Posts Tagged 'environment'

The Inconvenient Truth of the 168-hour Week

“I do care about global warming, but I’m too busy to (fill in the blank)”. I hear this cry often in one form or another. The blank can be many things: buying local produce, changing light bulbs to compact fluorescents, using public transit, using a clothesline instead of the dryer.

Feeling too busy to do things we know in our guts are the right things to do is like a modern epidemic. I sometimes fall into the too-busy trap, too. It can be a form of excited misery. . . . also of self-importance. But my freshman English professor in 1979 gave me a tool I still steadily use to unhinge the trap.

“You have 168 hours in your week,” Mr. Wenzl said. “Write down how you spend them. Add it all up: sleeping, eating, classwork your job if you have one, socializing, exercising, everything. Then tell me you don’t have time to study.”

My classmates and I were appropriately humbled.

I use an Excel spreadsheet these days (it saves time). Bingo — the 168-hour reality check. With all the many things I do, including periodically relaxing and doing nothing, I am clearly still able to take the bus, buy local, deal with the clothesline and do other things to minimize my carbon footprint. So I do.

I would extend a friendly challenge to everyone in the U.S. to add up how they use their 168 hours. And then write in and tell me it isn’t possible for you to take action on global warming. I bet taking action makes you happier, too.


Better Than Bigger: Getting to Enough

U.S. culture is finally getting that global warming is both a fact and serious trouble. Good, great, excellent.

The problem now is that most people think somebody else had better do something about it — in effect so that business can continue as usual.

I embrace the opposite of that attitude: that all of us can do something about it, and that ‘business as usual’ is at the core of the problem. Today I’ll bypass the wonk-speak about lowering our carbon footprint and drill down to something much more basic to global warming: the guiding myth in our national psyche that bigger is inherently better, and makes us more powerful.

Bigger houses and bigger cars — both a major U.S. trend in the past twenty years — are a big part of what’s driving global warming, due to their fossil-fuel-neediness. Every square foot of housing being heated, cooled and lit adds to our atmosphere’s burden, and so does every added increment of vehicle size. I suggest that bigger is the opposite of better or more powerful: it is needier.

The idea that bigger is better surely comes from the ancient, primitive part of our brains that motivated our ancestors to kill animals big and meaty enough to assure our survival. We’re animals too; I get it.

But we humans have flourished and we have to evolve differently now, as in leaping to a new level of thinking and motivation. The business-as-usual belief of bigger-is-better is taking us over the cliff of climate change.

I suggest that one of the most effective things we can do in any given day to combat global warming is to assure ourselves and those around us that we have enough right now. That we don’t need a bigger house, bigger or faster car or more current widget as much as we need a stable climate. That all those things are themselves needy of toxic fossil fuels, both in their production and use, and can even turn us into needier people as we grasp at them.

That, rather, what we already have is plenty, and enough. If that sounds like heresy, so at one time did the notion that the earth revolves around the sun.

Walmart’s Green Face: Are We Happy Now?

One time in my life, years ago, I went inside a WalMart store and purchased one item. It was a full-length mirror for $10. I felt grateful I could afford it because I was a self-employed artist at the time (read: poor).

I never went back to WalMart because I learned about the high cost of their low prices. For instance, many who receive relief food from the Oregon Food Bank have full-time jobs. At WalMart. Such stories are well-told in many places, and my thoughts today are actually about a more positive face of WalMart: their progress in sustainability.

(Think of sustainability as doing things in a way that can continue indefinitely across time without resources collapsing or other bad things happening.)

I’ve learned WalMart is using their famed control over their suppliers to require more sustainable practices of them. Here in Portland, my home, that is translating into huge warehouses being built to LEED certification (that’s Leadership in Energy & Ecological Design), including extensive solar panels.

That means these warehouses that will ship products to WalMart will use much less fossil fuels than normal warehouses — and fossil fuels, are course, are what’s driving global warming. Also, WalMart has done huge promotions of compact fluorescent light bulbs, shaping that market significantly in a much-needed way. It appears they’re putting some legs on the public commitment they made to sustainability about two years ago.

So would I personally recommend now shopping at WalMart? Well, the reason I won’t is the same reason I never darken the door of Costco: great volumes of goods at dirt-cheap prices encourage overconsumption. And overconsumption is, in my eyes, the root of our cultural problems and environmental problems — both sets of problems, intertwined in their causes and effects.

The research I’ve seen lately indicates that the happiest people are not the ones who consume the most, but the ones who are rich in loving relationships, community and service/volunteer work. If happiness is what we all want, more stuff at low prices is not getting us there.

I’m glad WalMart is becoming greener, but it doesn’t change their basic premise of unfettered consumption. Thor and I are continuing to shop elsewhere. I left my little art company behind, and have a ‘normal’ job now that I love. We can afford normal prices.

By the way, I gave away the full-length mirror I bought there to a friend. She has more stuff than friends, come to think of it, and is not the happiest person I know.

Two Birds, One Beautiful Stone

Maybe you’re like me in this respect: when I see problems, I want to find solutions.


I don’t just want to find solutions, I want to live them out. I feel more alive that way, more connected. Lots of problems are both personal and public, both micro and macro. Ditto their solutions.

Here we have a national epidemic of obesity and a global climate problem of overusing fossil fuels. It doesn’t take a think-tank of Nobel prize winners to generate this little light-bulb: Ah . . . we need to use our bodies more and fossil fuels less. Two birds with one stone.

Some examples (please write me with your additions):

  • using stairs instead of elevators
  • raking, mowing & trimming our yards with human power instead of engine power
  • washing dishes and lightweight clothes by hand instead of machine
  • bicycling for short trips instead of driving
  • dancing for recreation instead of watching TV
  • planting seasonal foliage in our front yards instead of doing light displays
  • walking around to visit neighbors instead of a sedentary evening “chatting” on email

You and I can model these behaviors to others, or we can ask others to join us in developing these habits in the first place. The point is that the status quo is not working, folks. It’s not working for either individuals or our shared home, the planet.

Problems: Overweight Americans and a climate overheating with fossil fuel use. Solution: Use our bodies twice as much as we’re doing. It even makes us feel sexier, which is more than you can say for many solutions to problems.

Two birds, one beautiful stone.

Morning Tea and Power to the People

This morning I submerged a jasmine tea bag into the hot water inside my lovely little blue mug that I bought from a local potter years ago. I’ve done this most mornings for years, but today I suddenly thought to put a little saucer across the top of the mug while the tea steeps.

Why? Because I’ve learned that heat is so costly to the earth. Even here in Portland Oregon — the land of mighty rivers and hydropower — more than 40% of our energy comes from coal, the burning of which accelerates global warming. Heating water takes a lot of energy. Covering it once it’s hot is common sense, and shows respect for the price the earth is paying.

Now I’m sipping my jasmine tea, both tea and mug delightfully warmer than when they sit uncovered while steeping. It seems to me that life has dozens of these choice-points each day. Dozens of chances to be in the moment and respect the earth by consuming less energy. We have more power than we walk around imagining we have.

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