“The secret life of stuff” part one

This is a post based upon the fantastic book by Julie Hill. Every single item we buy is the product of energy invested, resources consumed, and a belief system that discounts the environmental costs of our unsustainable way of life. The economist Kenneth Boulding calls that belief system “the linear economy,” and its credo is “make stuff, buy stuff, throw stuff away.”

Heavy, right? But we HAVE to talk about our consumption. When we’re eating, breathing, and birthing plastics (they’re in our fetuses), 1000 new chemicals are synthesized every hour, and our garbage dumps are bursting at the seams, despite recycling efforts, then it’s time for a little awareness, a little discomfort, and a LOT of re-thinking of manufacture and consumerism.

Hill’s book is as fascinating as it is frustrating. She starts out, “We humans… have surrounded ourselves with things that are ingenious and delightful… But I’m dismayed at how little we understand the complexity of the material world that sustains us… we rarely know where [our stuff] comes from and where it goes… We rarely appreciate the effort that turns materials into the stuff around us… we are oblivious to the secret life of stuff.”

me & Walmart CEO

Before I dove into activism, my life was work, take care of family, sleep, and SHOP. Buying stuff was entertainment, it was recreation, it was exploration, and socializing, habit, and, yes, therapy. It was just… what we DID. And the buying was ALWAYS, for me, about, “oh yea, this says such-and-such a thing about me (impressive), and that says such-and-such a thing about us (successful), and people will think this is tasteful, and that’s funny or cute, and… NO ONE EVER CAME OVER!! Partly because we were out shopping, and mostly because I was at work making money to blow on stuff!

Yes, I propped up the economy well. I took George Bush’s advice after 9/11 to heart, and kept western civilization humming by throwing my dollars straight from paycheck into the economy. Wow. When I look back, I recognize that I was trying to fill a lonely heart with goods. I’m grateful I came to a healthier emotional place. But I don’t think any westerner would deny that our culture strongly encourages us to buy things. In fact, corporations have become expert in manipulating us so they can take custody of our money. It makes me angry and disgusted to know how transactionally they look at us. It’s a dehumanization that’s been allowed to go too far, and for too long. But I digress! Rant over. But just know, you are not a THING to me… not ever!

So what to do with stuff after we’ve decided we’re done with it: “If the waste is not biodegradable, nature cannot deal with it at all. Humans have brought non-degradable wastes into the system in a variety of ways: we pull materials out of the earth’s crust, we transform them by applying heat, we combine them and we create wholly novel materials such as plastic polymers. What can be done with this kind of waste?”

One option is to try to pretend it never existed: dump it in a hole or valley, compact it, and cover it with dirt. But this method has drawbacks, such as “leachate,” a toxic liquid formed at the bottom of landfills from a combination of the garbage and precipitation filtering through it. And lots of stuff that could be recycled gets buried. One day, workers may have to dig it up. I recall my biology teacher mentioning this, 30 years ago, and I thought, “that won’t happen in my lifetime.” And yet… here we are. On the cusp of actually having to deal with buried trash. From no waste at all (most people, 100 years ago), to massive garbage production (50 years ago to now), to today, when the “zero waste,” no-landfill movement signals the dawning of new wisdom in waste management.

Another option is incinerating wastes. But ‘incomplete combustion’ produces dangerous chemicals. And “up to a third of what is consigned to the furnace comes out as ash. Some can be recycled into building materials, but [the rest]… has to be taken to landfill.” Some incinerators produce electricity and/or heat, but sometimes “the amount of energy recovered may not justify the destruction of potentially valuable materials.” Still, Hill says, burning “might be a good option for certain wastes.”

Hill next embarks on a fascinating discussion about the materials used to make stuff. It’s a surprisingly short list: minerals- including glass, metals, pottery, and concrete (energy-expensive); wood (includes paper); plastics; textiles; and “composites-” plastics with metals, ceramics with fibers, etc. Hill talks about the pro’s and con’s of each material, and explains that the use of multiple materials to make one product complicates recycling. Items that can’t be recycled because of this include wax paper, coffee cups (lined with plastic), chip bags (lined with foil), and hardcover books. As Bob Vila says, “the sturdy covers of hardcover books contain non-paper components and must therefore be removed” before recycling the pages.

We know the environment takes a hit when we “harvest” materials to make stuff. But we’re typically completely unaware of how much is taken from the earth IN ADDITION to those raw materials. Textiles, for example, need crazy amounts of water, and the soil is damaged by intensive agricultural practices. You’d think we recycle so much paper by now that we wouldn’t need to cut down trees for it. But our paper hunger is so vast, even irreplaceable old growth forests are logged. Then there’s pollution, including fertilizer run-off that wreaks havoc on river and wetland ecosystems. Ultimately, we encounter hard limits in the quest for ever more raw materials, including finite supplies of land, water, and healthy soil. The necessity to preserve invaluable species and ecosystems is another hard limit to endless economic expansion.


“Negative externalities” are the costs of environmental damage, including the price on human health, that companies cause but don’t have to pay. These costs are, instead, paid by you and I, through our taxes, or in the cost of stuff, or in lost work due to illness. We may believe that, “one should be responsible for one’s own mess,” but corporations don’t live up to the same standard. Being able to pass on the costs of production is a massive part of what makes corporations’ goods affordable. But the environment can no longer afford to pay the price. Nor can we.

And here is where I have to say, “well lookee here, just one more way our governments have screwed things up, and in failing to bite the bullet a long time ago, have made life much harder for the people they were supposed to be protecting and empowering.”

Chapter 8 marks the place where Hill begins to tie consumption to global environmental damage. Because the linear economy involves global supply chains, massive use of resources, and out-sourcing of waste manage- ment, including recycling, a lot of ecological degradation isn’t visible to the world’s consumers. We hear about the damage, but goods keep getting made, and our leaders say and do nothing, so we keep buying. Because the items are cute, or impressive, or… seem like a necessity. Consequently, the “free” market never gets signaled that many goods would not be bought if we knew the truth about their negative externalities. This is an example of “market failure,” but corporations are loathe for consumers to learn that there is a lot of information we aren’t getting about the products we buy.

And of course, some goods are necessities. But the linear economy presides over our basic needs just as militantly as over items that’re arguably luxuries. Our food comes from far away, because somehow food grown halfway across the world and transported on trucks is cheaper. Chinese workers make clothing and toys for peanuts, so corporations take advantage. But what all of it means is that slowly but surely, we’re eating away at the “natural capital” that comprises the raw materials for stuff. And as the most accessible and/or fastest renewing raw materials get used up, more energy, labor, and other capital is required to obtain more. Corporations pass those costs on to us, but demand even more help from governments as their profit margins decrease.

The time of reckoning is here. Governments are choosing to help big, profitable companies pass their costs on to the people. Companies that ensure the politicians’ reelection. Our governments have presided over the transformation of large corporations into gargantuan unethical beasts that can never be satisfied. And now they tell us that unless we keep feeding those beasts, no one will have a job. Well, SMALL businesses employ far more people than large, multi-national companies. Climate change action is arrested because of the corrupt government-big corporation alliance that has captured our governments. That’s why I realized recently that without confronting corruption, I was not really educating about climate change. But that’s a discussion for another post.

An economist called Herman Daly came up with three criteria to help people avoid eating away at the natural capital all humanity depends on for survival. They are: “1) We should not use renewable resources (things that grow) any faster than they can grow back; 2) We should not use non-renewable resources (fossil fuels, minerals) any faster than we can develop alternative ways of doing the same job; and 3) We shouldn’t put pollution into the environment any faster than the environment can deal with it.”

Global Footprint Network

Lester Brown, an American environmentalist, compares today’s economy to a Ponzi scheme, “meeting current demands out of the earth’s basic assets, rather than investing wisely and living from the interest. He writes, ‘As recently as 1950 or so, the world economy was living more or less within its means, consuming only the sustainable yield… But then as the economy doubled, and doubled again, and yet again, multiplying eighthold, it began to outrun sustainable yields… humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980…’ we are eroding our vital capital assets, the natural capital that underpins everything we do.” This erosion is reflected in the term “overshoot.” “Earth Overshoot Day marks the date we… have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year.”

The effects of massive consumption are not only environmental, they’re also relational and spiritual. Vance Packard wrote about this in 1960! To preserve the economic beast created for World War 2, manufacturers had to “sell people things they didn’t need. The effects of this, he argues, were to impoverish important aspects of people’s lives, including their relationships and their spirituality. For this degradation of the lives of [western] citizens, he blames the government and the advertising industry.”

In the book’s next section, Hill describes her fantasy educational dinner with seven of the leading minds on why we consume what we do. This is an amazing immersive lesson in human history and psychology. Hill confronts the questions underlying every lament about consumerism and capitalism: why are we no happier than people in less materialistic ages and cultures? Why don’t we change our consumption level even as experts warn us about environmental degradation? How can we learn from cultures who literally committed suicide by destroying their natural capital? And how do we decide what is excessive consumption, and regulate companies bent on profit despite their negative externalities?

Hill has insights into these fascinating questions in the second half of her book, which inspires part two of this post. Find it here.

Rich guy does a fabulous thing

Here is a very uplifting post I found on the Mother Nature Network site. It’s about an extraordinary project being undertaken by a man who has enjoyed the blessings of hard work and good fortune. Now he’s passing on some of those blessings to our planet, and to us. Good on ’em!

“If you follow global conservation and don’t already know the name Hansjörg Wyss, there’s a good chance you soon will.

Born in Bern, Switzerland, the 83-year-old entrepreneur and businessman first made his fortune in the Belgian steel industry before establishing the U.S. division of Synthes, a multinational medical device manufacturer…

Now, Wyss — an avid outdoorsman and… resident of the quaint mountain town of Wilson, Wyoming — is set to help mend the planet’s most fractured natural areas with the establishment of the Wyss Campaign for Nature, a special project of the Wyss Foundation that aims to conserve and protect 30% of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030. This is double the amount of the planet’s surface that’s currently protected.

Bolstered by a $1 billion investment, the campaign plans to reach this ambitious benchmark by ‘creating and expanding protected areas, establishing more ambitious international conservation targets, investing in science, and inspiring conservation action around the world.’

This will all be achieved with help from major conservation players including the National Geographic Society, which will assist on the public awareness and outreach front, as well as The Nature Conservancy and a host of local project partners.

This is huge — and hugely encouraging — news, particularly in an era when headlines on the topic trend towards dire and potentially catastrophic. Yet this act of environmental stewardship shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Wyss, a multibillionaire whose impactful but low-key largesse has predominately benefitted social and environmental causes, including a handful of high-profile maneuvers to stop fossil fuel industries from degrading protected lands.

Wyss’ foundation has also, among other things, supported anti-poaching efforts, river restoration projects, African national park improvements and rails-to-trails initiatives. Most of the foundation’s work, however, has focused on land conservation in his beloved adopted home, the American West.

The foreign-born Wyomingite who, as a young student from abroad living in Colorado, ‘developed a lifelong love for America’s national parks and public lands’ according to his foundation biography, is also the money — and the name — behind Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biological Inspired Engineering, which was created in 2008…

Already, the campaign has identified nine locally led conservation projects spread across 13 countries — 10 million acres of land and 17,000 square kilometers of ocean in total — that will receive $48 million in assistance. As time goes on, additional funds will be granted to additional projects… the grants are being awarded to projects that already enjoy widespread local support as they’re more likely to remain protected over the long term than less established projects that lack it…

Aconquija/Wyss site

The first nine conservation projects to receive grants are Aconquija National Park [completed 2019!] and the National Reserve Project in Argentina; the Ansenuza National Park Project, also in Argentina; Costa Rica’s proposed Corcovado Marine Reserve; the multi-country Caribbean Marine Protected Areas initiative; the Andes Amazon Fund, which impacts Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Guyana; Romania’s Fundatia Conservation Carpathia, which spearheads conservation efforts in the Carpathian Mountains; the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area in Canada’s Northwest Territories; Australia’s Nimmie-Caira Project; and the Gonarezhou National Park Project in Zimbabwe.”

Yosemite by Tuxyso/Wikimedia

In an inspiring op-ed, Wyss said: ‘I believe this ambitious goal is achievable because I’ve seen what can be accomplished,’ he writes, stressing the importance of support from fellow philanthropists and local governments. ‘We need to embrace the radical, time-tested and profoundly democratic idea of public-land protection that was invented in the United States, tested in Yellowstone and Yosemite, and now proven the world over…

This clear, bold and achievable goal would encourage policymakers around the world to do far more to support communities working to conserve these places… For the sake of all living things, let’s see to it that far more of our planet is protected by the people, for the people and for all time.’ “

Now THAT is the can-do attitude we all should adopt in our lives. God really does work miracles through us people sometimes! Cheers, Mr. Wyss!

Grow your own worms!

Hey! What could be more fun than breeding worms in that fantastic soil you’re regenerating? Apparently, nothing is better for all of those hard-working soil organisms that I posted about in Regeneration 101, than magical, mystical worm poop!

“Vermiculture” is the hoity-toity name for helping worms thrive and reproduce. Vermiculture is great for our planet because worms are fantastic for soil. And remember, healthy soil is a carbon sink- the organisms in soil are made up of carbon (C), meaning less C available to combine with oxygen to form greenhouse gas CO2.

castings (wikipedia)

So why are worms fantastic for soil? Chiefly because they eat bits of organic material, and break it down, and then excrete it as “castings.” Worm castings are one of the best organic fertilizers. As The SoilGuy says, “microbes QUICKLY turn [castings] into plant food, and the process already started in the earthworm’s gut via the digestive bacteria in it.” In other words, worm poop is microorganism food, and flourishing microorganisms is exactly what we want for soil regeneration.

Worms are also great for soil because they create tunnels as they stretch and strain their way through it. This de-compacts the soil, allowing oxygen exchange which is critical for healthy soil organisms, and plant growth. In fact, the critical nature of earthworms has been recognized for a long time: in “1881 Charles Darwin wrote: ‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.’ ”

Vermiculture is pretty easy. But in cold climates, it’s a seasonal activity. Many people take their worm bin inside in the winter, but I’m going to make my worm care a spring-summer-fall activity. The best vermiculture worms for southwestern Canada are imported African Nightcrawlers (Eudrilus Eugeniae), which are the same worms sold for fishing bait.

You can also nurture red wigglers (Eisenia Fetida), ideal for composting, but here’s some info about how they do in gardens: “Red worms are excellent at breaking down decaying organic materials… [but] These aren’t the type of worm typically found in a yard or garden. Placed directly into a garden with nothing for them to eat, red worms will likely die or move to other areas where they can find food and an environment more suitable for their needs. Dirt alone isn’t enough to keep red worms happy… With the addition of plant scraps or composting trenches… the red worms will not only thrive but will turn the garden soil into a healthy environment.”

Here is a step-by-step guide to the care and breeding of earthworms:

1- Get or build a bin. Most vermiculture practitioners like wood for bins because it isn’t water-tight, like plastic. You don’t want standing water in your worm bin. Wood also keeps the worms at a more stable temperature. Ideally, worms like 60 to 80 degrees F, but can tolerate 40 – 90. There should be drain holes in the bottom of the bin. Incidentally, the liquid that drains from a worm bin is valuable- a rich fertilizer called “vermiculture leachate.”

Dimensions of your bin depend on how many worms you start with. You need about 1 square foot for every pound of Nightcrawlers. It’s better to have too much space than too little. A bin 3 foot square, or 2 foot by 3 foot is enough to start with. It should be a foot deep, and it will need a lid. Worms do not like light! At the same time, make sure there are some spaces for air exchange.

2- Prepare worm bedding. All you need is shredded newspaper (not with colored inks), cardboard, or printer paper, but it must be fluffy- worms breathe through their skin, so don’t pack the bedding down. Next, says Aggie Horticulture, “Add a gallon [8 cups] of garden soil- the worms need the grit to aid their digestion… bedding material should be moist but not soggy. Prepare moistened bedding at least 2 days prior to adding worms, as it may heat initially and harm the worms.” If the bedding is too wet, add some dry strips to absorb the excess.

3- Add some table scraps- tucked into the bedding- for your worms to eat. EarthlyMatters advises “veggie and fruit peel and leftovers. Things you want to avoid or use in moderation are grains, pastas, meats, cheeses, and citrus. Some things your worms will really love are coffee grounds, [and] watermelons.” A pound of worms CAN eat a pound of table scraps a day when flourishing. But they’ll need time to adjust to their new surroundings. Feed as needed by checking for worm leftovers. Softer, less fibrous foods will go quickly, while root vegetables will persist awhile.

4- It’s finally time to introduce your worms to their home. Just spread them around on the moist bedding. Worms are hermaphroditic- of both sexes- but they do need to mate to reproduce. Give them time, space, and quiet, checking that their bedding is moist and fluffy. It will gradually change into a rich black soil. You can add bedding, then after a couple weeks, pull it up- most of the worms will be in it since the food is there- and empty the soil outside, preferably where you’ll be growing a garden, because this soil is full of worm castings! People pay a pretty penny for that exact same “black gold” at the plant nursery. Then put your worms back in the bin.

If you are going to add some of the worms to a garden, The SoilGuy advises that “a food supply of stable or finished compost [like the soil they make] should be placed in the ground first, then the earthworms into the new bedding, covered and watered-in. Then most of the earthworms will ‘stay put’ and breed.” Apparently, selling the worms you breed, as well as the rich compost they make, is a do-able small enterprise: “Before long, a worm composting system can create enough naturally reproducing product to make a tidy profit if the time and care is taken. Whether it is a smaller one for personal use in fishing and gardening, a larger farm for mass production, or starting a business for profit, a worm farm can continually keep itself running for many years to come.”

I can’t wait to try just a little worm farm at first. It’s February, so I have plenty of time to build my bin. I’m going to put out a call for free untreated lumber scraps, and involve my grandkids in this project. I’ll post a picture or two. Let me know how this project works for you.

On Denial

I’ve written a lot of posts that are hopeful and positive. But I do feel a need to address something less so. And that is climate change denial, the people behind it, and the part governments play in enabling people who don’t want us to stop burning fossil fuels, because it means they won’t make money selling them.

Confronting the reality of climate change is tough. I told you about that crazy flip-trick my mind would do if exposed to climate change info. It just twisted away from the truth, and conjured up this image of a scary mountain that said, “you can’t beat this thing. Don’t even look at it!” (Btw, I’d love to hear your experiences with eco-grief, if you feel up to it…)

So it’s natural, and understandable, that people would rather believe that climate scientists are lying or mistaken. Human beings can be stubborn in refusing to accept what we perceive to be bad news. And accepting climate change also means accepting that we as a species must change. The thought of change is often more upsetting than the thought of the problem itself. Like, what kind of change are we talking about here? How big, how fundamental, how long term? Change means disruption, even if the endgame is attractive. And, in this case, no one is offering an attractive vision for the future. But there are glints of beauty and exciting possibility inherent in a “green economy,” and I have such plans to bring it to you!

I just feel the need to get some fundamentals out of the way first. And climate change denial isn’t a thing any climate change activist can avoid or gloss over.

So let me say right up-front, that climate change is not the average person’s fault. You did nothing wrong. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Drop the guilt, drop the shame. Neither of those emotions will do anyone any good. All they can do is hold us back at this point.

I say this because an EXTREME and INAPPROPRIATE guilt seems to be pushing many people into a kind of rebelliousness. It’s like they’re resisting their guilt so hard that they’re going overboard with the opposite response. And vested interests are tapping into this response, saying, “aw, you know climate change isn’t your fault! So forget about it. It’s probably not real. You know there’s reason to doubt…” And seeds of denial are being planted like that.

And realize that if you do feel guilty about climate change, it’s because you’re a good person! You hear that there’s a problem with fossil fuels, you use them (because EVERYBODY does), you know you need to KEEP using them (until good alternatives become available), and they’re causing harm. Guilt is an appropriate response to the idea that you’re causing harm. But the average Jo did not create climate change. So I “recommend” maintaining a realistic guilt, as in a healthy awareness of the need to pitch in where you can. If it had been up to us, we’d be living the green dream right now. Governments and the oil industry got us here. As one journalist says: “we need to let go of the idea that it’s all of our individual faults, then take on the collective responsibility of holding the true culprits accountable. In other words, we need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.”

We ALL have the right to our feelings. Anger is a big player in this climate change drama. I’m angry because our governments should’ve had the backbone to protect us. Others are angry for different reasons. And we feel OTHER emotions about climate change as well. But so often in western culture, people, especially men, don’t feel supported, legitimated, or comfortable with feeling and expressing other emotions, like fear, sadness, or helplessness. Our culture tends to view them as weakness. So we lash out.

But anger has the destructive effect of stopping discussion. If citizens are to converse about climate change, and we really do need to talk about it openly, we’re going to have to become more comfortable with conflict. Conflict is part of life. It’s inevitable. Even so, many people try to avoid it. Others come out swinging because they feel comfortable expressing only anger, or it’s been repressed and explodes out, or the person has grown aggressive in political discourse.

There are reasoned ways to manage disagreement and anger in conversations. And we all have a right to feel safe and heard and taken seriously on important public issues. I’ll definitely post some conflict and anger-management thoughts and ideas asap.

So let’s talk about the people who ramped up the denial machine. The people whose goal it was, and still is, to make sure effective climate change policy doesn’t get discussed as reasonable, doesn’t get formulated, and certainly doesn’t get implemented.

In America, there has been a coordinated campaign to obfuscate and flat-out discredit climate science since RONALD REAGAN. Isn’t that amazing? I had no idea it went that far back. But it was 1981 when a certain Al Gore saw the need to begin “booking” scientists to testify to the dangers of what was then known as “global warming.” In 1983, Reagan’s EPA issued a report stating that climate change is real and worsening. Reagan called the report “alarmist.” This is when the partisan divide on climate change began, with Democrats believing, and Republicans denying, but of course the divide was not nearly as deep as it is now.

Wikipedia says: “From 1989 onwards industry-funded organisations including the Global Climate Coalition and the George C. Marshall Institute sought to spread doubt among the public, in a strategy already developed by the tobacco industry… legitimate skepticism about basic aspects of climate science was no longer justified, and those spreading mistrust about these issues became deniers. As their arguments were increasingly refuted by the scientific community and new data, deniers turned to political arguments, making personal attacks on the reputation of scientists, and promoting ideas of a global warming conspiracy.”

“In a strategy already developed by the tobacco industry.” In fact, the exact same public relations firm that the tobacco industry hired to create doubt (admitting, in an internal email, that “doubt is our product”) about the negative effects of smoking was hired by Exxon and other oil companies. Their goals were to stop any and all regulation, to confuse the public so it wouldn’t demand action from Congress, and to recruit scientists to sow doubt, for generous payments. And always, the true proponents of the campaign were hidden, and every effort was made to make it look like the people- the grassroots- were behind the “skeptics.” It’s a trick (called “astroturfing”) that the doubt-spreaders have perfected. Not only does it eliminate evidence of bias on the part of climate change deniers, it also makes it appear as if the deniers are just regular people looking out for other regular people.

That was never, ever the case. The climate change denial movement was ALWAYS industry-generated, whether that industry be coal or oil. Billions has been spent to make you and I unsure about the reality of climate change. In 2007, a Newsweek article said: “the denial machine is running at full throttle—and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion. Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change.” A ’08 study found that 92% of denial-promoting think tanks were paid for by oil companies, including companies based in foreign nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Steven Brown, wikimedia

And yet, the campaign has been successful. Climate change mitigation- preventing increasing emissions, getting renewables working, and regenerating carbon sinks to literally suck CO2 out of the atmosphere with PLANTS and healthy SOIL- our miracle allies- has not been systematically planned or implemented. Western governments can’t even get the discussion going because the public is not pressuring them. So climate change activists like me are undertaking real grassroots efforts to educate, organize, and lobby governments. Even if, like me, they haven’t a clue, and are asking God to illuminate the next three inches of the path! That’s literally my strategy at this point. Show, and I follow. I have to trust that people will resonate with and support my efforts.

Becoming a sustainable thinker

Many of us are on auto-pilot when it comes to our daily habits and routines. We’ve developed schedules that get us to and from work, and enable us to meet our needs, and those of our families. But we’re learning that the methods we employ to “get ‘er done” are causing environmental damage that we must limit if we’re to protect the Earth. Fortunately, human beings are incredibly adaptive. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have spread out to inhabit the globe. So I’m hopeful when it comes to the average person’s ability to live more lightly and “greenly” on Spaceship Earth.

Growing up, we don’t learn, beyond some pretty limited basics, to consider the effects of what we do on the Earth. And although learning to assess our actions through an environmental lens is critical, since what we DO flows from what we THINK, changing our behaviors to be environmentally-friendly requires transforming our thought processes first.

Each of us is a product of our family-of-origin. How our parents interacted with the environment is our model until we go to school. There, we learn some environmentally-friendly ways of thinking and doing, but schools aren’t run by sustainable thinkers yet. So the vast majority of us develop Earth-protective values and goals as adults, and therefore long after our behaviors are deeply habitual! But as I said, people have enormous capacity for adaptation, which is after all nothing more (nor less) than learning, and then implementing, better ways of being and doing.

Sustainable thinking is the foundation of behavior that respects and protects the Earth. It’s the idea that we should live in a way that can be continued indefinitely. A way that meets human needs without diminishing resources, especially not critically. A way that doesn’t produce materials that have no useful purpose, either because they can’t be recycled, or because they’re toxic, or both! A way that recognizes that when we throw something away, it doesn’t disappear; on a finite planet, there is no “away.” A way that ensures enough for everyone, including the other amazing beings that live on our planet.

Sustainable living has been practiced in various ways for a long time. It was how people lived until the age of fossil fuel burning. But when we discovered oil, the remains of millions of years’ worth of plant and animal decomposition, everything changed. This cheap source of energy allows industries to produce substances nature wouldn’t ever have created, and can’t break down. It allows massive worldwide resource excavation and the invention of billions of “products” for commercial sale. It fuels the proliferation of “supply chains,” the “harnessing” of super cheap labor, and a transportation industry that floods the globe with products. It transformed how we grow food, caused the mass seeding of water-hungry crops, and now dictates what we eat. It fuels massive deforestation and the plunder of the seas. It cries out for us to pave the Earth so that vehicles burning oil can move people and products all over the world.

Nonsustainable ways of living proliferated because we found oil. Now we have to learn to live sustainably again! I just read a fantastic book called “The power of sustainable thinking” (2005) by Bob Doppelt. This book is FULL of wisdom about people, how we think, and how we can do better.

Doppelt includes climate change-pertinent info even as his main focus is transforming oneself into a sustainable thinker. Why? Well, climate change is, in truth, only ONE consequence of our unsustainable ways of living, although it is the most serious one we now face. But sustainable living would help reduce the damaging effects of all kinds of problems we have, including plastics pollution, ocean acidification (effecting food supplies), soil degradation, deforestation, species loss, poverty, and wealth inequality.

To review, sustainability is the capacity to live day-to-day without: 1) over-taxing the Earth’s resources, or ability to renew those resources; and 2) producing materials that either can’t be broken down into component parts for re-use, or that are toxic. Seems simple, right? And it is! But, unfortunately, people have developed lifestyles that WAY over-use the Earth’s resources, and which produce all kinds of toxic and wasteful “by-products.” In particular, the burning of fossil fuels has resulted in massive quantities of greenhouse gases (GHG’s) polluting our atmosphere. Our energy-production system has brought us a climate crisis. So the need to change our thinking towards sustainability is pressing indeed. Doppelt’s book offers high quality info and advice- invaluable contributions to saving planet Earth and every living thing upon it.

In the introduction, Doppelt explains that “the fields of psychology as well as organizational change have long known that people, teams and organizations evolve through a series of fairly predictable stages whenever they undergo significant transformation in their thinking and behavior. Very different types of change mechanisms are necessary for people who are not yet interested in new approaches than for people who are considering a change.” People can be quite resistant to altering their thinking “when the changes involve deeply held beliefs and assumptions.” Many people are not receptive to the motivators typically employed by environmentally-concerned people, like fear and guilt. He says people must be approached where THEY are in their thinking, not where the already “woke” and environmentally-conscious are.

In fact, there’s a whole spectrum of stages that people move into and out of in the journey from unmotivated consumer, say, unaware or unconcerned about environmental fallout, to committed and motivated changer, actively seeking info about how to behave sustainably in a holistic, consistent way. Furthermore, each stage involves the person weighing the relative advantages and disadvantages to changing their patterns of thinking and acting. And as that weighing process is going on, the person is amenable to different interventions meant to encourage their progress. Success means consolidating learning and making new thinking and behavior habitual, as well as, critically, continual recognition of the benefits of the new ways, and steadily increasing confidence in one’s ability to continue thinking and behaving sustainably.

Doppelt explains “how we think.” The basic building blocks of human thought are concepts. “Concepts allow us to create categories and make distinctions among things… our concepts are merely attempts to describe what we see, sense and experience… our most important concepts are formed in early childhood as we continually adopt new distinctions in order to make sense of the world around us… we also learn rules, such as ‘don’t talk to strangers…’ No formal instruction accompanies this early learning process. It is natural, and occurs through trial and error, listening, sensing, observing, and undoubtedly genetic influences” (p. 59-60). As we grow, we combine concepts and rules to create theories, which we then test against reality. These range all the way from, “I’m loved,” to “rainy days smell good,” to “toys- things I own that give me pleasure- get broken, and then we throw them away,” to “I can’t wait to have my own noisy truck because it’s super fun to drive fast, especially when it’s dark and quiet outside.”

Doppelt goes on to mental frames, which are “the deeply felt beliefs, assumptions, and stories we hold… about the nature of [ourselves], other people, how the world works, and our role in it all. Mental frames have three interlinked elements: core beliefs, core assumptions, and automatic thoughts. Core beliefs are the deepest level of cognition. They are the unconditional views we hold about the world… [and] tend to be absolute- we believe them without reservation.” Examples: “truth at all costs,” “I have a role in this world,” “nice guys never get ahead,” “the environment is created for people to use however they want,” “the authorities know what they’re doing in letting companies make stuff,” and “everybody is on their own; people who can’t make it aren’t worthy of respect.”

From these core beliefs arise our core assumptions, which take the form of “rules” about the world we don’t readily question. Our rules dictate how we take in info, filtering it so that it shores up what we already believe. This is where “confirmation bias” lives, and many other kinds of thinking shortcuts that don’t serve us! If, for example, we believe that we’re often devalued by other people, we may interpret an acquaintance’s failure to return a call as deliberate disrespect rather than assume the person is busy. These rules can prime us to see opportunity and hope in situations, or to project a lack of confidence or faith in people. If one of our core beliefs is that we don’t deserve love or success, we may short circuit accomplishments (self-sabotage) via core assumptions like, “I’m not even going to try here. I’m always rejected.” Doppelt: “We use these rules to determine our expectations; to guide how we will achieve our goals and pleasure; to protect ourselves from physical or psychological harm; to form and sustain relationships with others; and in other ways to determine how to behave.” Profound, hey? Profound and powerful.

The last component of mental frames are automatic thoughts, and they may be even more powerful shapers of our behavior than core beliefs and core assumptions. As we boogie around doing things, our minds are continually working, but like background noise to which we pay little attention. This is the “automatic pilot” mode we enter when tasks don’t demand concentration, or have been done hundreds of times before. Sometimes we’re making observations, or remembering events and encounters, but on a semi-conscious level, so that we often don’t remember what we were thinking about later on. The cliche is the driver who arrives home, pops out of auto-pilot, and then wonders, “how the heck did I get here?”

But even though on automatic pilot, we’re not consciously thinking, our core beliefs and assumptions are still active, framing our thoughts- imbuing them with personal meaning- even as we appear to be wrapped in tasks. And as the core beliefs and assumptions occur, so too do automatic thoughts- fleeting snippets, self-commands, judgments, or observations, that are often accompanied by emotion. As Doppelt says, “We are often not aware of our emotions, just as we are usually not conscious of the thoughts that automatically pop into our heads… However, each influences the other. Our automatic thoughts trigger our emotions and our emotions trigger automatic thoughts and behaviors.”

Life conspired to provide me with a concrete example of this, just now! My son was preparing to go to a new doctor as I worked on this post at the messy kitchen table. He was exploring the table, trying to locate his ID card. I knew his foot, “dysfunctional” due to a congenital condition, had been bothering and worrying him, so I was eager for him to get what he wanted- a referral to an orthopedic specialist. At the same time, I could sense his anxiety about meeting a new authority figure, and lacking his ID! After he left, I realized that what had been running through my mind as he rummaged around my workspace was, “he never takes care of things. If he had just put that card away, he’d know exactly where to find it now. Why can’t he be more careful? He always seems to be losing things…” Then my mind flipped back to the morning when I’d discovered that the laptop I’d ordered might not have gotten ordered correctly, and how I’d asked my son to order it for me, but he took so long doing it that I ended up doing it myself… So here I appeared to be calmly writing this post while in reality I was experiencing automatic thoughts triggering anger and resentment and huffing and puffing internally!

Why hadn’t my rational mind taken over? After all, “the rational mind serves as our control panel, managing and moderating our emotions. Thus, although you may not be able to prevent emotions from arising, the way you think is the key to regulating and controlling them. By becoming conscious of and adjusting the thoughts that roll through your mind, you can alter and control your emotions. There’s no greater skill in life… It is the root of all self-control, happiness, and maturity in a human.” The truth is that often our rational minds aren’t successful at “regulating and controlling” our thoughts and emotions. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to do this! But this is what “mindfulness” is all about- developing “the capacity to honestly [identify and] examine [our] thoughts and control [our] emotional impulses and behavior.” Without this skill, “Over time, people… come to believe that their mental frames are reality and that this reality is obvious to everyone. They think that their core assumptions and beliefs are based on hard, verifiable data, and the data they select are the only valid data… individuals are more likely to believe and gravitate towards others who reaffirm the views they already hold… and discount or ignore people who do not.”

What does all that mean? It means that our core beliefs and assumptions are what create our “bubbles,” and people who challenge what we’ve come to believe is written in stone are labelled as “libtards,” “right-wing nutjobs,” etc, and categorized as folks to be distrusted, viewed as dangerous, ridiculed, doxxed, and disregarded for all time lest they say something we’d rather not hear.

Such rigidity in thinking makes me sad. I often wondered why people fail to “update their data banks,” i.e. take in new info and revise their operating beliefs about themselves and their world. It is, after all, so very important that we make decisions about vital matters with the best info possible. Well, now I have an answer. We can get stuck in our beliefs, and God forbid the people around us are similarly mired! And what happens when millions of people passionately believe that certain things are true, and particular values are best, and that people who don’t think and behave as they do are defective or bad or both?

Well, this explains our times, doesn’t it? The dominant paradigm in the west, neoliberalism, is the mental frame explaining, and dictating the structure of, our societies. Neoliberalism says: profits above all. Survival of the fittest: if you aren’t wealthy, it’s your own fault. If you are, you’re admirable, brilliant, the ultimate role model. The Earth exists for people’s purposes; we must transform “the commons” into private property, and maximum profit. Anything can and should be monetized. Use, produce, manufacture as cheaply as possible, sell to maximize your take. Single-use items made from plastic that breaks down into “mermaids’ tears?”

“As long as I make money, I don’t care about your little environmental issues.”

Who’da thunk neoliberalism, in less than 45 years, would fill our oceans with plastics, our landfills with toxic slime that filters into our drinking water, and the skies with the by-products of burning fossil fuels, so much that it would critically mess up our climate?

Whew! It’s easy to see that I’m thinking sustainably 🙂 Let’s see where you are!

Doppelt calls stage one “Disinterest.” People in this stage, “have little interest in altering their perspectives or activities regarding the climate, natural environment, or social well-being.” An example of “disinterest” is that consumer I talked about before, who lives a life uncomplicated by worry about the environment. “Disinterested” people “have little awareness of the issues, deny that their behavior contributes to the problems, believe the effects are inconsequential, have lost hope that they can do anything… or don’t believe that they can [change].” Interestingly, folks around disinterested people can see that they’re impacting or being impacted by their unsustainable thinking and behavior, even as the disinterested ones can’t. And, of course, a disinterested person may be actively defending an “I can’t change” stance for a variety of reasons, which changes their stance, effectively, to “I won’t change.”

Stage 2 is called “Deliberation,” and as the name implies, the “deliberating” are feeling like all is not right with the world, and they may need to alter their ways a bit. The identifying phrase is, “I might change…” and they are looking for info. I actually put most average climate change deniers in this category, because they’re not deeply invested in denial due to employment by an oil company or one of its tentacles. Rather, their protest of “prove it,” or repeating of conspiracy theories are cries for help, along the lines of, “I’ve heard this word, ‘climate change,’ and I get the feeling it could be bad, and I’m scared. Can you help me understand what’s actually going on here? I need to know if I have to take this threat seriously.” They don’t want to believe, but their gut tells them something’s off. Sometimes they’re almost 100% sure there’s nothing to worry about, but they repeat the “evidence” that made them doubt climate change to see if it can be refuted. Climate change educators should absolutely engage these folks with the facts. We don’t have to engage deeply with angry people, but besides respecting the deliberater’s right to the truth, we may plant a seed that will convince them to look into climate change more. They’ll only trust us if we’re kind and respectful.

A person in deliberation mode seeks info so s/he can assess the risks, learn about ways to mitigate those risks, and to weigh the pro’s and con’s of adopting sustainable thinking and acting. It’s possible to become a chronic deliberater, unsure of how your thinking holds you back, how your actions impact the Earth, how you can change to think and act sustainably. And that’s tragic, because the Earth needs all of us to start assessing our behaviors through that environmental lens. We need to reach a tipping point, because our governments are failing us on this. It’ll take a broad coalition of citizens demanding healthy transformation to move these industry-addled representatives of ours.

I like the way Doppelt puts it: “If you don’t know when or why your thinking and behavior are problematic and are unsure if new patterns can help to resolve global warming or other issues, you are not likely to make or stick with change for long. Almost every psychological and sociological approach to change emphasizes that some degree of awareness must come before change… Changing behavior without first developing some level of increased awareness is not likely to lead to fundamental change.”

The third stage is called “Design” and this is where people say, “I will change.” Here, “people have concluded that the benefits of becoming a sustainable thinker significantly overshadow the costs… In fact they may already have made a few small changes to see how it feels and test their ability to succeed.” They may still have doubts about the benefits or their ability to maintain changes, but with continued wins, and info about the benefits of sustainability thinking and behaving, doubts fade.

A great motivator for change Doppelt talks about here is mindfulness. Doppelt calls it, “self-appraisal,” and it “involves deciding if your current thinking and behavior patterns allow you to be the person you really want to be… do an honest appraisal to determine if they allow you to live up to the aspirations and values you hold dear.” He then outlines a method for whenever one is “about to make a decision or take action.” It requires identifying, in that moment, the emotions and automatic thoughts running through one’s mind. He gives the example of coming home from work after a long summer day. He’d forgotten to turn the air conditional on that morning, so the house was hot. After a fit of irritation that included him judging himself “lazy” and cursing the design of the A/C system, he turned his rational mind on and concluded that the house wasn’t unbearable, and he’d turn the A/C on the next day. So he ended up saving a fair bit of electricity, and greenhouse gas emissions.

What if everyone in the west had calmly asserted that the A/C could stay off that day? That a 75 degrees C home wasn’t that hot, and that the damage to the environment wasn’t worth the few hours of fleeting comfort? That the health of the planet was more important than a few cool hours that would be forgotten the next day, whereas the win for Mother Earth could be relished? She’d survive, my friends… our planet would be healthy. If we can make sustainable thinking and behaving the new norm, a way of habitual thinking, our planet will be ok. And so will we.

Stage 4, “Doing,” is when people say, “I am changing.” This is when, “people, teams, and organizations… are explicitly taking action to modify thinking and behavior… doing means that overt changes are now visible to others… [and] therefore puts the doer under the spotlight. To persevere, they must remain committed, make structural adjustments, and remember that the benefits of change are worth the effort.” In the “Doing” stage, assessing one’s automatic thoughts, core assumptions, and core beliefs is actively practiced. In particular, a person stays mindful so that environment-related thoughts can be made conscious, and analyzed for adherence to one’s sustainable values. The idea is that one wants to choose behaviors that are in accordance with protecting the Earth.

To illustrate: I’m in the doing stage- actively working towards more sustainable ways of living. One of my biggest issues is plastic bags. While I can recycle them, it’s far preferable, from a planet-friendly perspective, to not bring them home in the first place. Sometimes, though, it’s unavoidable. So often I use those plastic bags to put compost in. I then empty the bags in the compost pile, and rinse them out for re-use. Eventually, they’re pretty dirty. And a part of me, I admit, doesn’t always want to clean them thoroughly so that I can send them for recycling. So every time I go to chuck them in the garbage, I ask myself, “what’s more important, that this bag not sit in the “landfill” shedding microplastics, or that I’m not momentarily inconvenienced?” Nine times out of 10, the Earth wins. And, of course, so does the human race.

Even so, this plastic bag problem is not getting better. So I’m thinking bigger. Like using re-purposed textiles to make bags for produce at the grocery store. Like a letter campaign to lobby food companies to give us some options other than plastic packaging. I’ve reached a place where I’m willing to put in significant time and effort to spark change. I know my efforts may not “pay off,” but I’m still committed to them. It was a long process getting here, but now I’m convinced the upsides of these efforts far outweigh the downsides. Each action I consider goes through a process of weighing- can I afford the time? Is this effort going to demand so much energy that I give up on it? Can I get my family to help me/buy into this behavior? And I uncover my core values, beliefs, and assumptions. Doppelt suggests these questions to make one’s beliefs more clear: “how do I ideally want to live my life regarding the climate, natural environment and social well-being? What values are most important to me and how might caring for the climate… fit in with those values? If I could have the ideal world today, without constraints, how would I treat the climate, natural environment, or communities? What type of climate… do I want to leave my children and grandchildren?”

I’ve found that finding ways to live more sustainably is addictive. I’ve been at it about 8 years. Now I’m starting to confront changes that’ll involve more work. Like selling the car. Like setting ourselves up to grow food through the winter (with solar generated electricity no less!) Like making sure every art supply we purchase is sustainable. Like approaching the city government to start a community garden in my neighborhood. And this blog is a long-term effort to spread info about sustainable living and how satisfying it can be.

The last stage, “defending” is where people say, “I HAVE changed.” These people are making “the new patterns grow, stick, and become routine over the long haul.” It’s important here to remember that “action is not the same as change… it takes a long time for new thinking to become embedded in the core of your being.” Can people get to this stage in a culture profoundly centered around cheap production, cheap energy, and maximizing profit? I don’t know. It’s difficult for me to distinguish clearly between Doppelt’s “doing” and “defending stages as far as personal behavior. But certainly, if the “defending” part of this stage is its primary characteristic, then this stage would be where people are publicly speaking out about the critical benefits of sustainable thinking and living, and perhaps even spreading the word through teaching and sharing. So perhaps I’m about to enter this stage, as soon as I start handing out business cards? Ha!

Seriously, Doppelt admits that even after years of working on his core beliefs and assumptions, automatic thoughts, and actions, all to become progressively more sustainable, “the effort to continually fend off resistance from others and to surmount obstacles often causes me to consider falling back into unsustainable thinking and behavior.” Luckily, his work is teaching sustainability, so he’s constantly reinforcing sustainable ways. Also, his wife reminds him! It’s always immensely helpful to have a support system, a cheerleader, defender, and comrade when changing one’s ways for the better.

Last, evaluating your stage is vital so that you know what beliefs characterize your present sustainability mindset, which change motivators will help move you forward, and what stages and processes lie ahead. Doppelt writes thoroughly about mechanisms that encourage change appropriate for each stage, but I’ll post about those separately, because this post has grown a tail! But, to pin down your stage, ask yourself these questions: 1- have you taken any steps to protect the climate, natural environment, and social well-being? If no, you are “disinterested.” 2- do you intend to take action to protect the climate, and environment in the next month? In the next 6 months? If yes to the first, you’re “designing;” yes to the second signifies “deliberation.” 3- have you been actively involved for more than 6 months with actions aimed at protecting the climate and environment? A yes here means you’re “defending.” Congrats!!

Thus concludes my post on sustainable thinking. It’s a lot to take in, so I recommend revisiting it a few thousand times. Seriously, didn’t you love it?

I’m clearly exhausted. Just tell me you loved it 🙂

An introduction to Solar Power

I bought a portable solar panel today! I’ve been wondering about solar power for home use for a very long time. We rent, so putting solar panels on the roof isn’t an option without the homeowner’s approval. But, I like the idea of little solar projects, like a grow-light for vegetables or herbs in the winter, or, when camping, charging a laptop or powering a camp stove. I’d also like a small aquaponics set-up at some point in time… the idea of fish swimming around providing nutrition for my salad greens appeals to me!

I thought I’d post about the components of solar panel set-ups and how they function. I’ve noticed that a lot of sites are full of jargon and complex, so I’ve kept it simple.

A solar panel is a collection of solar cells. Each cell consists of at least two layers of silicon, treated so that one side is positively charged & the other negatively charged. This creates a channel from one side of the panel to the other. As photons enter a cell, they knock loose electrons in the silicon. These electrons move along the channel. And that’s electricity! Electricity is nothing more or less than the movement of electrons. So those electrons are collected by a metal plate at the back of the panel, and directed onto wires. Then the wires from every cell are bundled together, so that the electricity from the whole panel is available through one set of wires.

If I was putting my panel on my roof, as part of an array, it would be attached to a secure racking system. Then it’d be connected to the next panel with a simple connector. A homeowner would calculate their electrical power needs BEFORE buying anything. And one should factor in to this equation that the panels will make a bit less power on cloudy and winter days, because it’s better (easier at installation) to install a few more panels extra than it is to add them later. Most homes need between 6 and 10 kiloWatt hours (kWh) per month, or 28 to 34 250 watt panels. The dealer can help you figure your needs. This fabulous Australian site warns: “Avoid any solar energy company that calculates your payback based on 100% self-consumption. Practically no-one has 100% self-consumption. The company is being dishonest in order to get your sale.” Noted!

Next, the electricity goes through an inverter to switch DC (direct current, which is what solar panels produce) to AC, alternating current, which is what powers appliances via outlets. There are string inverters, which mount inside your house and work on the whole system, and microinverters, that sit on the backs of each panel. You can install 33% more panel power than the inverter is rated for. This allows you to make a bit more electricity that you can sell to the electric company. From the inverter, additional wires attach to the electrical meter, then tie in to the grid.

This portable panel I bought is meant to charge up a 12 volt battery. So there would be a gadget called a charge controller between the panel and the battery to prevent the battery from getting overcharged. Then between the battery and the outlet, an inverter. DIY’rs have figured out nice ways to make these systems one unit, such as this example pictured here, where a creative human took the solar cells from dollar store solar lamps and wired them up to a regular electrical outlet to produce a portable electricity generator!

As far as a set-up for a home, batteries are not recommended, because they’re still expensive. The advantage a homeowner would get from being able to store electricity, for use during non-peak generating periods, does not yet outweigh the cost of a large battery. But the cost of batteries really is coming down, just like the cost of solar power did (and this continues). With rebates, government subsidy programs, and the electric company paying generating households for their excess power, homeowners can expect to make back their investment in 5 to 10 years, depending on electricity consumption. Then you are effectively making electricity for free. And getting paid to generate!

I had wondered about the performance of solar panels on cloudy days. But I know that this panel generates electricity on very grey days, because the kit includes a bulb which lights up when the panel is producing electricity. I’d heard manufacturers had made great strides with productivity and quality of solar equipment, but this was reassuring. Solar panels CAN power our homes, folks. I know one homeowner who’s had his set-up for 5 years, and over that period of time, the panels have generated 108% of the electricity he and his family required.

Other cool things I learned about solar include: the environmental footprint that is made during production is paid back after one year of clean energy generation. And, the components are completely recyclable. In addition, a panel will last more than the 25 years its typically guaranteed for. It may not power at 100% of original, but it’s far from useless. They’re incredibly durable. Last, the price has dropped like a rock in the last decade. According to the Lewis model, solar power costs fall by 75% every ten years. There’s NOTHING on this planet increasing in efficiency at that rate!

I have to tell you, when my husband and I first took the panel out of the box, we had strange emotions. Like, who is this strange child we brought home with us? The panel seemed alien and exotic. My husband couldn’t shake the feeling that we needed to “charge it up” somehow to get it functional! Like, we had to boost it with electricity to get it to make electricity! And I kept thinking, surely someone is going to arrive here in 30 seconds and arrest us for making electricity for free. We’re so used to having to pay for our energy! I thought they’d say, “do you really think you’re going to get away with generating your own electricity without having to pay somebody?”

Well, with my new solar panel, folks, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And what a feeling! It’s so freeing and empowering to know that you can do things that you’ve always been dependent on someone else for. Some corporation. Like, the grocery store, or the utility company, or the government. First, I discovered that I can feed my dirt and make “black gold” compost that makes healthy soil, no fertilizers needed. Then I learned to grow and preserve at least some of my own food. Now, I find out I can actually make power! It turns out that, for me, taking responsibility for how I live in the world is exhilarating in ways I never could have foreseen.

Protect the little things

I have a weakness for the little things of this planet, especially insects. In all their variety, ability, and beauty. I especially love spiders. In fact, last Summer my family adopted a gorgeous Catface spider who had spread her web across my son’s window. We caught lunch for her, and no kidding, it was fabulous to watch her zip down from her hidey-hole to wrap up her prey in thick white silk. Her web was thin, nearly invisible, but her wrapping silk was like thin wool. Spiders produce seven types of silk for different jobs. To me, that’s fascinating and miraculous.

My love of insects gives me joy, but it also makes me vulnerable. I guess love always carries the possibility of loss. But people who love critters haven’t had to face the possibility of insects, across the board, being in serious peril before.

Now we do: “The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a ‘catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems…’ More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles.”

Insects are critical to the health of people. They pollinate our food, anchor entire food chains, break down plants and other organic matter, and control pest species that can decimate crops. Insects are such an important part of our planet’s ecosystems that “biologist E.O. Wilson once called [them]: ‘The little things that run the world.’”

Why are insects threatened? There’s multiple factors, including pesticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, intensive agriculture, light pollution (turning insects into easy prey at night), and climate change. Skevington says climate change is “one of the most impactful reason bugs are dying out. He cited recent temperature fluctuations in spring… that some bugs simply can’t endure.

‘Quite often you’ll have really big warm spells so you get a flush of insects coming out, followed by a cold snap,’ he said. Those cold snaps can interrupt a bug’s life cycle and severely impact their populations. Likewise, heat waves effect insect reproduction by severely decreasing male fertility, and the effect can be passed on from one generation to the next!

What can we do to help insects bounce back? A lot! We can stop using chemicals, get rid of the bug zapper (which kills good insects, not mosquitoes), and buy organic food and cotton products if possible (conventional cotton farms use massive amounts of pesticides). In your garden, plant native species and compost them with food scraps (vs. artificial fertilizers). And while out there, think like a bug, and create lovely little homes insects can shelter in, especially over the winter.

We’ll all be better off if insects can thrive again. You don’t have to feed a spider, but you can give one a hidey-hole in your yard!

Regeneration 101

I’m about to tell you about a miraculous process you can “boost” without a whole lot of effort. AND the activity I’m suggesting has the potential to pull massive amounts of CO2 out of the sky! Removing CO2 from our atmosphere is, of course, one of the four pillars of mitigation I talked about in my Basics of Climate Change post. What is this wonderful Earth-aiding activity I’m speaking of?

That would be the care and feeding, one could even say regeneration, of our soils. Any soil you have around your living space. And what and how do you feed your hungry “plot”?

You feed it table scraps! Yes, any bits of food you don’t eat or that goes bad… you can bury. It doesn’t have to be buried particularly deep either. If you can dig a hole 2 foot by 2 foot, a foot and a half deep, toss your food scraps in it, then throw the dirt back over them, you can compost.

Most people think of composting as something serious gardeners do in a big bin in a big back yard, and for an actual vegetable plot that the gardeners spend a lot of time tending. But this is not the only way to compost. And, truthfully, the planet gave up resources growing all that food we buy in grocery stores, and yet she doesn’t get to reclaim the bits of it that we don’t want. Instead, they’re picked up by trucks and transported to the ‘landfill’ where they’re buried with all the other junk we throw away. But in the landfill, food scraps don’t break down properly. That’s because there’s no oxygen involved in the decomposition process- the scraps are buried too deeply, and with poor quality soil that doesn’t allow oxygen exchange. This “anaerobic” (without oxygen) process emits the most potent of all greenhouse gases, methane. Methane holds at least 30 times more heat in our atmosphere than CO2.

But when you bury scraps in the soil surrounding your home, they break down “aerobically” (with oxygen). This process does produce CO2, but given the choice between creating CO2 vs creating methane, CO2 wins hands down. It’s simply unavoidable.

However, in putting those scraps into your soil, you’re feeding the critters that live in that dirt! They are legion: there’s macrofauna (bigger creatures like centipedes, mites, and those vital earthworms), mesofauna (medium-sized, like nematodes and mites), and microfauna (microscopic organisms like bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa). In terms of soil health, the microorganisms are particularly important. They perform vital jobs in our environment, including decomposition of organic material, which is the process that makes nutrients available to plants. If these critters couldn’t carry out this duty, we’d be drowning in dead animals and plants, and new life would be unable to grow. They’re the unsung heroes of the planet!

Other vital jobs soil microorganisms do include making nitrogen- a critical plant nutrient- available to plants, and, amazingly, miraculously, and mysteriously, allowing plants to communicate, to fight off disease, and to attract the kinds of bacteria they particularly benefit from. These processes remain one of the big areas of scientific study; we just don’t understand this mystical-seeming underground connection. But strings of fungi interlace with each other, and with plant roots, forming vast webs of mutual benefit under the soil surface. Your food scraps are their fuel.

So how does feeding all of this soil life mitigate climate change? Well, when this life can flourish because it’s well-fed, it multiplies, and every new critter incorporates carbon into its body structure. Likewise, each plant that is enabled to grow because of healthy soils pulls carbon from the air and uses it to grow bigger and stronger.

And who knows? After feeding your soil for awhile, you might be tempted to place some vegetables in it. Or some beautiful flowers that can feed pollinators and make life more enjoyable. Every plant you grow pulls carbon out of the air. And can be buried to make more compost after its season.

Regenerating soils is thought to be one of the best climate change fighters available to us: a mitigation strategy with massive potential. There’s tons of soil we can feed our food scraps to. Tons of soil to plant in.

And it’s so do-able. I really hope you’ll give it a go!

Climate change: why should I care?

Hi everyone. This is the post that for many will be the hardest to read, so I’m putting a “TRIGGER WARNING” right here at the top. If you’re having a hard time for any reason right now, don’t read this. It is, of course, important info, but if you’re not feeling resilient, or strong, or connected to caring people you can talk to at this moment, put off reading this post until you are.

Why should we care about climate change? What are the bad things that climate change will cause if people don’t get a grip on reality and start mitigation and adaptation? Let’s begin with the more obvious:


1- Catastrophic weather-related events- this includes forest and bush fires (caused by drought and high temperatures) such as those in Australia not long ago. There were human deaths, and an estimated one billion- God help us- animal deaths. And of course, air quality was severely harmful due to smoke for weeks.

This was written 2/15/20 (I updated this post): “a few fires are still being contained, but most Australians can finally abandon the grim rituals of the last half-year — morning checks of smog monitors and ‘Fires Near Me’ apps, deciding whether the kids can play outside, whether to flee or defend their homes.”

Hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and “rain bombs” are another danger. See my effects of climate change post for why more brutal storms, with raging winds and a tendency to last for days, occur as a result of climate change.

2- Food shortages- drought, changes in precipitation patterns and severity, unexpected frosts and snowfall, and intensely high and low temperatures are all possibilities with climate change. All of these are factors that can result in crop failures.

Prensa Libre/Desinformémonos

This is already occurring; the record-setting migration of Guatemalans attempting to reach the U.S. in 2018 and 2019 was a consequence of climate change-related crop failures in their country. Incredibly, the U.S. administration reacted by turning the border into a propaganda tool, and cutting off aid to Guatemala. Those people were economic refugees. There will be many more in future unless we begin climate change mitigation immediately.

Ocean acidification also threatens the food supply. In fact, the health of the oceans is intimately bound up with the health of people: “Humans rely heavily on oceans for food, employment, recreation, weather patterns and transportation.”

3- Massive displacement of people due to sea rise (from Arctic ice melt)- 10% of the Earth’s people live within 30 feet of the ocean. Eleven mega-cities are built on coasts. Thus, up to a billion climate change refugees could result from climate change-induced sea level rise alone.

4- Increased disease- from water-borne killers like cholera, malaria, dengue hemorrhagic fever, and Legionnaire’s pneumonia, and species that benefit from increased heat like tick-borne Lyme disease. Chronic kidney disease occurs in areas where people are experiencing drought and heat waves, due to chronic dehydration.

The negative social (community) and psycho-emotional impacts of climate change are just starting to be recognized and studied. Compromised drinking water due to flooding, drought, and heavy precipitation are yet another climate change effect on people.

There are also less well-known possibilities effecting human health. These include:

1- Ocean-related: warmer seas cause proliferation of anaerobic algae species, that crowd out oxygen-producing algae. This leads to “dead zones” in the water, and less oxygen in our atmosphere. And, when the “bad” algae, which emit toxins, are eaten by sea creatures that humans in turn eat, people can get very sick as a result of those toxins.


2- freshwater shortages- much of the world depends on the freshwater that comes as a result of spring and summer glacial melting. “Earth’s glaciers are expected to melt within the next forty years, greatly decreasing fresh water flow in the hotter times of the year… resulting in large shortages and fluctuations in fresh water availability.” Glacial freshwater is used not only for drinking, but also for irrigation of agriculture and hydro-power generation.

3- Decreasing food nutrition- increased atmospheric CO2 levels results in plants taking up and sequestering more carbon in their structures. This is beneficial to us in that it lowers the CO2 in the air, but the carbon seems to also “crowd out” other elements in plants, including nutrients people need, like nitrogen, phosphorus, zinc, and iodine. It also decreases plant protein levels.

Undoubtedly, more awful effects of climate change will become news and then grimly normalized over the coming months and years. Will we forget what it was like to live without climate change? Will it become as easy to pretend human death and suffering is not climate change-related as it is to deny the reality of climate change now?

For some people, maybe. For me, never. I hope you won’t allow yourself to go there either. Without the majority of humanity demanding mitigation and adaptation, the “monied interests” might just convince enough people that climate change-related effects aren’t related to climate change at all.

I wish I hadn’t felt obliged to mention that. Remember: together, we’re unbeatable. Divided, we fall.

When in doubt, reach out. Let your feelings drive you to action. Then… action into hope. Peace y’all.

Effects of climate change

Since people started burning fossil fuels in earnest, during the Industrial Revolution, the Earth has warmed on average by 0.82 degrees Celsius. This effects of this warming include:

1-melting sea ice- causes higher ocean levels, which threaten infrastructure, including billions of homes. Melting ice also exacerbates warming, because where the Earth has no cover of white snow, the sun’s rays don’t get reflected back into space. Instead they’re absorbed by the land, and the inky-blue sea, adding to over-all temperature rise;

2- melting permafrost- tundra that historically remained frozen all year, permafrost contains massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas which traps at least 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). When it melts, that methane is released. This means more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, thickening the climate change “blanket” around the Earth;

3- forest fires- trees and plants absorb CO2, and use the carbon to grow strong. (Anything that traps carbon is called a “carbon sink.”) So their destruction means a lot less CO2 taken out of the air. In addition, when they burn, forests release the carbon sequestered in their structures. That carbon re-combines with oxygen in the air and becomes CO2 again- yet more blanket thickening;

4- ocean acidification- the upper layer of the ocean absorbs CO2 from the air, forming Carbonic acid. This reaction increases Hydrogen ions in the water, making the sea more acidic. The reaction also reduces Carbonate ions in the water. Carbonate is absorbed by shellfish to make their shells. So CO2 in the air translates into the inability of shellfish to build healthy homes (shells) around themselves. Poorly-protected shellfish are easily consumed by predators. Shellfish is a source of food for billions of people around the globe.

5- changes in wind & sea patterns- this has the potential to drastically alter the climate all over the world, but perhaps especially for northern Europe, the U.S., and Canada on the Atlantic coast. That’s because it is ocean currents and wind streams moving warm water and air to these areas of that makes them temperate, and allows plants and animals to flourish there, providing food. The warming Arctic has weakened the jet stream, a wind pattern that, unbeknownst to most of us, has made western climate stable for thousands of years. And melting sea ice has weakened “a massive system of circulating seawater called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current, or AMOC. The Gulf Stream is just one small part of that system.”

6- more intense storms & hurricanes- a consequence of rising seas and warmer air, because warmer air can hold more water vapor. That means heavier rainfall, while increased sea level means higher storm surges and flooding. In addition, a warmer ocean transfers more heat to the air, and warmer air creates everything a “super storm” needs: intense winds and tons of water vapor. To add to our problems, the winds steering hurricanes are not as effective in a warmer climate, so storms tend to “park.” This is what happened last year (2019) when Hurricane Dorian pounded the Bahamas for two full days;

7- changes in precipitation causing droughts, heat waves, and weather extremes, including huge snow falls and cold waves in winter- the latter due to increased water vapor in the air and a weakened jet stream that directs and holds arctic vortexes over the U.S. and Canada. Drought and heat waves are a consequence of increased average temperatures that exacerbate evaporation from soil. Hotter days means increased humidity- warm air holds more water vapor- creating a recipe for human deaths in summer.

8- species/biodiversity loss- many plants and animals can’t evolve quickly enough to adapt to the instability- especially erratic precipitation and temperature events- of climate change. They were already declining due to habitat loss, caused by people clearing land for food and housing, as well as the use of chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides, which can bio-accumulate, effecting whole food chains. Adding climate change may prove fatal for many species. Insects, an integral part of Earth ecosystems, are in massive decline. See this post on ways to help them.

In this post, I explain exactly why these effects of climate change spell trouble for us, and for all living things on Earth.