So far this week:
- Sunday: Consumption
- Monday: Trash
- Tuesday: Transportation
- Wednesday: Food
- Thursday: Energy
- Friday: Water
- Saturday: Giving Back
- Sunday: Eco-Sabbath
Brooklyn, New York
Three weeks ago, I moved from Berea, Kentucky to Bushwick, Brooklyn. And although a lot is different, I’m thrilled to see many things are the same. In both places, farmers markets, organic coffee shops, and
bike stores are within biking distance.
So what’s wrong? Since moving to Bushwick, my carbon footprint, meat consumption, and trash production have grown out of control. I no longer have to drive
to get to a bar, but now I’m dependent on the subway and packaged food. Perhaps it’s being removed from nature, or maybe working ten-hour days, but I’m hoping the No Impact Week will give me the kick in the butt I need to get my act together.
Live a fuller and happier life by buying less stuff.
Consumption Sunday is unfairly easy when you're poor. I suppose that's the point—all of these challenges are harder for those dependent on modern comforts. And I passed the test with flying colors, without buying a single shirt or book or Fabergé egg.
But when I looked at all the stuff in my apartment, I realized my poverty was on a relative scale. I've taken, and continue to take, far more than my fair share.
My laptop alone is made of oil, rare earth metals, and whatever LCD stands for. The electricity that runs it is mostly produced from coal yanked out from under my family back in Kentucky. Everything I own or buy is either unnecessary, offsetting its cost by exploitation, or both.
To truly do this week justice will not be easy.
Things I'm looking forward to:
- Farmer's Market in Maria Hernandez Park.
- Board games.
- Having an excuse to give up Facebook, email, and the internet as a whole.
- Having to drink drought beer instead of canned.
Things that make me feel dizzy and panicky:
- No subway.
- No cell phone
- Sponge baths.
- Starting Wednesday, no food unless I bike to Union Square.
- Everything else.
Nothing makes me want to eliminate trash more than having to carry it. Because I didn't work yesterday, I had an unfair advantage. Today, I didn't fair as well.
- Reused grocery bags (2)
- Paper artificial sweetener packet (1)
- Receipt (1)
- Aluminum can (1)
Everything I ate or used came in a disposable container, whether or not it was thrown out immediately after I used it. While it's easy to limit daily trash production by not buying individually wrapped products, the real challenge seems to come with buying goods served, transported, and prepared in reusable containers.
Reusing things a second time is a nice step, a la my use of old grocery bags to double wrap my lunch of cold pizza. But what happens after that? I've been wracking my brain all day to figure out what to do with the grocery bags that now smell like pizza.
- Clean them and line my shoes so that they're warmer in the winter. Con: fungus?
- Clean them and use them to transport my food every day. Con: chemicals?
So what to do? I Googled solutions, but all of them eventually ended with the bags in the trash. The basic conceit is that the best you can do is get a second use, which is definitely not sustainable. Failure one.
I was feeling smug about the thermos I brought for coffee today, but forgot about the receipt that buying it created and the wrapper that sweetener left behind. There was a moment where I considered shrieking Nooooo! but I figured the man making my coffee had enough to deal with before I had emotional breakdown in his restaurant. Failure two.
I had a long day and wanted a beer when I got home. But I recycled it! And it was local! Come on! Failure two and a half.
I often wonder what would happen if trash was no longer picked up from our curbs. Would we carry it to the dump as often as it's picked up now? What if landfills all said "We're full," and we had to dispose of our trash in whatever space we lived in? What meaning would the term disposable take on?
Tomorrow is transportation. Legally, I can't bicycle because I don't have head and tail lights and my trip home is after dark. So I've got a choice: take the subway, or wake up at 4:00 AM, in time to walk to work. Check in tomorrow to find out which.
I wish I had a really inspiring story about waking up before the dawn, tearing up my Metrocard, and hiking across the Williamsburg bridge. I wish that I had trudged eight miles through the rain to get to work and eight miles in the dark to get home. But of course, I didn't.
I had planned to bike, but what I conveniently forgot about was New York City law. You can't legally (or safely) ride a bicycle at night without both a headlight and taillight. And I know I should have bought them as soon as I moved to the city. But of course, I didn't.
And just now, I realized that I forgot on purpose. I know, I wasn't expecting that twist either. But it's true. I “forgot” to get lights just like I “forget” reusable bags when I go to the grocery, or “forget” to order the vegetarian option.
But if this is just a question of laziness? Is it that I don't want to spend energy, or that I don't want to spend my own energy?
Today, like every day, I took the subway, which is powered by electricity, which is powered by coal or uranium, which is mined by people who put in a hell of a lot of effort. And those same people are going to suffer through the health effects, and unfair wages, and lack of access to resources. I bet they walk to work.
My laziness is really and truly just a symptom of selfishness. On a finite planet (and we most certainly live on one), if I experience a measure of wealth, someone else will experience an equal and opposite measure of poverty. It's up to us to decide whether or not to forget that.
Tomorrow, I'm checking out the Bushwick Farmers Market at Broadway and Linden. If there's nothing edible there, I have to bike six miles to Union Square to eat breakfast. I'm actually looking forward to tomorrow's challenge.
By 6 o'clock today, my girlfriend and I were dizzy, confused, and suffering headaches. I had scoured all of Williamsburg on my bicycle trying to find a market that sold local eggs, and all I'd gotten for the trouble was a raging stomach. My girlfriend had been napping and just couldn't seem to gather enough energy to stay up. It was at that moment that we decided to bend the rules.
I found a hunk of mozzarella cheese in the fridge that said it was made in New Jersey, justified using oil that we had already bought, and compromised by using free-range eggs from out of state. Now I know the cheese might have been made in New Jersey, but I'm almost positive the milk it was made from was not. How did we sink so low?
Mostly, it's coffee. It's 8:30 p.m. and I still feel like I haven't woken up yet. The first thing I do in the morning, every day, before I brush my teeth or put my contacts in or drink water, is make coffee. Without it, I'm grumpy, unfocused, and I speak in what several trusted friends have called my “superior voice.” It's a monotonous stream of sass and pointing out what people are doing wrong, and it's not pretty for anyone. But coffee travels thousands of miles to get to my cup, and I want to prove to myself I can do without it. Which means I'm writing in my superior voice.
This morning, I biked to the Bushwick Farmers Market at its Broadway/Linden location. The vendors had an incredible selection of mushrooms, vegetables, gourds, greens, fruit, and even eggplant for a cheaper price than my grocery store. But when I asked where the eggs, dairy, nuts, oil, meat, and bread were, I was told that those items are usually only available at Saturday's market in Maria Hernandez park.
I had already given up my treasured vice of coffee, and now I had to give up everything else enjoyable?!? Don't get me wrong, I love vegetables. My girlfriend is a vegetarian, so I'm cooking those bad boys up all the time. But I've never sat back in my chair after eating a cucumber and said “Boy, I'm full.”
But this is an experiment, and for it to succeed I must adhere to its demands as closely as possible. So I bought $36 worth of the best Bushwick has to offer and pedaled back to the apartment in a hungry frenzy, where my girlfriend and I had a delicious breakfast of stir-fried yellow squash, broccoli, shitake mushrooms, poblano peppers, and green peppers. (Confession: I used non-local oil and soy sauce.) For the rest of the morning we felt great, but by 1:00 p.m. we were considering cannibalism. We tried to quell the fire by scarfing down tons of wonderful local apples and pears. But it persisted, to an extent that by 6:00 p.m., we were in the state I described earlier.
So I lightly coated some eggplant and squash slices in oil, sprinkled them with Cajun seasoning, and grilled them on high in a cast iron skillet. At the same time, I shredded some greens, minced an onion and a few cloves of local garlic, and threw them all in a pot with a little water.
When the eggplant and squash were done, I threw some eggs in the skillet, soaking up the browned and spiced oil, and scrambled them. I put the eggs, squash, and eggplant on giant leaves of greens, sprinkled with mozzarella, and garnished with thin slices of tomato.
It was spectacular, filling, and a compromise. We bent the rules with the cheese and blatantly broke them with the oil and Cajun seasoning, and it was worth it. Unfortunately, it seems as though we've already eaten all the food I bought today except for some pears and apples...and a cucumber.
It seems a large part of living with no impact requires having one person make it their job. If I didn't work, I think I could provide for myself, my girlfriend, and my roommates, if someone else footed the bill. But I have a job, and surviving on the meager provisions we have left and not drinking coffee tomorrow is going to be a huge test of my willpower. Perhaps when the caffeine leaves my body and I find a place that sells local beans, it won't be hard anymore.
Tomorrow is electricity, which I'm so on board with. I'm on the computer the entire day at work, and coming home, lighting some candles, and taking it easy sounds like heaven.
Today was an absolute wash, so I'm going to do you all a favor and skip it. I'd like to take a moment to kvetch.
In Kentucky, I only had to bike a mile to work. The farmers market was closer. If it wasn't open, there was an organic market the same distance as work. If that wasn't open, there was an Amish market less than two miles away. Failing that, there was an employee-owned grocery store an equal distance away.
Granted, Berea is much different than the average Kentucky burg. But that doesn't negate the fact that living with a small footprint is harder when you're new to New York. I have to weave through psychotic drivers if I bike, and walking only takes me to a grocery store. If the subway is off the table, what am I left with?
Really, it's not that much different than living up Stinking Creek, in Knox County, Kentucky. Just to get to the grocery store, we had to drive fifteen miles. Sure, we lived on 250 acres and I could have grown my own food, but there were other obstacles.
As a teenager on the creek, I was convinced eating anything grown in my mother's garden would kill me. The vegetables and gourds weren't perfect shapes like their supermarket counterparts, there were spots where bugs had gotten to them, and worst of all, they were grown in the same dirt that I walked on. And yet when I hit college, I did a complete 180. Probably because that's what my friends were into, but mainly because it seemed like the most logical path to take after learning about the state of the world.
A couple of years ago I taught Upward Bound, a prep program for potential first generation college students. Despite the fact that these kids were from Eastern Kentucky, few had ever spent time in a garden, let alone a farm, so I showed them Berea College's gardens and greenhouses. And they all seemed stunned to realize that things they ate grew from the ground.
The disconnection is frighteningly widespread, and, I'm convinced, not at all accidental. Until I had my reawakening in college, I felt the only safe foods to eat were processed or pasteurized or made with preservatives. Who told me this? First, McDonald's, Kellog's, Tyson, but mostly the school cafeteria.
What is always the “safe” option in the lunch room? Chicken patty. Always delicious, and that's simply fact. What are the things to avoid? Green beans, carrots, and the fruit cocktail. How can you blame a kid for wanting to eat the food that is consistently better tasting than the cooked-to-death “healthy” alternatives. And how does one keep from associating all vegetables with that same experience?
If we go to school to learn, do we absorb everything as a lesson? Are the values of an unsustainable culture institutionalized from an early age? Will I ever stop asking questions? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
It's time to tell the truth about yesterday. I had a splitting headache from the moment I woke up until I went to bed. Work was miserable, I was hungry all day, and I couldn't get away from electricity for the life of me. There was a lot I could have prevented, but I already blogged about that. Instead, I'm going to talk about some things that have been simply wonderful.
Today, my girlfriend and I took a walk in our neighborhood and decided to splurge on dinner at Cafe Ghia. The place is located on Jefferson and Irving, amongst some of Bushwick's best restaurants and bars. Like many of its neighbors, Cafe Ghia prides itself on using local produce, meat, and dairy products. But unlike many of its pricier neighbors, food prices float around a comfortable $10.
We started by ordering yellow beets with goat cheese, walnuts, and Bushwick greens, and though it did turn out to be the priciest part of our meal, it was still phenomenal. We followed that with a Havarti and fig jam panini, a cup of tomato pepper soup, and a tempeh reuben. The whole experience was perfect, and instead of wasting half an hour on the subway we got to walk through our community and have a really nice conversation.
Was everything local? Probably not the fig jam. Did we use electricity? Indirectly, yes. Did we produce trash? I'm sure. Did we buy anything new? Not all week. Did we conserve water? Actually, our waitress did spill some...
I've been capitulating all week about what I've done wrong, and I haven't stopped to think about what I've done right. I haven't eaten meat all week, which might not seem that impressive. But I'd like to ask—have you ever eaten forty-one wings in a single sitting? I have, and I was still hungry afterward. Every week, I made it a habit to eat all-you-can eat ribs on Monday, and all-you-can-eat wings on Wednesday. And that was on top of eating meat at every single meal. How 'bout a pat on the back for shaking that?
Okay. Reading that last paragraph over, it seems like a Jabba the Hut monologue. But the point is, I think today should be a day to look back and see how far we've come. For instance, this week, I've produced barely any trash. And, it's not been some horrible obligation. On the contrary, it's been pretty refreshing to see how much I can avoid.
Now, we're not talking about recycling here. If we're counting that, then I am a one man waste-producing machine. But we're not, because we're talking about nice things.
I have had more delicious, fun meals this week than the last few months combined. I've finally started riding my bike places, and I'm taking more of an interest in my community. Really it sounds like some kind of cheesy infomercial, but it's true, and it's because I'm looking at things differently. And while things are happy and I'm patting myself on the back, I'm also going to cut myself some breaks.
I love coffee. I love the taste, the feeling of it in my stomach, and the perk it gives me. So I'm not going to give it up. I did for two days, long enough to feel like I had a brain tumor, but not anymore. I drink organic, fair-trade coffee, and it's very rare for me to buy anything else. I take the subway, yes, because I don't want to be soaked with sweat and rain when I get to work. It produces CO2, I know, but it's still better than driving and I take other steps toward making a positive impact.
In Knox County, Kentucky, I had to drive everywhere. Biking wasn't even an option. Not because the distances were too great, but because the roads were so windy and the drivers so reckless. While pedaling wherever I needed to go would have been a nice statement, it could have cost me my life. And that's a legitimate excuse in my book. Which leads me to the biggest challenge I've encountered: Our entire society is designed to make sustainable choices difficult or impossible to make.
In an age where multinational corporations provide everything we buy, it is not only revolutionary to live simply, it is considered an act of aggression. Suburbs, urban food deserts, and, craziest of all, rural areas dependent on vehicles to access food, are all purposely designed and incredibly profitable for Exxon-Mobile, McDonald's, and the United States government.
Before, revolutions started with guns and anger. But we are no longer citizens, we're consumers. Today, we live in an age where the most revolutionary thing we can do is plant some seeds and provide for ourselves. And there's going to be resistance. From our friends, our family, our mind, and finally the system. The decision becomes: Where do we fit within or without of the grid?
Tomorrow is Give Back Day. I'll be joining the mini-march from Union Square to the United Nations as part of No Impact Project/350.org's Moving Planet. Let's see who listens.
Today, my girlfriend, her family, a dozen others, and I joined 350.org and No Impact Man Colin Beavan in a march from Union Square to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in front of the United Nations Building for the Moving Planet Rally. There was a part of me that was expecting resistance and anger, perhaps people throwing fast food out their windows and screaming profanities. But really, there wasn't much of any. In fact, along our march people smiled or cheered, and some even picked up a sign and marched with us.
Not only did we give back, we had a blast doing it. The rest of the day, we hung out in our neighborhood and just enjoyed each other's company. No Facebook, no internet, no distractions.
Today was the Eco-Sabbath and I kept it holy. My roommate, her family, and I spent the morning playing the dictionary game, which is basically a carbon-free version of NPR's Says You. It was an absolute ball and all we needed were pencils, a dictionary, some scrap paper, and the sunlight that came through the windows.
After, we walked to Verde on Irving and Bleeker in Bushwick and shared some of the most incredible pizza I've ever had in my life. The restaurant has one of the oldest brick ovens in the city and one of the friendliest owners in the country. He even invited us to a Halloween party he's throwing just around the block from our apartment. If we had schlepped to Carrol Gardens to have a trendy meal, our wallets would be lighter, there would be x amount more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we would have no plans for the end of October.
When we returned from lunch, we napped. The best things in life are free, and carbon-neutral. And that has perhaps been the best realization of this week.
As I sit writing this, I find myself impatient to turn my computer off. I want to read a book, or have a conversation, or fix something in my apartment. I want to light some candles and I want to turn the power off.
Tonight, I'll eat a simple meal of beans and tortillas with my girlfriend and her sister. Tomorrow, I'll go to work and continue life as I was living it before this week. But in my bag will be a local pear and a local apple and a paperback novel. I may not bike to work, but I know in my heart that I will soon.
I will not let my Saturdays slip by and after wish I had gone to the farmers market. From now on, they will be planned around a trip to Maria Hernandez Park and a games with my roommates. My Sundays will be spent investing in my neighborhood.
I'm composting, eating locally, thinking about my connection to the Earth, and taking responsibility again, and it isn't keeping me from what I want to do. It's helping me find it.
I'd like to thank YES! Magazine and the No Impact Project for helping me rediscover a passion and join a community in my new home. My No Impact Week has been a blessing, and I hope that I can find a way pass the good fortune on.