Tuesday, April 22, 2014

eco-lent reflections

Yesterday marked the end of Lent, with the celebration of Jesus returning to life. The Eastern Orthodox church calendar now moves into 50 days of Eastertide, so maybe I'll become Orthodox for a bit, because after the 40 days of fasting during Lent, Orthodox Christians spend 50 days feasting! What's up with us Quakers who don't do the fasting or the feasting?! (I say this only partially with tongue in cheek.)

With the close of Lent comes the end of my personal Eco-Lent Challenge. It's been fun and I've learned quite a bit, and even changed some habits. I'll give a few reflections.

Affordability of Going Green
Throughout this whole experiment, I don't think I've actually spent any money on the challenges I chose to tackle. This surprised me, because a lot of times I hear people bemoaning the expense of becoming more eco-friendly. This is assuredly the case in some areas, such as organic products, but there are quite a few things that can be done without major expense. Some of the challenges took some extra time, and of course there were ways I could have spent money, but the small changes I made didn't cost me anything in the monetary sense.

I got rid of plastic containers, but I had glass jars on hand. If I hadn't, I could have saved up jars from pasta sauce or peanut butter as I used their contents, and come up with free storage jars. I did save a few such items over the course of the last couple months, and I also use a lot of glass canning jars.

Changing to less caustic chemicals is actually quite a bit cheaper than buying harmful cleaning products. I bought more vinegar and baking soda than usual, but those are incredibly cheap items.

Driving less costs less than buying gas (or even using electricity to charge a car), although you have to already be set up for biking, or live within walking distance of everything you need. This requires some lifestyle changes, but is cheaper. It also allows you to spend time outdoors more often! I did have to buy a tire repair kit recently. I haven't used it yet, but I'm going to see if I can repair my flat inner tube rather than replacing it. This is an area into which I have yet to venture, so we'll see whether I can get my bike back into one piece. Bikes, unfortunately, aren't completely without expense. This repair kit was only about $8, I believe, so it wasn't prohibitively expensive, especially when compared to gas.

Using less electricity obviously is a money saver. It's kind of annoying to unplug stuff and have to plug it back in each time, but it presumably lowers your electric bill at least a little bit. If you have the means and you want to get rid of some of the annoyance, you could purchase little switches for each outlet so you can flip the switch rather than having to unplug it each time, but I haven't gone that far yet.

Using food scraps for compost or chicken food also saves money, and, obviously, buying less new stuff costs less.

No matter how many gold stars I can pin on myself for doing my good deeds of taking care of the plan in these tiny ways, there are always people I'm friends with who have been doing this for a long time, or who have taken it a bunch of steps further. There are people who know more than me and who are doing a better job at all this. There are people who can't afford to NOT live in a simple way that is less harmful to the environment. It's humbling to realize that my small choices are so incredibly small, and to recognize that the fact that I think of these as "choices" belies my huge sense of entitlement.

Community is so important! I was really encouraged with people's comments, here on the blog or on Facebook, on your own blog or when I saw you in person, and you shared with me your thoughts and struggles, your ideas and successes. It was so nice to know I wasn't in it all by myself, but that there are others thinking about these things and making small, eco-friendly choices, too. It held me accountable to know you were all out there, interested in what I was doing, and wondering what more you could do.

It also takes a lot of community positive peer pressure in order for me us to change our lifestyles. When it becomes normative in a community to walk or bike, or to be vegetarian until the factory farm issue is resolved, or to buy organic and non-GMO food, we're able to support one another in these choices and hold one another accountable, to encourage one another to live by the values we espouse.

I feel like this issue of caring for the Earth is one of the major justice issues of our time, one regarding which we as Friends (or others) have the opportunity to hold the front line. With a little education and a lot of tenacity, we can make the small choices that become a movement. We can make these changes more affordable so they're not only for the wealthy. We can let the Spirit strip away our sense of entitlement, and truly seek after our Friends testimony of simplicity. We can speak truth to power: the truth of abundance and overflowing goodness, rather than the fear of scarcity, evil and not-enough. We can live in the Kingdom of God here and now, the new heaven and the new Earth manifesting in our choices of life for all. We can release our destructive hunger for more and live in the life and power that finds no need for wars, no need for fighting over resources, because we have enough and more than enough.

I learned the word "dayenu" when practicing the Passover with some Jewish friends a few years ago, and it means "enough." It's a yearly reminder at Passover (also last week) that God does immeasurably more than we expected. (OK, so that's from the New Testament, but it's the same idea.) It would have been enough that God released us from bondage in Egypt...it would have been enough that God provided manna and water for us in the wilderness...but the list keeps going on and on of the ways God has provided for us. Can we trust God and find satiation in simplicity? Can we experience dayenu in the overwhelming abundance the Earth produces for us? Can we remember how blessed we are in the midst of always-enough?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

eco-lent: holy week

It's Holy Week, and today is Maundy Thursday: according to John, this is the day Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples and was arrested, then stood trial and was crucified on Friday, in the late afternoon just before the beginning of Passover (since the Jewish day goes from sundown to sundown, and Passover was a high holy day that year where the Passover coincided with the Sabbath, Saturday).

In reflecting on my Eco-Lent experience over the last several weeks, the instructions of Jesus to eat together (what we've turned into communion) and to serve one another (he washed his disciples' feet) feel particularly poignant. In ecological theology, much is made of the physicality of eating together as a community with Christ in our midst, and the memories of the pre- and post-resurrection scenes including food. As we bring food into our bodies it becomes part of us and is the very energy source that gives us life. We eat and we are sustained, or in our day, perhaps, we eat empty calories and can never be filled with life and health.

Although Friends don't practice the physical sacraments, seeing all of life as a sacrament, I like to broaden the ameliorated ounce of grape juice and pasty wafer into all food encounters. I take in the good gift of life, health and energy in the food I eat; I take in the sustaining friendship and fellowship with my family and community when we eat together; my hunger, gratitude and satiation link me to the Divine.

Therefore, the very food I eat becomes an opportunity to experience a sacrament: an opportunity to be open to God's life-giving Spirit filling me, sustaining me, and connecting me with others. I'm literally sustained by the world God created, taking it in so that it becomes me.

The choices I make about what food to eat, what chemicals it has soaked in, what has been done to the Earth to get it to me--these are choices that directly affect me, my body, my community and my world. I can choose to participate in a life-giving sacrament of preparation by growing my own food and encouraging the use of healthy farming practices, alternatives to fossil fuels, refusing to use products that leach chemicals into the soil and groundwater and that provide my body with sustenance and health.

I feel like this might be guilt-inducing for some, whose food choices are limited or who struggle with this topic in terms of eating healthily. I hope that this is an alternative to viewing food as a commodity. I hope it helps us see our choices sacramentally, not so that we feel bad about not living perfectly, but so we feel invited to participate in the Emmanuel sacrament, the sacred space of God-with-us, each time we choose a food and choose with whom to enjoy it. I hope it will encourage us to symbolically feel the presence of God sustaining us as we eat and receive life from the bounty of God's creation, and that we feel we can joyfully share the overflow of this abundance with those around us. It's a reframing of our desire for "more," translated into "not enough," that recognizes abundance and gratefulness in place of fear and guilt.

Also, we have an instruction to serve one another, to think of ourselves humbly as the ones who serve, rather than the ones entitled to be served. As Americans who expect the world to serve us, or who "generously" give out of our abundance so that others can barely survive, what would foot-washing look like in our context? Would it possibly mean rejecting our sense of entitlement to ever-more, to having what we want whenever we want it? Might it mean letting go of our dignity and receiving what we need from Christ?

My prayer is that each of us can eat at least one sacramental meal this Holy Week, remembering Christ and listening about how we are called to participate in carrying our own cross. I pray that as you eat your meals and enjoy fellowship around the Easter holiday, you'll be reminded of abundance and life, freed for joy and delighting in the goodness of creation, feeling loved and valued, and extending that abundance to others.

Friday, April 11, 2014

eco-lent: week 6, why food waste matters

Although there are possibly any number of reasons food waste matters, I'll give you just two here: 1) an ecological reason, methane, and 2) a justice reason, hungry people.

  • Methane.
When food waste decomposes, it releases methane, which is one of the major greenhouse gases. Now, food waste may not be the hugest producer of methane (#1 natural gas fracking leaks, #2 livestock, #3 landfills, according to the EPA). But if we reduced food waste, at least it would be a step in the right direction.

Becoming vegetarian and feeding cows stuff that's good for them would also be steps in the right direction (Scholarly study: ELLIS, J. L., A. BANNINK, J. FRANCE, E. KEBREAB, and J. DIJKSTRA. 2010. "Evaluation of enteric methane prediction equations for dairy cows used in whole farm models J. L. ELLIS et al. METHANE PREDICTION IN VIVO FARM MODELS."Global Change Biology 16, no. 12: 3246-3256. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014). And: Grainger, C., R. Williams, T. Clarke, A.-D. G. Wright, and R. J. Eckard. 2010. "Supplementation with whole cottonseed causes long-term reduction of methane emissions from lactating dairy cows offered a forage and cereal grain diet."Journal Of Dairy Science 93, no. 6: 2612-2619. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014).).

Using food scraps to power electrical plants would also be a great solution! It looks like they're actually doing this in London. (Scholarly study: Molino, A., F. Nanna, Y. Ding, B. Bikson, and G. Braccio. 2013. "Biomethane production by anaerobic digestion of organic waste." Fuel 103, 1003-1009. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2014). Another one: Kastner, Verena, Walter Somitsch, and Wolfgang Schnitzhofer. 2012. "The anaerobic fermentation of food waste: a comparison of two bioreactor systems." Journal Of Cleaner Production 34, 82-90. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost(accessed April 11, 2014).)
  • People.
Besides the fact that of course climate change effects people, not having enough to eat also has a major effect on people. Researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, estimate in a 2005 study that 40-50% of food harvested in the United States is never eaten. That is jaw-dropping, if you ask me. (Sources: Jones, Timothy W. 2005. “THE CORNER ON FOOD LOSS.” Biocycle 46, no. 7: 25. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. And: Jones, Timothy W. 2005. “FOOD LOSS ON THE FARM.” Biocycle 46, no. 9: 44-46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2014).)

About 12% remains in the fields after saleable food is harvested, and the other 30-40% is lost at each level of the supply chain. Then there's the dozen or so pounds each week that we waste after we buy it and forget about it in our fridge, like we talked about yesterday.

Add to that, in the United States alone, 14.5% of the population struggles with hunger each year, according to the 2012 USDA Household Food Security report

  • Let's recap.
In the USA, 40-50% of food is wasted on its way to our homes.
Another 12 pounds per week goes bad in our fridges or is unused (shells, cores, peels, etc.).
14.5% of Americans aren't getting enough to eat.
Food waste rots and gives off methane.
Methane is a major greenhouse gas, holding in warm air and causing polar ice caps and glaciers to melt, raising the sea level, and contributing to severe weather patterns.
We could capture the methane and use it for energy production, but we generally don't.
Instead, we use fossil fuels to produce energy, which give off CO2, another greenhouse gas.

  • So, does food waste matter?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

eco-lent: week 6

Surprisingly enough (not really!), the book I've been using to find suggestions for challenges for my eco-Lent project wasn't written for the purpose of Lent, so I've run out of weeks in that book. I knew this would happen and figured something new would come to me, and it did!

This week I'm going to focus on food waste. Upworthy highlighted a website called Shrink That Footprint the other day, and it's a really well done site with lots of good graphics, short and readable articles, and how-to videos. (If you don't know about Upworthy, you should sign up! Its goal is to send us some good news, since most news seems like it's bad.) Shrink That Footprint has a page called 5 Simple Ways to Save Food. I'm going to work on these this week.

Some highlights:
  • Americans waste about 12 pounds of food each week, totaling around $18
  • Worldwide, we waste 1.3 billion tons of food (see graphic, where the trash can is the relative size it would be, in scale with those buildings)
I was about to launch into why it's important to not waste food, but I think that will have to wait for tomorrow because this post is going to be too long. So for now, here's a video that introduces the topic of food waste:

You can sign up for the YouTube channel and watch videos for all the tips in his 3 week program. He suggests weighing your food waste so you realize how much you waste, planning your perishables so you don't get more perishable food than you can eat at a time (including using a menu planner), perfecting your portions so you don't make more than you need, shuffling your storage in your fridge so you can see the food that's going to need to be eaten soonest, and dedicating a day each week to working on a creative meal where you use all the stuff in your fridge that's about to go bad.

These are all really good tips, and I'd add a couple of my own: first, own chickens! When you own chickens, you can feed them a majority of your food scraps. (Well, it's a majority of our food scraps, anyway, because I'm a vegetarian so we don't have a lot of leftover meat. If you eat a lot of meat, I don't think that's probably good for the chickens.) The rest of our food scraps go into our compost pile. There are different kinds of compost: throw everything in a pile compost, hot compost, worm compost, and probably others. The best one is hot compost, because you don't have to worry about keeping worms alive. The one we currently use is the "throw everything in a pile" method, which is all well and good, but takes much longer than hot composting.

eco-lent: week 5, aka "how to really annoy your housemates"

My eco-Lent challenge from the Northwest Earth Institute's "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" for last week was to use less energy. I chose as my goals not using the dryer, unplugging things not in use (including my computer), and taking the moments of annoyance when I had to find the cord and plug it in as opportunities for prayer and reflection on my sense of entitlement.

Not using the dryer was difficult early in the week due to rain, but the weather got progressively better so that I could move the laundry through much more quickly, drying loads of laundry out on our deck rather than in our dank Oregon basement. I found that I had to be constantly thinking about laundry. I had to start a load of laundry each morning and be around the house to take it out of the washing machine and hang everything to dry. I had to check throughout the day and turn things over that were only getting dry on one side. I don't have a clothes line, so I used a drying rack and whatever else was at hand, mainly deck railing and deck furniture. I also found that this kept me more on top of getting laundry done! It's pretty much just as easy to fold a lot of things as you take them in from drying in that way as it is to just toss them in the laundry basket, so I got a lot more laundry folded and put away each day. Generally I have a tendency to keep the laundry moving through the washer and dryer but just leaving it in a pile (or 4 piles, one for each family member) until I break down and have a laundry-folding and TV-watching evening.

It felt good to not use the dryer, since I know they use a ton of energy, but I'm not sure if this is something I can maintain long-term, unless I have to. I know that in other countries, it's common for people not to own a dryer. We visited some F/friends in Switzerland several years ago and they lived in an apartment building with a coin washer and no dryer. Everyone just hung their laundry in the shared laundry room on lines. I would be worried items would get stolen, but apparently this wasn't a problem. But, of course, it was Switzerland, where EVERYONE is neutral and nice, right? And probably Earth-friendly, too! I'm not sure how I feel about my undergarments hanging around out on my deck, let alone in a shared laundry room, though, so as an American with a probably-too-high sense of privacy, this one challenges me and my sense of entitlement to my own space.

Unplugging everything was a challenge. As I said in the title of the blog, this is a good way to get on your housemates' nerves! Mine are all related to me so they can't kick me out, but they DO definitely think I'm weird. Unplugging stuff was rather inconvenient. I don't know how many times I tried to toast something and it popped right back up, or turn on a lamp and have to fumble around to find the outlet. It was also hard to remember to unplug it again after I'd used the appliance or electronic device. Toward the end of the week I got into more of a rhythm where I remembered to plug in the microwave before using it, or switch on the wall light so I could find the outlet for the lamp. I unplugged my computer when the light turned green, but I rarely actually turned the computer off. I generally have something going that I want to get back to easily. I'm not sure how much energy a sleeping computer takes, but undoubtedly more than it does if it's off.

I can see myself continuing this part of my eco-challenge, but I'd have to talk more with my housemates about it and make sure we're all on board with it. We may decide there are certain things we want to leave plugged in since they're more difficult to reach or, such as lights, it's hard to plug them in if they're not in use. So, communication is key!

Using these moments of annoyance as opportunities for prayer, repentance and reflection went pretty well. I found myself rolling my eyes at something being unplugged, then taking a deep breath and allowing my self-absorbed complaint to be reframed into gratitude for how much I take for granted--like a lament psalm.

I'll leave you with a great video clip on Walter Brueggemann explaining the importance of lament:

And a well-done blog post on what lament is for and what it looks like in the Bible and in everyday life.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

eco-lent: week 5, using less energy

The eco-challenge I'm focusing on for this week of Lent is to use less energy. "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" from Northwest Earth Institute suggests unplugging some appliances that draw the most power even when they're off, and I have to admit that although I knew this was an issue from way back in the early 2000s when my friend had a house party at her tiny Portland apartment and some guy from an environmental organization told us about all sorts of environmental fixes we could do in our homes (including buying little switches to switch off outlets when you're not using things plugged into them, such as this), I hadn't done anything about it. So, this week's eco-challenge requires a bit of research.

Today I'm going to tell you about three things: 1. successfully clearing out mostly-clogged drains with baking soda and white distilled vinegar, 2. using less energy by line drying our clothes, and 3. what appliances draw the most energy when not in use. Then I'll share with you my eco-Lent goals for this week.

1. Naturally unclogging drains with vinegar and baking soda
I finally got around to doing this chore recently! I have really long hair now, and we've got 4 adults and 2 kids using one shower and bathroom sink at our house, so the drains were pretty gross. I pitched it as a science experiment to my 7-year-old and he helped me make volcanoes in our bathroom drains until they cleared out. Yay for functional drains! Even bigger YAY for not putting nasty chemicals into the water supply!

2. Line drying clothes
Living in Western Oregon, it's difficult to find a day this time of year where it's safe to line dry clothes outside, so usually I'm pretty lazy about this unless it's summer and hot all day. I've heard that dryers are one of the biggest energy users in most American households, although I couldn't find anything really reputable in a quick Internet search to confirm this. Nevertheless, this week I'm working on not drying my clothes in the dryer.

This is really hard because I have to change some of my habits and also be OK with clothes and other laundry that doesn't have that soft just-out-of the dryer feel. My family doesn't really like towels that have been line dried, for example.

Also, I too-often wait until we're running dangerously low on essential items before doing laundry, and then do several loads in a row. Unless I want wet laundry hanging all over my house, this approach doesn't work so well when line drying. I have to do a load each day, probably. It's also difficult in that we're in the habit of having clothes ready within a couple hours, so if something is in the dirty clothes there's a quick turnaround. With line drying, we have to think ahead if we're going to need a specific thing clean in a couple days. This isn't as convenient, but then again, neither is a warmer planet with rising ocean levels, etc.

3. Appliances that draw phantom power
Here's a list I found of the 12 household appliances that use the most energy when turned off.
  • Desktop computers
  • Laptop computers
  • Televisions
  • DVD players and VCRs
  • Modems
  • Cable TV boxes
  • Cordless phones
  • Stereos and radios
  • Coffeemakers
  • Lamps
  • Toasters
  • iPods and electronic gadgets sapping energy from a plug-in transformer
I don't know if this list is well-researched or not, but these seem to be themes on various similar pages. At any rate, we can't very well turn off things that run all the time like the refrigerator, but we CAN unplug all the above gadgets, or attach them to something that has an on/off switch such as a power strip. This same article says you can save 5-10% on your electricity bill (translating, presumably, to 5-10% of your total energy use) by unplugging all these small devices.

Here's where convenience comes in again. Several websites estimate that the average American home has about 40 appliances or electronics plugged in at any given time, all of which may be idle. But how annoying is it to have to plug in your lamp before you switch it on? And how many times have I pushed down the toast button and it pops back up and I realize someone randomly forgot to plug it in for some reason? I roll my eyes and plug it in.

At the same time, we have a number of small appliances and electronics that we rarely use but that sit, plugged in, drawing phantom power at all times. This article's estimate was that a VCR costs you $12.53/year when it sits around, plugged in. And who ever uses their VCR anymore??? You couldn't even get you someone to buy it for $12.53, most likely.

Goals for the week:
  • Not use the dryer.
  • Unplug all our appliances and electronics (that aren't programmed) when not in use.
  • Turn off my computer when not in use, and unplug it when the charging light turns from orange to green.
  • Take these opportunities of annoyance as moments to be grateful for the ease and convenience of modern life, and reflect on and repent for my sense of entitlement.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

eco-lent: week 5

Working through my own personal Eco-Lent challenge seems particularly timely: the United Nations released a report this week from the International Panel on Climate Change's Working Group II. This Assessment Report, "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability," starts with a bang, stating:
Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems. (p. 3)
They point to a doubling of literature documenting the effects of climate change, the human connection to the causes, and ways to adapt to such changes in the years 2005-2010. I think this is a good sign, that scientists and policy makers are paying attention to this problem and attempting to suggest solutions, even though it's a huge and scary issue. This paper cites melting ice, changing migration patterns for sea and land animals, changes in crop yields across the globe (in some places this means a better crop yield because it's warmer), and a larger number of major weather events (pp. 6-7).

As far as effects on people, the report says that climate change has already possibly impacted human health (this one hasn't been well-documented to connect the dots yet). It also suggests with "high confidence" that those already living in poverty, or in impoverished areas, feel the compounded effects of climate change alongside their already difficult situations. The report even states that they believe climate change contributes to higher rates of violence worldwide, as people are struggling person-to-person and internationally to gain access to adaptive resources (pp. 7-8).

Although we perhaps should "save the whales" for their own sake, this report is pointing out plainly that we no longer just have to be worried about whales. Saving the whales also saves ourselves. (Obviously here I don't mean spiritual salvation, I mean it saves us from destroying our planet to the point where it becomes difficult to live on it.)

The report says:
Adaptation and mitigation choices in the near-term will affect the risks of climate change throughout the 21st century (high confidence). (p. 10)
In other words, our small choices can still make a difference regarding the degree of climate change effects we'll feel in our lifetimes.

Last week I worked on "buying less." This feels kind of overwhelming. I did buy less, but part of that i because I already had enough in my house that I didn't need to go buy more throughout the week. I bought more milk and a couple things like that, but otherwise I managed to keep it to a minimum. But, of course, that just means that other weeks are weeks for buying more. When I think about the fact that I pretty much have to buy things wrapped in plastic that will end up in a landfill and in the ocean and leech back into our food supply, it can feel like I don't have the ability to make choices that have an impact.

At the same time, I feel that doing SOMEthing is better than doing nothing. I can choose to reduce my intake as much as I can, and it's better than NOT reducing my intake. It's not all-or-nothing. Incremental steps are important, and each of us can make them.

The UN climate change report states that:
Adaptation is place and context specific, with no single approach for reducing risks appropriate across all settings (high confidence). (p. 22)
To me, this means that all our local, small choices within our particular context are what DOES matter. These are the choices that begin to make a difference. Then we can tackle policy and governments across all levels of our society. The report suggests working on areas that combine with "co-benefits for other objectives" (p. 23), which I assume means emphasizing job creation and the like.

Pages 27-30 of this report have a chart that lists the key climate change risks in various areas of the world, and suggests adaptation prospects. This is a really helpful way to look at what is going on and what we might do about it in our areas. There are a bunch more charts and graphs on the following pages that look interesting and helpful, too.

This week's eco-challenge from the Northwest Earth Institute's "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet" is to use less energy by turning heat down, turning off appliances and electronics that aren't in use, and unplugging appliances that draw energy even when they're not on. I have a feeling this one is going to hit that "convenience" button again. But with the motivation of this recent UN paper, I'll attempt to set my own desire for convenience aside, and instead focus on the big picture.