The Everyday Environmentalist


With Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement yesterday, those of us who are passionate about care of the earth are, if not surprised, still frustrated. What we are not is powerless. If the data in this chart, or this one is accurate (and as I’ve been hearing variations on this theme a lot the last two days, I have no reason to think otherwise), then we, as individuals in the U.S., have a lot of room to reduce our carbon footprint. There’s no rule that says we have to wait for our leaders to mandate it. Why don’t we, as individuals, take the lead?

Today I re-present:


35+ ways to green up your real life (and often save money in the process)


In the Kitchen

  1. Take your own bags to the grocery store. Cloth is even better than paper or plastic.
    2. Buy fresh, not prepackaged. Making mac & cheese or pancakes from scratch really doesn’t require more time, and veggies you cook yourself lose less nutritional value.
    3. Buy organic.
    4. Buy local.
    5. Grow your own vegetables.
    6. Compost.
    7. Recycle.Yes, even so far as bringing home the plastic ware from the fast food restaurants which don’t offer recycling. This is a biggie!
    8. Wash and reuse Ziploc bags.
    9. Wait to run the dishwasher till it’s full.

Vehicles and driving

  1. Turn off the car. (Another biggie.) Why run your engine while you check your phone, wait for kids at their lessons/practices, or for your spouse at the grocery store? Every bit of that is unnecessary pollution. Turn it off.
    11. Slow down! The faster you drive, the more gas you burn, and it really doesn’t make a significant difference in time, anyway.
    12. Make one trip to the grocery store for the week—IOW, plan and shop with a list.
    13. Combine trips & walk from errand to errand when possible. Not when convenient–when possible.
    14. Take advantage of public transportation.
    15. Carpool.
    16. Make sure the tires are at the proper pressure (you get better gas mileage).

Around the house

  1. Buy refills on cleaners instead of a new squeeze bottle every time
    18. Buy used, and don’t buy things you don’t need. (Another big one!)
    19. Use compact fluorescent bulbs.
    20. Turn the lights off.
    21. Turn the computer off, or at least put it to sleep. Why have it running while you’re sleeping? And in the summer it’s adding to the heat that the air conditioner has to fight.
    22. Unplug electronics. They draw power even when not in use.
    23. Use Recycled Paper.
    24. Print on the back sides of used paper for rough drafts.
    25. Turn the thermostat up a degree in the summer and down a degree in the winter.
    26. Seal doors & windows with caulking or weather strips.
    27. Get double pane windows.
    28. Replace old appliances.
    29. Set the water heater no higher than 120.
    30. Take shorter showers.
    31. Dry clothes on a line instead of in the dryer.
    32. Plant a tree
    33. Replace parts of your lawn with native plants–wildflowers, low-maintenance ground cover, and so on–so the mowing takes less time and gasoline.

For the Family

  1. Use cloth diapers. There are diaper services that can do the cleaning for you.
    35. Toilet train early. In my experience, the success or failure toilet training has much more to do with parental commitment than a child’s “readiness.” (Since I’ve toilet trained four kids, and the only one who was over 2 was the one with a disability, I stand by that statement.)
    Bonus: Practice Natural Family Planning. No plastic, no chemicals going into the water supply, no waste. And despite what you may have heard…it works.

(This post was originally published on May 29, 2007, but I fine-tune it every time I re-post it.)


In Which I Visit A Wind Farm and Alex Rolls His Eyes Repeatedly


What shall I say about wind turbines?

Wind Farm Solo

The way Alex geeks out about Percy Jackson and Star Wars is the way I geek out about wind farms. I think they are really cool.

(Alex says I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, geek out about wind farms. He says I don’t know anything about them.)

But that is not entirely for lack of trying. I did, after all, spend four weeks before we went to Omaha, poring over maps, trying to find the name and contact info for a wind farm in the hopes that we could wrangle a tour.

Okay. So Alex says he knows almost every single freaking Greek myth, and I know nothing about wind farms. Therefore, this is a poor comparison.

But he’s laughing. And so am I. So we’re going to just go with it. And no, Alex, we are not going to look up Greek myths to prove your point. I got it. I’m ignoring it.

The point is, we stopped for gas in a tiny little town in the far northwest corner of Missouri, and almost as soon as we topped the rise, there they were: a whole landscape of wind turbines. And, unlike the one we saw in Perry, Iowa over Memorial Day—these were RUNNING.

I have wanted for several years to know what these things sound like. One of the big arguments against wind farms is the noise, after all. So I was very curious to know exactly what kind of noise level we’re talking about here. But I live in, hmmm, a state that is, by and large, unconvinced of the desirability of alternative energy. And although locally we are starting to have a middlingly-decent amount of solar, there’s only one wind turbine in my town, and it’s not one of those big suckers with the blades as long as two semi tractor beds.

Wind Farm Blade

So after we filled up the van, I asked the young woman at the counter where there was a road that would take us out among them, very close to them, without trespassing.

She looked at me like I was crazy, and she said: “Um, I don’t know? I live here, but I don’t really know anything about it.”

Well, then. There you go.

So we wandered east out of town for about two or three miles until we hit the jackpot: a gravel road bisecting two enormous soybean fields, with a dozen or so wind turbines scattered around them.

Wind Farm Landscape

We pulled into the driveway, stopping shy of the (open) gate that said “authorized personnel only,” and got out.

(How about that shadow?)

(How about that shadow?)

Wind Farm base

So what does a wind farm sound like? Alex says: “They didn’t sound like ANYTHING! They sounded like WIND BLOWING!”

I’d hoped to share a video, because I can’t be the only one who’s curious about this, right? (Right????) But it was incredibly windy that day, so the video I took with the DSLR came out with nothing but, well, wind noise. But the answer to my long-burning question about a) how much noise does a wind farm make, and b) what kind of noise, exactly, is: there’s a low hum that I can’t describe very well because it was buried under the noise of the wind blowing across the ridges. And then there’s the slow, lazy pulse of the blades: sssshhhhSHOOPsssshhhhSHOOPsssshhhhSHOOP.

It’s not silent by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not as loud as I-70 from my backyard, which is a mile from the highway. So anyone who fusses about noise pollution needs to just calm down, because people are always building monstrosities of homes twelve feet from eight-lane freeways, so the whole noise pollution argument doesn’t hold water.

And I got to stand at the base of a running wind turbine. Check that one off the bucket list.

Why was I excited for the papal encyclical? The challenge of Laudato Si (Reblog)


I’ve been following blogger Margaret Felice for quite some time, and when I read the following post late last week, I felt as if it was written just for me. I admit I have not had time to dig into Laudato Si yet, but I officially downloaded it onto my computer for an upcoming road trip. In the meantime, I give you Margaret:

The first point at which I thought the Pope might be laughing at me was paragraph 55.

55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.

I can almost see him writing “smh” in the margin, shaking his zuchettoed head. Those Americans and their air-conditioning.

Pope_Francis_South_Korea_2014_(1)There was no air conditioner going in our house on the morning the encyclical dropped, but I was basking in the breeze of our overhead fans as I scrutinized the document Thursday morning. I hunched over my laptop until moments before I had to leave for an appointment, ignoring my husband (except when he brought me an english muffin, God bless him) and ignoring my visiting brother (except to show him where the eggs and frying pan were – breakfast is an important thing in our house). I was so excited to read Laudato Si.

I should admit, I was expecting my lifelong environmentalism to be vindicated, and it was. And if I’m being honest, I should admit what I was not expecting: to also be admonished.  I suppose I knew dispassionately that such criticism was likely, but it still stung when it came.

111. Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.

203. Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. Romano Guardini had already foreseen this: “The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”.[144] This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.

The encyclical contains a lot of hope, and some practical solutions which I hope to share in a later post. But what has stuck with me more than the suggestions and the exhortations is the realization that I’m not perfect, either. After running out the door to get to the first of that day’s appointments, I made this admission on Twitter:

I recycle and don’t use air-conditioning in the house and hang my clothes outside and grow food and eat locally and teach my students that care for the environment is care for people.

One can do good things and still have more good things to do. 

Read the rest here.

Where Have The Fireflies Gone?


Photo by jamelah, via Flickr

I miss fireflies.

When I was little, the fireflies were everywhere. I remember trekking through the tall grass north of the house to the pond with my cousin and catching one to bring back and put in a jar, where we watched it all night. Apparently as a child I wasn’t as creeped out by the prospect of ticks as I am now, because I’m pretty sure I was wearing shorts. Maybe the vividness of that memory comes from the fact that this cousin was my first-ever best friend and since she lived on the west coast, seeing her was a once-every-other-year occasion.

In the past decade or so, I had thought that my memory of the fireflies was skewed by time and by the tendency of a fanciful child to enlarge all enchanting things. But there was a night, a few years ago, when Christian and I stood on the deck looking down over the lawn and the deep, dark places in the woods, at the profusion of silent lights blinking lazily. I said, “This is what I remember. Why isn’t it like this all the time?”

Not long after, I found out that there really aren’t as many fireflies as there used to be. Mostly it has to do with the destruction of habitat and the uptick in light pollution. There’s also some speculation that the “fogging” done by cities to discourage mosquitoes also discourages fireflies. But it hasn’t been studied a whole lot yet, as best I can tell.

It’s hard for me to accept the thoughtlessness I see unfolding around me in people’s interactions with the world. It’s much bigger than the fireflies; they’re just an example that comes to mind at this time of year. I don’t think the people who sit with their cars and air conditioners running for half an hour in the parking lot while their kids take swim lessons or piano have hostile intentions toward the world. I think they just don’t want to put up with any discomfort. I don’t think the people who dump huge amounts of recyclables in trash bags bound for the landfill are hell-bent on squandering the resources and the space that make this precious world so beautiful. I think they just don’t think it through and live intentionally.

And that’s really the key. We’re so used to our comfort, our convenience, that we aren’t intentional about how we use things. We get so caught up in our TV shows and our social media and whatever other “strange gods,” as Elizabeth Scalia put it, that it doesn’t occur to us that every single action we take, or don’t take, has a ripple effect on the world.

Nothing we do is without consequence.

Pope Francis is due to release an encyclical next week on climate change. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he has to say, and I’m praying that it makes a difference.

How Our Family Practices Environmental Stewardship

Fall 2013 Portraits 020small

Not a “big” family. Just an ordinary, average one.

Every so often it occurs to me that to many people it might sound hypocritical for a person who chose to have four children to say she values conservation of resources. In this day and age, it’s sort of assumed that more people automatically converts to greater strain on the environment.

Well, we had many reasons why we chose to have a larger-than-average family (I will never call four kids a big family)–all of them long-term reasons. But the interesting thing I’ve found as I encounter other larger-than-average families is that a lot of us are more cognizant and deliberate about consumption because of our family size.

Because let’s face it: the consumer model the first world is built upon is very, very expensive. And many–not all, but many–earth-conscious choices also save money.

So I thought today I’d share some of the things we have chosen to do to approach the resources of the earth from a standpoint of good stewardship. Maybe something on this list will strike a chord with you, too.

  • First, we practice natural family planning. I’m not taking pharmaceuticals that end up in the water supply. There’s no packaging and no other, er, disposables to throw away. The method we use even has an app now, so you don’t even need paper anymore.
  • We make our own bathroom and laundry cleaners. This sounds crazy-granola-crunchy, but it’s really not that big a deal. I have a spray bottle I fill up with vinegar and water, and we keep a box of baking soda upstairs. The laundry detergent is borax, Fels Naptha, washing soda and water. You make it in a big pot and store it in old milk jugs. It lasts 2-3 months, even for a family of six.
  • We used cloth diapers for all the kids, all the way through, and we toilet trained “early”–in other words, at the traditional age. We have used pullups in the later years when overnight is an issue, and we traveled with disposable. But basically we used cloth.
  • We buy very little prepared food. I cook all our meals. We pack our lunches and we wash out the sandwich bags for reuse. Yes, I know that’s hard core. It’s an annoyance but it’s worthwhile. Think of all the plastic bags that would have to be manufactured, only to get dumped in the landfill.
  • I try to remember to take my cloth shopping bags not only to the grocery store, but also to Target et al.
  • We turn off the cars. We don’t sit in parking lots with the engine running, because the radio works without the engine running. We even know where the long stoplights are, and we turn the cars off there too. The rule of thumb is if you’re going to be sitting longer than 30 seconds, turn the car off.
  • We combine trips and accept a certain amount of killing time between. We might go to a playground, or sometimes I’ll just sit and work on my NEO in the car while the kids play in the driver’s seat. Yes, this means there will be times when we’re warmer or colder than we’d prefer, but we’re tough. If it’s really too hot or cold outside to stay in the car, we vacate the vehicle. Find a shady tree to sit under, or go inside to wait. Much better than idling for twenty minutes, especially when we’re driving the van!
  • We try to combine errands with exercise to reduce car travel. So, for instance, when I needed to run to Target on the same night as choir, we parked at church and I walked to the mall. Christian has been known to run a mile to the grocery store and pick up whatever I forgot, then run back. And he’ll frequently drop off the car for an oil change and run home.
  • We keep the thermostat at 67 in the winter and 78 in the summer. We might vary a degree or two on occasion but basically we follow that rule. We also replaced those useless, ugly and easily-broken Venetian blinds with room-darkening shades and insulated curtains. It is crazy, how big a difference this makes in how much the heater or A/C runs. When it gets really severe, Christian pulls out sheets and hangs them over the big windows, but even I think that’s a little over the top. 🙂
  • We use leftover water from meals to water plants.
  • Which reminds me: we drink water. We don’t drink much juice, and virtually no soda at all. Not bottled water, just water through the PUR filter on the tap.
  • We have a compost bin, which saves on trash output and on garden fertilizer.
  • One word: Freecycle.
  • We buy hardly any new clothes. We’re blessed to have people offering us hand-me-down kids’ clothes, and I’m a huge believer in Children’s Orchard and garage sales. (And the uniform closet at school!) And I don’t buy much new for myself anymore, either. I’m in love with consignment.
  • We don’t replace things until we really need to. For instance, we’re still using the picture tube TV we bought right before Alex was born, because it works just fine. And that TV replaced a model dating to the 1970s. And we only have one, by choice.

So there you go. A few of the things we have chosen to do to reduce our use of resources and be good stewards of the earth. I’d love to hear from other families, too. I’m always on the hunt for new ideas!

What’s YOUR Problem?


Photo by Duncan C, via Flickr

Life is unpredictable, but over the past several years I’ve learned there’s one thing I can count on with absolute certainty: somewhere between one week and two days before university graduation, I will lose my voice. It happens virtually every semester, just before I join the platform party at honors convocation as the official singer of the alma mater.

This year was no exception. For three days I took cough syrup, slathered myself with Vicks, and drank tea in an attempt to get the slow-moving virus to clear my body before graduation. It happened just in time. Praise the Lord, I had a voice on Saturday morning.

But the thing that stands out to me about this weekend is that the commencement speeches were the best I’ve ever heard. Jim McKelvey, who co-founded Square, had everyone laughing at intervals, but the message was serious. He wanted to point out to the graduates that no longer can they count on praise or immediate feedback like grades to keep them motivated. From here on out, they have to motivate themselves.

It could have been a real downer of a message, except for the humor and the takeaway: Find a problem. Find a problem that bugs you down so deep, you’re on fire about it. A problem so troublesome, it gets you out of bed in the morning. Find that problem, he said, and then go fix it. And if you succeed, find another one to solve.

After McKelvey came Jim Held, the owner of Stone Hill Winery in Herman, Missouri, who was being awarded an honorary doctorate. He came to the microphone and said, “I could talk about the wine industry in Missouri, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the last 2 1/2 years of my life.” It was a simple but powerful story of a stroke he was told he wouldn’t recover from–and did. He changed his bad habits, and he changed his future. The takeaway: the choices you make have consequences. So make good ones.

I come out of this weekend feeling pretty blessed, for many reasons I can’t go into in public. But this blessing I can share: I feel tremendously blessed to be staring down age 40 with a clear sense of what my life-motivating problems are–the ones that motivate me to get out of bed in the morning. There are two. One of them I outlined on Friday. The other is the need for a healthier view of sexuality, one that recognizes and embraces the message Jim Held underscored: personal responsibility and self control, the fact that choices and consequences go together and you must take the responsibility to exercise self-control to achieve the outcome you value.

I feel even more blessed that these two passions of mine dovetail so seamlessly: that living out a sexuality that respects the way we are put together (as opposed to slapping a pharmaceutical on something that isn’t broken in a misguided attempt to “free” sexual expression from its natural consequences) also respects the earth.

My question for you today is this: what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? What global problem do you want to solve? You don’t have to answer that publicly, but think about it. And if you’re willing to share, so much the better.