Archive for August, 2008

Searching for Green Furniture

Our new bedMy dreams of a new bed have finally been fulfilled.  We were a bit overwhelmed by the array of bed choices out there, not to mention the price tags.  I must confess, I ruled out all the ultra-natural beds immediately because they are super expensive and there’s no place to try them out in town.  I feel a little bad about that decision but… only a little.  I’ve been dreaming of a super comfortable bed for months and some how all those descriptions of natural wool stuffing or organic rubber foam just don’t sound as nice as a standard bouncy mattress and boxspring set.

So we checked out a few different bed stores, lying on each bed for five minutes as recommended by Consumer Reports.  We found a very nice Serta mattress set at Comfort Solutions but the $950 price tag was just too much to swallow.  In the end, we purchased a less fancy Serta bed from Sam’s Club, scoring low points for both environmental friendliness and social responsibility.  Sorry, folks.  I haven’t shopped at a Walmart in almost ten years but we do go to Sam’s Club from time to time and the bed seemed like the best option out there.  We plan to sleep on this bed for years to come so I feel the overall time-lapse impact is fairly minimal.

It’s really hard to furnish a home in an eco-friendly way.  As Andy lamented, it seems like the choice is between ultra-expensive natural home furnishings or ultra-cheap crap from box stores.  We have had a fair amount of luck with used furniture.  Our couches and endtables came from the local furniture rental store American Rental.  Our kitchen cart and a couple of lamps came from Goodwill.  Our previous bed was a dumpster dive find.

our living roomBut most of our furniture is hand-me-downs from friends and family.  Two dressers, a credenza, a kitchen table, a night stand, five bookshelves, a rug, and I’m sure a few other things have made their way into our homes from the homes of our support network.  It’s a little hard to plan for their appearance but it is comforting to me to walk around the house and have each piece of furniture tell me a story and remind me of an old friend.

The trick to our style of home furnishing is to be flexible and patient.  Sure, we’ll go out and buy something new from the local box store if we really need it, but most of the time we stick with the objects that drift into our life at the right time and enjoy the hunt of checking out Goodwill and garage sales and listings on Craigslist.  So far, so good and if it’s not truly eco-chic, at least we’re keeping usable items out of the local landfill.

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Amazon sells green(ish)

I’ve got some real topics to write about (a new bed and my new commute primarily), but I just got an email from Amazon saying that they have a new green section. I don’t agree with a lot of their criteria (is a computer really green just because it’s EnergyStar-compliant?) but I’d rather have people making semi-green choices than non-green choices. It’s also heartening that there are enough people who are doing things about the environment for Amazon create a category for them.

Apart from the word “Green” which seems to appear before every noun on the page, it looks pretty similar to a normal Amazon page. That includes the big top 10 list on the right. In this case, it’s the ten greenest items Amazon sells (as voted on by customers).

From best to worst, here’s the list as I checked this morning. See if you can tell which item doesn’t belong…

  1. Reusable bags
  2. CFL – 60-Watt equivalent
  3. CFL – 100-Watt equivalent
  4. Reel mower
  5. Seventh Generation toilet paper (although the picture sure looks like paper towels)
  6. Commuter bike
  7. Spinning composter
  8. Stainless steel water bottle
  9. Amazon’s Kindle
  10. Solar panels

Overall, the list is pretty good. I’m glad the top few are cheap and make a big impact. Reusable bags, CFLs, and a reusable water bottle (although further down) all replace lots of resources. More expensive, and requiring more dedication, are the bike, composter, and solar panels. The reel mower is good, although I don’t know how likely it is that people will replace a powered mower with one of those. And it’s not sexy, but recycled toilet paper is good if you haven’t gone the cloth route.

The last four items in Amazon\'s top 10 greenest products list (featuring the Kindle)But the Kindle? How did that make it into the top 10? E-book readers are very cool and I’d be tempted if e-ink weren’t so expensive, but they don’t seem very green. Perhaps it’s just that I get most of my books from the library, so the environmental impact is pretty low, but it seems like producing and powering a Kindle would create more waste than reading normal books and magazines.

Or maybe I just have trouble reconciling the other items on the list, which seem very granola, with a high tech device like the Kindle. In which case, I apologize to all of the composting, reel mowing, biking hippies who use their solar panels to power their Kindle and a couple of CFLs to read by!

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City Bus Lessons

I rode the bus today for the first time from our new house.  It’s funny how something as simple as riding the bus can feel like an adventure.  The bus stop is about half a block from our house and as usual I was running late so I stood there anxiously, convinced I had missed it.  Of course, as it turns out the bus was also running a little late so I got on with no trouble, handed over my crisp $1 bill, and rode the 15-minute trip into town.

The best part about riding the bus is the change in perspective.  I was able to stare out the window at the scenery without worrying about trying to drive or give directions.  Walking to the bus stop gave me a chance to check out my neighbor’s houses in detail and wave to the ones who were out working on their lawns or cars or gardens.  I was able to listen to cicadas and feel the light afternoon breeze.

Riding the bus also renewed my appreciation for all the good things in my life.  Most of my fellow bus passengers appeared to be dealing with many challenges, ranging from poor health to limited education to drug and alcohol addictions.  I felt a little out of place but also very humble.  My money worries suddenly seemed very insignificant; I don’t have to worry about where I’ll be sleeping tonight or how I will feed my family.

I’m looking forward to becoming a regular rider although I also hope to do more bicycling.  There’s something about getting out of my car that immediately makes me feel more connected with the world, more involved in the community, and more alive.  Thank you, city bus.

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Think global, live local

A small child holding a globeWhen you hear about sustainable living, you tend to get a focus on global impact. How much CO2 are you contributing to global warming? How many Earths would your lifestyle require? Those are important questions but my concept of living sustainably starts at home.

To me, “sustainable living” is a pretty simple concept. If you can maintain (sustain) your lifestyle (how you’re living) for the foreseeable future, then you’re living sustainably. The global component, the one we all hear about, is how we’re going to maintain our culture and civilization over time. As it is now, we’re only able to maintain our lifestyle because someone else is going without or because we’re using resources in a profligate waste (or both). In this case, the right thing to do is to figure out what we can do without. For most people, the answer seems to be “allow other people to have my standard of living.” Obviously, that’s not sustainable. People aren’t willing to give up their comforts so that I can live a better life. Instead, I’m trying to figure out what I can get rid of to try and meet these people halfway.

Part of that is encouraging others to reduce their usage (of land, natural resources, air quality, etc). In a selfish sense, if other people use less, there will be more for me! If I reduce my consumption as well, it might be possible to find a middle ground where people in the global sense are living sustainably. That is, the average person will be using up fewer resources than are naturally produced.

That’s pretty long-term pie-in-the-sky thinking, though. I lump it in with things like setting up Mars colonies or creating a technologica singularity. They’re neat to think about and might even be laudable goals, but I personally just can’t live my life working towards them.

I prefer to focus on making my local life sustainable. Some of these items carry over from the global view. Eating local food keeps me healthier, which means I’ll be able to keep doing what I’m doing. Driving as little as possible has similar benefits.

That’s still pretty abstract, though. My general day-to-day focus is on making sure that my life is sustainable. Primarily, that means focusing on money, which is something I don’t see much about in the green community.

The best way to weather future changes (that is, to make sure that your current lifestyle is sustainable) is to live within your means (reduce your lifestyle) and to save as much money as possible (to extend your lifestyle if it becomes more costly). Right now, I save 30-40% of my income (small though it is). That means that if I suddenly have a paycut, my lifestyle isn’t affected at all. It also means that lots of little things become easier because I don’t have to wait for a new paycheck in order to do things. I also feel like my income is less likely to disappear than other people’s because instead of having one boss, I’ve got multiple clients. Even if I lose one of them, I’ll still be making something.

Buying a house and getting it set up have definitely eaten into those cash reserves, so I don’t have as much saved now as I’d like. However, I feel like owning a house is an important step in my never-ending quest to make sure my life is sustainable. My monthly rent is now much less variable over time and eventually will become much less. I’m also now free to do whatever I want to the place, which means I should be able to maximize my happiness better. If a gazebo would make me happy, I can put one up. Or if honey would bring a smile to my face, I can get bee hives.

If you take anything away from this post, I hope you’ll remember to look at things locally and not just globally when you’re making choices. Thinking globally, it makes sense not to drive, to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, to avoid having children. Locally, that might not make sense at all. Perhaps a job that you love requires a certain amount of travel. Or maybe you get hives whenever you get too close to cows.

Sustainability is local too. If you can’t maintain a lifestyle because it would make you miserable, that’s just as unsustainable as a lifestyle that uses up too many resources. The key, as with most things, is to get rid of unnecessary junk and to continually find ways to improve.

I hope to hear more about your experiments as you do so. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot that will help me live more sustainably as well.

This post brought to you by the letters APLS.

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The Devil is in the Details

Maggie with miter sawThey say the devil is in the details and if it’s true with anything, it’s true with home remodeling.  Our biggest challenge was dealing with trim – window trim, door trim, and baseboards.  We had to take it down to get the paneling off and we knew we would have to put it back up.  Unfortunately, we broke a few pieces while prying it off the wall so we also bought a few replacement pieces which had to be cut to size using a miter saw.  Miter saws are cool because they let you cut at an angle.  Picture two pieces of baseboard meeting at the corner of a room.  If they’re both cut square, like a normal piece of lumber, then they come together and make a little lump in the corner.  However, with a miter saw you can cut each one diagonally so they piece together and the baseboard is the same thickness all the way around the room.  At least in theory.  It turns out I’m a bit eager with the saw.  (And yes, I did use the safety glasses when I was actually cutting.)

Will painting trimAll the salvageable trim had to have the nails removed, which was tedious but not very photogenic.  Painting the trim was a little more photogenic.  We used some of the old carpet padding as a drop cloth so we could be messy without ruining the floor of the garage.  (It’s also nice and squishy to walk on, especially compared with concrete.)

The final task was to nail all the trim into place.  Luckily, our friend Nathan is handy with a hammer and helped us put in the first round of trim, in the front bedroom.  We still need to cut a new windowsill and some wide pieces to put at the bottom of the window to cover where paneling once was but for tonight we’re calling it done and sleepable.  The bed is in place and I am very entertained by the fact that our wall color almost matches my favorite set of sheets.

Nathan nailing trimTomorrow is my 30th birthday so we’re headed to the lake for a day of boating and swimming.  I’ve never driven a giant boat with a slide; it should be exciting!  For tonight, I’ll enjoy my last evening in my 20’s in my new house.

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Painting the Walls and Various Body Parts

Front Bedroom with Previous Owner DecorRemember that house we bought?  We took a break from posting about our remodeling because we were afraid of boring you with long drawn out posts about how we bought a miter saw so we could cut some new baseboard trim except when we opened the box, it turned out the saw was broken so we took it back to Lowes but they didn’t have any saws so then we borrowed one from a friend but it turned out that we had purchased the wrong size of baseboard so we took THAT back and bought the right kind and then we cut it and realized we cut it too short so we decided just to install it anyway and put a bookshelf in front of the funny-looking part.

Carpet in Front BedroomBut we thought you might enjoy a few remodeling photos.  That photo at the top is the “before” picture of the front bedroom.  That’s what it looked when the previous owners lived there.  We really like this bedroom because it has windows facing south and east and just generally has a nice sunny, open feel.  However, we weren’t too excited about the painted paneling and the boring-yet-ugly carpeting.  Luckily, we checked and found out that there were beautiful hardwood floors underneath the ugly carpeting!

Front Bedroom with hardwood floors and new paint So we pulled down the paneling, ripped up the carpeting, and painted the plaster walls with a blue-green-gray shade of Aura paint, a low-VOC paint manufactured by Benjamin Moore.  It seemed like a reasonably green option and we managed to donate the carpet to a friend who will use it to make weed-free paths through her garden.  (We’re still looking for someone who wants carpet padding and old paneling.)

We made similar changes in the front family room, although I don’t have pictures of the painted version yet.  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to take a few more tomorrow, and we might even have the trim up by then.  (Why is it that remodeling projects always take longer than expected?)

Tomorrow our housesitting duties end and we will spend our first night in the new house.  We’re excited to have it really feel like ours, although I suspect it will be awhile yet before it really feels like home.  There will undoubtedly be a few more weeks of living out of boxes and making regular trips to the hardware store.  But there’s something satisfying about painting your own home and getting paint in your hair and deciding not to worry about it because you’re moving straight on to mowing your lawn and then when you’re sweaty and grass-covered stepping into you shower and remembering that your water heater isn’t working all the great but thinking that it’s been a hot day of home remodeling so you’re sure an ice-cold shower will be fun and invigorating.  Just don’t expect to get the paint out of your hair.

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A worm in the APLS

A happy worm in the APLS logoI hadn’t planned to talk again about YAWNs and APLS but Green Bean, arduous, and Iris left such good, meaty comments that I felt I couldn’t do them justice in comment form. Plus, Maggie’s already in bed so I’m on my own tonight for a post.

After thinking about it some more, I think my core problem with the term APLS is the difference in purpose between it and the YAWN acronym. YAWN is supposed to be descriptive and match up with a very specific demographic group. APLS seems like more of a rallying cry encouraging people to change how they see themselves. Both are fine purposes, but it seems weird to replace one with another.

We can continue to discuss specifics (and probably will), but basically it boils down to goals. If the goal is to have a drop-in replacement for YAWN as was stated in arduous’s post, then I think APLS fails. If you want to seed discussion in the green community, it’s working great!

But on to the comment responses! Here are some things I’ve seen people say and why I think they’re misguided. There’s also lots I agree with, but what fun is talking about that?

Comment #1 – Focus on the US and China/India will follow

I agree with Grean Bean that it’s important to realize that we’re a wealthy country, especially when we’re thinking about the sacrifices we’re willing to make for the sake of the environment. I don’t agree that India and China don’t also have a major part to play. In my mind, environmental impact follows a bell curve. The very poorest usually have little impact, especially on a global scale (although large populations can magnify that portion). From there, impact increases very quickly as you start getting to people who can drive, buy imported food, use fertilizers, etc. This doesn’t require a lot of wealth and, again, can be magnified by population size. Once you get rich enough though, your impact levels off and perhaps even decreases. You can afford to eat only local foods and live off the grid without impacting your lifestyle unduly. The “bang for your buck” solutions therefore often target the developing nations at the cusp of the impact curve. To match China reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 1 ton of CO2 per capita, the US would have to reduce emissions by over four times as much!

Comment #2 – Poor people can’t live sustainably

I see this argument in various forms all over the place and don’t really understand it, so maybe I’m missing something. Lots of stuff that we do in the US to live sustainably (like cutting down on consumption) don’t make sense in a developing nation, but that doesn’t mean that the goal isn’t available. Yes, it’s harder for someone making a subsistence living to make changes. But, on the other hand, they have fewer changes to make. The poorest countries already have an environmental footprint of less than 1 Earth (in fact, the first country with an environmental impact above 1 Earth is China).

Comment #2A – But Maslow’s hierarchy of needs proves it!

Maslow’s hierarchy is a great way of thinking about things but it’s not a literal truth. If it were, then fasting could never lead to self-actualization. In a less abstract sense, I agree with arduous that subsistence farmers don’t care that sustainability helps the planet. I just don’t accept that that’s the only value of sustainability. One of the reasons I think sustainability is a great concept is that it provides so many benefits. Not only does farming sustainably help the planet, it provides more food and water to those who need it. That’s one of the reasons I think promoting sustainability in developing countries should be a priority. It’s not just good for the planet, it’s good for them.

Comment #3 – If you’re not trying, it doesn’t count

The argument seems to be that unless you’re working towards sustainability, you don’t belong. I like that better than an arbitrary income (or even wealth) cut-off but it still seems a bit odd. Why shouldn’t people living sustainably be included even if they’re not working particularly hard at it? Does this mean that the Amish don’t count as sustainable because their sustainability is a side-effect of other life choices?

Of course, I’m also a philosopher by training, so edge cases usually bug me.

Comment #3A – It’s all relative

Another take on the inclusion principle is that it depends on the society you live in. It’s not about whether or not your lifestyle is actually sustainable but if it’s more sustainable than your neighbors. There’s some value in looking at relative sustainability, but I don’t think it’s a good long-term view. For one thing, it makes it a little more competitive and a little less communal, since your sustainability depends on others not being sustainable. Primarily, my problem with this is that sustainabilty really doesn’t depend on the people around you. If you’re living sustainably, you’re living sustainably no matter how your neighbors live.

Comment #4 – “Affluent” is good because it sparks debate

It does spark debate and a lot of the debate has been really interesting. If that’s your goal, then you’ve succeeded! On the other hand, if you’re trying to replace YAWN as an acronym, making APLS debatable detracts from that because people like me and Iris won’t feel comfortable with it.

Comment #5 – ‘Persons’ is elitist

Whoops! This one was actually mine, but ‘elitist’ was the wrong word for my concerns and arduous called me on it. I blame the constant low-grade mentions in the media for getting it stuck in my subconscious. I’ve never liked the word ‘persons’ because it doesn’t mean anything to me. I know what a person is, what people are, and what peoples are, but what are persons? What makes persons different from people? It took me a while to get used to peoples too, but now I can see that there’s legitimate need for it. Maybe eventually I’ll feel the same way about ‘persons.’ Until then, I’ll continue my irrational grudge.

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Yo-yo environmentalism

Yo-yo patent applicationAnyone who’s every been on a diet knows that it’s easy to get discouraged and give up because of a few early setbacks. This is such a common occurence that Wikipedia has a name for it: yo-yo dieting. You start off with great hopes and do well for a little while but you just can’t keep it up.

I’ve never been a serious dieter but after I stopped playing soccer 5 times a week, I had to adjust my eating habits. It wasn’t easy and I’m still not 100% there, but I’ve settled into a reasonably healthy routine. When I was measuring my weight regularly, I noticed some significant fluctuations… of both my waistline and my emotions. It was hard to keep going after three days of (small) weight increases.

Eventually, I ran across the Hacker’s Diet (subtitle: how to lose weight and hair through stress and poor nutrition). The tone was light and funny so it was an easy read. More importantly, it got across that the important thing isn’t your current weight but your weight trend. Instead of comparing yourself to the previous day’s weight, which could be influenced by activity, water retention, and maybe even phases of the moon, you run a weighted average to figure out how your weight is trending.

That way, if you weigh in at 185 but your trend is at 190, you know you’re doing pretty well even if you only weighed 183 the day before. Instead of getting frustrated that you’d “gained back” two pounds, you can rest easy knowing that you’re still progressing towards your goal.

I see a lot of yo-yo environmentalists who follow the same pattern. In fact, I see one every time I look into the mirror. It’s easy to take on a lot when I have a lot of time and energy, get discouraged by some occasional setbacks (even if I’m doing better than I had to start), and just give up.

For example, in the past year I’ve been working on eating out less, especially at fast food places. Recently, Maggie and I have been super busy so I’ve been taking the easy way out and getting fast food. Toward the end of July, I was doing so poorly compared to my goals that it was embarrassing to enter it all in to the budget. I really wanted to just give up and stop tracking it at all. It wouldn’t help my health or my budget, but at least I wouldn’t have the guilt, right?

Luckily, my budget automatically resets at the beginning of the month. When I saw that blank space, I realized that it was okay that I’d blown it in July. Even in my terrible month, I did better than in the previous year. And hey, August is another month. Just because I had a setback last month doesn’t mean that I can’t meet my goals this month. As long as the trend is right, minor setbacks are just that… minor.

I think I’m going to start evaluating (and resetting) my other goals monthly as well. Maggie and I have been having some difficulties with letting it mellow (don’t ask). Instead of just giving up, maybe we should focus on flushing less (and put a brick in the tank).

As I mentioned to Student Doctor Green in the comments, it’s easy to go overboard either because your eyes are too big for your stomach or because your situation changes and you don’t have as much time and energy anymore. Instead of toiling away and making yourself unhappy, try maintaining your trend. It can be hard to measure sometimes (which I think is part of the appeal of hardcore “buy nothing” and “consume nothing” challenges), but it’s useful to remind yourself that you’re still on track even if you haven’t reached your destination.

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Pickling Party

dill picklesI had a small pickling party this weekend and canned 23 jars of dill pickles, which made us all very happy.  I had hoped to thoroughly photodocument the whole process but even with three people it was tricky to make pickles and take pictures at the same time…  I hope I can at least give you the general idea of how to make pickles.

Step one is to gather a large pile of cucumbers.  Many came from my mom’s garden where the five cucumber plants are completely taking over.  Others came from our CSA and from the garden at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard where Stephanie is the gardening coordinator.  Once you have gathered the cucumbers, start chopping them into pieces (slices, spears, chunks, whatever)

Lindsey cuttinc cucumbersStep two is to make a boiling brine mixture.  We used a basic recipe from Keeping the Harvest – 3 cups of apple cider vinegar, 3 cups of water, and 1/3 cup of salt.  They recommend adding a garlic clove to every jar but we were feeling saucy so we added two or three or sometimes five.  We also added a pinch of fresh dill to every jar and half of a grape leaf from our wild grapes.  Grape leaves are supposed to make the pickles crisper and I had good luck last year.  Oh, and we also added a few spices to the brine – mustard in one batch, a “pickling spice blend” involving cardamom and cinnamon to another, and some fresh coriander to a third.

Step three is to combine the ingredients.  Start with hot, sterilized jars – we ran ours through the dishwasher and pulled them out to use while still hot.  Stuff each jar with cucumbers (and garlic and dill and grape leaves) and get ready to add the brine.  Ladle boiling brine into each jar, wipe the mouth of the jar, and apply the lid (which should also be hot and sterilized – we pulled ours out of a pot of boiling water).  Tighten down the lids and put them in the canner.

canning picklesStep four is canning.  You can skip the canning if you plan to keep your pickles in the fridge and eat them fairly quickly but if you want them to keep for months, you need to can them.  Since pickles are pretty acidic, they are less likely to harbor bacteria than low acid foods like green beans.  This means you can can them using the boiling water method, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – boil the cans in a big pot for 10-20 minutes (depending on jar size and altitude).  This sterilizes the content of the jar and also pushes most of the air out, creating a vaccuum seal.  If we were dealing with low acid foods like green beans we would have used a pressure canner, which increases the pressure as well as the temperature to make it as inhospitable to bacteria as possible.

Stephanie with garlicThat’s it!  Making pickles definitely takes some work but it’s a lot of fun when you make it a party.  Stephanie is always a blast to hang out with and being a dill pickle addict, she kept the energy high.  Lindsey had just moved to Bloomington on Friday and was excited to stock her pantry with her own pickles.  She is also already planning to recreate the Sunday Night Dinner Club she was involved with in Chicago and in Portland.  People getting together to cook fabulous meals for each other on a weekly basis?  Sounds great to me!  Perhaps I’ll find some more grunt labor, er, I mean partygoers for my food preservation projects…

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Friends: The Ultimate Renewable Energy Source

Our friend Lindsey just arrived in Bloomington to start her graduate career at IU.  We talked her into helping paint our front room (I believe it is now officially dubbed the “parlor”) in exchange for us helping her unload her belongings on Monday.  Ah, the wonders of barter and friendship.  We have been graced with many hands helping during the moving process, which has been wonderful.  I can only help we have said “Thank you” enough.

Tomorrow I’m headed to the market to see what fruit I can find for freezing and then heading to the garden to gather up cucumbers for pickling.  Wintertime stores, here we come!

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