a boots-on-the-ground view of the change that's a-foot

Archive for March, 2009

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

By Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Maybe we fall somewhere in between on this one. But when it comes to moving towards sustainability and our health, eating to live may be the Yin to the Yang. To me, this simply means considering one thing with every bite – why am I eating this and what am I supporting when I do? Yes, food can and should be about celebration and enjoyment, but if the short answer doesn’t involve nourishment and a certain consciousness, you may be making your food choices more difficult and less healthy than you realize.

The biggest and most welcome change I made in my diet years ago (even more than becoming vegetarian) was to get over the idea of eating imaginary foods. You know what I mean – the things that may have started as a food, but have been processed into something entirely different – and empty nutritionally. The obvious? Soft drinks, processed salt and sugar, white flour and processed fats. Those are the absolutes – as in, we absolutely don’t receive nutrition from these foods and they in fact are harmful to your health.

Then there’s the borderline foods which aren’t much better – things like boxed cereals, cheese crackers, pita chips, soy cheese, or “sports bars”. Also beware of relying on the term “organic” as a shopping guideline. Sure, you can find “organic” versions of cookies, waffles, even jelly beans, but organic junk food is still junk food and not any kind of answer to sustainability issues. The big truth is that relying on processed and out of season foods means junking the environment, our health, family farms and more.

It was a huge relief to me to finally pare down what could be confusing choices to one category – real food. Even coffee, tea, wine, beer, chocolate, sea salt, maple syrup and other natural sweeteners all fall into this group! I’m definitely not suffering from lack of enjoyable eating experiences – in fact, I’m discovering new foods every day, like the jerusulem artichokes I tried at the Farmer’s Market this past weekend. And no, I really don’t miss bagels, pasta or soy bologna.

Keep in mind that many small farms cannot afford to become officially certified as organic but are aligned and committed to growing practices that are not exploiting our health, the animals or the environment. Local is usually a more sustainable, socially conscious, and healthy choice than buying organic products shipped across continents. Once you start thinking about the real things, it’s easy, fun and delicious. Each season, you can look forward to what is naturally available in your area. Delicious and wholesome whole grains can replace flour products. You may feel satiated for the first time in your life, while participating wholeheartedly in the joy of eating without conflict.

(After writing this, I found this topic covered beautifully by Mark Bittman, author of Food Matter: A Guide to Conscious Eating”, in the NYTimes this morning. Enjoy!)

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 247 user reviews.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

It’s beginning to look like I just might make it happen – an off-grid Summer. Since last year, I’ve been planning and hoping and dreaming about a low-carbon adventure in Vermont for the Summer. I’ve found a spot near Brattleboro – it has a small 100-year-old building on it which used to be a blacksmith shop. No frills, that’s certain, but a hopefully non-leaky roof over my head. The rest? Minimize and create is my mantra. Here are some of my ideas so far:

I’m ready to use a composting toilet, and solar shower, filled in a nearby pond. Bonfire and a candle lantern at night will be enough to get me through the limited hours of darkness during these warm months. I’m used to eating mostly raw food during this time of year so I won’t worry much about cooking, though some kind of makeshift root cellar would be nice for vegetables – I’m still working on that one, so if you have ideas, pass them on. Although I’ll be next to 100 acres of preservation and near a State Park, I will also be within a 6mile bicycle ride to town, so I can feed myself healthily without refrigeration by making the trip every few days.

Everything but the kitchen sink, right? Well, actually, I found a couple versions of that, too! If you’ve been to music or other festivals, you’ve probably seen the “Use Yer Foot” washing station, made here in NC. One soapy jug and one fresh water container is perfect for washing up on demand. I can also collect the grey water in the tub below to wash dishes. For the more portable “sink”, you can also try the collapsable nylon and cable versions holding between 5 – 20 liters by Sea to Summit. Fill at your nearest water source, then carry back to camp.

This one I’ve been waiting for – grid or no-grid. The collapsible Solo Pack, by Fozzils – a bowl, plate, cup and spoon, made from bisphenol-A-free plastic that fold perfectly flat and weighs only a few ounces. The cup is what I’ve really been after – something more convenient than a water bottle that I can have with me everywhere.

What will I be doing up there in the North East, you ask? Getting back to the basics, doing some outdoor yoga on used plywood, hiking with the dogs, and writing and dreaming about a simply sustainable life for everyone. After that, I’ll let you know!

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 287 user reviews.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

My leg is getting strong again and I am back on my bike, commuting around town, enjoying the new Spring weather. But, in my exuberance and glee, I found myself tempted to forget that there are rules to the road – and cars are not the only ones who need to follow them.

Like other cyclists, I like to complain about drivers who don’t share the road respectfully or carefully. When I first started riding my bicycle to work in another busier city, I proudly (but also rebelliously) wore a black t-shirt which – in big white letters – said, “ONE LESS CAR”. I just wanted “a little respect” and maybe some admiration, but perhaps should not have been shocked when I instead received a couple drive-by epithets.

Still, it would be nice if there was more communion between cars and bicycles and I think it’s time for cyclists to bear some of the burden. If you ride like I used to, you don’t always stop at signs or lights. You only occasionally signal a turn or lane change. Maybe you hop on and off the sidewalk, or take a shortcut around a corner through a parking lot. All these things may make you feel like a real road warrior, but they also put you and others in danger. And they certainly don’t help the wobbly relationship that already exists between riders and drivers.

Granted, cars kill cyclists, not the other way around, but copping an attitude as a rider won’t move us towards a more bike-friendly world. If you want to brush up on bike safety and etiquette, this is the best source I’ve found. More here on urban cycling. Of course, always wear your helmet, lose the headphones and sacrifice speed for caution.

PS. If you like that t-shirt, it’s still available from the San Francisco Bicycle Coaltion at

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 244 user reviews.

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Ever look at your life and your surroundings and wonder, “Am I on the right track”? It’s a question we should all ask ourselves regularly, regarding all aspects of our lives – the food we eat, the actions we take, the work we do, the people we see, the words we say…and more. Part of the reason I commit myself to a daily yoga practice – one that includes working with the physical, mental and energy “bodies” – is because it allows enough space in my monkey mind to lift the veil, see more clearly and “check in”.

I just returned from a yoga workshop with one of the most senior Ashtanga teachers in America, David Williams. His story and experience as a true student and teacher of yoga is completely human, completely extraordinary and completely honest. It was full of checking in, rather than “checking out”. As I looked around the room, I saw some of both present. This is life, I thought. It’s not what you do, but how honest you can be about what is really happening – no illusions.

Yoga is about increasing, moving and using energy for our health and well-being. It’s about the freedom of discipline, about becoming aware of who we are and what we really want – and has a lot to do with how we go about getting it.

We have a journey ahead of us. Are you on the right track?

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 169 user reviews.

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter – but sometimes, it’s not. Just like “extra soft” toilet paper, there’s some things that are pure, ridiculous luxury, but still don’t seem to be going anywhere soon in this culture. So, attention and alternatives to the small things matter. Like plastic drinking straws.

They are at most eating establishments. Surprisingly, even my local co-op still has a straw-dispenser with plastic straws. I understand the child issue, but most of those kids, not old enough to drink out of a cup, come equipped with their own baby bottle or sippy thingy, so I can only conclude that there is a whole slew of us who, for some baffling reason, prefer to drink our beverages toddler style – through a straw. Are so many of us grown-ups really stuck in this “oral” stage of development?

I’d find it simply amusing if it wasn’t another single-use, unnecessary, wasteful habit which is creating more disposable, non-biodegradable, non-recyclable, full of chemicals, plastic Stuff. Then it becomes simply annoying.

If you really have to suck on something, there are a lot more interesting things to choose from, and as the drinks go, grow up or BYO (Bring Your Own). Yep, they have ’em now – stainless steel and/or glass, reusable drinking straws. IdealBite turned me on to this, so here’s the link for more info., but if you ask me, any Stuff that is this needless, simply Sucks.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 248 user reviews.

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

It’s Spring. You know what that means. And I’m not talking about the birds and the bees. I’m talking about lawnmowers, weedwackers and leaf blowers. That insidious noise that drowns out the above mentioned, seems to be endless between March and October, and pollutes more than our ears. Did you know:

Gasoline-powered landscape equpment account for over 5% of our urban air pollution.

Running your lawnmower for 1 hour is equal to driving a new car between 200 and 300 miles from an air pollution standpoint.

And, each year, more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refueling of power lawn and garden equipment. (See here for sources.)

Not surprisingly, Mik and Jodi Beetham found the noise and smell of their former NYC home “tame compared to the pollution of traditional lawn equipment used every day here” in the sub-urban areas of NC. So, they did what more and more eco-minded folks are doing – something about it. They started a business called, Green Energy Lawn Care.

I met these two at the Farmer’s Market last weekend, where they were enthusiastically talking about life with lawns. They believe that home/yard-owners should have the option of making a difference in their carbon footprint. Their inclusive yard servicing is powered by battery/electric equipment and small, fuel efficient trucks. They use solar generators for recharging and the carbon they do create is entirely offset by NCGreenPower.

Green Energy Lawn Care is a contributor to the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Learn more on their website, or call for a free estimate in the Triangle area at 919-338-2667.

Mik and Jodi should team up with Alix and The Goat Patrol – now there’s a holistic green landscaping idea!

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 231 user reviews.

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

We Americans love our luxuries and pampering, especially when it comes to our sorry butts. We use – no,   demand  – fluffy soft toilet paper in every bathroom, and we do so more than any other country. Although the switch to recycled TP seems like one of the no-brainer steps to helping the environment, the demand for thick and soft has prevailed beyond reason, and again, Americans lead the way in this phenomenon. I just have to ask, What gives?

Manufacturing recycled, unbleached paper of all kinds saves trees, water,   and creates less waste. The “required” softness is not available in recycled form since it is the longer fibers from standing trees which create the fluffiness. Although up to 50 percent of the pulp used to make toilet paper for this country comes from tree farms, “the rest comes from old, second-growth forests, some from the last virgin North American forests, an irreplaceable variety of endangered species, environmentalists say.” ( Losing these trees also means more losing in the fight for the environment, since they are important absorbers of CO2.

The recession may help change our attitudes (though it’s a sad marker for our willingness to do our part in environmental stewardship). Recycled TP costs less and companies themselves may finally begin to move from ‘softer is better’ to a more truthful environmental campaign message.

“Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per capita a year.” ( Maybe we’ll all finally get some perspective and stop making trees the butt of this joke.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 166 user reviews.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Nearly a century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt asked this important question: whether “civilized people ought to know how to dispose of the sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water.” Unfortunately, we have yet to ask – let alone answer – this question since then. Sewage treatment guzzles energy, uses a shitload (pun intended) of drinking water. The problem is compounded by old sewer systems not equipped to handle waste from a population which, in some cities, has doubled since the system was built, sending excess sewage-polluted water into the nearest river daily, all according to this op-ed by Rose George, author of, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.”

When these concentrated nutrients are dumped in waterways and oceans, they seriously disrupt fragile ecosystems. Sewage discharge causes “dead zones” in oceans and waterways, depleting food supply, harming wildlife and making people sick. And “sick people” send our health-care costs soaring, complicating another component of social well-being.

Flush toilets were, of course, greatly welcomed and considered a sign of a successful, “civilized” society. Like the garbage trucks that consistently appear at your curb to take away what we so casually and consistently “throw away”, the flush toilet feeds the illusion that anything going down the toilet “disappears”, whether it is human waste, prescription drugs or trash (my neighbor once flushed a live mouse to “get rid” of it!?!)

Yet, sewage contains nutrients which can be used as a valuable fertilizer. Urine, in particular, contains many fertile nutrients, such as phosphate and nitrogen, and hardly any of the pathogens of excrement. Systems of urine separation (called urine-diversion) can greatly decrease energy use of sewage systems as well as replace a finite reserve of virgin phosphates used in agriculture which are otherwise collected from a finite supply in the ground. Urine diversion also makes for richer sludge and produces more methane, which can be turned into gas or electricity, “turning a :guzzler of energy into a net producer”, says Jac Wilsenach, a researcher and civil engineer, quoted in the NY Times recent Op-ed, “Yellow is the New Green”

In the meantime, most of us are stuck with a flushing system. What can we do while we wait for change? I’ve already posted on this topic a couple times – Flush less, Pee on the Earth, consider the savings of a low-flush toilet or consider a composting version.

Q and A with Rose George, here.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 197 user reviews.

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