Monday, December 21, 2009

The little horrors of shop

Much as I enjoy the Christmas season and love giving people presents - the process of acquiring said presents leaves much to be desired! What is it about shopping for Christmas - a season supposedly about human kindness and goodwill - that brings out the feral in people? From mithered monotonous shop assistants to grim sourpuss co-shoppers the process can be an ordeal. I am, however, happy to say that despite having to bend the rules of my pledge a bit, I think I've struck a fairly happy compromise between appeasing my conscience and actually being able to give people things they will appreciate (hopefully). The wrapping of said gifts within my self imposed constraints has been a little interesting - I found myself constructing a sort of old Christmas paper patchwork in most cases. Despite looking a little rustic I think the effect is actually kind of cool (see pic).
And onto another kind of shopping... Since vowing in this public forum to attempt to stick to locally produced, seasonal, free range, fairtrade, minimally packaged food, supermarket shopping has started to bring a bit of a sweat to my brow! So, to touch on the realities of sticking to each most food categories its possible to find a 'within-state' produced option - it just takes a lot of close label reading. The exception seems to be tinned tomatoes - most brands seem to contain at least some imported ingredients. Sticking to the seasonal hasn't been too hard - this usually just means avoiding whatever is ridiculously overpriced. Finding free range eggs and chicken is also fairly easy - luckily I think they're pretty mainstream these days. Fairtrade is a little tricker and a bit of a bone of contention between myself and the B.H. - being a Pom, he likes his tea, and fairtrade tea is vastly more expensive than unfairtrade tea. We have got back into the habit of buying tea leaves rather than bags (to reduce packaging) and this reduces the cost somewhat. Likewise, fairtrade chocolate tastes fantastic but comes at a much higher premium than unfairtrade chocolate. I've taken to opting for the 70% cocoa solids variety, which I'm inclined to eat less of, so I figure it evens out in the end. And packaging? Its been quite valuable to be more mindful of this more polystyrene trays of avocado wrapped in plastic (or the like). Buying things in bulk (eg a giant bottle of canola oil) has also helped reduce overall packaging consumption, and is cheaper too.
On the topic of canola, an extra factor has been brought into the ethical supermarket shopping of 2009 genetically modified canola has been used to make oil in Australia - and canola is used in a wide range of processed products including margarine, bread etc. Anyone else interested in boycotting genetically modified foods should check out the 'truefood guide' which identifies which products on our supermarket shelves may, or do not, contain genetically modified ingredients. See link below.
And on a final note, has anyone else found it hard to know what to do with those annoying thin little handle-less plastic bags provided for fruit and veg at the supermarket once you get them home? I try to just take my fruit and veg to the checkout loose when I can, but this can be impractical and result in (understandable) sour looks from the checkout person. A friend just gave me the best gift which provides a perfect solution to this problem - 'Fregie Sacks'. These are like the canvas shopping bag equivalent for your fruit and vegies - little mesh bags you take along to the supermarket with you for packaging your fruit and veg. Check out the link below.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Come on Copenhagen, what about Charlie?

I have to confess to being overcome by despair when I heard the latest reports from the summit in Copenhagen on the radio this morning. Now I'm no political expert and I can't claim to be abreast of all of the details, but I get the distinct impression that things are not going well. And there are only two days left. So I was in real need of a lift when I was granted the gift of this sweet little encounter...

I often take The Booba down to one of the local parks - he loves being outside and ferkling the equipment, but most of all he loves getting to see other kids. And other kids seem to love seeing him! True to form this morning, he'd been at his favourite station spinning the giant naughts and crosses beads for a few seconds when three little kids appeared, drawn like moths to the flame. "Hello baby!" they all cried. The Booba offered up an excited squeal and the 'proto wave' that he's been fervently practicing at random intervals for the last week or so.

The eldest little boy introduced himself and proudly declared his age of 4 (as 4 year olds always seem to do!). He proceeded to tell me all about 'his' baby (his little sister)- who can apparently say "dada" and clap her hands but doesn't crawl yet because she is "a bit lazy". Then we got onto the inevitable topic of Christmas presents. 4-year-old enthusiastically declared his desire for "some leggo and a Starwars light saver". "A Starwars light sabre?" I clarified. "Yes, a Starwars light saver!" he responded.

Then 4-year-old needed to know "what is [The Booba] going to call his little babies when he is a Daddy?". A little surprised, I said I didn't know and that it would probably be up to him. Curious, I asked 4-year-old what he planned to call his babies when he is a Daddy. "Charlie, Joch and Ta" he quickly told me . Charlie, I'm told, will be a little girl. "I think Charlie is usually short for Charlotte when its a little girl" I suggest. 4-year-old looks at me for a minute, thinking hard, and then decides "no, there won't be any Charlottes in my house, only Charlies".

I thought this was really cute, and it made my day, but it also got me thinking. Poor Charlie. I worry that her life might not be very pleasant due to the state of the planet we might be bequeathing her. And as for all those Charlies in the developing world? doesn't really bear thinking about. Its easy to start to feel a bit hopeless about the whole thing. Well, as I often do, I'm going to borrow the words of a very wise lady named Eleanor Roosevelt, and remind myself that "it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness". I also find solace in the words of Colin Beavan (a.k.a. 'No Impact Man'*) - "The not whether I can make a difference, but whether I want to be the type of person who tries". So true.

* See the link to No Impact Man's site below

Monday, December 14, 2009

Did you know that.....

....if everyone in the US declined a receipt each time they made an ATM transaction, the paper saved would be enough to circle the equator 15 times?

No, niether did I. I picked up this statistic from 'The Green Book - The Everyday Guide To Saving the Planet One Simple Step At A Time' written by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen and published in 2007 by Three Rivers Press. My local library has a good range of 'green' books, so I thought I might start doing some little reviews. This one in particular was apparently a New York Times Bestseller, so I guess that tells you that a lot of people liked it! - but here's what I think anyway.

What I liked about this book:
* It is one of the most user friendly sustainable living guides I've come across. I'd say it was written with the kind of person in mind who cares about the environment but doesn't have a great deal of spare time and just wants to be told in very simple terms what to do! It is broken down into 12 chapters which cover most areas of life: Entertainment; Travel; Communication/Technology; School; Work; Shopping; Health and Beauty; Sport; Money and Finance; Building; and finally Going Carbon Neutral. Each chapter gives 3 'Simple Steps' that a reader can undertake to live more sustainably. For example, in the 'Work' chapter 'The Simple Steps' are "1. Double-side your copies 2. Carpool 3. Use a ceramic mug for you coffee".
* It explains in concrete terms to the reader exactly what effects their behaviour has upon the environment. For example, in buying a conventional antiperspirant you are also consuming the immense amount of energy required to mine the aluminium contained in this product. Apparently the energy saved by buying an aluminium free deoderant is enough to power a laptop for 30 minutes.
* Its short and sweet and not expensive - I've found it on Amazon for around $10 US.
* Its printed on 100% postconsumer recycled paper and production energy was carbon offset.

What I liked less about this book:
* I guess I can't blame the authors for seeking to target their local audience, but from an Australian reader's perspective (mine) it is very US focussed.
* They've tried to 'sex it up' by including little snippets from Hollywood celebrities. Did you know that Jennifer Aniston only takes 3 minute showers? Do you care?...A particular low point is the rather fatuous Forward co-written by Cameron Diaz.
* Surely some of the suggestions they make are just so incredibly obvious so as to be obsolete? I really hope so, otherwise its very scary! For example, readers are encouraged, when buying bread, to "find loaves that are packaged in only a single wrapper" - ?!
All in all though, I think this book is well worth a read. In fact, it'd make a great Christmas gift.........

The grass may be greener but it doesn't taste so good....

I've just come back from an evening walk around the neighbourhood. I love stickybeaking at everyone's gardens. The highlight of this evening's garden review was coming across a newish frontyard vegie patch. This particular house is very large and, if I remember correctly, used to be fronted by a large sweeping lawn. This has now been replaced by a big (waterless) fountain from which fans out a number of small paths, like the spokes of a wheel. Between the paths numerous edible plants are obviously lovingly tended - tomatos, corn, pumpkin, onions, rosemary, sunflowers, coriander...those are just the ones I could identify without actually scaling the fence. I would have loved to take a photo for you all but that probably would have been construed as being a bit rude (and illegal?). Needless to say this sight brought a real smile to my face. There were a lot of cars in the driveway (which in and of itself did not bring a smile to my face) but I had romantic visions of a large family all tending this garden together and then enjoying their delicious homegrown produce together all sitting around a big table..ok maybe I'm getting a bit carried away!

The point of all this is - how much better is that big vegie patch than a stupid big lawn?! It struck me that so many people in my neck of the woods have enormous front lawns that, other than guzzling a lot of water and requiring regular mowing, do what exactly? Noone seems to let their kids play in the front yard these days for fear of stranger danger. I've never seen someone having a picnic on their front lawn. In fact I hardly ever see anyone in their frontyard full stop. Yes, I guess lawns are kind of pleasing to the eye - I think some kind of inherent European-ness has ingrained this into me - but really a well loved vegie patch looks so much better. And it has a point! I figure that if you're pouring water onto the space anyway, you may as well get it to feed you in return.

This has got me to thinking....we don't have a lawn ourselves, we rent a place with rather a lot of paving instead (and of course I would NEVER dream of lifting a couple of bricks occasionally to surreptitiously expand our meagre garden beds - who me?!). My parents, on the otherhand, do have a lawn. A really big one. And they live 5 minutes walk away. Hmmm....

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The joy of giving stuff away

In November I put up a post raving about Freecycle (see 'One man's 'trash' is another's treasure'). I have now donated five items to other Freecyclers which were otherwise clogging up precious storage space in our 'shed'(read outdoor cupboard) or gathering dust in our none too spacious home. I've also aquired two items we really needed that were doing likewise in other Freecyclers' homes. So we've saved some cash, saved the Earth's resources by not buying new things, saved useful things from ending up in landfill, cleared up some space at home.....its win-win-win-win! And its really really easy - believe me, I'm really a bit of a lazy wench at heart, so I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't.

There's another side to this stuff away feels really good! In fact once you start it can be a bit hard to stop. I think at one point The B.H. was getting a bit nervous that he'd come home one day to find all the furniture gone! But I really only Freecycle things that we have no use for. I've always been a bit of a hoarder so this is long overdue.

And an update on the water saving front.....just from collecting the water that we used to run down the drain whilst waiting for it to get hot/cold, we're saving about 20L a day. Not bad. And that leaking outside tap has finally been fixed - too bad for that greedy mint!

P.S. Thanks for the comments! :)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The penny drops and the sap rises

I'm feeling a bit silly. After whining to The B.H. (in manner of spoilt teenager) about the new CDs out that I'm "not allowed" to have - as discussed in a recent post - he tactfully pointed out the bleeding obvious. I-tunes! Seems I was the only person in the universe not to know that you can actually purchase albums this way, and a lot cheaper than buying them in CD format too. Apparently even my DAD does this! Ahem.

On an entirely unrelated note our little garden is just going bananas at the moment. The sunflowers and tomato plants in particular seem to be stretching themselves up toward the sun before the very eye. Lots of flowers on my tomato plants too, which is promising...perhaps all that sulphate of potash does actually work (as Peter Cundall promised it would - I should have had faith!).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My two cents worth on Christmas gifts

Well I know I'm probably not the only one who has just realised that Christmas is really rather soon and that it would probably be wise to start thinking about gifts!
When I took up my pledge to not buy any new things, I knew that Christmas time was going to pose a challenge. I love giving people presents - its fun, and, if the gift is well thought out and meaningful to the recipient, its a great way of showing someone that you care about them. However Christmas shopping doesn't usually equal fun and warm fuzzies, it equals stress! - and a vague feeling of disquiet about the Christmas consumer frenzy all just having got a bit out of hand. And the thing is that while it may seem oh-so-very-moral-highground to not give people anything for Christmas other than a breezy comment that you've donated to a charity in their name...most people want something to open! So I've given a bit of thought to ways in which we can give the people we love gifts at Christmas time, without generating yet more unwanted junk that costs the planet, clutters the house, and will probably be destined for landfill in the not too distant future....

Mumarandom's thoughts on gifts:
* My favourite way to buy a gift is from a not-for-profit organisation such as Unicef, Amnesty International or Oxfam. If you check out their online catalogues you'll usually find a really interesting range of stuff, often including environmentally friendly/recycled products. And the added bonus is that you get that warm glow from knowing that your cash has gone to good cause - the gift that gives twice, so to speak. Oxfam and Unicef in particular have great stuff for kids.
* Someone very wise once said that everything in the home should be either beautiful or functional, preferably both. I think this is a good rule of thumb for gifts too. Nothing worse than being given an ugly knick knack!
* Why not pool your funds with other family members so that you can get someone one bigger and better gift between all of you? For a friend's 21st birthday I once invited all of the party guests to contribute to buying the party boy a set of golf clubs. Who knows if he still uses them, but it sure beat 50 cocktail shakers!
* Why not make your own? Even if you're not a creative genius, at the end of the day, its the thought that counts, right?? - well, I guess that depends on the recipient! I've been knitting a scarf for a particular relative for about 6 months now - no, I'm not crazily organised with my Christmas presents, it was meant to be for her birthday last June! Due to the fact I got a little overly enthusiastic at the beginning with the width of the scarf, and the recipient is quite tall (and therefore the scarf needs to be very long) its still not finished. I guess it seems a bit odd to give someone a woollen scarf in the middle of summer, so perhaps it'll have to keep til her next birthday. Hmmmm.
* I think houseplants make great presents. I've received a few potted cyclamens over the last couple of years which are really pretty, and just keep going on and on producing gorgeous blooms. These probably weren't that much more expensive than a bunch of cut flowers, but they've lasted a whole heap longer.
* A nice box of fairtrade chocolates usually goes down a treat. Oxfam stock a nice range of these.

By the way, I've had a few emails over the last week or so from people telling me that they're reading my blog and enjoying it. Thank you all, this means a lot - feels a bit bare and lonely sending messages off into the electronic ether without any feedback - or even knowing if anyone is reading it at all! What would REALLY float my boat is if you left a comment, and hey, if you like my blog, why not become a follower?

P.S. is anyone else just a bit excited that we've just launched our very own first Australian made hybrid car?? see link below to see the full ABC news story

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More new old loot and new challenges

Thought I'd show you the best of the latest haul from my favourite charity shop. I've discovered something - they hide all the trendy stuff on the 'teen rack'. Perhaps I'm totally self deluded and just a complete "mutton dressed as lamb" but most of the clothes on this rack seem pretty adult-appropriate to me (and in adult sizes too) - ?! If the op-shop ladies think that these clothes are only appropriately worn by those less than 20 years of age they must think I'm a complete tramp! Oh well.

Have to confess to having my resolve not to buy new things a bit tested of late. I've just found out that two of my favourite female musicians - Norah Jones and Angie Hart - are bringing out new albums. Oh the pain! Its made me think more about my friend M's comment about how art should be exempt from my pledge.....I do want to support these artists, but there's still no denying there's a heck of a lot of embodied energy in a compact disc. Hmmm. Perhaps a good compromise would be to forego the CD (for now) but promise to try to make the show when they tour? (if either of them come to Perth that is - ha ha). I've heard that musicians make most of their money from the touring anyway (not from CDs - apparently most of this money goes to the record company).

If anyone else is also needing a bit of encouragement to stay on the sustainability bandwagon, I thought I might share a bit of this with you....Earlier this week the ABC Radio National's Book Show broadcast a recording of the esteemed Sir Nicholas Stern giving a presentation at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. I'd urge you to download the full audio yourself (see link below), but the main message that I took away from the presentation was this:
There is a 50% chance that, by the end of this century, there will be a 5 degree celsius rise in global temperatures (in comparison to pre-Industrial times).
The effect of this temperature rise on the world's water will be the main problem, resulting in the displacement of 100s of millions of people. For example, Bangladesh will be underwater. In Sir Stern's words, these shifts will bring about "a severe, prolonged global conflict" which will be "catastrophic" and that "the idea that we will adjust to whatever comes along is...fatuous". Scary, huh? And how do we avoid this? According to Sir Stern, in order to hold global temperature rises below 2 degrees celsius (the threshold for big risks of catastrophe), the developed world needs to cut their carbon emissions by 80% per capita - 80%!
Fingers crossed for Copenhagen, huh?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No-Mile-Salad....."Smug Mode"*

I can't help showing off what The B.H. has just christened "No-Mile-Salad", otherwise referred to in our household as "Smug Salad". All of the ingredients were either grown by ourselves or our nextdoor neighbours - silverbeet, lettuce, basil, spring onions, green beans, tomatoes (yes, not very many! - these are my first of the season), sometimes strawberries. An innovation we've just come across is adding mint. Ironically, this is probably our most successful crop yet we completely ignore it. We didn't even plant it. We have a chronically leaking outdoor tap (I know thats bad....I'm waiting for the landlords to fix it) - the silver lining of this situation is that the mint that grows itself beneath the tap is going absolutely beserk with all the water (as mint will do).

To be honest we don't garden with enough skill or on a large enough scale to produce much more than a nightly salad for ourselves, but this cannot be said for our neighbours, who are an elderly Italian couple with the most amazing fruit and vegie garden I have ever seen. The man of the house is out in his garden without fail for most of the time between dawn and dusk - even when its raining. He looks fighting fit. They grow a huge array of produce including papaya, the most incredible tomatoes I've ever tasted (which last summer hung copiously over our side of the fence he he he...we picked them with permission and didn't need to buy any for months), green beans, cucumbers, strawberries, lemons, oranges, name it. I suspect that they are entirely self sufficient in fruit and veg with plenty of excess - which they give away. What strikes me is that it has recently become quite trendy for people like me to try growing our own food, but people like my neighbours have been just quietly getting on with it for generations - it seems to be a part of their culture, a way of life.

The lady of the house and I have regular rather limited but enthusiastic conversations over the fence - she doesn't speak a lot of English, but it certainly beats my Italian, which can just about stretch to the occasional tentative (and probably very poorly pronounced) "Buon giorno". For the year or so we've lived here The B.H. and I have been optimistically looking forward to the time when we might commence (likely rather lopsided) food 'swapsies' - and this has just begun, hurray! The green beans that crossed the fence the other day made those you'd find in the supermarket seem like a cardboard imitation - these tasted like the ultimate essence of green bean. Yum.

* Anyone not familiar with the derivation of the term "Smug Mode" really needs to do themselves a favour and familiarise themselves with the hilarious BBC series "Red Dwarf".

Monday, December 7, 2009

Numpty-head Day

I'm having one of those days where I just feel like a bit of a numpty-head. Think we all do sometimes (well, I hope its not just me, anyway!). Just discovered there is a whole heap about household water recycling that I did not know. This was through the fabulous Sustainable Gardeners Alliance website. Basically the message I get from their excellent greywater summary is that the only untreated household waste water you should really be using on your plants is that collected from taps/shower while you're waiting for them to get hot and that used to rinse fruit and veg. But please don't take my word as gospel (ha ha - never trust a woman who can practically count on her fingers and toes the number of times she's slept a full uninterrupted night in the past 9 months - most of the time I barely know what day of the week it is!) - check it out yourself by following the links at the sga link below.
What led me to this discovery in the first place is some blogs that have just come onto my radar (see links below). Just when I was beginning to think that the Beloved Husband and I were the only adults in the known universe not to own our own home, I've happened across a site devoted to renters who want to live green entitled, logically, greenrenters - yay! And then there is the incredibly impressive and inspiring No Impact Man. I've been feeling a bit glum over the last few days in response to all of the media discussion around the summit in Copenhagen. Given the grim forecasts being thrown around about our collective environmental future, its been making me wonder if my efforts to live a bit more sustainably are just a little bit futile. I suppose I've been feeling a bit pessimistic. Having a look at No Impact Man's blog was just what I needed to lift me out of my nihilistic funk.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

So much more fun than washing up....

I really should be doing the dishes. But I really can't be bothered. I am too engrossed in the most marvellous book that I've come across for ages. And no, I remain consumer-chaste, I didn't buy it! - it comes courtesy of the generosity and thoughtfulness of a complete stranger. My Dad is a therapist. On learning that I was interested in going to Italy (a lifelong dream....not yet fulfilled), and that I have a baby, one of his clients thought that I would be interested in reading Four Seasons In Rome by Anthony Doerr - a memoir of a year that the author spent in Rome with his wife and infant twin sons. The loan of this book, via my Dad, has turned out to be one of the best gifts anyone has given me in a long time. It doesn't really have anything to do with environmental sustainability per se, but it has a lot to do with developing a certain appreciation of the experience of life that has absolutely nothing to do with 'buying more stuff'. And the writing is sublime - Anthony Doerr, I am sure, would never ever begin a sentence with the word 'and'. If there is actually anyone out there reading this (hello?), do yourself a favour and track down this book!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taking stuff stock

Well its been nearly one month since I made my pledge to buy no new stuff for one year. One twelfth of the way there! Its probably time to take stock of my progress...
Well, remember how I mentioned that my purse had died and was pooing coins everywhere? I did make an honest effort to track down a replacement made from 100%recycled materials, I promise. I did a bit of research and traipsed into town with The Booba in tow (who, might I add, was decidedly grumpy that day) to the only shop in Perth that I could ascertain sold such a thing. I had optimistic expectations of the purses made from 100% recycled plastic bags and 100% recycled tyre inner tubes that had been advertised. Sadly, said articles did not live up to my expectations. They just would not have been functional (eg. only 2 slots for cards???). So I went for the second best option of purchasing a "new-materials" purse made by some sort of women's cooperative in India, from a shop run by a not-for-profit charitable organisation. Must admit I still feel a tiny bit like I've broken the rules every time I take my wallet out. And I must also confess that a very quick google search has just revealed countless alternative options for purses made from recycled rubber for sale online (see link below to vulcana bags as an example) - I'm sure I would have found a suitable purse pretty easily. Oh well. Lesson learned. I won't be so hasty next time.
I'm happy to say, however, that that has been the only infingement that I can think of. Not bad, huh? Thats not to say I haven't been tempted! Which leads me to....
1. Baby stuff
Every week I catch up with a group of other Mums in my local area for cups of tea and commiseration. This is held in a room at the back of a local baby things shop, so every week I'm exposed to a sea of uber-cute but environmentally pretty naughty baby stuff - for which I am entitled to a sizeable discount. Very tempting!
2. Plant pots
As I think I've mentioned before, we rent a place with a largely paved outdoor area, so we're forced to mainly grow things in pots, and a short while ago I ran out! I persevered with using the bottom of 2L milk bottles and yoghurt containers (with holes poked in the bottom) which work ok, but they're not really that big, and to be frank don't look all that great. Then one day last week I was taking out the rubbish to the bins we share with our neighbours, and found our neighbouring household had chucked out a whopping stack of at least thirty plastic plant pots. Score! Problem solved.
All in all I think I have found this endeavour a little easier than I had expected as I've just tried to avoid putting myself in temptation's way - what is the point in going shopping when you know you are "not allowed to buy anything"? Perhaps the relentless acquisition of and desire for new things was merely a habit that needed to be broken? Or is it human nature to want new things all the time? - I'm hardly immune to it, I still love going to secondhand shops, and it would be difficult to argue that I actually need the things I buy there - its just fun, and I permit myself because I see that it doesn't come at such an enviromental or ethical cost. Some might argue that those in developing countries who are seemingly happy living with very little material goods refute the theory that its human nature to seek to acquire things that may not be absolutely intrinsic to our survival or basic comfort. But I in turn would argue that this probably just reflects a lack of opportunity and exposure to the big wide world of 'shopping'. What is it about us as human beings that makes us want 'things' so much?
Human nature or not, I have felt a bit of a shift in my attitudes over the past month. I heard a really beautiful piece of classical music I had never heard before on the television the other night, and then, by complete coincidence, the exact same piece of music on the radio the next morning. I honestly felt that this was one of the most gorgeous things I had ever heard, and made a mental note to inform the Beloved Husband that I would like it to be played at my funeral (morbid I know, but everyone thinks about their funeral music - don't they?). My usual impulse, in the 'new stuff era', would have been to seek out a recording of this music, to possess it. But having already made a commitment to myself not to do things like this, I actually found that I was content to just have the experience of hearing this piece of music those two times, and to hope that perhaps I would happen to hear it again some other time. I think this made me more fully appreciate the experience of listening to the song while it was playing, rather than anxiously planning how I would acquire it, planning some future time when I would enjoy it. I guess in self-help speak this is called 'being in the moment'.