Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Post: Tips for Dealing With the World Post-Climate Change

I'm a member of the excellent Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook group, and one member shared a very thought-provoking post today. I asked if I could share it here because this  information is so important. So...Take it away, Theresa Smith!

So, the other day, I went looking to see what I could do, just me, myself, and I, and a not too amazing budget, to help slow down the effects of the climate change disasters so many of us are already seeing evidence of. I found the usual stuff, switch to CFL or LED bulbs, drive less, eat local, don’t water your lawn, etc. That’s all well and good, BUT um what next? Part of the issue is that many of us, far more than you’d think, have already done most of that stuff. Yay US!

That’s great, but it does nothing to help ME or my household deal with higher summer temperatures, intermittent flooding, power outages, water shortages, colder winter temps or wild wind storms. Just so we’re clear I’m not talking about the ever famous apocalypse scenario. I’m talking about 2 inches of rain in one day in July which just happened a week ago where I live! I’m also not talking about brownish lawns; my lawn gets a tan every year. I’m talking about a town in Texas where the local park’s kid’s toys MELTED in the heat, and it didn’t rain for 9 months. I’m talking about the kind of “something I should do” because scientists think that the Colorado River’s aquifers may just be giant dry voids at this point, and it would take about four decades for them to refill, even with no one using any of the water.

So, whether you think the weird weather is human related, not human related, or because cows are farting too much, is really pretty immaterial when it comes to practical actions that we as individuals, families, and maybe even communities can take to mitigate the problems the freaky weather is causing. And apparently there is not a lot of material written about this, anywhere.. So here goes! I’m going to put out this article with a few practical, some tested and some not tested ideas that don’t cost an arm and a leg, can be accomplished fairly easily, and will make an appreciable difference in how the freaky weather is affecting you, your family, and your house.

Paint your roof white, especially the south face of it. Sea ice reflects light into space. Sea ice is melting and there is less of it now, so less heat is reflected back into space and more of it stays here. And it gets hotter. The hotter it gets the more ice will melt and the cycle continues. BTW the extra heat in places where it’s not usually that hot is one of the things pushing the odd weather patterns. Also, we all know that wearing a black shirt is hotter than wearing a white shirt in direct sunlight. Your roof gets a lot of direct sunlight. Paint it white and it will absorb less of that heat and reflect more of it back out of your house. In an awesome ideal world, we could paint most of the roofs white and replace the sea ice etc. I did this, and it lowers the summer temp in my house by about 5 degrees, easy. I don’t live in a particularly hot place so this should work even better for people in places like Arizona, Mississippi, and Florida where it’s really hot. I live in the northern hemisphere so if you live in the southern hemisphere prioritize the North face of your roof rather than the south etc. Ok, here’s how. Buy good quality white exterior grade, acrylic paint and then thin it down by ½ with water making it really liquid. It adheres to the textured roof tiles better, and dries faster when it’s thinned down, and it also covers nearly twice as much area for the same expenditure. Did I mention that my budget is a bit, Use a paint sprayer and just spray it on your regular roof tiles on a hot windless day. The windless part matters if there’s another house close to you. Don’t EVEN park the car near the house or hang your laundry that day. The thin paint adheres well to the roof tiles, dries nearly instantly on a hot day, and lasts for years. Needless to say, if you’re re-roofing anyway, just get the lightest possible tiles (they come in arctic white).

Create a “water garden” in the portion of your lawn that gets the most water and has the worst drainage. Information on how to plant a water garden is available on the internet and your county extension or gardening organization should also be able to help. I’m not going to go into too many specifics since plants and annual rainfall, and city ordinances vary so much from area to area. The purpose of a water garden is to catch excessive runoff from major storms and filter it slowly through plants that need the water rather than having it flow into a storm drain. This helps reduce street pollution in runoff, and helps prevent urban flooding from sudden drenching storms. It also filter more water into your lawn without you paying for the water. These can be sited either where a local street or sidewalk dumps water into your lawn, or near buildings whose roofs catch and drain vast amounts of water during a storm.

Get a water barrel, or make one for yourself. They have some very pretty ones for sale on the internet and probably at your local garden outlet or farm store, but they are so easy to make that I can’t see why. Silicone epoxy and the appropriate hole saw bit are the secret to making them quickly and easily. It does generally take either two people or some way to steady the barrel. Again, free water.

Plant a tree! Shade that hot side of your house with a deciduous tree. In the summer when the sun is hot the leaves keep the sun off the house, and in the winter the leaves fall off and allow the lower angled winter sun to warm the walls of your dwelling. It’s the best of both worlds. Not to mention that trees generally clean a ton of dirt and pollution from the air and produce oxygen, this is always good. Alternately, and I’ve seen this work pretty well, put up trellis on posts and grow a climbing vine (honeysuckle is wonderful) about 4 feet away from the wall you’d like to shade. It looks pretty, smells great, and shades the house in summer while breaking the worst of the wind in winter.
Get really good window coverings. A thick insulated pair of curtains will do almost as much for your heating and cooling bills as new windows (which I also recommend) will.

Keep the shades or curtains drawn on the east side of your house until noon, and then switch and close the ones on the west side in the afternoon. Keeping all that heat from getting into your house in the first place is one of the best ways to ensure it stays temperate without the AC running nonstop, and closing those heavy curtains at night in the winter will really make a difference in how cold it gets overnight. You can make insulated curtains yourself from any heavy curtain fabric backed by cheap flannel sheets that have been washed and dried on hot. Or if your inner seamstress is anything like mine, you can also buy curtains with excellent insulating materials already included.

Get a water filtration system. I’m not talking about one of those super spendy in ground systems, although those are certainly nice! I mean something as simple as a large fridge water pitcher with the filter. Now keep it filled up every day. I have a 3 gallon standalone system I was given as a gift, and it’s come in handy more than once if a city main breaks and there is a boil order for the water due to possible contamination. Also house plants love the filtered water. It makes much better tea and coffee too.

Get heavy area rugs. They are easier to keep clean than wall to wall carpet and are much less expensive to replace if something does happen to them. They can be rolled up and put away in the summer so you can enjoy the nice cool floors, and put down as extra insulation and comfy warmth in the winter. Incidentally, this creates one less season of vacuuming!

Keep chanting, “Heat the person, not the room!” Invest in a gorgeous heavy weight sweater or polar fleece to wear in the winter, and suddenly keeping the heat a bit lower doesn’t suck so much. But sometimes even with the heat blasting in our houses it seems hard to get warm. Smartwool socks and heavy sweaters will make for a happier winter. Buy winter shoes ½ size bigger to accommodate heavy boot socks, you’ll be glad you did. This is the time to bake and make soup, it’ll help warm the house and keep you warmed up inside too.

In the summer afternoons, if you can, spray water, not a lot but some, on the roof of your house. Evaporative cooling will help cool the house down a bit, but will especially keep it from “heat gain” in the evening. And yes, you’re using water, but it need not be drinkable, and it does actually evaporate and get returned directly to the earth’s hydro-cycle so it’s not really “wasted” anyway. Use the same theory to help yourself stay cool too by placing a shallow pan of cool water in front of fans in the summer, or even just wetting your hair, or shirt, or placing your feet in cool water. “Cool the person, not the house!” makes just as much sense. Also eat cold foods like salad, and jello, or ice cream, or iced tea etc. rather than cooking dinner and eating hot food.

This is a little more expensive, or crafty depending on your skill set, but it makes such a huge difference that I’m going to include it anyway. Put awnings over your windows. It saves the window frames from water damage and storm damage from things flying in the wind. An awning shades the windows from the higher angle summer sun but allows the lower angled winter sun to come in which is perfect. Also, it generally ups the value or at least the “curb appeal” of your home. Plus it makes it really easy to decorate for various holidays!

Again, this is a “buy it” solution, but I have found it to be of practical value. Buy a few solar charged LED lights. Not the “stick in your lawn” kind, but ones that are meant for indoor use. They just sit in a window sill until a power outage, or backyard party requires their presence.

These are a few of the practical DIY ideas I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll share those you can think of too! I just try to put the emphasis on DIY, not too expensive, low tech or no tech, set it and forget it type of things which address a specific problem and do no harm anyway even if it doesn’t work as well as hoped for.

These are great!  Do you have anything to add? Share in the comments! 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Film Review: A Place at the Table

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A Place at the Table, Participant Media, 2012

From the makers of Food, Inc., this is a documentary with similar themes but a different angle.   A Place at the Table tackles the issue of hunger in America, weaving together the personal stories of people suffering from food insecurity with facts, interviews with experts, and various proposed solutions to the problem.

 First, it starts by explaining what food insecurity is, and introducing you to some real people having problems finding enough to eat.  Then it systematically goes through some of the proposed solutions, before ultimately coming to the realization that no single solution can do much until sweeping cultural changes are made -- that our hunger problem is an issue of poverty and politics, not food. 

Overall I really enjoyed this.  It hit on a lot of important points, like the way that processed food is creating a nation of kids who are overweight and under-nourished.  It also made a point of explaining why this is a problem not just for the individuals suffering from hunger but for our society at large, which is something I think a lot of people need to listen to.  This isn't just "their" problem -- it's a problem for all of us, and that was definitely a recurring theme in this documentary. 

Overall, I definitely would recommend this.  From a film standpoint, I don't think it was as good as Food Inc -- it lacked some of the polish and it was a little slow to get started -- but information-wise, it's quite good.  You can buy the DVD by clicking the pic above, or you can try to catch it on Amazon Instant Video or Netflix. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coca Cola's New Marketing Campaign: Coke is the Secret to Happiness?

So, if you haven't seen it already, Coca Cola has unleashed a new, incredibly clever marketing ploy.  Now all the individual Coke bottles come with names on them.  This "Share a Coke" campaign urges you to reach out to a friend or loved one with a really meaningful gift -- a Coke!  Naturally!

This is some brilliant marketing on their part.  They keep their iconic red-and-white logo, but replace "Coca Cola" with a name.  All told, there are 250 different names that you might be able to find at the store.  Not just that, Coca Cola specifically chose names that were popular among teenagers and millennials -- those of us who are in the most likely position to reach for a Coke.

(I will note that there are no Coke bottles with my name on them. You can check to see if yours is here)

And to accompany this clever branding strategy, Coke's got a whole slew of marketing support -- from the ability to share a "virtual" bottle through its website, to a Twitter hashtag to solicit some social media interaction, to a series of commercials, like this gem:

Now, that's a sweet commercial, right?  doesn't it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?  Damn, Coca Cola's marketing team knows what it's doing.

Here's the deal.  The entire brand of Coca Cola is centered on the idea that Coke brings people together.  It will mend your relationships.  It will help you meet new people.  It will usher in a new era of world peace!  Coke is happiness!  Coke is America!  Coke is freedom and sunshine and puppies!

Except, of course, that it's not

Coke is diabetes!  Coke is child obesity! Coke is a dumping ground for the excess GMO corn that our tax dollars are subsidizing! Coke -- and every other soda -- is just empty calories bundled with bone-stripping acid and fake flavors.  It has zero redeeming qualities.

And yet....and yet.

I've ranted about this in the past.  I ranted about this when Coca Cola released its Superbowl commercial.  And I ranted about at length here, where I try to come up with some alternatives to drinking soda.  And the next time Coke comes up with another clever marketing strategy, I'll probably rant about it some more.

Why bother?

I care about this shit because marketing is insidious.  If you don't stop to examine it, to really think critically about it, the message will crawl up inside of you and make a home under your skin.  It will inform your decisions in the future, even when you're not thinking about it -- especially when you're not thinking about it.

Stopping to examine an advertisement, to see what their hidden message is really about, helps to break the spell.  It helps you confront your beliefs and decide whether they're really indicative of how you actually feel.

If you consider the issue critically and you keep drinking Coke, fine.  That's your prerogative.  But go in informed, not with preconceived notions carefully created by a massive marketing company and planted in your head.  Knowledge is power.  Critical thinking can break this spell.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Super Easy Recipes: "Kitchen Sink" Minestrone

When I was 12, I decided I wanted to be vegetarian.  That lasted until I was about 18, and during that time, I did much of my own cooking.  One particular cookbook, The Teen's Vegetarian Cookbook, was pretty much my cooking bible.  I still have my very dog-eared copy sitting in my kitchen and occasionally browse it for inspiration.

Anyway, this minestrone soup recipe is adapted from the one in that book.  This was one of the very first meals I ever learned to cook for myself, and it's still one of the "go-to" meals in my cooking rotation.

What I love about this soup recipe: It's versatile, it's easy, it's filling, and it's cheap.  It will never be exactly the same twice, but you can make it with anything you have in the kitchen and it will turn out will.  Here's what you need to make this soup happen:

Kitchen Sink Minestrone Recipe

  • Carrot, celery, onion and garlic (or whatever you prefer in your mirepoix
  • A large can of crushed tomatoes 
  • A cup or so of stock (or bullion) 
  • A small can of tomato sauce 
  • About a cup each of frozen mixed veggies, pasta, and beans
  • Season with salt, pepper, oregano, thyme and basil 
Saute together your mirepoix until softened, then add in your stock, tomato products, and about six cups of water.  You can use whole peeled tomatoes or diced tomatoes instead of crushed if you want -- whatever tomato product is on sale, use that one.

For the veggies, I always just make things easy and add whatever frozen veg I have on hand.  You can certainly use fresh instead.  This soup is a great way to use up some of your excess harvest.

Add about a cup of dried pasta.  I like shells, but elbow macaroni or any other smallish shape would work just great.  Just dump the dry pasta right in the soup and let it plump up.

Add your beans.  Canned is fine.  Dried beans that have been cooked are fine.  Frozen are fine.  Whatever you're comfortable with and have on hand.  I like navy beans, garbanzo beans or kidney beans for this.  But feel free to experiment.

When you season, don't be scared to put in a lot of herb.  If you happen to have fresh herbs from your garden, awesome.  If not, dump in some dried or whatever else you have on hand.  If you don't like having floating herbs in your soup, gather them up into a tea ball or something before dropping them in.  Taste as you go to see if you need to adjust. 

Boom.  That's it.  You're done.

You could probably do this in the crockpot, too, if you waited til the end to add the pasta.  I've never tried it -- this whole thing comes together in less than 30 minutes, and you can leave it gently simmering for as long as you need to after that while the flavors meld and you clean your kitchen, play a round of League of Legends, throw a stick for your dog, have a cigarette, whatever it is you do in your free time.

If you don't think you're any good at cooking or don't know where to start...start with this recipe.  It will open doors to whole new worlds for you!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: The Real Food Revival by Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas

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The Real Food Revival by Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas

This is a really excellent book.  You absolutely should get your hands on a copy right away. 

I picked this up at my first trip to the local library in my new city.  I got a lot of books on that particular trip, but this one really stood out.  While I just sort of flipped through the others for ideas, this one demanded that I sit down and read it cover-to-cover, which I did.  I even read portions of it aloud to David, who was curious what was capturing my attention so much (he then asked that I stop reading to him, because it was making him hungry). 

The Real Food Revival is a plea, from one food-lover to another, to make better eating choices.  It's very much in line with Michael Pollan's books; if you've read In Defense of Food (and you should), then the premise of this book should be pretty familiar.  Pollan is referenced a few times, and they share sources -- but this is more than a rehashing of Pollan's work. 

After a brief introduction to let you know what to expect, the book is broken off into sections, each one correlating to an aisle in the grocery store -- produce, meat, grains, etc.  Every chapter is organized in the same way: An introduction about the type of food, an "industrial agriculture snapshot" showing how those foods make their way to your table in the conventional system, and then tips for reviving real food -- such as ways to find organic produce, where to get grass-fed meat, etc. etc.  After that is a section highlighting a specific producer in-depth so that you can see how real people are working to combat the problems described early in the chapter. 

Interspersed among these sections are simple recipes that relate to the food being discussed, including a really delicious feta pie for the "ugly tomatoes" you end up with when you buy heirloom varieties.  Seriously, try that recipe, it's delicious. 

Moving on.  I really enjoyed this book.  It was packed with information, some of which I knew and some I really didn't (the entire section about seafood was mind-blowing for me), and the overall attitude of the book is very "can do" without speaking down to people or making them feel guilty for their choices.  The book's overarching message is very much in line with what I believe here at Lean Times -- someone might not be able to do everything, but everybody can do something to help make the world more sustainable. 

Have you read this book?  Share your opinion in the comments!  Also, I'm open to suggestions for what to read or watch next!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is it Ever Possible to Truly Live According to Your Non-Consumer Values?

I read any interesting article today that really resonated with me -- talking about the impossibility of an ethical life.  The author discusses the myriad inconsistencies in her lifestyle: Abstaining from meat, but owning leather; recycling, but owning two cars; buying local produce, but purchasing clothing from big-box stores.  It's a conundrum that I think all of us face at one time or another. 

Ethics is not an entirely black-and-white field.  If it were, there would be no room for debate and differing opinions -- we would all just do what was right or be "evil" people.  But life isn't a Disney movie, and the lines are not drawn in such clear contrast. 

Everything Affects Everything Else 

The problem with living a sustainable lifestyle is that we're all interconnected.  None of us is really, truly self-sufficient.  We rely on other people in some form or another.  And those people all have their own lives and ethical dilemmas and problems.  Do we buy our clothes from a major chain, which sources them from sweat shop workers?  If we buy those same brands second-hand, aren't we still supporting the original purchase to some degree?  If we make our own clothes, where are we sourcing our fabric from?  Synthetic materials use up petroleum products, but cotton is a GMO crop.  What if we only use organic cotton?  Even then, it uses up so much water to produce.

And on, and on.

The deeper you delve into the question of conscious consumerism, the more complicated it starts to become.  It's tempting to stop caring at all when there seems to be no perfect answer.  

It's true that nobody can do everything.  However, everyone can do something.

And that's really all we can ask for.  Be aware of the impact you're making in the world, and strive to improve the areas that you can.  Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater -- just because you can't be 100% committed to a zero-harm, zero-waste, non-consumer lifestyle doesn't  mean there isn't real value in doing your best.  Every dollar you spend (or don't spend) is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in, and those votes do count. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Guilty Admission: I Am a Gardening Sham

So despite my enthusiasm for gardening, my passion for food and my burning desire to build an urban homestead, I have a confession to make: I'm actually kind of a sham.

I've never had my own garden before this year, and have never been very good at keeping plants alive in general.

But this year, I was determined to change things. I bought a bunch of planters and organic soil. I carefully consulted the back of my seed packets to figure out where and when to plant some late-season direct-sowing plants. I eagerly planted, watered, waited. 

A few days ago, I discovered the first seedlings sprouting up from where I had planted them! I was so excited! I sat and watched them, waxing poetical in my mind about the miracle of nature, the amazing power to create something edible from a humble seed, sunlight, dirt and water. It was exhilarating.

But as the days passed, I started to get a little uneasy. None of the other seeds I'd planted seemed to be sprouting. And then I saw those same seedlings cropping up in other areas, where I hadn't planted. And after a little inspection, I realized that those seedlings looked suspiciously similar to the weeds growing all around the backyard.

Looks like I've been lovingly fawning over and tending to a bunch of goat-head bearing weeds.

On the bright side, the plants I bought are doing well.  The bush basil and chocolate mint looked pretty pathetic after transplanting, but they've perked right up after a few weeks of consistent watering.  The rosemary looks beautiful, the strawberry is growing (though I doubt it will make berries this year, at this rate) and the tomato plant has two little tomatoes growing on it.

It's definitely a learning process.

And right now, I'm very grateful that I am not actually relying on this food to survive.  This is another one of those areas where it's important to remember privilege.  It would be very easy for a person with gardening experience to look at people spending money on groceries and say, "Why waste all of that money when you could grow it yourself?"  And while growing your own food is a very worthwhile goal, it's not something that's going to be happening overnight.

So: How is your garden faring this year? 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why the Supreme Court's Ruling About Hobby Lobby Scares the Shit Out of Me

This is sort of old news by now, but in the days following the Supreme Court's ruling, thinking about it made me too sick to my stomach to form coherent, blog-worthy thoughts.  It's taken a while for all of it to really sink in, for my impulsive anger to reside enough that I could explain in plain English why exactly this ruling is so fucking terrifying. 

So in case you've been under a rock, here's the deal.  Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to offer insurance coverage to their employees.  That coverage has to meet certain basic guidelines to ensure that everyone gets the same quality of coverage.  And part of what's covered by that insurance mandate is several forms of birth control, including Plan B, Ella and two types of IUD.  With me so far? 

Okay.  So Hobby Lobby -- a store founded on Christian values -- objected to being forced to pay for this coverage because these forms of birth control violate their pro-life stance.  To clarify, the contraceptives covered by ACA insurance are not abortion pills, by the medical definition of abortion.  An abortion is medically defined as the destruction of a fertilized egg that has already attached to the uterine wall.  None of the birth control methods mentioned above do that.  Instead, in some way or another, all of them prevent eggs from being fertilized in the first place, or prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. 

All the same, the Supreme Court ruled that it was against the law to require businesses to offer contraceptive coverage that went against the owner's religious beliefs. 

As you might expect, a lot of people have a lot of opinions about this, on all sides -- questions about religious freedom, reproductive rights, and whether your employer should have a say in your healthcare.  I'm not going to get into that here, because I think there's a bigger issue that we need to examine.  Because I don't think this case was about religion at all. 

Corporations Are Not People

....but the Supreme Court seems to think they are. 

Thanks to Corporate Personhood, businesses have the same rights as individuals.  And apparently, if the precedent set by this most recent landmark case is anything to go off of, a corporation's rights can supersede the rights of its employees. 

Make no mistake.  Hobby Lobby doesn't give a shit about birth control.  If it did, it would not have invested so much of its money into the pharmaceutical companies that create the very products it refuses to cover through insurance.  The issue isn't about the corporation's values -- it's an issue of money, power and control. 

Granting corporations so many rights is dangerous, in part because corporations have a whole lot more power than individuals.  Part of the reason that individuals have rights in the first place is to protect the weak from the strong.  Without some sort of protection, there is nothing to stop those with power and authority from enslaving or otherwise abusing those who can't fight back. 

Corporations have more money than individuals.  They have more power.  And thanks to the Super-Pacs, they have immense political pull. 

Ushering in a New Age of Feudalism

Wealth inequality is a major problem in our country.  Today, I read a brilliant blog post from "ultra-rich man" Nick Hanauer that said exactly what I've been thinking for years:  If we don't do something to stop it, we will enter another feudal era. 

If you're not familiar with feudalism, here's the way it's basically laid out: At the top, you have a monarch.  Below him are a cluster of noblemen.  These people would be granted ownership of land within the kingdom, in exchange for them providing soldiers to the king's army.  The lands owned by the noblemen would be populated by nobles and knights, certainly, but there'd be a much higher percentage of peasants.  These peasants would live on these lands, but they would have no rights to them.  They would grow crops, but most of what they grew would be the property of the nobleman whose lands they tilled.  There was no upward mobility.  There was only long, arduous hours of back-breaking labor in exchange for a subsistence lifestyle and the persistent threat of abuse from noblemen. 

It seems to me that corporations are the new noblemen.  They're the Lords and Ladies of the modern age.  

The so-called "working poor" (which, in these times of the vanishing middle class, means most of us) are share-croppers, peasants tilling the land of the big corporations.  Except instead of growing sheep and turnips, we're growing cash.  We keep just enough of it to survive, and the rest goes up to those landowners -- who in turn give some of their money to the government in exchange for the freedom to keep doing what they're doing. 

Think on it.  Read Nick Hanauer's article.  Consider it long and hard and tell me honestly if that's a reality you want to see come to pass.  If not, you and I and everyone else needs to start making some noise.  We need to become champions for our own rights while we still have the chance, before things get nasty enough for a full-blown revolution.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Magazines About Urban Homesteading

Here's a question for you readers:  Do you subscribe to any magazines about homesteading, self-sufficiency, social justice, etc.?  Which do you recommend?  Discuss in the comments!