Going green is too often presented as either an extreme stunt that real people can’t achieve or as the act of buying green products to maintain one’s current lifestyle. Thrifty Green challenges these ideas and instead advocates authentic changes in behavior that are sustainable long-term. Other blogs may tell you to switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs; this one will advise you to turn your lights off.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Individual vs. Community Solutions

I recently gave an interview on The Jefferson Exchange public radio program where a listener called in to ask what a typical person could do to reduce their ecological footprint without moving off the grid. It was a good question. Most people can’t or don’t want to live the kind of life I had in Taos. Yet plenty of people want to lessen their impact on the earth and achieve a similar reduction in expenses. What can they do?
The list is long, the choices many. Every individual is different and must decide what makes sense for him/herself. Can you drive less somehow? Can you make improvements to the energy efficiency of your home? Can you switch to locally-grown, organic food? Any choice you can make that will save you money will usually reduce your usage of the earth’s resources as well.
But what if you are already spending as little as possible? Or what if the usual suggestions don’t apply to you? For instance, adequate public transportation doesn’t exist where you live, so you are forced to drive to work every day. Or you rent your home and your landlord refuses to install better insulation or energy-efficient appliances. Or there is no farmer’s market/community garden/natural foods store nearby, and a mainstream grocery store is your only option.
If you have exhausted all individual solutions, then you need a good community solution. You and everybody else. This is the real answer.
I brainstormed the following list of ideas to get us started. (If you can think of some more, I would love to see them.)
  • Public utilities that provide electricity and heat from renewable resources
  • Tighter energy efficiency requirements for any appliance that consumes energy
  • Regulation of public water supplies to ensure adequate quantity and quality for the future, plus enforcement of the regulation
  • More community garden spaces
  • More parks and trees in urban/suburban centers to help clean up air pollution and keep temperatures cooler
  • Recycling bins next to every garbage can in all public spaces
  • Home recycling at no greater cost than garbage pickup
  • Requirements for manufacturers to use less packaging in all their products
  • Convenient, affordable public transportation, ideally powered by renewable energy
  • Safe, convenient pedestrian and bike paths
And how do we put these ideas into practice? By asking for them. For example, ask your city council for more community garden spaces, parks, and trees. Lobby your state representative for higher renewable energy requirements for public utilities. Pressure your federal representative for changes in manufacturing laws to tighten energy efficiency standards for appliances or to use less packaging material for all products. When all else fails, call a local newspaper or television reporter and ask them to investigate the quality of the water supply in your area, or the level of air pollution and how it affects public health, or why the bus system isn’t used by more people.
Part of the beauty of living in America is that an individual can effect change simply by agitating for it. And that doesn’t have to involve angry picket signs: it can simply be a letter to your congressperson. If enough of us demand it, change will come.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Go Outside and Play

When my sisters and I were growing up in a small Colorado mountain town, every day after school we would change into our play clothes, eat EXACTLY TWO cookies, then go outside and play. These were my mother’s rules, no exceptions. We became adept at sneaking extra cookies, but we never snuck back indoors once we were kicked out.
We didn’t want to, even in winter. There was much more to do outside before the sun set than inside, so we bundled up and headed out. We dug tunnels in the snow, made “ski runs” on the piles the plows left next to our driveway, built snow forts, had snowball fights, made snow angels, went sledding on a nearby slope, and generally ran around expending energy.
In warmer weather we climbed on rocks, rode our bikes through the woods with our teddy bears in the baskets, waded in streams, picked strawberries, pretended to be explorers, played hide-and-seek or kick-the-can, and generally ran around expending energy.
As a bonus, which I didn’t recognize until decades later, we became very comfortable in the outdoors. We absorbed the nuances of our natural surroundings and the changes in the seasons without really noticing it. That fundamental knowledge has persisted into adulthood for me. I can sense a drop of a few degrees in temperature or a subtle shift in the wind. I can tell if it’s going to snow by looking at the clouds, even if common sense says the conditions are not right. I know how to cross a stream without getting wet, and when it’s too dangerous to try. My eyes are always subconsciously on the lookout for wildlife, and, consequently, I spot plenty of animals wherever I go.
Why does this matter? Two reasons. First, when you are in tune with your natural surroundings, you are capable of noticing unusual changes. For instance, late arrivals or early departures of migratory animals. Summers that are hotter, dryer, or longer than usual. Snow that is wetter than normal, or which melts faster. Autumn leaves that change colors later than usual or not at all. (Sometimes the aspen leaves here in Colorado turn black and drop off all at once, with none of the typical fiery gold display.) Rivers and lakes whose water levels are subtly or drastically different from what you expect. Atypical wind patterns or predictable weather (such as afternoon thundershowers) that becomes unpredictable.
When you notice these types of changes, you may start to wonder why they are occurring, whether they will last, what their impact is, and whether you have played a role in creating them. If you conclude that you have (for example, contributing to air pollution by driving too much, or speeding the depletion of your water supply by over-generously watering your lawn), then you may be more inclined to make a change. Change is easier when you intrinsically understand the benefits, rather than having them pointed out to you by “experts.” And voluntary change is always easier than change imposed upon you by authorities.
Second, one of the worst errors in modern thinking is that we exist apart from Nature. If you spend your days indoors, isolated from the weather and other aspects of your natural surroundings, you may fall prey to this belief. But humans are a part of Nature as much as other animals are. Spending more time outside will reconnect you to your role as a resident of your local habitat. Instead of fighting the weather (for example, staying indoors when it is cold/rainy/windy outside), you can embrace it. Rather than fearing the wilder elements of the outdoors (such as getting lost in the woods or encountering a bear), you can learn how to prevent misfortune. Instead of relying on expensive technology to improve your life (e.g., installing air conditioning in your house), you will be able to come up with cheaper, more natural solutions (e.g., planting trees on the south and west sides of your house).
Besides, surrounding yourself by greenery, inhaling the fresh air, and letting the sun warm your back are all documented ways to de-stress your psyche. And like all good things in life, you can do them for free.
So go outside and play.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Opposite of Materialism Is Freedom

What happens when you own too much stuff? It owns you. You find yourself needing money so your stuff can occupy more space, be maintained and insured, and eventually be packed and moved. All the stuff you have invested your time, money, energy, and the planet’s resources to acquire winds up running your life.
Sometimes it creeps up on you, the way wrinkles and other signs of age do. For example, my friend Jill spent several seasons as a rafting guide in Alaska. The guides camped in tents all summer, walking into town to fetch food because none of them had a car. Jill had left her car back home in Las Vegas. When she tired of her Alaska experience, she went home to load it up and drive to her next adventure working for a casino in Reno. Two decades later, as she packed the contents of her three-thousand-square-foot house into box after box to be loaded into a moving truck, she lamented no longer being twenty years old and able to stash all her possessions into a hatchback and hit the road, the ultimate freedom.
It’s true that most of us don’t want to turn forty and still be living in a tent; there is something to be said for planning for a comfortable future. But comfortable doesn’t need to be extravagant, and extravagance is what our current consumer culture is all about. Spending to impress people (including yourself) is a bad idea. So is frivolously wasting the earth’s resources.
Luckily, there are other ways to live your life, even in modern America. My friend Ann spent her adult years living with an enviable zest. She managed to arrange her work schedule to take off extended periods of time so she could travel the globe, her favorite pastime. This included riding her bicycle to Mexico with her brother, spending eighteen months traveling solo through South America, and taking her elderly mother to Greece. For Ann, travel and experiences were vastly more important than material possessions, of which she had few. A coworker advised her early in her career to set aside 10 percent of her income in savings, which she did faithfully, managing to survive, thrive, and travel frequently on the rest. She is now retired, living comfortably in a $175,000 house for which she paid cash, despite never having netted more than $25,000 per year in her life. If she had spent her money on material goods instead, she would not have been able to pursue her hobby, and she very likely would have had to work more years to secure her future.
You are probably surrounded by people quietly bucking the mainstream, living well on less and being kinder to the planet in the process. If enough of us join them, we can secure a comfortable future for ourselves and many more generations going forward.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Off-Grid Lessons for an On-Grid Life

The following is a guest blog post I contributed to raisingthemgreen.com, a website devoted to helping to raise eco-conscious children.
I learned a lot from my year of living off the grid, but I learned even more from moving back to the mainstream. These days, on-grid with a husband, a two-year-old, and another baby on the way, I am faced with the same challenges as nearly all moms in America – most notably a severe lack of the free time I took for granted in Taos.
The question I ask myself most is how do I keep my commitment to green living when bombarded by ads for the copious convenience products – bad for the bank account, bad for the environment – that I can easily convince myself I need? More importantly, how can I teach my children the conservation lessons I learned when living off the grid?
I finally realized that the best thing any of us can do for our children is be a good example. Children learn from mimicking their role models, the most important of whom is their parents. Simply by continuing the low-impact-living habits I developed off the grid, I can teach my daughter and her sibling how to cherish the earth.
Sarah already knows to turn off the light when she leaves the room. She also knows to run water from the tap in a thin trickle, not full-blast, when washing her hands. When she is old enough to understand, we will articulate some more guidelines for other things she observes us putting into practice: only run the washing machine and dishwasher when they are full; wear your clothes more than once before declaring them dirty; recycle rather than discard; eat fresh food with a minimum of packaging; don’t go shopping unless you feel a pressing need for something, and stick to your list once you are in the store; play outside more and keep the TV off.
With the exception of the last one, the idea is to use fewer of the earth’s resources as a whole, rather than making a drastic change in any one area of our lives. But the last suggestion offers some important insight for keeping your ecological footprint to a minimum.
Television panders to our desire to buy things we don’t need. Unnecessary purchases not only deplete our bank balances, but they also have an environmental price tag. That’s because everything comes from the earth: every single item in Toys ‘R’ Us and Baby Gap began its life as part of the planet. Every time you make a purchase, you are consuming the raw materials that were extracted from the earth (sometimes at great environmental cost, such as habitat destruction) plus the energy it took to manufacture the item and transport it to the store where you bought it.
But when you turn the TV off, you cease to be influenced by the ads. You also remove yourself from the pressure to keep up with the fictional Joneses who inhabit your favorite shows. And when you send your kids outside to play instead (and possibly join them), you help instill in them a love for the natural world in all its wonder. There is no finer gift you can give them than that.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What Hath Man Wrought?

Starting in 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first people to summit Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain was on its way to becoming the world’s highest garbage dump. Since that time, over four thousand climbers have followed, leaving behind fifty tons of trash, including empty oxygen bottles, discarded gear, wreckage of a helicopter, human waste, and an estimated 120 corpses. In the thin, dry air and freezing
temperatures, garbage simply does not decompose. To compound the problem, climate change is causing the glaciers to recede, uncovering trash from Hillary’s time that had been buried under the snow. It is ironic and tragic that in this remote region of the earth, inaccessible except to a miniscule fraction of the world’s population, trash has become a pressing problem. On both the Nepalese and Tibetan sides, there are ongoing annual expeditions whose goal is to remove the refuse left behind by climbers and trekkers. The Nepalese government recently required a substantial deposit in addition to climbing fees in order to compel tourists to pack out what they pack in so that the mountain sacred to the local people can remain a pristine symbol of the wonder that is the natural world.
What hath God wrought? The highest mountain in the world. What hath man wrought? The world’s highest garbage dump.
To see what kind of mess foreign trekkers and climbers have made of Mount Everest, go to extremeeverest.wordpress.com , the blog of one of the cleanup missions. On a related note, the late Sir Edmund Hillary set up the Himalayan Trust, a charity that benefits the Sherpas of Nepal. The trust’s website is www.himalayantrust.co.uk

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Thrifty Green Summer

In my previous, child-free life, summer was a time for intense playing. Maybe a trip overseas or across the country to a beach somewhere; definitely out of town every weekend. But now that we have to buy three airplane tickets and flying has become such a hassle, we are looking for other options. Besides, what is good for the bank account is good for the planet – in this case lessening the demand for jet fuel. We make a lot of decisions based on saving money, and it makes me feel good that they usually translate into conserving the earth’s resources as well.
This year I knew that if I wanted to feel good in the fall about How I Spent My Summer Vacation, I had to do some creative thinking up front. Whatever I came up with also had to address the question, “What is summer vacation for?”
The answer seems obvious: to decompress from the stress of daily living in the modern world. And if that’s the case, then it really doesn’t make sense to spend money we don’t have so we can stand in long security lines with a toddler, followed by desperately trying to get her to stay seated for several hours, only to disrupt her sleep schedule for a week before we fly home. It’s hardly an unstressful scenario.
What does make sense is coming up with low-cost, low-impact, low-stress ideas based on the Ten Essentials from last week’s post. You can do all of the following by staying at home, either on a week-long “staycation” or on a regular basis throughout the whole summer. Plus you will reap rewards far beyond those of a typical vacation, some that will stay with you for a long time.
  • Develop a deeper connection to your natural surroundings. Take time to explore the parks, trails, waterways, and other undeveloped spaces where you live. You can do this by hiking, biking, picnicking, fishing, boating, bird watching, gardening, walking your dog, stargazing, camping, or anything else that interests you that can be done outdoors.
  • Make creating or strengthening your spiritual practice the focus of your vacation. If you already go to church, become more involved. If you don’t go, start. If you prefer to meditate, chant, pray quietly by yourself, or read spiritual texts, make it a daily ritual. Maybe do some of it outside in Nature’s cathedrals.
  • Use your vacation to show the people you love how much they mean to you. Call your grandparents. Take an interest in your children’s hobbies. Do something special for your spouse. Make yourself available to your friends. We all seem to get caught up in our busy lives: this summer slow down enough to appreciate all the people in your life who mean something to you.
  • Ask yourself what hobby you have always wanted to pursue but have never had time for; then make time over the summer. Take an art class, join a singing group, learn to dance, make a quilt, recite your poetry at open mike night, audition for a play, build a birdhouse, take up tai chi, develop your cooking skills, try your hand at canoeing. Take a class or find other people with a similar interest. Whatever you choose to do, if you do it regularly for your vacation or the whole summer, it may become a habit you will continue afterward, or it may even turn into a new career.
  • Grow some of your own food. Plant a garden, some container pots of tomatoes, or herbs on your windowsill. Learn how to keep bees or raise chickens. Or find the closest farmer’s market and buy fresh, wholesome food there every week. This is another way to deepen your connection to the earth, and you will eat more healthfully as well.
  • Spend your vacation at home with no plans at all. It’s the ultimate low-stress, no-cost, environmentally-friendly option of all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Ten Essentials

According to the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, no one should venture into the backcountry without the “ten essentials.” These are the ten things you absolutely need to stay alive: map, compass, sun protection, extra food and water, extra clothes, headlamp or flashlight, first aid kit, firestarter, matches, and a knife. Consider the list for a minute – the ten essentials will provide you with a minimum of knowledge of your whereabouts, nourishment, warmth, and health.
Notice what it lacks: electricity, plumbing, central heat, television, radio, telephones, video games, iPods/iPads/iAnything, movies, cars, electronic or other gadgets, toys, most material possessions, anything trendy or fashionable, and all the comforts of home.
I have spent a lot of time in the backcountry and have often preferred my experience there to my experience at home. It occurred to me recently that my domestic experience might be lacking a few essentials or overcompensating with stuff I don’t really need. So I have come up with a list of my own: the ten essentials for a fulfilling life in modern America, based loosely on the mountaineering list with a couple of extra categories. Virtually none of the list items has a cost, either financial or environmental. And yet if you possess them all, you can call yourself rich.
         1.     A connection to the earth
         2.     A spiritual practice
         3.     Work that you enjoy
         4.     A creative outlet
         5.     Wholesome food
         6.     Clean water
         7.     Sociable companionship
         8.     Comfortable shelter
         9.     Unstructured time
      10.     Love