Friday, December 21

The problem with (most) used bookstores

One piece of reducing our waste is to use things more than once after they are produced. This is an ancient tradition, but one that was branded as “old-fashioned” during the rise of the consumer/convenience culture of the 1950's and beyond. It is time to bring it back. But if we are going to present “being green” as a sustainable, positive live choice, we have to keep the convenience part.

I go to the bookstore or library in one of two modes: Browse mode or Get mode. In Browse mode, I'm looking for a good book in an approximate area. In Get mode, I know what book or author I'm after and I want a very short experience of locating that book. I may browse after, but if I don't get my book, I am very likely to leave without browsing. That's me acting on convenience. I want what I want pretty close to now.
The problem with most used bookstores is they are set up exclusively for browsing. They are more like junkyards than hardware stores. Books are chunked into rough areas and if I'm okay with any good sci-fi or drawing book, I'll probably find something. But if I'm looking for The Dancing Wu Li Masters or to replace my copy of Creating Affluence which has disappeared, I'm either going to have to buy new or order it on-line and wait.

I think there are a couple of models for used bookstores that could benefit more book stores, but also other purveyors of used stuff:

  • Treat used books (stuff) like new books. At Powell's, you can look up a book, find the number and then go to the shelf and pick new or used. My local indie bookstore also does this, and I think it's brilliant. I love being able to plan a trip there knowing I will be able to find a copy of the book I want.

  • Specialize. Comic book stores do this. They pick a genre and stock used and new books in that area. This increases the chances of success while browsing.

I have two used bookstores in biking distance. Both of them have really random assortments of stuff. Right now, I drive by the big one and hear myself thinking, “Oh! They're open. I should go look. Wait, is there anything I want right now? I do want that book by Deepak Chopra... what are the chances I can find it there? Not very good. Oh well. I can go home and read the one I have.” If the two stores worked out a trade where the small one had biographies and spiritual books, and the big one had the great cooking an literature and gardening sections, I'd visit both of them more often.

Another piece of the used book puzzle is that at some point books really are outdated. The number of 1970's mass-market books on redecorating vastly outweigh the demand. So, what do you do with them? I asked the guy behind the counter at one of the stores and he admitted, sadly, that part of his job means throwing books away. I think that anytime you have to send something to the dump, there's a potential innovation there. You can't recycle mass market books because the paper pulp used is so low quality that it won't withstand another cycle. So my thought is to round 'em up and use them in biomass heaters. Any other ideas?

Tuesday, December 11

A Practical Christmas

Christopher Kimball's "Letter From Vermont" for December landed in my inbox today. In it he writes:

Christmas in Vermont is, if nothing else, practical. Back in the 1960s, Marie Briggs, the baker, was up before dawn 364 days a year to cook for the farmhands. On Christmas Day, however, she got dressed up (still wearing sensible black shoes and with her hair in a bun) and was taken out to dinner by Floyd and Junior Bentley. That was her Christmas present. John, who used to live just across the valley from us, would bring over a gallon jug of homemade dandelion wine around the holidays. His wife, Lou, still brings over a box of homemade pizzelle, lightly sprinkled with confectioners' sugar and scented with anise. I bake molasses cookies for Charlie Bentley, and warm socks, gloves, hunting pants, Sorel boots, riding chaps, Georgia fatwood, and wool vests are the gifts of choice. An inline black powder rifle or a Bushnell scope would be the gift of a lifetime.

This, I think is the kind of Christmas my maternal grandparents knew. The Christmases I had with my parents were full of playing with toys and eachother and trying on new pajamas and ignoring the socks and underwear that found its way under the tree.

I appreciate now the way my parents tried to blend the practical with the indulgent. The orange in my stocking on Christmas morning was always a chance for my mom to tell the stories about when oranges were seasonal and expensive and very special, so an orange in the stocking was a gift, and not just filler. The Reese's peanut butter cups were my dad's favorite candy.

When I do Christmas with the family now, I am just amazed at what my nieces and nephews go through. They get indulgent presents from everyone, because it's so easy to provide oranges and bananas and underwear throughout the year. And these kids try to delight in every single present, and we adults try not to place too much importance on their expressions when they open them, but eventually they're just exhausted. All they wanted to do was play with the alphabet cards in their stocking and here we are trying to push through the gift giving so we can get on to food.

I think this is a metaphor for what it might mean to transition to a post-carbon economy. Bananas and oranges will be special again. Underwear will be more expensive. There will be fewer toys on Christmas morning and in the rest of our lives, but there might also be more time for relaxing with friends and family and less overall exhaustion.

Monday, December 10

Kyoto Volunteer

As I surf the web for blogs I like, I get caught up in trying to categorize myself. I'm not a strict buy nothing new crowd, but I take inspiration from them. I still drive, but I've cut my gas use in half and continue to look for further ways to reduce my driving. I do carbon offset and buy green energy, but I don't think those are a total solution. I re-make things and fix things and hang out with friends and work on my house. I live in a big-ish townhouse that was built before I graduated from high school and I try to share it with people so all of us have a lower house-footprint, but I'm not really a small-houser.

So, if I had to draw a category that fit me and could include others, I'd say I'm a Kyoto volunteer. I'm trying to live as if the US had signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol. That's a blend of being a conscious consumer and politically active.

Since the US hasn't signed the Protocol and the federal government is in a place of studiously avoiding making concrete recommendations, I go north for some guidance. The David Suzuki Foundation is one of my favorite sites to go to when I'm looking at what to work on next.

The work itself is boring. Last week I took a can of expanding foam around the exterior walls of my basement. I didn't take temp readings before and after, but all the regular users of my basement report and improvement.

I also finally figured out what to do to reduce the drafts off my patio doors. The goal was to include the aluminum frame in the sealing and to still be able to let the dog and people out the door at daily intervals, while allowing to sunlight to come in. If the frame of the door was cladded and transferred less heat outside, I would have put bubble wrap on the glass. If I didn't need the sunshine or to be able to open it, I would have covered it with styrofoam insulation. If I didn't need the morning light to fight my SAD, I would have put up a window quilt. But on Small Space, Big Style last week, one of the architects was pointing out his use of thick gauge plastic sheeting as a room divider. I realized that's the stuff restaurants use to make a pass-through divider to freezers. That gave me the idea of buying the heaviest clear shower curtain I could find. I hung it taut over the patio door with two Hercules hooks and weighted the bottom down with phone books. I got a 15 degree difference from next to the door to inside the plastic sheet, which is helpful when it's 23 degrees outside!

So, I take some pride in the boring little stuff that may or may not make a difference in my heating bill. But I know that cutting down on gas use, home heating, and home electrical, while increasing the number of people what I do serves, then I am making advances in cutting my carbon emissions.

Saturday, December 8

The problem with nagging people about "Stuff"

A couple of days ago, No Impact Man posted a link to this video on "The Story of Stuff". It's an entertaining video, but a few hours later I was reminded of how frustratingly general advice can be ignored. I was stuck in traffic and idling behind a huge SUV that sported a bumper sticker that said "One nation has 5% of the world's people, uses 50% of the world's resources, and generates 50% of the world's waste. That nation is US."

Well, when we talk about "Stuff" in general, we leave it to people to draw their own conclusions. The general is a principle, and a rule drawn from it gets specific.

There are three ways the general "stuff" discussion can get misapplied, I think:

1. "Buy used when you can" can lead to having an excess of stuff. I used to have a friend who spent every spare dollar she had at the thrift store buying everything nice that fit her or her daughter. She always looked great, but every place she moved had to be physically large enough to house her stuff.

2. "Buy multipurpose when you do buy" can turn into a justification for cars that can fit a family of 6, the dog, stuff for a two week vacation and the power to pull a boat too. The heavier an item gets, the more it contributes to both the resource use and the waste production. So, if you're really worried about what you're doing to the world with your consumption, look to buy lighter and used.

3. "Get rid of what you don't need" can turn into an insensitivity to how you are contributing to the waste stream. Many pack rats I know are stuck because they don't know how to pass items on to a good cause, while others I know think nothing about hauling perfectly good stuff off to the dump to get it out of their sight. Borrowing from Robert Kiyosaki who writes that you have to weigh the sale of a property when you buy it, and only by doing that will you make a profit, shop with the end of the product in mind.

I have too much stuff in many ways, much of it bought new or "on a great sale" because I "might need it some day." I tied up money that could be used for people on stuff. I am using space that people could be living in to store my stuff. So I'm not a paragon of this, and I realize that any rule drawn is going to cross part of my life and I have to deal with the discomfort of that. But I really think when we entertain "rules" in our heads that we find areas where we can make change.

Monday, November 26

Found a Peanut!

Most nights, I can get to the bathroom and take care of business without a light. I have good night vision, for one, and there's a street light outside my southern facing windows for two. But every now and again... say I go to brush my teeth after working at the computer for a-while, or I bump something off the sink and onto the floor... I need a light. The fixture in the bathroom has four bulbs and that's just overkill for most of these late-night trips. I also night-lights throw too much light for normal use.

So this weekend I was delighted to find a one-led push-button light that I could put in the bathroom. It's called a Peanut and it's made by Zelco, makers of all sorts of other nifty lamp items. I spent about $20 to get three lights, and one of them lights up my bathroom just fine. I brushed my teeth last night by the light of a Peanut!

Tuesday, November 20

Note: I meant to put this up yesterday, but had a keyboard short, a software malfunction, and an internet outage. Makes you appreciate the days when things just work. ;-)

I've started writing on along with my posts here. Gather is a social networking site started by American Public Media (distributors of such fine radio programs as Marketplace, The Splendid Table, and A Prairie Home companion). You join the site as an individual and then you can go to groups to watch or participate in discussions. By joining groups, you can post articles (and photos and video) to the general conversation.

I ended up on the Gather site because it's where the future discussion on the issues raised by Marketplace's "Consumed" series is taking place. I signed on because in addition to some really good sustainability information, there's a good community vibe. I feel like it's a more social blogging environment.

I'm also getting to post about some of my other interest.

If you want to know more, click on the orange Gather button on the right. I'm

Friday, November 16

Post-Carbon Jobs

I talked about some of the thoughts my unemployment is triggering here, more today. So much of our economy is about buying and selling stuff! We don't make as much of the stuff in the US today, instead moving those jobs to places where labor is cheaper. We know we're over-buying. How many of the decorating shows on cable really start with going through and making sure only the stuff you need is in your house?

Imagine then, it's some period in the future and for some set of reasons, peak oil, the US signing on to Kyoto or something even more aggressive, scads of people walk away from retail jobs and buying and instead engage in a new economy.

What might that economy be based on?

A short-term answer might be found in Al Gore's call in September for "...a global Marshall plan to make the creation of jobs around the reduction of carbon the central principle ..." ( 9/27/2007) So that's a whole bunch of people who are at work blowing insulation into walls, insulating basements, replacing windows, and installing tankless waterheaters. And maybe a whole bunch of people administering programs where the energy saving from those efforts goes to pay for them. Also people installing more solar, and perhaps building trades that make additions to buildings like shades and overhangs.

But let's accept that while many Americans would love to have stable blue-collar jobs that paid a living wage and they're willing to do physical labor for it, there's another set of folks who won't.

So a second group of folks is available to re-populate grocery stores. Having more hands might make it economical to have grocery store become a kind of farmer's market... where the bulk of items sold are locally produced and are shelved with a few staples that are mass-produced. We might still do our own checking out, but imagine buying bags of in-store ground wheat.

A third group of people might be enabled to make a living doing creative work like performing music live, innovations in theater, busking, small scale publishing and things like that.

Judging by Gore's accepting a position with the Venture Capital firm Kleiner Perkins, my thoughts are only scratching the surface. What do you think a post-carbon economy would look like?

Thursday, November 15


American Public Radio's "Marketplace" program has an ongoing series on Consumerism called "Consumed". The landing page for the series is here. When I first heard the promo spot for the series, I hoped they'd be looking more at what our world might look like if retail purchasing was not the engine for our economy, but they may get there yet.

As it is, the articles on trash, second-hand economies, the impacts of transport, and ways to recommend lifestyle changes are interesting and come from a variety of voices. Poke around if you've got some time to spare.

Wednesday, November 14

Taking the Ego out of Driving: Part 1

One of the great problems of the US trying to comply with Kyoto is that it would require getting Americans out of their cars. Apparently this is an even more deadly rail of US politics than messing with Medicare. Why? I've come to believe it's because our egos are tangled up with driving... what we drive, how we drive, what other people see when they see us in our cars, the whole shebang.

How does this ego-car fusion take place? I think part of it is that we have constructed the car so that the driver occupies the same place in the car that the eyes occupy in our skulls. We have created robots to command and control (insert evil laugh).

I think another part of it is the abundance of choice. In a marketplace that is saturated with options that satisfy our needs... cars that will carry two, four, six, or eight people; cars that will allow us to carry feed to farm animals and tools to our homes and workplaces; we have the option to make choices based on want. So we buy cars that reflect our self-image. Cars that are beefy. Cars that are refined. Cars that are beautiful. Cars that are zippy.

The challenge, then, is to encourage car change without directly threatening this egoic connection. The Prius and the Smart Car do this by appealing to self-images that say, "I am smart and efficient." "I am lean and agile." That's a start. My local transportation district runs adds suggesting that riding the bus means you can arrive at work relaxed. That's a start, but it doesn't address that for many of us, riding the bus means remembering times in our lives when we were broke. So it evokes a feeling of being out of control. Especially when contrasted to the high-control experience of driving your own car where you want.

There is, however, a public transportation experience that is nearly universersally enjoyed, even with the hassles of being on someone elses schedule and not getting to be in the brain box... it's flying. Sure, lots of people claim to hate flying, but most of us fundamentally do enjoy it or else we would avoid taking trips that meant we had to fly. And we don't.

So, what is it that sets flying apart from riding the bus? Comfortable secure seats. A cabin that's cleaned thoroughly once a day. Privacy. Getting to the destination faster instead of more slowly. Clean, sheltered, safe places to wait.

There's still some ego involved in flying. You can buy more privacy, more comfort, and better food to distinguish yourself from others. But all air flight involves having people poke through your stuff so you can let someone else fling you through the air at 500 miles an hour.

In terms of getting people out of their cars, air travel has been a remarkable success, and perhaps it offers some suggestions for other applications.

Tuesday, November 13

Doing a Carbon Footprint Analysis

Soon after I was laid-off, a friend of mine asked me to do a carbon footprint analysis on her company's product for the marketing department. It was an interesting project and one I jumped on.

Poking around the web for the current standards of what is and what is not included, I discovered their request showed up in my in-box days after the very first Carbon Footprint for Consumer Products Conference had taken place. (Info on the 2008 conference here.) If folks like Starbucks are meeting to define what the carbon footprint of a consumer product is defined as, what chance do I have? I have the chance to define my scope narrowly and find what I can find on it.

I started by doing a system analysis of the problem. A system analysis is a way of figuring out which intersection of threads you want to confine yourself to in a web. If I generated a figure that reported the amount of CO2 emitted in manufacturing the product and delivering it to the customer, that would be an interesting number, but ultimately pointless. This is a unique product that is bought because of what it delivers, not because it is the best of a set of similar products. (And because it is a unique product, I am going to try to avoid giving any specifically identifiable information about it.)

Additionally, it isn't much of a stretch to say that any product's carbon footprint is directly related to i's weight. We can see that in the formulas shipping companies use for products. If it weighs more, it uses more fuel to move, and therefore releases more carbon dioxide.

So I decided the best thing to look at was the carbon released to power the product over its lifetime and to compare that to the carbon released to replace the benefit of the product over its lifetime. Imagine a counter-top cappuccino machine. I decided that since the same amount of coffee is going to travel similar distances to get to your mouth, I should look at the energy consumed by the machines. So I compared the carbon in making the electricity to run our product to the carbon released by going to the store for a similar amount.

Another way of phrasing my results looks like this: Is it better to run a 60 watt light bulb for 18 hours every day or to go to the store twice a week to pick up an item shipped from 1500 miles away?

It turns out that shipping food is very efficient. But getting to the store is not. My estimates were based on finding out the fuel costs of running a refrigerated semi-truck and how many of these items would be shipped in a container, and then comparing that to the average fuel economy of a car sold in the US in 2006 (21: EPA 2006 Fuel Economy Trends Report), and figured a round-trip to the store as 3 miles. To convert a gallon of gas to lbs of CO2, I used the Department of Energy's conversion factor of 19.554 lbs of CO2 released in burning a gallon of gas.

For the home-based part of the equation, I took the watts consumed by the product and multiplied that into daily, monthly, and lifetime figures. I used the EPA's figure of 1.55 lbs of CO2 released per kilowatt hour to calculate the energy.

Let's use these numbers to analyze working at home under a halogen light verses driving to a coffee shop or office where the lights would be on either way.

If you drive a standard car 3 miles, that's 1/7th of a gallon of gas. 19.564/7 = 2.79 lbs of carbon. A halogen desk lamp uses 300 watts, so it takes 3.3 hours to use one kilowatt hour. One kilowatt hour off the US grid* results in 1.55 lbs of carbon. So driving your car a tiny three miles will use produce as much carbon dioxide as staying at home with your lamp for nearly 7 hours.

But if you were to walk or ride a bike that 1.5 miles out and back, you get a double savings. Nearly 3 lbs. of carbon dioxide you didn't consume which you might "normally" have.

What could you "buy" with that 3lbs? 142 hours of using a 14 watt florescent bulb. 2 hours of cooking food in a GE convenction microwave oven. 15 hours of watching a 32" HD LED television. Or since we don't have a way to sequester surplus CO2 yet, maybe the life of a migrating bird.

*Whether you buy wind power or not, the power you use comes out of a reservoir of electricity generated by a number of means. You contribute more wind power to the total than might otherwise exist, but any electricity you use comes from all the streams if it comes from the grid. If you're generating your own power, you already know better than to use the $12 halogen lamp from the big box store. ;-)

Monday, November 12

Why houses don't use the information we already have

I love fireplaces. I know people who hate them, but I love them. I have fond childhood memories of getting to build fires and light them any time I wanted to at a certain neighbor's house, so there's a sense of connectedness and competency that comes from seeing one. Another part is the coziness that the smell of pine smoke hanging in the winter air evokes. I've never had to depend on a fireplace for heat, so it's recreational. And I make fires so rarely that I just buy pre-chopped wood, so there isn't work associated with it.

My childhood home had a fireplace chimney on the roof, but the space the fireplace would have been in under it was a sun room. Someone long before my parents bought the house took out the fireplace. I always wondered about this, and vowed that I'd never do that.

Well, I have a fireplace now, and I'm seriously thinking about doing exactly that. It is the fireplace that makes my living room cold.

First, there there the masonry which conducts my heat outside. Second there is a pipe that allows air warmed through the glass doors to move upward toward the sky. Third, and most frustratingly, the fireplace is located in a bump-out in an external wall and the bumpout is capped above ground. So this conduit for the warm air in my house is exposed to the elements on 5 out of six sides. Finally, the cap on the bottom on my bumpout is rough plywood. And when I knock on it, I can hear the firebox echoing. So it is an uninsulated exposed masonry extension of my living room. I feel like my house is mooning the world.

When I was house shopping I found myself wondering over and over, "With 6,000 years of building experience, why do we still do things like this?" My house was the first I'd seen that I didn't have that reaction too... all the windows are double-paned, the roof space is insulated, I share a wall with neighbors for better use of heating resources, the roof lines and decks are positioned to provide shelter from the summer sun but access for the winter sun, and the floors are partitioned into modest-sized rooms that open onto shared areas.

Then there's this darn chimney. So why do we do things like this?

The simple answer is it's the market. I want the best house for the money I have to spend, and I'm more likely to respond to the visible things inside -- the fireplace -- than the care taken in construction. If I wanted to buy a house this size with a pre-insulated basement, insulation in the external walls, an efficient fireplace, great window placement, and energy star appliances, they're available just up the street... for a mere doubling of the cost. If I want all that, and my current house payment, I'd have a condo in a transitional urban neighborhood.

This, of course, is also the reason why there are so many more houses like mine than there are like the houses up the street.

Friday, November 9

What's "A Lot"?

My friend Monkey and I've been chatting in the comments section of my September Quote of the Day about what the "a lot" in the quote means. The quote comes from a forthcoming book Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, by David J.C. MacKay as noted in this post.

MacKay is a Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Physics Department at the University of Cambridge and the gist of his book is to take known sources of sustainable energy, estimate their production at full implementation, and to compare that to current energy use. The result is that for Britons there is some cutting back on electrical consumption to be done before they get under the sustainable threshold (no carbon-emitting sources of electricity). There's a much bigger change required if they are also to avoid nuclear sources.

The quote I lifted was MacKay's justification for setting a threshold of a 10% reduction in energy consumption for the efficiency measure to make his list of things Great Britain needs to focus their political will on. His contrasting point was that there's a massive marketing campaign focused on getting people to unplug wall chargers when they're not being used. Here he compares the power draw of all the chargers he could find in his house -- 0.5 Watts -- to the total average power consumption of the average Brit -- 5000 Watts. So the action of unplugging chargers is focused on 1/10000th of the average power consumption of a Briton. If the world cut it's total power consumption by 1/100000th, we'd hardly notice the difference.

So, if we're going to advertise, if the politicians and greens are going to bloviate, let's do it about things that cut at least 1/10th of our individual and national use.

In terms of looking at what changes I can make as a home-owner and what to focus my time and money on, this yard stick bumps certain projects to the top of the list and other projects lower down. Two things that make the above 10% list are replacing my current fridge with a smaller and efficient model, and replacing my water heater with a tankless water heater. Things that are much lower on the list are hanging a wash line and unplugging the microwave when I'm not using it. These are good things, but they have much less pay back.

Perhaps Monkey is looking for an action point. If you were to go through your life and make a list of all the ways you could save energy or gas or heating oil, and one of those items turned up a 10% savings, focus on getting that done. A list of things to consider:

  • Share a ride to work once a week.
  • Hibernate or shut off your computer rather than leaving it on.
  • If your fridge is nearly empty or contains only compost and condiments, consider unplugging it.
  • Change your bulbs to CFLs. Don't use halogen lamps unless they're also working as a space heater.

Thursday, November 8

The Green Job Search

Man! Just when I'm ready to start posting again, I have the freaky experience of being laid off, again, on Tuesday, September the 11th. I have a couple months of perspective on looking, and while I'm not employed yet, I think I have enough objectivity to start to talk about it.

I've been thinking a lot about my Grandfather. When he returned home from his time in WWII, he needed a job. He found one at the nursery around the corner. It wasn't the electronics job he had the skills for, but it was *a* job, and it helped pay the mortgage. I've gotten the impression that this wasn't cable-bill sized pay the mortgage, but that he was actually covering all or most of his mortgage by a job he could walk to.

If I took the rough average of home prices around me, let's say $160,000, and figured the mortgage as .8% of 80% of that home price ($128,000 with 20% down), that's $1024 per month. Now, that figure should be 28% of one person's salary. 1024/.28 = 3657.14 per month, or $44,000 per year.

So, what are the chances that most of the people I work around could find one job in walking distance that would pay that? Pretty slim. There's the Subway, the Burger King, and the Blockbuster. The grocery store might have paid that at one time, but wages paid at grocery stores have been dropping. If I want to ride the bus a couple of miles, there are two Wal-marts, but even if you can get a full-time job there (rare), you're looking at about $23,000.

So, where does the income to buy these houses come from? From people getting in cars and driving to clusters of offices.

Over the summer, I read Blue Sky Dream which is a child's view of the creation of the suburbs. His dad worked in the aeronautics industry and his family was transferred to "The Valley of Heart's Delight" in California just as the transformation from fruit-growing farms to suburban sprawl was starting. By the time he'd graduated from high school there were no longer any fruit farms in the San Fernando valley.

Now that I am looking for work as a professional in one of those office clusters, I see up close one of the elements he talks about. Corporations are indifferent to where their employees live. On the one hand, that's a positive privacy thing. But on the other hand, since every company hires the best qualified people who submit an application during the time a posting is open -- essentially randomizing the process -- qualified person X who lives 3 miles away ends up working for The Other Guy, 25 miles away, while equally qualified person Y commutes past The Other Guy to get to our company.

I feel foolish for trying to find work within a couple miles of home. It seems impractical and hopelessly naive. But I suspect that one major piece to getting to our post-carbon world is figuring out how to have most people do exactly that.

Tuesday, September 11

Quote of the day

We all use power. So to achieve a "big difference" in total power consumption you need almost everyone to make a "big" difference in their own power consumption. If everyone does a little all that we will get is a little.

- David J.C. MacKay
Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air (page 271, 9/9/2007 version)

A book in progress at

Tuesday, July 3

Now We Know

The first Cheney-related scandal of this administration wasn't the claim that the VP's office is exempt from the records-keeping of the executive branch, but was entitled to the executive privilege of that branch; it wasn't the outing of an undercover agent; or hiring a platoon of former buddies to run a war at inflated prices. It was, in fact, the list of attendees to a meeting in the VP's office to discuss the administration's energy policy. A list that to this day is officially secret.

But a scathing investigative report in Rolling Stone, posted on June 20th, lays bare what we have long expected. Mr. Cheney sold out our nation's future, our ability to handle global warming in a sensible and measured way, to corporate interests lobbying for inaction. I can't do the report justice, but RS has a brief summary slideshow here.

So, now we know. We know that global warming is real and the Bush administration knows it and the fossil fuel industry takes it seriously enough to shut up the scientists researching it. Now we know that the past 6 years of delay haven't been a time of thoughtful analysis of the facts in order to come up with a national response. It has, in fact, been a last-ditch effort by the oil industry to get us to buy a few more gallons of gas before they ride off into the sunset.

The information here isn't new. All that's new is the acknowledgment that we aren't crazy. We really have been getting two deliberate messages on global warming. So, what do we do? One possibility is to do exactly what the industry has been working so hard to keep us from doing: buy the absolutely smallest car you need, with the highest gas mileage, and fill the seats with as many butts as you can. Exchange the freedom to impulse shop or eat for the freedom to put your money into paying off your mortgage, buying organic food, and talking with your family and friends.

Oh, and the freedom to make jokes about what people who are commuting in their SUV's are compensating for. ;-)

Monday, July 2

20 Degrees Fahrenheit

First, apologies for the unintentional vacation. I got a bit overwhelmed.

100-degree days are now here on the western edge of the prairie. The house continues to feel cool as long as it gets a chance to cool off overnight (fans) and we get it closed up by 7:30 a.m. or so. I was curious about what the difference actually is and so got a cheap thermometer last week. It turns out that my house can sustain a 20-degree difference from the outside. Which can mean that on a 95 degree day, it can actually be a bit nippy inside. But I'm not complaining. ;-)

The curious thing is that I'm also getting the opportunity to experience my HVAC-controlled building without the HVAC. (As my granddad used to say, the more complex it is, the more there is to break.) This building can't hold a cool temperature. I am sitting with the overhead lights off with one flourescent bulb on over my sholder and ambient light from north-facing windows. My computer is a laptop and my screen is an LCD. There are two other people in my suite today. Half an hour ago, the AC quit, but the fan is still running. We have gained more than 10 degrees in those 30 min and I'm guessing we're now in the mid 80's. Which makes my office, which has used HVAC most of today, hotter than my house which was air-cooled last night and had the windows and drapes closed about 7 am this morning.

This says a couple of things to me. First, we are using a lot of machinery that creates heat in the HVAC system and trying to cover it with a layer of cooling. Second, this building wasn't built to hold a 20 degree difference. Which makes very little sense. We spend a third of our lives at work, why wouldn't we make the buildings that happens in more efficient rather than less efficient than homes?

A couple of years ago, I took a day like today off of work and visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Visitor Center in Golden, Colorado. The Visitor Center is in an office building built for our conditions. And without AC, it was pleasantly cool there. To read more, click here: NREL Building Research.

Tuesday, June 26

Good Reasons to Ride the Bus

Over the month of June I've been chronicling my shift to being a regular three-days-a-week bus rider. I thought an update on the benefits would be good:

  • I arrive at work happier and less stressed out.
  • I am going to the gas station about half as often.
  • I am catching up on my reading.
  • Since my riding plan includes an hour walk, I am finally back in a regular exercise habit.
  • It's probably a combination of the walk, less stress, and having to eat what I bring for lunch, but I've lost at least 2 inches off my waist in the last three weeks.
  • I am spending less money. I know this because I take out $80 in cash on Fridays (usually), and the last time I went to the ATM, I took out $60 and I still have cash in my pocket 10 days later.
  • I know of two friends who have tried riding this month because they see me riding.
  • I am having fun challenging my creativity.
  • I feel more connected to my neighborhoods and my environment.

Monday, June 25


I was going to skip posting today, but I guess if I'm gonna post progress, I should post setbacks also.

  • I tried making a haybox cooker this weekend out of a sleeping bag and a cooler. The sleeping bag was a recreational 35 degrees and up bag. The cooler was a Coleman plastic chest cooler. I did a container of rice and a container of lentils. After 6 hours, the containers were still a little warm, but the food inside was crunchy.
  • I inherited a container garden from the previous home owner. When I moved in, the back patio had been taken over by four thriving zucchini plants. This year the squirrels got the first set and the re-plants are struggling under temps that have already gotten to 100. Plus I am an absolute beginner at gardening.
  • I was quite excited about my new-to-me 1995 Toyota corolla that gets 150% of the gas mileage of my current car and then my roommate mentioned that she was very interested in watching me deal with having an older car and especially the car repairs that go along with it and how maybe having an old car will be even more of an incentive to drive less. Then another friend needed a car to borrow and I loaned it to her and she complained about the age and the broken AC.
But I guess it's not all bad:
  • we got two comments this weekend about how cool the house is. We're managing to keep it in the 70's by closing the windows and pulling the blinds about 7 am. It does help that our south-facing windows are shaded in the afternoon (one by a virgina creeper, another by a mature cottonwood tree). I'm hoping a couple folks have some new experiences to apply to their own homes.
  • And my 1.5 yr old nephew (AJ) was so brilliant about what he needed to keep him cool at the zoo yesterday. I suggested wetting down his hair. About half an hour later when his dad offered him a drink of water (and his hair was dry again), AJ stuck his hand in the bottle and put his wet hand on his head.

Friday, June 22


It's Friday afternoon and time for a story. I have had a few opportunities to live at the 10% consumption level instead of the 100% consumption level. One of those was during my college years when I took a year off and traveled in the Gulf of Mexico and to Central America with a missionary organization.

This was an international, not a US group, and for the first part of the trip I lived on a refurbished 1950's combination cargo/cruise ship with 300 some-odd folks. We were all expected to live at basically the same level of consumption. I had one suitcase for an entire trip, a small locker to put things in, and a bunk bed. My three roommates and I shared a room that was about 10x10, had a small desk and a bookshelf.

Showers and bathrooms were down the hall, shared by about 30 folks. The standard for taking a shower was to get in, turn on the water, once you were wet turn it off, soap up, turn it back on and rinse off.

Meals were communal and served buffet-style. Breakfast featured tubs of granola, milk, juice, coffee, and fruit. Lunch was salad and leftovers from dinner the night before (or any of the previous nights). Dinners were recognizable to American palates, but rarely our star dishes like steak and potatoes. I actually forget most of the dinners, but I assume we had things like meatloaf and spaghetti and taco salad. (I do remember the catfish and the liver and onions... the only two dishes I couldn't work up the courage to try. ;-) )

Despite the word "cruise" in an earlier paragraph, the ship was pretty much in a 100% working state. Our visits to US ports consisted of making presentations to businesses and professionals to collect donations and recruit folks for the 3rd world parts of the trip. Well, that's the glamor side. For people like me, it was to do intensive maintenance on the ship for her 3rd world trips. (I got to refinish the teak railings.)

Another difference from a standard cruise was that fuel was an incredibly short resource for us. Cruise ships maximize their time in international waters to maximize the time people spend gambling. We sailed from one close port to the next and stayed in port for at least two weeks.

The one exception was when a Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica. We were docked in New Orleans at the time, and there was a huge outpouring of compassion for the people of Jamaica. Companies donated fuel to fill our tanks and charities filled our holds with food and clothing donations and we sailed off to Kingston.

We didn't have TV on the ship. There was a movie room, and movies were always a group affair. It's hard to get away from people when there are 300 of you on a 552 ft ship. The galley was a place to read quietly, and the former bar had group-inducing round booths that always had an interesting conversation, or 5, to check out. During our off hours we could explore the city... anywhere we could get by foot or public transportation. There were also always extra tasks that could be done. I remember one afternoon that I spent shoveling ice out of one of the walk-in freezers, and got a Twix bar as a thank-you. ;-)

As an American, my fee to join the ship was in the highest tier -- $3,500 for the 5 months. That's nearly $6,000 in today's dollars, or $1,200 a month. I think my carbon footprint would go down pretty quickly if I were living on that instead of most of my current take-home pay.

Thursday, June 21

Ray Bradbury and Transportation

I had an interesting set of experiences coming into work this morning and they got me to thinking about two Ray Bradbury works that use very different transportation settings.

In "The Illustrated Man", published in a collection in 1951, the title character travels in a world where being on foot is normal. It is the ride in a car that is unusual. But that's slipping away. The story is partially about how it is the weird who get left out of progress. In Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, driving incredibly fast down the road is the goal. Roads predominate, but they are also insulated as hitting animals and people on the road is a kind of sport. It is not until the main character falls completely outside of modern life that he finds a world not dominated by the presence and danger of roads.

So, where are we 50 years on from the publication of the books (and 60 from the actual writing, and 70 from the experiences that seeded the writing)?

  • This morning I walked to my local bus stop instead of driving to the park n' ride. I got to see the faces of people zooming by in their cars. They were looking at me, trying to figure out why I was there. Or whether the brown-skinned man next to me was a threat. Or why we were there together.
  • The man, an Indian immigrant told me about his work, asked about my family, showed me his flip-flops and talked about his early-morning walk through the grass.
  • When I arrived at my destination, where I change from riding to walking the last 1.5 miles to work, a woman stopped in the parking lot and asked if I needed a ride somewhere. I said "no" and "thanks" and headed on. At the major intersection on the corner, a car rolled into the cross walk after watching the stream of left-hand turns from the opposite side of the intersection go... but at least there weren't several cars in the crosswalk.
  • In the construction section, the sidewalk is back to being all filled (it had two holes and no crossings in it last Friday), very pristine, white, and empty.
  • At the next light, another lady stopped and asked if I wanted a ride.
  • Then the section where I walk the shoulder because there's a half-mile span where the sidewalk hasn't been built. In general, people in this section give me some extra space, staying on the left side of their lane, which gives a good 10 feet between the edge of the road where I walk and the passenger side of their car. But one nervous older man cruised along the road with the right tire of his half-ton pickup on the shoulder line.
  • A friend of mine who was out for a ride over the weekend got caught in a rain storm. She took shelter under an overpass, taking herself and her bike off the shoulder to wait it out. She was struck by a car that was that far out of its lane. During the day. (She's bruised and has some ligament damage but otherwise fine.)
So, we haven't made the full transition to Fahrenheit 451, but we're closer to that than we are to "The Illustrated Man". It looks like Bradbury correctly interpreted many of the trends of his day.

I heard a car industry lobbiest on the radio yesterday whining that "many car manufacturers have had to pull their efficient models because people weren't buying them." Well, they're often ugly. My former roommate, a good guy who ate organic and recycled and biked and walked, would comment on how ugly the Prius was every time he saw one, and then go back to converting his truck to biodiesel.
I sent a note to my senator to encourage increased CAFE standards and got a reply yesterday. He doesn't want a fixed standard because it's important to let the industry to make advances in safety and comfort too.

I wanted to reply with the report out last week that shows that smaller cars are also safer than SUVs, but then I got my Real Age report, where I got told that I would add time to my life if I drove a bigger car. When a 5-star crash test rated for driver and passenger car isn't safe enough because it isn't big enough on a test that's being advertised on all media channels and even mentioned in a book I'm reading.... well, that's when the mountain looks too big.

But my dad taught me how to hike big mountains:
  • Go with a friend.
  • Take a map, some food, some clothing, and a way to call for help.
  • Wear good shoes.
  • Find a pace that keeps you from being breathless, but keeps you headed onward. Don't stop and start.
  • Don't focus on the trail or how high the mountain is. Keep an eye on it, but spend most of your time enjoying where you are.

Wednesday, June 20


Way back in 1993, after I finished six months of managing a fast-food burger joint, I read Diet for a New America and announced I was going vegetarian. I remember it lasting a year or so, but I doubt I made it that long as the change wasn't permanent. What was permanent was a prominent place for beans in my diet and a love of investigating new foods.

However, tofu -- that staple of the vegetarian diet -- stumped me. I got my boxes at the grocery store and pressed it, froze it, marinated it, seasoned it, and mixed it with flavoring packets. I couldn't find a way to make it work. I did eventually try the shelf-stable packs of Mori-nu, and found I liked them in my pad thai... but they were expensive and the packs are wasteful, so they were a rare treat.

I knew it wasn't that I just don't like tofu, because I was happy to eat it when it came in dishes I ate out... like hot and sour soup, stir-fried veggies and tofu, and the like.

It turns out that the tofu I was buying isn't very good! I finally got permission to blame the tofu when my chef friend, who grew up eating tofu, recently mentioned it by name and declared how bad she finds that one. Fortunately in the last 14 years, we've had several other tofu brands become available.

Over the weekend she helped me pick out a brand she likes that's available at the Asian market, and fixed one of her favorite childhood dishes. I'm cooking with the rest of it this week. In fact, I just finished my first tofu-based lunch -- a cup of brown rice, two cups of stir-fried veggies, and half a cup of stir fried tofu strips. There was some profound anxiety internally when I was packing it though...I don't know how much of food like this I need to satisfy me through the afternoon. But I also bring beans and polenta for lunch fairly regularly, so it's not like I'm totally clueless about going meatless for lunch.

I guess, like with riding the bus, changing how I eat -- even though I know it's better for me and the environment -- means facing a variety of resistive self-talk. There's the fear of the unknown, security fears, emotional attachments to the behavior that's being challenged, worries about social approval, and the extra time it takes to do something new over the old habitual behavior. But here I am, having a darn good tofu lunch and looking forward to the CSA pickup tonight. I think I'm gonna be all right. (But I have a pack of M&Ms in my desk just in case.)

Tuesday, June 19

Things that need reusing

In addition to recovering old usable tools from thrift stores (and learning to use them), here's my current re-using list. (I post these hoping that someone in need of a good, recycling-based business idea will run across them!)

  • Clothing fabric. Americans throw away an average of 68 lbs of clothing a year. We clothe entire nations in our cast-offs, while buying new ourselves. I was at an event where there were these wonderful, classic patterned quilts. The friend I was with asked about them, they're made in a factory from new materials. There's just something wrong about making a classic quilt from new materials instead of re-using the ones you have...
  • Newsprint - Okay, yes. It can be composted ground up into pulp. But what about another use before that? What about turning them into take out containers? (Maybe with a food-based wax coating...)
  • Greeting cards. I am experimenting with making wire-bound journals from these, preferably with recycled wire.
  • I need a plastic container swap. My local recycling company doesn't take #5 plastic and I have a small box of lidless containers and container-less lids. Seems like someone could collect 'em, match em up, run 'em through a sanitizing dishwasher and then sell them... as used of course.
  • This is more of a reducing thing than a reusing thing, but supporting local dairies that still deliver milk in re-usable glass containers. The market for plastic recycled milk jugs is incredibly, depressingly small.
  • On a similar tangent, EcoDragon, which used to make woven hemp shoes without glue, seems to have disappeared. If the plans were available somewhere, it seems like there are fibers that could be recycled into woven shoes.
  • CDs and cases. No ideas here, but they're ubiquitous and durable. Seems like something could be done with them... Hey... how about a purse lined with a t-shirt to keep things from falling out? They can be broken, what about cutting or drilling them?
Feel free to continue the brainstorm in comments. (Note: Brainstorming is tossing out ideas sparked by previous thoughts, not the evaluation of ideas. You can do that when you're writing your business plan. ;-) )

Monday, June 18

Recipe of the Week

This week's recipe is less about tons of ingredients and heading off in amazing new directions in cooking and more about recovering cooking knowledge.

I picked up several pounds of split tomatoes at the farmer's market with the intention of making tomato sauce for my very first time. Then on the way home, my clever chef friend and I stopped at a local thrift store where she spotted a food mill -- which looked very much like the one in that photo and not very much like this one: OXO food mill -- on sale for $2.00. So, home we went.

She sweated chopped green onions and 3 teeth of garlic (whole) in a stewpot while I chopped our 6 lbs of tomatoes into 1" - 1.5" chunks. Then they went in the pot too. The pot got covered and brought up to a boil. As it cooked, we added fresh rosemary and oregano from the garden. The fresh basil is struggling, so we added dried basil and parsley, along with ground pepper and sea salt.

Boil until all the tomatoes have lost most of their structure.

Take it off the heat and put the food mill over a bowl. Add a cup of the tomato mixture to the mill. Start turning the crank. It is helpful to have a spatula handy for encouraging the tomatoes to stay under the pressing part of the mill. It is also helpful to know that on these kinds of food processors turning the crank in the reverse direction will cause the trailing edge of the press to scrape up the solid matter (seeds, skins, pulp) into a pile for another squeezing.

The goal of this process is to get all the liquid out of the tomatoes.

We ended up with a thin sauce which we decided was really tomato soup. Perhaps Romas or other meaty tomatoes would have resulted in a more saucy sauce. Either way, the result was incredibly tasty and made a great complement to grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 14


This morning I had an appointment and I'd planned all week to drive in to work to make the time fit. But when I got up this morning, I was actually brainstorming about how to walk/ride my bike/take the bus and make the time work. I ended up driving anyway, but it felt really weird. If it is the consuming that is feeling weird and the conserving that is comforting and normal, I must be making change.

One anxiety I've had is what the folks I work with would think of me. But two weeks ago, in sending an invitation to the office to participate in Bike to Work day, one of my co-workers said that she hasn't driven to work since March. And last week, two of the managers in my suite biked in on at least one day. This week I've had good exchanges with the coworker who's on Weight Watchers and trying to walk more, an engineer who bikes in regularly, and the afore-mentioned message-sender. So I'm experiencing some very real belonging, if not actual support. This is nice. In my home life, I've talked with four close friends and in spite of sharing a concern about the state of the world and shopping at natural food stores and taking other conservation measures, none of them are ready to re-think the assumptions they make about driving.

I get frustrated, but I think "ready" is the operative word. Four months ago I was happy that I'd cut my commute in half by moving. One month ago, I started to realize that I'd bought the car I'm driving to try to cover 100% of my driving, instead of shopping for the far more practical and economical 90% of my driving. And then it wasn't until Low Impact Week that I was ready to see my life schedule as flexible enough to encompass an hour of walking and 40 minutes of reading every day (that's the bus commute).

And that adds up to a kind of coming-out process. Being willing to be identified as others as something different from an assumed "normal." For most office jobs in the US it is "normal" to drive an SUV a half hour to work each day, eat processed food, work out in a gym, and then go shopping for more stuff to put in the 2000 sq ft home you share with one other person. But "normal" isn't healthy, or responsible, or even practical. It wasn't normal for our parents, it's just what it seems like every one else is doing. Or rather... what the people we notice are doing. And who are the people we notice? The ones we choose to look for. Bit of a catch-22 there. Look for people who are doing what you want to do and you'll find 'em, whether that behavior is actually healthy and happiness-making or not.

Tuesday, June 12

Averages and Absolutes

I have always hated being graded on the curve. My physics teacher in high school tried to explain that the curve is just a way of assigning grades to the natural distribution in class and plotted several sets of test scores on the board to demonstrate how sensible it was, but that only increased my resentment. I am much more of the kind of person who likes a list of expectations that I can live up to. Although my favorite grading system of all was the class where there were 1100 points available on assignments during the semester and if you got 900 to 1000 points you got an A.

There are two things that frustrate me about using the bell curve as a standard. First, my results are as much dependent on what everyone else is doing as they are on my own efforts. If I start out in the average range at the beginning of a class, and we're all presented the same opportunities to learn and take them at the same rate, I am still looking at a C, regardless of how much I've learned. Yuck. Second, the curve is completely reflective of groupthink. If in that physics class, we all had decided that it was fun to give the wrong answers on the test, we would have instant grade inflation.

So, when it comes to talking about what our carbon footprints look like, it frustrates me that all the carbon calculators talk about results in relative terms. Okay, so I'm doing better than average for a US citizen. Fine. Tell me how I'm doing in relationship to what it would feel like if the US had signed on to Kyoto and if we were actually holding steady at 1990 emissions in spite of increased population.

The Riot for Austerity -- 90% reduction rules take what looks like a really good stab at that. They are using the figure that the world needs to reduce its emissions by 80% to reverse global warming, and since the west, and primarily the US contributes the most, we need to cut farther for it to average out. This is beyond Kyoto, but it targets the final destination: getting the ice cap and glaciers back soon enough that species like the polar bear have a chance at survival.

Of course, being a real-world event, carbon emission does follow a bell curve. And volunteering to be 5-sigma on the austerity end of the curve reshapes the curve when what we actually need is to move the curve. I wonder about this with gas. So I volunteer (and am planning) to make further changes that will allow me to save 500 gallons a year over what I was using two years ago (15,000 miles at 22 mpg verses 6,000 miles at 34 mpg). With the way things are, it's not like the 500 gallons aren't going to be burned anyway. They'll be burned, but at a modestly lower cost for the person who buys them because demand is down.

So in addition to personal action, we also need community action so that people who might have consumed more but who are able to consume less make different choices, and we need political action. We are in another energy crisis, not because of a lack of supply, but because of the negative effects of trying to consume an over-abundance. We should be looking at what worked in the 1970's to address that crisis and look for ways to build that into our system today.

Thursday, June 7

Recipe of the Week

Since it's still early in the growing season, my local farmer's market has tons of greens for sale, I thought I'd post about what I do with them. This week's recipe is so incredibly simple--once you know how to do it--that I feel embarrassed putting it up. But I have to admit that in spite of cooking at least one meal a week for the last 30 years, I didn't braise greens until about 3 years ago, when a Mark Bittman cookbook game me the courage to experiment.

Here's the approximate recipe I started with:
Braised Kale

4 slices of bacon
1 bunch kale
1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar

In a pan with a tight-fitting cover, cook the bacon. Remove and crumble, leaving the grease in the pan.

Wash kale leave and tear into something like 2"x2" squares, removing the center vein.

Put the greens in the pot with the bacon grease. Put over low-medium heat with the lid on. After a minute or two, the greens should have shrunk some and become bright green. Stir them so every piece gets some of the bacon fat on them. Add the apple cider. Steam the greens until they are all bright and shiny and green and the cider is mostly gone.

Put a portion on a plate and sprinkle with bacon crumbles.

One of my mom's meta-recipe lessons was: "when you mix an oil and a vinegar you have a dressing." So obviously this recipe is actually braised kale in a bacon-cider vinaigrette. Which are wonderful flavors together. But while it introduced me to greens, I found myself stuck on two points. Would it work with those other greens I saw at the store? Which parts of the recipe were actually about braising?

The answer to question 1 is that braising works with all greens, including kale, collard, mustard, spinach and the leaves that come on your radishes and beets. In fact, if you run across a really "meaty" salad mix that's a little bitter, try braising it. Braising is just an application of moist heat and it seems to change all kinds of greens in wonderful ways.

The answer to question 2 is that the cider provides moistness, but isn't necessary. And as I said above, it makes a great dressing with the bacon. But totally not necessary. I have a friend who for breakfast fries an egg, removes it from the pan, throws a couple of hands-full of greens into the same pan, braises them a bit, and then serves them up with dressing.

Related to that, you don't even need the pan with the tight-fitting lid. As long as the pan you're using is already warm when the greens go in, and there's some moisture to work with, and you can remove the greens from heat in something like 5 minutes, you can cook 'em in just about anything. Lately, I've been tossing them on a cast-iron skillet as I'm making breakfast.

Once you get the hang of braising greens, they can become a component in other meals. I have a recipe from Lynne Rossetto Kasper that is basically browned hamburger and onions mixed with braised greens. Crescent Dragonwagon calls for braised greens in her Mexican style casseroles... you put them on top of the potatoes and salsa and under the tortillas and cheese.


Low Impact Thursday

Ahhh. There's nothing like reading Barbara Kingsolver on the problem of cheap food over breakfast and Bill McKibbin on the field of Hedonics on my bus ride to get the big questions rolling around in the hopper. Am I happier when I ride the bus?

Of course that's a chicken-and-egg question. This week I've ridden on the three days that I woke up happier. In addition, I know I am happier after exercising. Since I have planned for my commute to include a 1.5 mile walk, I start my work day after half an hour of moderate exercise, and I am happier. I have also observed that as much as I like driving my sound system and arriving at my destination with my favorite tunes filling the air around me... I am actually less stressed when I ride.

I think those things add up to a kind of happiness. There's also the enjoyment of being connected to bigger things -- my goal to use my resources better, my goal to reduce my carbon footprint, my goal to be less of a consumer and more of a citizen.

I have been developing a theory for several years now. It started with an observation about food. A friend of mine spent a few years at a Benedictine monastery and over breakfast one morning she told me about the feasts they would have on St. Benedict's day. It struck me that what she was describing happened several times a year in my life. And then reading about historical food patterns, I realized that I eat (ate) what was traditionally "Sunday Dinner" pretty near every day of the week. So my theory is that in the US we have a trend of making the historically special things completely common.

Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, suggests a biological reason for this. Since our brains have developed to anticipate the future based on past experience, we can fall into repeating the events that led to an emotion in pursuit of the emotion.

When I was young, going to Disneyland was a once-in-a-childhood trip. It was something I dreamt about. I finally went during my Junior year on a youth group trip, and it more than lived up to my dreams... In part because I was with friends who shared my wonder and delight. But now I have a friend who is a single mom who always feels strapped for cash and yet takes her 4-year-old on a Disney trip every year. I wonder whether there will be anything for Emily to feel delighted and surprised and grateful about when she gets to be a Junior in high school.

So I think there's a trick to determining whether I am actually happier. It could be that I am experiencing something unique and new and those feelings are contributing to my happiness. Or it may be that riding the bus and walking every day is a way for me to get in touch with my creativity and passion in a really grounded way, and so it may lead to a fundamental improvement in happiness.

At any rate, I think it's an experiment worth continuing.

It's also the last day of low impact week, so I want to post some final numbers.

Driving: on pace for 90 miles instead of my usual 150. At 22 mpg, that's a 2.77 gallons of gas, which translates to 54.5 fewer lbs of carbon in the air this week (using the factor of 20lbs/gallon given at
Eating: I've had three meals out this week, all around spending time with others and 2 of the 3 at small, family-owned eateries. So no mindless food-grabbing.
Appliances: Washed one load of laundry this week instead of my usual two. Still used the dryer.
Community: I've taken more walks in my community, had more conversations, and met some new neighbors by going to church locally.

When I started this project, all indications were that my impact, according to the calculator, was about "average" at 7.5 tons per year.

Today I am doing "smaller than average" at 5.7 tons, mostly as a result of driving 8,000 miles a year instead of 12,000. If I keep up the bus commuting and the 90 miles per week of driving, that drops to 4680 miles per year and a carbon contribution of 4.25 tons.

Tuesday, June 5

Report Card Day

I just got my utility bill for the month of May. Finally! Spring has sprung.

Here's the bottom line:


The big difference from April into May was the average temp went from 49 degrees to 60 degrees. As mentioned here before, we helped the thermostat figure out it was spring by turning the heat off at the beginning of the month, and that definitely shows in the therms drop. There's a chance my basement-dwelling roommate has been using the space heater in this marginal period, so the kilowatt hour number may have some more room to go down. (And since I don't have central AC I don't expect it to go up by much.)

Since we have all had pretty much the same schedule for the last month as for previous months, I think this is pretty close to our baseline usage for hot water, dish washing, clothes washing, lights, etc. This means that my best use of money to reduce my usage is for insulation and weather proofing. I'll be doing research on this.

Of the list I made last month about things I could do to lower use, I didn't really do any of them. I did change two of my high-use bulbs and unplugged my halogen so that I wasn't running it accidentally (or conveniently). I also showed roommate #1 the Kill-a-watt meter and she's very excited about checking out what she's using. Yay for toys! Roommate #2 and I have talked about what we're comfortable doing to keep the house cool on hot days. Fortunately, she already knows that shading windows that get sun and closing windows while the house is cool so I don't have to wait for a stretch of really hot weather to demonstrate that to her.

My current home-energy goals are:
1.) Hang a clothes line.
2.) Hang a shade curtain over my south-facing patio doors
3.) Insulate and ventilate my root cellar room. Continue experimenting with keeping food down there instead of in the fridge.
4.) Hire a handyman and get the ceiling fan put up in the living room.
5.) Start hanging foil insulation in the attic.
6.) Insulate the attic door and other spots as needed.
7.) Research replacement windows.
8.) Research weather-proofing options for the fireplace.
9.) Research patterns for window quilts.
10.) Replace fridge with an Energy Star model.

Low Impact Tuesday

I woke up this morning crabby and depressed. I think my body needs a recovery day after suddenly being called on to walk 5+ miles a day instead of my usual 2-ish. So I drove in to work. After several glasses of water, a couple glasses of tea, some extra vitamin C and a recovery drink, I'm feeling better.

I'm also enjoying a CD I apparently downloaded from iTunes and never listened to. Better than discovering a $5 in my pocket. ;-) This is Verve Remixed 2. I really enjoy being able to buy music with practically zero packaging and re-using equipment I already have to listen to it. When I subscribed to my local NPR station last month, they were offering the Eaton hand-cranked emergency radio as a premium and I eagerly signed up. I was enjoying listening to the radio carbon-free while chopping for stir fry earlier this week.

Speaking of carbon-free music, I want to pass along a band I got to see a couple times last summer. The Ditty Bops completed a continent-crossing tour last year on bike. When I think it is impossible to have a satisfying life that is also low impact, I remember their creativity and innovation. Perhaps it is a form of passing to try to have a conventional life on the carbon cheap and perhaps there is a radical re-thinking of life in store. What would my life look like with no need to commute to work or to keep up a huge house payment? What would I do if by doing it I knew I could barter for food and/or supplies?

And today's closing thought... I was poking around the David Suzuki Foundation's site today looking for information on what the Kyoto Protocol limits would look like on a per capita basis for a North American individual and found this interesting report(pdf) on what it would take to cut Canada's 2002 emissions in *half*. As the authors note, that's more than Kyoto asks for, but bigger cuts while maintaining satisfying lives can only help the overall situation.

Monday, June 4

Talking to Scientists

My Dad is one of those guys who doesn't believe that humans are causing whatever global warming we might be experiencing. Luckily, his beliefs don't translate to an over-consuming lifestyle. He loves the job he's created and the building he bought for it is less than 10 miles from the house. He is an engineer, but he can also mark the day when he canceled the Scientific American subscription he'd had for decades.

Part of his decision came from a trip we made to the Georgetown Loop railroad one summer. The exhibits there included photos of the valley the loop was built to surmount completely bereft of trees as a result of local building and fires. Looking around the now-tree-lined valley, Dad could observe the self-healing nature of the Earth.

And the Earth is self-healing. It will self-correct on a global scale. But the question is whether the new equilibrium it comes to will be hospitable to life as we know it. After all, the cataclysms at the end of the Cretaceous Era that sequestered the carbon we're now releasing nearly did all life in. (Smithsonian Natural History Museum Site, The Paleontology Portal). So, the Earth may find a way to fix herself, but there's no guarantee we'll survive the fix.

So, how to break through the mental block? Dr. Heidi Cullen, Climate Expert at The Weather Channel suggested a solution in December... be strict about presenting the science about climate. What does the science say? According to the American Meteorological Society;

There is convincing evidence that since the industrial revolution, human activities, resulting in increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other trace constituents in the atmosphere, have become a major agent of climate change.
She goes on to suggest that the Pew Center's Climate Change 101 site might be a good place to catch up on the science for those who are pressed for time.

Low Impact Monday

I took the plunge and got a bus pass for the month of June. I also made an appointment to ride this morning with a friend who works at a neighboring building to keep both of us to our good intentions. She travels for work, so I won't always have her company, but I'll take it when I can get it. My roommate also offered to drop me and my bike off on her way to work when I want to do something different. And another friend would take the same bus to her work, so she may join us at times. It's fun when talking about something sparks creativity in other people.

This weekend I was really conscious about not using the TV or the computer for entertainment. Instead I played miniature golf with a friend, took a walk along a trail I've been meaning to check out, and had a cookout with friends -- over wood and charcoal instead of natural gas. I meant to take the bus to church, but I woke up late on Sunday; so I drove to a new, local, church -- for five driving miles instead of 40.

One of the books I was reading this weekend is Simply in Season, one of the Mennonite Church's World Community Cookbook. I had to smile at the introduction of one of the authors, who noted that while she and her husband were raised to be frugal, eating local, organic, and seasonal sometimes isn't the absolutely cheapest option, so it was a shift for them. I also enjoyed a chat I had with a farmer this week who runs the Abbodanza Farm in Boulder. He had the last of his 2006 beans out on the table at $4 a pound. I realized as we were talking that he was arguing for his price... since the beans are all hand-picked, etc. He was comparing his price to what I might get at Wal-mart. I told him I knew that on a per-calorie basis, his beans were the cheapest thing at the whole farmer's market. I think he put some extra beans in the bag for me. ;-)

Friday, June 1

Low Impact Week

In the manner of time in my life, Low Impact Week snuck up on me. I guess that's appropriate in a way, it keeps me from making this week easier by doing extra work last week to prepare for it.

I have been meaning to ride the bus to work from my local park-n-ride, I have the coupons and everything. And for the last week my cat has been waking me up about 5. So this morning I grabbed the opportunity and headed out of the house with a full lunch bag and no delays to check the schedule. My bus left about 5 minutes after I got to the plaza, I had a lovely 20 minute ride through farms and great vistas (and I got to enjoy them since I wasn't driving), and then a 30 min. walk. All kinds of things I've been wanting more of in my life.

I even got to chat with a friend who was on her way to work.

I went to a commuter college for my bachelors and spent those years riding the bus and walking a lot. There's a part of me that knows *most* of the time, the weather's going to be fine. The walking part isn't too far. If I need more food than I have, I can find it. But in spite of all kinds of really positive, self-sufficient experiences with bus-aided mobility, when I get away from it for a while, shadows creep in. I think, "I can't take the bus today... it might rain/snow/be too hot." And yet I've taken the bus in those conditions, and learned that the really uncomfortable times are out at the margins.

There is a pocket of my poverty consciousness that gets triggered when I ride the bus. I did it because I was broke so much of the time, and now when I get on, I often feel broke in spite of the richness in my life.

I also feel a kind of defensiveness. I feel like people I know would only take the bus if they didn't have gas money, a friend to ride with, or if their cars were in the shop. So the joy in chatting with my friend today was that none of those questions came up. It seemed completely normal that I was walking to work. I would like more of those experiences.

And then there's the quote that was in my inbox when I fired up my computer:

Business opportunities are like buses, there's always another one coming.
-- Richard Branson (Virgin Founder)
I love that Richard Branson, who in many ways represents a "cool" I find appealing, knows about buses, and knows about them with a familiarity that gives him a point of grounding when it comes to the business game. It certainly challenges my poverty trigger.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is sponsoring their 2nd Annual Dump the Pump day on June 21. It's an invitation to pick a day to go without using gas (or diesel); but also a day to try public transportation. Look for events near you.

Thursday, May 31

Ideas from Vegas - post 3

From Louise Hay on Saturday morning:

The turmoil in the world in regard to weather is a reflection of the turmoil in the state of human consciousness.
I'm not convinced there is a direct-line connection between human thought and the material world, but I am convinced that we act in ways that are consistent with our beliefs about the world, whether we are conscious or unconscious of those beliefs. I have experienced how changing my thoughts has made my life better. I know that the pace of change can be sudden or slow and methodical.

In particular, my life has become richer -- emotionally, physically, and professionally -- as I have moved away from the need for enemies. I know that at times I have used the perception of "enemies" to motivate me into actions that were fundamentally out of sync with my nature. When I believed fat was my enemy, I exercised myself into injury and eventually knee surgery.

I don't know what would happen on the global warming front if the world made a sudden shift to not needing to create enemies, ala 1984, but it's interesting to consider.

Wednesday, May 30

Recipe of the Week

Update: Let's make potato salad out of potatoes instead of onions. ;-)

I got my first delivery of food from Coastalfields last week and I am making my way through the spinach, salad greens, green garlic (early garlic pulled like green onions), and cilantro. I don't have all the ingredients on hand for salsa right now, so I decided to use what I had... and made a cilantro potato salad for the Memorial Day barbeque.

2 lbs red (waxy) potatoes, washed and cubed.

Boil potatoes until done.

1/2 cup diced red onion
1/4 - 1/2 chopped cilantro

Toss potatoes in a bowl with the above. Then add, to taste:


Lime is an exceptionally good flavor with cilantro. I have lime salt, but lime juice mixed with the mayo as a dressing, or a lime vinaigrette would be good too.

The Fridge is on Hold

I mentioned a week or so ago that the next culprit I was looking to replace was my fridge. I ran the Kill-A-Watt meter on it over the weekend and it came up with 1.75 kilowatt hours in 24 hours. Extrapolating that out, it's using 638.75 kWh in a year, which is significantly worse than its efficiency rating new. So, yes, I do need to plan for a new fridge.

The fridge is using 53.23 kWhs a month, which is 6.5% of my monthly usage of 815 kWhs.

However, the difference between 638.75 kWhs a year for this one and 415 kWh per year for a new Energy Star-rated one is 223.75 kWhs per year, for 18.65 extra kWhs per month. That's only 2% of the 815 kWhs I've been using per month, so that's not going to help significantly.

At the beginning of the month, we realized the heater was kicking on when the house was comfortably cool. That's the difference between having the air temp in the house be a homogeneous 60 degrees instead of having the spot by the thermostat be 64 degrees and the rest of the house vary based on windows and heat outlets and other environmental things. So we turned the heat off. I'll be getting a utility bill in the next week and I'm really curious to see how much of a difference the heater makes.

Friday, May 25

Ideas from Vegas - post 2

From Bill Phillips' talk on Saturday morning:

When you are trying to make a change, you have far more power to make it when your heart is in the change than when you try to do it out of your head alone.
Bill's new work is on the process of transformation -- inspired by his work in helping people transform their bodies through exercise and nutrition, but also bigger than that. In this point in his talk, he was using the work of the Heartmath Institute. But even without electromagnetic measurements, we can see the sense of a change being more powerful when it comes from the desire to have a different experience of the world than when we want to see political change, or we want to see less littering, or we want to know the polar bears will have their icy habitat for centuries to come. Or because we know we should.

Heartful changes the ones that have real staying power. And they're the ones that seem authentic and compelling to others.

Thursday, May 24


Popular Mechanics article on what's keeping wind power in the US from reaching the proportions of European generation and how to fix that.

Colorado Matters (a locally-originated public radio program) reports on why Tri-state, an electricity provider for rural Colorado is planning to build just one coal plant instead of their original three. (Link will launch a .wmf file.)

Colorado Matters reports on Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas Wind Systems building their first US plant in Weld county, Colorado. (Link will launch a .wmf file.)

Arkel-OD pannier hook system These folks sell a pair of their pannier hooks for $40. I'll be retro-fitting a pair of "grocery bag" pannier bags which -- between the length of my chainstay and that I use toe-clips on my utility bike -- I've been kicking when I ride.

Wednesday, May 23

A tale of four lamps

I got my Kill-A-Watt meter in the mail on Monday and finally had a chance to test it out tonight. I took pictures of four lighting combinations in my bedroom.

The first is my florescent nightstand lamp

That's 18 watts, which means that it takes about 55 hours of continuous usage to use one kilowatt hour of electricity. (The units my bill is counted in.)

The second is my full-spectrum SAD light

59 watts. This seems to be an incandescent, despite the lack of that word on the packaging. (It just said it would last longer than regular bulbs.) 17 hours to burn a kilowatt hour.

The third is the two of them running together

A not-too-surprising 80 watts for 12.5 hours per kilowatt hour.

And the final entry

Clocking in at 220 watts (this is exactly the same setting as the other photos), my halogen torchiere. It takes a mere 4.5 hours to clock a kilowatt hour with this baby.

Suddenly my $20 lamp doesn't seem so cheap. ;-)

I am watching the meter while posting this and my computer is using 150 watts without the hard drive and 175 with the hard drive. My halogen seems like a total energy hog!

I was also watching the watts setting on the stationary bike this morning. Apparently I can run a 22 watt device off my pedaling. This may be why my dad was never enthusiastic about wiring the TV to an exercise bike...

Ideas from Vegas - post 1

One thing that keeps echoing in my head is something Wayne Dyer said in the keynote session on Friday night:

Three lies of the ego:

  • I am what I own.
  • I am what I do.
  • I am what people think about me.
It's easy enough to understand that "I am what I own" includes what I refuse to own, what I'm too poor to own, what I'm too rich to own and what I could never imagine owning. And it's pretty easy to see that "I am what I do" includes what I don't do, what I do for work, what my hobbies are, who I'm married to, who I'm parenting, what kind of exercise I do and the spiritual teachers I'm listening to. And "I am what people think about me" means I need to manage what people think about me to make sure they have the right impression of me.

If these are all lies of the ego, then when I am busy acting them out, I'm acting out of my ego and not my authentic self.

In terms of pursuing a smaller carbon footprint, my ego can threaten to derail me by whining about the fun toys I'm missing out on, by encouraging me to feel inadequate when I buy a cheaper car, or carpool, or ride the bus, or ride a bike, or walk. Alternately, it can tempt me with the idea that somehow I've achieved something by engaging in a project like this. And finally, it can tempt me to listen to the positive and negative opinions of others about me and change so that I can improve those opinions.

So, it seems to me that the ego is one of the forces that's resisting the changes necessary for sustainability.

Recipe of the week

I am still working on getting thoughts from the weekend grounded and me-centered, so instead I'm gonna post my recipe for the week. I have been experimenting with food as part of living not-so-big, and I have a weekly schedule of making a big pot of something at the beginning of the week and eating on it for most of my meals.

This week I'm having my version of the Southwestern Bowl sold by Amy's. Their bowl is beans, cheese and veggies in an enchilada sauce, topped by a polenta crust.

Here's mine:
Ingredients: corn grits, 2 cans or 4 cups of cooked beans, 1 medium-sized onion, chili powder, canned chopped tomatoes, soup stock or bullion, garlic, salt, cheese

Polenta - 1 cup corn grits (I use Bob's Red Mill) + 4 cups water. Bring water to a boil. Add grits slowly enough that they are spread out in the water and not clumped up. Stir every couple of minutes for 5 or so minutes, cover and let simmer, stirring every few minutes, for half an hour or until the liquid is absorbed and the polenta is a gooey mass.

Beans - So it turns out that red chili and enchilada sauce are two implementations of the same meta recipe. So, start out with a couple cups of broth (I used veggie stock from bullion). Chop and add one medium onion. Add about a 1/4 cup of dried mild chili powder. (Substitute or add hot chili powder to taste.) Let the pot return to boiling. Add two cups of cooked beans. Return to boiling. Add another two cups of beans. Return to boiling. Add one can chopped tomatoes with juice. Add garlic and salt to taste. Return to boiling. Cover and remove from heat.

To serve: Place about half a cup of polenta in the center of a bowl. Pour half a cup of beans and liquid over the top. Top with cheese. Eat with a spoon and enjoy!

To use leftover polenta, try using it how you'd use mashed potatoes. Stir in butter or cheese. Or heat a scoop of plain polenta in the microwave and top with honey and milk for a sweet snack. Of course, polenta is another name for cornmeal mush, so you can chill it and fry it up too.

To use leftover beans, eat with a tortilla, or wrap beans and eggs in a tortilla. Serve over rice. Or add another can of tomatoes and ground turkey for a "chili con carne y con frijoles" soup. Eat that with cornbread.

Tuesday, May 22

Dim-able CFLs

Hi all - back from Vegas and full of lofty thoughts. I'm working on writing about that, but I'm gonna focus on the practical to get grounded again.

I finally found some dim-able screw-in CFLs, though not at Lowe's, Ace, Home Depot, Wal-mart, or the family owned hardware store in Boulder. I got them from Amazon. This is listed as an 8-pack, it comes as 4 two packs, though lovingly packed. I put five of them in my dim-able hanging lamp and they work pretty darn well. They come on at the same point the incandescents do. They do hum if not turned all the way up, but that's a good reminder to ask myself whether I'm ready to turn the light all the way off. Four more bulbs and a fixture to change on the main floor and then it will be incandescent-free.

I think my next culprit is the fridge. The meter out back runs twice as fast on an 80-degree day with the fridge running than it does without. Plus, when I put my hand in the center of the freezer door it is notably cooler than the air around it which means insulation would help.

I will be getting my first delivery of food from Coastalfields this week. Looks like they have mostly greens right now. I used to enjoy early carrot and radish greens from a friend's garden plot, so I'm looking forward to discovering what's in the box when it gets here.

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.