Tis the Season

December 3, 2010

I came home this evening to an early Christmas present under our decorated houseplant (see photo). Totally. Delicious. Andhealthytoo.

(Yes, that is our tabby hogging the space heater.)


Every year we throw away 24 million tons of leaves and grass (not to mention kitchen scraps and leftovers) that could be composted. Composting is an easy way to lighten the load on our precious planet. Go here for more info.

bless my stars

November 24, 2010

Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art….It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world.

– Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher and scholar of Buddhism

I’m sure you’ve been absolutely heartbroken by the lack of tips the last two weeks. I let you down, I know. But to make it up, I will give you a three-fer this week. It’s a Friday treat.

Save water in the bathroom. These tips are all related, and they all involve your bathroom. In America the average family of four uses 400 gallons of water every day. That’s a lot of water, and about half of that water is used in the bathroom. So what can you do?

1. Install a faucet aerator. These are really cheap, and they can reduce your water consumption by as much as 50%.

2. Install a low-flow showerhead. These are also inexpensive, and they use half the water that traditional showerheads use. And you don’t have to worry about poor water pressure–these do reduce flow, but I doubt you will even notice a difference.

3. Displace water in your toilet tank. Your toilet alone can account for 27% of your household water use. Try this: place a two-liter bottle filled with water or sand in your toilet tank.  Experiment with this to make sure you still have enough flushing power, but this will save water and money every time you flush. You can also use this mantra: if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.

Enjoy your tips and your weekend!

Waiting on Washington: Food

November 3, 2010

It’s come and gone. Election day didn’t bring the end of the world. For us regular ol’ Americans, life goes on about the same.
Washington is bound to be just about the same as it was last week, but that doesn’t have to slow us down. Let’s talk about food. I’ve blogged about food before. We’ve talked about voting with our food dollars, and that’s very important. I don’t want be redundant here, so if you want to read more, visit some of my older posts.
As far as legislation goes, The Farm Bill is set to expire in 2012, and Congress is currently discussing food safety legislation. The Farm Bill largely dictates what farmers grow–currently, the subsidies we dole out ($56 billion for corn over a decade) provide huge incentives to grow “corn and beans.” The current Farm Bill makes processed foods cheap, since they’re loaded with various forms of corn and soy beans, but shouldn’t such a bill make produce cheap? Our USDA food pyramid reads one way, towards produce, but our subsidies read another, towards sugary, fatty, processed foodish stuff. Food safety is a joke, because as we’ve seen recently, not all food is safe. Our eggs make us sick, our celery is tainted, and we get free frogs in our bags of frozen veggies, but the current regulations (or lack of enforcement) are almost begging for such issues. Like most other action in Washington, I don’t expect the end products of either of these to be ideal, but I still think it’s worth our time to call our representatives. We can also act on our own.
Luckily for us, there’s something afoot. It’s called the Food Movement. This movement is already responsible for many changes we’re seeing. Marion Nestle, renowned nutritionist, says the Food Movement that we see sweeping across the country is democracy. I love this! At a time when our democracy seems to represent anything but the voices of the people, our voices are being heard because of what we put in our mouths. I realize it’s a bit dramatic to talk of our democracy as if it’s crumbling–we’re still free, and I am still mostly proud to be American–but it sure is good to see democracy working.
We don’t need a bill to dictate what foods are important for our tables, and we don’t need safety regulations to tell us that foods not processed in massive facilities are probably safer for our families. Because of lobbying efforts from some large companies, our tax dollars are propping up some unsustainable choices, but our dollars are just that: our dollars. Unfortunately, for those without the time or resources to educate themselves about smart, sustainable food choices or without the financial means to do anything about it, they are subject to Washington’s decisions. Democracy may be guiding this Food Movement, but is it true democracy if it doesn’t afford healthy and safe options to all Americans?
40% of children’s calories come from junk food. Yeah, read that again. I trust that parents want bright futures for these children. They don’t dream of their children developing diabetes, or living with health issues exacerbated by obesity. I don’t know how you’d rank affordable access to healthy food with other justice issues: women’s rights, slavery, civil rights, gay rights. Those are big issues. But I think this is another great social justice issue. It’s a great social injustice that there are Americans who cannot make the best food decisions for their families. Even if these individuals knew which food choices were most beneficial to them and to the environment, do they have the financial resources to make those choices? Well, I don’t have an easy answer to that, but I think at least part of the answer involves changing our priorities.

In the 1930s the average American household spent 22% of its income on food.  Now it’s 10%. Food, as you might imagine, is pretty important. We kind of need food to survive. But it only makes up 10% of our budgets! What things have filled in the gaps? Cell phones, cable TV, car payments. There are many more, but the common denominator in these is that they’re unnecessary. I don’t mean to come down on those of us who spend money on these things. Fortunately for many, we can afford these things plus food that’s good for us and the environment. This is where our values come in.
Large companies recognize a desire among Americans for cheap food (especially cheap meat), and in order to make it cheap they’ve got to skimp on doing things the right way. If animals are butchered properly, the bacteria naturally present in their digestive systems should not find it’s way into our peanut butter. Do we understand that we get what we pay for? I recognize that money isn’t growing on trees, but if we value food that’s good for us and good for our environment, then we should expect extra costs.
While I would love to see sweeping changes overnight, I realize that neither Washington nor consumers have that kind of power. But I’m very encouraged by movements I’ve seen. Corporations such as Wal-Mart see that we want locally grown produce, so they’re responding. I’m not Wal-Mart’s biggest fan, but their commitment to green practices continues to grow. And another thing: Wal-Mart has a knack for makin’ stuff cheap. If larger corporations continue to see the movement toward a sustainable food future, we can only hope that this will make healthy decisions possible for more Americans. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we’re a country of trend-followers. At least with the Food Movement, it’s a trend that benefits our land, our food producers, our animals, and our consumers.
When it comes to food, our grassroots democracy seems to be working, and we owe ourselves a pat on the back. So what can we do now? Celebrate with a home-cooked meal made from local products and some green beer. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, and let’s each take a step or two more. Lend your informed voice to push for local school lunch reform, shop at your local farmer’s market, join a CSA or a community garden. It’s encouraging to see our progress, but we still have work to do.

We’re all aware that Washington failed to act on a climate and energy bill. I don’t want to spend time arguing about whether that’s a good thing or delving into the reasons why it happened (if you are interested, there’s a great piece from the New Yorker–it’s seriously long, but it’s very informative). I personally think the failure to act is disappointing, even though the watered-down version that ultimately survived the political process may have been more favors to oil companies than a boon for the environment; nevertheless, it’s time to move on.

So what now? What can we do? I assume you’re here in the first place because you care about how your use of energy affects the environment. The first step towards making changes is acknowledging the need for change. Once we do that, it’s time to make a commitment–let’s be honest, the changes that are really necessary are difficult and uncomfortable. This commitment can’t be ambiguous, like “I want to use less energy.” We need to detail our commitments. When two people get married, they often recite vows, which are promises to each other. We need to vow to the environment that we are going to use energy more responsibly. We need to vow to make these decisions every day. Until we make a commitment, we’re just foolin’ around.

My actions are very important. Your actions are very important. We, together, need to form a voice that carries beyond our homes and social circles and to the decision makers at KCP&L and BP and Ford. If Washington won’t listen, let’s send our message to those who will listen–the companies that want our money.

Speaking of KCP&L, this is one of my actions: I plan to contact KCP&L to see what it will take for them to offer a green energy purchasing option.  Over 600 utilities nationwide offer to their customers the option to pay a surcharge (ranging from .5 cents to 5 cents per kW/hr) to receive energy from a green source (wind, solar, etc.). KCP&L offers no such option. I’m convinced there are enough KC metro residents who would pay this surcharge, and if I have to rally those residents, I’m willing to do so.

What’s your action? We’re all in unique places, we have different schedules, and we have various resources and talents, but we can all advance a cause that certainly needs our attention. This isn’t just about riding your bike, or turning down your thermostat, or taking shorter showers. No, it’s about all of those things, plus anything else you can think of. It’s about living a lifestyle that decreases the burden on our environment. That may mean placing more burden on our shoulders, and it may mean placing more burden on our bank accounts, but we’re talking about our values. We’re talking about future generations. Are your values worth making a sacrifice? Are your children and grandchildren worth making a sacrifice?

If you’re looking for ways to act, try asking friends what they’re doing. Take an inventory of the ways you use energy, and brainstorm ideas on using less. Or you can sign up with Sierra Club to be a climate leader in your city. Be creative.

Let’s make a vow today. If in order for you to follow through on your vow, you need to tell somebody, so it’s not just in your head, then tell somebody. Or write it down. Make a poster for your yard. Put a note by your thermostat that says “don’t touch me, get a blanket.” There are hundreds of ways, but let’s get serious.  Know this: we will all make a decision today. Your decision is either action or inaction. Are you committed, or are you just foolin’ around?

Product Review: Skin

October 27, 2010

Skin is a local line of “chemical-free body care products containing only organic and natural oils” that I’ve been testing for almost 2 months now.  I discovered the line on our first visit to Nature’s Own Health Market this summer and, boy, was I excited to finally find something local AND organic.  I began with the Naked Face unscented face wash, Lemon Fresh toner, and the Rosey Plum moisturizer.  I’ve since added the Fruity Face scrub, though, I’ve only used that once.

When I use these products regularly, i.e., when I force myself to clean my face at night BEFORE falllling asleep, then my skin is great!  However, like any other product, when I fail to use it consistently, my skin fails as well. Boo. on. me.

I’m going to steal my product summary from another review because it’s pretty much perfect:

“Quality of ingredients: All products are free of harmful chemicals, parabens, synthetic dyes and fragrances, chemical preservatives, phthalates, animal products, mineral oil, and sodium lauryl sulfate. Of 20 different products listed on the Skin Deep Database, they all rate a phenomenal 0-1, lower than any other skincare line I have tried so far. The ingredients lists for all products are fairly short, which is always a good sign, as is the fact that all individual ingredients are easily recognizable: jojoba oil, olive oil, aloe vera, rosemary extract, tea tree oil, macadamia nut oil, and mango butter, to name a few. Most are certified organic.

Pluses: I love Skin’s philosophy and its commitment to providing nourishing products free of any harmful chemicals. The super-low scores on the Skin Deep Database give me confidence that I’m not putting anything harmful on my skin. Products look and feel great. And I love that I’m supporting a local company.”

Ditto. What she said.

Finally a skincare line that reflects my values without putting a strain on my wallet.

and IT’S LOCAL! woot.

Don’t spend money. Choose one day a week where you don’t spend money. You’ve probably heard of meatless Monday. Well, this is the financial equivalent. This practice probably won’t be life-changing, and it may not save you a ton, but it will force you, at least a few times a month, to think ahead. You may have to take your lunch, or you may have to rise earlier to make your coffee. This very simple exercise will allow you to be independent of money for just a day. You might take the time you’d normally spend in the line at Starbuck’s to consider what things control your life and what things you can live without.

Election season is heating up, yet my optimism has cooled to an all-time low. You may know the feeling. Regardless of where you fall, politically, you are probably disappointed. Politics is, to borrow an all-too-common phrase, “business as usual.” It doesn’t seem to matter which candidate wins in Missouri, or which candidate wins in Colorado, or which candidate wins in Delaware, because money is the ruling power. Public opinion says one thing, but D.C. does another, because it’s not the voice of Americans to which our Senators and Representatives are listening. No, they’re listening to the voice of Monsanto, the voice of the Koch brothers, and the voice of Valero.

When it comes to my role in this “democracy,” I’ve gone through various stages of anger, and one of those included thoughts of refusing to vote. I’ve calmed down (a little bit), and I do plan to vote in November, but I still doubt whether it will make a difference. I don’t think this is the final word, because we are a resilient country, but is there any hope for change?

I think there is, and this is why: we don’t have to wait on Washington.  Some action from our elected officials can certainly help the causes with which we are concerned, but we can also act. I can’t guarantee that Senator McCaskill is going to notice (I certainly can’t replace the $23k she’s received from Monsanto), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. It’s easy to back down, because it’s easier to wait on Obama, but I’m tired of waiting. I know that my actions alone won’t do much, but our country is defined by the will of its people–all of it’s people. Think about our actions this way: when we make compromises to our values, we walk in step with the elected officials we criticize. We can’t scoff at the way Roy Blunt’s campaign is funded by corporations when we shirk our own values for convenience.

In the coming weeks, I’d like to share my thoughts on how our actions and personal responsibility can force changes in Washington. We control how we use energy, how we view food, and how we spend money, and we can act regardless of whether Washington acts. We’ve heard that each dollar makes a difference, and each action makes a difference. But it’s easy to doubt these statements, and it’s easy to allow that doubt to lull us into complacency. Let’s take our values, stitch them to our sleeves, and create lasting change. Our government is supposed to represent the people of America, so let’s make sure D.C. knows where our values lie. We can’t afford to wait on them.

Tune in next week for part I of the series: Energy.

Breathe.  This tip is about as simple as you can get.  Breathe.  And think about it.  Breathing is essential, as you might already know, but how often do we think about breathing?  Eating is essential, and we (okay, I) think about it all the time.  Sleeping is essential, and we think about sleep (that deserves its own post).  But breathing is most often an afterthought.  Take a closer look at ancient literature, and we see that ancient peoples saw breath as more than just our sucking and blowing of oxygen.  Breath is our spirit, our life, our energy.  Real, intentional breathing can slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, release stress, and help strengthen your immune system.

Take a few minutes each day to think about your breathing.  Practice breathing exercises, like these, or do yoga, or just be conscious of your breathing.  If practiced regularly, you’ll notice a difference.