Archive for February, 2008

Unclothing The Horse and Juliet Schor

My husband Thor and I went to the Illahee lecture last night here in Portland. Juliet Schor spoke, a sociologist and economist from Harvard University. She was excellent, and one of the most salient takeaways for me was on clothes. (It’s only fair to report Thor has sometimes termed me ‘a bit of a clothes horse’.)

Ms. Schor reported that in 1991 we in the U.S. bought an average of 34 garments per year (not counting socks or hose). In 2001 that number increased to 52. That’s an average of a new garment every week, when we can’t even wear more than three or four at one time. Moreover, the millions of tons of surplus discarded clothing we have been shipping out to other countries has been climbing even faster. And fashion cycles have escalated, spurring an artificial need to buy.

Where am I in all this excess consumption that drains the earth’s resources? Well, even though my household income has become high, my shopping habits have changed little from my starving-artist days, i.e. I still shop mostly at Goodwill. But I shop too much (at least I did until my long commute kicked in two weeks ago) and I’m frequently needing to give little-used clothes away. And nobody even needs those clothes!

Used clothes in large quantities doesn’t equal less consumption. I’m part of that absurd statistic. This clothes horse needs some unclothing.

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Biodiesel, Carpooling and Happiness

In my ongoing quest for the diamond-cut life of happiness without excess consumption, I notice a couple of things.

Many non-mainstream choices I make, like carpooling, increase my happiness. (This gang of public-interest attorneys I’ve gotten mixed up with is turning out to be a hoot. So-o-o-o much more fun than driving alone.) Other choices my household makes, like heating our house with biodiesel, has a fairly neutral daily impact on our lives, aside from knowing we’ve reduced our emissions, which knowledge makes us happy when it happens to cross our minds.

My thought here is that it’s easy to live inside the box of mainstream choices without even considering whether the greener or lower-consumption choice could be a happier one. Most people in our country commute alone and emit lots of carbon as they heat their homes — without even expecting any satisfaction from either of those activities. In fact, it’s normal to complain about commuting and heating bills. I think we should raise our expectations for our own happiness.

Research on happiness states that the single biggest predictor of it is the number and quality of the relationships we have with others. Interesting that relationships are something we earn with our behaviors, like kindness, and are not something we can buy or consume. Going outside the box of mainstream commercialism is looking more and more like a well-kept secret. I think we should all be blowing the lid off it.

The Real Cost Of Gas: $15/gallon

Last night my friend Jean gave me the first chapter of Lester Brown’s book Plan B to read. Whoa.

I learned that when the International Center For Technology Assessment studied the entire cost of the gas in our cars, including the military costs of protecting access to Mideast oil and the health care costs of treating illnesses created by air pollution, what our country is really paying for gas is not $3/gallon. It is $15/gallon.

Lester Brown is highly readable because he’s so succinct. “In order for markets to work . . . they must give us good information. But the market is giving us bad information, and as a result we are making bad decisions — so bad that they are threatening civilization”.

My takeaway here is that if we were paying even close to the real cost of gas, we wouldn’t just drive less and carpool and walk more. We would make sure we were living and working in places within reasonable distance of each other. Instead, in the past four decades our citizenry has steadily increased our commuting distances and also the sheer number of cars we own. We can be choosing differently.

As for dealing with sticker-shock around raising the price of gas to depict reality, think of the shock it was when we all left our parents’ homes where we paid no rent and got into our first apartment, complete with utility bills and groceries that actually cost us money out of our pockets. It wasn’t easy to start paying all those costs of living, but they were reality. And we all rose to the occasion and started living in reality, even though we had to live somewhat differently than we had before we moved out on our own.

Similarly, it won’t be easy to eventually start paying the real cost of gas instead of letting it be subsidized for us. But we’re adults and we’re strong enough to deal with reality.

No Country For Life-Giving Movies

Just a brief comment before I head off to meet my carpool: In my view, No Country For Old Men, which just won the Oscar for best movie, is a death-dealing film, however strong its technical  merits. Juno, in contrast is a life-giving and excellent film that I think should have won the award.

I can’t help noticing that the violent movies are mostly crafted by men while the life-giving stories are frequently created by women.

I’m waiting, no I’m working for the day that movies about human connectedness and transformation get honored for excellence instead of movies that portray life as a banquet of cruelty and nihilism.

Nader In The Race: Firebrand Or Fussbudget?

So Ralph Nader has thrown his hat in the ring, i.e. the presidential race. My question is whether that hat can ignite a fire under the feet of the other candidates to seriously consider a national carbon tax.

While Nader supports a carbon tax, the viable candidates do not. Rather, they have irresponsibly not taken global warming seriously. If there’s a more effective method than a carbon tax to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to slow climate change, I haven’t yet seen it. A tax on carbon would slow our fossil fuel consumption and force us to innovate in the more sustainable directions of lowered consumption and renewable energy.

British Columbia enacted a carbon tax earlier this month, and the European Union started its carbon trading program in 2005. With all the brilliant minds, Nobel prize winners and history of innovation in our country, why are we laggards instead of leaders in dealing with climate change? John Edwards came the closest to a stand of integrity in this arena, and I regretted his exit from the ring.

Can Ralph Nader help us here? Two accounts, one for each side of his duality:

My friend Joe had dinner with him in Seattle in the 90’s. Joe said Nader kept dickering with the server over whether the fish was fresh or frozen, more rolls free of charge or not, and on and on, being a fussbudget. In contrast, I heard Nader speak in 2002 at Lewis and Clark college here in Portland, Oregon. But his haranguing style in this context was that of a big-picture warrior, attacking abuses, protecting the vulnerable, confronting powerful corporations.

There is no bigger-picture problem than global warming, no greater abuse than not curbing it, no way in which the poor are more vulnerable or corporations more needy of confrontation. If Ralph Nader can be an on-topic firebrand instead of an off-topic fussbudget, i.e. make a national carbon tax a hot topic, then I welcome his hat in the ring.

Rebuilding On Ten Feet Under

I’m often drawn to the things that people don’t want to talk about. You know, the elephant in the living room syndrome. Today, that uncomfortable topic is the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Along with other excellent people and organizations, Mercy Corps has been helping do the above. Last week I was at Jimmy Mak’s when Neal Keny-Guyer, the CEO of Mercy Corps, was speaking. So I asked him during Q and A whether it was really in the best interests of the residents of New Orleans to rebuild on coastal land that is ten feet below sea level. In the face of rising sea levels as climate change is advancing, and extreme weather events will only increase.

He replied, in essence, that people who live in a given place naturally need to control their own destiny as much as possible. “It comes across as elitist if people from outside tell them in a top-down way that they can’t live any more in the place they call home,” he said. “You have to involve them very closely in any decision-making. That’s the way you have to handle it.”

I asked the same question last fall of other hard-working people who were rebuilding New Orleans. It was at the conference on poverty that Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon presented. “Emotionally, I know I would want to rebuild my home, too,” I said. “And I hugely respect the work you’re doing. But with global warming slated to flood coastlines around the world, I’m afraid we’re setting people up for more suffering.”

Their reply in essence was that the government had abused and neglected them during and after Katrina, and needed to do right by them from now on. ‘Mitigation of environmental hazards’ was the key phrase in their strategy.

The problem is that I agree with Neal Keny-Guyer about the self-determination of communities and with the activist rebuilders at the conference about the government’s terrible behavior — but I disagree with their conclusion that the rebuilding of New Orleans should continue.

I think it’s an emotionally based decision that flies in the face of the uncomfortable truth about global warming and rising sea levels. I still love Mercy Corps (in fact, that organization is in our will) but I disagree that New Orleans should be rebuilt. I think we should be teaming instead with its residents on relocation.

The Five-Carat Commute

On the first day of my new job in Salem, Oregon yesterday, I left my house in Portland before 6 a.m. and got home about 6:4o p.m. I spent three hours and forty minutes total on the commute, including walking to and from the Capitol Mall to my building.

Ye gads. To think that millions of people around the world do this for decades of their lives in order to earn a living and provide for their families. I respect the patience and tenacity this kind of commuting takes (I have usually taken the bus downtown or worked from home).

So why is mine the five-carat commute? My five carpool partners, who keep me from doing the long drive by myself, save me money and reduce my carbon footprint. (Well, I’ve met two of them so far, since not everyone goes to Salem daily.) They are friendly and fun and make the drive go by quickly. I alternate between conversation, reading and working on my laptop. My quality of life gets to remain high due to my carpool.

To find out how much money you could save by carpooling or using other travel options use this commute calculator. Note: I found my carpool through Carpool Match Northwest.