Archive for November 2nd, 2009

Why Not Change?

Sharon November 2nd, 2009

Interesting paper from the World Bank about why people aren’t making more life changes in relationship to climate change.

The author writes:

Myriad private acts of consumption are at the root of the climate change challenge.  As consumers, individuals hold a reservoir of mitigation capacity.  Roughly 40% of OECD emissions result from decisions by individuals - travel, heating and food purchases.”

That 40% number is actually low - it assumes that we wish to continue on more or less as we have been.  Consumer spending drives 70% of the economy and accounts, depending on how you calculate the number, for considerably over half of all emissions, if you draw the circle properly - radically reducing consumption would have ripple effects - businesses would close, for example, and thus not run their computers and lights all night long. 

The paper goes on to analyze the reasons that people don’t make changes in economics-psychology language, but offers some interesting observations, including a sense of the deep scientific illiteracy that we face.  One in four Americans, for example, can’t identify a single fossil fuel.

This is, of course, pitiable and pathetic, but I don’t think it is the deepest reason, nor do I think that the World Bank gets it quite right.  My own suspicion is that the problem is not that ordinary people are too dumb , but too smart. 

The two “sides” of the climate change story both tell essentially the same narrative.  On one side there is something bad, that will change your world forever, take away your security and do you great harm. On the other, there is the world as we know it, with only a little variation.  Unsurprisingly, most people prefer the more familiar choice.

If you believe the climate skeptics, behind door number 1 is the world as we know it, maybe a little bit warmer and dryer, but whatever, and behind door number 2 a nightmare of rising costs and poverty, one world government and all sorts of other baddies.  If you believe the climate activists, behind door number 1 is the world as we know it, only with renewable energies and maybe a tiny bit higher taxes.  Behind door number 2 is ecological disaster - rising seas, hunger, disease, etc…

Who wouldn’t prefer to offer people a familiar choice - that’s a no-brainer.  The problem is that the conflict between the two stories being told makes people uneasy - most of them instinctively grasp that it will be hard to fix the economy and get us all buying again and also cut our energy by those big numbers people ask about.  Where will the money come from?  And they also instinctively recognize that the climate is changing around them - that you can see and feel it, and that we all know that the climate has changed before.  Being told that this is no big deal doesn’t quite work - even for people who aren’t sure they believe global warming is anthropogenic. 

That is, most people instinctively distrust those who tell us that things will be easy and quick and painless, at the same time that we desperately want to grasp onto an easy and quick and painless solution.  And both sides of the discussion have largely failed to tell the truth - that the only choices out there for us are not “easy and familiar vs. terrible and unfamiliar” but two versions of unfamiliar - one in which we change ourselves in response to a changing world, simultaneously softening the degree of physical change and expanding the degree of personal change, and the other in which we cling desperately to the shattered remains of the familiar in a world that is utterly transformed around us.

If we ever want people to fully grasp the connection between their way of life and the future, we have to tell the truth about it. It won’t be easy or pleasant, but it is only then that we can begin to change.


Becoming a Do-Nothing: The Lazy Woman's Path to Sustainability

Sharon November 2nd, 2009

One thing I often mention in my talks that usually gets a laugh is that it is hard to find visual illustrations of the most central points of my way of life, because most of the ways I save energy involve not doing things, which doesn’t make for much in the way of pictures.

I’m quite serious about this - the most important (and least photogenic) thing that we do to fulfill our goal of using vastly less energy than most Americans is to choose not to do things that most people do.  It isn’t sexy.  It doesn’t look good in pictures.  But it is a tool available to all of us, and it is often overlooked in our race for substitutions and replacements.  In fact, I think a lot of us, caught up in a culture where everyone spends their time racing around doing things. are suspicious of things we don’t do. 

And yet, that’s where the real returns are - not in finding a better way to do things as we have been, but in doing them less, or not at all.  In many cases, it is extremely unlikely that most of us are going to be able to replicate our present way of doing things with a renewable or low-energy substitute.  So it makes sense to get into practice now at not doing things.

If you could take pictures of my do-nothingness for powerpoint, here’s what it would look like:

  Here is a picture of our family not going anywhere - we try to make sure we have two days a week minimum in which we don’t drive at all (more in the summer and during other periods), as well as minimizing other trips.  Here’s me on the phone telling someone that no, I can’t stop by until I happen to be in that general direction next week.  Here’s Eric carefully planning what we need to pick up at the farmer’s market and the library, because if he forgets something, we won’t be going back to pick it up - we’ll work around it.  Here are the kids climbing trees in the yard, rather than going to the playground. 

Here’s me passing my permanently disconnected dryer (which I haven’t yet moved) and not putting laundry in it.  Here’s me not turning on the light if I don’t absolutely need it.  Here’s me telling the kids they can’t watch a DVD because we have found a used replacement for our broken one yet.    Here’s me deciding that my hair can go another day without a shampoo.  Here’s me deciding that the kids’ shirts can go another day without washing. 

Here’s Eric not vacuuming, but running the carpet sweeper (or just as likely, not doing either and letting the crud accumulate).  Here’s me eating leftovers for lunch, rather than making something new, since otherwise, they’ll spoil.  Here’s me not mowing the grass and hoping the goats will eat it down.  Here’s me not buying materials for a new project, but trying to scavenge them instead.  Here’s me not wasting things, so that I have enough without buying more. 

Here’s me not buying the boys stuff out of the toy catalog.  Here’s Eric not buying me anything for Chanukah (ok, he’s not good at presents anyway ;-)).  Here’s me deciding that my ratty old jeans can too be patched one more time.  Here’s us not having whiter whites, the newest gadgets or a nice car.  Here’s us not caring.  Here’s us picking family time over more activities for the kids that involve driving somewhere.

Here’s me saying no to the talk in Australia (damn - it sucks sometimes to live up to your principles) because there are Aussies who can do what I do.  Here’s me turning off the computer instead of posting one more blog post.  Here’s me living so far from a Krispy Kreme, a Mall or a movie theater that I’m not even tempted to join mainstream culture.

Here’s me not getting an electronic reader of any kind.  Here’s me not having a cell phone or a digital camera or a pickup truck, and having to borrow them if we really, really need one.  Here’s me not turning up the heat.  Here’s me not eating CAFO meat, even if it sounds tasty.  Here’s me  not taking the job that comes with a lot more money - and travel time and fancier clothes and airplanes.   Here’s us mostly not worrying about what other people think.

That’s what it looks like, folks - not doing stuff.  Now I fear that often, not doing things is also accompanied by a whole host of things *to* do - if you were worried that my ecological consciousness has sent me into a spiral of endless sloth, rest assured that I do occasionally get up off my behind, and I fear that you will have to as well, if you follow my example.  But if you want to know the secret weapon in the world of low-energy use it is simple: Just don’t do it.


Independence Days Update: Why Cats Purr

Sharon November 2nd, 2009

I once read an article that concluded that cats purr because they are happy, of course, but they also derive comfort from purring - that purring is a kind of benign self-stimulus that says “all right with the world - and if not, it should be.”  This would explain why often cats purr even in stressful or even painful situations.  The article proposed that purring may have enhanced the survival of cats in some odd circumstances. 

I was thinking of this early this morning, when I suddenly noticed that Rubeus, the extremely friendly but rather dim little kitten we got when we lost Zucchini,  ordinarily “cat o’ velcro,” had not appeared to settle on my lap or check out what I was eating.  And I heard a very faint mewing. 

It took me a long, long time to find the source of said mewing.  He wasn’t in the attic, or the basement, and I’d seen him last night when I finally arrived home from my trip.  He hadn’t climbed up into the chimney or up the woodstove chimneys.  He wasn’t trapped in a cupboard of a closet.  I could only hear the mewing occasionally, and I was starting to worry, less I never find him. 

I went out to milk the goats, and on my way back in, I finally heard it.  It was coming from the wall of the garage.  Not the inside wall, the outside wall.  At first I thought he had slipped out last night and fallen in one of the gutters, but opening the gutters got only a shower of icy water and dead leaves on my head and a loud scream from me (I knew this would happen, since the only way for me to reach and open this part of the gutter was for me to stand directly under it, but let’s just say it was worse than I’d expected) at the shock of cold.  So I figured he had to have somehow gotten *inside* the roof flashing,.  In fact, I could here him scrabbling around in there.  So I got out the ladder, pried the flashing off with a screwdriver in a way that I hope doesn’t prevent it from going back on, was grateful for the hard frosts, since there were about 100 wasps nests in there, and removed one loudly purring, filthy black and white kitten.

I’m not sure if he was just purring because he was happy to see me, or if he was purring to comfort himself, but being the empty-headed creature that he is, his reaction was not “omigosh, I could have died in there and you’d never have found me” but “what took you so long…is there any food…yes, I know you long to pet me, and what are a few layers of filth between friends…oh, and why on earth are you so wet…that wasn’t very helpful of you.”  It is, in fact, hard (although clearly not impossible) to to be annoyed at an animal that has nestled into your neck  and is vibrating loudly with contentment, even when you are freezing, soaking, filthy and have spent two hours looking for a cat.  Clearly, purring is a survival mechanism.

It has been a week of travel, rather than homesteading, so there’s not much to report here, beyond Rubeus’s touching reunion with his food bowl.  Other than milk and eggs, nothing was harvested, other than an absurdist amount of candy when the kids were trick or treating at my MIL’s.  Eric was abandoned to maintain, and neither of us really do anything much to get ahead when the other is absent. 

The kids dressed as Harry Potter (Asher, who looks disturbingly like a miniature Harry in his glasses and robe), Fred and George Weasley (Simon and Isaiah, who look nothing alike, but who are so much a pair that this seems appropriate) and Ron Weasley (Eli).  Simon’s close friend Kayla was Hermione Granger. 

I had a good trip, and will write more about that very soon.  I am tired and sleep deprived, but the work was the good and the people both fascinating and wonderful.  I read a lot of books on the train, listened to a lot of music (thank you all for the suggestions!), have a lot of new thoughts and learned a lot.

Now I’m back and a host of piled up other projects await me.  Time for the barn cleanout, the root cellar organization, etc…  But first, my weak little report:

Plant something: No

Harvest something: Some greens

Preserve something: No

Waste Not: Actually, we wasted extra - I ate off paper goods when necessary, a bunch of our milk spoiled while we were gone, etc..  Sigh.

Want Not: Eric did have a chance to pick up two bushels of winesap apples.

Eat the Food: I took some good apples and cheese with me on the trip to reduce my exposure to Amtrak’s cuisine, so I guess that counts.

Build community food systems - I’m hoping maybe my trip helped a little bit there.  I think I got at least one person to consider food gardening!

Ok, y’all have to be way ahead of me this week!