A few weeks ago when we were taking my new son-in-law to dinner for his birthday, my boyfriend, by way of teasing me, asked my daughter if she was aware of my depression-era tendencies. She dead-panned, “My mom invented the depression.”
I get what she means. I’ve lived in my house since 2009 and I’m still discovering new ways to conserve resources. One of the first things I bought was a low-flush toilet. More recently, I realized that if I only turned my shower handles half way on, I’d save more water. And then I started thinking about the water that goes down the drain during the warm up, so now I collect it to top off the bird bath or water plants. It also dawned on me that if I switched from a rinse-out hair conditioner to a spritz-on-stay-in conditioner, I’d save water by not rinsing, and since I use so little conditioner, I would consume less plastic, as well. And of course I pee in the shower.
And I admit, I don’t know what it’s like to live or work with me. I imagine that I’m trying hard enough not to be annoying, but I do take all this to heart. I read a lot, and it’s hard to take in the worst of the news, Earthwise. And it’s not a new conversation. I remember watching filmstrips in elementary school during the 60s that showed a little girl about my age who lived in the upper floor of a high rise. She watched out her window as garbage piled deeper and deeper, and soon it was high enough she could step out and maybe bounce around on it. A decade later my Girl Scout troop volunteered at a county garage making wreaths, and that’s when I learned there was a recycling facility on the grounds. I dragged my mom there and we’ve been avid recyclers since.
So, as a country, it’s not like we’re rushing into anything. In fact, I read recently that only 25% of the people in Youngstown recycle. It’s scary. If we can’t even throw our beer cans into an orange bin, or even easier, not throw trash out the car window, how can we solve any of the catastrophic problems that face us?
And face us, they will, it seems. When my daughter was a kid we dropped a hard-boiled egg into vinegar and watched the calcium carbonate in its shell dissolve until the egg was naked and rubbery. The same thing is happening today to ocean shellfish, I understand. The last article I read said that the oceans have become so acidic with dissolved carbon, shellfish will soon be extinct. Millions of oyster seedlings have died on the east and west coast, for a few years now. And unlike other crises we may be able to head off, there’s nothing we can do to stop this. The article said if you love shellfish (as I do), you may as well indulge.
I am devastated to think of a world without oysters, but terrified to think what this means for the whole marine ecosystem. And everywhere we look, the news is this grim. And at such a scale. How can an individual’s small life change the trajectory? I am measuring my water by teaspoons, yet my neighbor is out lovingly washing his monster truck, letting more water slide down the driveway than I am able to save in a month. And what can my water savings mean in the face of a force like fracking, where each drilled well requires millions of gallons of water that are not just used, but taken completely out of the water table?
I get this. We try to do the right thing, but we don’t want to be made fools of. But I have a few ways of explaining the value of conservation to myself, to keep me moving forward.
One is that we are now in the state we are in because of billions and billions of individual acts. If you and only you were buying coffee in a throwaway container, for example, it would be of no consequence. But what we do is multiplied: Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee every day. Billions of new cups and lids end up in the landfill every year, and that doesn’t take into account the resources required to make them. And that’s just carry-out coffee. But that’s my point. Those cups go in one delicious coffee at a time, by individual hands, singular choices. And that’s what make it possible to change. I’m not the only one whose cups are not heaping up in the trash.
Jean Paul Sartre suggested that one way to measure the rightness of how we live is to ask ourselves, if everyone did what I am doing, would that be good?
And honestly, we’re going to have to make big changes whether we get ahead of them or not. We are drunk on energy and resources, we are beyond drunk, we are addicts in the last stages of addiction, where we bend the world anyway we have to just so we can keep getting our fix. One of our very smart and enlightened friends was explaining to us recently that we really don’t have any choice about fracking: we need the energy. I think we have to get ourselves sober before we can talk about needs. Look at this mess. Our houses leak, our trash is full of pizza boxes and broken plastic crap made in China, a slim percentage of us commute to work by bus or bike. Our empty stores are lit up like they're expecting planes to land in them. We eat meat like we're training for the Olympics. And although we have made huge strides in Youngstown growing food in ways much less ecologically harmful, too much of our nation’s food is grown in a bath of petroleum-based chemicals and shipped a thousand miles, where 40% of it is tossed into the landfill uneaten.
It’s going to be a hell of a hangover, America, but as Ken Burns told us at Kent State recently, we’re all in this together. We are at our best when we pull together and follow our better angels in the things we do well, like innovation and play and hard work and practicality, like jazz and baseball and the Constitution. But I don’t think this is a given; there’s a good chance we stay drunk on our lifestyle and pass out on the dance floor with a bottled water in each hand.
I acknowledge that it won’t be enough to just change our individual actions. If our energy policy is to drill and pipe natural gas and liquefy it so we can send it overseas, we’ll still be sunk, travel mug or no. We’re going to have to work together to make strong policy that will lead us into the future. It was ever thus. But those of us who have already made big changes in our lifestyles will be there to say, hey, it’s possible. I would rather have clean water and air than cheap disposable energy, so I better reduce my consumption of power or I’m a big hypocrite.
So I’ve done a few things, and I want your ideas, too. I noticed that my workplace was using throwaway dishes, so I brought in some of my many mugs that seem to have multiplied at my place, and I threw in a few plates and bought a bag of flatware at the thrift for $7.00. For community work days, I bought a couple 5 gallon pails at Star Supply and a few dozen mugs at Good Will. My bucket-o-cups system is highly portable and the cups are all different and a lot of fun. Then I realized we were throwing away coffee grounds and fruit scraps every day, so I picked up a small, trash can with a hinge lid for the office counter and we now compost those grounds. At home, I’m working my way through another barrel of composted leaves and kitchen scraps and it’s rich and wonderful. I’ll be installing a rain barrel this summer. The bus doesn’t get me where I need to be, but my colleague and I are car pooling. When I had a training in Chicago last fall, I took the bus instead of flying. And I buy as much local and organic food as I can, and tote my totes everywhere to avoid plastic bags. I’m constantly challenging myself to reduce my consumption, and although some things cost more, like organic food (sometimes), mostly I’m saving money, sometimes after an initial investment.
One thing I’m working on is reducing my consumption of food containers, like taking my own container to restaurants when there might be leftovers, and recently I asked the farmer’s market peanutbutter vendors if I could bring a jar to them and pick it up the next week full of peanutbutter. They said, yes and I would get a discount too, since each container costs 27 cents. Holy moly! It’s costing us so much more than just the air and water and climate. And plastic is so harmful to our health as well, we’re learning, so I invested in metal and glass bowls of all sizes, and they’re great for carrying lunch and packing meals to freeze and eat another day.
On a larger scale, my big house projects are all about saving energy: replacing the knob-and-tube in the attic which will allow for better insulation; improving the drainage along the house so I can turn down the dehumidifier; adding rooftop solar panels; improving or replacing leaky windows.
Some of the things we do to reduce energy consumption as a country will also be beneficial to low income families. Here in Youngstown, tens of thousands of households are too poor to own cars. If we beef up the bus system, improve sidewalk maintenance and infrastructure, and add bike lanes, it will be easier for everyone to get around, and there won’t be so many wheelchairs and kids and people with canes struggling to walk in the road with cars whizzing by them. Instead of subsidizing driving by socializing the cost of roads and parking, let’s tax the hell out of driving and subsidize the alternatives. Have the auto makers been good to Youngstown? Sometimes. But I’d love to see a diversity of manufacturing here that takes us into a more healthful future: bikes, buses, trains, solar panels, windmills. We are already seeing the kind of local food infrastructure, including new jobs, that might have been hard to imagine just ten years ago.
Recently the Community Bill of Rights, that would have prevented fracking and injection wells within the city limits, failed. One of the comments in the local newspaper was that we need economic development, and we’ll have to accept a little pollution with that. I say that’s old-school thinking. Stretches of our river are still so poisoned from the steel industry that they are “no contact zones,” water that is too toxic to touch. Nothing can live there. When the mills were in production, some people like our own Volney Rogers were livid that mill owners were doing nothing to protect the river. He was right, and if we stand back and let them be further ravaged, that’s just stupid. We needed new thinking then, and we didn’t even know yet that the industrial age would take us right to the brink of ecological systems collapse. Time for big changes. That can be our theme song.
One of my dreams is to start a company that makes wide mouth recycled glass jars for all the wet and dry stuff we buy—mustard, pickles, yogurt, tea, dried beans, cocoa—and a carrying tote made of this exciting, new mycelium technology. You’d turn your jar in at the Elm Street Café Deli or one of the many farmer’s markets and get a fresh jar full of plum jam or pickled beets.
It won’t be all sacrifice and drudgery, although we better not be afraid of that. We might feel sad that the party’s over, but <whisper>, it’s been over for awhile. Let’s get down off the coffee table, put the lamp shade back on the lamp, and turn it off. Time to open the curtains and let the sun in.