Friday, February 26, 2010

Is Moderation More Difficult than Deprivation?

The title of this post may at first seem ridiculous. How can moderation ever be more difficult than deprivation?

But I submit to you that we Americans as a society have a hard time with moderation.

We understand how to give things up entirely. We know how to diet. We know how to save money when we get laid off. We get that the best way to get over an addiction is to abstain entirely.

But when we've lost the weight or get a new high paying job, we become unsure of how to find balance.

I can have a box of chocolates next to me for a month and I will not eat a single chocolate. If I open the box to eat just one, suddenly the box disappears in two days. It's easier to give up chocolate because after a while, you forget how much you liked it. You adjust to a chocolate-free life. But eating just one chocolate a day? Requires a level of will-power that I'm not sure I have.

When I was an eco-nut, life was easier in a way. My life was defined by the environment and my environmental choices. I gave up heat. I gave up convenient frozen dinners. I gave up air conditioning. I gave up shopping.

And gradually, that just became my life. I forgot what life was like with air con. I forgot how convenient it was to just pick up a Trader Joe's salad.

Now I'm trying to find middle ground, and yet I often worry that I'm sliding too far back. I turn on the space heater, fully intending to turn it off in twenty minutes, and then ... I don't. Because it's so lovely and warm and I LOVE HEAT. I plan to cook, but then the conference call that was supposed to last twenty minutes lasts for an hour, and I've run out of cumin, and it's raining outside.

In a way it would be easier for me to say, you know what? Screw it? I can't find moderation, so I better just abstain. But I'm not sure that's the better answer. The healthier answer. The sustainable answer.

In the comments of the post on dieting that I linked to above, one woman talked about how she craves sugar. And how she was wondering if she could have cake to celebrate her PhD or if, knowing her cravings, she should forgo the cake. And another commenter pointed out that a life in which one cannot have cake to celebrate one's Ph effin D is a little sad.

And yet, somehow, cake in moderation is more difficult to achieve than it should be.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Indecisive Grocery Shopper

I always wonder whether the clerks at the checkout stand are judging my grocery selections and perhaps secretly wondering what my criteria are when buying groceries.

The truth is, I have no real criteria.

Okay, that's not true. Given the choice, I will almost always choose organic. Unless I decide to choose local. Or fair-trade. Or plastic-less. Or high fiber. Or delicious. Or low-fat. Or less expensive.

I think most people would agree, the grocery store is a daunting place for us eco-types. I can spend ten minutes easily staring at the cheeses trying to decide if I should go for the local California cheese that's non-organic but is low fat, or the decidedly non-local European cheese that is also organic but also expensive.

In a perfect world, I'd buy all organic, local, groceries and I'd only shop the perimeter of the grocery store or I wouldn't even be at a grocery store because I'd only shop at food co-ops and farmers' markets.

Sadly, the reality is that I spend a lot of time in Whole Paycheck instead. Which isn't the worst place to shop for groceries, but also isn't the best place, either.

So, I'm curious. Does everyone else decide on the fly what to buy organic versus local versus plastic-free versus choose your own adventure? Or do some of you have actual systems and priorities?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

No Longer Over-Ambitious and Challengicious

For a couple years now, the tag-line under the title of my blog has read "over-ambitious and challengicious." I like the tag. It's cute, it's funny, it's pithy, but it no longer describes this blog.

At the time that I started using the tag, I was in the early stages of my eco-journey. I constantly was challenging myself to do more, new things. To cut my carbon footprint lower, lower, lower! I was going without heat, not buying stuff, and even making my own butter.

But that level of eco-intensity was unsustainable, for me, anyway. The truth is, I can go nearly freegan for a month, but over the long term, things get much more difficult. Looking over my past several blog entries, a constant theme has emerged: balance. How do we balance our environmental concerns while still living the rest of our lives?

So from now on, that's what this blog is going to mainly focus on. There will still be other things here and there. I'm sure I'll get irritated about some policy proposal and write a long-winded post. There will still be book reviews and the occasional rant. But the thrust of the blog is going to focus on what it means to truly live the sustainable life.

I will continue to be honest with you about what's been working for me long-term and what hasn't. What's easy and what's not. Where I'm slipping and where I'm succeeding. And I'll count on you, dear readers, to ensure that I don't slide too far back. Balance is one thing, but it's no excuse to just get lazy.

So, join me on my continued ride as I try and figure out how to balance eco-awareness with my friends, family, work, and play. Cheer me on, commiserate with me, and call me on my s**t.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What's The Appropriate Amount of Food Packaging?

Most of us in the eco-world probably agree that in an ideal world we'd all eat a mostly local, organic diet of food we bought at a farmers' market and cooked ourselves. We'd thriftily manage our food waste through careful meal planning, and would use leftover almost-bad veggies in a nice no-waste stew once a week. The little waste that was unusable or unavoidable would go in our compost piles or be fed to our pet chickens.

Unfortunately, the reality for many of us eco-bloggers and the majority of Americans is quite different. As someone who has struggled through Crunchy Chicken's No Waste Challenge (sign up now!) several times, I can attest that it is HARD not to waste food.

Which is what makes this article today in the Freakonomics blog so interesting. In it, James McWilliams points out that though many of us disparage food packaging, it does have the effect of increasing shelf life of food. As a result, food packaging might decrease food waste.

I know it's not super popular to be pro-food packaging in the eco-blogosphere, but I couldn't help nodding along when reading McWilliams' post. Last year, I subscribed to a CSA for a few months and I found that I wasted a LOT of food. It wasn't just that it was too much food for one person (which it was) or that I was too lazy to cook much (I was.) Sometimes, the food would arrive at my door almost spoiled. I also found that oftentimes, unless I processed the food right away, it would go bad.

I've come to realize that I personally need to take short cuts in order to cook more, eat more fruits and veggies, and waste less. For instance, I will often put off washing and peeling my farmers' market bought carrots. The carrots will go bad, and I'll have to dump them in the trash. On the other hand, if I buy organic baby carrots, I'll probably eat the whole bag in a few days. Similarly, the resealable bags of baby spinach are my friends.

Now, there still is an inordinate amount of food packaging waste out there. I still fail to see why bananas require plastic wrap. And though I have occasionally bought the Trader Joe's packaged cut apples, I recognize that the inability to cut your own apples is an extraordinary form of laziness.

But I think we all need to assess (as always) what the right balance is in our lives. If food packaging keeps us from wasting food, it might not be the evil bogeyman that many environmentalists believe it to be. I suspect Beth is going to kill me for suggesting this, but if the waste trade-off is either the plastic bag for a bag of pre-washed lettuce, or an entire head of lettuce that rotted before you got to eating it, I would probably say to go with the bag of lettuce. (To be clear, the obvious best solution is to buy a head of lettuce and then not waste it. I'm not denying that. I'm just arguing that that's not always what actually HAPPENS despite our best intentions.)

My point, aside from antagonizing everybody, is that the reality is that Americans waste a lot of food. Thus, rather than trying to achieve an idealized unpackaged world that may be unrealistic for the average consumer, we need to take a hard look and differentiate between frivolous packaging and packaging that might actually lead to less overall waste.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Adventures on SF Muni

I've mentioned before that I really kinda totally hate the bus. I go to great lengths to avoid the bus. In New York, I would walk across town rather than take the crosstown bus. In London, which actually has awesome buses, I would transfer tubes three times rather than take the bus.

One time, I famously forced Honda to walk on the narrow shoulder of a highway amidst broken bottles and cigarette butts because I didn't want to take the bus. (Halfway down the road, we gave up and called a cab to come and rescue us.)

I really hate the bus. I hate waiting for the bus, I hate being on the bus, I hate the sudden stops on the bus that make me fall over. I will frequently walk two miles rather than take the bus.

But I also don't have a car, and sometimes the bus is the best possible option.

So, the other day, I was in San Francisco, and I had to get to a panel discussion, and I had to take the bus. And, of course, I was pressed for time, so the bus was late. First ten minutes late. Then twenty minutes late. Then a full half hour late.

And my irritation at the budget strapped SF Muni system and the bus as mode of transportation grew and grew.

Eventually, the bus arrived, I made it to the panel and all was well.

Until I had to go home.

It was dark, and there weren't a lot of people around, and I did not feel like waiting half an hour for a bus. So I decided to call Muni and find out when the next bus would be arriving. (By the way, I totally, totally love this feature of Muni. I love that you can CALL and get to a customer service rep who will tell you when the next bus will be arriving.) So, I dialed up, got through to my lovely Muni rep and asked her when my bus would be arriving.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, it looks like that bus is no longer operating for the night."

"Oh. Um. Okay. So ... how do I get back to [SF neighborhood]."

"Well, you could take the X bus. In fact, it should be pulling up any minute now. And then, from there, you can transfer to the Y."

"Any second now? Wait, where?"

And then, I had an, "Oh crap," moment where I saw said bus. That I was just about to miss.

So I ran over to the bus and literally FLAGGED it down.

Now, though I hate the bus, I have, in fact, ridden the bus in a number of different cities and countries. However, I have never flagged a bus down like it was a taxicab. Usually, flagging buses does not work. But in San Francisco, it apparently does.

"Where are you going?!" asked the flummoxed bus driver.

"Um, I'm going to [Neighborhood]."

"You need the W bus for that."

"I know, but it's stopped running for the night."

"Really? You sure?"

"Yes, I called Muni and asked."

"Aight then. Well, I tell you what. I thought you was crazy, I did! But you can take this bus and transfer to the V and then you can take the V. Okay?"

"Okay, thank you."

"Aight, that's fine. I thought you was crazy! Now go sit down and I'll tell you where to get off."

So I did. And he did.

And I still kinda hate the bus, but I think I might love SF Muni. Because after flagging the bus down like a crazy person, the driver was nice enough to not only direct me to exactly where I needed to go. Not only that, but when he saw me scrounging in my bag for the remaining twenty cents of fare (somehow I'm still carrying loads of British and European change in my purse that gets mixed in with the American coins), he just waved me away and let it go.

But that might be because he still thought I was crazy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Sustainable Life

There has been quite the response to my post, "Is Living Sustainably Unsustainable?" If you haven't read the comments in that post yet, I'd encourage you to do so. The comments, as well as subsequent posts by Jess, Green Bean, Melinda, and Chile suggest that finding balance is something we all struggle with.

I have remarked on this before, but it's really easy to assume that everyone else in the eco-blogosphere is always perfect. That no one else slips up. That all the other bloggers are local food eating, recycling, never driving maniacs.

But having met and talked to several bloggers personally, I've realized that that's not the case.

None of us are perfect. All of us mess up. And all of us consciously decide, "You know what? Here's my limit. I'm just not going to attempt X."


The other day, I got to see Michael Pollan speak. (It's rather hilarious ... going to a Michael Pollan lecture in the Bay Area is kind of like going to a rock concert in atmosphere.)

One of the first things I noticed was that Michael Pollan of all people was drinking bottled water. "Et tu, Michael Pollan?" I thought, feeling incredibly smug and judgey. Here was Michael Pollan, the man who tells America how to eat, drinking some damn bottled water. Doesn't he know better?!!!!

And then I snapped out of it. Yes, he probably does know better. In fact, he probably avoids bottled water as much as possible just like the rest of us. But he probably also accepts that when he gives lectures, sometimes he'll be provided with a bottle of water instead of a glass of tap water. And when that happens, instead of eco-divaing out, he just drinks from the damn bottle.

Later that evening, he told a story about being accosted in the grocery store in Berkeley for having a box of Froot Loops or something of the like in his cart. (For the record, it was his son's weekend cereal.) The poor man literally cannot grocery shop without being judged.

And that's when it hit me. In order to find the Sweet Spot of Sustainable Living, we must put aside the judging. Judging of others. Judging of ourselves. Judging of our significant others.

Instead, we need to open ourselves up to experiment, to fail, to backtrack, to succeed, to grow, and to be human.

Pollan says, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." To that I add, "Live sustainably. Do your best. And enjoy life."