to be perfect and set some boundaries around your choices so that all the options meet a minimum “green” standard. Then commit. You’ll know your commitment has crossed into unconscious habit when it is no longer up for negotiation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A new start

So, it's been a while since I posted here. I promised to talk a little more about the ecological footprint and what it means. The websites I shared in the original post have plenty to say about what's being measured, so I'll be brief.

Your ecological footprint is the total area of land and water required to support your lifestyle, measured in global hectares (or 10,000 sq meters or, for my metrically challenged compatriots, 2.471 acres). Even in acres, it can be difficult to visualize that kind of space and translate it into a meaningful way of understanding the impact of contemporary lifestyles on our planet; so many sites will also list your footprint in terms of the number of planets required if everyone lived like you. It’s really a comparison of the demands we make on nature versus the ability of our environment to regenerate itself. If this concept is starting to sounds like "carrying capacity" to you, you're not far off. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, environmental planners, developed the concept (originally called “appropriated carrying capacity”) and the calculations in the early 1990s and have been instrumental in research and policy ever since.

If you haven’t already calculated your footprint, please give it a try—it’s quick and easy. If you saved your results, take a look at the specific areas of consumption and see where you’re creating the largest impact. Chances are it will be your food footprint or your carbon footprint. For those of you who might be a little confused by the term, carbon footprint is a measure of household energy and transportation consumption. Some people use this term interchangeably with ecological footprint, but your ecological footprint is a more comprehensive measurement. Your food footprint includes more than just the land and ocean used to raise your food and includes food processing, storage, and transportation. Your goods and services footprint is probably also quite high because we buy more stuff than any other country on the planet. There are a few really easy fixes on this one: donate or swap things you no longer need, recycle everything you can, and buy less stuff. Your housing footprint is typically small, perhaps deceptively so, compared to other areas of consumption. Your housing footprint really measures the construction materials used to build and/or maintain your home, yet it also has a direct relationship to your carbon footprint. Say you live with three roommates in a 1000 square foot home. Both your housing and your carbon footprints will be much smaller than a couple who share a 1500 square foot home….UNLESS that couple has taken measures to improve the energy efficiency of that home and keep their thermostat set lower in winter and higher in summer. In that case, the couple would still have a larger housing footprint, but perhaps a lower carbon footprint. The point I want to emphasize with this example is that there is no single solution for lowering your ecological footprint.

The approach I will take in writing this blog is that each of us, no matter how big or small our initial ecological footprint, has room to improve. If you are reading this post, you are choosing to make a change for the better and I applaud your commitment. For my part, I will support you on this journey by offering some principles for a greener lifestyle, sharing inspiring stories, and distilling out some of the green tips with the greatest impact in each of the key areas of your footprint.