Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Peer-Pressure and Sustainable Lifestyles

On Fathers' Day, I wrote about how my Dad inspired my passion for green ways of living. Last week, I asked you how you came to your green lifestyle or aspirations for a green lifestyle. (There are several of us who take turns writing posts; I, Don Duggan-Haas, usually post on Wednesdays). This is the third in this series of posts that deals with where your aspirations for sustainability comes from.

In discussions of why people are the way they are, issues of nature verses nurture are often central. Placing the discussion into that dichotomy almost certainly oversimplifies and arguably marginalizes important issues. I won't go into great depth on that argument, but will note that Judith Rich Harris addresses the issue in her 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption, and will note that the book makes a compelling case that peers matter more in character development than either your genes or what your parents do.

I believe Dad's influence on me was important. I don't know whether it was the genes he gave me or the example he set for me that was more important. Further, I don't know if either his genes or his example were as important as the company I have kept. My peers, including friends and colleagues, have greatly shaped the way I see the world and the way I move in the world. That's almost certainly true for you too. And for your friends.

That's a little frightening when I consider the company I've kept, but on the whole, it's a good thing. My friends, goofy as they are, have made me a better person.

Everyone's an influencer. Everyone's a teacher.

I suspect most people who read this blog regularly live in or near Ithaca. Being in a town with Ithaca's vibe shapes the way you see the world and your place in it. I don't live there now, but I have in the past. (I'm PRI's lone telecommuter and live in Amherst, NY). The communities and network you affiliate with really matter in making you the person you are and in shaping both your activities and theirs.

Your community matters, and so do your friends. Obesity and weight loss have been shown to be socially contagious -- if you have obese friends, you're more likely to become obese. If you have friends who have lost weight, you're more likely to lose weight. Similar effects are seen for smoking.

These things make sense -- having a friend lose weight or quit smoking offers both incentive and someone to share strategies with. And more. Having a friend gain weight or start smoking can show that it's not that big a deal in your peer group.

Does the general idea of social contagion carry over to reducing carbon emissions? I don't know, but it intuitively makes sense to me. The Low Carbon Diet is a community-based approach to reducing carbon emissions. It's based on a weight loss approach that involves calorie counting, but instead of counting calories, you're counting carbon emissions. And you're working in a support group with friends and neighbors.

Thinking about carbon emission reduction as contagious doesn't mean you ought to dump your carbon-intensive friends, though you might think about things that your friends have done that influence what you do.

That probably doesn't involve nagging, just in case you were wondering. Showing them the things you've done to reduce your footprint could be helpful. Maybe asking them to shut off their engine while they're chatting with you in the driveway would be ok too.

The line of thinking might also imply making new friends who can offer support for making the kinds of changes you aspire to. And, it can give you an excuse to get old and new friends together to embark together on a Low Carbon Diet.

Can you identify friends who've made you more sustainable? Can you thank them for the help they've offered? Can you talk with them about next steps to take together?

Next week, I'll share some more thoughts on the Low Carbon Diet.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Lazy Twenty-Something's Guide to Sustainable Living - On Coffee

Ah, coffee. Without that delightfully bitter black kiss in the morning I fail to become a fully functional human being. Maybe it's an addiction. Maybe I once took a job as a barista for the endless supply of free drip coffee. Maybe when I consider remaining childless, a 9 month stretch without it weighs heavily in the argument. Whatever. I love it and I'm not going to stop drinking it for anything short of bleeding ulcers or pregnancy.

That said, the environmental (and social) impacts of coffee growth can be pretty horrific, and I can't really consider myself an environmentally conscious person without examining how drinking coffee affects the rest of the world. After all, I may be lazy, but I try not to be unethical. First, a brief note about choosing your battles in terms of green living, that I will try to expand coherently in another post. I am not a subsistence farmer who shuns all technology. You probably aren't either. We do things all the time that are less than ideal for the environment. We also make small compromises every day that are not really good for the environment, but just shift the pressure from one area to another. At this very moment I am typing this and listening to Sen. Lindsay Graham be slightly condescending to Elena Kagan on a computer. So: 1 machine running vs 2 (computer and tv). Rather than typing and distributing this on paper, it will be uploaded to a blog, so trees saved, but at the cost of the mining and manufacture of the laptops, desktops, and smart phones from which you all are reading and from which I am typing. I'm not in a hurry to move into a yurt and grow all my own food (lazy), but I'll buy sustainably grown food. I'm not in a hurry to give up coffee, but I try to buy coffee that lines up with my environmental and social views. So don't get discouraged and give up on the whole green thing because your carbon footprint can't squeeze behind the decimal. Mine doesn't, either. But I'm working on it.

Conventional wisdom says that coffee is the second only to oil as the most valuable traded commodity. While this might not actually be true, it's still a valuable traded commodity and plays an important role in the economy of many developing nations. There are several ways to buy coffee that have varying impacts on the farmers growing the coffee and make various statements about trade issues. This isn't that kind of blog, though, so I'm going to bite my tongue and stick with what I know: environmental impacts.

Coffee likes to grow in pretty specific conditions. Hawaii is the only state in the Union that grows it for export, in fact, because it is the only state that has the ideal high-elevation, dryish climate within a tropical environment that contributes to a constant average temperature of about 70 degrees. Coffee plants actually grow well in hotter, wetter lower elevations, because the warmer temperatures encourage the plants to fruit essentially all year. However, as any good coffee snob will tell you, this quantity over quality reproductive strategy produces beans with inferior taste. You can then counter that coffee snob's point by reminding them that the body and crema (tan foam on top, not milk) of the best espressos are achieved by a mixture of these inferior beans with the beans from the more highly regarded growing conditions. Most commercial coffee is from the warmer, wetter environment that encourages the production of more beans. Most of the higher-end coffee comes from the cooler, dryer, higher elevation, where, combined with relatively nutrient-poor soils, these conditions cause the fruit to grow more slowly, developing their flavors longer to produce some truly awesome coffee.

There are a few different strategies for growing coffee, each of which have varying impacts on the environment. As with most plants, more sun, more water, and more nutrients give higher yields. Conventional coffee farms clear-cut rain forest, irrigate diligently (New Scientist estimates that it takes up to 140L of water to produce 1 cup of coffee. This is more or less ok for Colombia, maybe not so much for Ethiopia), and fertilize their soils to achieve high yields. They run into the same problems that most conventional monocultures do. Just like sugar cane and corn farming in the rainforest, clear cutting and conventional fertilizers are bad for biodiversity and overall ecosystem health. They increase erosion, destroy habitat, and pollute surrounding soil and water with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Buying sun-grown coffee contributes to the destruction of the tropical rainforest in South America and water shortages in Ethiopia.

Contrasted with conventional methods is the traditional farming method of shade-grown coffee. There are a few different levels of shade-grown coffee. Reduced shade uses a single species of tree for shade, and typically provides between 10 and 30% cover for the coffee plants. While this is better than full sun farms, they still aren't great. Commercial polyculture deliberately introduces a few shade species that also are beneficial to soil chemistry and typically provides 30 - 60% shade cover for the coffee plants. Traditional polyculture introduces even more species of shade plants, and provides 60 - 90% shade cover. Rustic shade farms are basically coffee plants integrated into an existing forest, without removal of the native plants. These generally provide more than 70% shade, sometimes 100% shade. The more shade and plant diversity integrated into the farm, the fewer pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers are generally required. Leaf drop from the shade trees and soil-chemistry-altering properties of the non-coffee plants reduce the need for soil enrichment, and generally allow for other food or cash crops to be grown along side the coffee. More and more types of plants reduce or eliminate appreciable soil erosion. The more shade cover and plant diversity in the area, the better the farms are for birds, insects, and other animals that lose habitat to conventional farming.

So how do you know what you're drinking? While you generally can't tell whether coffee was grown in commercial polyculture or traditional polyculture, some are identified broadly as shade-grown, but that is not a regulated term. There are a few organizations that rate or put their seal of approval on certain coffees for sustainable farming practices, including shade cover. The Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center both certify coffee that they feel meet their standards. There is coffee that is certified organic, a regulated term in the US. Unfortunately there were no low water use certifications that I could find, so I'm pretty sure that's just a necessary evil of coffee. You can find coffee that meets some pretty stringent ecological requirements. This is obviously not an exhaustive list. This might be.

How to make up for the extra money spent on environmentally friendly beans (not cheap)? Easy: make coffee at home (surprisingly lazy-friendly). Even if I spent $15/lb of coffee every week (I don't), I'd still be ahead of the game. Taking just the summer (when iced coffee reigns supreme) and just Gimme (because no one else here cold-brews their iced coffee), I'd still pay more than double to buy it in the shop. 16oz of iced coffee costs $2.25 at Gimme. My morning cup, cold-brewed from home, is 24 oz. That would cost about $3.37. Multiply that by 7 mornings in your typical week, and I'd be spending $23.59 if I didn't make it myself. Considering the only equipment you need for this is a mason jar and, if you're feeling industrious, filtered water, you can be buying some pretty expensive shade grown coffee and still saving money. In reality, a pound bag of beans will last me a bit over two weeks if I'm drinking around 24 oz a day. Sustainably produced, locally roasted coffee will run you $12 - $17/lb. If you aren't so picky about local roasters, you can get some great deals online and in grocery stores that meet the same environmental standards of production.

If coffee is one of your vices, consider paying attention to the kinds of beans you buy. I would also encourage you to look into some of the various fair trade certifications for coffee, but like I said, it's not that kind of blog.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Clean and Green Boating....

Living and working in the Finger Lakes Region brings about many opportunities for me to spend time on Cayuga Lake boating, sailing, and even kayaking. When summer comes there is nothing I like better than being on the boat with my friends! I know that boating for sport is not the greenest activity in the world to do, but we can try to be clean and "greener" boaters while enjoying our natural areas. Here's some tips I found from

Ten Tips for

Clean and Green Boating

  1. Prevent oily discharges from the bilge. Keep your engine well tuned to prevent fuel and oil leaks. Secure an oil absorbent pad or pillow in your bilge and under your engine where drips may occur. Check the pads often, do not let them clog the bilge pump, and dispose of them as hazardous waste at a marina or local hazardous waste collection center.
  2. Spill-proof your oil changes. For oil changes, use an oil change pump to transfer oil to a spill-proof container. Wrap a plastic bag or absorbent pad around the oil filter to prevent oil from spilling into the bilge.
  3. When fueling, stop the drops! Prevent fuel spills by filling fuel tanks slowly and using absorbent pads or rags to catch drips and spills. Don’t "top off" or overflow your fuel tank. Leave the tank 10% empty to allow fuel to expand as it warms.
  4. Do not add soap. Never use soap to disperse fuel and oil spills. It increases harm to the environment, and it is illegal.
  5. Minimize boat cleaning and maintenance in the water. If possible, save maintenance projects for the boatyard. When performing work on the water minimize your impact by containing waste. Use tarps and vacuum sanders to collect all drips and debris for proper disposal.
  6. Reduce toxic discharges from bottom paints. Minimize the discharge of heavy metals found in soft-sloughing antifouling paints by using a less toxic, or nontoxic antifouling paint. Use only non-abrasive underwater hull cleaning techniques to prevent excessive paint discharge. Remember, dry storage reduces the need for antifouling paints and saves money.
  7. Dispose of hazardous waste properly. Dispose of paints, batteries, antifreeze, cleaning products, oil, oil filters and other hazardous wastes at a hazardous waste collection facility or event.
  8. Plan A-head! Manage sewage wastes properly. Never discharge sewage within 3 miles of shore. Use harbor pump-out stations and shore-side facilities. If you don’t have an installed toilet, use a port-a-potty and empty it at a harbor dump station or bathroom.
  9. Stow it, don’t throw it! Keep your trash on board. Never throw cigarette butts, fishing line, or any other garbage into the ocean. Take advantage of shore-side facilities to recycle plastic, glass, metal, and paper.
  10. Reduce Greywater discharges. Use a phosphate-free biodegradable soap to minimize the impacts of greywater on the marine environment. Also minimize discharge by doing dishes and showers on shore whenever possible.
All information is taken from

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How do you come by your greenness?

On Fathers’ Day, I wrote a bonus entry for the blog, to honor the memory of my Dad (and to set me up for today’s post). That post is about how Dad was the catalyst for me thinking about sustainability and for my working toward living a more sustainable lifestyle.

He wasn't the only reason I'm the way I am -- far from it. But he's probably the most important factor for my green leanings. Next week, I'll write about what I think is the first runner up.

If you’re reading this, you likely also aspire toward a sustainable lifestyle. I want to know why you hold those aspirations, and I want to know if you think you’re making headway toward living up to those aspirations.

I want you to comment on this post. Or at least think about commenting.

There are two reasons I want you to comment. I'll state them simply and then explain each in just a bit more detail.

  1. 1. To help you. Commenting makes you think about your sustainable inclinations and thinking about them helps deepen your understanding.
  2. 2. To help us. You can help us reverse engineer understanding of sustainability – If you're motivated to live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, you must have done something, seen something, or read something that brought that about. Maybe we can incorporate some of those things into our programming or resource development that can help motivate others toward more environmentally friendly ways of being.

Commenting helps you build your own understanding:

There’s compelling research on how people learn (and see this and this), and one of the key findings of that work is this:

A "metacognitive" approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

In other words, if you learn about how you learn and think about how you think, you'll be a better learner. In asking you to comment, or at least think about commenting, I'm asking you to be metacognitive. Where did your passion for and understanding of sustainability come from? Crafting a sentence or two has the potential to help you better understand how to deepen those understandings.

Commenting to help us build understanding in others:

Giving us some feedback also has the potential to help others do what you've done. If you can tell us the things you've done and the things you've read or watched or created that deepened your understanding and catalyzed your actions, then maybe we can help others do the same.

So, why are you green?

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Lazy 20-Something's Guide to Sustainability: Container Gardening v. 3 +

Today I had a vet visit for my feline friends and battled a pretty awful headache. So I took a personal day. But the best thing came from my personal day...I got to spend time in my container garden. With the traveling I've done in the last couple weeks for work, I have hardly spent any quality time out on my deck marveling at the produce I'm nurturing. But today I sat down on my deck with the aim of writing today's blog post and I saw the most wonderful thing: not one, not two, not three, but 4 tiny baby cucumbers. All of them are a little less than an inch long and only as fat as about half of a pinky nail. They even have what's left of the bright yellow cucumber blossom still attached! I'm so excited since I absolutely love, Love, LOVE cucumbers and I was terribly skeptical that vine plants could grow in a container. I mean, they produce HUGE veggies and their leaves span a pretty large amount of groundcover. I guess I shouldn't be surprised about my success, especially given my rural upbringing, but I am. As a kid, I'd go out and weed the garden, but I never took time to really pay attention to the way the plants matured. Truth be told, if my grandparents hadn't planted things in the same areas each year, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell the plants apart until at least 1 month of maturity.

I'm not the best at keeping a personal journal. Or a journal of crocheted things, or quilted things, or grown things. So, being that this is for work (and therefore I will follow through), it becomes an opportunity to properly journal about the rates of growth and yields.
Other notable growth:
There are at least 15 tomatoes growing on my large tomato plant, and still some tiny yellow flowers begin to emerge. My green pepper plant has 10 tiny little peppers and still some buds and 4 off-white blossoms. My banana pepper plant has 4 large peppers and dons of blossoms and little peppers. While my strawberries will be nothing to write home about, there are 2 tiny white strawberries emerging! 13 tomatoberries of various sizes and still some yellow blossoms, and I can't complain about the things I've seasoned with my established chives and the large numbers of salads I've eaten right off my deck! My boyfriend finds salad tedious and avoids it often, but he is AMAZED at how tasty salad greens taste when cut 5 minutes prior to being eaten. And pretty much daily I've had a salad or cut a few leaves off for tacos or a sandwich. Growing lettuce (another first for anyone in my family) has been the gift that keeps on giving. But I'll point out that the people who say that arugula gets spicy and a little bitter in the heat of summer are very right. I add it more for zest to salads and am thinking about using them like spinach in a pasta dish...with a basil pesto. :)

Finally, I've been making it a habit to cut back the lemon verbena and pineapple sage weekly. It keeps my rosemary plant visible in the mix, and it also allows me to dry leaves for teas and things in the winter. But I just found a recipe for lemon verbena sorbet, and one of the comments talks about trying the same recipe with pineapple sage! So, that is going to be this week's adventure, and I'm sure you'll be excited to hear about the results. Want to make it yourself? Here's the link to the blog at which I found this amazing recipe!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Where my passion for sustainability came from -- Fathers' Day reflections...

Why am I (philosophically) green?
My dad, Roger Haas, who died six years ago last month was a very quiet man. He was unexpressive to the extreme, virtually never, to my recollection, teaching anything explicitly, yet he taught me a great deal. Most of his teaching was by example.

It gives me the willies when a friend or colleague leaves an engine running while chatting in a driveway or parking lot. That comes directly from Dad. He got the willies too.

He built things -- there was the solar thermal panel that pre-heated hot water in the form of copper pipe painted black inside a glass covered box leaned up against the souther side of our house (the inside was also painted black). There was a windmill in the backyard made from oil drums cut down the middle. I don't think that ever actually generated any useable power as was the goal, but he did get it to spin in the wind.

He turned things off and made sure we did too. Lights left on in empty rooms were one of a few things that made him visibly irritated, and we knew not to run water while we brushed our teeth.

My siblings and I also knew that little scraps of metal or wood, or interesting pieces of broken things could be made to serve some later purpose.

These things have been passed on -- one brother has a geothermal heating system. I'm not the only one of my siblings who mows the lawn with a reel-type mower (Dad used one too) and has insulated his or her home far more than the average American.

I know Dad did these things largely because he couldn't stand to see things pointlessly wasted. What good does it do leave a light on in an empty room? Why should I use natural gas to heat my water when the sun can do it free? Why would we want to squander our resources? Thanks, Dad, for passing this along to me.

What makes you green?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Happy Fathers Day -- The Be Green Edition!

How many ties can one man have? This weekend is Fathers Day and I think we should put down the ties! Below is a list of a couple "greener" items that you might consider...

How about getting dad that new grill? Did you know that electric grills release 99% less carbon monoxide and 91% less carbon dioxide than charcoal? That's pretty great!

Maybe add a bamboo cutting board to the list? Did you know that this sustainable wood is 16% harder than solid maple? Bamboo is far more renewable than plastic, and it's low maintenance -- just clean up with a quick rinse.

If you insist on the tie - why not get your dad a wallet made from recycled neckties? Smart looking and a great reuse for an old tie!

It's not easy being green, but maybe these gifts might inspire you or your dad to be just a bit greener! Happy Fathers Day!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Using Yourself to Understand the Global

When I first started trying to shrink my carbon footprint (about 20 years ago), I was doing so largely because I felt guilty for the damage I was doing through my daily activities. That’s a pretty good reason, but it’s not the most important one for me anymore.

Of course, there are lots of reasons – that guilt; lower utility, travel, and grocery bills; unclutter your life and your home; get in better shape by walking and biking and more. All these reasons matter a great deal, but, for me, the most important reason to shrink my footprint is to learn, and to learn for action.

Twenty years ago was seven jobs, six houses (the first was a rental), and two apartments ago. I’ve gone from being a single guy renting a tiny house to a married father of two living in a smallish house (with some bigger residences in between). I’ve had jobs with long commutes, with walkable commutes, to the commute I have now where I walk downstairs to my computer. All of my jobs in that stretch of time have required at least a bit of work-related travel, but I’m now doing more than ever.

All of those jobs have been about helping people understanding the world from a scientific perspective. Studying your carbon footprint and how to reduce it can be a great strategy for building understandings of your place in the world.

For more than half of the twenty years I’ve been trying to reduce my footprint, I’ve used calculators like the one from the Global Footprint Network to gain a sense of what my ecological footprint is, or to figure out what my carbon footprint is (which is a slightly different concept) I've used the Nature Conservancy's calculator. If you don't know about carbon or ecological footprints, these links are great places to start. Both give good overviews of the related science, and both allow you to change variables and immediately see how that changes your footprint (although the impact of changing airplane travel wasn't working on the Global Footprint Network when I fiddled with it this afternoon).

During the 20 or so years I’ve been thinking about my lifestyle in terms of a carbon footprint, the size of that footprint has gone up and down. That's not surprising based on the changes in my life over that time. It's disappointing to me that it's not gone down consistently and I hope to redirect the trend in footprint size downward.

But I also know that just changing my footprint isn't really going to reduce climate change very much if that's the end of what I do.

However, is is a logical place to start. A key idea informing my work as an educator is to use the local to understand the global. That's central to place-based learning and place-based learning is, in my opinion essential to effective Earth system science education generally and to developing climate literacy specifically. And what's more local than you?

Reduce your carbon footprint. You probably know many of the basic things that need to be done (and if you don't looking back through previous entries in this blog can get you well on your way). But don't let reducing your footprint be an end in itself. Use the study of the environmental impacts as a gateway to understand broader climate and environmental issues.

It can be depressing to visit the different footprint calculators and see what happens when you reduce everything as much as the software allows. You can't get to zero. You can't get to a footprint small enough to be sustainable if you live in the United States (on these calculators) because governments have big footprints, and you contribute to that whether you like it or not.

So, you can't get to zero or to sustainable by yourself. You need to be a part of something bigger. Getting to sustainable requires collective action. Figure out how to reduce your own footprint as much as possible and help others do the same, then (or at the same time) work to change the larger society.

What ideas do you have to nurture that collective action?

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Lazy 20-Something's Guide to Sustainability: Container Gardening v.2

A couple weeks ago I wrote about starting my container garden on my deck as a means to live more cost-effectively as a fresh veggie hound, while not receiving my staple veggies through means that include transport, lots of chemicals, and a throng of people in the produce aisle. Now, to be clear (and as you've probably figured out if you've read more than one blog post), I'm not the only person writing for the blog. My name is Trish, and I'm one of the 2 people doing the "Lazy 20-Something's Guide..." posts. Kelly, my co-worker at Museum of the Earth, is the other. She's also the mind behind the Lazy 20-Something title. We also have a couple other people who contribute to the blog to maintain the sort of variety we'd like to see here and to represent all the many ways in which Museum of the Earth is working on climate change education. One final clarification, right now Kelly has the CSA and sprouting (or perhaps withering...we shall see) basil plants, and I have the container garden on my deck. There's a picture of the entire deck, including grill and willing taste-tester!

My container garden seems to be doing well! Officially taking stock, I have:
1 tomato plant
1 "tomatoberry" plant (I assume they'll be like tiny cherry tomatoes..)
1 columnar basil plant (tastes a little less sweet than genovese, smaller leaves, but grows well in a pot with other friends and is a bit heartier)
3 genovese basil plants
5 cilantro plants
a mix of arugula and mixed greens...probably 12-15 plants in all
1 cucumber plant
1 banana pepper plant
1 green pepper plant
1 rosemary 'bush' (its really quite a plant)
1 pineapple sage 'bush' (grows MUCH faster than the rosemary)
1 lemon verbena 'bush'
oatgrass for the kitties
a few leftover dill plants that magically reseeded from my neighbor's attempt last year
4 strawberry plants
assorted flowers

Amazingly as I care for these plants, I've already learned a few great things and made some keen observations.

Keen observation 1 - as of Friday, June 11th, I had eaten both wild strawberries growing on the side of the road and observed cultivated strawberries nearly ready for the eating in a friend's strawberry plants do not yet have flowers.
LESSON: strawberries in pots don't seem to do well and may or may not (the more likely scenario) yield any fruit. Perhaps one of those topsy turvy strawberry planters would work better, but strawberries are such a strong plant, I might just replant these in my landlord's yard somewhere for better chances next spring.

Keen observation 2 - the pineapple sage plant helps to make a mean version of a tropical mojito! It also grows REALLY, REALLY QUICKLY and is overrunning my poor rosemary.
LESSON: Plant pineapple sage in a pot all by itself and plan lots of parties with rum drinks during summer months. Additionally, I'd love to hear any other ideas for the pineapple sage. How would I harvest it for teas?

Keen observation 3 - My cucumber plant is doing well...I daresay thriving!
LESSON: It turns out you can grow vine-y plants in container gardens. I've put a large tupperware lid underneath the plant so that the vines don't stray too far and so I can move the container when necessary. If this really works, you can bet I'll have 3 or 4 cucumber plants in next summer because cucumber is my favorite veggie. I also see zucchini (and zucchini bread) in that future.

I've enjoyed a few tasty salads already from my container garden, and they taste SO fresh when you just cut the leaves 5 minutes before serving. I also made a tasty stew that I seasoned with some of the herbs I had. I'll keep you informed of how things grow, and I'd love some creative ideas for the lemon verbena and pineapple sage that I have in copious abundance already!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Lazy Twenty-Something's Guide to Sustainable Living - On CSAs

I thought this post was going to be about joining a CSA rather than container gardening, but it turns out it is going to be about both. I did not have Trish's rural upbringing. My only successful attempt at gardening was as a 6-year-old, when I planted (and harvested!) radishes under the careful supervision of my mother. While Mom comes from a family of truly talented gardeners, and has a green thumb herself, we never had an extensive garden. I grew up mostly in the North Western exurbs of Atlanta. Our house was built on Georgia red clay which is not much good for growing anything other than pine trees, bricks, and, surprisingly, azaleas. We did have a small garden that supported huge tomato plants and huge-er basil plants.

I am a convert to sustainable foods, rather than a cradle locavore. I never really thought about local or sustainable agriculture until I got to college. Metro Atlanta is very, very different from the Finger Lakes in terms of land use and attitudes. It's 5.5 million people in the worst kind of suburban sprawl. The instantaneous transition between urban space and farmland here still startles me. The Kennesaw grocery chains are not as conscientious about purchasing or providing local foods; there was no local farmer's market until very recently. Our only attempts at local or seasonal eating involved summer sweet corn and Georgia peaches. College coursework introduced me to food production and transportation issues, and I resolved to eat more sustainably once I was able to cook somewhere. Enter the CSA share.

The trick to doing these right (read: cheaply) is to split them with someone. Even if you don't, if you are already committed to sustainably farmed local produce, CSAs can be your most economical option. They're good for the farmers because they get a portion of their income up front, which helps with expenses at the beginning of the growing season. It's good for you because you are helping to ensure the success of local agriculture and because you get an entire season's worth of produce (in my case 24 weeks! 24!) for less than a month's rent. It works out to less than $20/ week for a huge amount of awesome produce. The catch is that it depends on your ability to write a sizable check up front. Several of the local CSAs have optional payment plans, but the price often goes up slightly. I like the 1-time full payment plan. It's like paying car insurance every 6 months instead of monthly; it saves you money in the long run.

A CSA share fits with the "lazy" in the blog title perfectly. I should point out here that my attempts at plant care have been abysmal since the radishes. In high school I managed to kill a small plant that is like a cactus, but needs less watering. I killed it dead. If it doesn't meow or bark at me for food, it won't get fed. Consequently, I am not confident in my ability to feed myself with a container garden. With a CSA, you get varied, seasonal produce and you don't have to grow it yourself. All you have to do is make a weekly trip up to the farm and bag it yourself. And oh, what a bag it is. There were at least 8 different kinds of salad greens this week. Stuff I haven't even heard of. So I got to happily munch on bok choi leaves and radishes for lunch today. Some super-spicy greens made it into my salad last night, and probably will tonight as well.

One of the more surprising things about this share was the seedlings that were up for grabs. I am determined to give gardening another shot because herbs are expensive. To that end, I already had basil started on the back deck. I took a second basil plant last week (because "enough" is rarely an apt modifier for basil) and 2 kinds of tomato seedlings. This week I took chives (for eggs!), rosemary (for bread!), and sage (what is it for?!). I grabbed discarded containers scattered around the back yard, bought some organic potting soil (about $2 more expensive than conventional), used some of the compost from our pile out back and remembered to water everyone once a day. All of the seedlings are miraculously still alive in containers on my deck. I promise to keep you updated on when (if?) the whole thing falls apart. As you can see, I am still not confident. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the organic, local, fruits (and vegetables) of someone else's labor.

Billy's Friday Tips!

6 Tips to get you started to being more green! All simple, anyone can do them, and they will yield some big savings in your check book and for the environment!

1.As we enter summer be sure to set your thermostat just a couple degrees higher to save on cooling costs!

2.Wash your clothes in cold water -- as much as 85 percent of the energy used to machine-wash clothes goes to heating the water.

3.Use a drying rack or clothesline to save the energy otherwise used during machine drying. I recently picked up a very inexpensive wooden rack that I throw out back every time I do laundry. Super easy to store, and when I'm done it rests in that small space between my washer and dryer!

4.Take shorter showers. Do you really need to take a 30 minute shower?

5.It's a great time to think about joining a CSA (Community Sustainable Agriculture) and be sure that your getting local produce. Many CSA's will drop your "share" at your house or office. How easy is that?

6.Stop buying bottled water! You can pick up a reusable water bottle from anywhere. It's that easy. I got one on sale at Starbucks for $6!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I don’t drink bottled water, do I?

First a story…

Way back in 2001, I attended a conference in Costa Mesa, California. In order to save some money, and to meet new folks, I used the conference website to find a roommate for the conference. My roommate was from India, but had done had earned his Ph.D. in the States several years earlier. He’d not been back to the US in about a decade.

2001 was at the height of the rolling blackouts. In the years since Anil had been in the US, bottled water had become popular too. Our hotel room offered bottled water for a few dollars per liter. Though I didn’t know Anil until we met at the conference, I could easily tell he was put off by certain things he was seeing.

He asked me, “Don, what’s happened to the infrastructure in this country?” I asked him what he meant, and he said that when he was here in the early 1990s, we didn’t need bottled water and the electricity was very reliable. Indeed, I thought. I struggled to come up with an answer grounded not in issues of scarcity, but rather in issues of market manipulation. Americans, it seemed to me, were basically duped.

I didn’t wish to count myself among the ranks of the duped, and I think there are negative consequences of bottled water. In my holier than thou way, I’ve rarely bought or had bottled water. Or have I?

I never buy and only very rarely consume what we think of as bottled water, but I do buy and consume other bottled (and canned) liquids that are mostly water. The most common is diet cola – it’s my caffeine delivery system and I drink a lot of it – the equivalent of four cans a day is not unusual for me. Some of it comes from cans, but most of it comes from 2 liter plastic bottles.

The cola is bottled not too far away, and I return the bottles and cans for recycling (of course!). That eases my conscience somewhat, but if I think I’m better than those bottled water drinkers because my water is carbonated and caffeinated, well, I think I’m fooling myself.

I also enjoy a certain class of beverages made with hops and barley and such. For the beer, I like to try different varieties, some from near and some from far. Fortunately, there’s some great beer made in Upstate New York, so I can improve my carbon footprint by buying local and liking it!

I want to reduce the carbon footprint of my beverage habits – that means replacing at least some of the cola with tap water and maybe cleaning up the home-brewing supplies.

Perhaps most important is tracking the consumption – if you want to change something, a common successful step is knowing what you’re doing right now. People who lose weight and keep it off, for one example, are much more likely to weigh themselves regularly than people who don’t. Another example is having the electric meter for a household in an obvious place makes electricity use drop substantially. So, I’ll keep a running tally and see if I can shrink the footprint of what I drink. And maybe think about weighing myself more regularly too.

I’m unsure if we’ll ever end up in the situation Anil feared we were in when he returned to the US after a decade away and saw those rolling blackouts and the new prevalence of bottled water. I don’t like the scare tactics that can go along with such a vision, and I think there’s genuine reason to hope that we won't go there. I’ll be personally better off avoiding the high dose of diet cola I now consume. If I can bring myself to get my brewing supplies cleaned up and back in operation after a decade gathering dust, I’ll be drinking better, cheaper, lower carbon footprint beer (but please don’t expect me to revive a lousy old refrigerator to store it in). That all sounds much cheerier…