Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Introducing... Sustainable Life

There was such a positive reaction to the 'little things you can do' post I did for blog action day that it has motivated Michelle to finally launch her long planned and talked about "sustainable life" blog. And she's been busy. Check it out:

Stay going.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: walking the talk

So, apparently, it's Blog Action Day. My sister, author of the infamous Flametree blog - which incidentally I just visited to get the link... and then I read her Blog Action Day post... and I really urge you to do the same.

Mine will not be as powerful, but it will be intimately related... So Blog Action Day calls on all bloggers to write a post about the environment. Writing a sustainability blog, I obviously do this quite a bit, though not specifically about the environment - more about the interplay of social and environmental systems. But I think that's what they mean. And this interplay is present every moment of everyday and every decision we make affects it.

On that note, I thought I'd go for a personal post about how we try to "walk the talk" with our every day choices, with a bit of a photo-log:

Here’s our back porch with the worm bin in the foreground - all of our kitchen scraps go in there and a crew of red wrigglers break 'em down in no time. It doesn't stink, unless it gets out of balance, which usually means there's too much moisture or "green" material. I throw in some saw dust, dried leaves, or shredded newspaper to get it back in harmony and we're good to go. In the background, a good ole fashioned clothes lines takes a big chunk out of our electricity budget, and some late-season leftovers of the veggies we grew on the porch - a cheap and fun way to get the good local organic grub.

Bringing it inside, we’ve got the living room with some good daylight. So many of the actions we take to reduce our impact are just incredibly simple behavior changes that don’t represent any kind of sacrifice in comfort or lifestyle – they’re mostly just becoming aware of and consciously working on changing old habits. It’s harder than it sounds – but just not flipping the light on when walking into the bathroom during the day can make a big difference (when added up with everything else!).

The bedding’s all organic cotton – it took quite a bit of research to find it all without breaking the bank, but it’s very cozy now that it’s all set up. I think we ended up getting it from Gaiam and Viva Terra.

The furniture we got lucky with – due to a concurrent move in my family, we basically inherited an apartment-full of beautiful old wooden furniture. But even without the helpful circumstances, furniture is a great thing to get used – you can go fancy antiques, or cheap second-hand shops, but it’s a great place to “reuse” to lighten the impact. Beyond that, for all of its big-boxiness, IKEA has a great sustainability program, working extensively for years with The Natural Step framework, which has driven a lot of their product innovation, including the development of low-mercury compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Speaking of… we’ve got CFLs in all of our fixtures. These things are a no brainer – they last forever, and use a forth of the energy – they’ve also come way down in price, and when you’re talking about something as cheap as light bulbs, the “upfront capital costs” really shouldn’t be a serious deterrent - spending a couple of bucks instead of a couple of quarters is well worth it. You may also be wondering why we’ve got two right next to each other – the fixture actually has spots for 4 bulbs, but we just use 2 – it’s pretty common, and usually you get plenty of light without filling all the spots – you don’t have to do it just because they’re there!

Other furniture options – build your own. For these I cut 2 boards in half with some funky curves, the off-cuts serve as the braces. The towels – have hand-me-downs, half fluffy new organic cotton.

Some more veggies on the inside – everyone loves house plants, why not go for the kind that produce food. We heat these spaces anyway, may as well experiment with cold climate indoor agriculture. At the very least, fresh herbs are easy and a total treat.

Speaking of space-heating, the first and most obvious is keeping an eye on the thermostat, and keeping it at 65-67 F when hanging out and down to 55-57 F at night.

Our building has oil heat, so go with Mass Biofuel – a blend of 10% soy-biodiesel, and 90% ultralow sulfur diesel. While the 10% isn’t a whole lot, it is something, and more importantly sends the signal to the market that there’s demand for the stuff and supports the development of the market.

On the topic of biodiesel we put it in our whip as well – we’ve got a Volkswagen Jetta TDI (turbo diesel injection). TDIs get 45-50 mpg, but aren’t sold in most states. We haven’t really figured out why this is. We had to get ours used from Ohio. But we’re very happy with her now that she’s a Sox fan.

The biodiesel scene for the wheels is much the same as it is for the heat – we usually get B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% regular diesel) especially in cold weather.

Some places only have B5, but quite a few have B100, which is great. has a great map of filling stations that have biodiesel pumps. The one pictured here is in Chelsea, just a few blocks off 93.

Back to the homestead… we are not immune to the gadgetry inundation – all of these little electronics are a huge source of growth in electricity demand. Beyond rethinking what it is we really need, we plug everything into power strips, and try to (again, another habit) turn the switch off whenever we don’t need the juice flowing through it. All of those chargers and ‘standby’ lights eat up billions of dollars of electricity a year in the US – again, it doesn’t seem like much but with everything else it is huge. We’ve avoided altogether a couple of the biggest energy-hog gadgets: AC units and flatscreen TVs (bummer, I know).

We do have a regular TV but are diligent about interpreting everything that it throws at us, and we do mix it up with the books – obviously good on its own, but what’s in the library that speaks to the sustainability attributes – a partial list can be found in the column to the right down under “reading list.”

To keep it all clean we go with the natural, biodegradable, organic products as much as possible. This is getting easier and easier with all of the good stuff coming on the market. It works just as well or better, it’s cost competitive, and it’s just another no-brainer.

Also in the no-brainer category for us is local, organic food. Again, the market is growing, and it’s easier and easier to get. With all of the horrendous impacts of industrial agriculture it’s also one of the more important things we can do. As for the question: which is more important, organic or local? I don’t think it’s a great way to look at the issue – for many things it should be both, and when it’s not available in ‘both’, ask for it. We also keep the seasons in mind and try to eat appropriately, and just changing our expectations slightly to realize we don’t need to be gorging on strawberries in February.

And of course, all the while remembering why we’re doing it all – to live happy healthy lives – a huge part of which for most humans is getting outside and enjoying a little nature. This one’s from a walk this afternoon in the arboretum in our neighborhood. Of course most of us in the US could live happy lives without worrying about the impacts of every little action, but the trick is not to do it at the expense of others, or future generations. Our emissions, land-use patterns, and production and consumption practices impact everyone – even those pastoral families in Kenya my sister wrote about. Hopefully some of these actions inspire you to evaluate your everyday activities or gives you some cool ideas if you’re already all over it. Another great resource to take it a step further and start spreading the action around, check out the Cool Communities Campaign and the Low Carbon Diet book – an innovative, old-fashioned neighborly approach to social change. So kudos to the Blog Action Day people, and stay going…