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.

Gratitude, and the Upside of “Not Having”

This old family photo, taken one Thanksgiving about 70 years ago, is one of my favorites. Those were simple times when people didn’t have much, but I can feel everyone’s joy and gratitude spilling right out of the picture.

This past Sunday as I was riding my bicycle home from church, where the sermon was about gratitude, I came upon my favorite pine tree, a really pretty, towering specimen with long soft needles. Not only is it a beautiful tree; it also sheds regularly, providing me with great mulch for my yard. As is my habit, I grabbed handfuls of the pine needles that had collected in the gutter, and stuffed into my bicycle panniers as many as would fit.

Many Sundays as I’m riding to or from church along that long road, I see curbside treasure such as huge piles of leaves; furniture; plants; lumber; piles and piles of bamboo poles. Many times I have regretted not having a bicycle trailer. Then again, when I look back over the months and years that I have NOT been able to pick up stuff because I didn’t have a way to carry it home, it comes to me that if I had picked up all the stuff I thought I wanted, my house would be crammed with junk.

And when I look back, I can’t really remember all the stuff that was so great I just thought I absolutely needed it. One of my favorite quotes, by ultralight hiker Ray Jardine (of Ray-Way Tarp fame), comes to mind: “If you need it, but don’t have it … you don’t need it.” There are advantages to NOT being able to carry home everything.

Along with my haul of precious mulch, I also carried home plenty of gratitude. Our pastor had spoken about the “market gods” and how they fuel our desire for more, more, more — and how it never ends up being enough. My favorite antidote to that insatiable feeling is to deliberately feel gratitude in the moment. Gratitude turns whatever I have into more than enough.

Back when I lived in an RV, every little inch of space was a gift. Sometimes I’d free up a couple centimeters of space, and it would really feel like miles and miles of Texas! (I was living in Texas at the time, and would often break out into a joyous chorus of “Miles and Miles of Texas” when I’d discover some unused inch of space here or there in the RV.) This joy at a small thing is a huge feeling.

One time on a solo bicycle trip from Austin to New Mexico, I found myself at a roadside rest stop with leftover french fries from a diner lunch, and half a bottle of Gatorade from my afternoon snack stop. Plus a couple of Little Debbie snack cakes. Tasted like a five-star supper to me! Later as I crawled into my sleeping bag, with only a tarp underneath — no cushion from the concrete ground — I felt like a queen sinking into the finest featherbed.

By no means do I always feel this way. Oftentimes it’s the total opposite, in fact! I can be in luxurious circumstances, eating fancy food, having other people do everything for me, and still feel restless and unsatisfied. In fact, many times it actually ends up being easier for me to feel gratitude over simple things than over something luxurious and amazing. Maybe some sort of spoiled-brat reflex kicks in beyond a certain level of richness.

Gratitude is something I have to put conscious effort into at times, but it’s an investment that pays off in cascading dividends. I would really like for gratitude and appreciation to become more prevalent in USAmerican culture. I’d like to see us, as a people, have the ability to be more content with less. And that would be good for the planet also.

Informed Hope

Someone who really knows what he’s talking about — believes there is still HOPE. The earth is in a death spiral, and radical action is required — but we can do it.

Article by George Monbiot, the climate activist whose book HEAT: How To Stop the Planet from Burning inspired the Riot for Austerity movement and planted the seed for my book DEEP GREEN.

The way humanity got itself into this deadly predicament is that we allowed waste, greed, denial to become baked-in to our way of living. Now, we can make a turnaround so that what’s baked-in to our culture is thrift, sharing, modesty, humility, intolerance of waste.

Also: Humanitarian innovativeness. Compassion. Empathy. Care of all species. A cultural shift so these qualities become infused in every action, no matter how seemingly small. Day in and day out, like the “home front” mobilization of World War II, except that this shift needs to be self-imposed at the grassroots because the higher-ups lack the political will.

Deep-green troops, mobilize! Everything good you do adds up.

Weaning Ourselves Off Of Lawn Chemicals

Eliminating the use of lawn fertilizers near waterways should be a no-brainer. Fertilizers are a prime contributor to algal blooms, including red tide, which are deadly to wildlife and dangerous to humans. For the same reason, it should be a no-brainer that people would want to stop using pesticides and herbicides for residential lawns. As much as some people like their manicured green lawns, does the use of chemicals justify the mass die-offs of fish, birds, and other wildlife; and the pollution of our precious water supply?

The thing is, people who love their lawns can still have them! But, for the good of our rivers and lakes and oceans, we need to make some changes. We can choose more hardy, drought-tolerant grass species, and quit using chemicals for vanity agriculture. It would help if we’d let go of the culturally indoctrinated compulsion for the “perfect” uniformly green lawn, which I see as the green-colored equivalent of Snow White’s beautiful but poisonous red apple. We also really need to tackle the various regulations (municipal regulations, HOA rules, etc.) that pretty much FORCE people to have lawns in many parts of the USA.

Besides laying off the chemicals, lawn-lovers can also help our wildlife and waterways by planting a “filtration strip” of vegetation along the edges of their yards. This buffer of vegetation helps retain silt, water, and nutrients on property rather than let them run off into the storm-drain systems and bodies of water. Besides being good for the environment, a border of vegetation looks nicer than a plain flat grass edge, and it can reduce or eliminate the need for fussy edging and blowing.

Further Reading:

Local Laws Ban Front-Yard Food Gardens: “Zoning, supporters contend, is intended to prevent conflicts and nuisances from arising. … But sometimes, as in the case of the prohibitions on edible gardens … zoning itself becomes the nuisance and the source of conflict. …Estimates of water savings vary, but most sources agree that fruit and vegetable gardens use less water than would a lawn in a comparable space. Those who want to live more sustainably often choose to grow some of their own food and find ways both to reduce their reliance on commercially bought food and lower their water use. Swapping out a lawn for an edible garden can help achieve both goals.”

Eco-friendly lawn alternatives: “On a gallon-for-gallon basis, power mowers are far more polluting than cars. …[L]awn-mower engines, per gallon of gas, contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than 2006 cars. Water runoff pollution is another downside: To keep turf perma-green and weedfree requires a cocktail of fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides applied regularly via the irrigation system. …Every region and every ecology in this country has its own regionally native sods, which, with very little mowing or cutting, grow naturally as a turf.”

• Doing a search for “eco-friendly lawns,” I found this company that offers a “No-Mow Lawn Grass Seed”, which looks to be waterwise and not need chemicals.

The Miraculous Power of Self-Interest

I’m a huge fan of self-interest — when it’s harnessed in the service of the greater good. Even when self-discipline falters, when moral principles give in to fear or greed, and when government mandates fail, self-interest moves mountains. Self-interest is the Trojan horse I’m using to get people on board the low-footprint lifestyle movement.

And it’s looking like self-interest may finally win the day in the struggle to expand the supply of affordably priced urban housing. Young adults are having trouble finding affordable places to live near where the jobs are, and it’s partly because affluent baby boomers in urban areas are opposing efforts to create density and build new apartments near their single-family homes.

However, it turns out that self-interest may win out over this NIMBYism, as the older generations are discovering to their dismay that their kids and grandkids can’t afford to live near them.

Another common concern that’s bridging the divide is the environment: “As people of all ages work for environmental sustainability, they understand that we need to get people out of cars, and this means getting as many people as possible to live in or close to cities and use public transport. And that means making those areas more affordable.” (From When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing, article by Mimi Kirk on — great site to bookmark if you’re passionate about urban sustainability).

Hooray for self-interest, when it fuels the greater good.

Further Reading:

Minneapolis YIMBYs Go To the Mat for Zoning Changes. I love the use of the wrestler video to tell a compelling story. And the Canadian anti-sprawl poster, a takeoff on the old Smokey the Bear posters, is a winner!

Neighbors For More Neighbors, on Twitter: a movement to promote the legalization (or re-legalization) of fourplexes. One user commented that “replacing a single-family home with a fourplex has a bigger climate impact than solar panels.” I’m not sure of the figure, but there’s no doubt that sharing walls and a yard and other resources is one of the best ways to reduce footprint while cutting costs.

• And a couple of good books I’ve read recently: Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities, by Alan Durning (takeaway: allow more density). And (the cautionary flipside of revitalizing blighted downtowns) How To Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, by Peter Moskowitz.

The New Public-Health Crisis

What do you think the most serious public-health crisis is right now in the USA? Obesity? Smoking? Addiction to painkillers? All of those are serious, for sure, but the public-health crisis that’s been making headlines lately is … loneliness and social isolation. Actually I’ve been observing this crisis for a long time in the people around me (and also sometimes in myself), and possibly so have you. Loneliness and isolation has been at least a contributing factor, if not the main factor, in the illnesses and deaths of many people I love.

It’s painful to notice how emotionally sparse a person’s life can get, largely because of bad design. (A couple of examples: car-dependent neighborhoods; houses designed to rely on artificial climate control most or all of the time). Although the elderly are particularly at risk, isolation takes a toll on people of all ages.

Many personal actions to address social isolation also reduce our footprint. And the reverse is true too: Many things we do to reduce our footprint can alleviate social isolation. Examples: Starting a community garden; turning off your air-conditioning and sitting under a tree in your front yard; taking an evening stroll around your neighborhood instead of holing up all night in front of the TV; sharing a meal with a neighbor instead of dining alone and consuming more food than you need.

Further Exploration:

Loneliness Kills: A new public health crisis (and what we can do about it). “A little-discussed condition raises the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent—making it a health hazard at least as significant as smoking and alcohol and more so than obesity. Yet many medical professionals haven’t heard about it, and the public remains largely in the dark. …Lack of human contact has serious physiological consequences. Studies show that without human contact our risk of functional decline increases as does our risk of mobility loss. Our risk of clinical dementia increases by 64 percent. These health problems further isolate those suffering from social isolation, threatening a vicious cycle of physical, emotional, and psychological decline.” The authors go on to make several recommendations, starting with elevating our discussion on this topic to a national level.

This TED Talk by Susan Pinker, “The Secret To Living Longer May Be Your Social Life”, is a real eye-opener. The second-most-important factor in longevity is close relationships, and #1 is “social integration” — those seemingly trivial face-to-face interactions in passing throughout the day. Who knew that idly chitchatting with the mail carrier or barista or hardware-store cashier or librarian mattered so much. It surprised me that this fabric of casual daily interactions is a more important factor than close relationships. Further down the list of longevity factors are quitting smoking, boozing, and drugs; and maintaining a healthy weight. Since isolation exacerbates obesity and substance abuse, we can get extra bang for the buck by addressing isolation.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (book by Robert D. Putnam): “In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect. Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.” One of my big takeaways from Putnam’s book is what the author refers to as “the value of weak ties” — people you’re not close friends with, but who are part of your wider circle, such as neighbors and friends of friends. These more distant relationships enrich us in unexpected ways. I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I was living in an RV park in Austin, Texas. Most of my 16 close neighbors were not people I’d seek out as close friends, but we got great value from one another’s presence. We shared skills, tools, food, and other resources. I already had plenty of close friends in various parts of town, but the “weak ties” with my immediate neighbors — people I would not have sought out, and who would not likely have sought me out, if we hadn’t happened to be living right on top of each other — were a totally separate asset, bringing different benefits.

Community Solutions to the Loneliness Epidemic (report from Shareable): looks at the key drivers of loneliness, social isolation, and civic disengagement; and explores what communities around the world are doing to address the root problems.

• You may already be familiar with this poster from Syracuse Cultural Workers, on how to build community. I’ve seen this wonderful poster on the walls in many intentional communities and permaculture centers. The first two suggestions are “Turn off your TV” and “Leave your house.” Yes! A couple of suggestions I would add to update this 1998 poster are: start a Little Free Library in your neighborhood; and set up a Turquoise Table in your front yard.

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.