Monday, January 11, 2010


A recent addition to the links is “Unstuffed”, a blog maintained by our good friend Amber, who lives in Ottawa. It’s a cornucopia of information about the environment and tips on how to live in a more eco-friendly way. Amber is pretty hard-core when it comes to eco issues, and some of the things she describes here are probably not feasible for everyone; I’m not sure that I could eschew toilet paper, for instance. The initial seed from which the blog grew was her effort to consume nothing new for an entire year, which I believe she did accomplish; she was interviewed on the CBC about this.

Nevertheless, the blog is focused on simple things that all of us can do in order to reduce our ecological footprint, and it’s a salmagundi of clever ideas and joie de vivre. Many tips Claire and I have picked up on, such as cleaning the house with vinegar and baking powder; something that has a nostalgic appeal for me, since my mother used to do this. I really like the blog because it avoids the downfall of those eco sites that argue we can only avoid catastrophe by huge and unworkable steps: like, stop driving now!

As someone who takes seriously the idea that we are stewards of the earth, it is nice to be given concrete ways to make a difference in the present. I have two frequent criticisms of the environmental movement, neither of which applies to Amber or her blog! The first is that they never seem to make clear what we have accomplished thus far. For instance, when I was a child, there was a push to get people recycling, and I didn’t know anyone who recycled anything. Now, everyone I know recycles. I’m almost obsessive about putting anything that could potentially be recycled into the recycling bin. Everyone on our block does this. Everyone I know does this. However, I don’t remember ever hearing from an environmentalist group that recycling has helped at all, which is discouraging.

In fact, many of them say that it’s not really recycling, and instead, we need to consume less. But, here too, everyone I know is already consuming less, partly because we’re all broke. Claire and I went from two cars to one last year. And here, in Ontario, we’re cutting down on plastic bags. The province passed a sales tax on plastic bags; I think it was 5 cents a bag. So, now, all of the grocery stores sell these cheap cloth bags. Claire and I use cloth beach bags from L.L. Bean’s, and actually we have been for a few years now. The end result is that I haven’t seen a plastic bag by the side of the road or tangled in a tree in the last four months. I don’t remember the last time Claire and I had one in our house. But, again, I’ve never heard tell that we Ontarians have accomplished anything. This, I think, is a mistake; it seems like the environmental movement would achieve more by rallying communities around achievable goals and then boosting local pride when we achieve those goals. At least, it would cut down on the gloom and doom. This would, of course, be a corollary to what people like Amber are doing: focusing on individual accomplishments and then on small community accomplishments.

The second problem I have, and this is unavoidable I think, is that the movement focuses too often on large national and global measures that simply cannot be passed in the current political climate. I don’t think it’s saying anything controversial to point out that the American government cannot function when addressing serious issues. In the face of political divisions, the detachment of the public, extremely powerful lobbies, bribery and corruption, the US government has ceased to be able to address any problem whatsoever. And the Canadian government is just as dysfunctional; nobody I know believes that the Harper government will cease in its efforts to make Canada a petro-state.

But, it is possible that all of the developed democracies are this dysfunctional. Moreover, democracies have to sell their public on environmental measures that often go against their self-interest as individuals. The result is that people strongly “believe” that “global warming is a myth” and other such convenient twaddle. Pinning any hopes on democratic countries “lowering their emissions” is a losing proposition that will only lead to cynicism and despair. I think Amber knows this, which is why she focuses on what the individual can do.

Don’t get me wrong: I still have hope for the future, because it seems to me that communities, science, and commerce will do what governments cannot. Someone- probably the Japanese- will soon develop an electric car that can sell for the same price as a Corolla, and be fueled much more cheaply. That company will, in return, make a fortune, while the American carmakers go under hoping for American tariffs to maintain their inability to compete. Of course, electric cars only reduce greenhouse emissions by 20% if the power comes from coal. Therefore, someone- probably the French- will have to perfect solar, wind, and nuclear power, and make it cheaper to build and maintain a power plant than it is now. The coal lobby won’t stand for it…unless, it’s cheaper and more profitable for them to switch to nuclear, solar, wind, or water power. When that happens, the change will be widespread and rapid.

So, I think that local communities, as well as business and technology will have to save the planet. In fact, I’m sort of amazed that groups like Greenpeace don’t already have research and development wings. I don’t know that it will happen here, of course. The American business culture is outdated, sclerotic, and parasitic on a failing oligarchic state. The Canadian business culture is simply too gutless and conservative. Nevertheless, I like that people are starting to focus on the Individual, and then the Community, and then hopefully on innovative technology that will change the world. And people like Amber will be in the avant garde of that.


Amber said...

Hi Rufus! Thanks so much for linking to my eco-nutty blog and including such a kind write up. I do try to be 'hard core' as you say and often worry that will come across as 'hard line'.

Because I am very passionate about what I do and will passionately encourage others to try out their own lifestyle changes, it can be so challenging to not cross the line into annoying, preachy, judgmental land.

You make some really great points about the lack of clarity in the environmental movement and that's something I certainly struggle with. The confusion can often lead to apathy and paralysis. There's this weird mix of fear mongering followed up with teeny actions of the, we're-so-effed-now-change-your-lightbulb sort. Then there's other end of the spectrum of the huge, unworkable steps you mention, that just aren't realistic, affordable or accessible to all. Throw in a healthy dollop of green washing and green consumerism and it's no wonder that many people just turn off altogether.

And when the good news and accomplishments aren't acknowledged, that only adds to the discouragement.

I guess that's why I focus on my own individual behaviours so much. It's something that I have control over and I can see the immediate effects of.

When I can go for 6 to 8 weeks without having to take the garbage and recycling out because I don't buy a lot of new stuff, avoid packaging and I compost, I get a sense of accomplishment from that. And I don't need any research or stats about the nature of waste to know that that's a good thing.

When I grow my own cabbage and turn it into sauerkraut that keeps for months and months, I feel very empowered and much more connected with my food, and I care much more about the soil I grew it in. Then I get really friggin' excited about the fact that I compost and can add that my soil!

When I make a cup of herbal tea that I harvested and dried, to help me get over a cold of flu, I sever a bit of my dependence on large, pharmaceutical corporations.

I don't have to wait for the politicians to enact new policies or corporations to change their practices to start changing my own impact or reduce my reliance on unsustainable systems and structures you know?

And I guess my hope is that there will be enough people making enough changes (in their own way, at their own pace, that works for them) at the individual level, that soon enough the neighbourhood will get involved, then the community, then the city....

But hey, I'm just a nutty, grassroots loving, simple living, urban homesteading, weed eating, backyard medicine making weirdo! What do I know? ;)


Rufus said...

Hi Amber! Good to hear from you!

Amber: There's this weird mix of fear mongering followed up with teeny actions of the, we're-so-effed-now-change-your-lightbulb sort.

That's so funny- I said almost exactly the same thing after watching one of these documentaries. It was along the lines of We're all doomed; now get cloth shopping bags.

What I like about what you're doing is it's concrete and we've gotten some really good ideas from it. I don't read it as preachy or judgmental.

I do think that things probably are pretty fucked; However(!) I think the trick will be breaking the big task into small steps and addressing them individually, but simultaneously. It's easier to get your head around, say, your city doing away with plastic bags, than it is to conceive of everyone cutting their consumption in half. The larger goals, like reducing greenhouse gases in North America 50% by 2020, or whatever, are probably doable, but when put that way are really overwhelming.

Anyway, you've thought more about this than I have, so my thoughts are probably nothing new. Keep up the good work!