Happy Blog Action Day! Well, I don’t know if I’m supposed to say Happy Blog Action Day, but that’s the day it is, so I’m supposed to write about it. Or more specifically, I’m supposed to write about the environment. So I thought I would take this opportunity to write about all the things I do in my life to help the environment, and the long winding path I’ve taken to get where I am today.
Most of these are things I’ve been doing for so long, they’re just part of my normal daily routine, and I don’t give them much thought. Some of them I initially started doing specifically to benefit the environment, some to save money, some for health reasons, but Ernest Callenbach described a relationship he called the green triangle, with environment, health, and money at the three points of the triangle, and said “The principle that relates these three points is: Anytime you do something beneficial for one of them, you will almost inevitably also do something beneficial for the other two – whether you’re hoping to or not.” I have found this to be true over and over again.
I wasn’t one of those teenagers who couldn’t wait to get their driver’s license. I was kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. When I took driver’s ed I was the only student in the class who didn’t know how to drive already. But I learned how to drive, even though I didn’t really enjoy it. This is Michigan. There’s practically a law that says you must drive a car.
So I drove a car for years, spent untold hours behind the wheel, frequently wishing I could be doing something more productive, often feeling like people were trying to kill me. In fact I tried to be more productive by teaching myself Japanese while I drove, but I was constantly distracted by the other drivers who seemed like they wanted to kill me, so I never progressed beyond the first tape. Over the years I spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on cars, licensing, registration, insurance, gas, oil changes and other maintenance, repairs (oh, the repairs…the repairs were killing me!), parking, parking tickets…have I forgotten anything? But I kept driving, because I had to drive, right? That’s what you did.
Then one day I was driving to work as usual and something clicked. I didn’t have to drive. In fact, not everyone drove. I looked around and I saw that a lot of people were riding bikes. I made the connection that more people driving meant more pollution, more sprawl, more loss of wildlife habitat, more people and animals killed by cars. More pollution meant increasing rates of asthma and other health problems.
For some reason it just wasn’t abstract anymore. If I was driving, I was part of the problem. If I was driving, I was partially responsible for causing someone’s asthma. Me. I couldn’t just blame other people. I had to take responsibility. I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I finally saw what was right in front of me, that there were people who weren’t driving, and I realized that they were part of the solution, so I wanted to be like them.
So I bought a bike. Since I hadn’t ridden a bike in about 20 years, I gave myself time to kind of ease into the full time bike commuting thing. I had a bit of a setback at first, since, sweet irony of ironies, it turned out I had asthma. After a long bout of bronchitis I delayed cycling till the following spring, but then managed to ride every day with little difficulty. I wasn’t fast, but I got there (turtles persevere, I always say).
I eventually got to the point that I was riding my bike nearly everywhere, only using my car about once a month. At that point it wasn’t cost effective to even own a car. I sold it and just borrowed my then-husband’s car on the rare occasions I needed to drive. I found those occasions were rarer and rarer. I was driving every three months when on one of those trips the timing belt broke 20 miles from home. I didn’t know then it was the timing belt, of course. I just knew the car had died and I didn’t have a cell phone, and I was out in the middle of nowhere, and I was going to have to go knock on total strangers’ doors until I found someone who was home and who would let me use their phone and hope they didn’t duct tape me to a chair. Several hours later, after dealing with weird strangers and annoying tow truck people, and parting with a lot of money, all to get a car that wasn’t even mine to the gas station for the mechanic to work on it the next day, I decided screw it. I just didn’t need the aggravation of driving anymore. I would find a way to live my life without a car.
And so I have. I’m much happier without the blasted contraption. I’m not carless, I’m carfree.
Eventually cycling lost its appeal for me. To make a very long story very short, I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship with another cyclist, and the whole situation sucked every last bit of joy out of cycling. Maybe some day I’ll return to it, maybe I won’t. It’s too soon to even think about it right now. But I have no desire to ever drive a car again.
Now I take the bus or walk everywhere I go. I love the bus — it gives me time to knit. I couldn’t knit while I was riding my bike. I couldn’t knit while I was driving a car. When I was a cyclist I just rode the bus on a backup basis, when I was too sick to ride my bike, or the weather was too bad, and it had to be pretty bad. But you know what? If you’re a knitter, the bus totally rocks! Someone to drive you everywhere you go and give you the gift of time to knit? Golden.
And I’m able to use my staff ID as a bus pass, so it costs me nothing to ride. My transportation costs are zero! How can I beat that? The bus drivers are friendly, and buses are way safer than cars, much cleaner (public transportation produces 95% less carbon monoxide than private vehicles!), and just so much more relaxing than having to drive myself or ride my bike. I don’t have to pay attention to the other vehicles on the road. The bus driver does that for me. I can sit there and relax and knit. I am truly grateful for that.
Of course one doesn’t get much exercise just sitting there, so that’s why I started walking more. I walk to do errands after work, or walk part way home, about two miles, and take the bus the rest of the way. I really enjoy walking. It’s moving meditation, good for the mind, body, and soul.
When people first find out I’m carfree, they often ask how I deal with grocery shopping. It’s really not that hard, though I may shop differently than they do, and I’m just used to the way I shop. Also, I don’t have a family to shop for, just me and my rabbit. It would be different if I had to buy 3-4 times as much food. But I can tell you about how I shop.
First of all, I always carry my backpack everywhere. That’s just the most comfortable way to carry things when I’m walking any distance. And in my backpack, in addition to my lunch, knitting, jacket (unless I’m wearing it), wallet, sunglasses, asthma inhaler, bus schedule, etc., I always carry two canvas shopping bags, because I never know when I’ll find myself at a grocery store. There are several grocery stores I go to. Arbor Farms has several items I can’t get anywhere else, but I have to make a special trip there, so when I go, I stock up on those items, and get anything else that I happen to need while I’m there. Meijer has a few things that I can’t get anywhere else, is close to home, and is a transfer point for three buses. I often find myself there on the way home from somewhere else, and rather than continuing home, stop there and stock up on the items I can’t get anywhere else, and get whatever else I happen to need while I’m there. If I take another bus, I walk right by a Kroger on the way home, so if I really need anything I’ll stop there, but every time I go there I swear I’ll never go there again since they usually only have one checkout lane open, and I really resent having to stand in line for 15 minutes to spend $2.00. Kroger’s customer service sucks. Are you listening, Kroger?
Anyway, that’s the way I shop. It might make some people crazy, but it works for me. I should also note that I only drink water, and I mean tap water, so I’m not lugging home heavy containers of assorted liquids. As far as the rest of my diet…
Food and the V word
What I eat has changed a great deal throughout my life. I grew up eating a lot of meat, vegetables covered in cheese sauce, and drinking milk, pop and Kool-Aid. Now my diet is 99.9% vegan, I just drink water, and if you gave me a packet of Kool-Aid I’d use it to dye wool. How did I get here?
I always liked animals, and while I realized way back then that a piece of meat was a piece of a dead animal, the ethical implications of this didn’t really hit me until two things occurred, close to the same time. I’m not sure exactly when they occurred, but they may have happened on the same day. First, I bought the Smiths’ album “Meat is Murder” and listened to the title track. Second, my copy of Ms. magazine arrived in the mail and I read Alice Walker’s essay “Am I blue?” (later published in her book Living the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987). The song and the essay both haunted me.
My parents called me to dinner that night and there was a big slab of dead cow on my plate, cooked but blood still oozing from it. I took one look at it and said, “I can’t eat this.” My explanation that I couldn’t eat it because it was a dead animal just seemed to convince them that I was some kind of weirdo, but they seemed used to thinking I was some kind of weirdo, so that was a familiar experience for all of us. I just found something else to eat.
I felt that I could simply no longer eat mammals. They were too closely related to me. I was a mammal. Eating a mammal would be akin to cannibalism. I never had been a seafood fan, and the only fish I had liked was tuna. It was easy to give that up. I continued to eat chicken and turkey though, I think because I wasn’t sure what else to eat. I did not consider myself a vegetarian, as I did not delude myself that poultry wasn’t meat. I never did understand people who said they were vegetarians but they ate chicken or they ate fish. Chicken and fish are animals, not plants. They’re using some definition of meat I don’t understand. Whatever.
Anyway. I also stopped drinking milk about this same time because it always tasted like there was something wrong with it. There probably was something wrong with it, though I don’t want to think about that too deeply. I starting drinking more pop to compensate; I wasn’t really very health conscious when I was young. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I ended up living on a lot of prepackaged food and fast food. I tried to buy the healthiest options available, but I still ended up gaining a lot of weight. I also ended up spending a lot of money.
That was actually what prompted me to change the way I was eating. Remember the green triangle? Money, health, environment, what benefits one usually benefits all? Yep. My then-husband and I looked at our finances and realized we had to cut our spending by a lot, and one of the areas we could cut was on our food spending. We stopped eating out, and we stopped buying prepackaged food. Obviously that saved us money, but it also meant a lot less packaging. And a lot less fat. Without even trying, I lost a lot of weight.
I started searching for easy to make recipes and reading about nutrition. Once I started thinking about food, I realized the pop I was drinking was total garbage. It was just empty calories. What did it even taste like? There was some cartoon that described it as carbonated battery acid. Why was I drinking that crap? So I switched to water and juice. I lost more weight without even trying.
I had continued to eat poultry for about 10 years after I stopped eating other meat. I had continued to feel some guilt for eating the birds, and tried to suppress it. I felt I was doing some good by not eating other animals. I had read about factory farms. And I was constantly hearing news stories about E. coli. I was glad to not be supporting the beef industry. When I did my searching for recipes, often recipes with beef came up, so I searched for chicken recipes. I found recipes, but I also occasionally stumbled into articles about how chickens’ beaks were cut off in factory farms, or how contaminated and resource inefficient chicken is.
I realized then that my guilt wasn’t something to suppress. If I felt guilty about doing something that meant I shouldn’t be doing it. I knew I couldn’t eat birds anymore. I figured I would just eat the remaining chicken I had in the freezer so at least the poor bird wouldn’t have died in vain, but when I took the first bite I had to spit it out. I couldn’t do it. I was eating death. I have never wanted to eat any meat again.
People become vegetarian for various reasons, some ethical, some environmental, some for health. To me these overlap to some degree. It seems unethical to me to force an animal to suffer horribly and to kill it all so that people may consume it. It seems unethical to me to continue this industry when it causes massive groundwater pollution, and when it would be much more efficient (i.e., it would feed more people) to use the same amount of land to grow plants to feed to people than to grow plants to feed to animals to feed to people. It seems unethical to me for the industry, the government, and even some doctors to try to convince people that they need to eat meat to be healthy when that meat is actually harmful to their health. It’s all connected. If something affects the environment, it affects our health. The environment isn’t some abstract thing “out there.” It’s the water you’re drinking, the air you’re inhaling into your lungs. I don’t think it’s enough to oppose a factory farm down the street but continue to give them your business. If they’re still in business but not located there, they’ll just locate somewhere else and pollute someone else’s groundwater.
I mentioned I quit drinking milk years ago; I’ve been using soy milk in cooking (invariably someone asks what I put on my cereal. I’ve always found the practice of putting milk on cereal absolutely disgusting. I don’t want my cereal to be soggy. Blech! Not that I even eat cereal very often. Occasionally I eat raisin bran, but usually as a snack, and I like it to be crunchy, like granola). Whenever a recipe called for eggs I substituted flaxseeds and water. I continued to eat cheese though, and occasionally other dairy products. After about nine years of this I found that what I thought was a chronic allergy problem was actually acid reflux. In reading about what dietary changes might help, I discovered eliminating dairy was one recommendation.
I thought about it. I realized that while I liked them, I was hardly ever eating ice cream or sour cream. Giving those up would be no big deal. It was cheese. I wasn’t eating as much cheese as I used to, but I did like my cheese. But I also realized I was partly eating it mainly because I didn’t know what else to eat. But that was why I had continued eating chicken for so long. I just needed to find something else to eat in its place. I realized my conscience would be happier as a vegan so I set off to find some replacements.
I had a bit of a challenge, as I also needed to eliminate tomatoes from my diet because of the reflux. The only way I could see to continue eating pizza without tomato sauce was to use pesto, and of course all the pesto I’d ever bought had cheese in it, and I was far too lazy to make my own (I’m a fairly good cook, but if something has more than just a few ingredients, I find I just don’t have the energy to make it. So to me, pesto is one ingredient). I finally did find vegan pesto at the fifth store I tried, and they had vegan soy cheese too, so I’m happy (what’s up with all the soy cheeses that aren’t vegan? I don’t get that).
The other recommendation was not to drink fruit juice, but just to drink water and to eat lots of fruit, so that’s what I’ve been doing. The other recommendations didn’t apply to me.
As far as what I eat, well, lots of fruits and vegetables, pasta,
bread, peanut butter, falafel, hummus, stir fry, I could go on and on.
I like food. I’m a food snob, really. I like good food. And I eat good food.
The food I eat now is so much better than the crap I used to eat. Night and day.
I’m still a bit reluctant to describe myself as a vegan. My diet is vegan as far as what I prepare for myself or what I choose for myself. But I realized that when a coworker offered me a piece of her birthday cake, well, I wasn’t going to say no. It was birthday cake. I realized I was perfectly capable of making a vegan cake. But someone else’s cake? Well, maybe it was vegan, maybe it wasn’t. I guess I have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy toward birthday cake. Other than that, my diet is vegan.
Aside from food, the only thing leather I have is the shoes I bought before I decided to go vegan. I don’t think I’ll buy any more leather shoes. I’ll wear the shoes I have until they wear out and then buy non-leather ones. (I’ve been using a hemp wallet and nylon belt for years.)
But there is the wool. Quite a lot of it. I know a lot of vegans are very anti-wool. I like wool very much. I understand their reasoning, but I also realize that they are generally describing the wool industry in Australia. Not all wool is from Australia. Most merino is from Australia, but there are many other breeds of sheep as well, at least 200, maybe over 1000 (no one agrees on the actual number). Most blue faced leicester, for instance, is from the UK (I actually like blue faced leicester better than merino. It has a bit more luster to it). I don’t know the conditions of individual farms in the UK, but the farms are much smaller than the sheep stations in Australia.
A lot of the world’s fiber comes from animals in the UK, the US, New Zealand, South America, Southern Africa, and elsewhere. I’ve known people with sheep here in my own county, and they don’t abuse their animals. Shepherds with small flocks can identify each individual animal by sight, by personality, by name. They care about the individual animals. It’s nothing like a factory farm with tens of thousands of sheep. To claim that all fiber animals are abused is simply not true.
Some vegans also recommend knitting with cotton instead of wool. You can knit with cotton if you like, but the two fibers are really nothing alike. Wool holds up to 30% of its weight in water before it even starts to feel wet. This means if you’re wearing wool and you get wet, you’ll still be warm. Cotton gets wet and feels wet. It stays wet. And you feel cold and wet. If you’re wearing cotton socks and your feet get wet, your socks are going to just stay wet, and your feet will be cold. If you wear wool socks, your socks will have to get really really wet before they feel wet, and even if they do, they’ll still insulate your feet. Wool is also a lot more elastic than cotton. And I’d rather spin wool than cotton any day. Spinning wool is the easiest thing in the world, totally relaxing, totally meditative, one of the few things I can do when I have a migraine. Spinning cotton is a bitch.
The dyeing process with wool is much less wasteful. Usually all the dye molecules bond to the fiber. Nothing washes down the drain. A completely different class of dye is needed to dye cotton, and much of the dye washes away. Usually a lot of pesticides are used to grow cotton as well. Organically grown cotton is available, but not widely available.
So all in all, I guess I’m vegan except for the birthday cake and the wool, which makes me a veganish vegetarian? Perhaps labels aren’t important, except I sometimes feel like I don’t know what to call myself now. I feel like it isn’t accurate to call myself a vegan, and that if I do, the vegan police will be pissed off at me (which I can understand. I get annoyed when people say they’re “vegetarian but they eat chicken” That’s not vegetarian, dude), and yet if I call myself a vegetarian, people will expect that I will be willing to eat a lot of things that I am not. So what the hell am I? I don’t know. I am what I am. Or I yam what I yam. Pass the spinach.
In general I just buy a lot less stuff than I used to! I don’t deprive myself; I just looked at my life several years ago and realized there were some areas where I was just wasting money.
I realized that using a paper napkin for every meal meant I kept buying paper napkins over and over and over and throwing out a lot of paper napkins. So I stopped buying paper napkins, bought a few inexpensive cloth napkins, and several years later I’m still using them.
I realized that buying every book I wanted to read was expensive! I only read most of them once. I didn’t have room to keep every book I read forever, so every few years I had to get rid of some of them. So now I only buy books that I know I’ll want to read or refer to more than once, usually knitting books. I get other books from the library.
I used to subscribe to a lot of magazines, all full of fascinating articles. I didn’t have time to read them. They’d end up piled six issues deep each in my pending reading pile, making me feel guilty. What’s the point in that? So I canceled all my subscriptions. I wasn’t reading them anyway. No point spending the money or wasting the paper.
I’m able to buy some clothing in thrift stores. I could probably buy a larger percentage of my wardrobe there, but to be successful at it you need to shop there often since the turnover is so fast, and frankly, I just don’t enjoy shopping. So I just don’t have a lot of clothes, but I have enough — my wardrobe is fairly simple, and that’s fine with me.
I thought about what was important to me and what wasn’t and acted accordingly. For instance, I realized as far as jewelry, I really only wore the same necklace every day and the same few pairs of earrings all the time, so I sold the rest of my jewelry and haven’t bought anymore. This gave other people the opportunity to enjoy the jewelry I had but wasn’t wearing, and I was no longer spending money on things I didn’t need.
Probably the most important thing I’ve done to benefit the environment, even more beneficial than quit driving, has been to not reproduce.
Every living thing on the Earth has an impact on the environment. That can’t be helped. The question is how much of an impact do you have? Human beings are spreading over the place like weeds. Our population was 3 billion in 1960; now it’s 6.6 billion. That just isn’t sustainable. People need to think about the resources they’re using (the water they’re drinking, the building materials for the house they’re living in and the fuel to heat it and/or cool it, the materials to make everything they ever buy), and the resources any children they have will need, and the resources their grandchildren will need, and the resources their great-grandchildren will need, and so on and so on… I get the feeling people just really don’t think about the environmental ramifications of having children.
I’m not saying nobody should have children. That isn’t very likely, and I don’t think the human race is in any danger of going extinct. But I think if people started to change their mindset so being childfree was viewed as a legitimate and respectable and environmentally responsible choice, it would help. When a couple is married people shouldn’t start asking them, “So when are you going to start having kids?” Why should anyone assume a couple is going to have kids? It should be an option, not a given. They might not have any. They might have one. Assuming kids, plural, is just downright presumptuous.
It would also help if Hollywood stopped making movies and tv shows romanticizing large families.
Our population needs to decrease. The only peaceful, healthy way for this to happen is for people to voluntarily decide to have only one child or not have children at all, or to adopt children who already exist instead of procreating. This will be a lot easier for them without constant pressure from others to have larger families (which is just incredibly rude, by the way. If you know someone who doesn’t want children, don’t tell them you think they should have children. It’s incredibly offensive. Ask me how I know).
I have lived in small spaces my entire adult life. This wasn’t always necessarily by choice; I have just never earned a lot of money. But as I have become more aware of the resource consumption involved in housing, I’ve realized that I would never want to live in a really large house. It doesn’t seem right to use so much more than my fair share of resources. I see McMansions, and I know each one only has a few people living inside, and I wonder how the occupants can live there without feeling morally obligated to invite 14 homeless people to move in with them.
I live in a 650 square foot apartment. It’s a bit cramped because I’m trying to run a dyeing business here as well as live here, so my dining room is set up as a dye studio. If I was just living here and using my dining room as a dining room, I would have plenty of room.
Not having a lot of room means I can’t hang onto things unless I’m actually going to use them or I think they’re so beautiful I simply can’t live without them. It forces me to be selective. I don’t have a lot of knickknacks. I have art on the walls. I don’t have a stereo — I listen to music on my computer. Likewise I don’t have a tv — I get dvds from Netflix and watch those on my computer. I have an iMac, which has the processor built right into the monitor, so it uses space very efficiently.
What I do have a lot of is fiber and yarn and dye and fiber processing equipment, and it takes up a lot of space. But that’s what makes me happy, so I’m glad to give it the space.
Trying to find your path?
Don’t feel like I’m saying you have to be like me or you must do all these things. This has just been an inventory of things I’ve done in my life, and I’ll assume if you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in ways you might adapt some of them to your life to benefit the environment. Some of them may not be applicable to you or even possible for you (I remember reading articles about ways to save money, and they included things like buying reusable coffee filters, which didn’t help me at all since I don’t drink coffee, so I already had them beat), but if that’s the case, just skip those and consider the others if they interest you.
If you’re not doing any of these things now and try to start doing them all at once, it will probably be overwhelming for you. Remember, I didn’t start doing all these things all at once. I made these changes gradually over years. Try making a few changes and wait until you’ve adapted to those before making more; otherwise you may get frustrated and decide change is too hard. Take it at a pace you can handle, and your life will be richer for it, and the planet will thank you.