Learning Communities Are Sustainable Communities

Carbon-neutral living. Is it about technologies? Well, it is and it isn’t. Technologies facilitate this new way of living. Solar and wind power and even water-saving toilets all play a part. Yet there’s an esoteric aspect to creating a new way of life too. If we’re asking people to re-localize, how do we build communities where people have the skills to become more locally-reliant and self-sufficient?

Schools have a role to play, of course. However, the education system is a large beast, and it’s hard to move. It’s important to consider how we learn outside the education system: how we learn as preschoolers, how we learn as adults, how we learn as students in our time outside school. How can we create life learning opportunities that facilitate the development of sustainable and self-reliant communities?

Think outside the box. Stack boxes on top of each other and nest them inside. Create puzzles and take them apart again. Instead of prescribing solutions or following solutions that are prescribed for you, think about what you and your community really need and try to make that happen, even if it’s not what everyone else is doing.

Learn by doing. Books are lovely things and they can be very inspiring and instructive. However, we also need to revalue the apprenticeship. People who can do things are important. Building a rain barrel, creating a green roof, and spinning wool are all important skills, and we need to value those who practice them and learn some of those skills ourselves.  We are talented people: we can give birth to children and nurse them, we can build our own houses and grow our own food. We need to rebuild our trust that we can do these things.

Learn what is relevant to you and what inspires you, not what someone tells you to learn. Discover what you need to know about your home and the land around it, then seek out opportunities to create this learning. Invite others to join you.

Accept everyone as an expert and everyone as a learner. In these days of experts, few people want to accept the role of the expert, and few people feel that they are credentialed enough to do so. Build a community of people that is involved in learning and sharing, and you take the pressure out of teaching, and it flows.

At the same time, honor those who share what they know. This might be something like baking bread or weaving a basket. Those who do things that are not socially valued may be unused to being honored for sharing their knowledge. Yet this knowledge is important, and it is important to be thankful for it.

Remember how to involve everyone in learning. Children and grandparents are part of our communities too. Instead of segregating everyone into age-appropriate learning environments, we need to remember how to learn together and how to craft learning opportunities that work for everyone in different ways.

How is your community becoming a learning community, one that is prepared for shifts in global climate and energy use and one that is prepared to become more self-reliant?

47 Ways to Live With Less Plastic

I was happy to recently stumble upon Beth Terry’s fake plastic fish, a blog devoted to her adventure in learning to live with less plastic, and in the process, tallying her consumption and plastic trash collection. As she states on her About page, it was a photo of a seabird with a gut full of plastic bottle caps and other plastic trash that set her on a course of trying to bring less plastic into her own life and creating less trash.

It is a very respectable project that Beth has embarked upon, and I salute her efforts. To help make it easier for people to consume less plastic, she has offered up 47 ways to live with less plastic. Some are very familiar, such as “carry reusable shopping bags”, but there are a variety of suggestions to help readers in their own quest to live with less plastic. It’s important to note that living plastic-free can become something of a major lifestyle shift, which is crucial and part of the recognition of just how omnipresent plastic is in our lives.

Check it out!

New Green Careers in a Low Energy Future

Many Americans are taking charge and matters into their own hands to carve out a new sustainable lifestyle, despite the government’s incredibly lackluster response to the threat of global climate change and other environmental crises. This is simply no waiting for many individuals, who have already been making changes to lead more ecological lives by a change in their careers, growing more of their own food, driving less, and making other significant lifestyle changes.

This enlightening poll makes Americans’ changes more real by detailing the actions they have taken:

“More than two-thirds of survey takers said they cut purchases, bought more local goods and services, conserved energy in their homes and put in a garden. One-sixth have started new careers, such as a truck driver who became a permaculture teacher.”

The article includes an interesting list of the top ten new careers, including farming, activism, permaculture design, energy-efficient building, and alternative health. Also quite fascinating is the list of changes made by Americans and the surprising percentages of people who have started a garden, become members of a CSA, reduced debt, and more.

Perhaps there is hope after all that Americans will be able to transform their lifestyles to be more ecologically aware and sustainably minded!

Sharing the Urban Jungle

This afternoon, I crept outside in the rain, into the mud that surrounds the yard of my townhouse. I surreptitiously pulled a package of seeds from my pocket and began to plant them just beyond my fence. A line of buckwheat: it will be my first experiment in growing anything akin to a grain.

Like many of those who live in the city, we have a small home with an even tinier backyard. Our garden plot takes up a hefty chunk of that yard, with a little space left over to walk on. However, we do have a substantial path that runs behind our house. This spring I plan to plant blueberry bushes there. Who’s to say that they didn’t grow there by accident?

This sort of surreptitious gardening has a name: guerrilla gardening. It’s all the rage right now, beautifying vacant lots with handfuls of forage, digging beets and potatoes by moonlight. While guerrilla gardening is all the rage, I’m not suggesting that you grow veggies on your neighbor’s land without asking. There is another route, one that I may go for some time soon. That’s yard sharing.

There are many variations on the sharing of urban and suburban space and produce.  Consider Vancouver’s Fruit Tree Project, soon to be replicated in my neighborhood. People who can’t manage their fruit trees sign up to have their fruit picked by volunteers. The volunteers take part of the produce, the owner of the tree takes part, and the rest is donated to charity. Everyone leaves full and happy.

There’s also shared commercial agriculture. In this model, organizations like Seattle’s City Farmer install a garden in your yard and harvest the produce, selling some at local markets and giving some to the homeowner. The land owner gets a peek into urban agriculture, an urban farmer grows a business, and people get to eat local food from the suburbs.

There is also yard sharing, an informally-arranged activity that occurs between neighbors who want to garden or share their land. Web sites like Sharing Backyards promote the sharing of little-used urban lots. Many landowners have vast expanses of grass that they may want to use for agriculture, but they simply don’t have the time to grow food in their yards. Others have a desire to garden, but they don’t have the land. Yard sharing is like a matchmaking program for gardeners. Those who garden on others’ land do need to respect the boundaries of the landowner, but they may also harvest lasting friendships as well as food.

I grew up yard sharing. In the abandoned orchard across the street, we would pick apples from the trees that used to sustain a local family. I would play in the gardens of the families around our neighborhood, most of whom had lovely yards that grew bountiful produce. I wish the same for the children of today. Yard sharing is a path to food security, but it’s also a way to grow community.

Where To Buy Products Made in the USA

It’s difficult to find clothes without tags that say “Made in China”, or electronic equipment, shoes, tools, kitchen appliances, and well… just about everything. It seems like a rarity to find something that is still actually made in the USA, but there are indeed companies out there that still manufacture products at home.

Whenever I have to buy something new, I try to find products that are still made in the USA, but at times it can be difficult. Thankfully, I recently stumbled upon Still Made in the USA, a directory of American-made clothes, tool, kitchen appliances, music gear, green products, and more.

Products that are manufactured in the USA have less miles to travel, and help to support local economies. And there is a probably lesser chance of labor exploitation occurring in stateside manufacturing companies. Again, it’s my first choice to find things that I need used, including clothes, tools, and kitchen equipment, but during those rare times when I cannot find something second-hand, I seek out that Made in the USA label.

Check out Still Made in the USA to learn about companies that are still manufacturing products at home!

Those Who Live In Glass Houses

I’ve always wanted to have an odd house. As a university student, I studied straw bale building and dreamed about creating my own straw bale or cob creation, a piece of art that I would live in as well. Now, I wrestle with ideas of green roofs and living walls, and I’m about to integrate both into a new house, albeit my daughter’s playhouse.

Those who live in oddball houses can be intriguing souls, and you can become one of them. In your home search, think outside the custom-built new dwelling or the suburban box and think about all of the ways you can grow a green home.

The simplest eco-move is to buy used. If you are buying land, you can also purchase a recycled house. These homes retain the patina of normalcy but are a big step towards recycling nonetheless. I grew up in a home that had been moved several blocks: it was a beautiful 1930s home that has now lasted for decades beyond its initial demolition date. Moving an old house that is going to be demolished is a time-honored tradition. Get a beautiful old home, get some land, and combine the two.

Recycled houses may also be made out of reclaimed materials. Re-stores are springing up to sell reclaimed housing materials. Ever looked at the waste left behind when a home is demolished?It’s a sad and horrendous thing. Re-stores reclaim materials from older homes with lovely wooden floors and vintage cupboards, glasswork, and even doorknobs are scavenged and resold to those who want to reuse and get the cachet of the past.

Treehouses and green roofs seem to be all the rage these days – a throwback to the elves and hobbits of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps? Or simply a creative use of natural materials? From engineering marvels situated in the trees to traditional sod houses built under the ground, these homes maintain wildlife habitats and use the natural environment as their visual playground, blending in and becoming a part of the landscape.

You can also grow your own home, and if you don’t grow it yourself you can certainly source the materials from a farmer who has grown them for you. Straw bale and cob building integrate renewable materials and are excellent for those who plan to build and maintain their own home. They offer superior insulation from the cold and the heat, and while they are a technology in their own right, straw bale and cob houses can also be user-friendly. You build, you know how to repair them. If you’re moving onto a piece of land that has forest and you need to create space for a home, you can also consider integrating some of that wood into your future home. Forests far away will thank you for using your local materials to create local buildings.

Then there are the houses that seem to be a little more out there. Homes built out of tires? Glass or plastic bottles? Why yes, and more. There are homes built out of just about anything that you can reuse. Knotts Berry Farm has a bottle house made out of 3,000 whisky bottles. If you’re taking this home-building approach, I simply entreat you to source from your neighbors as well as from your own domestic habits.

Now, environmentally-friendly homes can be dead normal too. You can have the conveniences of modern life and achieve them through solar, wind, and geothermal energy and efficient appliances. But if you want to live in a glass house, if you want to go a step further in natural appearance and materials, there are many ways to do that as well.

How far would you go to create a recycled or eco-friendly home?

Where Does Your Trash Go?: The Hidden Life of Garbage

We all know the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Unfortunately, we’d like to think that recycling goes a long way into decreasing the amount of trash that goes into landfills. However, it’s the reducing and reusing that are exponentially more effective actions in the stride to preserve our delicate environment. Recycling is perhaps a mere drop in the bucket compared to reducing the trash we produce in the first place.

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage is a book that probes the increasing amounts of garbage, landfills, the politics of recycling and the export of trash to developing countries:

“Eat a take-out meal, buy a pair of shoes, or read a newspaper, and you’re soon faced with a bewildering amount of rubbish. The United States is the planet’s number one producer of trash; each American throws out 4.5 pounds daily. How did we end up with this much waste, and where does it all go? By excavating the history of rubbish handling from the 1800s “an era of garbage-grazing urban hogs and dump-dwelling rag pickers” to the present, with its high- tech “mega-fills” operated by multi-billion-dollar garbage corporations, Rogers answers these questions with a “lively authorial voice” (New York Press), offering a potent argument for change.”

Amazingly, 30% of all landfill space is occupied by packaging, the biggest category of household waste! The history of trash is an enlightening one, and the future is increasingly frightening given what is at hand. Check out Gone Tomorrow for an insightful look into the world of garbage and what it spells for our environment, and just where that soda can goes once it leaves your hands.

Rural Dreams, Urban Living

There’s a debate amongst those of us suburban dwellers who have rural fantasies. We dream of chickens, of eggs, or sheep and spinning our own wool and knitting it into fantastic sweaters. We dream of mornings on the farm, pulling out pristine, dew-covered carrots from the ground and turning the earth. Surely, the reality is different from this. Just as the suburbs are not Leave it to Beaver and urban life is not all Sex and the City, I imagine that rural life is not the pastoral fantasy painted above. Yet it has a definite attraction for we urban and suburban gardeners, we displaced back-to-the-landers.

What’s the controversy, then? Well, there is a debate about rural versus urban and suburban living. Simply put, are humans better off joining together in urban areas, where they can build a complex infrastructure to support themselves? Sewage treatment, transit, and other goodies come with scale, and large numbers of people live in urban areas, not rural ones.

Or is it better to fly solo, or with the help of a few neighbors? Rural living can mean fewer building codes, which can lead to things like cob and straw bale building, passive and active solar design, wind power, and composting toilets. Great stuff, but let’s face it, rural living isn’t there yet. Although many possess a modicum of self-sufficiency, many others still depend on the power grid and less-than-adequate sewage treatment and need to drive long distances to get to stores.

There are some people who love the city and would stay there no matter what. They are deeply fond of their urban gardens and of the challenge of growing food on rooftops and balconies. They thrive on the diversity of thrift stores in the city and the growing connections with rural areas through farmers’ markets. They also love the capacity that city-dwellers have to share: for every person in a city of a million who is interested in learning how to spin or how to make cheese, there are many, many others. The ability to learn from others and to create joint educational opportunities is amazing, due to the scale of the city.

Then there’s the down side of urban life. Urban people don’t have to be cut off from nature, but it can be more challenging to find access to land to grow food in the city as it is presently designed. It’s often harder to get to walking trails surrounded by forest, too. While it’s not impossible to be a city kid who loves nature, it’s often more difficult to connect, especially when it’s so easy to move from home to car to office or school, and then back home again.

The city is a big animal, and it’s hard to shift the habits and thinking of urban dwellers. Yet this is exactly where we need to change, because it’s where the people are and it’s where people are making the greatest impact. Better transportation systems, more reuse and less consumption, and more food self-sufficiency are all critical issues for the urban environment and for ecosystems as a whole.

If those who are environmentally-inclined move to rural areas to pursue their straw bale dreams, does this mean that the city loses its advocates for change? Perhaps, to a degree. But maybe the two feed into each other. These former city-dwellers can reconnect the city to its rural neighbors, providing opportunities for current city-dwellers to develop new skills, eat fresh and local food, and learn about building practices that may not be allowed within city limits. Can urban and rural areas act as complementary inspiration to each other, driving each to more environmentally-friendly and trans-formative practices? I hope that it is so.


The Down and Dirty of It: Rebranding Cloth Diapers, Menstrual Products, and Toilet Paper

Come on, now. You don’t want to talk about it? Why not? It’s not polite? Well then. I have a four-year-old. I can talk toilet with the best of them.

I just finished writing a short “how to” book about cloth diapering. Our daughter was in cloth diapers for most of her babyhood, when she wasn’t learning how to use the potty. You see, we also practiced elimination communication or infant potty training, which means that we watched for her bathroom cues and took her to the toilet from babyhood. This involved a fair number of accidents, but eventually everyone got the hang of it.

Even babies understand when they need to go, and they’re not disgusted by it either. But as we grow older, we learn that some things are private, and what happens below the belt tends to fall into that category. We don’t want to talk about it. We certainly don’t want to interact with anything down there if we don’t have to. We’ll buy manure to place on our vegetable gardens, but when it comes to the bodily excretions of ourselves and our families, we say no way, no how.

It may be due to my background in gardening and environmental education as well as my status as a mom, but poop and blood don’t scare me. Sure, I don’t want to interact with them all day, but they aren’t going to hurt me. I’ll even talk about them. See?

Excretions and secretions are just plain disgusting to many people. Cloth diapers? No way, I’m not putting baby poo in the laundry. Cloth menstrual products and cups fall into this category as well. I’ve been using both for almost fifteen years, yet I still can’t chat with my mother about this. Not that the topic comes up much. The recent trend towards family cloth, or reusable toilet cloth bears mentioning too. Bring it up at the next party you go to and watch most people back slowly into the corner.

In these times of transition, we need to start questioning some of the barriers that we have. This includes questioning our use of disposable products that are created with new materials, use energy in their creation, require energy to dispose of, and create waste when disposed. Many disposable diapers, menstrual products, and toilet paper products are made out of trees that are bleached heavily with chlorine. We use them once, then they are burned or buried. In North America, the average woman will create 300 pounds of waste just from menstrual products alone.

Do we really, truly need to throw something out just because it contains bodily waste? Or can we stride forward with a brave face, put what needs to go into the toilet into the appropriate receptacle, and wash it?

I am a firm believer that promoting, discussing, and gradually using cloth and other reusable products will gradually make them socially acceptable. Maybe not cocktail-party fodder, to be sure, but an acceptable part of everyday society. We’ll stand up and be proud in our Diva cups and cloth pantyliners, toting cloth-bottomed baby, and say to the world that we’re not afraid of getting a little down and dirty. It’s all right, we can handle it.

7 Dangerous Foods That You Should Avoid

Mercola.com, the popular personal health website, has a list of seven dangerous foods that you should avoid to lead a healthier lifestyle. Of course, these foods are not the only ones that you should avoid in the supermarket, but they are some of the more dangerous and toxic and some might otherwise seem safe to consume. It is sad that so many foods that line the shelves are so contaminated, but some are much moreso than others, so it’s helpful to know what to absolutely avoid.

Included in this list are canned tomatoes, non-organic potatoes, corn-fed beef, farmed salmon, conventional apples, microwaved popcorn, and milk produced with artificial hormones. Most surprising to me was the inclusion of canned tomatoes:

“The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Acidity—a prominent characteristic of tomatoes—causes BPA to leach into your food.”

Dr. Mercola comments on the dangers of BPA:

The current US federal guidelines put the daily upper limit of “safe” exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. You should know, however, that even low-level exposure to BPA can be hazardous to your health, and Consumer Reports testing found that eating popular canned foods may expose you to excessive amounts of BPA:

  * Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans had BPA levels ranging from 35.9 ppb to as much as 191 ppb
  * Progresso Vegetable Soup had BPA levels ranging from 67 to 134 ppb
  * Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup had BPA levels ranging from 54.5 to 102 ppb

Scary stuff. Read the list here and inform yourself about what to avoid the next time you go shopping for food!