Thursday, September 25, 2014

carbon footprint

In light of my recent experience with the People's Climate March, I'm examining my carbon footprint again. I've also started reading Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. While I am only one person, and my actions are small, I have to believe they are important in some way; as an example, as one small wallet and pair of feet. If I try as much as I can to reduce my consumption, especially the consumption of goods that have to travel halfway across the planet, maybe it will make a small difference.

What do we consume? Well, since we just moved from a boat to an apartment, we've done a s**t ton of consuming this summer. We bought furniture, some work clothes for the breadwinner and a car. Yikes! Now that the spending spree has settled down, I'm back to thinking about our regular habits. We don't buy a lot of stuff. My devotion to minimalism and the 519-square foot apartment has much to do with that. 

These are my current consumption goals: 
Keep acquisitions to a minimum.
Buy local goods whenever possible.
Use public transportation as much as possible.

Keep acquisitions to a minimum.

This goal deals with purchasing both durable and disposable goods. Beyond some very basic furniture, car and a few clothes, we make every attempt not to bring home things (crap, stuff, junk, crud, clutter, etc.). We don't have a book shelf. We don't have a TV. We have a few dishes from Goodwill and two old bikes. Ok, a few toys were allowed in the kitchen, but those are small and used often. I don't see much on the horizon for us in the durable goods category. The entertainment purchases are all pretty much digital at this point. The occasional hard copy book I buy is passed on once it is read. We do buy things like dish soap, garbage bags, shampoo and paper towels, but we try to make those last as long as possible. 

What we don't buy:
Decorations - we have nothing on our walls, nothing for any holidays. We're doing fine.
Personal adornment - makeup, nail polish, costume jewelry, hair products. We're boring.
Pet supplies - There's a big rant here about how much junk people in this country buy for pets (dog strollers!), but I won't bore you with it.
Supplies associated with home ownership - no lawn mowers, grills or garage door openers here.

Buy local goods whenever possible.

Our primary consumption category involves food and drink. I've checked out the farmer's markets, the local grocery store (conveniently on the bus line) and the local breweries. All looks good to be able to source most of what we need to eat and drink as close to home as possible. This means giving up a few things that I've been eating regularly for a long time. Bananas are going to become an occasional treat instead of a weekly purchase. Pineapples and walnuts also travel too far to be staples anymore (thank goodness, Virginia grows peanuts!). The annual bushel of sweet potatoes from the farm in Deltaville will be purchased next week, along with a pile of butternut squashes and cabbages, so we'll be eating a lot of these this winter, as we did last year. It worked out well.

Food is one thing, drinks are another. We already pretty much limit our drinks (beyond water) to coffee, tea, beer, wine and some hard stuff. Coffee and tea have to be imported; there's not much wiggle room there, although I'm going to check out these local herb teas. We have several local coffee roasters to patronize, so even if the raw product is sourced off-continent, the roasting jobs are going to our neighbors.

We have more than enough breweries in Richmond to keep me satisfied without resorting to beer from Colorado or Germany. Many of the bars have the local brews on tap, so it's easy to keep local on this one. It's fun, too, as the breweries have many seasonal varieties to try. From now on, I am committing to drinking only Virginia (and preferably Richmond) beers (unless I'm traveling).

The Captain enjoys a port occasionally in the evenings and there are some Virginia varieties that aren't too horrible. Here is the real hardship part, though. My favorite late evening sip is Laphroaig (and her myriad single malt sisters). This golden stuff has to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, with a considerable carbon footprint (heavy glass bottle with fancy packaging). Sigh. I intend to embark upon a sample tasting of Kentucky Bourbons, with the hope of finding one stinky enough for my taste. This might be the killer.

Use public transportation as much as possible.

This is the really, really tough one. We have two commutes. We chose to live in an area where we can walk for most of our errands, but the breadwinner must drive to his place of employment. We looked at living closer to work, but the ability to walk for errands and entertainment was very difficult: no sidewalks, busy roads, large parking lots to cross. The other commute is from Richmond to Deltaville on the weekends to be on our boat, Red Ranger. This is the commute that probably outweighs all of my other little carbon footprint economies, but we did get a car with good gas mileage and the driver loves watching the little chart on his display about how many miles per gallon he gets.

Beyond our two current commutes, we also love to travel.  We've enjoyed two years of complete nomadism on the boat and loved (mostly) every minute of it. Travel is extremely important to my mental well-being. It's also a huge producer of carbon emissions, so we are re-evaluating our travel destinations and modes. For Thanksgiving this year, we are taking the train from Richmond to Schenectady. We will try to take the train wherever possible. I've even considered taking the train from Richmond up to Ashland (only 21 miles) to do some sightseeing after we put the boat away for the winter. 

For years I've dreamed of extended travel in Europe, Asia and South America. The dream is one of the reasons why I wanted to buy a sailboat. Travel enhances life in more ways than one can count, but global travel also carries a big carbon footprint. Americans are used to the ability to travel the globe and we are pressured by the tourist and transportation industry to view global travel as an entitlement. Travel is (and always will be) a huge status symbol. It seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that we stay home more. I certainly want to continue sailing, but we'll do more sailing in our own Chesapeake Bay. We'll explore Virginia, whether by train, car, bike, hiking boots or kayak, but I'm going to stop daydreaming about flying off to exotic places for now. I'm going to keep exploring, but my area will be smaller and deeper.

Naomi Klein's book is about much more than making slight adjustments to one's consumption habits, but at least these are concrete things I can do.

Barely readable is the Richmond, Virginia on the label. They're very tasty, by the way.

Monday, September 22, 2014

the march

We marched.    We chanted.    We got counted.

Yesterday my long-suffering husband woke up with me at 3:00 am, drove me over to VCU to pick up three strangers, drove us all over to the James River Transportation parking lot to get on a bus with 54 other (mostly) strangers. We came together for a common cause, one that was waking people up all over the East Coast to get on busses headed for NYC. One that was mobilizing people all over the world, in 166 countries, to march together to "peoplesplain" to our world leaders at the UN Climate Summit this week, that it's not ok to continue business as usual. It's not ok to keep acting like the planet has infinite resources and that greed is more important than our environment.

The organizers of this march in NYC were top-notch. They've been driving this action for over two months. They gathered a coalition of over 1500 groups: environmentalists, justice workers, students, spiritual leaders, you name it. They provided simple instructions on how to accomplish the goal of recruiting marchers. They gave us great posters, flyers, sample letters, phone bank tactics, and more.

Communication on the day of the march was simple and efficient. Our bus captain (she-who-endured-countless-conference-calls) knew right where to direct our bus and a greeter hopped aboard as soon as we were close to the curb. The greeter gave us the marshaling plan (which our bus captain has already given us on nice card stock) and answered any last minute questions, then we were off to grab our signs from the bottom of the bus and head towards our spot on 77th street. We signed up for a text group to monitor for the moment of silence at 12:58 pm and receive other important announcements.

By the time we reached 77th, we were immersed. That's the only word I can find right now to describe the seething mass of humanity that greeted us. And we were there pretty early. It was amazing to be surrounded by so many hopeful, energetic, dedicated, concerned, steadfast and opinionated people of all ages. I saw the stooped veterans of many marches wearing their protest buttons and ribbons covering every inch of hats, t-shirts and vest. I saw thousands of students. I saw lots of babies.

The diversity of groups was astounding. I was marching with the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, so I was expecting lots of other environmental groups. We were, after all, marching in Section 3 (of 6): "We Have Solutions" - a just transition is possible - Renewable Energy, Food and Water Justice, Environmental Organizations, etc. I also saw people from other groups as they made their way to their staging areas. Sometimes it seemed like every third person had on a different shirt. I was happy our group had a big banner to carry so we could attempt to stay somewhat together.

I haven't marched in anything in quite some time and I didn't realize how important it is to wear your message. Headgear is especially important. You want to build something creative that makes a powerful statement. It needs to be big, durable, yet lightweight. Signs are a real pain to carry and when people are marching toe to heel, signs are hard to read. Best is headgear that is also a sign. Noisemakers seem to be pretty popular also. There was plenty of cowbell.

Precisely at 12:58, hands started shooting up in the air and voices (and cowbells) just stopped. There were a few seconds of the inevitable shushing noises as the slower folks got the message and then it started to get really quiet, really, really quiet. The quiet started getting deeper and clearer. The quiet became almost a thing. It got longer and energy settled. Then the wave of noise started from the front and bore down on us, catching our breath as we cheered and hollered. It was forceful. It was hundreds of thousands of people inhaling and exhaling as one.

The official count in the news media was over 400,000 people. We marched as best we could from where we were, at the end of Solutions. We finally realized that at the pace we were going, we couldn't hope to finish the march and meet our bus on time, so we cut out at 65th street, headed over to Columbus and hoofed it down to 37th to meet the bus. Six hours later, my trusty driver was there in the dark to drive us back to our beds. 

I hope and pray that our leaders understood the commitment and energy involved in gathering that many people in one place for one reason. This week, as the UN leaders debate the policies that will drive our planet's future forward, I hope they keep in the minds the image and sound of 400,000 people marching and chanting for a new direction for our finite earth.

full disclosure: I did not buy this, I earned it by being temporary assistant bus captain, taker of meeting minutes, master poster hanger, harrasser of farmer's market patrons, spreadsheet editor, bulk emailer, etc... Any one of you could do this, too. Just saying...

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Walkability is the new buzz about cities. I’m reading a book about walkable cities. I totally get it. It’s what makes a neighborhood vibrant. A person, walking, on two feet, can get around. One can go where one needs to go. I reap the benefits of walking every day. Exploring, however, it what really makes walking fun. To go exploring, especially in a hilly city, means stairs.

Stairs connect streets in places where the terrain is too steep for real roads. Cars can’t go here. Bikes have to be carried. Wheelchairs are rough. Feet are required. Feet and eyes and sometimes hands on the rails, where possible. 

I’ve been on some cool stairs over the years. We stepped up some really long stairs in Juneau. Houses are built into the hillside without any access to roads. Stairs are all you get. In some Los Angeles neighborhoods, the hilly streets are switchbacks and stairs connect the streets in straight lines, through people’s yards, so walkers can zip up and down. We borrowed my son’s roomate’s book on the subject and enjoyed several hours of exploring there.

Here is a set I found yesterday in Richmond, connecting Franklin to Main. So cool!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

hands-on study

book review - Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab 

Sometimes topics surface in multiple times in one’s awareness. The same subject appears in odd angles. Recently it has been, well, I know it sounds odd, cadavers.

I studied in nursing school back in the late 70’s. I was fascinated by the body and health. I find myself thinking about going back, now that we are living 4 blocks from one of the best medical schools in the state. The class I liked the best was anatomy.  We spent all semester with our alley cats and one day took a field trip to the anatomy lab at the state medical school to become acquainted with cadavers. It was amazing. I loved seeing the inside parts of the body all arrayed in front of us. To be able to touch the organs and see how nicely they fit together, to see the connections between bone, ligament, tendon and muscle is simply awesome.

Alley cats are easy to come by, but people are different. It makes one wonder about the path that body traveled to wind up open on the table for students to immerse their minds and hands in. 

So, I’m cruising the free book shelf at our marina for something good to read when I come across Body of Work by Christine Montross  She’s a poet, turned doctor, and she filled this book with reflections, history, psychology and an intimate look inside the process of dissection. She did a wonderful presentation about a topic that not many people like to think about. She wrote especially respectful words about what it means to donate one’s body for study. Some medical schools even have ceremonies honoring the donors after the dissections are completed and the ashes are returned to the families. 

After enjoying a good read about an odd topic, other pieces started to pop up. I chatted with both a retired funeral director and a retired anatomy professor. Then there was this article in the local paper this week about a new embalming process that renders the body flexible and not as toxic. Weird stuff, I know, but it’s all making me think about my own carcass. 

I wouldn’t mind if I was out on a table someday, for a new doctor to explore. Where do I find the paperwork?