Urban Greens

You often hear people dismiss the option of individual action when it comes to impacting climate crisis now being previewed in the less developed part of the world. But you won’t hear that from me, the tree hugger of the family, though I can’t claim anything approaching a perfect record. I did, after all, spend at least a decade helping a client put those PET bottles and packaging into our shopping carts and refrigerators, not to mention virtually every jogger’s hand. That was after I helped another client promote a technology that most certainly contributed to over-fishing.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t making any big decisions. Just one of the little people on the team who wrote and placed stories, came up with new ideas for a trade show, in other words, contributed to business as usual. As a grandson recently remarked about a past event: there’s no changing that. Indeed. It’s only in the present that we make choices that affect the future.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Some months ago, we stumbled upon Urban Greens Co-op Market in Providence, RI, where we escape from Florida’s summers (and hurricanes). As a former food co-op member, my inner hippie finds the Birkenstock-and-beards vibe familiar (and like family). So does the beautiful produce from local farmers, the free trade coffee, the pasture-raised meats, free-range eggs, nutraceuticals — you get the picture. Yes, Whole Foods (Providence has two) offers many of these items, and even occasionally someone helpful enough to check stock for an item missing from the shelf. But Urban Greens is an oasis in what is commonly known as a food desert of mom-and-pop convenience outfits offering sodas, bagged snacks, candy bars as food. Walking in that neighborhood at a hour when the high school opens, it’s obvious what many teens take for breakfast. Fingers crossed the cafeterias offer a hot meal, salad, fresh fruit.

As problems go, nutrition of children isn’t in the top ten these days, but guess what? It matters. A whole lot. To our future. On this, I’m with British chef, Jamie Oliver, who briefly imported his successful Feed Me Better school campaign to U.S. schools. I’m also a huge fan of Chef Jose Andres whose World Central Kitchen provides free meals during disasters, weather- and pandemic-related.

Membership in Urban Greens is (to us reasonable) $160/year or $40/year over 4 years and it also offers a Food-For-All Membership of $80/year for households that meet federal low-income guidelines. You don’t have to be a member to shop there, just pay more. And, it supports women- and minority-owned businesses.

Yes, this individual choice may seem a very small step in the wicked problem of how we adapt — mitigate isn’t even an option, according to most climate scientists — to our future on a hotter, dryer, less hospitable, planet. Perhaps not the equivalent of choosing to fly less, or not at all. Hold that aviation analogy in your mind for a moment: where we buy our food could be one of those choices that makes the difference between slowing down to a glide and softer landing vs. a nose-dive.

Reskilling: Why it Matters

If you’re unfamiliar with the term reskilling, perhaps it has a Small-is-Beautiful, DIY, hippie commune, neo-Luddite, back-to-the-land vibe. What you may not know is that reskilling is bedrock for the Transition Movement founded by Rob Hopkins which holds that: “… in a carbon constrained and localized world, communities will have to provide for many of their basic needs which means possessing the skills to do so.”

Of course, basic needs are open to wide interpretation. For some of us, it means fast, reliable Wi-Fi. Some of my most adored people would put shampoo, conditioner and a hot comb on their list of essentials, right up there with waterproof eyeliner (mine!). I kid, but seriously, we are so used to enjoying potable water, hot showers and plug in everything, we don’t think twice about what it takes to produce them, or what happens if they for any reason become unavailable.

I think of reskilling as a way of reclaiming the know-how that previous generations – parents, grandparents, trusted elders — passed down to us, along with values like thrift, making-do, cooperation. If even some of us embrace down-shifting, cutting back on our demands for generated power, it just might give the earth a chance to recover from decades of over-extraction.

A lot of people have been energized by recent events and in my area, weekly demonstrations along the motorcade route to/from the so-called ‘winter White House’ were a thing, along with Town Hall Meetings, and steady pressure on one’s Members of Congress when s/he doesn’t speak for you. All good, all the time. But I believe quieter forms of resistance to consumerism and the damage it is doing, belong in the mix. Reskilling IS Resistance.

So, could you make fire if you had to? Milk a cow? Forage for wild food? Sharpen tools without electricity? How about capture wild yeast to make bread? Mend or repair clothing? Could you distinguish between edible or poisonous mushrooms, or navigate using a simple compass? If these sound like Boy Scout badges, bingo! The point is, there are as many ways to reskill as there are people willing to teach what they know. But don’t take my word for it.

Check out the Firefly Gathering (thank you, Dylan Ryal-Hamilton), in Asheville, NC which begins June 29 and goes for four days. Everything from Archery and Blacksmithing Basics to Zen and the Art of Wood Splitting, over 100 classes and still growing at this writing, are being offered. No one is saying this specifically in the FAQ’s but it seems obvious to me that people go there eager to teach, AND learn. I am excited about experiencing  this event first hand…maybe next year.

More reading on this topic here:

What Is Reskilling Anyway?

Green Hand Initiative. Blogger Clifford Dean Scholz has a stunning article on Navigation.



Post-Consumer Waste: What to Do?

Until I assembled this random assortment of stuff from around our house, I thought we were doing pretty well as an environmentally-aware couple: rejecting plastic straws, carrying our own bags, going meatless, driving an EV, all things about which we’ve gotten diligent and even a touch self-congratulatory.  Now, I’m not so sure. How to dispose of these items without sending them to The Great Pacific Garbage IMG_1077Patch has become an obsession of mine.  So please forgive my attempt to infect you with the same.

Of course, our voluntary behavior modification falls into the category of First World problems and may be of little or no impact on global warming that is already locked in[1].  So, why bother? One answer is, if enough of us to whom so much is given do something, perhaps we can buy some time for solutions that will benefit all. Case in point, this week, Floridians overwhelmingly voted Yes on Amendment #4[2] that supports affordable solar power in the Sunshine State.  This is an excellent shift with legislative muscle, but there’s another side to this that gets short shrift: we are still not doing enough to train ourselves to live within planetary limits.  As the saying goes: to live more simply so that others — and not just our own species — might simply live.

No matter how you look at it, dealing with First World consumption and waste is a wicked problem that isn’t going away without a huge movement — individual, local, state, and national. If you need convincing about how this issue deepens the have/have not chasm, you must read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.  For the design perspective, try William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of information about addressing the issue of post-consumer waste — it turns out there’s money to be made in reclamation of many materials  — and you’ll find some helpful links below.  But let’s state the obvious: the best place to tackle waste is to begin at the beginning: “Think before you buy or toss,” advises Bridget Johnson of Green Girl Recycling.  And that second thought should include not only the item purchased itself but how it is packaged.  This is a special interest of mine as I used to write for both the manufacturer of a popular clear bottling plastic and for a packaging trade publication.  So I should know better than to find myself in this dilemma: true, clear containers make salad greens look inviting and maybe keep them fresh longer.  But can the plastic be recycled back into pellets?  In most cases, the answer is No, though some come close to that ideal, and may wind up in other value-added products, e.g. PET bottles to construction materials.  That said, I’m better off choosing loose greens and vegetables as I do when the farmers markets are in full swing in my area, or those with minimal wrapping.

Hearing aid batteries.  They are small, but you may go through a lot of them in a year.  Best advice from the experts: look for those that specify Mercury-free. These can be safely disposed of with household waste. More info here: http://www.seniorcitizensguide.com/articles/pittsburgh/hearing-aid-battery-disposal.htm  green-recycling-iconPackaging (paper and blister plastic) should also carry some version of the familiar chasing arrows recycling symbol.

Durable Packaging.  The handsome heavy case you see in the photo did a fine job of protecting the mini-speaker that works with my Bluetooth-enabled smart phone, but what a bear to recycle!  A month after I purchased it, I haven’t figured out how to recycle the various heavy-duty plastics it came in, or even if I can at all. Maybe I can use it for storing cotton balls or pens.  My electric toothbrush, an appliance I have come to rely on for optimum cleaning, is another puzzle. What to do with the so-called disposable brush part which is made up of so many materials, molded plastic being just one?  Anybody?  Of course, nearly all plastics are petroleum-based, so we’re basically supporting an industry whose negative environmental impact is well documented.

Health and Beauty Aids.
  The lipstick, tooth picks and bug sprayer are similarly problematic because they are either made from or packaged in more than one type of plastic.  True for most HABA items whether bottles, tubes or jars.  The containers themselves may carry a recycle # designation, but the caps almost never.  Even if every part was designated recyclable, I honestly cannot imagine the municipal facility that would separate them appropriately, so chances are these will wind up in landfill forever.

“Doggie Bags.”  Time was, you got a little brown paper bag for leftovers. Today, not so much.  So here’s how it goes.  Styrofoam #6 is cheap to manufacture and has many uses, from life rafts to ubiquitous fast-food containers.  It cannot be recycled with other plastics.  Restaurants are not going to stop using those god-awful styrofoam clam shells until we 1. stop ordering more than we can eat (a whole other problem), and/or 2. start bringing our own packaging for leftovers, or 3. municipalities start banning the use of the material as San Francisco just did.

Where can you turn to?  Your local municipality’s solid waste authority usually has a website (mine: http://www.swa.org/) with a ton of information of what can be brought to the facility, often translated into short handy guides.  Most take CFL bulbs. Many take large appliances.  We may eventually see a roll out of  the Extended Producer Responsibility that makes the producer responsible for the entire life-cycle of a product. Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_producer_responsibility  This goes well beyond Product Stewardship, though that is also a hopeful sign: http://productstewardship.net/products/mercury/resources/programs/business

Incandescent bulbs cannot be recycled, but since they contain no toxic material, you can safely add to household waste.  Retailers will often take back fluorescent bulbs, printer refills and even a variety of electronics.  Best Buys has been a leader in this and has won awards for the service.  See Electronics Take Back: http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/manufacturer-takeback-programs/

There is even a strong Business Case for Product Take-Back: http://www.triplepundit.com/special/circular-economy-and-green-electronics/is-there-a-business-case-for-product-take-back/

And finally, my favorite FAQ’s from Grist’s green expert, Ask Umbra: http://grist.org/article/umbra_faqs/  Many layers of information by simply clicking on internal links.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/aug/15/climate-urgency-weve-locked-in-more-global-warming-than-people-realize

[2] http://miami.cbslocal.com/2016/08/30/amendment-4-would-make-solar-cheaper-for-property-owners-2/

Living Large with Less

Last week was the kind that provides comics like John Oliver and his merry band of satirists plenty of fodder. First, the Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, which looks like an unusual example of bipartisan agreement until you notice that S.2012 is an odd, something for everyone kind of bill that manages to avoid mention of climate change while including language about energy efficiencies and support for more pipelines and LNG exports. “All the above” revisited, in other words.

I also plan to keep the champagne on ice for now, despite the grand theater of 171 nations coming together at the UN to sign to sign the Paris accord. As you probably realized, the agreement is nonbinding on signees, a kind of letter of intent. In how many ways does Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon have to remind us: We are in a race against time?

Cue the sun. A lot of people are putting all or most of their eggs in the technology basket, and it is a tempting sell. Last week also saw the first airing of a stunning presentation on nuclear fusion, the ‘holy grail’ of energy, by VICE, HBO’s investigative series. Click on either link and catch Shane Smith chatting with alternative energy rock stars, Elon Musk and Taylor Wilson, who at age 14, achieved nuclear fusion. In his garage. (VICE, season 4, edition 9). Proponents believe nuclear fusion can supply all the clean energy we need virtually forever.

vice-on-hbo-future-of-energy-trailer-1460395092Not to be a party-pooper, but solving for energy doesn’t address how we will feed a population heading to 10 billion when my teenage grandchildren hit middle age. And then there’s the less sexy subject of waste. Although fusion does not produce waste (and may actually convert it to energy), just about all other human activity does. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to cut your own contribution to the North Atlantic garbage patch.  And plenty of people are addressing just this. Here’s a cool list of tips, tools and ideas (my personal skim) to consider:

Gadget upgrade fever is how the Fruit and its Silicon Valley peers stay in business. Your iPhone is meant to be replaced in three years, your Mac in four. Surprise!  But you don’t have to play along.  What if maintenance could be the next, next thing?  What if you could learn to love the ones you’re with.  Keeping your discarded electronic gear out of the waste stream is a biggie for obvious reasons.

How to make waste-free living chic and creative? Advice abounds, well-produced blogs on how to eliminate plastic packaging from your life (cloth bags); where and how to shop, prepare and store food with minimal impact (farmers markets, the bin section of your organic HQ, toting your own containers); how to go vintage and practice upcycling.  Zen and the art of maintaining everything. Have fun checking these out. I did!

Zero Waste Chef — Anne-Marie Bonneau. Start collecting your glass jars! Best sour dough instructions.

Going Zero Waste — Kathryn Kellogg. Making your own natural cosmetics, worm bin composting (once you get past the ew factor).

Trash Is For Tossers – Lauren Singer, also sells green alternatives on her site, also inspired by Zero Waste Home – ‘Guru’ Bea Johnson.

A Small and Delicious Life – homesteading tips by a sustainability and behavior change guru, Ruben Anderson.

No Impact Man Project – what Colin Beavan is up to now that he’s a single dad.

Mr. Money Mustache – Peter Adeney’s wildly successful blog on thrift. Also his piece on a road trip by Tesla.

Ecological wearable art: Trash Fashions, created by Aidana Baldassarre (local) and Zero Waste Fashion (New York Times).  Mostly for the young and skinny, but love those upcycled totes.

Repurposed clothing on Esty. Much more than artfully slashing your old jeans for a new look.

Thrift Shops in Palm Beach County – Google thrift in your area for a similar list.

The Renegade Seamstress – DIY fashions

LifeEdited – DIY Murphy bed is just the beginning. Sign up for the newsletter. One of the few that doesn’t immediately pepper you with unwanted advertising.

Craig’s List How To Nice of them to give us a hand.

Facebook ‘Virtual Garages Sales’ for your area. As long as we keep moving on and up, there will be lightly used furniture and household stuff available.

Finally, here’s a calculator that shows you where you are now and where/how/how much you could lessen your carbon impact. Wish they had considered the EV in their calculations. http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/calculator

Greenier Than Thou?

OK, I’ll admit that our switch from Florida Power and Light to Pear Energy, a renewable energy broker over a year ago, right after we began our lease of a Nissan Leaf, made me feel a tad smug. Competitions about one’s carbon footprint don’t seem out of line, given the state of the Planet.  Not to mention that I managed to convince a small number of friends to make the switch.

Pear Energy imageWe stuck with Pear despite accusations in social media that the company was engaged in ‘green-washing,’ because here in South Florida, there seemed to be no better choice.  The company’s move from Miami to Amherst, MA, gave me pause but it was business as usual. Here’s a link to the discussion between that convinced us we’d rather fight than switch back: http://www.greenwashingindex.com/pear-energy-how-green/ I’ve written some damage-control PR in my life, so I appreciated how Pear answered its critics:

… it is important to keep in mind that we are an independent REC seller, which is a different model than that of a local utility’s green energy program. Local utilities are established, profitable businesses that simply add REC sales into their mix of services, as one very small share of their overall operations. These established utilities do not need to generate additional revenue through REC sales because they use their profits from selling electricity generated by coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy to provide a tiny subsidy to their purchases of clean energy RECs. By contrast, because REC sales are one of Pear Energy’s main activities, a portion of our charges must go to supporting our staff and our business operations. So, to summarize: 100 percent of all of our business activity supports the development of green energy in the U.S.

So imagine my surprise yesterday, when I received this email.

Dear Marika Stone,

Your Pear Energy account is officially closed as of November 10, 2014. As previously mentioned, Pear Energy is no longer offering our residential renewable energy service for homes and small businesses.

  • You will receive utility bills again. Please make payments directly to FPL normally. In addition, you may be receiving a verification email from your utility due to the recent changes made on your account.

Thank you again for supporting renewable energy and helping to build the green economy.


The Billing Department
Pear Energy
(877) 969-7327

Apparently, I wasn’t the only customer who was upset at the news because today, another email arrived from Pear Energy offering us renewable energy via one of its partners, Acadia Power.  We’ll look before we leap, of course.  I won’t be surprised if there is a whole lot more of this kind of shaking out as we move toward renewables, and neither should you be.  In fact, I welcome it. Stay tuned

REC – Renewable Energy Certificates


The End of Suburbia?

Suburbia1 The morning air is filled with the mingled odors of honeysuckle and gas-powered riding mowers as I walk through an upscale neighborhood of old trees, shaded lawns, two- and even three-garage homes, and very few sidewalks, where the Northern branch of my immediate family lives. It is a peaceful village/suburb of Providence, RI, a city of greater economic diversity than you will find here.  This is one feature that makes a city like Providence a more interesting place to live for empty nesters, especially those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, and for the Millennials which, urban planners say, will have smaller and/or very different families, and prefer cities as hubs of creativity and innovation.  There will always be people who prefer big homes and lawns, of course, just fewer of them than there are now.  And even here, a few signs of change coming, as this small act of  food independence in the neighborhood suggests.  Suburban acupuncture?Suburbia 2 tomatoes

We raised our own kids in the similar suburb of Montclair, 11 miles from New York City where we both worked, for similar reasons: good schools and safe neighborhoods, among others.  In our day, doors were locked only at night, you knew your neighbors, and milk, even eggs and butter, were delivered from a local dairy in glass and paper packaging.  Boys AND girls could, in many cases, walk safely to school, and pretty much had the run of the neighborhood.  You always knew where they were by the collection of bicycles and skateboards in the driveway.  Our kids got a very good start here, and express nostalgia for this time in their lives, even recreating it for their own offspring.

As a visitor to my former hometown, I was glad to see the Upper Montclair shopping hub holding its own on this sunny Tuesday.  We worried about how the proximity of Willowbrook Mall and the Outlets in Secaucus would affect business locally.  We shopped at Saunders Hardware and Keil’s Drugs instead of the Big Box chains out of a sense of hometown loyalty.  Climate activism wasn’t on the radar quite yet.

Keeping your local merchants — food growers especially — in business is an even better idea now as community resilience  becomes the new measure of thriving.   It remains possible where relative affluence buys some time and a wider range of life options.  So chances are that the Dariens and Maplewoods may adapt reasonably well to changing demographics that skew urban, plus the energy crunch and other impacts of global warming to come.  Suburbs less well-designed and with fewer advantages, not so much.  They may be the first to falter.

We who were fortunate enough to live in the leafy child-centered suburbs of a great city got through the OPEC crisis of the 70s and kept right on driving.  We know better now.


Personal Energy Descent Plan

Relocalizing, resilience and community-building are hallmarks of the Transition Movement, but at the heart of it all is energy descent. This recognizes that 1. global warming is real and threatens not only our way of life but life itself, and 2. easy energy is history (aka Peak Oil).  Absent a technological breakthrough that can be scaled quickly enough to fill current needs, energy shortfall is the reality we are all facing, sooner rather than later. Energy, including our own human energy, is something we have some control over, so it behooves us to experiment, here and now, in order to become better able to handle it and other challenges, e.g. food and potable water shortages, that could arise further down the road.

‘Cheap’ energy has created our civilization and continues to drive it forward (although the costs will soar once externalities become accounted for). So in one sense, people who already ‘make do’ with far less energy have a leg up on us. To take one example: as difficult as it is to imagine in the Southeastern U.S., with millions of square feet artificially cooled, many people around the world have developed other strategies for dealing with extreme heat. Think mud walls. Strategically placed trees and landscaping. Minimal clothing. Communal watering holes. Siestas. Evening strolls (paseo). Even spicy foods. Hold these in your mind while you recall that the thousands of people who succumbed to the ‘killer’ heat wave of 2003 were all in the developed parts of Europe, many housed in apartments during power outages, many isolated from family and friends.

What might we be able to learn from our ancestors and extant native traditions about cooling it?

As I sit here in my home office, feeling over-cooled though the thermostat reads 79°F, I find myself thinking about fellow Transitoners and artists, Beju Lejobart and Sherryl Muriente – he from France, she from Puerto Rico – who defy conventional wisdom that AC is best and have devised any number of methods to cool their single-family home in a neighboring town, including strategic positioning of fans to encourage cross-ventilation and a swimming pool they happily use in the middle of a hot night.   Sherryl also teaches urban planning at FAU, and dreams up ways of making small urban spaces more human-scale, walkable and liveable. See C’est La Via.

solar chargerAlthough we’re far from a Net-Zero existence, we keep adding to our personal energy descent plan in as many ways as we can. This morning, we got an invoice for $108. from Pear Energy, the renewable resources company that powers our home and EV.  In May, our power was supplied by Superior Wind Project, in Iowa, which came on-line in Spring 2009. We have previously been powered by Lakota Wind, also in Iowa, and now have the opportunity to switch to solar energy via Gainesville Regional Utilities for an extra $.01 per kilowatt-hour. When people who attend one of my rants, uh, presentations on global warming ask me, What can I do? I suggest the 10% local foods challenge, composting, and switching to Pear Energy as three very doable choices. No martyrdom here.

We cannot wait to see how the White House initiative on ‘carbon pollution’ will play out (or what kind of reframing will make global warming more easily digested by more people.) There is much we ordinary citizens can do about our own energy usage, and in Southeast Florida, that means paying attention to AC. Here are a few random facts and observations

  • Most indoor spaces are too cool for comfort (ask most women). We need smarter thermostats and zoned HVAC in our homes, and more responsive retailers, restaurateurs and public officials.
  • “Air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors. To do this, it uses energy, which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We’re cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that’s still habitable.” William Saletan
  • Refrigerators and air conditioners are the largest consumers of energy in American homes today. Find ways to cut down.
  • AC use for the average American home emits over 6,600 pounds CO2 a year. Maybe smaller spaces are an answer. See LifeEdited. Or the Tiny House movement.
  • The U.S. uses more air conditioning than the rest of the world combined, but that is about to change as the developing world catches up. Let’s hope not.
  • Even Eskimos are purchasing AC units.

Final note: I added a Solar Charger to my sunny East window this morning and plugged in the iPhone I’m trying to rely on less. Two hours later, 100% charged. One small step for energy self-sufficiency…

Other Sources:

EPA, Clean Energy Calculations — very useful for an energy audit

Carbon Rally — take the challenge