Privilege in Green Choices: Recognize It and Use It for the Good

On recognizing white privilege as a factor in one’s ability to choose a simple low-footprint life. And how we (fellow white people and I) can use our privilege for the good.

Back in 2017 when I wrote my book, I pointed to USA mainstream consumerist culture as the main factor in planetary ecosystem degradation and worldwide human suffering. In the years since, as I’ve been educated by the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist courses and writers/speakers, I’ve come to refer to the culture I was born into as the Anglo-Euro USA-merican culture; and more recently, the white colonialist USA-merican culture.

In a recent post on her Facebook page, anti-racism educator Ally Henny mentioned a Hollywood couple who had talked publicly (in some media interview) about their family’s bathing habits. From what I gather (without having heard the interview), their mode or frequency of bathing is something less than the USA-merican mainstream social norm of daily showers with full-body soap-and-water scrubbing.

In other words, it sounds to me like the Hollywood couple are bathing themselves and their baby in a manner that’s familiar to many of us “low-footprint” folk. Many of us in the 90 Percent Reduction (Riot for Austerity), Zero Waste, Degrowth, Deep Adaptation, and related communities/movements bathe or shower only every few days (some of us even less often in winter); many of us don’t use soap on our whole bodies, at least not all the time; many of us opt for sponge-baths a certain percentage of the time rather than always doing full-body baths.

Over the years, dermatologists, other doctors, and scientists have come out saying that a more “casual” approach is actually better for our skin and immune systems. So, in addition to being better for the environment and easing our utility bills, a more relaxed approach to bathing is actually better for our health.

As to the Hollywood couple’s reasons for their relaxed approach to bathing themselves and their baby, I don’t know. Could be health; could be environmental; could be something else.

But regardless of what their reasons might be, the point Ally Henny is making in her post is that because this couple is white, they have the freedom to go against the social norms without being penalized. For example, they probably don’t have to worry about having their kids taken away by Child Protective Services. A fear that Black parents, Native American parents, and other parents of color face day in and day out.

In addition to being white, I’m sure this couple gets extra slack for being rich and Hollywood-famous.

After all, many a white but not-rich-and-famous “hippie parent” I know has been ostracized (with varying degrees of subtlety or not-so-subtlety) regarding their alternative practices on everything from child-rearing to lawn maintenance or just even how they dress, and threatened with consequences by their neighborhood association, their child’s school, and other self-appointed guardians of mainstream “respectable” social norms. Sharon Astyk, who co-founded the Riot for Austerity, even wrote about this topic in one of her books. How to live and raise one’s family in an “alternative” way without drawing unwanted attention from “authorities.” (If I find a post or article, I’ll share the link here.)

Ally Henny’s post is not about Black parents getting in trouble for going against white colonialist culture norms. Rather, the point she’s trying to make is that here’s this white couple going against the norms and not having to worry about consequences (other than maybe getting made fun of on social media), while Black parents are constantly having to be on guard to avoid getting in trouble, maybe having their kids taken away from them, for anything that’s perceived (in the twisted mind of “the system”) as being wrong or indicating neglect.

My takeaways right now as a climate activist:

• No matter how much grief we white people might get for our “alternative/green” lifestyle choices, it pales in comparison with what Black people and other people of color face who are just minding their own business, not even trying to be “alternative.” Therefore, to the extent that we believe in our “low-footprint lifestyles” as having the power to shift our toxic cultural norms and cushion humanity from the worst impacts of climate change, we have to muster up more courage and push back harder against the norms. We have an obligation to current and future generations to use our white privilege to make the difference. (By the way, the various low-footprint lifestyle communities/movements have attracted Black people, Native Americans, and other people of color, but these communities/movements are very predominantly white, and this post is addressed to my fellow white people. We need to step it up and use our privilege to shift our toxic culture.)

• In addition to having an obligation to all current and future humans, we also have an obligation to Mother Earth and all her creatures to clean up the mess our ancestors started when they (sometimes deliberately; sometimes not knowing better) created a “culture” characterized by the bleaching-out of culture. All of us originally (ancestrally) came from countries where the ways of life were more sustainable and closer to nature, more entwined with the natural rhythms of life, and not coincidentally more spiritual, than what we ended up co-creating with industrialized colonialist USA-merican “culture.” We may not be able to fix this mess overnight but that’s no excuse not to make it a full-on priority.

Further Exploration:

Over the past 2-3 years, my understanding of the many facets of racism has grown considerably, and I owe this evolution in large part to two educators, both Black women.

Ally Henny, allyhenny.com (Facebook posts; podcasts; Patreon)

• Nicole Cardoza, Anti-Racism Daily (daily email newsletter; podcasts)

“Maybe holding it barely together is OK”

“It’s interesting how there is a message not to panic and break down in grief or terror or rage upon witnessing the galloping collapse of the climate system and its terrestrial effects of floods, heat waves, drought, wildfires and superstorms. This message to ‘hold it together’ comes from deep within ourselves, where the instinct toward survival resides, and from the greater society, which operates on the unthinking imperative to maintain its current trajectory. Personally, I’m going to endeavor not to pressure myself to squelch grief or terror or rage at what is occurring, unless it threatens me with total dysfunction. The stifling of extreme emotion upon witnessing horrors and idiocies is part of what landed us in the soup in the first place. …”

Beautiful post by Dan Hanrahan; read the rest here.

Climate Fire & Brimstone

• “More than a billion marine animals died in the heatwave that swept across the Western U.S. and Canada last month. The climate crisis doesn’t exist in some hypothetical future — it’s already here. … At the moment, climate disaster is most visible in the U.S. and Western Canada in the forms of mass die-offs, unprecedented conflagrations, and struggling farmers, and in Europe in the form of deadly flooding. But the climate crisis has more subtle and insidious effects, ones that tend to impact less industrialized countries, poor people, and people of color more acutely than anyone else. In the Republic of Palau … rising sea levels are salinating its agricultural land, making it impossible to grow crops that aren’t salt-tolerant. And in the U.S., decades of racist housing policy, known as redlining, have left Black neighborhoods in many of the nation’s cities sweltering in the summer heat … due to a lack of green spaces and an abundance of pavement and concrete. White neighborhoods, on the other hand, tend to be much cooler.” (“Climate Disaster Looks Like Thousands of Boiled-Alive Mussels on a Beach in Vancouver.” Terrence Doyle, eater.com, July 21, 2021.)

• “Some of Europe’s richest countries lay in disarray this weekend, as raging rivers burst through their banks in Germany and Belgium, submerging towns, slamming parked cars against trees and leaving Europeans shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction. Only days before in the Northwestern United States, a region famed for its cool, foggy weather, hundreds had died of heat. In Canada, wildfire had burned a village off the map. Moscow reeled from record temperatures. And this weekend the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for yet another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the American West. The extreme weather disasters across Europe and North America have driven home two essential facts of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor live with it.” (“No One is Safe: Extreme Weather Batters the Wealthy World.” Somini Sengupta, nytimes.com, July 17, 2021.)

• “Without the shade trees, it’s going to be a hot summer for those impacted by Hurricane Michael. … the areas where millions of trees fell during the Category 5 storm are heating up faster, and a little hotter, than the surrounding areas. ‘The trees reduce the sunshine absorbed in the ground … They keep it a few degrees cooler … we are noticing on the satellite imagery those areas where Michael knocked down a lot of trees are warmer.’ … In addition to the warmer temperatures, with an estimated 72 million tons of wood on the ground one of the major threats is fire. Officials have described the impacted swath as a tinderbox just waiting for a match. … Officials are also worried about the opposite end of the spectrum – flooding. The downed trees have created a two-pronged problem for water management. One, without them being there to absorb the water there is more of it that needs to be managed, and two, with the debris on the ground they have essentially created hundreds of thousands of little dams that obstruct flow, causing back ups.” (“Hurricane Michael destroyed huge swaths of trees. Now, those areas are heating up hotter and faster.” Katie Landeck, nwfdailynews.com, May 23, 2019.)

• “The season Americans thought we understood — of playtime and ease, of a sun we could trust, air we could breathe and a natural world that was, at worst, indifferent — has become something else, something ominous and immense. This is the summer we saw climate change merge from the abstract to the now, the summer we realized that every summer from now on will be more like this than any quaint memory of past summers. … America has known dreadful summers before. The summer of the Manson family murders in Los Angeles in 1969. New York’s Summer of Sam in 1977. The summer of 2019, when there were 26 mass shootings in 18 states, including one of the worst hate-driven massacres in modern American history at a Walmart in El Paso. What is different this time is the sheer volume of catastrophe, natural and man-made — and a sense that there is no turning back from it.” (“Is This the End of Summer as We’ve Known It?” Shawn Hubler, nytimes.com, July 28, 2021.)

How To Build a Nation of Cyclists – Tips from the Netherlands

Many of us think of Holland as a nation where people get around primarily by bicycle. That appears to be the case now, but apparently it was not always so; the Netherlands was car-dominated for a few decades before deliberately setting about promoting cycling as transportation for the masses.

In this little 3-minute video, the Netherlands correspondent of BBC.com talks with a representative of the Dutch Cycling Embassy (how great that such an organization exists!) to find out how they did it.

Tips include: Make sure there are pathways separated from the automotive traffic, and that riding is comfortable and safe for anyone whether age 8 or age 80. Provide plenty of parking. Give cyclists the right of way. And — a biggie here — write it into auto insurance policies that when motorists get into an accident with a bicyclist, the onus is on the motorist to prove they were not at fault.

Here in Florida, the main things needed, in my observation, are

1) shade trees along roads and sidewalks;

2) bike lanes or at least shoulders to ride on; and

3) education (for motorists – regarding the need to share the road; and for bicycle riders – regarding the need to obey the laws same as any other wheeled vehicle).

Awareness is key.

Bicycle and foot are my main modes of transport. I don’t own a car (though I have owned cars for periods of my life). I’d love to see a network of cycling lanes not only in every city, but linking all cities! The other day I read that in France, there’s a paved bicycle path from Paris to the Normandy coast. Over 200 miles! Imagine the low-footprint adventures a family or group of friends could have! And for people who often travel solo, like me, it would feel very safe and comfortable to travel this way.

How about you — What is your main mode of transport? Is there anything that would help or encourage you to get around primarily or entirely by walking, cycling, or other human-powered transport, if you don’t already?

My RIOT story

Someone in the Deep Adaptation group posted a question that boils down to, Is it really possible to live in such a manner as to bring our net emissions down to zero? And if so, what would that look like?

I responded:

Thank you for starting this thread! Good questions you raise.

Around 2004, I got the idea to try to live in such a manner that, if everyone were living at a similar footprint, it would be “low enough” for human life on earth to be sustainable. I had no scientific background, no ecological training (other than spending a lot of time out in nature), had not yet studied the concepts of “embodied energy” and “energy return on energy invested” (would learn those later, in permaculture design classes).

But I just “knew” that solar panels, various techno fixes, etc, were not going to save us. I felt that the key was just … radically reduce!

I was totally operating on intuition. Just trying to have the smallest possible footprint. Since I never was into having a lot of stuff or living a typical USA lifestyle, it was a natural direction for me.

Around 2007 I “met” some fellow bloggers who had started a grassroots movement of people aiming to live at 10% of the average USA American’s footprint. They had actually figured out metrics and everything! And I found out that my low-footprint mode was pretty much in line w the metrics they had figured out.

(The metrics were/are in categories: water use, electricity use, gasoline consumption, consumer goods purchased, food footprint, volume of trash discarded, etc.)

This movement was (is) called the Riot for Austerity (also known as the 90 Percent Reduction Challenge), and it is still going on, although its online community is not as active as it was at one point.

BTW the metrics adopted by the people who started this movement were based on a book by George Monbiot called Heat: How To Stop the Planet from Burning. Monbiot, a climate activist and journalist who has studied the science in depth, says we need to reduce our per-capita footprint to 6 percent of the average USA resident’s. Now, Monbiot’s book was not suggesting household-level changes; it was more about what governments needed to do in the way of policy, infrastructure etc to bring this about.

It was the Riot folks who translated his concept into household-level metrics. (The Riot rounded it to 10 percent for simplicity’s sake.)

The vast majority of people on the planet are already living at a tiny fraction of the average USA resident’s footprint. The Riot for Austerity movement is a call to action for those of us living in the USA and other wealthy industrialized nations.

Although, as I mentioned, the online community is not as active as it was at one point, many of us have found good company, and even enjoyment and a sense of purpose and adventure, in this movement.

I sense that many fellow RIOTers are, like me, very much on a path of Deep Adaptation.

(To check out the discussion thread, join the Deep Adaptation group and do a search on “Riot for Austerity.” Lots of people are giving very thoughtful responses to this thread.)

Further Reading:

• “One Tonne of Carbon per Year – This is what net zero carbon looks like” (RosalindReadHead blog — suggested by one of the people commenting on the DA thread I mentioned). Another approach to right-sizing footprint. I will need to learn more — become more “carbon-literate” — in order to be able to calculate my footprint using this approach. The writer is running for Mayor of London on a platform that includes radical de-carbonization.

How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything (book and website), by Mike Berners-Lee. This book, mentioned by people in the DA thread and by RosalindReadHead on her blog, is now on my reading list. Berners-Lee is also author of other books, including There Is No Planet B.

Responses to Complaints About Gas Prices Going Up in USA

So many people on Facebook, NextDoor, etc. are griping about gas prices right now! Even some politicians are whining. Usually I keep my mouth shut but sometimes lately I respond.

• Supply and demand. People are traveling more because it’s summer. Also, the prices were ultra low for awhile because of the pandemic shutdowns.

• (To people blaming whoever is in office): Forced car ownership from petroleum-reliant street design & development patterns since the post-World War II era is a burden on the working classes, and on the public health of all of us. Design that virtually forces people into car ownership is a decades-old, dysfunctional experiment, for which we cannot foist the blame on any one person or party.

• My favorite way to save on gas is not own a car. When I occasionally rent a car, it doesn’t much matter to me if the price of gas is $4 or $2 or whatever — I actually barely notice. I rent supercompact high-mileage vehicles for the occasional (every few years lately) long trip. And once a year or so, I rent a pickup truck or box truck for a day, and use it to run a bunch of heavy errands such as buying trees or other large plants.

• For a good reality check: Check out gas prices in Europe, Japan, and other places outside the USA.

• I dream of the day when gas prices get so high that people decide they don’t need leafblowers or other noisy fussbudget lawn appliances.

• Nobody owes us artificially cheap fuel, or any other artificially cheap goods (the prices of which completely fail to reflect the environmental, social, and economic damage they cause all over the planet). Wake up America, the revolution will not be petro-subsidized!

References for July 18 Talk

This Sunday, July 18, I will be giving a talk, by Zoom, for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of West Volusia (in Deland, FL).

Often, after my talks, I follow up by emailing the organizer a list of the people/references I have mentioned in my talk, so people can explore in greater depth the ideas I have only touched on.

This time I’m trying something different: Post my reference list before the day of the talk, and make it available even to people who are not able to listen in realtime.

My upcoming talk derives ideas and inspiration (and maybe a few direct quotes) from the following sources:

• George Monbiot’s book Heat: How we can stop the planet burning (2006; also released in 2007 under the title, Heat: How to stop the planet from burning). Monbiot’s book was one of the foundations of my effort to help launch a low-footprint-lifestyle revolution. Here is an excerpt from Monbiot’s book.

• The Riot for Austerity movement (also known as the 90% Reduction Challenge), a grassroots movement of voluntary household-level footprint-reduction inspired by Monbiot’s book, is alive and well, although its online presence does not seem to be as active these days. Here is the “Riot” Facebook group; 152 members worldwide.

“Entering the Bardo” (Joanna Macy, in dailygood.org): “We are in a space without a map. With the likelihood of economic collapse and climate catastrophe looming, it feels like we are on shifting ground, where old habits and old scenarios no longer apply. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a space or gap between known worlds is called a bardo. It is frightening. It is also a place of potential transformation. … When we dare to face the cruel social and ecological realities we have been accustomed to, courage is born and powers within us are liberated to reimagine and even, perhaps one day, rebuild a world. Do not look away. Do not avert your gaze. Do not turn aside.

“Why Do We Work So Damn Much? Hunter-gatherers worked 15-hour weeks. Why don’t we?” Ezra Klein interviews James Suzman (transcript; New York Times) (includes link to audio podcast also): How much of what we think of as deeply ingrained “human nature” is actually a product of one’s culture? And cultures differ from one to the next. Contrary to what many of us steeped in the wealthy industrialized colonialist worldview might think, not all cultures value acquisition and hoarding as much as ours does. Some outright eschew such behavior, and are much more sharing-oriented. Interesting reflections based on anthropologist Suzman’s observation of a modern-day hunter-gatherer society.

“Apocalypse & Awakening: Interview with Mary DeJong” (allcreation.org): Rewilding; indigeneity (exploring/reclaiming our ancestral roots as a path for spiritual and cultural revitalization); reframing our connection with nature — “from ‘I and it’ to ‘I and Thou’.” Putting one’s ear to the earth; listening to one’s bioregion. Extremely restorative and mind-expanding 57-minute talk by Mary DeJong, founder of Waymarkers, “a project offering an exceptional collection of curricula, retreat experiences, writings, spiritual companioning experiences, and nature-based art to help Christians and people of all backgrounds restore their relationships to the sacred in each other and the more than human world … Mary is also co-founder and chair of Cheasty Green Space, a 43-acre public park rewilding project in Seattle, and a noted theologian.”

“How To Enjoy the End of the World” (talk by Sid Smith (B. Sidney Smith) for Green Party of Virginia): This hour-long talk packs quite a lot in, including an excellent (if sobering) overview of Energy Return on Investment, and how it has declined since its peak in the mid-20th century. The “Energy Cliff”: We are falling off. And some tips on how we might constructively face the collapse of our civilization. Also check out BSidneySmith.com

Groups/movements:

To quote Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green!” Going against the prevailing consumerist cultural norms can be very socially stressful, on top of the often-daunting logistical challenges. We who aspire to live a low footprint need moral support!

In that spirit, here is a short list of virtual communities that I have found to be reliable sources of practical tips and moral support. (Where you don’t see a link, just copy-paste the group name into Facebook search. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, some of these are accessible to any member of the public.)

Zero-Waste, Zero Judgement (over 35K members; worldwide)

The Non-Consumer Advocate (over 81K members; worldwide)

• Degrowth – join the revolution (over 3K members; worldwide) (“for those willing to consider that economic growth is wrecking the biosphere”)

Deep Adaptation (over 12K members; worldwide)

Regenerative Consciousness Community (over 18K members; worldwide)

And, for locals in central Florida, here are some local resources I admin or co-admin:

• Daytona Beach Permaculture Guild

• Florida Permaculture Net

Edgewater Environmental Alliance (900+ members, mainly in Volusia & Brevard counties)

If you are located in a different geographic area, try searching terms such as “permaculture”, “zero-waste”, “environmental group” together with the name of your town or region. Other terms to search: Bioregionalism; Transition Towns.

And, everyone everywhere: I invite you to explore this blog, which wanders into every tangent I can think of regarding how to live lightly on the earth and greatly enrich your life. And for a more concise, nuts-and-bolts guide, check out my book DEEP GREEN! It’s available here on this blog for all to read; and also you can get your own print copy by ordering direct from me.