The Green Soul Guide is moving!

The Green Soul Guide blog is moving! As part of website overhaul, I am consolidating all of my blogs and website content under a new domain name, www.jennifer-willis.com.

To keep current with new posts to The Green Soul Guide, please visit:
www.jennifer-willis.com/topics/green-soul-guide/

Getting started: taking action on climate change

Yesterday, I was watching the weekly webcast of CrankMyChain, a locally-produced “internet TV” show about biking here in Portland. When host Dan Kaufman announced the day’s topic was climate change, I typed a note into the chat room that I write about sustainability, and I got invited to Skype in for a live conversation on the show. It was really fun.

Dan and I got to talking about the ethics of climate change action — specifically, the populations that are under more immediate threat from climate change right now are those in developing/third world countries, who may not possess the resources to assist themselves. So, barring having a multinational task-force (and a multibillion-dollar budget) at your disposal, what can individuals do to help?

It may not seem like choosing paper over plastic at the grocery store — or better yet, carrying your own bags to the store with you — will make much of a difference to people who are losing their water supplies because glaciers are retreating, but we have to be thinking both short- and long-term. Every small, daily action does have an impact, especially when you consider the scale of these green (and not-so-green) habits over a lifetime.

You don’t have to be a scientist, a politician or even an activist to take action. There are plenty of volunteer and educational opportunities for getting involved — just surf over to 350.org to see what’s happening this coming Saturday. And take into account your own natural skills and talents.

As an example, Dan Kaufman is a cyclist and runs this weekly webcast, so he uses that platform and forum for starting a conversation and exchanging ideas with others. I’m a writer, so I blog and writer articles. If you’re an artist, you can start incorporating recycled materials into your work. If you’re an athlete, look for sustainably made gear and athletic wear, or stage an athletic event to help raise awareness. If you home-school your kids, take your students on nature walks to teach them about sustainable eco systems.

There is absolutely something that every one of us can do — to learn more, to get involved, to help educate…. to become part of a sustained solution.

I’ve been fond of a particular quote from Arthur Ashe, so here it is again:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
– Arthur Ashe

International Day of Climate Action: Ring a Bell

I’ve been browsing 350.org, looking at the different activities going on here in Portland this Saturday (October 24) for the International Day of Climate Action. This one jumped out at me in particular:

Ring Our Bell for Climate Change
24 October 2009 – 9:00am – 12:00pm

Come ring our church bell!
And declare your support for global climate change.

$1/ring of the bell. All money raised to be sent to 350.org

• We hope to raise $350 to send from our community.
• And even more, we want to help raise awareness and investment in this important shared global action.

Lincoln Street Church, 5145 SE Lincoln St.
www.lincolnstreet.org

How cool is that? What kid doesn’t want to ring a giant bell? And what better way to send out a loud, powerful signal that you support action on climate change?

the ethics of sprinklers

6 a.m., I was out walking my dog. The sky was still mostly dark, and up ahead I spotted sheets of mist rising up out of the ground. Even though we’ve had three or four days straight of rain, the sprinklers were on.

I live in one of those condo neighborhoods that looks like a golf course — lots of green space. I’d been attracted to the area by the meandering walking trails, many tall trees, nearby lakes and more. But it hadn’t really registered just how much landscaping work goes on here, and the longer I live here, the more I feel that most of this is simply unnecessary.

Sure, this is an automatic sprinkler system, and probably a rather old one. But aren’t there humans involved in the planning process? How difficult would it be to install some kind of moisture sensor? There have been way too many days when the sprinkler systems activate in the middle of a rain storm.

Unfortunately, there are a good number of “old school” (think: trust in chemical fertilizers) gardeners in the community for there to be any real hope of switching to a below-ground, drip-irrigation system in the near future — or to replant our common areas with native species of ground cover that don’t need so much intervention and care.

What struck me this morning is this: plant life evolved — successfully — over millions of years without any human “assistance.” Even as early peoples developed agriculture, we were learning to work with natural cycles and resources, rather than foisting our aesthetics onto the natural order and expecting it to behave.

Our efforts to control nature have resulted in pesticides, fertilizers and other nasties that are showing up in our soil, water systems and air, not to mention the waste of natural resources like burning coal to make electricity to power the sprinkler computers that just waste water on grasses that aren’t well adapted to our climatic zones to begin with.

There’s more awareness these days about native species, and the resource impact of cultivating non-native plants. More people are turning onto the idea of using their land for harvesting produce, herbs and flowers, rather than manicuring lawns year after year. Others are remembering that most grasses grow tall naturally, and experiment with letting their lawns become meadows.

That’s good progress on both resource conservation and learning to live in concert with the environment. It may take several more generations for more “natural landscaping” to make a dent, and I admit I can get impatient with steep learning curves.

So what’s my point? Sometimes grass is supposed to be brown.

Judgment

Taking a cue from a good friend, I decided to start the day by drawing a Tarot card — something I’ve not done in ages, but that’s another discussion.

I was hoping for something light and airy, inspirational. A card that would stimulate my creativity and help me launch into a particularly productive and joyful week. But that’s not the card I drew. Instead, the card that came into my hands was Judgement (20).

Yeah, I never have been one to start with the easy stuff.

The Judgment card is about a day of reckoning. It speaks to self-judgment, and how our own real freedom comes from the choice we make to forgive ourselves. This is a card about making difficult choices, about how we meet the challenges and opportunities that come our way, and about the Final Judgment of our lives as a whole — how we have chosen to use our time here on Earth.

So what does a Tarot card have to do with living a sustainable life?

There are times that I don’t know how to start a project and so I end up wasting a lot of time considering each possible approach from every angle — not actually trying any of these, but just examining them. I’ve spent too much of my life being afraid of “doing it wrong” or making a mistake or unintentionally offending someone, and I’ve often missed out on real living. This includes my efforts to bring myself into greater harmony and better symbiosis with the planet I’m living on.

I get overwhelmed with choices. If I sign up for renewable energy through Portland General Electric, what does that really mean? Aren’t they still burning coal to generate most of their electricity? Is it a scam, or does it make a positive difference? Or should I build a small electric generator with an exercise bike, and then run my laptop computer and printer off a car battery that I can charge up? Am I really using the best power strips to help conserve electrical usage? Mine are kind of old, but should I replace something that still works, even if a better model exists?

And so on. I spend way too much time worrying about making the wrong choice, both in environmental terms and in life in general. With so many questions and concerns competing for attention, it’s easy to get exhausted just considering the possibilities, and then not have any energy left over to actually do anything about them. The result is that I don’t make as many changes or as much progress as I can, and then I judge myself — often rather harshly — for not doing better.

The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Last year, I wrote about making Yom Kippur a day of “green atonement,” of recognizing where I’d failed the environment during the previous year, and deciding how I could do better over the next twelve months. I’ve not completely failed in my efforts to be a better “eco citizen,” but I don’t know that I’m a shining example of hope and inspiration either.

The good news is that each new year — and every new day — brings another opportunity to try again, not only to try to do better in my relationship with and my impact on the environment, but also to lighten up on the self-judgment so I don’t end up paralyzing myself into inaction and futility.

And if I decide to take another shot at drawing a morning Tarot card tomorrow, maybe I’ll get one that’s a bit gentler and more cheerful.

Conservation wisdom of my grandmothers

I was at dinner last night with Mike. When our waiter brought us two styrofoam boxes to pack up our leftovers, I could have kicked myself.

“If I’d just remembered to bring some tupperware in my purse….” I groaned.

Mike, of course, spent the rest of the evening telling me that the polar ice caps were going to melt away to nothing because of my neglect.

“We’re all going to die,” he teased me with his sullen expression as he loaded black beans and rice into the styrofoam container. “If only you’d brought tupperware. Global warming is all your fault.”

So instead of kicking myself, I kicked him.

I honestly don’t remember if either of my grandmothers carried plastic bags or empty food containers in their purses, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve been thinking lately — especially in the midst of this global recession — about how much more we could have learned from our Depression-era grandparents about real day-to-day conservation, if we’d only been paying attention.

My grandmothers were thrifty not just with money, but with resources. Yes, this made for old bank boxes full of pieces of string that were too short to be immediately useful but too long to simply throw away, and for cabinets dedicated to the collection of paper bags.

But it also meant that newspapers were for more than just reading in the morning — old newsprint could be used to wrap gifts, make children’s craft projects, line the kitchen table when carving pumpkins or watermelons, serve as kindling when lighting a fire, and more.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I followed in my grandmothers’ footsteps when I was a child — and became a hopeless pack-rat. I had such difficulty throwing anything away — sun-bleached construction paper, empty glue bottles, random pieces of yarn and ribbon, the last bit of an eraser — because I was convinced that I could find a use for everything, somewhere down the road, even if I had no idea what that might look like.

Modern America worships youth culture, coveting what’s hip and new to the point that tried-and-true wisdom is stodgy and wrinkles are embarrassing and ugly. But Native American, Japanese, and other traditions place a strong emphasis on honoring ancestors, and on asking guidance from those who have come before us.

New is not always better. Hip is not always wise. What is considered must-have and cutting-edge today may make use of state-of-the-art technology and design, but a lot of it is still made of cheap plastic — destined for landfills where growing mounds of garbage compete with increasing human populations just for livable space.

So many of my grandparents’ material possessions, from appliances to pieces of clothing, were considerably more expensive — or more “dear,” as my mother’s mother would say — than today’s equivalents are for us. Sweaters and mixing bowls were treated with more care, because they were not as easily replaced. Of course, these items were also made a lot better — hardier — than goods are today, but I’m wondering what our world might look like if we didn’t treat our possessions as so temporary, replaceable, disposable.

The world might look something like what we’ve been experiencing this last year or two — where we have to hold onto our possessions longer and get more use out of them, because we don’t have as much (or sometimes any) disposable income to buy replacements. We’re being forced to learn — often painfully — that we really can be quite happy, possibly even happier, with less.

Even though I’d already learned to save used gift wrap and have at least one drawer full of reusable plastic shopping bags (they’re great as trash bags or for picking up after the dog on walks), I’m finding more ways to be even more of a conservationist, both financially and environmentally. Like using baking soda instead of commercial cleansers when scrubbing the sink and replacing other cleaning products with home-made white vinegar mixes. Watering the plants with grey-water from the sink or tub. Repurposing an old, leaky garden hose as a soaker hose that conserves water and prolongs the useful life of the rubber.

And trying to get into the habit of carrying tupperware in my purse, instead of using styrofoam.

Yes, most of what I hoarded as a child was junk — leftover bits of cheap stuff that I never did find a use for. I’m still learning how to not amass so much disposable crap to begin with, to purchase only what I truly need, to re-use and repurpose what I can, to share what I no longer have a use for and to accept others’ still usable cast-offs as well.

I can’t ask my grandmothers how they would weather the current financial and resource crisis. My mother’s mother died in 1997, and my father’s mother died this past January, just a few months shy of her 103rd birthday. But the best advice they could give is already found in the lives they lived and the lessons of conservation they taught in their every day actions.

I wish I’d been paying more attention. And so I am more mindful of my own attitudes and behaviors, knowing that young eyes of the next generation are watching me and learning from the example of my own life. I just hope I can do justice to the wisdom of my grandmothers as it passes to those who follow.

Nature cannot be defeated

There is hope. It’s right outside your door.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been impacted by the current, global economic downturn, and the headlines seem to grow more dire every day. People losing their jobs, their homes, their will to survive. People losing hope. People who are facing one hardship after another, who keep trying and keep getting shut down — whether they’re applying for jobs, trying to get health coverage, or trying to forestall foreclosure. People who simply give up.

It’s hard not to feel demoralized and defeated right now. It’s difficult for a lot of people not to just stay in bed each morning. It’s too easy to say, “Today’s no better than yesterday. What’s the point of even trying?”

I was thinking about this earlier this morning, when I happened to glance out my window at the lavender bushes in my garden. About five or six honeybees were busy buzzing from one purple blossom to the next, gathering food and spreading pollen.

Businesses may be closing their doors, but the flowers are still blooming. Banks may be passing their own hurt onto consumers, but the rain continues to fall (at least, it does in Portland). What does nature know of economic collapse?

Watching those bees this morning helped me to breathe more easily. The sun keeps rising every morning. The clouds continue to drift across the sky, and the moon and stars still stand vigil each night. Winds blow, rain falls, flowers grow.

It reminds me of one particular scene from the movie “Excalibur,” where armor-clad knights are riding to the battlefield on strong horses, pushing the blooming branches of cherry blossoms out of the way with their swords. The cherry blossom trees didn’t care about strife within the kingdom. The trees didn’t care about the kingdom at all. It was spring — time for growth and the promise of life — and the trees knew it.

That’s not to say that the environment isn’t hurting right now, too. Unemployment figures may not directly impact air quality, but decades of industrial pollution certainly do. Our waterways are more polluted, there’s litter seemingly everywhere, and our weather systems are reacting — often violently — to climate change.

But I have yet to see nature take a defeatist attitude. I’ve yet to see a tree decide to take a season or even a day off from the work of growing, simply because it’s tired of fighting against smog. I’ve yet to see the dawn drag its heels because it’s depressed or sad.

Last week, I met a survival instructor on Portland’s light rail MAX system. He was talking about efforts to live more in harmony with nature, rather than always setting ourselves up in opposition to it. And right now, the environment can play a very active, partnered role in the healing of our hearts and minds in these troubled times.

The next time I feel myself slipping into frustration or even defeat or despair, I’ll try to remember to look out again at my lavender bushes and the bees going about their daily work. I’ll pause to watch the robin perched on the tree branch and will close my eyes to listen to its song. None of this will instantly fix our current economic mess, of course, but it does provide some much needed perspective.

No matter what happens today, the sun will still rise tomorrow. Breezes will rustle tree branches. Birds will sing. Bees will dance around flowers. Every day is a new opportunity to get on with the business of living and growing, regardless of what happened yesterday or even five minutes ago. The bees don’t care about my checking account balance, nor about how many (or how few) projects I have to work on. They’re focused simply on what’s right in front of them, and on what they can do right now to keep on living and moving forward.

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