Archive for May, 2008

State of the (blog) union

Podium with microphoneSince Maggie’s off camping and I’m feeling under the weather, I’ll just talk about the state of the (blog) union.

We’ve published 85 articles (now that this one is up) since January 23rd. That’s almost four months and meets our goal of 5 posts a week. I’m not making any claim on consistent quality over a week yet, though.

I especially enjoyed everyone’s thoughts on houses, but the most active articles have been Maggie’s post about the ecological soundness of babies (she tells me they aren’t recyclable, so I’m not sure how green they can be!) and our announcement about the Extreme Eco-Challenge.

Our most popular articles have been about Maggie’s car (and the veggie oil it uses), making pizza, and doing laundry, followed by my number-crunching on getting places.

Maggie and I plan to think about how we want to proceed from here on the trip to my brother’s wedding next week. It’s at least a 10-hour drive, so we’ll be desperate for stuff to think about! That makes this a good opportunity to ask you all what you enjoy about it as-is and what you’d like to see change in the future. More analytical articles? More personal stories? Absolutely never another story about what we eat?

In addition to topics, I’m interested in knowing your feelings about the images in each article. Sometimes, they can be as much work as the article itself (!), so it’d be nice to know if they add something to your reading experience.

I continue to be amazed and gratified by all of the comments we’ve gotten. I read most of my favorite blogs because of the quality of their comments. GreenCouple is well on its way by that metric! Kudos to all of you!

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Container Gardening – Potatoes and More

A few weeks ago, Will checked out a book for me from the library called the “Bountiful Container: Gardening in Small Spaces”. Unfortunately, I got sucked into some other books and only managed to read a couple chapters before it was due back. (I would have renewed but there was a waiting list; it’s obviously a popular topic.) From what I read, it’s a great book and it definitely fanned the flames of my gardening urges even higher.

Chinese take-out container with plantsSo far I have just a few plants going – peas and basil outside on the porch, tiny tomato seedlings safe in the kitchen, and two trays of seedlings ready to be transplanted to Maggie & Nathan’s garden next week. I tried to get creative and plant some herbs in little take-out Chinese containers but most of the seeds didn’t sprout. I suspect the problem is that I didn’t poke drainage holes, although I did put a bunch of peanuts in the shell at the bottom to provide some drainage (I didn’t have any rocks handy), and some of seeds sprouted quite well. So perhaps the other seeds were nonviable or there wasn’t quite enough light for some of the containers.pot with tomato plants

My next project will be potatoes. The main thing with potatoes is that you want to keep adding soil on top of the plant as it grows so that it will produce lots of potatoes. Normally this is done with a trench-and-mound system in the garden where you dig a trench, plant the potatoes, and then add more soil every week or so until it’s mounded up above ground level. I have seen two container versions and am not sure which to use. Both involve our arch-nemesis, plastic.

Maggie holding potatoFor the first method, you start with a heavy duty garbage back and fold over the top to make a really short bag – kinda like cuffing your jeans instead of hemming them. There need to be some holes in the back and some rocks (peanuts?) for drainage. Plant the potatoes in a few inches of dirt to start and as they grow, you unroll part of the bag and add more dirt or leaves or straw. By the end, you have a bag full of dirt and hopefully potatoes.

The other method is basically the same thing except you use a big trash can with drainage holes and just keep filling it with dirt as the potatoes grow. The possible advantage to this method is that my parents donated an old trash can with wheels to my cause, which might make a nice transportable planter for future projects.

I need to make up my mind pretty soon, as I have a pound of organic seed potatoes waiting patiently in my living room. On the other hand, they’ve been pretty patient so far…

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Green wedding registries?

A pile of presentsThis is a year of weddings. Even though the length of engagement has ranged from 5 years to less than one, many of my friends are getting married this year. I like to think of myself as a trendsetter, but it’s getting a bit ridiculous. Maggie and I are preparing to head down to NC next week for my brother’s wedding. I have another wedding in NC in July and two in September as well as a CA wedding to attend in July. Maggie has local friends getting married in early October and we’re getting married in the middle of October.

I feel bad about it, but there are so many in so many different places (and I’ve got so much else going on) that I just won’t be able to attend them all. I do want to at least get a small gift for each couple, but I find that very difficult in most cases.

Recently, Get Rich Slowly posted a guest column about how terrible registries are. I disagree with a lot of the reasons (uh… you don’t have to ship presents directly from the registry) and the follow-up is even worse. There are some valid points there, though.

Registries seem to be in flux right now as they change to fit current culture. It used to be that a wedding was a good way for a couple to get all of the things necessary for starting a life together. With weddings happening later and later, most couples already have the necessities. In many cases, that makes registries lists of “wants” rather than “needs” or leads to expensive registries.

Maggie and I have talked a little bit about how we want to set up a registry. We have everything we need that isn’t super expensive, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in a registry. It’ll either be full of random junk (as cool as it is, do I really need an air switch lamp?) or expensive items that we need (a kitchen table). It feels really wrong to force ourselves to come up with a list commercial things that we want.

On the other hand, I know that I often find registries helpful to at least give me a starting point. For example, when some of my friends got married a couple of years back and asked for an air popcorn popper, I got that for them as well as a movie we’d enjoyed together in college and some popcorn to go along with it. For another couple, I got a bunch of random kitchen items and packaged them up with some of my favorite recipes. If we follow that model, maybe creating a registry would be a good way for us to indicate to our friends what sort of values we’re trying to cultivate. But are there really places to register that reflect our (non-consumer) values? Target seems exactly wrong.

We probably will register with a charity like Heifer International, but that doesn’t help people who want to bring or send something physical.

Our wedding is still a while off, but we want to have most of the registry stuff done before we send out invitations (so that we can list registry information on our currently nonexistent wedding site) and that deadline gets closer and closer every day. What do you guys think? What’s a good way for us to help people choose something in line with our values without being preachy (if someone does get us something from Target, we’ll still appreciate it)?

Oh, and Rob? I don’t even know if you have a registry because I figured out the perfect gift over Christmas. I’m looking forward to giving it to you next week!

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Help! I’m a Driving Junkie!

drivingHi. My name is Maggie and I’m addicted to driving. I knew I was driving a lot just by looking at my budget and seeing how much money I spend on fuel but during our Eco-Challenge month I thought I’d track my daily mileage and find out specifically how it all adds up. Well, it’s not pretty. Today is May 13th so in just under two weeks I have driven a total of 392 miles, or an average of 30 miles a day.

That’s pretty startling when you realize that Bloomington is about 10 miles wide at its widest point. Some of the mileage is unusual – 86 miles down to Paoli and back to work on Brambleberry Farm , 45 miles out to Beanblossom Bottoms to see the eagles nesting. However, that still leaves 261 miles.

Of those, 78 miles were trips I had to take for my Sycamore Land Trust job. I love the fact that I get paid for mileage but it’s frustrating that I have to travel to a lot of places that aren’t accessible by public transportation (schools outside city limits, nature preserves, etc.). On the other hand, at least for now I think the job (environmental education) is important enough to justify some extra travel time.

The remaining 183 miles were used driving around town and that’s the part I’d like to improve on. A lot of it comes down to a question of routines and habits. It’s really easy to think “Oh, while I’m out, I’ll just swing by the bank” when the bank isn’t actually anywhere on my route. I’ve also gotten into the habit of coming home for lunch, which is very relaxing and I tend to eat more nutritious, cheaper food but it packs on the miles. And there’s also the cold hard fact that I *could* take the bus more places if I were willing to make the extra effort. It’s slower and less convenient and makes it harder to haul my junk around. But I’m ready to give the bus another chance and to plan my day around its schedule. Hopefully I can cut back dramatically on those in-town mileage.

Alas, the last week of this month I’m taking a trip by car to Raleigh, N.C. and then up to Washington, D.C. so I’m pretty sure this is not the month for kicking my addiction completely. Maybe in June…

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A subprime food crisis?

Money propping up a house propping up moneyI’m a big fan of NPR’s This American Life (TAL) even thought I don’t listen to it as much now as I used to. When I was driving to NC semi-regularly, I got a subscription to and burned some CDs of old TAL. I also got to see a screening of the TV show, which was amazing. It’s now at the top of my queue in Netflix (and if I could buy just one show through cable, I’d probably do that).

Last week’s episode on The Giant Pool of Money has gotten a lot of attention recently, and for good reason. Despite Ira Glass’s fading voice, it’s a great partnership with NPR’s money section that goes over the subprime mortgage crisis (and ties it all back to the eponymous Giant Pool of Money).

Having listened to it one and a half times (I was playing Mario Kart during one listen-through, so it only half counts), here’s how I think things broke down. Over the past ten years, the amount of money governments have been looking to invest in safe returns has doubled to over $70 billion! In the same period, the number of investments of that type hasn’t kept pace. Alan Greenspan and the Fed made things worse by by keeping interest rates low, making them unappealing compared to things like… real estate!

Of course, real estate is messy. These investors don’t want to have to deal with actual houses and mortgage payments and so on. To make it attractive as an investment, the market used a sort of alchemy to change them from the messy, risky things to AAA rated (the highest rating, shared with guaranteed government bonds) investment “vehicles.” A house-hunter would get a mortgage from a broker, who would sell it to a bank. The bank would then group mortgages and sell that package to larger firms on Wall Street (like the infamous Bear Stearns). Those companies then got the mortgage payments with a 5-10% return (much better than the 1% you could get through the Fed) and sold shares in that collection of long-term income. Investment firms would buy shares in many different packages and sell those to investors. Historically, the default rate on mortgages has been about 2%, so the investments were rated AAA.

In order to keep up with demand, companies kept relaxing their rules about what mortgages they’d buy, leading eventually to loans that didn’t require you to prove your income or your assets. Since 2005, some packages of these types of loans have had default rates of over 50%, rather than the expected 2%.

The problem is that everyone based their ratings on assumptions that they changed. The 2% default rate on mortgages was true only for the types of mortgages that had been given out in the past. By changing what they were selling without looking at how that would affect the larger picture, these companies set up the crisis that we’re seeing today.

Listening to the program, I was struck by how similar this all is to our food industry as described in King Corn. We start with a noble goal (cheap food/savings) and build a system to promote it (farm subsidies/subprime loans) and assume everything’s going along fine. In the long-run, though, we have no idea whether or not it’ll work because we’ve changed all our assumptions. Instead of mortgages to people with good incomes, we’re giving mortgages to anyone. Instead of diverse family farms, we’ve got huge monocultures.

Okay, so maybe it’s kind of a stretch. I still can’t help but feel that the problem in both cases is that to make something work widescale, we’ve turned something very local and personal into a semi-arbitrary set of rules. That’ll work for a while, but eventually, people will start doing what the rules reward them for rather than what’s actually best for them and the rest of us. It’s not about bad people or even greedy people. It’s about setting up a system that encourages people to act badly.

I’m happy buying locally because I know that when they do right by themselves, they do right by my community too.

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Week One of the Extreme Eco-Challenge

One week of trashWe have survived our first week of the Extreme Eco-Challenge but we’re feeling pretty darn, well, challenged. The “no plastic” goal especially is totally overwhelming. Andy was helpful enough to remind us that all those canned good we were counting on eating are actually coming from cans lined inside with plastic. Glass jars are also suspect; most metal lids are coated with plastic at least on the inside, and many of the “paper” labels are actually some crazy paper-plastic hybrid. I was thinking canning jars might be an improvement but we did a little research and found out that most of the lids are coated with plastic and that the rubber rings are often made of synthetic rubber, which seems like it’s basically plastic. (If anyone has better information about how to tell between synthetic and natural rubber, and if synthetic rubber is different from plastic, please let us know.)

Eating food from non-plastic containers has proved to be a real challenge. So has doing most anything else in a non-plastic way. Will has been feeling especially depressed and suggested we abandon the “no plastic” goal. This would give us a little more flexibility to focus on our “no trash” goal – well, lets say or “minimal trash” goal. As an example, Will scoured the aisles of our local grocery store searching for plastic-free ketchup to no avail. The two options he found were a glass bottle with a small plastic seal on the neck and a recyclable plastic bottle. Neither meets the “no plastic” goal but the former creates minimal trash and the latter creates none. Well, actually, they both have little foam(?) protective seals under the caps. Apparently it’s impossible to be sanitary without plastic.

Despite our frustrations, trying to avoid plastic has been an enlightening experience It is truly mind boggling how many of the things we use contain plastic. Our little container of trash from this week (pictured at the left) is mostly plastic or paper-plastic hybrids that we don’t think are recyclable – the waxy strip from the self-sealing Netflix envelope, nametags I had to use at various work functions, protective seals from food, organic stickers from produce, a shiny AAA decal from our junk mail. I was happy that it all fit into a fairly small container with room to spare. Admittedly, I’m not counting toilet paper and I have had a few meals out with work where we used paper napkins but even so, I think we’re doing well.

Watching our trash is also a very useful exercise. I noticed that in the past when the trash can was handy I would dump in things like hair from my hairbrush or scraps of food from dinner because it was easier than taking them to the compost bin or throwing them outside. Now I take the time to compost as much as possible. Still, even with the best of intentions I have a list of disposable items I can’t see easy alternatives to – dental floss, Q-tips, toilet paper, toothpaste tubes. I wonder what our trash pile would look like after a whole year? Well, I guess we should just focus on one month at a time.

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How about a hot air tax?

A hot air balloon with a US flag on itI’m sure you’ve all heard the furor over McCain and Clinton’s proposed moratorium on the gas tax (to my surprise, New York is doing something similar on the state level). Most of the criticism I’ve seen has been economic, saying that it won’t help much. In economic terms, McCain’s version is worse, since it cuts that couple billion dollars from the Highway Trust Fund. Clinton’s proposal avoids that problem by adding a “sin tax” to the gas companies themselves (and if you don’t think that’ll get passed on to consumers, I have a bridge to sell you).

At least one author thinks that the media attentions is overblown, since economically it’s a wash but psychologically it could be a good thing. Unfortunately, I think the real pain would be psychological. It doesn’t actually provide much economic relief (unless you’re a big trucking company, but supposedly the purpose is to ease the pain of the “average American”) and any psychological relief is going to disappear as soon as prices jump up again, which they will at the end of the summer if not sooner.

Even worse is the assumption that gas is a necessity for the average American and that this is something that should be encouraged. If we really want to help out Americans who can’t afford to travel as much, why not dump those billions into our public transportation system? That would drop gas cost to the consumer from $4 a gallon to nothing, much better than dropping to $3.70 a gallon!

Granted, that won’t help everyone, but neither does the gas tax moratorium. And free bus passes for all has the advantage of targeting the working poor who don’t have cars rather than already wealthy companies that rely on trucking.

If you got many more people using public transportation, that would encourage people to continue to use it, since it would break down the stereotype of the “crazy bus rider.” What’s crazy is that people spend more on car insurance than on public transportation! A gas tax moratorium isn’t going to change that. If you want to help the average American, you should be encouraging people to reduce driving rather that subsidizing it.

Sorry, I got a little carried away there. It’s just such a mind-numbingly wrong-headed idea that I can’t believe two major presidential candidates were able to propose it with a straight face.

I encourage you to check out the New York Times’ great interactive graphic that shows where the “average American” spends their money. Right now, the most (by far!) is spent on shelter, either homes or apartments. Americans are also spending less than ever on fresh vegetables (0.5% versus 0.6% for carbonated drinks and snacks). Look it over and let me know where you think the “average American” should get a break!

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Are Babies Environmentally Sound?

Maggie with baby LaurelynnAre babies environmentally sound?  Well, now, there’s a question that can get people riled up. Reproduction is a sacred act and suggesting that someone shouldn’t have children is a good way to cause offense.

The main argument I have heard for not having children is that the world is overpopulated and we shouldn’t add to the problem.  I think our planet probably is overpopulated, at least if we want to maintain our current standard of living.  If it takes five Earth’s worth of resources to support our standard of living, we could either cut back on our individual usage by 4/5 or cut back on our population by 4/5.  The problem is that there aren’t really any nice ways of cutting back on population.  War, disease, famine, and massacres are effective but horrible.  Mandatory birth control isn’t really much of an improvement.  I think that education and access to birth control can go a long way and will continue to help in the future, but it’s a slow process.  Even if everyone in the world dropped down to having 2 or 3 children per family, it would take several generations for population levels to decrease.

Babies also have a bad reputation as waste generators, although it doesn’t have to be that way.  There are ways to keep a baby happy and healthy without mounds of plastic equipment and toys.  The baby in this picture is Laurelynn, the daughter of my friends Maggie and Nathan.  They are energetic young hippies who are striving to raise her without so many of the trappings of babyhood and I think they’re doing a great job.  There are still many compromises, to be sure, but they try to keep things simple and minimalist.  (Just FYI, this is an outdated picture; Laurelynn is now a fine young lady of 2 years and will probably be featured in future posts about gardening with toddlers.)

I personally have waffled a lot on the idea of whether or not to have kids.  I think a lot of my waffling has tied in with how I felt about the world.  The times when I’ve felt hopeless, having a baby seemed like a terrible idea.  The times when things were looking up, having a baby seemed like the most natural thing in the world.  Over the last few years I’ve been feeling a lot more hopeful, maybe because our society seems to finally be paying attention to the problems, even if we’re not very close to solutions.  I also have felt less guilty about the idea of contributing to overpopulation, partly because I have friends who have chosen not to have children and have offered me their “child credits” and partly because I feel it’s important to show that it is possible to live green with kids.  (Admittedly, part of it is the more selfish reason that I really want to experience pregnancy and childbirth, as odd as that sounds to some people.)

Will and I are thinking we would like to have one or two kids sometime in the future when we feel ready, assuming that we eventually feel ready. Environmental issues aside, babies pose a lot of challenges.  Are we mature enough?  Financially stable enough?  Ready to adapt to a totally new lifestyle?  Maybe not quite yet but we can imagine getting there.  I’m hoping that having children will inspire us even more in our quest to live the good life.  I am also excited about impacting the next generation.  I do what I can to educate other people’s children through the environmental education work I do but I am sure my kids would get a much larger dose.

Of course, they might turn out like rebelling against it and being Exxon executives a la Family Ties.  I’m willing to take my chances.

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A purposeful cycle

A pregnant sheep from the Corrys\' farmToday was a beautiful day. Mandy Corry invited us to visit her family farm and see her new lambs and we jumped at the opportunity. The lambs were very cute, especially the two premies, who were barely as tall as the grass they were in and had to keep bounding around to find their mom.

The sheep were great, but my favorite part of visiting the Corrys’ farm is seeing how well they use the space. In the same pen as the sheep was a llama used to discourage predators. Behind the sheep are the chickens, with their own llama to drive away hawks and owls. The sheep eat the grass down enough that the chickens, who don’t like tall grass, can forage happily. Next to the main chicken corral, both for meat and eggs, we saw the chicks that Mandy and her husband Matt had put out just this afternoon. If I’d though the premie lambs had difficulty with the tall grass, the chicks were absolutely swamped! Still, they’re bravely clearing away a little of the grass jungle around them. You can see where the chickens have been because that’s where the grass is greenest (by a lot!). The chickens eat pests and fertilize the land, leaving it even better than they found it. In a more permanent area is the sow, along with some chickens for company. There are also two steer and the boar in a pasture toward the front of the property. Mandy is also working on a patch of garden, but it’s early yet for that.

For those keeping track, that’s sheep, pigs, chickens, heritage chickens, cattle, grass (for hay) and eventually more tomatoes than they will ever be able to eat. It’s on a lot of land, so it’s not something Maggie and I could do, even if we wanted to. The good thing is that we don’t want to. The Corrys have a great farm and I love visiting, but that’s not the life I’d like to lead.

On the way back home from visiting the farm (it’s only about ten minutes from our place), I realized what attracts me to the concept when I don’t actually want to do it. The Corrys have a full-fledged system. It’s not perfect and they’re tweaking it all the time, but everything they do is purposefully cyclical. They don’t need fertilizer because they have chickens. They don’t have to mow (as much, anyway) because they have the sheep. They don’t need more hogs because the chickens keep their sow company.

They’ve expanded a lot even in the short time that I’ve known them, but they still approach things as a balancing act. Mandy was telling us that they were given the opportunity to rent 40 acres. They could have used it, but that would have unbalanced their work. Too many sheep, not enough of everything else. Eventually, maybe, they’ll be ready for that space but for now, that’s not what they need.

It reminds me of Michael Pollan’s work where he talks about how bad it is to buy foods that are “fat free” or “sugar free.” When companies focus on removing fat or sugar, they dump in a bunch of other stuff that can be even worse. It’s much better just to buy overall good food. I view the vegetarian argument that animals are inefficient in a similar way. How can you look at a farm like the Corrys and call it inefficient?

In my own life, maybe I’m guilty of doing the same thing. I’m focusing on a “plastic free” and “trash free” and not enough on leading an overall good life. I’m beginning to agree with Andy’s comments that a week or month of cutting something out isn’t the right tack to take.

Instead of removing plastic from my life entirely, perhaps I should be looking for an equilibrium that uses less. Less plastic, less trash, whatever I want to change. I’m starting to value the balance more than the specific items balancing.

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Am I an Eco-Psycho?

comic strip about environmentalismStudent Doctor Green wrote a post awhile back about Gross Green Habits and I realized I support every one of them (although I’m still working on the toilet paper alternative). It got me wondering if maybe I’ve turned into an eco-extremist without noticing.

I really don’t mind being a bit of an extremist and am happy to be at the forefront of sustainable living but I want to make sure I don’t alienate people.   Well, not too many people at least.  I’m not really worried about people being shocked that I bring my own take-out containers to restaurants.  Even if they write me off as a weirdo, they will still be thinking about why I would do such a thing and perhaps it will start to make sense.

I’m more concerned about coming off as preachy or judgmental. I often struggle with the question of when to confront people about their activities and when to mind my own business.  I think it’s important to speak up and to educate but I know how easy it is to piss people off and end up making them less willing to adapt to greener ways.

In the end, I figure my best bet is just to set an example through my own actions. Of course, not everyone gets to see me washing dishes in the bathtub so I do speak my mind through this blog and other outlets like letters to the editor or presentations to local school groups. I was almost interviewed last week for YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip) but unfortunately it didn’t work out and I will not join their video blog alongside EcoElvis and other colorful environmental legends. Perhaps I should invest in a spiffier eco-costume.

And no, I don’t wash my dishes in the bathtub. But I am intrigued by the idea. Thanks, Ted!

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