Category Archives: Minimalism

Two Sides of the Very Same Coin

zero_waste_home_jacket_500You have to admit, that of all the staggering statistics about plastic in my last post, that the one that probably stayed with you was that small statistic at the end, when I discussed how Bea Johnson was able to reduce the trash output for her family of four to one quart for a whole year. In our modern world, that seems nearly impossible. So I read her book, just to see how she did it. AND, lo and behold, guess what’s behind the one-quart achievement? Minimalism, though she doesn’t really call it that. It turns out that trash reduction and Minimalism are just two sides of the very same coin. In fact, other “sides of the coin” could also include plastics reduction, energy conservation, healthier living, money savings, and perhaps even time savings; all very-related aspects of the same general impetus of living more intentionally.

So, Johnson and her husband first devoted themselves to shrinking, in a thoughtful way, their material possessions and footprint. They moved to a much smaller house that was within walking distance of nearby amenities, dropped down to one vehicle, and decluttered all the rooms in their house. They cut down to a bare minimum of clothes, to only the necessary items in the kitchen, and they reduced their electronic distractions, in return for more time spent as a family and less time tending to their material possessions. When they were done paring down, THEN she turned her attention to minimizing waste. And once you realize how she did this part it seems rather obvious. You can’t “disappear” trash once it’s in your home, so you have to NOT BRING IT HOME. Johnson spent a large amount of time figuring out her methods (she initially was striving for zero trash AND zero recycling, but found that to be too high of a hurdle in terms of her sanity, so they have settled for striving for zero trash and very-low recycling), but, once she perfected her system, it doesn’t seem that difficult. Now, this post is only a very short summary of the family’s endeavors, but the Johnsons bring reusable containers and bags of various sorts with them when they go shopping for food, and shop mostly in the bulk, produce, and deli sections of their local natural-food stores. She then cooks meals from these wholesome ingredients, using a list of recipes that she has selected that can be made with the bulk foods that she has available. The family buys used clothing and other used goods when they can, and for many household items, such as basic cosmetics and toothpaste, she makes her own.

Want to see how it’s done? A great little video about Lauren Singer, a resident of New York City, who also lives a zero-waste lifestyle—

In short, Bea Johnson summarizes her method as the “Five R’s”– Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost). And, she stresses that these efforts need to occur in that particular order. I won’t try to recap all of her material here, but I did want to include a couple of her points–

— We should avoid advertising and marketing. I was surprised to see a discussion of advertising in this book about trash, but it made sense when I though about it. In fact, a quote from the book is in order here—

“Media exposure (television, magazines) and leisure shopping can provide a great deal of inspiration; however, the targeted marketing that funds the former and the clever merchandising that promotes the latter tend to make us feel unfit, uncool, and inadequate. These feelings make it easy to succumb to temptations in order to satisfy perceived needs. Controlling our exposure can have a tremendous effect not just on our consumption but also on our happiness. Find satisfaction with what you already have.”

–Once you realize that your actions and consumption are having negative consequences, then you really only have a few choices—you can deny that it is happening, you can lapse into “eco-depression”, or you can begin to change and take action. And if you don’t think that you can go as far as Bea Johnson did, I would posit that any action is better than no action, and some of them are really quite easy. For instance, it’s not all that hard to quit using single-use plastic shopping bags, or to quit putting your compostable material in the trash. And once you’re comfortable with that, then you could take further steps. Every little bit matters.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

So, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last week, after reading three consecutive books about trash and recycling, is that average Americans create trash in incredible volumes, and nearly thoughtlessly. Disposability has become ingrained in our culture, even though it’s a recent addition. A concerted effort to reserve that trend may be long overdue.

Note, May 2016: After a year of paying attention to packaging and zero-trash, I’ve arrived at a more nuanced view of the subject, see this post, “No Perfect System—Yet“.

Minimalism image credit: Tommerton2010, Flickr Creative Commons.

Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”

plastic trash

No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.

l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—

— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…

garbology book— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.

— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).

— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is 5gyres.org; there is a lot of material on their website.)

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.

Plastic-free---possible but difficult?

Plastic-free—possible but difficult?

I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…

 

 

 

 

Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.

 

Planning the Minimalist-Eco-Leaf Road Trip

ev trip map for blog

A portion of the potential route, where back-roads will be involved to link fast chargers. The leg from Harrisburg to State College, PA, is just long enough (almost 90 miles) that a stop at a Level-2 charger midway might be required. In this case we’ll have to use the charger we’re bringing with us, because the “Level-2” spots in this case are 220-volt outlets at RV parks, some of which aren’t marked on the Plugshare site.

I mentioned the other week how there are dramatically more DC fast chargers in the US than there were a year ago, and how I could drive an EV, hypothetically, all the way to the Midwest using mostly fast chargers. Well, it might be time to put my money where my mouth is—I’m thinking about taking a long-distance Leaf ride, from here in Vermont to the far side of Illinois, to see friends and relatives. I might be crazy.

Then, to add to that craziness, the family wants to go along, less one kid who will be away for the summer. That’s still four people in the Leaf, however. We’ve done road trips like this before, with and without kids, and we usually tent camp along the way. But, let’s just contrast this potential operation with, say, a similar family outing to Maine three years ago. In that case, we had a full-size pickup truck, which was pulling a largish pop-up camper, and two dogs, and the camper and the back of the truck were packed with firewood and bikes and dog food and lawn chairs and a carpet and coolers and all manner of other items. This time—we only have the back of the Leaf. Now, the Leaf isn’t tiny, but in terms of taking it on a family camping trip, it’s going to require some minimalism.

So, here’s the tentative minimalism camping plan—we’re going to pack almost as if we’re backpacking. I’m thinking, a much smaller tent (the “sleeps-eight” tent is on its last legs, anyway), food that doesn’t need cooked or refrigerated (which saves us the stove and dishes and dishsoap and cutting boards and coolers and ice and stops to buy ice, etc.), and for each of us—a duffel-bag with a few sets of clothes and toiletries, one sleeping bag, one folding camp stool, one headlamp, and some books to read. Then some charging equipment—a heavy-duty extension cord, the Level-1 charge cord that comes with the car, and our Level-2 charger that is portable and has a 220v plug. That’s it. Should fit nicely in the back, and still leave room to see out the rearview mirror.

But, the great big question is how and where to charge the car for a trip like this. Just two years ago, when there were virtually no public fast chargers, it was quite challenging, as witnessed by the film “Kick Gas”, where a group of EV enthusiasts spent 44 days going across the US in a variety of electric vehicles, including a Leaf. It’s a great film; here’s the trailer—

Fast chargers, however, will make it easier, as they will charge a Leaf in about 45 minutes, or even less if the battery is only partially empty. So I logged onto plugshare.com, and started to map out a route to Illinois that links fast chargers together, so we could hop from charger to charger. Now, to back up a bit—a Nissan Leaf will go, in the summer when it’s warm, about 100 miles between charges if you keep your speed down a bit. So in the perfect world we’d have fast chargers nicely spaced out up and down the interstates, at 60 or 70-mile intervals (it takes slightly longer to charge the top 10% or so of the battery, so it would be most efficient, in terms of time, to charge to 80 or 85 percent each time, and then drive 60 or 70 miles and then charge again, which would also leave a bit of a range buffer). Needless to say, we’re not there yet. My optimistic prediction of hopping between fast chargers was a tiny bit premature; closer perusal revealed that not all the fast chargers that first pop up on the Plugshare maps will work. Some of them are Tesla Superchargers, so I turned the icons for them off (Telsa owners can use other types of fast chargers with an adapter, but non-Tesla EV’s can’t use a Supercharger).

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal---if you have a Tesla.

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal—if you have a Tesla.

Some other fast chargers have DC-Combo plugs, which also won’t work with a Leaf, so I turned those icons off, too. Then, some of the ones that remained and are Leaf-compatible (stations with CHAdeMO plugs, which is actually the most common setup) appear to be planned but not finished, or not turned on yet, or broken, or for some other reason not fully functional. This still left quite a few, though, and it appears that I can get to Illinois by taking a big curvy loop, from here south and east into Massachusetts and Connecticut, then across the top of New York City and down toward Trenton, New Jersey, and then due west from there, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. But, the best charging locations aren’t exactly in a perfect line, so the route is going to end up with some zigs and zags in it.

So, a great big loop with zigs and zags, and… a few gaps. In a few cases these are just gaps where the fast chargers aren’t close enough together, where we’ll have to juice up a bit at a Level-2 station in the middle somewhere. But, some gaps don’t have any public stations at all, so for those I found a secret weapon, the…  Good Sam’s RV website, with its Google map interface. This is because if no chargers are available, a backup plan (and I got this idea from the Kick Gas movie) is to stop at, or spend the night at, a campground; they nearly all have 220-volt hookups for RVs, where we can plug in the Level-2 charger (or worst case, spent the night while charging with 110-volt charge cord).

good sam snip for blog

A Good Sam’s Club map with an overlay of RV parks—a good backup for areas with no public chargers.

One of those fast-charger-gaps is between Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis, IN. Part of that can be solved by looping down to Cincinnati and then back up, but no matter how you slice it, there is a 100-mile gap to get to Indianapolis from the east, a gap where there aren’t any chargers at all. Here’s where that campground in the image, on I-74 north of Adams, Indiana, might save the day. I’ll call them; maybe we’ll spend the night. It’s called “Hidden Paradise Campground,” and appears to be on a river with wooded banks; it might not be a bad spot to pause.

So, I initially considered going all the way to Texas to see the rest of the relatives by toodling along in this fashion (informal definition of “toodle along” that I found on the internet—“to go somewhere in a rather relaxed, happy-go-lucky way. No stress, no pressure, no rush, just enjoying the journey”) (I’ve always heard this phrase used like this, but I’m still not sure it’s a real word), but it’s a bit of a charger-desert west and south of Indianapolis, so it would be pretty slow going. Even the Leaf-portion where the fast chargers are won’t be speedy, there will be a certain minimalism to the average travel day that will be required—walking around a new place, reading a book in the shade, hanging out with the kids, having an ice-cream cone, enjoying the now. I’m looking forward to it. If we do decide to continue on, it might be on a train, which is another travel mode with a low carbon-footprint. Either way, this is the year to do the adventure-trip—a year ago it wouldn’t have been quite possible, and a year from now there might be enough fast chargers, all in a line and 60 miles apart, that such a trip becomes something rather ordinary.

But this trip, this summer, might be a fun challenge. I’ll keep you posted.

The new grey Leaf, the replacement for the black one when the two-year lease was up. It's being charged with solar here at the house, and ready for a road trip.

The new grey 2015 Leaf, the replacement for the black one when its two-year lease was up. It’s being charged with solar here at the house, and it’s ready for a road trip.

Supercharger image: Steve Jurvetson, “Tesla Supercharging in Gilroy”, Flickr Creative Commons.

 

Heading Out on a Limb

our-final-invention

In recent weeks, both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have made statements about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. Curious, I picked up a book on the subject, “Our Final Invention”, by James Barrat. While many people have visions of a wonderful future where thinking machines solve our problems, Barrat isn’t one of them. He lays out quite the case— first, that there are no real barriers to the development of what he calls “AGI”, or advanced general intelligence, and from there to “ASI”, or advanced super-intelligence. Once machines can improve themselves, they could conceivable do so very rapidly, in a sort of intelligence explosion. The early possession of such technology could potentially lead to great rewards, so corporations, nation-states, and criminals alike are developing it as fast as they possibly can. And, there appears to be no stopping this development—no set of laws could stop it, and would only ensure that bad actors achieve it first.

Second, Barrat holds that we truly don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into here, that thinking machines are highly likely to be “black boxes” that we don’t understand, and will be “alien minds” that could easily be hostile or indifferent to humans. He gives an interesting example, of how an ASI machine designed to play chess could decide that it needed to build a spaceship. Without careful programming, Barrat holds that these machines are highly likely to be disastrous for humans as a species, and that even if we’re as careful as we can be, that accidents are likely to occur, and that those accidents might kill millions.

So, all very interesting. But, as Mr. X reminded me recently, we humans don’t really have any shortage of existential threats. If not AI, then the danger could come from something else—nanotechnology, or super-viruses, or biotech, or an asteroid strike, or nuclear weapons. Or, something much, much easier to see and understand—environmental destruction and exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity.

Now, my thought here—regardless of the threat, we need to slow down, as a species. We’re rushing pel mel ahead, on all fronts, without paying quite enough attention the big picture. I watched “Interstellar” over the Thanksgiving weekend, and one line in the movie caught my attention, when one of the characters referred to the 21st century as an “Age of Excess”.

interstellar-banner

That moniker seems to fit. It’s not just the relentless development, it’s that so much of it is driven by consumerism and the desire for profit, with no meaningful direction. We’re either trying to entertain ourselves, or to make our lives ever easier, or to distract ourselves with some other new “opiate of the masses” (posts: “A Little Hardship is a Good Thing“, “Minimalism for the Mind“, and “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism“). Or, perhaps worse, as Barrat points out, to develop ever more sophisticated weapons of war. Much of it we don’t actually need, and much of it distracts us from the big things that we really need to be paying some attention to.

It would also be good, moving forward, to not only do a better job of keeping the big picture in mind, but to keep some redundancy in our lives. Can we survive if some existential threat knocks us back a step? Do we have backup systems for food, water, finance, transportation, and communication? Do we know our neighbors, who we might have to depend on in an emergency? I’m afraid that far more often than not, that we don’t. And because of that, we might be headed right out onto a limb here.

 

A Little Hardship is a Good Thing

I’ve been working pretty hard, physically, on the project, but I feel pretty good, health-wise. Some periods of hard physical labor, I think, are good for a person from time to time. So, reflecting on this, it occurred to me on the drive to work this morning how much physical labor is NOT in our modern lives. We turn on the faucet, and water comes out, no more hand-pumping or carrying water. We take a few steps to our vehicles, no more walking, no more saddling of horses. We hit a button and the garage door pops open, no more doing that manually. We go through the drive-through lane for some breakfast, no more cooking, no more getting out of the car. Heck, we don’t even have to roll the car window down anymore, just push a button… This all reminds me, disturbingly, of the human characters in the film Wall-E. Corpulent, buoyed along on floating chairs, attended to by machines, sucking on drinks with straws, beholden to the “commodity form”. Here’s a clip in case you haven’t seen the film–

We’re not there yet, but you have to admit that we’re on our way. Most people’s lives (in the “rich” nations, anyway) are so devoid of physical labor that people work hard at their sedentary jobs and then spend the money they earn to pay to go exercise, and to do all the running and lifting that their grandparents would have done just to subsist. Worse, all of this comes at an environmental cost—resource consumption to create, market, and run our labor-saving devices, and then yet more resource consumption to create, market, and operate the machines in the gym.

So, my thought-of-the-day— embrace some of the physical work in your life. Or, as Gandhi put it, “One must learn to enjoy one’s chores”. If there’s a good side to our modern labor-saving devices, it’s that they give us the luxury of doing some picking and choosing when it comes to labor. We don’t have to slave in the mines, we can choose some slightly more fulfilling versions of exertion. My personal choices would be cooking with family and friends (with prep and clean-up, quite a bit of labor, but of the good sort), cutting and splitting firewood (time in the woods, alone or with someone else, fresh air, sunshine…), and gardening. Other people’s choices might be different, BUT— realize that no choice at all will put one on the path to floating-chair-land…

Video: PassivelySedentary, YouTube.

The Parking Lot of the Future, Today

DSCN1172 new chargers cropped

New chargers at Green Mountain Power, in Rutland, VT.

I drove the Leaf down to Brattleboro, yesterday, a 240 -mile round trip; the longest I’ve taken yet in one of the electric vehicles. But it was relatively easy, thanks to some new chargers right where I needed them (both for this trip and for driving to work). Not one, not two, not three, but EIGHT new chargers at the Green Mountain Power operations facility in Rutland, each with two charge ports, PLUS a fast charger. They are all freshly installed, and the fast charger isn’t energized yet, but that’s seventeen new places to charge, all in a line. But, it occurred to me that this is what most parking lots will look like in the years ahead; EV numbers continue to rise (post: “EV’s Everywhere“).

The trip was really fun; I had gone down to give an EV presentation at a workshop in Brattleboro sponsored by a variety of environmental groups there. Part of the event was devoted to electric-assist bicycles, and I rode one for the first time. They are pretty amazing; every time you pedal it’s as if you’re three times as strong as you would normally be, even though the bikes look almost like regular bikes, and the propulsion is silent. I also heard a thought-provoking presentation by Dave Cohen, (link to VPR story with photo) a cycling enthusiast and integrative psychotherapist, who discussed how our technologies have a not-so-good side effect of insulating us from real-world sensory input. To him, cars, including EV’s, keep us from truly experiencing the world, and he thus advocates biking (or walking) when possible. A topic for a whole blog post, when I get a chance. Very nifty video about one of the projects he’s helping with—

On the home front, the solar project continues apace, though it has kept me busy 24/7 and threatens to do so for another six weeks. I’ll post construction pictures soon. But, plenty to ponder on all fronts, and much of it, like electric-assisted cargo bicyles and 17 chargers all in one parking lot, are visible signs of movement in directions that are good for the planet. Yay…

Minimalism for the Mind

“Absence isn’t going to return to us easily. Just as we decide to limit our intake of the sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, we now must decide to sometimes keep at bay the connectivity we’re hardwired to adore. We must remain as critical of technological progress as we are desirous of it . . . Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. . .” —Michael Harris, from The End of Absence.

porch swing

Solitude and peacefulness: necessary ingredients.

Here’s a mental image for you, one that’s not nearly as pleasing as the image above—imagine a rat, wired with electrodes to the pleasure centers of its brain, pressing a bar that activates the circuit and triggers pleasure. The rat presses the bar over, and over, and over, ignoring food and sleep, until it finally falls over from exhaustion. (This really happens; the first experiments were conducted in 1956 by physiologist James Olds).

Compare that to people today, with their electronic gizmos, checking email, checking for text messages or Facebook responses, playing Angry Birds or Words With Friends or Candy Crush, or just incessantly surfing the web. Our technologies, because they compete in the marketplace for our attention, and because they can be replicated easily, take on an evolutionary aspect whereby they become more and more addictive. Just as advertising and broadcasting companies do (see my post from the other week, “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism” ), companies that create digital services design their products to gain and hold our attention, and the products and services that do so succeed in the marketplace, and are replicated. The very nature of the human brain plays right into their hands; we are wired to notice and pay attention to both novelty, flitting images, and social connection. For example, studies have shown that whenever young people receive a text message, that pleasure hormones like dopamine are released in their brain. (And perhaps not just young people—see this Psychology Today article, “Why We’re all Addicted to Texts, Twitter, and Google” ). And it’s not just the content of the message, but also the fact that someone sent it. The real message of that text— “I’m thinking of you, you matter to me…”. And, the speed at which kids respond to each other’s messages is important, too—the faster a response is sent or received, the more emphatic that underlying message of attention and caring. Ask any young person, they’ll tell you that real friends, important friends, respond immediately to text messages. (And if they’re in class? Well, then they’re returning texts from behind their book bag…). The whole thing becomes a circular, self-reinforcing web. Somebody loves me, I’m important to somebody, somebody loves me, I care about you too…

In his insightful book “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection”, Michael Harris explores some of the ramifications of these tendencies. We’ve all heard the term “meme” used to describe an idea that spreads culturally. Harris discusses the ideas of Susan Blackmore, who used the term “teme” to denote technological memes—digital products and services that spread due to their appeal (think of any funny cat video you’ve seen linked to lately on facebook, or the latest mobile phone game craze). Her conclusions are a bit frightening, but at the same time difficult to argue with. A quote from the book is in order here—

“But as temes evolve, they could demand more than a few servers from future generations of humans. Blackmore continued: ‘What really scares me is that the accelerating evolution of temes and their machinery requires vast amounts of energy and material resources. We will go on supplying these as long as we want to use the technology, and it will adapt to provide us what we want while massively expanding of its own accord. Destruction of the climate and of earth’s ecosystems is the inevitable outlook. It is this that worries me—not whether they are amoral or not.'”

One might accuse Blackmore of hyperbole here, but I can attest to the power of these trends. I work with young people on a daily basis, and I can tell you, the image below (itself spread virally around social media) rings truer to me than you might imagine:

zombie

I don’t know who took the original picture, but I doubt it was staged, because I see a very close approximation of this every day in the classroom. Kid are so attracted to the internet that is in their pocket that sometimes they seem to rarely even talk to each other. Are they like rats pressing a bar in some controlled pleasure experiment? If we were from Mars, I’m afraid we’d have to answer in the affirmative.

Now, I’m no hater of technology. This blog, by its very nature, is an offshoot of the digital age. As for social media, I would even go so far as to say that Facebook has enriched my life, by allowing me to stay in touch with students after they graduate and fly off to every corner of the world, and with friends and relatives in faraway places. But we need to keep a few things in mind as we use these digital tools. In no particular order–

— Realize that there are addictive aspects to the digital world, and that the products and services are designed, either overtly or as a result of market success, to be that way. The corporate entities behind these products and services realize this, and do their best to foster it. When they succeed in leading us around by the nose, it is time wasted from our lives, and money in their pockets.

play station

No doubt about the direction Sony wishes us to follow… Playstation banner at the E3 Expo, Los Angeles, 2012.

— Solitude has value. Our best thinking isn’t done while distracted. The human mind needs time to process, to meditate, and to reflect, and this can’t happen in a barrage of interuptions.

— Time with other humans, in the real world, without the distractions of phones and gizmos, has value. Deep conversations, and the deep friendships that follow, don’t take place via Twitter. Deep conversations also don’t happen when one party or the other is distracted by their smart phone.

— Multi-tasking has been shown time and time again to be an illusion. Doing all manner of digital activities, at the same time, just lowers the quality and efficiency of the work we do. We end up with quantity over quality.

Seek real experiences, and real relationships, in the real world. No digital equivalent is a real substitute.

— Too much social-media technology inhibits young people’s real-life social skills.

— Much digital stimulation is just another distraction, another opiate of the masses, and a form of mental clutter.

— Our problems, and humanity’s problems, are in the real world, and this includes wealth inequality, world poverty, and the ongoing destruction of the environment. Playing Angry Birds isn’t part of the solution to any of them.

So, in that post the other week I opined that turning off the TV would be a step forward for sustainability. Well, today I’ll just add to that—regularly disconnecting from the digital maelstrom has great value, for our personal psyches, for our real relationships, and for solving real problems. Let’s create real memories, in the real world, and let’s take care of that place. Much of Minimalism is about having fewer physical possessions cluttering up our lives and distracting us (my first Minimalism post), but digital distractions are just as bad; let’s also strive for some Minimalism for our minds, by purposely turning off the torrent of digital information from time to time, and living intentionally, of our own accord, and not as pawns in some corporate business plan.

 

Top image credit: archidea / 123RF Stock Photo.
Zombie image: Facebook.
Playstation banner: The Conmunity, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/popculturegeek/7640590798.

The Economic Taproot of Consumerism

Galleria

The Cambridge Galleria—about as non-Minimalism as one can get; a three-story temple to Consumerism.

(Note— I’ve written this post, but I’m not sure exactly what to think of it. This subject of how-much-advertising-is-too-much is one that cries out for nuance. I think I’ll go ahead and post it as food for thought; feel free to chime in with your two cents, sometimes there’s real wisdom in group-think.)

 

I always tell people, when they ask about our off-grid house, that “we live like normal people”. We cook, eat, sleep, work, wear clothes, drive cars, pay bills, etc., pretty much like everybody else. But maybe we don’t live like normal people. We recently took a short family vacation to the Boston area for four days, and my sudden exposure to other people’s “normal” was a bit of a shock.

First of all, we’re about one fast charger short of being able to easily take one of the Leafs to Boston (anyone listening, Lebanon, NH?), so we rented a gas-mobile. It was a Nissan Sentra, and it got really good mileage, over 40 mpg according to the readout. But, I haven’t had to pump gas into a car for well over a year, so that alone was something new.

And, this is probably true for anyone, but it’s hard to “live sustainably” while out of town. We ate lunch at the Boston Science Museum the first day, and the mountain of trash we generated was just shocking; probably more trash than we generate in days here at home. Plastic-ware, paper cups and bowls, lids, foam plates, napkins, little salt and pepper packets, ketchup containers… A good portion of it could have been composted or recycled, but alas, there were no bins for either. Our hotel had complementary breakfasts that were also served on disposable-ware, so that same trash scene got repeated every morning as well, and then other days while out for lunch. Worse, we twice brought food that we couldn’t finish at a restaurant back to the hotel in take-home containers, but there was no refrigerator in the room, so both times that too ended up in the trash. Then there were the paper cups in the room, the daily washing and drying of all the sheets and towels, and the running of the AC because there was no good way to open the windows. All told, we were “consuming” at way, way higher rates than we normally do.

Now, all of that above-mentioned consumption and waste was mostly a function of sustainable systems not being in place. But, when we went to the Galleria mall in Cambridge, I was once again struck by how there is a whole other class of consumption out there. The Galleria contains a hundred stores or more, glitzy signs and ads, seemingly almost completely centered around fashion, appearance, or the latest gadgets. A veritable Temple of Consumerism; shoes for women who probably already have closets full, clothes that will likely only get worn a few times, high-priced sportswear with all the desirable designer labels. Some of the women shopping, judging from their appearance, would rank fashion and cosmetics as a driving force in their lives. The whole place just gave me an overwhelming sense of shocking superficiality, of uselessness, of waste. And most of those purchased items, in their specialty packaging, were being carried around in largish plastic or paper bags emblazoned with yet more designer logos, with both packaging and bags soon to go into the trash after their few minutes of use, where they would be transported still more before being buried in some landfill by fossil-fuel burning machines.

Then, back at the hotel, we were treated to the latest in cable TV; channel after channel of high-definition distraction, our modern day “opiate of the masses”. In fact, every single restaurant we went to, for four days, also had a television prominently blaring. Every single one, even the nice ones, and the hotel breakfast area as well. Inane “news” reporting, hyped up and rather ridiculous game shows, reality-style fix the house shows, morning shows, the list went on.

But, there’s a common thread between the TV and the mall. In 1904, J.A. Hobson wrote “The Economic Taproot of Imperialism”. Well, I believe what we have today could be called “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism”. The TV shows are evaluated and re-evaluated by the networks, to see which ones get the biggest share of the viewing audience. If a show (or the news) doesn’t “perform”, it gets replaced. The result is that every show, on every channel, is expressly designed to hold people’s attention (and it works; try having a meaningful conversation with your family while a TV is on nearby). And the purpose of attracting this audience? To sell advertisements, in the form of commercials, which play for huge chunks of every broadcast hour. And, the commercials themselves, created by America’s 300-billion-dollar ad industry, are scientifically designed and focus-group tested to ensure their own effectiveness at holding people’s attention. They are all finely tuned to convince people that they need this product, that food, this image, that vehicle. They are also finely tuned to convince people that what they already have isn’t good enough, so that those people have to go to… the mall. They have to go to the mall to shop, to replace, to keep up with the moving target of fashion, all carefully crafted by the puppet-masters in the looming skyscrapers above. Thus, the Galleria. (And this isn’t a new idea, Herbert Marcuse discussed this exact topic in his 1969 book “An Essay on Liberation”. A short and insightful excerpt—“…The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man, which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form…”)(Good short overview of his book here.)

Marcuse bookAnd to pay for all this consumption, for all that stuff and the big houses to store it in, people work, forty hours a week or more.

Then, in Boston, there were the many, many disadvantaged people we walked past every single day, waiting on buses and living in the poorer parts of town, who would clearly be unable to shop for much of anything at the Galleria.

So, waste and uselessness on one end of the spectrum, and privation on the other. It sometimes makes me wonder about our system.

Anyway, the above is a bit of a rant, but it seems that this media/consumption cycle isn’t in any way helpful in moving our systems and social structures toward some semblance of sustainability. I realize there’s a middle ground in terms of how to think about this topic—the market system creates the wealth and choices we all enjoy, name brands and advertising convey information that serve some useful purposes, and I enjoy a funny TV show just as much as the next guy. I also realize that human nature drives much of this; biology causes us to attempt to exhibit our evolutionary fitness and status with our clothes and belongings, and we all have hardwired conceptions of beauty that the fashion and cosmetic industries tap into. But, just as we have to use some self-control when eating, because evolution wires us to enjoy eating salt, fats, and sugars, we all need to use some self-control in the media and consumption arenas.

So, if you want to be part of the solutions, it might be good to turn off that TV, and give some thought about what the root motivations are that drive your purchases. And for me, the next time we go on a vacation like this, I might want to throw a recycling tub into the car. After all, why be normal?

veggie grill

Hanging out with George this evening, grilling garden veggies. Simple pleasures, and much less consumption than in the big city.

Top and bottom images: Me

A Sort-of Minimalism Day

mustard cover crop

Beautiful views off of Rt. 100.

Six months ago, the state of Vermont had quite a few Level-2 charging stations, but zero fast-chargers. Fast chargers, or Level-3 chargers, use 440 volts and will charge an EV like a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes. We got our first two this spring, but I checked the other day, and that number had grown to six. The new ones are all in a line right near I-89, in Burlington, Middlesex, Montpelier, and Barre.

So, last Saturday it was a beautiful day, and I decided to take a mostly-solar-powered EV drive in a big loop, and go find the new chargers. A Sunday drive on a Saturday, if you will. My wife and two of the kids went along, and we spent most of the day driving and sitting in parks reading and looking at various sights and visiting farmer’s markets along the way. I’m not sure how much of the drive was powered with renewable power—we charge with solar here at home in the summer, and some, but not all, of the public chargers are net-metered to solar panels. Though, even standard grid-power here in Vermont is partly hydro, solar, and wind. Suffice it to say that a good chunk of our motive power was renewable.

In terms of Minimalism, the walking and nature and sitting in parks qualifies, but we did go to a restaurant for lunch in Montpelier and had a nice meal. I suppose we could have had simple picnic food in the park, but we didn’t quite plan that all out. So, we’ll just call it a “sort-of renewable energy, sort-of Minimalism day”. Some pictures—

camperdown elm

A Camperdown elm in Bristol. These unusual trees are all descendants of one single tree in England. They don’t propagate naturally, and have to be grafted onto rootstock from another elm.

black walnut

A beautiful, thriving black walnut in Bristol. They aren’t overly common here; we’re at the northern edge of their native range. This is the largest one I’ve seen in Vermont.

Local produce at one of the farmer's markets.

Local produce at one of the farmer’s markets.

The new fast charger at Red Hen Bakery, in Middlesex.

The new fast charger at Red Hen Bakery, in Middlesex.

The farmer's market in Montpelier.

The farmer’s market in Montpelier.

Local and organic...

Local and organic…

The red Leaf, headed up Lincoln Gap.

The red Leaf, headed up Lincoln Gap.

One of the popular swimming spots on the New Haven River.

One of the popular swimming spots on the New Haven River.

So, we drove about a hundred miles on mostly solar power, got sidetracked on some dirt roads outside of Warren, found all the new chargers, and juiced up while we were eating lunch. In the end, a nice day, and some signs of progress on our collective road to more sustainability—charging stations, renewable power, and farmers markets full of organic, local food. Not a bad day.

DSCN0724

(Note, 20 Jul 2014— I’m removing references to cover crops in this post. While mustards are sometimes planted as cover crops for pest control, I’m not sure the mustard in the top image was planted intentionally. I don’t know enough about the subject; I plan to look into it.)

Photos: Me.

Leave it a Lawn, Part Deux

fowers 1

Look what pops up when you quit mowing…

Another short post here, a continuation, I suppose, of some of my previous lawn posts ( “A Matter of Perception” , “Leave it a Lawn” , and Mr. X’s humorous “Mr. X on Lawn Care” ). I decided, this spring, that we could get a lot of bang for our buck by mowing dramatically less lawn. The trend here in rural Vermont seems to be to mow an extra strip around the yard every year, until most people, by the time they’re in their 50’s, seem to be mowing five acres of grass every week (invariably while sitting aboard loud, exhaust-belching riding mowers). We could nip that trend in the bud, and save some lawn-care time. This decision was also related to the veritable ocean of beautiful dandelion blooms that filled the yard this spring, right when the bees needed that early spring food—I just couldn’t bring myself to mow them down. And finally, in some burst of Zen or Dao or feng shui inspiration (“Getting My Feng Shui On”), we decided to abandon the old semi-rectangular lawn format, and cut the edge of the much-smaller mowed area into sweeping curves, in free-forms around the house and garden, with adjoining curvy mown paths. (All with the electric mower.) The kids complained that the new plan was ruining their field hockey and football field, but we persisted. The relatives probably also think that the unmowed areas are a bit sacrilegious, but hey, we’re probably already beyond redemption in that department.

I’m happy to report that the results have been absolutely fantastic. After the sea of dandelion blooms turned to wispy seed heads, the newly-unmown areas looked a tiny bit ratty for a week or two, but then other wild flowers just appeared, as if by magic. White clover, red clover, buttercups, daisies, vetch and ground ivy, and flowers I don’t even recognize, all over the former lawn. And, all playing host to a huge number of bumblebees, and honeybees from the new hive.

So, win-win-win. Less work, more flowers, more bee and pollinator habitat, and some curvy spiritual calmness to boot. In the end, worth being an object of suspicion in that all-American quest to be just like everybody else.

flowers 2

Daisies.