Redefining “Extreme”

People tell me all the time (both verbally and silently, through their manner) that I’m extreme. Extreme for not owning a car, and for choosing to get around mainly by foot and bike. Extreme for not using air-conditioning or heat. Extreme for choosing to stay clean by taking baths in the ocean rather than firing up a hot shower several times a week. Extreme for bringing my own reusable dishes and utensils to a neighborhood association potluck. Extreme for not accepting rides that are out of someone’s way; for refusing to buy produce wrapped in plastic. For trying to get folks to stop throwing food scraps into the trash-can (rather than the compost where they belong). For even mentioning the concept of “compost” in a polite middle-class setting. For getting seriously upset with myself when I forget to tell the bartender “No straw please,” or when I leave my to-go container at home and end up walking out of the restaurant with my leftovers in a styrofoam box. For buying two vintage bird ornaments for $9 at a thrift shop, when I could have bought a whole pack of 10, new rather than used, for a dollar at the Dollar Mart. Yes, a lot of people I meet do think I’m extreme.

But do you want to know what’s really extreme? Being in the midst of a global crisis that makes World War II look like a cakewalk, and yet not being willing to implement rationing and conservation as we did so willingly for a war effort. Allowing our most beautiful, precious, life-giving forests and wetlands to be excavated and poisoned by fracking because we are not willing to cut back on our energy use. Having cancer epidemics in communities near fossil-fuel extraction areas. Having our water poisoned by mine tailings, our aquifers drained by heedless consumption. Having birds stay up chirping all night because our streetlights are so bright that it doesn’t get dark enough for wild creatures to live normally. Having our own hormones and sleep patterns disrupted by over-bright street lighting, and still keeping those lights blazing. Having even that most life-giving function, food production, be violent: mono-crop agriculture degrading the soil and yielding nutrient-deficient produce; animals treated without regard to their existence as sentient beings. Having billions of dollars, and who knows how many gallons of fossil fuel, mindlessly deployed for the “vanity agriculture” of tidy lawns. Having buildings that are designed for the windows always to be closed; buildings that go moldy and toxic without constant climate control. Having people need to bring jackets and space-heaters to their offices in summer because of the excessive air-conditioning. Having such endless demand for oil, that we are poised to begin seismic blasting undersea to prospect for oil, creating a level of noise that will impair the ability of our beloved whales, sea turtles, dolphins and other marine life to find food and communicate with their families. Homeowners’ association rules that not only encourage, but actually mandate, practices which deplete the soil, poison the aquifers, consume huge amounts of water, kill pollinators, and destroy wildlife habitat.

Just a short list, for starters off the top of my head, of things that are truly extreme in our world. The everyday, business-as-usual default setting that we don’t even question: Now that is extreme.

If we want to survive, let alone thrive, on this planet, we really need to start redefining “extreme.” What do you think?

• Further Reading: Seismic blasting disrupting marine life: “It seems harder and harder each day to find peace and quiet, doesn’t it? Cars angrily honking as traffic rushes by … all the while our phones endlessly beep, ring and buzz. It feels like constant noise is the new normal. Sadly, even marine mammals can’t escape our noise. Right now, Big Oil wants to perform seismic testing to find where new pockets of oil could be found and then drilled. … Thanks to the Trump administration, Big Oil can move forward with this dangerous plan to allow seismic exploration for oil and gas in our ocean. And they have permission to knowingly harm over 30 species of marine life, including sea turtles, fish, dolphins, and the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered species of marine mammals in the world!” To learn more about this and other crises affecting our oceans (and therefore affecting all of life on earth), visit The Surfrider Foundation website.

• Action Item: The Surfrider Foundation is suing the federal government for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. You can help by making a donation to help stop seismic blasting to test for undersea oil deposits.

Video message from the Weather Channel: “Why are there so many science-deniers? Do you just not want to admit to yourself that this is real because it’s scary? Do you just want to deny it because you have investments in land, oil and gas? I don’t understand. Yes, climate change happens naturally, but the evidence for human-accelerated climate change is irrefutable. There is a worldwide consensus among climate scientists, as well as scientists in related fields, this this is REAL and it threatens all of us. Take a look at the models, listen to the experts, view the effects. Listen to science and reason. We, as humans, are powerful. And we have the power to improve our outlook by shifting our investments and focus toward sustainable energy and new technologies. We can brighten the outlook of the future. It just starts with knowledge and a willingness to listen, learn, and accept. Then we can move forward. We’re all in this together.”

• Today’s photo: The photo at the top of today’s post was taken at the 2007 Natural Building Convergence at the Quiet Valley Ranch in Texas. Quiet Valley Ranch is also the home of the Kerrville Folk Festival, an 18-day music festival whose mission includes a permaculture education component. I built this compost box out of scrap wood and transported it on my Bikes At Work trailer to the composting site above the festival staff kitchen. Many people might call that extreme, but for me it was just a wonderful way to have fun, build my carpentry skills, and educate the public about composting!

Invincible Summer

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” — Albert Camus

Another tidbit: Have you ever heard the word “anti-fragile”? It’s resilient PLUS. When something is resilient, it has a strong capacity to recover from tough conditions and bounce back. When something is anti-fragile, it not only survives and bounces back from tough conditions, but actually gets stronger with each hit. People can be anti-fragile, or learn to become that way. And we can design the things around us (organizations, systems, and so on) to be anti-fragile.

Thoughts on Footprint and Handprint

Recently a fellow artist was telling someone about my low-footprint lifestyle. She said, “If everyone lived like Jenny, and aliens from another planet were looking down at Earth from space, they wouldn’t even be able to tell that anyone was living here!”

She meant that as a compliment, a tribute to the concept of “living lightly” to preserve ecosystems. But her words reminded me that I needed to write this post. Minimizing our footprint, while essential to our long-term survival as part of the interconnected web of life, is not the be-all and end-all. There’s something more that we human beings can do — MUST do — beyond just shrinking our footprint (our negative impact). We also need to maximize our HANDprint (our beneficial impact).

I mean, sure, we could all just try to hunker down and sit still and suck our tummies in and breathe as little as possible, but what would the point be? After all, humans are part of nature too. If you ask me, we’re meant to use our big brains to IMPROVE the world, make it better for all creatures, by working hand-in-hand with nature.

The fundamental essence of a human being is our creativity. Art, music, writing, design, engineering … If we don’t do our thing, we’re just taking up space on the planet no matter how small we try to shrink ourselves.

Many people say, “I’m just not creative.” But in fact, everyone is creative; it’s the essence of humanness. You may not have tapped into your creativity but it’s there, waiting to be utilized. Maximize your handprint! Find as many ways as possible to unleash your beneficial influence on the world.

The Power of Microclimate

Brrr! It’s cold here in Daytona Beach. At least, cold for us Floridians. Today’s high hit only the mid-50s and it’ll be going down to the 30s tonight. I know, for a lot of you who are dealing with real winter conditions, that doesn’t even qualify as chilly! But I’m most comfortable at temperatures around 85 degrees, and once the mercury dips below 65 I start reaching for the down vest and gloves!

This will be my 10th or 11th winter without using any artificial heating at home. It’s a choice motivated somewhat by money savings but even more by eco-footprint reduction. I say my main motivation is eco-footprint, but I sure do like my $15 electric bill! Many folks I know are paying $100, $200, or more. Heating and cooling are the biggest users of energy in most homes. It’s a lot easier and cheaper for people to personally heat and cool their own bodies, than it is to try to heat or cool the air in a dwelling to some agreed-upon level.

Since I live in a mild climate, going without heat is not that bad.

(Going without air conditioning is a non-issue for me, as I genuinely dislike forced-air cooling. I didn’t move to Florida to be cold ever, let alone cold in summer! I also dislike closed windows, but when it’s cool, I don’t mind them as much! My house windows are shut at the moment. The temperature outside is about 55; in here it is probably 65.)

To keep comfortable, I dress in layers. That’s the standard advice, and it works great. But also, I make use of microclimate. Have you ever noticed which rooms of your house tend to be cooler and which tend to be warmer? Also have you noticed the sun angle at different times of year?

In the warm months, my roofed patio is a cool shady heaven. When the weather turns cold, it loses its heavenly aspect and I don’t sit out there much! The living room is the warm room in winter: The sun angle at this time of year is low enough so that the sunlight comes under the awnings and strikes the tall windows, making this a pleasant room for typing and reading. It’s also a cozy space for gatherings.

My little studio-office-bedroom on the west side of the house is warm in the late afternoons with the dipping sun. Bathed in a gorgeous warm light that’s made warmer by my use of a sheer floral magenta curtain, it’s a nice place to work later in the day.

Light conditions vary too. The living room is getting darkish right now (it’s 4:39 pm EST), while my little studio office is bathed in that nice warm rosy light.

There are also dry and humid spots, both indoors and out. My concrete-surfaced patio, where lots of breezes pass through, is a dry microclimate and a great spot for my clothesline. In other places I’ve lived, where the clothesline was over grass and/or located in a spot that didn’t get as many breezes, clothes took longer to dry.

Bathrooms and kitchens tend to be humid microclimates. Sometimes too humid, especially a bathroom without a window (something I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

The real experts on microclimate are pets. If you’re not sure where the most comfortable places in your dwelling are at a given time of year — the warm spot in winter and the cool spot in summer — watch where your dog or cat hangs out.

In permaculture design class we were taught that microclimate is a huge factor, which can often override the prevailing climate. In my observation, that is true!

Courtyards on the north side of buildings, particularly tall office buildings, are rarely used. People gravitate to the sunny south sides of buildings. I’ve heard this is true even in summer.

Greenhouses create a warm moist microclimate. I’ve even heard of people growing lemons in the north of Scotland!

What examples of microclimate have you noticed in your home, office, or other environment you frequent?

Exotic Fruit from Far Away

In the United States, a lot of our food comes from thousands of miles away. Instead of having to eat in season (or should I say getting to eat in season, since local produce in season is so tasty), we’ve become used to being able to get any kind of produce year-round: pears from Chile; strawberries from Argentina; spinach from across the country.

A great way to reduce your eco-footprint is to get as much of your diet from locally grown/raised sources as possible. I grow a bit of my own greens and herbs, and also buy from local farmers at our weekly farmer’s market.

Still, I like to treat myself to something exotic sometimes. Here in Florida, apples are exotic. They usually come from Wisconsin or New Hampshire … or, when it’s summertime in the northern hemisphere, they come from South America or New Zealand. I don’t buy apples at the supermarket except on rare occasions.

But in wintertime, we get a treat at our farmer’s market, because one of the vendors is a guy who has an orchard up in Wisconsin. He comes down here every winter to sell his wares. Since he stays for the winter and he’d be coming here anyway, I don’t feel like I’m adding food miles to my eco-footprint.

It’s great to pick out a mixed bag of richly flavorful apples for $1.25 a pound: Jonagold, Fuji, Yellow Delicious and Red Delicious (which are so much sweeter than the ones sold at supermarkets), and many other varieties. The bag of apples pictured here was my exotic treat for today’s shopping trip!

Of course, now delicious grapefruits and other citrus are coming into season, so we have an abundance of produce from right here in Florida too.

Apples are exotic here in Florida, and it would be out of the question to try to grow them here. At least that’s what I always thought! Just now, out of curiosity, I googled “Can apples grow in Florida” and sure enough, the UF-IFAS site is Johnny on the spot (or should I say Jonagold on the spot!), offering a list of apple varieties that can be persuaded to grow in parts of central and north Florida. To produce fruit, the trees need 300 to 400 hours below 45F during the winter.

Caring What People Think

This past weekend at the Florida Permaculture Convergence, with 150+ other people, I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Greenfield and hearing him speak. Now THIS is a guy with a low footprint! At the moment he’s engaged in an experiment in which he has pledged to eat only what he grows or forages himself. Compared with Rob’s adventurous life, my “10% footprint” lifestyle in a conventional dwelling is downright cushy! It’s great to hear about people who are practicing a low-footprint life in a more extreme, or just different, way.

One of my takeaways from Rob’s talk is how much time and energy we spend caring about what other people think. Our eco actions and voluntary sacrifices aren’t that onerous physically, compared with the burden of “caring about appearances” and living in fear of violating the norms of conventional mainstream society.

I had one such moment last night, at a neighborhood holiday party. I had brought my own dishes and utensils to avoid using plastic disposables. This is something I do all the time, and usually people either don’t notice, or they think “What a good idea, maybe I’ll do that next time.”

However, last night was different. The people at my table had a strong reaction, could not understand why I had brought my own eating utensils and dishes. Instead of just explaining, I went into a shame-spiral and felt stupid and self-conscious, and tucked my stuff away out of sight. I ended up moving to a different table, and also ended up using the provided disposable plate (though I did use my bamboo eating utensils). The plates were compostable paper, so I felt more OK using one than if they had been plastic. And at the end of the evening I collected other people’s used plates to bring home to my compost bin. Still, it felt like a loss.

In retrospect, the way I went about bringing my own dishes to that particular party was unattractive. I had my dishes sitting on the table in a really conspicuous way that was just screaming for negative attention. Part of the problem was that they were stainless steel camp dishes, and looked out of place in the setting. Next time I’ll be a little more considerate of my social environment and won’t have to be as visually obtrusive.

For example, I could have brought a small plain white reusable plate from my kitchen cabinet, instead of the stainless-steel camp dishes that fit right in at permaculture convergences and my UU church potlucks, but stuck out like a sore thumb at my neighborhood holiday gathering.

Or, maybe more important, I could have made sure I set out from my house feeling attractive and self-confident, and then I could have explained my dishes in a matter-of-fact way with a radiant smile and gone about enjoying the party.

While we can’t allow ourselves to be consumed by caring what people think, there is a degree of social consideration that not only is basic courtesy to other people, but also serves the “cause.” Last night I lost an opportunity to be an attractive ambassador for low-footprint living. Lesson learned!

An important aspect of being an attractive ambassador for low-footprint living (or any other cause) is cultivating a consistent self-confidence. I don’t always have it in social settings, and that sometimes interferes with my ability to be an attractive influence. Most of us have our ups and downs with self-confidence, but there are many healthful practices for getting centered and maintaining. The trick for me is to always take time to do some kind of healthy thing to get my mind centered. It’s always time well-spent. Could be something as simple as listening to a favorite song. Or visiting the plants and critters in my yard. Also prayer and meditation, of course.

And oftentimes when my self-confidence is flagging, if I just remind myself of my mission in life, what I’m trying to do to make a better world, I get a boost of confidence and am not so easily derailed by social situations. How about you, what works for you?

If you want to meet someone who radiates self-confidence and is totally out there (he even went around dressed head to toe in trash, to show how much trash people living a typical U.S. lifestyle generate!), check out Rob Greenfield’s website. Though Rob’s footprint is far lower than mine, I have the feeling he never fails to be an attractive ambassador of low-footprint living. Gracious, engaging, knowledgeable, and able to bring humor to a serious subject, he has touched lives all over the world. His talk at the Convergence has given me a booster-shot of courage regarding my own choices (a really helpful thing since I sometimes second-guess my “extreme” choices, which are really only extreme in the context of a hyper-consumerist mainstream society). On his site, you can check out his TEDx Talk “Be The Change in the Messed Up World,” and read all about his projects and adventures.

Good News Nuggets

For me, the tough part of striving for an ultra-low-footprint life isn’t the physical part; that tends to be pretty trivial. (Summer without a/c in Florida is hot, big deal. Remembering to bring a cloth shopping bag and reusable cup with me on my errands — no biggie. Doing errands by bicycle on a cold windy day — yuck, but doable and I can even talk myself into enjoying it. And so on.)

What’s a bigger deal is this feeling of going up against a huge force of prevailing cultural norms. The mainstream current is strong! That’s why I find it helpful to tap into other, more eco-friendly currents that are gaining strength. Not only is it encouraging to me on my path; it also sometimes gives me new connections and communities to get involved in, and useful tips to share with my community.

I hope you find good news helpful to you on your low-footprint path too! Here are a couple of tidbits for you:

An RV park in Orlando has turned itself into a tiny-house community. The existing RV residents are still living there, and new RVers are welcome too. And in addition, gorgeous tiny houses are being built! The community has a total of 50 spaces, and there’s a waiting list for longterm residence. AirBnB short stays are an option also, not only for vacationers but also for people who are considering permanently moving there and want to try it out first. This is a hint for other cities: If you build a place like this, it’ll fill quickly. And if you market it properly as these guys have, you’ll attract the kind of residents who tend to be good citizens. What a win-win: 1) affordably priced housing for students, seniors, and others who might not otherwise be able to find a good place to live; 2) dense settlement reduces social isolation; 3) low-footprint living option: reduced automobile-dependency, increased opportunities for neighbors to share resources, etc.; 4) quality of life: easy access to nature and public transport; 5) brings together a mix of longterm residents and visitors, creating a socially vibrant community.

• Landscaping with native plants is gaining a foothold in a major retirement community! When I think of retirement communities, I usually think of excruciatingly manicured shrubbery, poisonously green lawns, and rigidly conformist HOA rules (that cause a lot of environmental damage). But I just learned that The Villages, a huge retirement community of 115,000 in Florida, has its own chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. The Villages chapter of FNPS states its Chapter Vision as, “The Villages becomes renowned for its extensive use of native plants and award winning native plant landscapes.” And from the photos I see on their site, they are making serious progress! They have been very successful at promoting native plants that attract pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, require little or no irrigation, and can be maintained chemical-free, while still allowing folks to maintain that manicured look that has become so entrenched in U.S. mainstream culture. (It’s easier sometimes to try to work with that aesthetic than try to change it). If there’s hope for a place as huge and official as The Villages, there’s hope for your HOA! Check out the Villages website and also the main Florida Native Plant Society website for inspiration, and consider joining or founding your own chapter of a native plant society, whichever state you call home.

• “Native Plant Landscaping in Managed Communities,” article in the print edition of Guide for Real Florida Gardeners. The print edition of this highly informative magazine, which contains many helpful ads for native-savvy landscapers and nurseries, is widely distributed in Florida. A free online subscription option is offered on the website.