The Hard Way?

Interaction out front of my house this morning:

Me: {trimming vegetation by hand, and pulling a few “weeds” from the sidewalk crack – not because I want them gone, but because if I pull them, maybe it will head off the powers-that-be from spraying poison on the sidewalk, whence it then washes into the storm drain}

Guy from the neighborhood, walking by: “That’s the hard way.”

Me: “Oh yeah, what’s the easy way?”

Him: “Weed-whacker.”

Me: “Ugh! Those are disgusting! Noisy and disgusting. And, I’m in shape because I do this.”

Him: {continues on his way, thinking “yeah, whatever, crazy lady.”}

Me: {continues enjoying the beautiful sunny day, getting exercise, getting to know the conditions in & around my yard, getting to connect with neighbors who pass by, and not having to be subjected to gasoline fumes, oppressive noise, or chemicals!}

So … which way is the “hard way,” again?

Although electric weed-whackers are an improvement because they aren’t noisy or smelly, the ideal would be for all this labor we currently exert on lawns and “neatness”, to get channeled instead into things more worthy of our attentions and creative energy.

Speaking of things more worthy of our energies … Today on Facebook, a permaculture design colleague shared this story about the rising popularity of “agri-hoods”: housing developments built around an organic farm. Although the article focuses on luxury developments, this model could certainly be applied to mid-range housing or low-income/starter homes.

My colleague commented, “The time is ripe for an alternative to ‘mow, blow, spray and go’ landscape contracts.” Amen to that! Besides supplying fresh food and helping people reconnect with nature, agri-hoods also have a strong community-building component. And the landscaping contracts would become FOODscaping contracts.

In Search of the Magic Bullet

“We’d be fine if only everyone would … [fill in the blank].”

“…quit having kids.”
“…stop eating meat.”
“…eliminate air travel.”

The truth is, there is no magic bullet. If there were a quick and easy solution, people and industries would’ve jumped on it. The flipside of the “no magic bullet” is that there are multiple areas that offer significant opportunities to reduce our footprint. And, a couple of those areas are extra large.

The two big areas, according to my research, are transportation and electricity.

Both the EPA and the Sierra Club report that the transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the USA, over 28.5% according to EPA. (Another EPA webpage says transportation’s share is just 26% — illustrating the difficulty of getting a definitively accurate grasp of the breakdown. Still, the fact remains that transportation contributes a large share to our collective footprint.)

Electricity is up there at 28.4%.

So, if you want to reduce your footprint, transportation and electricity are two really good areas to start.

But, if you feel moved to tackle your footprint from another angle altogether — such as reducing your food footprint, or your household waste volume, or your lawn square footage — don’t think your contribution won’t matter. After all, electricity and fossil-fueled transportation are built into just about all human activities nowadays. And, agriculture does have a sizable share of the footprint.

The EPA offers these figures by economic sector for the USA:

Transportation 28%
Electricity 28%
Industry 22%
Agriculture 9%
Commercial 6%
Residential 5%

In this article How Much Does Animal Agriculture and Eating Meat Contribute to Global Warming?, Skeptical Science includes a World Greenhouse Gas Emissions Flow Chart from the World Resources Institute.

This chart makes clear that another huge contributor to our footprint is deforestation. According to the chart, “land use change” accounts for over 18 percent of our footprint worldwide, and pretty much all of that is deforestation. Anything you and I can do to plant more trees, and leave existing trees in place, will help. The same goes for allowing prairies and meadows to remain in place, or grow back.

Speaking of agriculture, and deforestation, lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the USA, and there may be more acres of lawn in the USA than of the EIGHT next-largest irrigated crops combined!

I know I’m always harping on lawns, and those of you who love your manicured patch of green might think I’m out to spoil your fun, but the fact is that the manicured lawn generates significantly more CO2 than it absorbs. Even if you love your lawn, consider letting it grow longer between cuttings. Also, leave the clippings on the lawn, and stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Also, consider turning part of all of your yard into meadow or forest. (If you’ve got a dictatorial HOA that forbids such practices, consider moving. Or better yet, get on the board of your HOA and shape a saner policy for the future, for your kids and grandkids.)

Long story short, there is no magic bullet, but don’t let that stop you. There are plenty of low-hanging fruit for footprint reduction. Choose the ones that are easiest for you, and/or closest to your heart, and have at it!

P.S. In regard to population control, I’m not going to deny the importance of thoughtful family planning. But whenever I hear someone say the best thing that could possibly happen to the world would be for the human race to go extinct, I’m always tempted to respond, “Mmmmkay … You go first!”

Stupid Human Tricks

Photos #1 & 2: Palm trees allowed to grow naturally. Notice the graceful shape. Not only are they beautiful; they also provide habitat for bats and other essential wildlife. And shade for everyone!

Photo #3: Palm trees “neatened up” by humans. “Landscaping Gone Bad,” I call this. Some folks do this so they won’t have to trim their trees as often. But then you have to put up with a whole lot of ugly for those months that the crown is growing back (if it even grows back properly, which it often doesn’t).

And the thing is, the palm trees really don’t need trimming. They don’t need ANY human intervention at all. They are self-maintaining; they shed fronds naturally from time to time. And while the old, dead-looking fronds are still attached to the tree, they are actually providing protection and nourishment for the tree.

(And if the property owner fears that a frond is about to fall, and that it might hit someone, it’s easy enough to just clip off that one frond by hand, as opposed to deploying noisy, gas-powered heavy equipment to decimate the whole tree.)

Do we humans not have enough to do? Do we have to manufacture busywork that not only is unnecessary but actually degrades our environment and quality of life?

Another example of Stupid Human Tricks (Subcategory “Landscaping Gone Bad”) is the use of leafblowers to blow tiny, barely-visible bits of stuff around sidewalks for hours on end. The noise and fumes carry for blocks, and nothing really gets accomplished.

Deep-green living suggestion for today: Find an example of “Stupid Human Tricks” in your area (whether “Landscaping Gone Bad” or any other category of your choice, such as “Outrageous Parenting”; “Nanny Government”; “Stamping Out Beneficial Initiatives”; or what have you).

If you’ve been participating unwittingly, make a deliberate choice to withdraw your participation. If it’s a “Stupid Human Trick” perpetrated by someone else, call it out publicly in your neighborhood meeting, City meeting, letter to the editor, or other public channel. Call it out in a way that appeals to people’s self-interest. For example (in the case of the palm-tree mutilation), I can point out that it’s a waste of the limited City budget; it causes noise pollution; the gasoline fumes are noxious; or it’s putting workers in unnecessary danger. Each and every one of us CAN make a difference in stamping out stupid.

If you can’t get your neighbors, co-workers, etc., to work up any outrage over the “stupid” aspect, try pointing out the “just plain ugly” aspect!

By the way, “Stupid Human Tricks” was the title of a segment on the David Letterman Show back in the 1980s. It was pretty much what it sounded like: Silly examples of humans doing stupid stuff. In keeping with Letterman’s show, it was a hilarious segment. But the “Stupid Human Tricks” we see around us each day for real, such as overzealous landscaping, aren’t really very funny at all. They can be deadly serious, in fact.

Help Yourself and Help the Planet: Reduce Fussy Maintenance

One way to reduce your eco-footprint is to reduce the maintenance cost of your living and working environments. Maintenance cost can be viewed in terms of time, money, fossil energy, your personal energy, or all of the above. Reducing maintenance overhead is a particularly satisfying way to shrink your footprint, because you’re not only helping the planet but also freeing up your own personal resources, which you can then channel into the things that matter most to you.

Fussy landscaping is a huge drain on resources. As just one example, think of all the gasoline that gets expended each year in the United States of America just to create square shrubbery. I much prefer the approach in this photo. This business owner (a print shop in Daytona Beach, FL) obviously takes pride in the appearance of his/her lot. It’s neat and clean, not abandoned-looking. But the shrubs and other plants have been allowed to grow to a natural shape. Unlike those rigid rectangular landscapes you see, which start to look “messy” the minute one leaf falls onto the lawn, or one tendril grows up from a shrub, this site stays nice-looking with much less fuss.

Reduce your footprint by reducing maintenance. Other examples:

• Don’t have a sofa or carpet that shows dirt easily. Hey, don’t have carpet at all! Have rugs that you can quickly shake out. Or flooring that you can clean with a quick sweep or mop.

• Stop trying to keep your patio or driveway spotless. It’s outdoors; it’s not your kitchen floor or counter. Oil from cars, fruit from trees, bird poop, and just miscellaneous stuff of life is going to leave its mark on any outdoor surface. If some little spot is bugging you, the solution isn’t a scrub brush or (God forbid) a pressure washer; the solution is time. Let the passage of time bring the multitude of spots that add up to a natural, gently mottled surface. (Other solutions for an annoying spot on the driveway include a good book, or time with a friend, or some other worthwhile thing that takes your attention off your preoccupation with a pristine driveway.)

• Same with clothes. Refuse to own clothes that require ironing, dry-cleaning; that show dirt easily. Unless you happen to be one of those naturally neat eaters who never spill anything!

• Let all or part of your lawn revert to meadow or forest. Trying to exert rigid control over a large swath of land is like tackling a tar-baby. It ends up controlling you.

What are some of your favorite ways to reduce maintenance and free up your time and energy?

The Downside of Abundance

Who doesn’t like abundance? It’s great, right? But the downside, which is often overlooked, is that what starts out as abundance, soon becomes the new standard of what is “necessary.” Abundance can lead to waste and laziness.

Constraint can be good. Parameters; limitations on resources. Constraint sparks innovation. What seems impossible at first, becomes do-able as we apply our minds to the problem.

If we only ever have abundance, we can miss out on opportunities to refine and optimize design.

An insurance company decided to build a big office building in my town. Most people are happy about this; it’ll create jobs, bring foot traffic to the downtown merchants, and so on. However, the company has insisted on closing a segment of street and removing some historic houses. It “has to” do these things to create its office building. And these moves are unpopular with many residents.

But what if the company were instead to impose constraints on its design: “We will not close an existing street, nor will we tear down any historic buildings, to create our new office building.” What would happen? Of course the project would still get built! It would just be better, because it would get built without eliminating the community assets of a street and historic buildings.

We might have the striking visual of an office building wrapping around the lovely old historic homes. It would become a unique landmark, as well as a precedent for future preservation efforts.

We might have a street running through part of the office building, breaking up the monotony of a big box, and preserving pedestrian access between the shops and the residential neighborhoods. As such, the street would offer value to the new employees as well as the existing residents.

The United States, rich in land, wastes a lot of space. Rich in resources, we build excessively large things, and far too many single-use items. Some of the most functional and beautiful design comes from countries that are resource-constrained in some way: Japan; Italy; the Netherlands.

On a personal level, abundance in the form of money, time, or space can be a dual-edged sword. When constraints appear, we should not use them as an excuse to back down from our good plans or goals. We should use them as an opportunity to refine our designs, and then tackle our plans with doubled-down vigor.

A Sensible (Yet Humorous) Approach to Climate Control

Striving to live green can get to be deadly serious at times. Sometimes a humorous approach is the most effective way to wake people up to common sense.

The other day, as Daytona Beach started getting its first long-sleeve days and quilt-sleeping nights, with lows forecasted in the 40s, a friend of a friend posted this photo on Facebook, showing a thermostat with a big orange note stuck onto it, basically saying there’s no need for heat unless you can see your breath. If you’re cold, you’re not wearing enough clothes.

This note summarizes my approach to a T. I haven’t used heat in over a decade (living in FL for past 8 yrs, Austin before that). But I never thought of writing a fun sassy note like this! Great idea.

(Now to make a similar note for air conditioning, which I do not use either; have rarely used voluntarily in my life.)

Deadly Pest Control: When the Remedy Is Worse Than the Problem

I don’t know if it’s like this in other states, but here in Florida, pest control can be SEVERE. I’m talking, putting a tent over an ENTIRE HOUSE and spraying poison all inside the house and tent. The tent stays up for a day or so, with signs warning DEADLY POISON, DO NOT ENTER. After the tent is removed, the house is allowed to air out for a day or so before humans and animals are allowed back inside.

I never saw such a thing til I moved to Florida 8 years ago. I didn’t even see this back in Texas, a state which certainly has its share of critters also. The first time I saw one of the garish green-and-yellow tents billowing in the wind, with DEADLY POISON signs all around, I was horrified. The horror never wears off no matter how many times I see this.

A close neighbor’s place was just tented for pests, mainly termites and bedbugs. It’s a rental property, occupied by four tenants plus the landlord who lives on site. Bedbugs are a hideous problem that can turn a person’s life upside-down. And termites, well, they eat wood, so we don’t really want them in our houses either. Still, the tent and “deadly poison” seems like a bad idea to me. It also seems to me that pest problems just get worse and worse the more we try to eradicate everything.

Insects — tiny creatures at the base of the food chain — are being combated with DEADLY POISON. The thing about the base of the food chain is, it’s robust. It isn’t going anywhere. Nature designed it that way. Because, think about it, if the base of the food chain goes, what happens to the rest of the food chain, right on up to us humans?

By the way, all the plant life around the perimeter of the tent, to about 3 feet out, gets killed also. Grass and flowering ground-cover before; crisp brown field of shriveled death a day after.

What did we used to do before such drastic treatments? How did we deal with termites, bedbugs, roaches? Have our present-day drastic methods cut down on the numbers of pests? Are modern-day methods a deal with the devil?

Ask the pest-control guys, they’ll tell you it’s all safe and harmless. That chemicals have gotten less dangerous over the years. At the end of the day, I have to believe my own observations.

And, one thing for sure: I have yet to see or hear of a situation where fighting nature produces a good outcome. Unless we wise up and get beyond our compulsion to eradicate, nature will bat last on this one, I have no doubt.

My dear friend Charlie B, who talks with a lot of Florida old-timers in the course of his work on golf-course irrigation systems, knows an old cracker George J who swears by this termite-control method: Set up a barrier by burying logs or planks along a perimeter line a few feet from the house, say six feet. Inspect periodically, and as the wood gets termite-riddled, replace it. My understanding of this method is that it keeps the termites away from the house, preoccupied with a wood source further out.

In her autobiographical book Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling among other iconic fiction books) gives a rich chronicle of her life as a back-woods Florida homesteader. She mentions that once a house would reach a certain point of being overrun by roaches, rats, and other pests, the owner would abandon it, let it melt back into the land, and build a new one in a location slightly removed (a few yards away, if I remember correctly). This works well when houses are of modest size, and where building codes don’t bar people from building their own houses out of abundant, locally available materials.

My dear friend CB, who talks with a lot of Florida old-timers in the course of his work on golf-course irrigation systems, had a client who swears by this termite-control method: Set up a barrier by burying logs or planks along a perimeter line a few feet from the house, say six feet. Inspect periodically, and as the wood gets termite-riddled, replace it. My understanding of this method is that it keeps the termites away from the house, preoccupied with a wood source further out.

A tip I thought of, not just for termites but for pests in general: Make sure someone is living in your house year-round, so pests are less likely to develop and thrive unchecked. And live in a house that isn’t so large you can’t inspect it regularly and catch damage before it gets too far gone, necessitating a deadly toxic “solution.”

Perhaps one of the saddest visible casualties of the tenting incident was a bay laurel tree. Bay laurel trees in recent years have been hit by a blight that turns their leaves brown and kills them. One rarely sees a bay laurel tree at all here anymore. But somehow, in the shelter of my neighbor’s backyard, this bay laurel, after finally being hit by the blight maybe four years back, managed to recover and grow back bigger than ever.

The other day, at the instruction of the pest-control guy (who said it was necessary to make room for the tent), the apartment manager cut that tree down along with all the other vegetation. The trunk was a good 8 inches in diameter.

It gets sadder. Subsequently, the apartment manager heard from a different pest-control company that they wouldn’t have required him to trim back that tree, or most of the other vegetation. When I hear things like this, all I can do is take solace in the knowledge that plants, like other wildlife, will eventually bounce back.

But will we humans survive our own short-sightedness? That’s the real question.

Further Reading:

Supposedly harmless treatments can cause severe health problems, and the contractor may not issue adequate precautions to the resident: “Last winter, despite a low-level warning beacon in my gut, I hired a company to apply a chemical flea treatment in our house. … I made this decision even though I’d been a ‘ban lawn-care pesticides from our campus’ activist in college …”

• Pesticides can backfire and make infestations even worse. Read NRDC’s tips on how to control household pests without scary poisons.

Fumigating? Four easy steps to take before you tent: “Chances are, at least one house in your ‘hood is being treated for termites right now. And despite the festive clown-and-circus themed tent, the chemicals that go into the fumigation process simply aren’t funny. …”