Tuesday, August 25, 2009

If going green is hard, passing green bills is harder

David Roberts really is wonderful.

I have been seeing - and deliberately not reading - dozens of op-eds, analysis pieces and blog posts about all the ways that President Obama is messing up the health-care fight. They all follow exactly the same pattern: if Obama would only do (or, if you think the battle's lost, had only done) what I say he should, we would have a health-care bill.

Well, maybe. But, though I'm struck breathless by some of the lies that are being told about the health-care plan, I have also been watching this country freak out over anything that could be painted as socialized medicine for almost as long as I've been alive. So it never occurred to me that Obama could wave a magic wand, or even give a brilliant speech, and hey, presto, the nation would see the light.

And yesterday on Grist, David Roberts nailed it: "Barack Obama is not our magic negro. He’s not Bagger Vance. He hasn’t come along to teach the ornery white folk the error of their ways. He’s just the president, a centrist Democrat embedded in a power structure replete with roadblocks and constraints."

We all know - when we stop to think about it - that pushing health-care reform, or a climate bill that will actually make a difference, through the US Congress will take sweat, and determination, and a whole lot of people making phone calls, writing their congressmen, and all the other boring labor that goes into political organizing. But what we feel is that we got this man elected, and now it's his job. As the New York Times reported a few days ago, the activists who campaigned so enthusiastically for him are feeling politicked out. They support the president wholeheartedly, the Times reported, but they are "taking a break from politics."

One activist who's got it straight is Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who - to judge from his Twitter posts - seems to be on the road and around the world virtually full-time. organizing massive global demonstrations for next October 24 to influence the run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks in December. McKibben - who could get his byline into any paper in the country - isn't spending his time (at least not much of it) sitting around writing articles about what Obama should be doing about climate change, though I'm sure he has some pretty strong opinions. But he also recognizes that politicians do not do, and (with rare exceptions) never have done, what is right. They do what is politic. And it is our job, not Obama's, to put so much pressure on them that the right thing to do becomes also the politic thing to do.

Obama isn't going to save us. He can't. It will take a whole lot more than one man - even if if he's the president of the United States - to bring us universal healthcare and a serious climate bill.

Well, we've got a whole lot more - we've got ourselves. The question is, do we have the fortitude to give up the luxury of complaint, turn around, and just keep on keeping on until we get where we need to be?

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Easy ways to go green - a dangerous oxymoron

If I see many more headlines about easy ways to go green, I'm going to go bananas. I just did a Google search for variants of that pernicious little phrase and came up with 41 million hits. 10 easy ways to go green. 5 cheap and easy ways to green your wardrobe. 8 easy ways to green your reading. 50 easy ways to go green.

Here's the problem: if they are really going to make a difference, they're not easy. And if they're easy, they're probably also pretty inconsequential.

I ought to know: a few years ago I, too, wrote one of these stories, as part of a series I wrote for MSN Money called "Walk the Talk." In the process of researching it (and because they were going to film my house), I decided I really should practice what I preached. So I put up a clothesline (those are my sheets in the video), and searched Home Depot (in vain) for a water heater wrapper, and tried to remember to turn off the power strips.

Here's the brutal fact: saving energy is not convenient. It sounds great to say you're picking the low-hanging fruit, and you are. But harvesting even low-hanging fruit is a lot of work.

Here are just a few of the "easy" suggestions that are a dime a dozen on the internet:

Stop using paper towels (they suggest using any old rags). Right, and wash the rags, dry them, find a place to store them....

Put all your electronic gadgets on power strips. I thought this was easy too, till I tried it. First you have to figure out when you use each gadget and make sure all the gadgets on each power strip really can be turned on and off at the same time. You also have to find a place to put the power strip where you can actually reach that little switch. And you have to remember to flick it.

Line-dry your laundry. Yes, it is rewarding. Sheets dried out of doors smell heavenly, and there's a pleasant contemplativeness to the act of hanging them out in the sun. But easy? Unless you have a clothesline inside as well as out, you can only do the laundry in good weather (which, this summer in the Northeast, where I live, means you could hardly do it at all). And while clothes dried outdoors may smell wonderful, unless the wind is blowing pretty briskly, they come out stiff as a board. (Drying them indoors is even worse; my husband, a patient man, finally put his foot down on my drying his towels indoors. They felt, he said, like sandpaper.)

Start a garden. I wonder what could possibly have made anyone think that was going to be easy.

Recycle everything you can. Yes, it's worth doing - and it's a royal pain. It's not difficult with the things the city picks up weekly, though I will never understand why juice cartons go with the metal and not with the paper. But everything you can? Let's see: compact flourescents (package them properly and take them to a not-easy-to-find recycling site), fabrics (recycled at a few of New York's Greenmarkets), books (there's a store in Manhattan that will take them), electronics (hope you get word of one of the city's infrequent collections). Oh, and remember to rent a Zipcar for all the schlepping.

Let's get real here: this is a country in which, according to a statistic widely cited on the internet (though I've never actually been able to track it to a specific source), up to 70% of the people who buy a programmable thermostat never actually program it. And that really is easy.

But here's the real problem: when we tell people it is easy to go green, one of two things will happen. Either they will put in a compact fluorescent bulb and think they are saving the planet, or they will try to make more dramatic changes and - like the people who buy a programmable thermostat with the best of intentions - give up when they find it's harder than they expected.

We have all - every one of us - grown up in a society that prizes convenience above almost every other value. And going green is not convenient. To stick to it, you have got to be willing to take trouble. Sometimes a lot of trouble.

The issue isn't simply personal. It's global. We can change all the light bulbs in the world, and it won't make a significant dent in climate change. The changes we'll need to make to really make a difference will be uncomfortable and expensive. So much so, that I can't think off the top of my head of a single politician who has actually spoken truthfully about what will be required.

Those changes may - I believe they will - bring us richer lives. But they will not be either convenient or easy.

Telling us that going green is easy isn't just dishonest. It also short-changes us, in the same way we were short-changed after 9/11 when Bush told us to go shopping. As Rebecca Solnit points out in her new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, (reviewed in the New York Times today), human beings faced with disaster are capable of extraordinary creativity and resilience.

So don't tell us it's easy. Do us justice. Tell us the truth.


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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of queens and letters and the limits to growth

Monarchs definitely have their uses.

The Queen of England has become the focal point of a fascinating economic debate...all because of an innocent (or perhaps not so innocent) question she asked last November in a visit to the London School of Economics. Why, she wondered, was nobody able to foresee what she called this "awful recession"?

Had anyone else asked that question (as indeed many people have) it would have gotten lost in the media scrum. But this was the Queen, so an answer was required. Or at least so thought the British Academy, the UK's 107-year-old "national academy for the humanities and social sciences," which held a forum on the question, And - again because it was the Queen - when the Academy finally answered the Queen last month, its letter landed on the front pages.

The result of all the Academy's work was something of a tautology: the failure to foresee the recession was "principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally." In other words, we missed it because we missed it.

But in yet another letter to the Queen, published this month, a group of environmental and social thinkers offered a deeper answer: that our inability to foresee the recession stemmed ultimately from our inability to see the real problem. The "imbalances in the global economy" cited in the Academy's report, they argue, are just a symptom of "far more serious imbalances between our insatiable hunger for energy, its finite nature and the environmental pollution in its use."

Because our economy runs in on energy, they argue, our insistence on - not to mention our almost religious faith in - more and more economic growth depends on an equally enormous growth in the supply of energy. And in a finite world, the supply of energy cannot keep up with our appetite for it. At least not at a price - both economic and environmental - that we can pay.

The letter, which is well worth reading, ends with a challenge to the Academy: to join in a public dialogue about these issues. And it signs off in proper courtly style: "We will of course report findings of such debate to Your Majesty. "

You gotta love the Brits.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Does the media stoke our national what's-in-it-for-me debate?

The other night I saw an ad for ABC News in which the ever-avuncular Charlie Gibson touted the program as focusing on what matters to you in the news. I've seen this kind of pitch often enough, heaven knows - every news program on the air claims to tell you how the news will affect you - but this time it really bugged me.

What, may I ask, makes them think they can
know what matters to me? They can't, of course, so they have to make assumptions. And the assumption they almost universally make is that what matters most to me is how some news development will affect my pocketbook.

Well, sorry, Charlie, but there is more to me - there is more to all of us - than our pocketbooks. And I'm beginning to think that the media's relentless focus on the cost of anything from a gallon of milk to a climate bill is one big reason that our national discourse has become so stunted, so pinched, and so angry.

Then comes this marvelous post on Climate Progress. What's missing from media coverage of a climate bill? According to Penn State's Donald A. Brown, it's the ethical consequences of doing nothing. "The climate change debate in the US," Brown says, "shows no sign of acknowledging that US climate change policy should be guided by duties to the rest of the world." In contrast, he points out, when Scotland passed a remarkably ambitious climate bill (a 42% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, rising to 80% by 2050), one of the arguments made for it was that, as climate change affects everyone on the planet, Scotland had a duty to do its part to address the problem.

In the US, meanwhile, the latest argument in favor of passing a climate bill is that unchecked climate change will endanger our national security (all those climate-change refugees out there). I don't mean to belittle that argument - it's quite true. But how is it that the United States, which so profoundly felt its duty to the rest of the world after World War II, seems now to be a country in which the only arguments that have any traction are the ones about how much this will hurt
us? Or, even worse, not us, but me?

Obviously, the media doesn't bear the whole blame for our national descent into a what's-in-it-for-me ethos. Politicians, who regularly bring home the pork with one hand while stoking the national paranoia about taxes on the other, bear a lot of the blame. But the job of the media - theoretically, at least - is to ask the hard questions. And surely there are harder questions begging to be asked than "how will it affect me"?

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Monday, August 10, 2009

There is nothing romantic about growing food

Yesterday I went to a book party for Jill Richardson's Recipe for America. I found out a lot about the good guys and bad guys in Washington (at least on food issues).

But what has stuck with me wasn't the book (which I haven't read yet); it was a conversation I had when we broke for refreshments. Somehow it came up (in local food circles it tends to come up) that my husband is a beekeeper. Instantly I was asked, by an urban farmer, about the plight of a friend of hers who'd been busted for keeping bees (an activity that's illegal in New York City).

Then someone else chimed in: "I love the idea of illegal beekeeping. It's so countercultural."

Which got me thinking about the romanticizing of local food, and how little use I have for it. Yes, it's romantic to think of underground bee-keeping. That is, unless those are your bees that just swarmed to a lamppost a block away, and unless you can see the surrounding crowd pointing out your rooftop to the policeman. We held our breath for the knock on our door.

In fact, we've never (yet) been busted, which is surprising, given how active John's been in the move to increase beekeeping in the city. But we and every beekeeper we know are crossing all our fingers and toes as Just Food nudges its campaign to legalize beekeeping through the various layers of city government.

Beekeeping is not romantic. It is hard work: hot, messy, and sticky. If one of your queens isn't producing good workers, you've got to find her, and kill her, in order to introduce a better queen. An attack of any of the multitude of diseases to which bees are prone could wipe out your hives. And while beekeepers get used to being stung, it's never pleasant and it can be not just painful but life-threatening; every beekeeper with even a slight grain of caution keeps on hand an EpiPen to inject themselves in case they suddenly develop a violent allergy to bee venom. (Trust me, it can happen.)

I'm certain the same can be said of urban farming, another occupation that currently gets a lot of swooning attention. It's amazing to me how ignorant even people involved in the local food movement can be about farms and farmers. A few weeks ago I asked the woman who runs my CSA whether we'd be getting any tomatoes or whether our farmer had been hit by the tomato blight. "Blight?" she said, looking puzzled. Meanwhile, farmers are watching their biggest cash crop disappear in front of their eyes. Amy Hepworth, the farmer who supplies much of the produce sold at the Park Slope Food Coop, told our buyer recently that fighting off the blight costs her $1,000 every time it rains - and it has rained a lot this summer.

I suppose that the romanticism is just another symptom of how divorced we have become from the process of producing our food. And annoying as I find it, I guess it's a necessary first step towards bridging that gap. It's better to romanticize food producers than simply to ignore them.

But I sometimes think that a day's work on the farm should be a requirement for joining any CSA, or for buying produce from any urban garden. I'm not about to argue that we should - or could - go back to an 18th
agrarian century idyll (if it was an idyll, which I doubt), but if we're really going to turn our food system around, the production of the food we eat needs to be an always-present part of the world we experience.

So, yes, support your local farmers, and brewers, and cheese-makers, and beekeepers (please sign Just Food's petition). Buy from them, talk to them, find out what they do.

Just don't go all gooey over them!

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Are Clunkers Enough?

This is sort of a guest post; it comes from GreenBuilder Vantage, the email newsletter of Green Builder Magazine. (You can subscribe to the magazine here; I've no idea how to subscribe to the newsletter, which simply began appearing in my inbox not long after my story on Amory Lovins ran on MSN.)

I thought it was interesting, so here (with permission) it is.

One of the top news stories this week is the fate of the Car Allowance Rebate System, A.K.A., 'Cash for Clunkers'. The program, which offers $3,500 to $4,500 in rebates to automobile owners who trade in an old car for a new one with higher fuel economy, was created to prop up the faltering American auto industry and improve the average fuel efficiency of vehicles across the nation.

Cash for Clunkers has been so popular with consumers that the initial $1 billion allocated to the program was exhausted in a matter of days. While the program provided a tangible financial stimulus for auto makers, dealers, and consumers alike, the future of the program seemed uncertain—that is, until the Senate joined the House yesterday in extending the program, fu! nding it with another $2 billion, which is expected to last through the summer and subsidize the purchase of approximately 500,000 cars.

Critics argue that the Cash for Clunkers program is a give-away to auto makers, creates unnecessary debt, and that it misappropriates taxpayers' money to a band-aid fix that doesn't create a long-term financial solution. Environmentalists contend that the embodied energy and additional waste created by destroying the clunkers negate the benefits of getting the cars off the road. From a short-term perspective, both of these arguments have validity. But, in certain ways, each of them misses the point.

The larger issue here is not the average 61% increase in fuel economy (or 10 M.P.G. increase) that the new cars represent over the clunkers or the average $850 per year that drivers will save in fuel costs.

What we should be focusing on is the need for an arsenal of solutions like this one to adequately address the immense emissions problem caused by our transportation system, which, according to the EPA, accounts for nearly 40% of our national greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve the kind of results that would be needed to satisfy the energy and climate legislation passed by the House (which requires carbon dioxide emissions to drop 83% by 2050), we can't just focus on getting cleaner vehicles on the road, we need to look at larger changes in our transportation system, travel behavior, and regulatory strategies.

Sara Gutterman


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Transition towns and evangelical churches, or what do Rick Warren and Rob Hopkins have in common?

If you follow green blogs and tweets, as I do, it's hard to miss the ongoing slanging match between Climate Progress and the Breakthrough Institute. And I'm not, at least in this post, picking a dog in that fight. But I have been reading Breakthrough - the book that birthed the institute - and it seems to me that Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the book's co-authors, have at least one insight that all of us should pay attention to.

It answers a question I've always had about my own history as an environmentalist: if I do believe in this cause - and I do - why have I seldom contributed to, and never volunteered for, any environmental group? I did once work - for pay - for a couple of environmental groups, but that's another story. (Though perhaps not entirely unconnected to the question at hand.)

It also goes a long way to explain the exponential growth of the Transition Town movement.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make two related points. First, that for most of its history, the environmental movement has been almost entirely dedicated to stopping things. And second, that about all it has asked from its supporters is their money and their votes. The result, they argue, is that while an enormous number of people say they support environmental causes, when push comes to shove - when they have to put their money or their convenience on the line - their environmental concerns fall by the wayside. (They're not alone in noticing this: a sure way to make green business guru Joel Makower testy is to send him a survey reporting that some huge percentage of Americans buy green, when all the evidence indicates that they don't.)

All this made sense to me, but where they really caught my attention was when they compared the success, or lack thereof, of the environmental movement with the growth of evangelical churches. Unlike environmentalists, they argue, members of evangelical churches will turn themselves inside out to support their church. Why? Because their church is more fun.

Well, I spent quite a lot of time at an evangelical megachurch while I was researching The Word, my book about how people read the Bible, and the Breakthrough guys are right: it's much more engaging, exhilarating, and satisfying to be a member of an evangelical church than it is to be a member of, say, the Sierra Club. It's not just that evangelical church schedules are packed full of meetings, clubs, groups and activities, though they are. It's also that their members are convinced that, through all these activities, they are helping to build a better world. Yes, there are things they want to stop. But there is much more that they want to create.

And suddenly a light went on: that's why the Transition movement is growing so fast. (If you're not familiar with the Transition movement, go here, or here, to find out more. Better still, get ahold of a copy of Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook.)

Transition isn't a church, or in any way religious, but but the Transition movement is more like an evangelical church than any other group I've ever come across. Rob Hopkins has grasped what most environmental activists seem to have missed: if people are going to be engaged over the long term, they have got to be building something, not stopping something. And they have got to enjoy themselves.

There are a lot of Transition Towns in the US - and around the world, for that matter - but the one I'm most familiar with, because I've spent some time there, is Totnes, the first in the UK. This summer, according to their July bulletin, you could attend a solstice picnic, go on an edible garden crawl, or go to a meeting about direct action on climate change. There were activities for bikers and photographers, a kids' event at a local estate, a bunch of lectures and movie screenings. And no matter what aspect of our climate crisis grabs you - housing, the economy, jobs, energy, food, health, the arts, politics - they've got a group for you.

The other genius of Transition is that the task of a Transition Town group is not to stop climate change. It is to imagine how their town could not just survive, but thrive, in an oil-constrained and warmer world, and then to do everything they can to make that imagining a reality. But the very process of working towards that goal, of course, also deepens their commitment to doing whatever they can, personally and politically, to address climate change. The two feed, and feed on, each other.

So, though it's hard to think of two people more different in almost every way than Rob Hopkins and Rick Warren...

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Living off the land in Central Park

Well, I finally did it. I went on a Central Park foraging trip with "Wildman" Steve Brill. Years ago, in our Mother-Earth-News-let's-live-off-the-land days, my husband and I knew quite a lot about wild edibles. I've read all of Ewell Gibbons, and some of it has stuck; I regularly harvest the purslane and chickweed that comes up in my garden. But years of living in New York have dimmed my foraging fervor; Though nettles are one of my favorite spring greens, I don't pick them myself. I buy them at the farmer's market. So though I've known about Brill's trips for years, I'd never before summoned up the energy to go on one.

While we were waiting for all 50 of us to get there, I did a little mental math. Fifty people at $15 a pop, times a hundred-plus foraging tours a year (only a fraction of them in Central Park) - this is not a bad business to be in. Of course, a trip on a cold February day probably doesn't get 50 people; on the other hand there are school demonstrations and private events, and book sales...

It is also a lot of work. We didn't walk fast, we stopped often, but after four hours of ups and downs around the northern part of the park, I was pretty bushed.

I went, as you can tell from my opening calculations, as a bit of a skeptic. I was waiting for Brill to produce something new, and when his first three stops were for blackberries, wood sorrel and chickweed, I began to feel let down (especially as the blackberries were behind a fence and not yet ripe).

But by the time we were chewing on black birch twigs

and digging for sassafras roots,
and nibbling garlic mustard and poor man's pepper, I was hooked. I knew that crushed jewelweed leaves are a remedy for poison ivy. But I didn't know that you can make a skin lotion out of jewelweed stems and witchhazel. I didn't know (and am not sure I believe) that there is a cancer-causing toxin in raw mushrooms - at least according to Brill - and you should always cook them. I may once have known, but I had most certainly forgotten, that black birch twigs taste like wintergreen, and though I'd heard of cheeses (one of the many nicknames for mallow) I'd never in my life seen them, much less eaten them.

But though I enjoyed myself, I'm left wondering - what is the point it? It's not as though I'm going to take to the park every weekend in search of food. While Brill doesn't hesitate to climb fences and otherwise break what I presume is a long list of Central Park rules (a ranger we met along the way told us that 25 years ago, she'd been instructed to arrest Brill), I haven't got his hardihood. (Even he has his limits; after we dug up a bunch of sassafras roots, he told us to hide them in our backpacks.
We know that we're not hurting the plant by digging them up, he said, but it doesn't look good to be walking around the park clutching roots.)

But perhaps I can look at my garden with something of a new perspective. And not just at my garden, but at those bits of waste land scattered all over the city. The barrier between food and not-food, it turns out, is permeable. And that's well worth the knowing.

Posted by Picasa

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Feeding the hungry with thrown-out food

Turns out I didn't need to source a British writer( in yesterday's post), on the subject of outrageous food waste. We have a home-grown expert, Jonathan Bloom, who's tracking the subject for an upcoming book. By his estimate, Americans waste 40% of our food. That's over $100 billion a year, folks!

In a recent post, he writes about a Binghamton, NY food recovery (sounds a lot better than dumpster diving, doesn't it?) group called CHOW. The group has rebuilt a dumpster, making it into a food stand that's using wasted food to provide free meals for the homeless - complete with doggie bags.

At the end of his post, he asks his readers if this is a good idea, or insulting. (I'm not quite sure if he means the whole project, or just the use of the dumpster - which is painted a bright green and looks quite chic).

But either way, it seems to me, if we could learn to take waste seriously as the evil that it is, the question of whether it is insulting to serve thrown-out food to anyone would simply disappear. As would any notion that it's offensive to repurpose a dumpster.

What really is insulting is throwing it all out in the first place.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is waste the century's greatest sin?

Even before I started worrying about global warming and peak oil, I had a real thing about waste. I don't know where it comes from. True, my parents grew up in the Depression and my mother, especially, was marked by it, but I don't remember her being a particular demon about wasting things. We sure produced out enough trash - as I remember vividly, since throwing it out was my job.

But the older I've gotten, the more intense have been my efforts not to let anything go to waste. I am a maniacal turner-out of lights and a passionate recycler; how many people, I wonder, would have crowed with delight on discovering that you can recycle used textiles at some of New York's greenmarkets?

As we look harder at the burden we're putting on the environment, it turns out that my hatred of waste is downright sensible. Waste may be the biggest energy-hog of all. Take, for instance, food. In a scarifying article in the Financial Times, Tristram Stuart
(author of the appropriately-named Waste) reports that the average UK grocery store throws out enough perfectly good food every day to feed 100 people. A typical day's haul included 28 ready-meals; 16 Cornish pasties; 83 yogurts and other desserts; 18 loaves of bread; 23 rolls; one chocolate cake; five pasta salads, and 223 fruit and vegetable items ranging from lemons and fair-trade bananas to leeks, avocados, and mushrooms. Oh, and margarine, milk, and a potted orchid.

I have to confess that when I'm shopping at the farmer's market, my eyes can sometimes outrun my cooking capacity: at one point, tempted by truly beautiful heirloom lettuces from the Queens County Farm Museum stand into buying more than we could possibly eat as salad, I was reduced to making lettuce soup and lettuce risotto, and I still had to throw some away. But my guilt is somewhat alleviated by the possession of two rolling compost bins and a worm composter; at least the vegetables that, despite my best efforts, don't manage to get eaten before they spoil will be put to some use.

My current musing about waste, though, has been prompted by a more recent event: we finally got around to getting an energy audit. And let me tell you, it was scary. For one thing, we were forced to face the absolute necessity of replacing our furnace, which is so old that once upon a time it burned coal (our house is roughly 150 years old). We've been dodging this one for years, largely because all the pipes in the basement are wrapped in asbestos. But now it turns out that besides leaking heat and CO2, we are leaking oil - the oil tank is beginning to spring holes.

I expected the furnace verdict (though not the oil tank one). What I did not expect was the lousy energy efficiency of some of our newer appliances, which seem to be working just fine. I didn't think about the cracks in our beautiful but ancient wooden front doors; since there's another set of doors inside them, and a radiator next to that, the only time we notice how breezy the front hall really is, is when there's a snowstorm and snow blows right in through the cracks. (You'd think that my use of the hall as an extra refrigerator might have driven that point home, but no.)

And I didn't even think about the fact that the insulation we had blown into the roof some 30 years ago might not be doing its job any longer - especially as the occasional roof leak has probably turned it to mush, or worse.

We haven't yet gotten the report, so I don't know how much we'll save by getting all these things fixed - a bundle, I hope, since I am absolutely certain it will cost us more than a bundle to fix them. But given the amount of waste that a waste-hater like me has managed to tolerate out of sheer inertia, I'm not a bit surprised at the recent McKinsey report that says the US could cut its energy consumption 23% by fixes considerably less dramatic than some of the ones we're about to undertake. By spending $520 billion, the study says, we could save $1.2 on our national energy bills over the next 30 years, and cut our total energy use by 23%. I only hope the improvements we're embarking on prove that cost-effective.

But I'm not holding my breath till the country actually reaps those savings Yes, making those fixes would provide jobs that couldn't be outsourced - our house alone is likely to keep 3-4 people employed for a couple of months. Yes, they'd make it much easier to cut our carbon emissions as deeply as we need to cut them. Yes, the average American would end up saving money on the deal.

But...I have known that furnace needed to be replaced for at least 20 years, and I haven't done anything about it. The problem was too big, and too complicated, and too expensive even to think about, let alone tackle. So every winter I'd grit my teeth, cover the windows in plastic, turn down the thermostat, and live in sweaters.

Inertia is powerful, in my case more powerful even than my passionate hatred of waste. And what conquered it in the end wasn't any moral awakening on my part - it was the government, which finally put some weight into the other side of the scales in the form of tax incentives, rebates, and low-cost loans.

Are there a lot of other people out there who need just the nudge of some government-sponsored bargains to finally realize the sense of spending money now to save it later? And is the government willing to provide those bargains? To the tune of several hundred billion dollars? In a recession?

There are hopeful signs. Some northeastern states, for instance, are offering rebates when you trade in an old refrigerator or freezer for an energy-efficient replacement (though given the cost of an energy-efficient refrigerator, the promised $30 rebate seems unpersuasively skimpy).

Last winter, on a sleety, windy night, I went to a symposium sponsored by my state representative on New York's energy-saving programs, and despite the ghastly weather, about 40 people showed up. A good start. But reaping that $1.2 trillion in energy savings is going to take more than a few local meetings - it's going to take the kind of door-to-door, call-every-telephone effort that got Obama elected.

I hope it happens. But I'm not holding my breath.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Playing the hand you're dealt - the CSA challenge

A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are foodies, and many of them belong to a CSA. (CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture; you buy, basically, a share of a farm's harvest, and then each week you pick up whatever the farmer is providing).

Each week, they wax eloquent about the abundance they've received. And abundant it is. But what they don't talk about (and I acknowledge that it's difficult to discuss in 140 characters) is the flip side of that abundance. When you get your vegetables from a CSA, you don't cook what you chose. You cook what you've got. Whether it's what you feel like eating or not.

Even if you like it, it can be a problem. Red Jacket Orchards, which provides the fruit for my CSA, has recently been blessing us - positively overwhelming us - with apricots. Two quarts a week for the past two weeks, and another quart coming this week, along with plums. I adore apricots - but how on earth to use up four quarts of them? Especially as raw apricots aren't really appealing - it takes cooking to bring out the flavor.

Well, I have almost done it. Thanks to an apricot tart, apricot and orange ice-cream, and a serendipitous (because the same week that we got apricots, we also got fennel) recipe I found for fennel and apricot chutney, I have used up two and a half quarts. And last week, at - of all places - a beer fest, I met a guy from Red Jacket and posed my apricot dilemma to him He insisted that if I let the apricots ripen almost to the point of decay, they'd be delicious raw, and to my surprise, he was right. So that's another pint or so. I have one quart left, and today I found a recipe for spiced apricots that's supposed to be delicious with the Christmas bird. (Of course there's another quart coming, but I'll worry about that when I get it.)

More difficult than apricots are some of the vegetables we have been getting, like carrots, cabbage and turnips. Those may indeed be early summer vegetables, but unfortunately, they are also - for someone living in the Northeast - among the few local vegetables available all winter. By June I am, to put it bluntly, sick to death of them. I have now made two different kinds of cole slaw (not my favorite salad), and have also put some of the cabbage, as well as the leaves from the kohlrabi we got three weeks running. and a few other winter oddments, into a batch of kimchee. It's pretty good, though by the time it fermented enough to soften the kohlrabi leaves, the cabbage tasted almost cooked.

But this is exactly what makes a CSA worth doing, at least for me. Yes, it's a way of supporting a local farmer, and yes, it is, at least some of the time, a taste of summer's abundance. But more deeply, it is a way of cooking that - until the arrival of the deep freeze, the supermarket, and refrigerated shipping - was universal: doing the best you could with what you had. Which I find both an intoxicating challenge and in some way a spiritual discipline.

We are so accustomed, we Americans, to a hyper-abundance of choice. We import whatever we want from wherever it grows. Wandering the frigid aisles of a supermarket produce section is in many ways like wandering the air-conditioned corridors of an airport. We could be anywhere. The vegetables, clean and glistening in their waxed piles, look picture perfect, as though dirt never had anything to do with them. It's an eerily disconnected experience.

Which is not to say that I don't - CSA or not - take advantage of the choice available to me. Raspberries and red currants are in season right now, and since Red Jacket hasn't provided us with either, I bought some this weekend to make summer pudding, in my opinion one of the great desserts of all time, and not to be missed no matter what the CSA gives me.

But I don't buy too much, because at the back of my mind, always, is that refrigerator drawer stuffed so full of vegetables that they spill over onto the shelves: potatoes, turnips, carrots, half a cabbage, some fresh onions, several different kinds of green peppers. And always there's the question: now, how can I make
them - not the corn or tomatoes that I'd rather be dealing with - into something we'll enjoy? Tonight it was peppers, grilled, then briefly sauteed with chili powder, doused with leftover sour cream mixed with leftover ricotta salata and rolled in flour tortillas. It was delicious.

But I am really looking forward to the corn and tomatoes we've been promised at tomorrow's pickup.

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