Thursday, December 30, 2010

I think most parents dream that their children will have a better life than they did. If their children don't grow up to become doctors or lawyers, at least they should get a comfy office job where they don't have to put in back-breaking hours day in and day out at a local lumber mill or mine. That is to say, I think my own family would be a little disappointed if I were brutally honest with them and told them that all I really wanted to do with my fancy four-year degree was play with dirt.

But dirt is important.

Next to the sun, we owe much of our livelihood to dirt.We live on it. We work on it. We eat what is grown from it. But do we care of the dirt like we could?

I saw a trailer the other day for Dirt! The Movie, and it looks like it might make an earnest attempt at answering that question. The short answer, however, is no.

There's something that nature does exceptionally well that we, as humans, have historically sucked at. That is, giving back to the soil. Plants pop up in the spring soaking up vital energy from the sun. One might argue that these plants are soaking up vital nutrients from the soil, but that very argumentative person would be missing the larger picture. Those plants are digging their roots in deep and pulling up nutrients that have been leached by the elements. Come autumn, those plants die back or lose their leaves, returning all of those nutrients to the surface again, along with a whole growing season's worth of solar energy. Even that which is eaten will eventually be returned to the earth, either as manure or a decomposing doe.

I will reiterate that we suck at this. The closest we've gotten to respect the cycles of nature has been in keeping meat animals on pasture. Except, in raising a cow, the best we can hope for is to get one calorie out for every calorie we put in. We end up sacrificing variety in our diets and in our ecosystem for a quasi-balanced, but exceptionally inefficient system.

Our grand adventures in agriculture only take us further from the already-less-than-ideal. Slash and burn agriculture: we destroy whatever's there so we can put what we want in its place, and once we exhaust the soil of its resources, we move on. Feed lots: dedicate large swaths of land to growing food for animals that we keep neatly confined, stockpiling an obscene amount of excrement which then finds its way into nearby bodies of water, contaminating it, causing algae blooms, killing off fish populations, and endangering the lives of humans; the manure never makes it as far as fertilizing the fields that grow the food for the very animals in question, because... Chemical revolution: it's faster and cheaper to apply petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, etc. to the fields than to deal with compost or manure, neverminding that petroleum supplies are limited and have untold adverse effects, including the destruction of the microorganisms that make up a healthy soil.

We need to learn how to take care of the dirt so that the dirt will keep taking care of us. Things might be dirt cheap right now, but in a few decades, or a few centuries, we might be talking about how things are dirt expensive.

Which brings me the the whole point of my post. Geoff Lawton, a hero of mine whom I've written about previously has released another DVD all about caring about our soil. Both his food forest DVD and the short video on greening the desert blew my mind, and I have no doubts that his new Permaculture Soils DVD will be equally educational and inspiring. The only problem is that his DVDs are really hard to come by her in the states, so if you want a copy, you may very well have to have a copy shipped over from the land down under.

Can't wait for that? Here's a trailer to hold you over:

What about you? Besides composting, what other ways do you take care of your soil?

P.S. Dirt may even be good for your health!

Photo by cobalt123


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Trying to be mindful of sustainability while buying gifts is tedious, if not downright impossible. Have a look at buying locally versus having gifts shipped, as well as five ways to stay eco-conscious this holiday season.                       

Gift-giving. It's that season again. People are out running around trying to find gifts for their family and friends, and trying to score the best deals on all kinds of products. And lately I've been seeing a lot of marketing hype about so-called "ecogifts" which are supposed to be the best thing you can do for the planet. Are they really?

There are a couple of points of contention. First of all, is the product in question made in a sustainable way? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it's a cutting board made out of sustainably harvested bamboo. Or perhaps it's a blanket made out of organic cotton. But just being made in a sustainable way does not a sustainable item make. Where an item is made is just as big of a concern. Is a product really sustainable if it's being shipped halfway across the world? The short answer is no. The fuel used to transport it clearly outweighs whatever laudable techniques were used in its manufacture.

But, like most things, this is complicated.

Do you drive to the store to buy gifts? Do your neighbors, friends, and family all drive to the store to buy gifts? Just think about how many cars this adds to the road. Think about it in terms of numbers. If 500 people in your town or city drive to the store to buy one gift each, a lot of you are probably going to end up driving a a bunch of the same stretches of road. If you load the same 500 gifts onto a truck and have one person deliver them, you might get some overlap, but not nearly so much. In this case, having something shipped is the preferable option. If you have to drive in order to get something, having it delivered is often the better choice. It's like a carpool for your products.

That's the balancing act we have to play.

Chances are you weren't going to go to Vietnam to buy that bamboo cutting board. You probably weren't even going to go as far as the next state. But even if you were just buying it from a local store, chances are it was manufactured, at least in part, on the other side of the world. This can make truly buying local a tricky affair.

Are these ecogifts better than their less sustainably manufactured brethren, all other things equal? Certainly. Just don't buy into the hype that buying these products is somehow going to magically save the world. They are an improvement over they alternative, but they are still products, and they still have an environmental cost.

If you are buying gifts this holiday season, keep these general rules in mind:

1. Buy locally

Things that are made and sold locally by local artisans and craftsmen don't travel and distance and burn quite the amount of fuel as something shipped from far away. These products should be made from local and sustainable materials to boot. And you'll have peace of mind knowing that you're supporting the local economy.

2. Buy services

Eschew products altogether and buy something intangible. A massage or a day at a museum might be just what your loved one needs. If you want to buy a gift that keeps giving to the planet, you could even enroll them in a permaculture class.

3. Make something

If you put some time and energy into a project, your loved ones will appreciate it more than anything that could ever be bought. My fellow blogger over at Get Rich Slowly has a great list of 34 homemade gift ideas.

4. Opt out

As I've grown older and my family has spread out and grown apart, the holidays aren't quite the gatherings they once were. The winter time is filled with holidays and festivals because it's cold, dark, and gloomy. They're an excuse to enjoy each other's company.So do it. Plan your day around activities you can share together other than gift-giving.

5. Community service

Lots of people make the holidays about other people, outside of their immediate families. They donate time or clothing to the homeless, or volunteer in a local animal shelter. This is a great way to give without having a guilty conscience afterward. Have your family volunteer with you and you can still share the holidays with each other.

Do you have any other tips for staying green this holiday season? Any ideas for activities a family could partake in lieu of gift-giving? Share 'em in the comments.

Photo by mmlolek


I just pushed the new redesign of the site, as you can no doubt see if you're not reading this in a feed reader. There are still bugs to work out and posts to clean up, but it'll get the job done. Hope you enjoy the new look And I hope you find it easier to navigate than the previous iterations. That said, I'm going to bed. I'll catch you all tomorrow.

Photo by su-lin