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.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

It’s the end of the world as we know it….or is it?



Either way, I feel fine today. I’m not even worried about whether or not I have enough milk, bread, or toilet paper.

Some people talk about the end of the Mayan B’aqtun (a calendrical cycle) with enormous positivity. It’s about “humanity’s rebirth” or a “global shift in awareness, a transformation of consciousness such that the world may actually end as we know it on the psychic level (emphasis added).”  I sure hope the optimists are right. (And if you’re curious, cosmic shift or not, Brad Morris has some thoughtful queries that may bring you closer to a sense of unity with humanity even if the world is still turning on 12/22.)

The idea that the world is coming to an end is not entirely out of the question, whether or not we survive 12/21/12. It’s us—consumer citizens of the world, united in a quest for more stuff—who will bring about the demise of our planet. Richard Wilk’s article in the Huffington Post today asks really uncomfortable questions about our buying habits and is a cogent argument for why something needs to shift. [Full disclosure—Rick was my dissertation adviser and I think he’s nothing short of brilliant. He’s also a scholar on the contemporary Maya and sustainability.]

Rick points out that the Christmas holidays are a “good time to think about the connection between the innocent pleasures of giving gifts, the larger issues of where those gifts came from, and the decidedly less pleasant question of what effects this annual orgy of consumerism has on the planet as a whole.”  The uncomfortable truth that is coming out of the social sciences is that “green lifestyles” willnot be enough to halt climate change. The roots of the problem are deeply social and are rooted in the notions of development and progress. 

I used to have students in one of my classes read an article by Rick where he makes the seemingly outrageous claim that we should not be critical of developing nations for wanting what we have and should not count on emissions caps and green factories to slow or stop global warming. This argument blew their minds. I confessed to them my own discomfort at seeing my peers in Siberian villages living in wooden homes with broken porches who live primarily on potatoes from their parents’ gardens working so hard to get a satellite dish. And I asked them, “What do you like to do when you get home?” “Watch TV and relax” was a common answer. “So why shouldn’t a 20-something who lives in a run down duplex in Siberia or in a slum in Sao Paolo be able to come home at the end of a long day at work and be able to do the same—watch whatever they like?” When money is tight, do we always get our oil changes on time instead of going to the movies with friends? Do we spend money on energy efficiency improvements on our homes before decorating the inside? My point is that it’s easy to point to someone else and find ways that they can fix the problem to alleviate our own sense of responsibility.

Rick makes the very uncomfortable statement that the “high consuming class” does bear a greater responsibility, not simply because of the disproportionate carbon footprint of jet setting between multiple homes, lavish vacations, and luxury items like yachts. If we all aspire to this lifestyle and consume what is in reach to achieve it in the name of “progress” the apocalypse may indeed be upon us. The question Rick asks towards the end of the article may make you squirm, but here it is: “The real issue of sustainability is whether we can really sustain the bare injustice of a planet where a lucky minority live in luxury while the others can only watch?”

So, I hope the end-of-the world-optimists are right. With sunrise on 12/22 the days will start getting longer. If you don’t feel the cosmic shift, fake it. Awaken from this darkest night of the year with new eyes and a new perspective. Confront those most challenging questions and get involved. Keep doing what you are doing to deepen your green on an individual basis, but also find ways to raise your voice to policy makers because that is where our voices get stronger.

Cherish the simple pleasures this holiday season. Be happy, healthy, and at peace.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

O Tannenbaum!




During the holiday season we overconsume—the cookies, the stuffing, the holiday party finger food, the gifts, and on and on.  Advice on simplifying the seasonal celebrations is abundant, so I’m not going to go there.  

Weinachtsmarkt in Dresden, Germany, 2007
  I want to focus on the Christmas tree. I love Christmas trees. I love the smell, the twinkling lights, and unwrapping the ornaments and hanging them on the tree.  I love picking out a Christmas tree. I have fond memories of driving out to the woods behind our house with my dad and picking out a tree for that year. I’ve always enjoyed watching my sisters hang the lights on the tree (the one job I would joyfully hand over to my husband if he were willing). My love for Christmas trees does not discriminate. I love everything from tinsel and handmade ornaments to the simple elegance of white lights and silk poinsettias on my friend Sandy’s tree.

But I don’t put up a tree every year.

That decision is not purely environmental, but I do often think about the tree vs. no tree choice at least in part based on my impact. After my mom sold the property that the woods were on, we had a fake tree. It was simple and relatively attractive, especially once we had it decorated, but it was never quite the same as a real tree. I’ve heard that artificial trees are better for the environment and I’ve heard that real is better than fake and I’ve heard there is no difference between real and fake (both are bad intheir own way), but as I became an adult I decided that whatever the advantage of not cutting down a tree annually, a fake tree (unless it’s an over the top metallic, retro looking tree) isn’t worth it. Not to me.

I usually put up a real tree when I have the time to enjoy it. I say “I” because my husband enjoys the food, movies, and events of the holidays, but doesn’t share my love for Christmas trees. I put up a real tree in years when I won’t be traveling as much or can work from home more so that I can enjoy the sights and smells of the tree. It also has to be the kind of year when my husband and I can go to pick out a tree together and I can spread out decorating the tree over a couple days so that it doesn’t become a chore. In other years, I may use an evergreen swag on the mantle or a tabletop living tree (some of which have been transplanted to the yard) to bring in the smell of a real tree without the stress of a cut tree. 

sad little tree...

This is one of those years that I’m feeling the time pinch, but my living tree from a few years ago is dried up in a planter on the porch. I didn’t feel like getting a replacement. But I wanted a tree. Surely I had options….


I’ve thought for years about getting one of those wire trees for displaying ornaments, but I always fear my ornaments are too ordinary without the backdrop of twinkling lights and lush greenery.  In 1999 I was in Russia, beginning my dissertation fieldwork and I made a fake tree with metal garland taped to the wall of my apartment and a few ornaments (a couple of which I brought home with me, the rest I gave to a friend for her New Year’s tree). I was wondering about When I saw a post from afriend on facebook that displayed some creative re-interpretations of theChristmas tree, I was inspired. Take a look:

my tree!
 And the branches become firewood for a cold January evening.  Since we don’t use any starter, the ash will get added to the compost for the garden in spring. That makes me pretty happy, but I’ll probably be on the lookout for a used wooden ladder between now and next Christmas! My advice is to stress less about making the perfect holiday or even the most environmentally-friendly Christmas. Find joy in the experience rather than the object and flex your creative muscles to make memories.