Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mindful Consumption

Mindful Consumption. We must consume consciously and with restraint, in ways that nurture the Earth. When this is not possible and we truly cannot go without consuming a harmful product, we must choose to consume goods and services that hurt the Earth and humanity as little as possible.

“Live simply so that others might simply live.”“The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs, not everyone’s greed.” These quotations from Mahatma Gandhi demonstrate just how wise Gandhi was. They summarize important lessons on how to consume in a world that is overtaxed by human consumption patterns, and where 2 billion people are barely surviving because of the inequitable distribution of resources. But how to live out this wisdom?

We must find a way to consume as little of the world’s resources as possible in our pursuit of a high quality of life. Yet how do we judge what is a sustainable high quality of life versus the pursuit of unnecessary, unsustainable wants? The ecological philosopher Arne Naess once said, “Live at a level we wish others to attain.” Do we really expect that the Earth can provide everyone with a car? A wide-screen TV? A dog? A second home? If you answered no to any of these, you should ask yourself, can you in good conscience own one? And if not, then comes the challenge of extricating oneself from this “essential” product.

There are many opportunities to make changes with minimal effects on one’s current lifestyle. One can purchase clothing, appliances, furniture, and other needs from secondhand stores or networks like Freecycle. By getting a “new” shirt from Goodwill you’ll be supporting a social enterprise while preventing creation of a new piece of clothing, most likely made in a sweatshop of unsustainable materials and toxic dyes.When buying second-hand is not an option and you must buy new (e.g., soap), try to buy a sustainable version. Most products today have an ecologically friendly variant.

Over time, you can find ways to change your lifestyle so certain goods become unnecessary altogether. Take the car, for example. By living two blocks from my workplace and four blocks from a grocery store, I have dispensed with a car for the past seven years. The flip side is that I can only afford a small place to live, but that means less cleaning, less stuff to buy, and less money spent on heating and lighting. And if you truly can’t give up your car (for example, because your office is in a town without good public transit), then walk or cycle whenever you can. Why drive to the gym, then run on a machine for 40 minutes? Simply biking or running a few kilometers to the grocery store and back would have achieved the same thing, while saving time, money, and fossil fuels.

More “radical” changes might even do more: inviting our aging parents to live with us might sound like a chore (and at times it certainly will be), but merging households can lower everyone’s ecological footprint and provide a free source of childcare (on top of the more important benefit of tying a family together more closely).

One more tool to help in this process: turn off the TV. Advertising and shows have a direct influence over buying patterns (even if we like to believe we’re immune to these persuasion tactics). The more television we watch, the more money we spend, even though we have less time to spend it! (See Juliet Schor's The Overspent American for evidence on this.) Spending leisure time in ways that reconnect us to friends and family rather than electronic gadgets is a key way to increase wellbeing while lowering consumption. Try it!

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009 issue.

Just Livelihood

Just Livelihood. We must choose a livelihood that neither exploits people—in any of their many roles: worker, consumer, community member—nor the Earth, and ideally, a livelihood that actively heals the Earth and nurtures human society.

Many of us are committed to doing good with our lives and yet our jobs often work at cross-purposes to our volunteer work, our consumption choices, our political views. And now with unemployment increasing and the media scaring us with questions like “Could this be the next Great Depression?,” few people are willing to even consider changing jobs, even when their work is unengaging, uninteresting, or—worse—actively exploiting communities, consumers, or the planet.

How do we change that? The best way is to choose a job that epitomizes your values. Instead of marketing junk food, create marketing campaigns for healthy foods. Instead of injecting foreheads with Botox, focus your medical skills on helping people to live healthily and heal life-threatening diseases. For entrepreneurs, convert your small business so it becomes a symbol of your beliefs. Advertise the fact that your store runs on renewable energy, sells fair-trade products, pays a livable wage—the benefit will come not just to your conscience but to your bottom line as customer loyalty and worker pride grow.

Of course, even at the best businesses, there will still be room for improvement, so one should still work within one’s organization to challenge it to do more. That could mean efforts as simple as helping to “green” office operations, pushing for more eco-friendly fair-trade products to be stocked, or spreading an environmental ethic to colleagues.

What about the majority of workers who don’t work for responsive companies or can’t easily change jobs? Before answering this, one point to remember is that the more simply one lives, the fewer hours one will need to work, since personal spending will be lower. Moreover, this will free time for leisure and lower one’s ecological footprint (since one cannot afford to consume as much when working fewer hours).

Suppose you have to work full time to survive, perhaps even more than one job; what do you do when working for an exploitative company and no other option seems to exist? If possible, push for change from within, directly or through a union. If that fails, try to facilitate change from without. For example, one could assist shareholders with filing a resolution, serving as a source of information. Or, if the company is not just acting immorally but illegally, whistleblowing is an important option.

Organizations available to help whistleblowers include, for government employees, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which provides guidance and legal support and also offers a guide, The Art of Anonymous Activism, that teaches employees how to safely blow the whistle.

But activism of this sort can mean risks, and few are willing to put their security on the line. So for them, there is foot dragging, an effective tactic to imperceptibly slow down work, whether by moving just a bit more slowly, filing papers incorrectly, or entering data with a small error (just a few examples). For an effective (albeit academic) treatise on this, read Weapons of the Weak by James Scott.

If done right, managers won’t detect it’s intentional (or you!) and the company’s productivity will decline. Indeed, in 2002, disengaged workers cost U.S. organizations US$250 billion, according to a Gallup poll. The Kabachnick Group estimates that up to 65 percent of U.S. employees are already disengaged, or, in other words, “have already quit but forgot to tell their bosses.” When “slowing down the machine” is one’s only option, it might just help to buy time for a new sustainable economy to emerge and replace the existing exploitative economy.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009 issue.

Renewing Life Rituals

Renewing Life Rituals. Life-affirming rituals should be celebrated in ways that do not cause significant harm to the Earth or to people—and when possible, should actively serve as a restorative ecological and social force.

Throughout history, people have used rituals to mark the transition from one stage of life to another; birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage, and death are the most widely celebrated rituals. Increasingly a common theme joins these rituals, regardless of setting, religion, or culture: massive consumption, which inflicts great costs on the families and communities involved and on the Earth as well. In the United States, for instance, an average wedding costs US$28,000 and a funeral $10,000. (For great books on these subjects, read One Perfect Day, and Grave Matters--the titles should tell you which subject they refer to). They also cause a huge amount of ecological damage: the barrages of toys given at birthdays are often toxic, made using fossil fuel inputs, and shipped thousands of kilometers using more fossil fuels. The typical U.S. wedding not only costs about seven months’ worth of average household income, but generates thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions (as people travel long distances to attend the wedding), tons of waste from the mining of gold for rings, and paper waste from invitations and gift wrapping.

But rituals can be reclaimed so that they are not a stressful burden but an opportunity to connect more closely to family, friends, and the Earth. Let me use a personal example. I just got married. Instead of having one wedding, my wife and I chose to hold three small parties—one where we live and two where our two families are from. This way, only we and a few others had to travel long distances. Since the parties were smaller we could invite more guests and spend more time with each of them.We also were able to draw on social capital instead of financial capital, for example by using families’ homes for the parties and friends’ labor instead of hired help, which in turn reinforced our relationships.Moreover, we had simple vegetarian fare at the parties, used e-mail and a wedding website instead of paper invitations, and exchanged rings that I inherited from my family. The whole wedding cost a small fraction of the average—both for us and for our guests (as few needed hotel rooms or flights).

Other rituals can be redesigned as well. Encouraging fewer and/or used gifts (or charitable donations) for birthdays, showers, graduations, and holidays is one important opportunity, as is changing how one addresses a death in the family.More than any other ritual, perhaps, funerals have great potential to become life-affirming and life-giving events. The first step is to plan ahead so as not to be exploited in your time of mourning by funeral home salesmen prodding you to embalm your loved ones with toxic chemicals and stuff them in fancy wooden and metal caskets. Instead, research green funeral homes and options early and put all the details in a will (and encourage other family members to do the same). There are several natural cemeteries that bury bodies in shrouds or simple wooden coffins and use native trees and shrubs instead of stones for grave markers, creating forest parklands in the process.

Ultimately, the goal is to create renewing rituals, bringing families, friends, and communities together to celebrate or to mourn, not in a way that drains precious resources but, when possible, actively builds relationships and heals the Earth.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008 issue.

Right Diet

Right Diet. Eat a healthy diet of the right amount of calories, of foods that are produced fairly and do not cause systematic suffering to ourselves, to others, to farmed animals or other living creatures, or to the Earth itself.

Choosing the right diet will help to improve the health of individuals, human society, and the Earth. The obesity epidemic and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers; a significant portion of climate change; the eutrophication of rivers and oceans; the concentration of the food industry among a small cadre of exploitative corporations, in turn leading to the abuse of workers and farm animals—these are all connected by one thing: our consumer diet.We need to move to a diet that is in balance with the Earth, rather than one that is selfdestructive.

To do this, we need to follow some simple advice. First: eat the right amount of calories. Obesity is fundamentally caused by consuming more calories than you expend. Reducing total calorie intake can improve your quality of life and extend your lifespan. Moreover, a nutritious, lower-calorie diet will reduce your ecological impact even if you live more years. Let’s consider two average men’s diets. One lowers consumption markedly, from 2,600 calories to 1,800. The other continues eating the U.S. standard recommended 2,600-calorie-per-day diet. (This assumes a relatively sedentary lifestyle for both; a particularly active person would want to adjust upwards a bit.)


The thinner man can live to be 81 years old on the calories consumed by the larger one by age 65. Moreover, by following this diet the thinner man’s odds of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other overnutrition-related diseases will all go down significantly. For a bit more on this, check out this New York Times article on Calorie Restriction. For a lot more on this, read John Robbins' book Healthy at 100.

Second, to make this lower-calorie diet work, the food has to be healthy. This means cutting out the processed foods and refined sugars and grains of the typical consumer’s diet, and instead leaning toward a mostly vegetarian diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and (if interested) the occasional animal product. The benefits of switching to a more natural diet aren’t just health-related; processed foods are more energy-intensive and rely heavily on disposable packaging.

If animal products are part of your diet, be sure to consume these sparingly, as the ecological resources needed to produce these are much greater than plants. (One example: eating 320 calories of stir-fried vegetables and rice—about half a kilogram of food—produces just 0.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Getting the same calories from a 0.2-kilogram (6-ounce) steak produces 4.4 kilograms of CO2, over 20 times more.)

Also, when choosing animal products, try to ensure that your milk, butter, eggs, and meat don’t come from factory farms, which are polluting, typically exploit the workers and animals, and degrade the nutritional value of these foods. And when possible purchase all of your foods from local farmers or organic fair-trade sources.

While making these changes won’t come without a determined effort (especially in the toxic food environment of the United States), they will improve your health, reduce your impact on the Earth, and help shift food production toward sustainability by strengthening organic enterprises, reducing the ecological impact of agriculture, helping to provide workers fair wages, and reducing corporate control of food resources while returning it to local farmers and responsible businesses.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008 issue.

A Visit to the Living Earth Cafe

Note: I wrote this for World Watch Magazine for the July/August 2008 issue. I'm adding this and other articles now to get this blog up to speed.

Imagine this. You walk into the Living Earth Cafe, a new coffeehouse that just opened in your city. The d├ęcor is simple, and in places clashes with itself. A funky old couch dominates a corner, a few well-worn arm chairs sit to one side, occupied by two patrons engaged in a passionate debate. A mix of eclectic tables and chairs is spread around the space. At the front of the store, a prominent sign explains that all furniture is used, acquired locally from Freecycle, Craig’s List, or secondhand stores. The same sign announces that all electricity comes from renewable sources and that about half the hot water is generated from rooftop solar hot water collectors.

Over by the windows you see dozens of herbs and vegetable plants sprouting from the sills. In the corner, there’s a strange box labeled “vermicomposter” and another sign stating that “1% of our organic waste is recycled here by our worms, the other 99% in composters at our local urban garden, which produces 100% of our herbal teas and a portion of our food.”

You get in line to order a cup of the locally grown herbal tea. In front of you a customer orders a latte to go and is shocked to hear there are no to-go cups. “You can either enjoy your coffee here, sir, or you can borrow one of our travel mugs,” explains the barista. “There’s a $4 deposit, which you’ll get back if you return it.”A bit surprisingly, the guy agrees and borrows one of the mugs and goes on his way.

It’s your turn. Typically ordering tea at a cafe is a humdrum experience, with three or four options, each costing as much as a dozen bags at the grocery store. But there is a long list of tea choices here—served loose-leaf, not in a bleached paper bag—and in several innovative combinations. “I’ll take the mint lavender,” you say.

“Would you like that sweet? We can add stevia leaves, a natural herbal sweetener with no calories.”

“Sure, I’ll try that.”

You fork over three bucks (you can’t help but notice the cafe still charges what the market will bear), and take your little tea pot and mug to your table.While drinking your tea, you read a little brochure about the cafe. On one side is a menu and upcoming events. The cafe offers a set menu, but looking around at what the other diners are having, the food looks quite healthy, tasty, and not served in obesity-promoting portions. The week’s menu offers simple, staple meals from around the world: dhal and brown basmati rice on Mondays, spelt pasta with tomatoes and basil on Tuesdays, green tofu curry and sticky brown rice on Wednesday, and so on. It looks totally vegetarian, possibly even vegan, and minimally processed. The upcoming events described are diverse, too—local organizations’ meetings, lectures, book groups,musical performances, even classes on how to vermicompost and grow food in containers and urban garden plots.

On the back of the menu is a broader description of the cafe, which turns out to be a project of the Living Earth Ethics Foundation (LEEF), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to promote a code of ethics that will sustain life on a living Earth.”

All profits from this chain of cafes and LEEF’s other mission driven businesses support the foundation’s social service providers: urban gardens that offer skills training and access to healthy food for low-income urban residents; free clinics that are as focused on promoting a healthy lifestyle as treating the many chronic diseases that are side-effects of the consumer culture; homeless shelters that emphasize both empowerment and a new model of success (rather than success through increased material consumption); and several Living Earth Charter Schools where, unlike typical schools, the curriculum centers on building an awareness of the natural limits of a finite planet, developing a deep understanding of the close links between the consumer economy and current exploitation of people and the environment, and instilling a consciousness of our ethical responsibility to the Earth and all beings that are part of it, all while providing the highest level of academic training possible.

Finally, below the description is a box titled, “Love Living Earth Cafe? Become an investor.” It explains that “the capital to run this cafe comes directly from the customers, who receive interest on their investments in Living Earth Dollars redeemable for goods at the cafe. These investments are equivalent to one to five-year certificates of deposit and are currently providing a 5 to 7 percent annual return. For more details, chat with the manager or visit www.livingearthcafe.org.”

Sound too good to be true? So far it is, but much of the model described here has been implemented in one form or another, and creating a more comprehensive model is possible.

There are already restaurants in Thailand that educate customers about HIV, safe sex, and family planning while directing the profits to an NGO focused on addressing these issues in rural populations. There is a bakery in New York City helping to provide skills training to the chronically underemployed while using its profits to support several additional social enterprises and services, such as affordable housing. And these are just some of the smaller, more recently established social enterprises. There are several well-known social enterprises that have over a billion dollars in annual revenue and more than a hundred years of experience, namely, the Salvation Army and the YMCA. Of course, these organizations’ agendas are not environmental in nature, but nothing is stopping the environmental community from comprehensively utilizing the proven tool of social enterprise.

All that’s required is to build not-for-profit businesses and channel surplus earnings into broader efforts than just “harm reduction” advocacy. Currently most environmental advocacy is focused on reducing the worst effects of consumerism, rather than on providing an alternative socio-economic model. For example, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act both set maximum limits on the pollution that can be emitted into the air and water. Current climate change legislative efforts are focused on trying to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent overall—a lofty reduction but one that still won’t get us to where we need to be, especially in a world where population and desire for the consumer lifestyle continue to grow.

Of course, our political system, which is based on compromise and the interplay between competing interests, shapes this harm reduction agenda, but the question needs to be asked: why aren’t environmental organizations playing hardball like corporations do?

Corporations deploy lobbyists and “astroturf organizations” (grassroots organizations engineered by corporations that pretend to represent the public interest) to influence governments around the world, undermining those organizations that actually represent the public interest.Why aren’t environmental groups penetrating businesses’ realm—not just by pressuring them directly to change, as organizations like Rainforest Action Network do, but by setting up social enterprises that indirectly force corporations to redesign how they do business? NGOs could set up wind farms, cafes, ecologically designed funeral homes, eco-banks, or any number of sustainable business that directly threaten corporate chains.

For example, if designed right (i.e., made popular), an environmental franchise like the Living Earth Cafe would be able to pressure Starbucks and other cafes to redesign their model to accommodate the evolving taste of the green consumer. Consciousness would grow to the point where Starbucks could no longer get away with touting their eco-friendliness by serving coffee in a 10-percent-recycled paper cup, but might feel pressured into getting rid of to-go cups altogether.

As importantly, the funds generated by these non-profit environmentalist businesses could be channeled directly into the organizations’ advocacy and education work and into social service providers that, in the long term, could help to weaken consumerism’s hold on humanity and create new environmentalists. In other words, just as a Catholic school or a Catholic based homeless shelter helps to expose people to the Christian God and Jesus, environmentalist schools and shelters could do the same for the Earth. As well, these service providers could help prepare people for the real possibility of a widespread ecological and economic collapse. How many people living in consumer societies know how to grow food? Or make a simple solar cooker and use it to purify water? Or build a composting toilet? We assume that fresh water will flow into our homes (and sewage out of them) long into the future, but there are absolutely no guarantees of either.With the rapid degeneration of the global environment, the environmental community will need to expand its role beyond harm reduction advocacy if we expect human civilization to have even a small chance of thriving beyond the 21st century.

To launch this type of comprehensive environmental movement, we need a philosophy more complete than the average environmental organization currently provides. In the coming months I will describe a vision of the next evolution of environmentalism, including 10 ethical principles that could help orient this shift. Environmentalism does not need to die, as was recently argued, nor does it have to remain a marginalized special interest. Instead it can become a much broader movement, absorbing many of the related social-justice issues into a more unified system—one that, at its core, has a simple ethical code to guide both individual behavior and the movement. And that can mobilize an ever-expanding network of social services, social enterprises, and development efforts, systematically replacing the self-destructive, corporate-driven consumer economy with an ecological social-entrepreneurial system that can be sustained for millennia.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Jul/Aug 2008 issue.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Loaves and Fishes

Yesterday, my wife and I helped to serve lunch to about 180 homeless individuals in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood in DC, through a program called Loaves and Fishes. While the program is trying to help--and it should be celebrated for that as food aid operations are struggling along with the rest of the economy--it doesn't seem to be helping effectively. Let me describe what I saw.

I arrived five minutes late to a swarm of activity and several volunteers leaving as there were not enough jobs for volunteers. That could be seen as a good sign but once I left the kitchen and went in to the dining room (the church basement) I witnessed a bit of class apartheid. All the volunteers either in the kitchen or at the side of the room waiting to serve lunch to all of the homeless people. That seemed strange for wouldn't it be useful, both for volunteers and the aid recipients to interact with each other? Why not assign some volunteers to simply sit at a table and chat with the 'other' (especially if there are too many to help prepare food)? These volunteers could get to know the diners' stories, moving them from objects of pity to subjects--individuals who could be actually empathized with. Instead, as a server of food--styrofoam plates of baked chicken, greens, potatoes, and two little processed cookies wedged between the potatoes and chicken and absorbing chicken grease--I handed the diners food after being specifically told not to serve to an empty seat even if someone tells me there's someone sitting there as they might be trying to sneakily get a second helping.

This brings me to a big issue. That of trust. There was a major lack of it present. Yes, of course, some would try to get an extra meal, but this lack of trust really creates the wrong environment. Including creating a lack of respect. Here's an example, while serving one of the diners, he asked me for a leg and not a breast. No problem I told him, and gave someone else the breast. For the next few minutes as I looked in vain for a leg (we were on seconds already so they had run low), a fellow volunteer chastised me saying "they get what they're served." I felt belittled and angry--not for myself but to see how little these individuals were valued. They get what they get and that's it--and be careful or they'll try to get even more. Those dirty little people.

Of course, these were all subtle, but here's a clearer example, or a question rather. Why do you need more than a few volunteers anyway? What is the logic of getting volunteers to cook and serve the food, do the dishes and the rest, while the homeless diners just sit and eat, and before dinner, talk, play cards or listen to their iPod (yes, really)? I joined not to play waiter, but to help in a way that empowers these individuals. Of course, that's not how charity works today. Volunteers come to feel better about themselves and the homeless are simply the chorus, support actors--in some sort of complex tragic play. Sophocles would be proud.

So how to improve this? Here's one small suggestion--not to address the whole system but at least food aid. What about reducing these dinners by 90 percent, feeding 18 instead of 180. And instead of letting them sit alone, for those that can work, get them helping. For those that are unable to work--say physically or mentally handicapped--let them chat in a small group, one that includes a volunteer. With a savvy volunteer, perhaps she could build trust and help connect one with another, getting an elderly woman teaching an illiterate immigrant how to read, for example. In a setting of 180 individuals, the best that can be hoped for is order, not advancement, so I certainly don't fault Loaves and Fishes for its effort, however I am frustrated with how little the operation lives up to its name.

For those of you not familiar, Loaves and Fishes refers to when Jesus and the apostles fed an impossible number of people with very little food. They succeeded because everyone shared the food they had (not because of a heavenly miracle, but by the human miracle of trust). If a setting where sharing--of labor, of time, of trust--could be created, where people could learn new skills, make new connections, and help others, that in the long-run would be much more useful, even if just a tenth of the people were served.

A practical question: who would be invited? Why not have an application process? Offer daily lunches (not just weekly) to the 20 that are willing to help cook or clean or prepare or or tend the urban garden (which could be a good source of healthy food) or teach English to someone else. A competitive process could glean the most rehabilitative individuals and immediately give them a bit of pride and investment into this experiment. And then by creating a routine and empowering them with a job well done, these might go much further than the current emergency relief style operations in helping to find them a stable place in society and thus solving the root problem instead of continuing to just treat the symptoms, like most food aid operations seem to do.