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

Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Lawns – Less Than Heavenly

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

The below (source unknown) still makes laugh – and sigh. And cry. After all, it was back in 1991 that Michael Pollen, author of Second Nature, declared that lawns are “a symbol of everything that is wrong with our relationship to the land.”

Since then, we’ve realized that back and front yard gardens of vegetables and wild flowers are more both more sustainable and more nourishing than green grass. We’v learned that pesticide companies re-named plants like clover, “weeds” to sell more product and that lawn grass in general is not natural or native in most places.

So, what is our lawn status today? Well, capitalism continues as more green landscape tools, watering systems and businesses emerge, which was a start, but the idea of the “lawn” is still too alive and too well in the U.S.. Despite the fact that we know we kill 7 million birds each year – along with earthworms and other beneficial pests – with pesticides applied to lawns. Despite the fact that as the demand for potable water continues to increase, yet we are using 30% of it to water lawns. Places like Dallas, TX, use 60% – !! And, as landfill space becomes scarce, we now know that 20 – 50 % of that space is filled with yard waste – in plastic bags.

Heard enough?

Enjoy the below and pass it around your neighborhood.


God: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff? I created a perfect no-maintenance garden plan – plants that grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply. The nectar from those long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and birds. All I see now are these green rectangles.

St. Francis: It’s the “Suburbanite” tribes. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass that they go to great lengths to keep green. They begin each spring with fertilizing and poisoning the other plants that show up.

God: Grass? How boring. It’s not colorful, is sensitive to drought and temperatures. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds or bees. Well, the grass does grow fast, that must make these Suburbanites happy.

St. Francis: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it – sometimes twice a week.

God: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

St. Francis: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up, put it in bags and pay to have it taken away.

God: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the Summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. At least that slows the growth and saves them all that work.

St. Francis: Actually, when it rains less, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water the grass so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

God: At least they kept some trees – which provide beauty and shade in Summer, and then provides a natural blanket of fallen leaves in the Fall to keep moisture in the soil and protect the roots. A stroke of genius, if I do say so myself.

St. Francis: You better sit down, Lord. As soon as the leaves Fall, the Suburbanites rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away. Then they go out and buy something they called mulch, which they spread out in place of the leaves.

God: Where do they get this mulch?

St. Francis: They cut down trees and grind them up.

God: I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

St. Catherine: “Dumb and Dumber”, Lord. It’s a story about…

God: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Little House in the City – the balance of living small

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

When I decided to head for NC, I lived in a small and borrowed motor home in the woods. I had recently left graduate school, embarking on one of those “to hell with it” journeys. Each day of those few months, I learned more about how freeing it was to want only what I needed and need only what I had. Even the confined space felt comforting. Ever since then, I have acknowledged and craved the kind of satisfaction of living simply and its welcome limits.

If small and simple living feels so good, where does our mega-sizing mentality come from? When considering the downscaling commitment of people like Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, who lives in a 100sq.foot dwelling, I am forced to acknowledge my return to excess (I live in 1050sq.feet). I even store “stuff” in additional attic space and own 3 bicycles! Huh? Perhaps it’s a virus that has spread through our culture unchecked and unchallenged…is it then passed down through generations as a misguided process of evolution? Or, is it simply a disconnect between our needs, wants and/or desires within a culture lacking in perspective? When it comes to living space, how much is enough?

Undeniably, our consciousness as a culture is rising. And, like most trends that run their course, our BIG habits are being challenged and re-evaluated. Alternative housing is attracting the interest of many, with mixed use developments like Greenbridge becoming popular and Co-housing, a community-based, eco-efficient form of housing, making smaller living both practical and fashionable.

Could small living actually be the big life? Is the “super-size” mentality becoming old and ugly news? Carpenter author and educator, Shay Salomon, seems to think so. She co-founded The Small House Society, whose mission is “to support the research, development, and use of smaller living spaces that foster sustainable living for individuals, families, and communities worldwide.” In her book, Little House on a Small Planet, she shows how saner, cozier homes provide an antidote to stress, build community and reduce our impact on the planet. Committed to both efficient design and use of natural resources, these people are selling much more than small homes. They are offering the luxury and value of a more simple life.

Unfortunately, there is no lack of the continued development of large homes for the affluent, but shift happens. Ask Gregory Paul Johnson, Founder and Director of Resources for Life (and another co-founder of The Small House Society). I love this guy – he may live small, but his life, career and interests are huge – check out his web site. He is a testimonial to just what can happen when you de-clutter, de-stress and detoxify your mind to make “space” for what matters.

Convenience or Luxury? more on eco-travel

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

As it usually happens, if you spend time thinking about something and you’ll soon hear more about it. This hotel business has me thinking a lot about the difference between convenience and luxury. And, if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that luxury is not only wasteful, but greatly overrated.

I’m grateful for a way of life which allows me considerable convenience, but too much of a good thing simply makes many of us lazy, bored, neurotic and unhealthy. Electrical appliances and oil-dependent machines take over what was once, all in a day’s work. The consumer products “as seen on tv”, individually wrapped anything – and even things like yoga mat bags – baffle me. I don’t even have to mention the mess “convenient” paper cups and plastic bags has gotten us into.

But, back to hotels. Convenience which crosses a certain boundary becomes a luxury – something we can enjoy, but need to be wary of. Often, as a consumer, I feel ridiculously pampered. Luxury hotels (as well as restaurants and stores) pander to our desires to elevate our fragile egos to royal proportions and we buy into it – literally and figuratively. This is all part of what has made the process of hotel-greening a slow and resistant one, according to an article I found yesterday in Mother Jones magazine.

Despite my excitement over the Kimpton chain’s commitment to social and environmental practices, it turns out that it’s still only a fraction of this industry which actively engage in the process of becoming more sustainable – and, as reported by Kimberly Lisagor, Kimpton is the only chain using non-toxic cleaning supplies. Even more shocking, it turns out that the energy cost of an average single hotel room is $2,196 per year – equal to the energy use of an average American household for the same period.

Bottom line? It’s up to us (as consumers) to ask for what we want and then be willing to get out of the lap of luxury. The Green Hotel Association recommends that travelers can and should demand green services, helping dispell the myth that standards set by an excess of amenities. Call ahead to request nontoxic cleaning products, BYO toiletries (shampoo/body bars are airline friendly), turn off the AC, heat, lights and other appliances, avoid maid service, use less water and linens.

The biggest difference you can make is to travel less when possible and opt for the “staycation” otherwise. And when you really gotta/wanna hit the road, check the links below for B&Bs, hostels and earth-friendly hotels and enjoy the “luxury” of greener travel.

For lists and reviews of greener accommodations, visit, and

Grid-Free and Off The Beaten Path – a journey

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Off-grid living is part of our future evolution. There are as many reasons to do it as their are ways to do it. Most involve a desire to live more simply, more authentically and more sustainably. My friends, Jeannie and Michael, have recently embarked upon their own off-grid journey in a camper. Jeannie is going to share some of her experience here, on Tao of Change – posted each Sunday for the Summer. Tune in and share the adventure each week. Jeannie’s introductory entry below:

From Jeannie:

Michael and I decided to camp for the summer outside of Crested Butte, CO (~9000 ft elevation) in a 14.5 foot ’57 camper that we purchased, that’s right, on Craigslist. Michael knows a lot about remodeling, so he was able to perform all kinds of electrical and interior maintenance on our little summer home. We painted & fixed her up and now it’s time to live the dream.  We decided on this course of action for several reasons including, but not limited to:

we are tree huggers and we love to run around in the woods
mountains impress us
we are experimenting with reducing our impact
we are attempting to be mindful about what we use / waste
we are re-defining materialism & consumption for ourselves
we want to save $$ for skiing this winter

Our disclaimer is that we are not self-proclaimed environmentalists and we apologize for faux-pas we may commit.  Suggestions are welcome!

Entry 1:
Michael and I finally found a camping spot – Cement Creek, just south of Crested Butte (right out of CB South) and have been out in the camper the last couple of days.  It is super cozy, but it snowed all day today so we came in to town because we had a little bit of cabin fever (camper fever.)  Really, we wanted to hit up Thomas’ hot tub!  It’s warm and comfortable living in the camper, though, and we really like it.  We’ve been hiking and biking around a lot, and making food in the original 1957 camper oven / stove.  Michael is killing me with some of the hikes we’ve done!  Everything around is beautiful though, hiking or not.  When more of the snow around town melts, we will camp closer in, and we’ll be a 20-minute bike ride from town, which means we can keep our dirty little wheels off the road and those gas dollars in our pockets.

Crested Butte is a really cool town where people are ALWAYS outside – biking, hiking, paddling, etc.  It has a very young, but rustic and old-timey feel.  Many of the people here are very friendly and will talk to strangers, which is always cool.

And so the adventure begins..

From Hotels to Hostels – travel more green

Friday, June 6th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

When it comes to vacation or business travel, we all have our own idea of nirvana. Yesterday’s post on Kimpton Hotels (see below) shows that we can love the luxury while supporting sustainably-minded practices – an important choice for frequent business travelers. As vacationers, we can also balance our getaway greediness with the more sustainable, by seeking out destinations which provide greener, saner and more authentic options of accommodations and experience.

For me, travel is most fun when a bit of challenge is thrown in. Those who love to camp have always known this. Tents, sleeping bags and mosquito nets are part of the deal – and part of the fun. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Renting a bicycle, taking the bus, eating bag lunches help keep me grounded in the experience – something that a 5-star resort or ocean cruise goes to great lengths to keep me removed from.

Speaking of experience, hostels are alive and well in both the U.S. and abroad – a logical and fun alternative to hotels altogether. Hostels are more sustainable by default since they make efficient use of space and resources and come in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes, both urban and rural. You’ll find a listing of hostels here and an even greener list on the West Coast, here.

There are more creative ways to be a conscious traveler. Consider the simplicity of becoming a “tourist” in your own area. If traveling far and wide is more your style, take advantage of organized volunteer vacations where you can give as much as you get.

It’s Summertime and the living is easy – but don’t make it too easy. Go but go greener.

Kimpton Hotels – Responsible and Green Travel Accomodations

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

By Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Jerry, the Change founder, attends/speaks at a Green Fest each year. He could attend more, but instead tries to choose a new location each time. Sticky green business , this travel thing. While most companies can significantly reduce the frequency of employee travel through tele-communicating, web-casts and other tech-savvy alternatives to moving people about the world via airplanes, grounding the workforce completely is simply not an option.

But we can work our way through this enviro-issue with some discipline, planning (and offsetting!), as well as watching the size of our footprints once we’ve landed. So, after offsetting the flight, The Change made reservations at a hotel that has raised the bar regarding social and environmental responsibility.

Kimpton Hotels has developed Kimpton EarthCare, “uniting guests, employees, partners, and suppliers with one common goal – to decrease the use of Earth’s resources and increase sustainable business practices.” Their earth and people-friendly commitments include but are not limited to, the use of non-toxic and natural cleaners, energy and water efficiency systems and policies, organic and fair trade coffee service, recycled paper printed with soy inks, linen reuse, formalized recycling programs and on-property “Best Practices” contests for employees.

And it doesn’t stop there. Kimpton also mentors employees to be socially responsible through grassroots philanthropy, offering paid time-off to volunteer and make active contributions to the community. Kimpton Hotels also raises funds, makes contributions and holds events for the AIDS Red Ribbon Campaign, Parks for People, and other charitable organizations. Kimpton and their employees are also very active in and support the LGBT communities.

Here’s what Jerry had to say about his stay at one of the Kimpton Hotels in Chicago –

“Typically, at hotels, you can feel the commerce everywhere. Every time you make a decision regarding your comfort, pleasure or other travel needs, you can usually sense the billing mechanisms grinding away behind it. Entering The Hotel Burnham felt like an alternative world. The atmosphere was elegant but real, not calculated to look ritzy. It was what it was – and it was beautiful.

But the best part was the people who worked there. Every interaction, whether with the front desk, room service or others, was a genuine, enjoyable human experience. In every case, I felt like a guest, not a customer. These qualities, coupled with Kimpton’s corporate conscience, made me never want to stay elsewhere. Sorry to be so effusive, but – the truth is your best tool.”

For other green accomodations throughout the world, visit, a global listing of green and eco-friendly hospitality destinations of all kinds. They believe that travellers should actively benefit the places they visit, supporting those who provide sustainable services and accommodations. Read and subscribe to their newsletter here.

Pee on Plants – your Liquid is Gold

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

I’m outing myself today. I’m Tao and I don’t pee in my toilet.

Ahh. I feel better already – and encouraged by the increasing acceptance of visibility (figuratively speaking) of people who distribute pee outdoors rather flushing it away along with gallons of purified water. With drought increasing in frequency and intensity around the world, people are saving water in every way and beginning to understand the logic of recycling this nutrient-rich “liquid gold” back into the soil.

For me, it all started in the NC drought of 2001, when the idea of flushing away gallons of water with a little clean urine suddenly seemed ridiculous. “Letting it mellow” just wasn’t cutting it anymore, especially when bathroom odor became an issue. I knew about composting toilets, which actually turn waste in rich soil supplements, but alas and alack, they are not yet implemented into the urban system. Instead, I piled some sawdust in my backyard and started my own odor-free, compost pile, which I distributed around my yard over time and refreshed occasionally with new dust. These days I simply dilute and pour around my trees and plants All it takes is a user-friendly pitcher kept in the loo and a stroll to the garden after use.

Emma Cooper of provides details about using urine in the garden. In diluted form, it nourishes all plant life and used straight-up, can effectively and safely eliminate weeds. As she puts it, “…it’s not a backward step, it’s space-age technology…” Read the complete article here.

Carol Steinfeld, writer, researcher, and resource-recycling specialist is the author of Liquid Gold, The Lore adn Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants. Educated in ecological resource management solutions, she leads workshops worldwide and is projects director of Ecowaters, a nonprofit public information project. Mark your calendar – from the website:

Pee On Earth Day(s) announced

Pee On Earth Day, a day to bring one’s urine outside to nourish plants and save water used to flush toilets, will be June 21 in the northern hemisphere (Dec. 21 in the southern hemisphere). A free downloadable kit with tips for safe outdoor urine application will be available on the Liquid Gold web site soon!

“Please Don’t Mow” – Lawn Alternatives

Friday, May 30th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

I was on my bike the other day, enjoying the long-awaited green grass and flowers of Spring. Many people in Carrboro resist the urge to chop  and manicure, leaving wild grasses, clover and wildflowers to adorn their yards and provide nourishment for all things that creep, fly and buzz. Yesterday, I saw this sign along one of the public easements, which was in full Spring bloom, asking, “Please do not mow”. I realized they were asking the town to consider the value of the wabi sabi of nature along roadsides instead of mowing it down. I stood looking at the tall grass waving in the breeze and hoped it would work – at least for awhile.

I lived in Phoenix for a short time and admired the ingenuity of the of the homeowners who covered their woud-be lawns with green gravel – a logical solution to living in arid climate never meant to grow green grass. (Unfortunately, much of the Southwest hasn’t figured this out, yet, still using mega-doses of water and fertilizers.) It made me realize that we can quench our desire for order and beauty in many creative ways without messing with nature’s master plan AND without spending endless days applying chemicals, pulling weeds, watering or mowing.

Here’s are some photos from my neighborhood. The first is my backyard, covered with mulch, gravel and a little ground cover. I pull thistle weeds twice/year but otherwise it is maintenance-free. Our only expense was pouring some white gravel in a circle – we think of it as a labryinth. The others belong to neighbors, one who enjoys making rock and wood sculptures and another who lets the wildflowers rule. The possibilities are endlessly artistic, better for the planet, less work and more fun.

my yard

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