UNLESS

*crossposted from Seven Deadly Divas*

Forty-ish years ago, a senator by the name of Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) organized a nationwide environmental teach-in to help educate children and the population about environmental concerns. This was called Earth Day, and the first year saw about 20 million people participating.

Now, around 500 million people will “participate” in Earth Day (or Earth Week) around the globe.

It’s an interesting holiday, and one that has sparked a bit of back-and-forth within the environmental community, for a few reasons.

My own criticism of the holiday stems largely from the idea that we can learn about all kinds of things in one day, but UNLESS we actually make a change that matters, it won’t make any difference. Giving people a token action (say, giving money once to a local environmental charity) is not that useful if it is a one time token action. The money will be well spent, but one donation does not an environmentalist make.

Also, a lot of the things pushed for Earth Day are trivial.

Yes, choosing to use a reusable bag is a worthwhile investment, as it chooses to use a reusable thing rather than a disposable one… except that many reusable bags are made of plastic (more petroleum) or cotton (a crop that requires HUGE amounts of chemicals in most growing operations). And that paper bag comes from trees, and requires a lot of processing.

In short, most of the advice – like these stamps supposedly rolling out from the USPS this week – is insipid and silly in a culture that already KNOWS that there is shit going down with the environment. Maybe it’s because I had the luxury of being in grade school after the onset of Earth Day celebrations, but I’ve heard “turn off the water when you brush your teeth” since I was old enough to brush my teeth.

Most people have already chosen where they will or will not make changes. Right now, human wants are going to trump proposed “environmental changes”, especially when they’re inconvenient, or painted as inconvenient by industries that would be harmed by the change. And really, many “good” changes cost money – even so called “simple” ones like adding insulation to your house. Plus, some people think that anyone asking them to take care of the environment is just taking away their God Given Freedom To Do Whatever The Hell They Want as they throw still lit cigarette butts from their neon orange Humvees.

But then, if I look back at what I just wrote, there was a level of success there. Learning about the environment and taking care of it was just part of the April curriculum at school. It gave us a chance to plant trees and learn about sprouting beans in the classroom window.

If Earth Day can make little knowledge accessible to little kids, then I’m all for it. Much like Earth Hour, though, it’s only useful if we take it beyond one day. Knowing that you should do something is different than doing it.

Planting a tree is no use if all you do is plant it, and then leave the poor little sapling to shrivel up and die in the summer heat with no water. You did little for the environment UNLESS you kept up with caring for it.

Earth day works if Earth Day is a seed, not the full extent of the education.

As with any project, though, we have to start somewhere.

The used bookstore where I work spends a lot of time and resources on recycling and other small community education programs, as well as chain wide “competitions” (where stores work to use fewer bags for purchases, and then the Corporation donates a certain amount of money for each declined bag to a nation wide charity). Plus, a used bookstore is, at heart, a recycling operation. Our receipts for sold merchandise say “Thanks for giving a new life to your stuff.”

So today, as part of our store’s celebrations of Earth Day, I’ll be reading The Lorax aloud to whatever children I can find to listen. This will happen (in some form or another) in all the Half-Price Books stores in the country.

And I will emphasize to them the great UNLESS that Dr. Seuss poses to all of his readers. The challenge of UNLESS that is central to the message of The Lorax:

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

-The Lorax, Dr Seuss

Storytime with Anna

As I was practicing for my performance of The Lorax at work, I recorded myself reading it. I figure if I post that on the internet, I’ll have a HUGE audience, and that’ll be a little less nervous than reading for my coworkers and customers.

So here you go: The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

(And yes, it’s better with pictures)

The Hidden Costs

(This is kind of a rant. Apologies. I don’t really offer a lot of solutions here, because I just … well, I don’t have them. But knowing about them is a start, even if the only thing I can do this week is choose to have hummous and tabbouleh for dinner (homemade and, as much as possible, home grown – and yes, I can post recipes!) one night instead of burgers. There are no “good” answers, only slightly better ones. I really dislike being all DOOM about this, because that doesn’t solve anything. At the same time, not saying anything … doesn’t solve anything either. So anyway, a rant about my frustration with food.)

I wouldn’t marry a farmer,
He’s always in the dirt.
I’d rather marry a railroad man
Who wears a striped shirt!
– From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake

There’s a bit of a discussion happening over at Seven Deadly Divas about where ethical choices begin and how any of us can have fun knowing where “stuff” comes from. It’s worth reading the original post, since this is as much a reply as anything. (It started as a comment and got WAY out of hand. My tedious verbosity knows few bounds.)

So anyway.

It pretty much sucks to be a farmer right now. The seeds, processing, shipping, and grocery stores are all controlled by a handful of companies (literally – there are about 5) who own almost the entire market share of food production in the US – as well as a large portion of that same market abroad. Seeds are being designed to self-destruct after one year, and it’s illegal for farmers to save seeds anyway, they have to buy new seeds every year – from the same companies who then lowball them on prices to sell to supermarkets and whose budgets allow the supermarkets to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a product on the shelf, making it impossible for the farmers to afford it themselves.

So these men and women end up “contracted” by various large companies, and go so far into debt that they often can’t even sell the farm to get out of it. Selling the farm incurrs capital gains tax, and they’ll often end up in MORE debt by trying to leave.

The average farmer makes about $0.15 per dollar of consumer cash spent on food. The rest? Goes to the companies in between – and that’s gross, not profit. Prices go up due to gas shortages? Farmers don’t get any of that increase, even though their equipment and a large percent of the farm pesticides, antibiotics, and fertilizers are derived from petroleum or rely on the petroleum industry (that’s another post).

It’s a little like serf-dom, really.

And then you get to the processing part.

A lot of people talk about what it’s like for the poor animals who live in factory farms. They’re absolutely right, of course. It SUCKS. Pigs and cows and chickens living in feed lots are not really living – unless you count standing on a grated floor eating other ground up animals and wallowing in your own shit all day as “quality of life”.

But there’s a human toll to this as well. The people who work in fields as farm labor are exposed to really nasty pesticides. It’s not much better for people who work in animal feed lots (who are required by the big companies who own their contracts to do exactly as the big companies say, including the feed lot housing and animal numbers, as well as then eat the cost when the animals get sick from the process).

And when things go wrong, at say, a pig farm, and the “Lagoon” of pig excrement busts a dam, and you have TWENTY FIVE MILLION GALLONS of pig shit that flood the countryside? Well, that’s pretty shitty for the wildlife AND the other people who live there – pun absolutely intended.

So it sucks to be a farmer. Back in the day, it was less sucky to be a meat packer, because the pay was better. So people leave the farms to get jobs in the meat packing industry.

Except that’s… well, worse. Repetitive stress injuries, huge lawsuits, no worker’s organization for any kind of bargaining rights, 13 hour days followed by cramped, insufficient, vermin-ridden company housing that’s deducted from your minimum-wage paycheck.

Ok… stepping off the soapbox. If you want articles for any of this, I’ll be happy to give references.

The other side of the problem, and where this intersects with the Divas post?

Everyone has to eat.

Everyone. If you don’t eat, you will die. It’s not exactly an arguable fact of nature. Same goes with water. If you don’t drink water, you’ll die too, and much faster. (And the amount of water pollution caused by 25 million gallons of pig shit is… well, ew.)

So when you go to the grocery store, all you see is a pre-packaged, neatly wrapped tray of pork chops, chicken breasts, or ground beef. (Another facet of the industry recently taken over by the processing companies – they used to ship whole animal sections to grocers for butchering, now it’s pre-packaged and boxed.) That shrink wrapped package on sale for $2.48/lb doesn’t say what happened to the animal or the people who produced it – those costs are hidden by the system of production and packaging.

Food prices are unquestionably rising, even as the US continues to ship about 30% of its crop overseas every year due to surplus. So we’re all paying more for food that comes from pretty terrible places, shrink wrapped into sterility. Which means our food dollars go less far, leaving less room to buy organic and locally produced food that just might offer a halfway decent quality of life to the people and/or animals involved.

Stephanie’s comment at the Divas is probably the most pertinent here – we all have to know our sphere of influence. Know what we CAN affect, and what we can’t. And, really, to pick our battles. If I allowed myself to get involved in all the things that bother me in environmentalism and human rights, I’d go crazy. And so, I’ve picked food and water. I figure that’s about as basic as they get, unless you’re in South Dakota in January, and then shelter is probably more important.

But even after choosing my battles, I can’t take on Monsanto, Cargill, ConAgra, Tyson, or Premium Standard Farms.

I can grow some of my own vegetables – a prospect that seems less and less like just a “hobby” skill. I can eat less meat, and try to eat the best meat I can afford (even though I know there are problems on that front too). I can shop at a local farmer’s market and be thankful that I have one available.

Except that it takes me 40 minutes to drive there, in my gasoline powered car.

Intersectionality kind of sucks.

Clotheslines and Eco-Bullshit

I live in Texas.

In Texas, it is HOT in the summer. Our air conditioner runs almost continuously during the heat of the day, and we keep it set at 80 degrees. Running an electric clothes dryer, even one next to the wall that vents outside, only adds to that burden and contributes to my being a sweaty mess, sitting half-naked under a ceiling fan eating frozen grapes.

Ahem.

So I decided to pester Spaceship Husband until he’d help me set up a clothesline. (I’m short, he’s tall. Much easier if he helps.)

After some hemming and hawing, we opted for a “trial run” of a clothesline looped between two trees in our yard. I’d suspect it cost about $10 to set up – two bags of clothespins and a length of poly clothesline. It’s not perfect (it tends to loosen itself), but it works for now and will be super easy to take down if we have guests/etc.

I’ve learned a few things though, since I installed it. Call it “trial by sunlight” if you will:

  • If you have a yard full of mosquitoes, they will eat you alive while you hang clothes. Bugspray is your friend, and try not to be out at twilight.
  • Clothing hung on a line can be a little stiff if it’s a “knit” and not a “woven” – a couple of good shakes and snaps can help, and that stiffness will wear out in a few minutes.
  • If you hang your clothes in the sunshine, hang them inside out, otherwise the sun can fade them.
  • A clothesline that is a little bit too tall is OK – it’ll sag some when you get clothes on it.
  • You’ll want a good number of clothespins (50 is a good start, I have about 100 – they’re very inexpensive), and you’ll want an easy way to get to them. A canister in the laundry basket works. My favorite is in a simple pocket-apron. You may also be able to find patterns for cool clothespin hangers that actually hang on the clothesline.
  • Put the laundry hamper in the middle of the line and work from there, otherwise you’ll have to keep moving the hamper.
  • You can pair up your socks as you hang them – leave space after each one, and add in the second of the pair when you find it. Then you can just fold straight from the line.
  • It takes about an hour for average clothes to dry on the line – longer for towels, less for sheets. Your mileage will, of course, vary by location, temperature, and wind.
  • Some things (like jeans) you’ll probably still want to put through the dryer. That’s OK too. It’ll take a few loads of laundry to figure out what those items are. One run of the dryer is a LOT less hot than four.
  • Some things, like sheets and cotton things, will actually be LESS wrinkly if you dry them on a line. Which means less ironing. Woo!
  • If you don’t have a yard, you may be able to hang a retractable clothesline on a porch (if you have one of those). If you can’t hang a clothesline in the yard OR on a porch, consider some wooden folding drying racks that you can put up inside. I got mine at Target, I think. I use them for … unmentionables … but they can be used year round and in the rain too. Actually, I think having at least one is a good idea for anyone, clothesline or not.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave things overnight if you need to – one night won’t kill the clothes, and the sun should burn off any dampness quickly. Rain, however, poses a possible soggy problem.
  • Your clothes really will smell good. Kind of… breezy and outside-y. They won’t smell like overheated fiber, like clothes out of my dryer do (even on “low”). And it’s free, post rope purchase.

I’ve been pretty pleased with the results. For one, it encourages me to do laundry intermittently, and not try to cram it all into one hot day whereby I swear off even looking at the washer for another two weeks. It also gets me outside – which is HOT too, but for some reason it’s different being in the sun/wind than it is roasting away folding hot clothes in my living room. (Also, the clothes off the line are sun-warmed, but not nearly as burn-your-knuckles-on-a-button hot as clothes out of the dryer).

And honestly, with as much time as I spend in the garden, I’m out there anyway – I can usually hang a load of damp clothes from the washer, water the garden, weed, do any other garden chores, and then take things down.

Now for the eco-bullshit part.

I’ve debated about writing this post for a few weeks, because of what it could get construed into meaning.

There is so much crap, for lack of a better term, piled onto things like this. I’m not necessarily trying to “get off the grid” (I like me some internets), and I’m not trying to be political. But I do think it’s smart to take advantage of things – like my time (I’m still unemployed) and the sunshine and wind, and my love of gardening and being outside. And if that can be “eco-friendly”, save energy or water, or save myself a few bucks, I’m all for it. That doesn’t give me any moral superiority, it’s just what I can do with what I have.

I think taking care of the earth is smart and responsible. I also think that living like a “modern human” is pretty great too.

I’m not sure why it’s so politically charged to replace burned out light bulbs with fluorescents (which, admittedly, have their own issues) or use reusable things vs. disposable ones or have a garden or recycle or maybe put up a clothesline or a rain barrel (most of which are done as much in the name of saving a few dollars as being “eco-friendly”) without getting sucked into the judgmental, us vs. them, “green” bullshit.

I guess what I’m looking for is perspective – not making things into some great political decision, not demonizing someone who can’t afford to do “X”.

I like showers and my washing machine and being able to read a book in bed with the light on (or turn on a light so I don’t stub my toe into the bathroom door at 3am). And I like growing a garden and finding ways to keep it happy without using chemicals (when I can) and drying my clothes on a line and canning pickles.

That shouldn’t sound mutually exclusive, and I don’t think it has to be.

And I’m really not sure where I’m going with this, at this point. I’m obviously not saying that being environmentally conscious is bad. I just think that there HAS to be a middle ground somewhere, and that there’s a level of name-calling and finger pointing that gets lumped into these kinds of discussions that I don’t like. These kinds of “eco-conscious actions” get politicized so often, and they don’t need to be. Some of them are just fun for me to do (pickles), others make financial sense (clothesline, energy saving appliances), others are little, practical things that anyone can do (using a reusable vs. disposable thing). There’s a HUGE margin (and a happy medium) between Patrick Pollution and Ginny Granola*.

I think most of us fit in the middle somewhere, and that’s OK.

*How did granola get to be such a symbol of the radical environmental movement? It’s tasty…