Book I Read In 2017 – Part 1

Reading is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s free. It helps me better understand other people. And I can totally do it while curled up in bed on a cold day. This year I thought it would be interesting to keep track of what I read just to see how my interests change over time. Even within this past month, however, there seems to be a pretty decent variety.

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The Book of Genesis by R Crumb – If you’ve already read a couple of translations of Genesis and are interested in another perspective, this illustrated book definitely fits the bill. The illustrations are sometimes distracting from the story but more often add another layer of context and understanding.

War with the Newts by Karel Capek – The plot is similar to Capek’s R.U.R. in that there are creatures who start to become more human-like and then get out of hand. This book touches on war, slavery, humanity, and invasive species. It’s a delightfully quick read, but it makes up for that with time that you spend staring out into space just thinking about things.

One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry – If you had to draw 100 of your personal demons, what would they be? One of mine would probably be a leaf-footed stink bug because they’re just creepy. Here Barry shares her own demons in these illustrated stories.

Eco-Chic Home by Emily Anderson – There are only a few projects in this book that I’d do. The rest left me either uninspired or in some cases disappointed that perfectly good items were being upcycled into something of lower value.

90 Classic Books for People in a Hurry by Henrik Lange – In one page each, I finally learned the super high level plot of some classics like One Hundred Years of Solitude (I’ll read it someday) and Lolita. Others I had already read, and the summaries varied from hilarious to meh. And yet others, I had never heard of. (How do you define “Classic Books”?) If you pick it up in the library, you can probably read the pages for just your favorites and be done in a few minutes, so there’s nothing to lose.

The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden – This is a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious graphic novel, telling the story of the author’s own life and the ways in which she’s been impacted by breast cancer. So many people I’m acquainted with have been diagnosed, and the whole time I was reading this book I was hoping she would explain what the hell is going on with the world. But I start thinking that way whenever my brain gets on this topic. Would recommend this book both for the engaging storyline and the insight into understanding how different people deal with hard truths.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond – This was our book club book of the month. First of all, one word of warning, this is a really long book. That said, it contains insights into why people sometimes do things that destroy the environment, against their own best interests. One of the stories involves Easter Island, once full of trees totally deforested by the time Europeans set eyes on it. For the person who cut down the last tree, what was he thinking?

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger – Yet another graphic novel, this time about a bookmobile that contains everything the visitor has ever read, including cereal boxes and journals, and about the lengths that one person would go through to be united with these written memories forever.

The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln by Noah Van Sciver – This book left me in the lurch, as I was afterwards wondering how in the world this guy could have ever become president. I may have to read a full biography someday to learn what happened in that gap before my education kicks in about him actually being president. Wouldn’t recommend just because it ends so early.

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier – Some of these would absolutely not grow in central Texas, but I now have a few more plants on my wishlist. I just wish there was also such a thing as a carrot tree.

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte – Most books about garbage get either excessively scientific or depressing, but I love them all anyway. And this book is even better because it’s told by an outsider of the garbage world who is enthralled to explore what becomes of her refuse. She jumps hurdles to be able to visit landfills, MRFs, composting facilities, and more. In her more personal journey, she tracks those things that she disposes, tries to reduce her own garbage, attempts to reduce the related manufacturing garbage by buying less, and finally discusses extended producer responsibility. Loved it. 🙂

That’s it so far! You may see some other gardening books in the photo above, but I’ve only listed out the ones where I read at least half of the book this year–not just a particular chapter for reference or a quick skim before setting it aside uninterested. These all went back to the library today. Time to pick up the next set of good reads!

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Book Review: A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy

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I’ve read several books about not buying things, but this was the first time I’ve read one that was just beautiful. Sarah Lazarovic’s A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy is the illustrated story of the author’s own experiences with consumerism, how she spent a year painting the things she wanted instead of buying them, and some advice on how anyone can improve their life by shopping less.

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Oh man, I used to love that show!

I saw this book at the library several times before and never took it seriously. After all, artists may be known for being poor but they’re not known for their great economic sensibilities. But I’m glad I finally gave it a shot. The stories about disposable goods were thoroughly humorous and entertaining. The compulsions to buy minimalist goods (“I have too much crap. I need more of less.”) are something I’ve experienced myself. And I could absolutely have used some of the rules she shares here rather than learn them myself the hard way.

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But… what if it’s on clearance for $3.99???

As pretty as this book is, I borrowed instead of buying it. But it’s really tempting. It’s so easy to read that I kind of want to shove it at everyone I know so they can all finally understand how I feel about shopping. I’ve gotten so used to not buying crap most of the time that it’s just normal now and explanations fail me when the topic comes up unexpectedly. Who knows? Maybe I still will buy it one day. But I at least have to follow Rule #3: “Don’t buy anything the first time you see it…”

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Level 1: Use what you have!

Now, I just need someone to write an illustrated book about why I don’t want the free tshirts that keep being pushed on me.

Book Review – The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

One of my favorite vendors at the farmers market had a wide selection of goodies this week–plums, cucumbers, soft persimmons, hard persimmons, figs, and more. On the one hand it’s awesome to have so much good food to choose from, and on the other hand it takes me a couple of minutes each time I go just to make a decision. Barry Shwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less offers some insights into the problems that can come from having too much choice and some ways that we can simplify our lives reducing the number of choices we have to deal with each day.

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Maximizing

One of the most striking things I learned is that I’m naturally a maximizer:

“Imagine going shopping for a sweater. You go to a couple of department stores or boutiques, and after an hour or so, you find a sweater that you like. The color is striking, the fit is flattering, and the wool feels soft against your skin. The sweater costs $89. You’re all set to take it to the salesperson when you think about the store down the street that has a reputation for low prices. You take the sweater back to its display table, hide it under a pile of other sweaters of a different size (so that no one will buy it out from under you), and leave to check out the other store…. Maximizers need to be assured that every purchase or decision was the best that could be made.”

Ahh, comparison shopping. I have on occasion spent more time researching vacation options than I would spend on the actual vacation. 😦

“Maximizers are more likely to experience regret after a purchase.”

Yup, one of my main reasons for getting involved in the Buy Nothing New project was because I was sick of buyer’s remorse. (Is that really not normal?)

“Maximizers savor positive events less that satisficers and do not cope as well (by their own admission) with negative events.”

Hrm, that sounds really bad. I’ve been working on it already though before even reading this book. Dealing with negative events will always be hard, but with gratitude journaling and enjoying the critters run around the garden it’s a lot easier to be happy.

“[P]erfectionists have very high standards that they don’t expect to meet, whereas maximizers have very high standards that they do expect to meet.”

😦 This is just getting worse, but it’s crazy how well this explains my character. I do have high standards and I really do get disappointed when I fail to meet them.

I have been on my own path to being less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer, though. That is, someone who will take the sweater if it meets all of her requirements and then, not sweat it. No second guessing. I chose the hard persimmons this week. They’re sweet and very refreshing when frozen and sliced. I don’t know how any of the other options would have turned out, but No Regrets.

See? Progress.

Adaptation

Knowing about Maximizers may not be relevant to you, but one thing that is relevant to everyone is adaptation. It could be adapting to positive experiences (like when your office starts providing fresh fruit for employees) or for negative experiences (like visiting a different city where that tap water tastes kind of weird). Whether positive or negative, it gradually becomes a new normal. And that’s worth factoring in when making a big decision worth busting out your pros/cons list.

“In 1973, 13 percent of Americans thought of air-conditioning in their cars as a necessity. Today, 41 percent do. I know the earth is getting warmer, but the climate hasn’t changed that much in thirty years. What has changed is our standard of comfort.”

If you take a job in a different city, sure it’ll be interesting for a while. But crazily enough, eventually you’ll get used to it. And it often doesn’t take as long as you might think.

“Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn’t sustain itself.”

When my office runs out of fresh fruit, it’s just *grumble, grumble*. It’s no longer special. It’s something that I expect.

The same is true of folks who upgrade to a larger house with so much space that they think it’ll be the last house they’ll ever need. The empty space even requires buying more things to fill it up. Until at some point the house doesn’t feel so spacious anymore and they start dreaming bigger.

“Factoring in adaptation to the decision-making process may make differences that seem large at the moment of choice feel much smaller. Factoring in adaptation may help us be satisfied with choices that are good enough rather than ‘the best,’ and this in turn will reduce the time and effort that we devote to making those choices.”

Hedonism

What happens when adaptation goes to far? You keep expecting more and more, and you can never find happiness.

“We probably can do more to affect the quality of our lives by controlling our expectations than we can by doing virtually anything else. The blessing of modest expectations is that they leave room for many experiences to be a pleasant surprise, a hedonic plus. The challenge is to find a way to keep expectations modest, even as actual experiences keep getting better…. One way of achieving this goal is by keeping wonderful experiences rare.”

Anchors

Or as I prefer to call them, fake choices.

“One high-end catalog seller of mostly kitchen equipment and gourmet foods offered an automatic bread maker for $279. Sometime later, the catalog began to offer a larger capacity, deluxe version for $429. They didn’t sell too many of these expensive bread makers, but sales of the less expensive one almost doubled!  With the expensive bread maker serving as an anchor, the $279 machine had become a bargain.”

This is ridiculous! But after seeing it, I realize how common it is. It doesn’t always need to be a different product. Sometimes the anchor is the “list” price, which is then slashed by 10% or even steeper to make me think I’m getting such a good deal that I can’t not buy something.

Beware of price comparisons, and think of the true value to you.

Choice Paralysis

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Ketchup or catsup? Which is better?

Someone should have statistics on this but I’m not familiar with any so I’ll just make something up. If you’re anything like the average American, you’ll spend 892 hours in supermarkets during your lifetime just staring at shelves full of soups or something like that and trying to decide which to get.

Schwartz described an experiment done with jam-tastings at a supermarket. In one scenario, shoppers had 24 different choices of jam and after sampling 3% bought some. In the other scenario, shoppers had 6 different choices of jam and 30% of shoppers bought some.

Nope, choice doesn’t always make things better.

How to Deal With Too Much Choice

Almost everyone wants more choice, and in general more choice is a good thing. But just because a choice exists doesn’t mean you need to worry about always making the best choice. Schwartz states that it’s okay to just choose the soup that’s on sale or to choose the one that just happens to be directly in front of you. Hey, you have better things to be making decisions about.

“This is a very good thing. The burden of having every activity be a matter of deliberate and conscious choice would be too much for any of us to bear.”

In Summary

Use your power of choice where it really matters and the rest of the time accept any choice that satisfies your base requirements.

Manage your expectations. It’s natural to want new and shiny things, but take some time to realize that what you have is pretty darn awesome too.

Likewise, factor adaptation into your decisions. Something that seems shiny and new now probably won’t feel that shiny and new for very long. And thought a routine may seem tough now, you can probably get used to it. Recognize those things that will really matter in the long term.

 

And if you’re a little crazy like me, make a decision to not buy new stuff unless you really need it. Or resolve to only make planned purchases and wait a day before making a decision if you get the urge to buy something on impulse. Sure, there are a lot of choices to make besides purchasing decisions, but if you have the option to stop paying attention to advertisements it sure gives your brain a lot of extra space to think.

Book Review – The Moneyless Man

Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten pretty good at not buying things. But what if I couldn’t buy internet service? Bus tickets? FOOD? That’s exactly what Mark Boyle tries to do in his book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living.

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This wasn’t the first time I had heard of money-free living, but it’s the first time I really listened.

“Money is a bit like love. We spend our entire lives chasing it, yet few of us understand what it actually is.”

Boyle begins with the story of money being introduced into society which he leads naturally led to banks and the practice of lending out money that wasn’t theirs. Let’s say five people each put $50 in the bank. Then the bank would loan out $50 to someone else even if none of the money they had was their own. (It sounds great at first. The bank and its customers get some interest as the borrower pays back the $50, and the borrower was able to get the cash when he really needed it.)

“For most of us, money represents security. As long as we have money in the bank, we’ll be safe.”

What I had never considered before reading this book is that banks are strongly incentivized to loan out as much money as possible, making the foundation not only shaky but also pushing loans on people and encouraging them to buy things that they could otherwise do without for a while. This process leads to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer buying things they can’t afford and paying interest on it all the while. Taken in that perspective, money-free living finally makes some sense.

So Boyle decides to see what it would be like to live without even touching money for a year. He spends months in preparation figuring out how to live without money. Oddly enough, he starts by buying some supplies like solar panels. Other things he acquires for free, like a caravan that someone didn’t want. He finds a place where he can put the caravan and live in exchange for his labor, and learns about humanure and rocket stoves for moneyfree defecation and cooking respectively. And finally, it’s time. He sells his houseboat, gives the proceeds to a charity he set up, and embarks on his new life.

Boyle recognized from the start that to live without money, he’d also have to rely on community. His charity is all about skill-sharing so he can have more skills to barter with. He performs odd jobs in exchange for foodstuffs or other goods. He relies on strangers to give him a lift while hitchhiking to visit his folks for the holidays. He goes dumpster diving with acquaintances, and even brings in the whole community a couple of times to throw and enjoy feasts created from food that would otherwise have been disposed of.

One of the common complaints about this book was that Boyle is still using money fairly regularly, just not his own. Using a phone line that someone else paid for. Living on land that someone else is paying for. Relying on someone else’s trash to eat. It wouldn’t be sustainable if everyone were to suddenly embrace his way of life.

But I’ve got to give him credit for purifying his water, doing manual labor when he could have opted for a lazier option, rescuing food from going to landfill. There are some ideas in this book that anyone interested in green living can learn from. And most of all, it promotes the idea of thrift.

“When you produce anything of your own, you don’t waste a drop.”

While I’m still not sold (ha!) on the idea that money is inherently bad, I may do a bit more research into what banks I do business with. Perhaps I should also donate more instead of aggressively planning for solitary retirement?

As for Boyle, what’s he up to these days? Well, he’s still living mostly “moneyless”, but not quite. If you’re really interested, you can find out more from his articles for The Guardian.

I’ll leave you with one final thought, though, because it’s something I at times need to be reminded of myself:

“Activists often talk like they ‘want to save the earth’. The earth will be fine, in time; it’s humanity that may need saving. But who do they want to ‘save’ it for? Only other activists? Only for activists and the working classes? Or for everyone: executive bankers, environmentalists, police officers, human rights activists, and politicians alike?”

 

Book Bites

It’s a good thing I ride the bus to get places, because I like to read a lot and the bus is a great place for that. I usually read a couple of books per week. Sometimes I mean to review the books on here but most of the time I just dig right into another book instead. So, in case anyone’s interested here’s a quick summary of some of my recent reads. Let me know if there are any you’d like to know more about and I’ll make time for a more in-depth dive.

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It’s a good thing libraries exist!

Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future – Tim Flannery

This book was the focus of last month’s Talk Green To Me book club. It came out in 2009, and at the time he stated that the earth was between a tipping point and a point of no return, where we would no longer be able to prevent catastrophic climate change. It’s so weird reading something like this because in the book world there’s this impending catastrophe, but in most people’s day-to-day lives this doesn’t come into play at all. An interesting read, but most of the solutions proposed are on a governmental level, which warrants reading a more recent book on this topic instead.

Trees of Texas Field Guide – Stan Tekiela

I’ve often heard that one of the basic nature skills everyone should learn is how to tell apart different types of trees. I’m working on that, but it’s hard. With this guide, I’ve determined that the big tree in my front yard is an American Elm, and one of the trees near the creek is likely a Pecan which is a type of Hickory. The leaves are too high up to get a good view, though, so I’m not 100% on that one.

A Year Without “Made In China” – Sara Bongiorni

Making things in China is getting expensive these days, and more countries are sourcing their production in even cheaper countries with laxer regulations. But in 2007, living without goods made in China was nearly impossible. This book is about one family that tried to do just that, and realized that most things aren’t made locally at all anymore because it’s just so much cheaper to offshore it. It’s a bit ironic at times where it’s obvious that what they really want is cheap crap, like when they’re shopping for presents for other kids’ birthday parties. There were times in this book where I wanted to scream at them to just not buy anything, but that probably wouldn’t be very helpful. 🙂 This book did raise a lot of attention to where goods come from and why they’re so cheap, so I’m grateful for that.

Make Do and Mend

British pamplets from World War II. It’s really interesting how war can encourage whole countries to embrace thrift, saving every bit of scrap fabric, not wasting the least bit of food. But I also know that as soon as the war was over, consumerism was rampant. So war may not be the best way to convince people to embrace thrift again.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less – Barry Schwartz

There was once a time (before my time) where you could go to the store for a pencil, and there was one option so it was a straightforward choice. Now there are two-packs, ten-packs, twenty-packs. There are mechanical pencils and wooden pencils. They come in multiple designs and styles. I used to try to do the math to guess how much usage per dollar each option would offer me. Although in some cases, more choice really is better, Schwartz explains how in situations like this it is much much worse. There’s a limited threshold to how many decisions we can actively make in a day, so sometimes it’s nice to just make decisions on autopilot or to let someone else decide. This is a great read if you’ve ever had the unpackaged organic produce vs. plastic-wrapped conventional produce dilemma. And it helps give you a bit more understanding and sympathy for the fact that people don’t always make the best choice available.

You Are Now Less Dumb – David McRaney

This was pretty much a direct follow-up from the previous book. It contains a lot of the psychological manipulations that companies use to convince you that what they have to offer is better than the rest. Many of these manipulations could also be used in your day-to-day life to convince other people of your own opinions. Am I crazy in the hope that mankind is smart enough to make intelligent decisions on our own? I’m not sure, but here’s our back-up plan.

The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living – Mark Boyle

Moneyless living has never interested me much, but then again I never thought about it. In the intro to this book, Boyle describes how the existence of money actually hurts people. You put it into the bank, and then the bank is incentivized to loan it out. They’re so incentivized that they sometimes convince people to borrow money that they won’t be able to pay back. Or they siphon interest off of people their whole lives by keeping that balance carrying forward. It’s a thought that makes you consider that maybe any extra money is better donated to a charity straight off rather than stored in the bank and “invested.” Living totally without money isn’t easy, though. Boyle is able to score some necessities free but mainly because no one else is out there trying to do the same thing. His employer lets him live on their land, have his own garden there, and keep coppiced wood for his cooking and heating needs. And even with all of that, there are still troubles. But he makes it through in large part to his contributions to the sharing economy and development of skills to be bartered.

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front – Sharon Astyk

Asytk is on a mission for her and her family to use only their fair share of resources on this planet. Of course, this means family planning to prevent the fair share from being stretched further. It means knowing how to use the resources available in disaster scenarios. While this book discusses how in the future we won’t have as much access to oil or other imported goods in general, it’s also a disaster handbook for scenarios where you need to live off of your land. She advocates having a six-month supply of food in your pantry, a good home library to be able to teach children when no schools are accessible, ensuring you’ll have access to water and the resources to clean it for drinking. This was a hard book for me to swallow because I can’t maintain an “impending doom” mindset for too long and there was a lot of that in this book. Maybe I won’t be in as good a situation to survive as Astyk and her family, but I have some faith in necessity being the mother of invention.

The Waste Makers – Vance Packard

I’ll be starting this one on the bus ride to work tomorrow. It was written in the 60’s about consumer culture about the shift from goods that were made to last to goods that are meant to be disposable. Sounds like the perfect read for me.

Oh, and I have one book waiting on hold for me at the library–Wendy Pabich’s Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana. Whoa, that’s a long title! Anyhow, that’s our book club book for August and very appropriate during the dry summer months here in Texas.

So much great stuff to read! If you have any recommendations, please share those also. My To-Read list can never be too long.

Book Review – Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

A few months ago in book club, we read Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which focused on what makes cheap clothing so cheap (shoddy construction, labor outsourced to overseas countries, mass production, etc.) and how not just this but treating clothing as disposable commodities hurts us in general. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture continues the story for everything else out there–cheap furniture, cheap houses, cheap food, cheap everything.

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Shell references the following IKEA commercial as a prime example of how sellers would like us to look at potential purposes.

If a better lamp exists, why not purchase it? You can always leave the old one out on the curb. And if you get tired of the new lamp after a while, nothing’s to stop you from upgrading again. Of course, with this kind of mindset, it’s not so simple for anyone to be happy with a purchase anymore, because they’re always anticipating a newer, better thing from the moment they get it home.

Cheap illustrates how the very fact that the item being purchased is cheap lowers its valuation in the mindset of the buyer.

“Discounting plays many tricks on the human mind, and among the more intriguing is the influence of discounting on our relationship to the purchase itself. Although almost everyone seeks bargains, most of us make the tacit and often unconcious assumption that doing so involves a trade-off of quality for price: Regardless of what the tag or brand claims, we perceive things bought on sales or at a discount as less desirable or efficacious or durable than things for which we paid full price.”

 

In one referenced study, one group of students bought an energy drink at full price, and another bought it discounted at half price. Even though it was the same exact drink, the students who paid half-price got nowhere near the energy effect of those who paid full price. The same was found to be true of discounted painkillers. They had a far less powerful effect on pain than the same ones at full price. So maybe cheap and discounted goods aren’t always such a good deal after all.

Like OverdressedCheap also describes how quality is being cut across the board. Items to be sold are designed to meet a certain price point. This is nothing new, as this book describes the first discount stores and how they really came of age in the 50’s and 60’s. Originally, these were stocked with random items that could be bought cheaply for resale, and then as globalization really picked up stores were able to custom-order anything they wanted to sell, themselves shopping around for the lowest-priced manufacturing even if the materials and labor were a bit suspect. Continuing the IKEA example,

“[IKEA] designs to price, commissioning its suppliers to build not a mug, per se, but a custom-designed 50-cent mug; not a kitchen table and two chairs but a custom-designed kitchen table and two chairs for less than one hundred euros. Every year IKEA challenges its suppliers to lower their prices, and every year it challenges its designers to dream up still cheaper objects to sell, whether new ones or updated versions of classics.”

Another target for selling products with reduced quality are the factory outlets. According to Shell, “Factory outlets are America’s number-one tourist destination, the fastest-growing segment of not only the retail industry but also the travel industry.” The stories of people going on vacation somewhere and then using up much of their precious trip just to shop somewhere and save a couple of bucks is insane. Even with the brand names, she says, most of these outlet stores are no longer places to buy overstocked goods or those that didn’t fully meet quality standards. Instead, they’re selling products that are custom-created to be cheaper varieties of what the name brand represents. It’s like going out for orange juice and ending up with Sunny Delight (which can be cheaper because it contains little actual juice).

Personally, for a long time I wondered how Target could sell Converse shoes at half the price of other stores, before finally realizing that they weren’t the same shoes as all.

“Hundreds of other brands from Levi Strauss to Mercedes-Benz slice and dice their offerings for various markets, selling different products in different types of stores for different prices under the same brand. This practice is pervasive at discount retailers. Chains such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot have items manufactured “to their specifications,” meaning that the brand name is almost devoid of meaning. A television with a model number available only at Best Buy or Wal-Mart is–no matter its apparent brand–a Best Buy or Wal-Mart television.”

Of course, in my case, I never took a really good look at the shoes in question. I couldn’t have recognized quality shoe construction if it was staring me in the face. And unfortunately, according to Shell most other consumers are just like me thinking that they’re getting a bargain when it’s really something entirely different. And even though the cheap cost adds that devaluation mentioned above.

Shell closes with a call-to-action for all of us to take the true cost of goods into account and to ensure that those true costs are fully disclosed for easier decisions.

“Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish. But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change. We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized. We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a “better deal.” No longer slaves to the low-price imperative, we are free to make our own choices. As individuals and as a nation, we can turn our attention to what matters, secure in the knowledge that what matters has never been and will never be cheap.”

As for myself, the next time I come across a $5 frying pan at the supermarket, I’ll be much more confident in passing it up and holding out for quality when I actually need one.

Book Review: Not Buying It

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Judith Levine’s book Not Buying It: My year Without Shopping was one of the my earlier influences towards taking frugality to the next obvious step of wasting less money on things that I don’t need. After an overwhelming holiday (a.k.a. shopping) season, she and her husband decided to take a break from shopping in 2004–no new clothes, no processed junk food, not even greeting cards. This book is a journal of her experiences throughout the year–shopping withdrawl, social pressures, political pressures, activities to fill time that was previously spent shopping, Buy Nothing Day, and after many months something approaching non-shopping nirvana.

Their non-shopping year in 2004 was not so far removed from the September 11 attacks and the aftermath of politicians sharing economic concerns, and the politics of shopping runs a strong vein through this book. Levine notes:

“It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicably linked to our fate as a nation. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, and if the gross domestic product is what makes America strong, we were told, the marketplace is what makes us free. Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and pleasure of life in the U.S. of A., after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists will have won.”

Or while planning out a home improvement project that was already underway and exempt from the no-spend rules:

“After dinner, I take out the paint chips I have been collecting and spread them across the kitchen table. Engrossed in the pure, flat colors, grouping them in twos and threes, placing them in light and in shadow beside fabric swatches and blocks of wood, I forget global warming, the war in Iraq, the egregious George W. Bush and the only slightly less egregious John Kerry. As I make a note to bring home several cooler grays from the hardware store–Benjamin Moore alone must have a hundred–it occurs to me that I have better choices in paint than I do in presidents.”

But non-consumerism results in more for Judith than just asking friends to meet her for a walk or a picnic instead of going to the mall or to a restaurant. There are times where the best alternative to buying something new is to ask to borrow it from someone else. This is something I have trouble with myself but am encouraged by Judith’s experiences.

“Not buying has forced Paul and me to feel vulnerable and to ask for help, an almost un-American behavior. But the ability to ask for help might be a good skill to cultivate. Today I asked, and got service and a smile…. [W]hat I need is some non-consumer confidence.”

Sadly, early in the book I was secretly cheering when Levine gave in to a purchase or allowed someone else to treat her to a restaurant meal because it allowed me to feel self-righteous that I wouldn’t stoop to that level (although that may not be entirely true). At other points I felt guilty about aspects of their project that “beat” my own such as the fact that I rarely make it a full week without going out for lunch with my work friends. But it’s not a competition, and what’s right for each person will be different. I could learn much from Judith’s moment of nirvana the first time she goes into a store without feeling tempted to purchase anything.

“And just as I realize I am free of the desire to shop, I also feel free of the desire to judge others who desire to shop. I can condemn overconsumption and the systems that support it and it supports, but I don’t have to condemn the shopper.”

This is one of those books that gets me excited, and honestly there’s still a bit of an instinct there to go out and immediately buy a Buy-Nothing to satisfy my excitement. 🙂

But it’s okay. I take a breath and realize that not buying it is about giving me more control over my life and freeing up my time for other interests. I might start some veggies for my fall garden, relax with some yoga, or (very likely) curl up with another good book from the library.

Book Review: The Third Plate

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is full of stories of people who are trying to create a more sustainable food future, from eating smaller fish to growing local grains. We haven’t gotten to this book yet in book club but I read it anyway because I’m curious to see what foods other people consider to be the most sustainable.

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The stories are those of people who are working to create more sustainable versions of fois gras, Iberico ham, fish farms, wheat, veggies, and more. Considering how eating less meat is recognized in the intro as a necessity for sustainability, it amazed me how much time Barber spent describing how geese, pigs, and fish were being raised with minimal harm to the animals and with minimal or even positive impacts on the ecosystem. But I suppose if a foodie is eating less meat, the meat s/he does eat had better be damn good.

The book also discussed how wheat flour became white–less healthy but longer-lasting. How farmers are growing veg from heirloom seeds to help protect seed diversity in a world where many seeds are now owned by corporations and can’t be saved for replanting. How companion planting can create better plant health, improve the soil, and prevent the other dangers of monocropping.

The following quote was particularly interesting:

If you have a hankering, as I do, for the old days of our young republic, when farming was what farming should be–small, family-owned, well managed and manicured, a platonic paradigm of sustainable agriculture–think again. Today’s industrial food chain might denude landscapes and impoverish souls, but our forefothers did much of the same.

This is something I’ve read more about since. When Europeans discovered the Americas with so much fertile land that had been well-tended by the Native Americans, they felt no qualms about sapping the life from an area before moving on to another plot. (In the past week I’ve also read a bit about how Native Americans were used as slave labor before the Europeans realized they succumbed too easily to smallpox and other diseases and opted for African labor instead. I need to look into this a bit more, but what I’ve heard so far is really disturbing.)

On the seed front, although heirlooms are trendy right now, this book presents a counterpoint which is actually pretty compelling. Heirlooms are varieties that are as much as possible unchanged from older generations. But they’re usually not local to our area. And our environment has changed, too. So there’s something to be said for scientists who do the work to continually breed new varieties that grow well in different areas, that are resistant to diseases, that have been developed to make that variety economically viable to farmers as an alternative to the same old monoculture varieties. As long as the seeds are open-pollinated and not patented, it doesn’t seem so bad to me.

The problem, he said, is that farmers are often, like Klass, planting very old varieties with low yield–the problem with heirloom anything–or they’re planting conventional varieties with  no flavor. “Without a breeder to support the continual betterment of the plant, an alternative to conventional wheat will never establish itself.”

But the focus with farming is on improving the soil to create plants that are nutrient rich instead of fed artificial NPK fertilizer. This may mean growing perenials that grow deep and persistent roots to improve the soil. It may mean rotating crops, growing cover crops, and providing compost as the ideal soil amendment. Not building the soil could have devastating consequences, as he described from the wisdom of Dr. William Albrecht.

Of the diet-related diseases that have spiked in the past century, the obesity epidemic would seem to have been impossible to predict. And yet, in the 1930s, Albrecht came close. He knew that cows grazing from well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. But when kept in a barn and fed a predetermined grain ration, they never stopped eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume for what they weren’t getting in their food. Albrect believed our bodies would likewise stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of micronutrients, he said, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.

Although this book was really oriented towards foodies, I found most of the stories very compelling and informative. Personal changes this book has helped influence:

  • In the future if I’m craving seafood I may try eating smaller varieties of fish. (Although if I go to Luby’s I’ll probably swap out my usual fish for some broccoli.)
  • Not sure if this will happen, but I’m seriously considering growing some of my own grain next year. Not much but some.
  • Next year I’ll definitely also try out the Three Sisters planting of corn, beans, and squash.
  • On my next seed-shopping trips, I’ll look more at open-pollinated non-heirloom seeds (still staying away from the patented stuff) in addition to the heirloom options.
  • I’ll continue to cut down on eating out. (It’s rarely anything good for me).
  • I’ll regularly buy our whole wheat flour from the vendor at the farmers market. It’s way more expensive, but I have to support it to help make sure it stays available.
  • (But no, don’t expect to see any foie gras or Iberian ham on my plate.)

In conclusion, the best note to leave on is the wisdom shared throughout all of the stories, that “knowing about the natural world is a more enjoyable way to be in the world.”

Book Review: The Big Necessity

A couple of months ago, I was watching the city of Austin’s Dare to Go Zero tv program, which features families competing with each other to create the least amount of waste judged by weighing the bags in their trash bin. Two of the families had diaper-age children, and to to reduce their waste one family switched to reusable diapers. The other switched to flushables. It was shocking to me to see flushable diapers being used as a “green” alternative to the regular disposables. Either way, they’re waste. Isn’t it the same thing?

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Hoping to find out what happens to everything we flush down the toilet I checked out Rose George’s book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters. She takes us on a tour of the sewers, into water treatment plants, to smart toilet facilities, and to areas where people rely on other methods than flush toilets for handling their wastes. George begins on this happy note:

Ninety percent of the world’s sewage ends up untreated in oceans, rivers, and lakes, and a fair share comes from the sanitary cities supplied with sewers and treatment plants. Sanitation in the Western world is built from pipes and on presumption. Despite the technology, the engineers and the ingenuity of modern sanitary systems, despite the shine of progress and flush toilets, even the richest, best-equipped humans still don’t know what to do with sewage except move it somewhere else and hope no one notices when it’s poured untreated into drinking water sources. And they don’t.

The first stop George takes us on is an inside look at the sewers. Other than the massive blockages caused by grease sent down the drains and random stuff discarded into the sewers (for example a grenade), she doesn’t make it seem all that bad.

This is not a bad odor. It’s musty, cloying, and damp, but it doesn’t stink. It’s diluted after all. Without water, the average human produces 77 pounds of excrement and 132 gallons of urine a year. Add toilet flushes, and the total jumps to 4,000 gallons. Thanks to the WC, the flow is 98 percent water.

Of course, today the human waste is just one part of the equation when it comes to the disgustingness of what goes down our drains.

By the end of the century sludge contained far more than pure human excrement, and hardly any of it good. Anything that gets into the sewers can end up in sludge. U.S. industry is estimated to use 100,000 chemicals, with 1,000 new chemicals being added each year…. Sludge may contain pathogens from all sorts of sources.

And all of this, she explains, eventually comes back to us. The Great Stink of 1858 where the Thames was literally full of crap. Any flooding where the sewers cannot handle the added capacity of rain water draining into them and end up overflowing. Areas where people use the street as a toilet so it gets around with ease. (Most areas you hear about where there’s no clean water, guess why.) Even when the waste has been treated, the result often ends up going right back to our own drinking water source.

After reading about this I had to look it up and sure enough, treated sewage in Austin is returned to the Colorado River, where our drinking water comes from. The sludge goes another route, over to Hornsby Bend, for further treatment and composting together with our yard waste pickup to become Dillo Dirt. This is the good Class A stuff, not the barely processed Class B sludge that winds up on some farms in areas which suspiciously have higher frequencies of many diseases, as discussed in the book. And it’s a good thing too. As a firm believer in not letting things go to waste, I have some Dillo Dirt in a couple of my garden beds right now.

Ever wonder what happens after you flush the toilet? Preparing for a trip somewhere with other toilet customs? Considering a composting toilet for your home? If you have any interest in how to take care of your business, The Big Necessity is a must-read. And if you haven’t checked out your copy from the library, it just might make great material for reading on the john.

Afternote: The book never mentioned flushable diapers as it’s from 2008–almost a decade ago–when flushable diapers had just barely been introduced. After doing a bit more research, though, I was happily surprised to realize that it’s only the liners that are flushed. (Not sure how I thought whole diapers could be flushed, guess the name threw me.) By no means do they break down as easily as toilet paper, but toilets seem to handle them if they’re swished around in the bowl a bit before flushing. And the human waste ends up in the right place. So they may not be perfect, probably aren’t the best things to put in your pipes, and may not be appropriate for areas that experience drought, but they’re definitely not as bad as my first impression.

Book Review: The Good Gut

At this month’s Talk Green to Me book club, we had two book options to read. I had already read Michael Pollan’s Cooked, so this time I dug into The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long Term Health.

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I’d seen all the yogurt commercials plugging benefits of probiotics but never really understood what they were or considered giving them a shot. This book was my first introduction into the world of gut health, and I would recommend it to anyone. The authors describe how with all of the bacteria that thrive within your gut, it’s really its own microbiome that requires care and maintenance, and the very real impacts it can have on your health.

“Our gut bacteria belong on the endangered species list. The average American has approximately 1,200 different species of bacteria residing in his or her gut. That may seem like a lot until you consider that the average Amerindian living in the Amazonas of Venezuela has roughly 1,600 species, a full third more. Similary, other groups of humans with lifecycles and diets more similar to our ancient human ancestors have more varied bacteria in their gut than we Americans do.”

They go on to detail about the history of how man evolved in a symbiotic relationship with various kinds of gut bacteria, how the womb is a sterile environment but the mother’s bacteria is passed to the child through natural birth, how what kind of bacteria you nurture directly affects your health sensitivities and weight, how antibiotics and certain diets can wreak havoc on your system, and so much more.

In the end, if you’re curious to know exactly what types of bacteria are living inside of you, the American Gut Project has options to send in a sample and find out, plus how it compares to other people. It’s a decent chunk of money, but I have to admit I’m curious and it’s on my list to revisit in a couple of months (to avoid impulse purchases).

Either way, it’s not too difficult to start adopting their tenets of a microbiota-friendly diet–feed your gut bacteria with plenty of complex carbohydrates, limit meat and saturated fat consumption, and consume beneficial microbes a.k.a. probiotics.

The book provides a list of options for probiotic food sources. For those who like me are trying to cut dairy, that cuts out the majority but leaves the vegetable (kimchee, pickles, sauerkraut) or grain/legume (miso, natto, tempeh) options, as well as kombucha. Or, as an easier first step, I’m thinking of making Zero Waste Chef’s carbonated lemonade, using a ginger bug for the carbonation. How can you go wrong with lemonade?

“If you pass small stools, you have to have large hospitals” – Dr. Denis Burkitt