Archive for February, 2008

Puppies and houses

Puppu\yOur friend Michele just got a tiny puppy.  Just looking at him, you wouldn’t think he’d be problem, but he’s super hard for just one person to manage.  He demands constant attention, he chews, he pees everywhere, he whines at night.  How can you tell ahead of time? And how do you weigh that against all the unanticipated good stuff that comes along with it, like tug-of-war with a scarf or the funniest loping run ever?

Maggie and I have been looking at houses recently and asking similar questions.  What’s a deal breaker and what’s just a quirk?  How important is layout versus yard size versus location?

The best way is really to try it out, but at a certain point you have to just make the plunge and trust that it’ll work out for the best.  And along the way, focus on the good times and use the bad times as a way of connecting with others.  That’s why I was so happy to be able to hang out with Michele and her puppy tonight even though she’s taking him back to the breeder tomorrow.

In that vein, here are some little things that have made me happy recently.

  • snow!
  • a tiny cat running from tree to tree to avoid the snow
  • watching a good movie with friends
  • chocolate chip cookies (that get better as they cool!)
  • baking bread
  • getting things done!

I know this isn’t really a “green” post, but it is all about living well, so I hope you’ll let me branch out a little.  I also hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on–and share–some of your good times!

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A book for Engineers as well as Gardeners

Better Off and Animal, Vegetable, MiracleI hope this is coherent. It’s been a long week after a long weekend and it’s not over yet. Nevertheless, I managed to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle today. The book is about Kingsolver and her family as they move to Appalachia (from Arizona) and attempt to eat local food for a year.

Although the concept is interesting, the book didn’t interest me until the end (when Kingsolver talks about the difficulty of getting people to change the world and turkey procreation), which was too little too late. I was surprised because I’ve heard great things about it from at least three people.

I’ve decided that the people who love Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are Gardeners. You know the type. They swoon over winter seed catalogs, talk about soil pH, and give away hundreds of squash in the fall. To me, though, lettuce all tastes the same, a zucchini and a cucumber are basically identical, and I like to watch Japanese beetles. I will never be a Gardener, even if I do occasionally garden. Luckily, I have Maggie around to handle that sort of thing. I’m much more of an Engineer. I like building things instead of growing them and solving problems that involve short bursts of creativity rather than marathon efforts over a season.

I must not be the only one, since Eric Brende took on a similar challenge but faced it much differently. Instead of focusing on food, Brende looked at technology and decided that it was too difficult to determine what was good and bad about it while he was so reliant on it. He took his wife to a small Amish-like community and they attempted to determine how little technology was necessary to live a happy life. The result is Brende’s book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

I think my favorite part about Better Off is that Brende starts off thinking about technology and ends up realizing that it has very little to do with technology and a lot to do with him and his wife. There’s no universal answer to the question “is this gadget a good addition to my life?” This sort of introspective evaluation of a lifestyle is very attractive to me.

Since reading the book, I find myself wondering what I can do without rather than assuming that because the technology is there, I should use it. When it comes down to it, dishwashers are kind of annoying. Cars are even worse. I might not be willing to give them up, but I can figure out when it makes sense to use them and when it doesn’t.

I think even Gardeners will appreciate this type of message, although they might apply it to different things than I do. I definitely recommend picking up Better Off… if you can tear yourself away from your seed catalogs.

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Preparing for the Gardening Season

Working in the GardenWill believes that some folks just aren’t gardeners and he may be right but I’m pretty sure I’m a gardener. I’m a little behind; January is the peak season for snuggling up with some great seed catalogs and sketching out the awesomest garden layout ever. But I have a HUGE stockpile of seeds already and it looks like I’ll be playing the supporting role in three gardens this year rather than running a garden of my own so it’s probably just as well that I’m not looking at the catalogs. (My favorites are Seeds of Change and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. For those who are not gardeners, there’s always the Murray McMurray poultry catalog or the ever-popular Heifer International catalog of gift animals for families in third world countries.)

I just find gardening really fulfilling. It is a pleasant form of exercise, it’s an excuse (and motivation) to get outdoors, I feel like I’m contributing to something worthwhile, and in the end I get to eat something yummy! Usually, anyway. There have been a few unpleasant surprises like the melons that smelled deliciously sweet and tasted like dirt and a few times that my lovingly tended crop was eaten by voracious wild animals but usually there’s something good to eat.

Alas, it is snowing here so I will not be headed outdoors soon. This week I am practicing my sprouting skills. I just got a sprouting jar and some alfalfa seeds and I also recently learned that it’s possible to sprout most beans so I have a batch of adzuki beans going. I am also going to coordinate with a friend who is starting seeds indoors for the Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard garden that I’ll be helping with this spring. And I’ll probably break down and check out a few seed catalogs so I can advise my mom on what to include in her garden, which I helped install a couple years ago.

Some green tips for seed selection:

1. Heirloom varieties are awesome and help preserve biodiversity, as well as frequently providing superior flavor and nutrition. Baker Creek is a great source and here in Bloomington I love to get seeds from Wiley House, a museum with a historical garden.

2. Even if they’re not heirlooms, it’s great to get open-pollinated vegetable seeds so you can save your own seeds for the next year. If you save your own seeds you can develop a variety that is perfectly suited to your neighborhood. Pretty cool!

3. Buy organic seeds when you can. Besides being free of the fungicides and other chemicals sometimes applied to conventional seeds, organic seeds were grown by farms that are using environmentally sustainable methods. I think it’s important to support them.

4. Share seeds with friends and neighbors. One seed packet generally contains a lot more seeds than you will actually need (you don’t need fifty tomato plants, I promise) so share the wealth. I hear there are stores where you can buy seeds in bulk by the teaspoon but I haven’t found those stores yet.

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Ready for a fast, cheap, local pizza?

It’s getting close to dinner, which is a dangerous time to be reading a friend’s food blog. Luckily, the entry that caught my eye was all about pizza. As Maggie has mentioned before, I love pizza. It’s a fast, easy and filling meatless meal. Takeout pizza is too expensive for us and the frozen ones are full of fat. And, of course, both use ingredients that have travelled long distances to get here.

Flatbread pizzaI’ve found that making pizza from scratch can be faster, greener, and even cheaper! I got my recipe out of the Complete Tightwad Gazette, which includes a lot of great ideas of reducing consumption. It requires no fancy ingredients and takes about ten minutes of mixing and topping, ten minutes of rising, and ten minutes of cooking, which puts it on par with ordering delivery.

The first time I made it, the dough was hard to roll (there’s a reason you see people tossing pizza dough!), which made it uneven. That wasn’t a big problem except that the thick parts cooked a lot slower than the thin parts, which made the whole pizza a little doughy.

My next experiment was with adding some whole wheat flour to the mix. It gave a great texture, but also created some pockets of dough that were even more difficult to roll. We ended up with a square pizza (or, as I told Maggie, “gourmet flatbread”). I also made sure to keep all but the edges of the dough thin. Some places were so thin that I accidentally pulled holes in them. Pushing the edges of the hole together fixed that problem but exacerbated the square pizza problem.

Luckily, Maggie is a sucker for “gourmet flatbreads,” so she was happy with it. I was happy that the thin spots thickened during cooking as the dough rose. In the end, even the thinnest spots of pizza were thick enough to be tasty and it wasn’t anywhere near as doughy as my previous experiment. In the future, I’m going to make sure to keep the middle a little thicker so that it can carry the weight of all the toppings I put on.

Another bonus for me is that there are a couple periods of downtime (while the dough rises and while the pizza cooks) that give me just enough time to wash the stuff I got dirty in the previous step. That makes it a snap to clean up after dinner when I’m full and lazy. It takes only a minute for me to pack up the leftovers, if there are any, and toss the plates into the dishwasher.

As a quick dinner, it’s hard to beat!

This version (based on the one in the Tightwad Gazette) uses a food processor, but I’m sure you could make it by hand as well.

1/2 – 3/4 cup warm water
1 T yeast (1 packet, although yeast is a lot cheaper if you buy in bulk)
1 t sugar
2c flour (optionally, replace 3/4 cup with whole wheat flour)
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 t salt

Combine 1/4 cup of water with yeast and sugar. Stir and let stand about 5 minutes. Put flour, oil, and salt into your food processor and process about 5 seconds with the metal blade (if you’re making a larger recipe, you may want to use a bread attachment. Check your user manual to be sure). Add yeast mixture and process for 10 seconds or so. Turn on the processor and drizzle water in until the dough forms into a ball. Then, process the dough until it turns around the processor 25 times. Put the ball onto a 14-inch greased pizza pan (a pizza stone or cookie sheet work equally well). Cover with a bowl and let stand 10 minutes. Pat the dough and spread it out. If you’re adventurous, try tossing it! Remember to make sure that the dough is thicker on the outside. The dough will rise as it bakes, so the rest of the pizza can be pretty thin. Cover with pizza sauce (this article seems to have a good recipe for sauce, but I haven’t tried it yet), cheese, and your choice of toppings. We usually like onions, peppers, and black olives.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Be aware that the edges will cook faster than the center!

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I’m Doing Laundry!

My college roommate Erin used to say she loved to do laundry because she could feel like she was being productive the entire time the washer and dryer were running, even if she spent that time plunked on the couch in front of the TV. I must admit, I do think of her logic every time I throw in a load…

Really, though, I want to steal an idea from Student Doctor Green, a blogger in Texas who is trying to “green” her life and decided to tackle one room of her house at a time (she started with the kitchen) and do a thorough green-ness assessment. I am going to modify the concept a little and focus on tasks instead of rooms – my first target is doing laundry. Here are my green tips:

1. Do less laundry. We all have our own comfort zones but I think it’s healthy to re-evaluate them periodically. I personally only wash my bathroom towels once a week unless they smell bad. Socks, underwear, and t-shirts get washed after each wearing but sweaters, pants, and jackets are generally worn three or four times (I hang them on pegs in my bedroom during the “slightly dirty” phase) before washing. Cloth napkins, rags, and kitchen towels get hung up in the laundry room when they look or smell gross to await the next load of laundry. I recently purchased some cloth menstrual pads from etsy but I don’t quite have a routine down for those. The package suggests storing them in a bucket of water until it’s time to do laundry or washing them out by hand. I’ll keep you posted.

2. Run full loads using cold water. I tend to do two loads of laundry every two weeks unless I’ve been especially dirty. I have washed my clothes in cold water for the last five years at least and it always seems to work just fine.

3. Use environmentally sound detergents in small quantities. Read the box! It takes less detergent than you might think. I used to throw in a little extra for good measure but I tested and it didn’t make a difference so now I use the minimum amount of Biokleen or Seventh Generation or whatnot. I did get some very nice detergent from Mugwort Maggie’s but she cashed my check in November and didn’t send me the detergent (or respond to any of my e-mails) until February. Not cool. Even if you make awesome handmade products, you have to respect your customers or they will tell everyone you’re a jerk. A friend just sent me a link about soap nuts, some kind of naturally soapy nut sold by a different Maggie. I guess there are women named Maggie all over the internet doing crazy green things!

4. Dry your clothes efficiently. This means not overstuffing the dryer and maybe using some of those little dryer balls (we don’t have them yet – wedding gift perhaps?) although as Treehugger points out, they’re made out of polyvinyl chloride, which is not eco-friendly at all. It’s also important to maintain your dryer – you know, clean that lint trap! If we were really hardcore we would dry our clothes on a clothesline. I must confess, I will probably only ever get around to that one if it’s extremely convenient and I will still want certain things (underwear, towels) to have that dryer-soft feel. (On the other hand, I *hate* dryer sheets. I’d rather have the static cling.)

5. Upgrade your washer and dryer. Our rental home comes with a washer and dryer so this seems unlikely for us in the near future. We have toyed with the idea of getting a handwasher and a drying rack just to see if we could get used to the super-efficient method. Perhaps a wedding registry with Lehman’s is in order…

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Globalization – chartreuse, perhaps?

Child with globeI too read The Undercover Economist and while I enjoyed it as much as Will did, I am still not convinced that Globalization is Green. The book did provide a lot of food for thought and it made me rethink why I have such a gut opposition to globalization. I think I’ve come up with a few answers.

1. The global economy is not perfect. My number one frustration with economists is that they like to talk about perfect systems when they know quite well that reality is something completely different. (I often have this problem with physicists as well.) Tim Harford is very good about admitting what is model and what is close to reality. His whole point is that if we embrace globalization fully and get rid of tariffs and other protectionist laws, everyone will be better off. That may well be true but I don’t see globalization happening that way. Every country is trying hard to globalize while still keeping the upper hand, whether in terms of agricultural subsidies or import taxes on foreign steel and in the process a lot of people are getting screwed over. That’s the kind of globalization I’m not a fan of.

2. Globalization tends to erode traditional cultures. I have strong yet conflicted feelings about Westernization. I do believe it’s important for people to be exposed to knowledge and viewpoints from around the world but at the same time I hate to think that everyone is being exposed to “American Idol” and McDonalds. I am not a huge fan of American culture and it makes me sad to hear about countries and regions whose youth are abandoning traditional ways in favor of becoming more Westernized. Perhaps I’m just being sentimental but I believe we are losing knowledge and social cohesion when people give up village life to go into the city or when indigenous tribes are forced off their land to a new area because that land has become a valuable economic resource.

3. Economic defenses of globalization tend to ignore all the important stuff because they are externalities. I would be very excited if Tim Harford wrote another book where he laid out a proposal of how to account for all the “externalities” – things like pollution, traffic, reduced natural resources, landfill space, etc. that are not part of the economic transaction. He did give a few interesting examples about how we should combat air pollution by charging people extra money to drive during rush hour or in smoggy areas so there is a direct connection between the undesirable activity and the monetary penalty. However, there’s a lot more scenarios out there to figure out and I don’t think anyone is making much progress, even though trade and globalization is expanding rapidly. I want to see real costs with all those externalities factored in.

4. Local food is important. This one may reveal the depths of my hippie-ness and I’m okay with that. There is something that makes me really uncomfortable about trading food all over the world. Part of it is a transparency issue – it gets harder and harder to figure out how my food was raised when it is made from a mixture of products that were shipped in from all sorts of places. Part of it is a security issue – it just seems dumb to have a large population in an area that can’t provide enough food (or water – hello Los Angeles!). And I’m sure part of it is my rather radical belief that it’s healthier for people to eat food that was grown close to home because it has the right nutrient levels and familiar bacteria and appropriate adaptations for the climate. I’m not against trading for things that can’t be grown in one area – I love bananas! – but shouldn’t the bulk of our food come from nearby?

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The Ecology of Money

Money fishingIn the past year, I’ve become much more aware of how I spend. I started a budget, I’m saving more, and I read a lot of great financial advice at places like Get Rich Slowly. Along the way, I’ve noticed that a lot of the messages hammered home by the environmental movement are the same as those used by the frugal.

Recently, I’ve used the bumper-sticker version of living green (reducing, reusing, recycling) to save some green as well (sorry, no more puns, I promise). Instead of throwing away old T-shirts, Maggie used them to start a rag rug. Others have been cut up and used to clean spills. Not only are we producing less trash, we’re saving money at the same time. This got me wondering about other ecological messages. How do they apply to saving money instead of saving the Earth?

  1. Minimize consumption – think of ways that you can stop spending money. This might be the hardest to do, but it pays the biggest dividends. The best way to save is not to spend. As a bonus, it’s usually also earth-friendler to consume less!
  2. Look for alternatives – don’t get trapped in your current lifestyle. There are often ways to combine alternatives to come up with something that works well for you. For example, dryer balls increase the efficiency of our dryer but a drying rack lets us reduce usage of the dryer entirely.
  3. Look at the big picture – you can save a lot when you take a step back. Large up-front purchases can reduce your long-term costs considerably. Compact fluorescent lights are a perfect example, but things like a crock-pot can save you just as much in the long haul!
  4. Study earlier generations – there are still a lot of people out there who lived through the Depression. Most of them have great stories about how they made do with less. Even if you decide that toilet paper is something you don’t want to do without, these people can often give you a valuable sense of perspective as well as useful tips for reducing costs.

So the next time you’re in a conserving mood, try saving water, heat, electricity… and money.

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How Do You Sell Environmentalism?

EnvironmentalismI’ve started to study marketing in my old age. Part of me feels like a sell-out. (This is the part of me that hears the word “marketing” and immediately pictures a sleazy salesman with gleaming white teeth and perfectly gelled hair.) Part of me is excited to be learning something new. And the other part appreciates that on some basic level, nearly every form of communication we do is marketing. Marketing is attempting to transmit a message, to sell your view (if not your product).

Standard product advertisements have pretty straightforward messages.  Drink this beer and you’ll be sexy.  Buy this car and keep your family safe.  There are even subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages about what happens if you don’t buy the product: You’ll never find true love, your children will die horrible deaths, and the Jones will find out what a pathetic loser you are.

But how do you effectively market something as abstract as environmentalism? You can try the same techniques but it’s a little harder to convince people that changing compact fluorescent light bulbs is sexy or that recycling will give your house the sparkly clean shine that bleach does. You certainly can play up the idea of keeping your family safe and preserving your personal health, but it’s still hard to make it concrete. There’s also the problem of overstimulating people and getting them so worked up they choose to stop listening like the boy who cried wolf. Even if everything you say is true, it’s easy to overwhelm people and then they’ll tune you out.

There’s been some discussion of the topic over at No Impact Man’s blog and he advocates knowing your audience and tailoring your message to them. Tell the people interested in their health about ways to preserve their health. Talk to the people with kids about protecting their future. I totally agree with the philosophy but instead of helping, it only seems to make it harder! How do you get to know your audience so you can design a message to reach them?

Luckily, there are lots of people promoting green living, environmentalism, sustainability, social equity, locally grown food, peace, and all kinds of other great ideas in all kinds of different ways. I don’t have to figure out how to sell the idea of green living to the world, which is a tremendous relief. I think I’d probably have better luck selling cars; at least they’re tangible.

What sells you on environmentalism?

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Globalization is Green

Sorry for the late post, but time and migraines wait for no man.

The Undercover Economist by Tim HarfordI’ve stolen this counterintuitive title from a section in Tim Harford’s interesting economic book (and who thought that phrase would ever be used?), The Undercover Economist. The book as a whole is a great overview of economic thinking applied to a variety of topics, from finding a good used car to pricing coffee. Near the end, Harford attempts to debunk the idea that trade protectionism prevents globalization from damaging the environment.  I find most of his arguments very persuasive, although there might be more arguments against globalization that he doesn’t cover. Hardford identifies three main anti-globalization arguments: a “race to the bottom,” transportation costs, and the idea that economic growth inherently hurts the planet.

In a “race to the bottom” view, globalization encourages production in countries that have lax environmental laws. To promote production in their countries, poor areas of the world would weaken their environmental laws, leading to no environmental protection at all. Harford argues against this on multiple fronts. First, he points out that the vast majority of trade is between rich countries with similar environmental standards. Harford also notes that many of the strategies with the most environmental impact, like energy efficiency, also save money (the same is true on an individual level!). In addition to arguing theory, Harford looks at the numbers behind the claim and find that companies are much more likely to invest in polluting industries in rich countries than in poor ones. This counterintuitive claim makes sense when you realize that the most polluting industries, like Harford’s example of bulk chemical processing, require infrastructure like roads that poor countries just don’t have. Finally, Harford looks at two competing situations: the increase in China’s air quality as foreign investments increased and the increase in environmental problems (high-yeild farming, primarily) caused by protectionist agricultural policies around the world.

Even if a race to the bottom isn’t likely to happen, it’s obviously true that transportation costs are high when buying overseas. Harford agrees, but points out that the transport costs of moving a CD player from Osaka to LA is less than that of moving it from LA to Arizona. Of course, buying locally is better yet, but even then there’s the possibility that the transportation costs are very high. To combat the environmental effects of transport, Harford suggests, as he does throughout the book, that a direct cost on externalities like air pollution caused by travel make the most sense. That way, the final cost of the item will give you a direct idea of how much environmental damage it’s done, whether it originated in LA or in Osaka.

Finally, Hardford takes on the claim that globalization leads to damaging environmental growth. For the poorest countries, the environmental problems they face, things like pollution from wood-burning stoves and unsafe drinking water, can be alleviated or eliminated with trade. Developing countries do have increasing environmental issues, but Harford brings up the moral dilemma that this creates: to reduce their environmental impact, we have to keep nations poor, which leads to preventable deaths by the problems poor countries face. Once again, Harford’s solution is a tax on externalities like the US tax on sulfur emissions. This would make cleaner technology even more attractive to developing nations, helping them leapfrog the environmentally worst stages of a developing economy.

Although Harford’s last claim seems the most dubious, I’m willing to grant that it’s better to figure out ways to encourage green economic production than to keep countries from developing at all.

So maybe globalization can be green after all. What do you think?

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Where is Your Dream Home?

I love looking at real estate. There is something immensely exciting about driving around town, checking out the “For Sale” signs and asking “Wow, what would it be like to live there?” Thanks to the Internet, I can even sit around in my pajamas and cruise the Bloomington listings.

It seems like there are hundreds of houses for sale right now and yet all the searching has not helped me figure out what my dream home looks like. In the end, it boils down to two simple options.

1. Buy a house in the country where we can grow our own food and live close to the land

2. Buy a house in the city where we can live car-free and share resources more easily

They both have their appeals. I’d love to have a big garden and a few fruit trees and some chickens. I might be able to do that in the city but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t also have my own stream and a little bit of forest and maybe a goat. Of course, living out in the country on a big piece of land would leave me isolated from my neighbors and dependent on my car to go grocery shopping or visit friends. How self-sufficient could I be out in the country and how enjoyable would it be? Living in the city, I’d have stores and friends close by and could arrange to bicycle or walk most places I wanted but it would be more crowded and less natural. I probably couldn’t put in a composting toilet (although Will isn’t too excited about the idea anyway).

I’ve spent some time searching for that happy medium, a small house on a bit of acreage that’s still bikeable from downtown. I haven’t found it yet and we probably can’t afford to buy a house just yet anyway so for next year, we’re looking for the perfect downtown spot. It will be the grand experiment to see if I really will put that bike to good use and get my feet used to pounding the pavement. I sure hope I’m up for it. And maybe with the right landlord we can smuggle in a couple of chickens.

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