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Denisse Blogs on No Impact Week

Denisse, a Nicaraguan researcher in Honduras, wants to see how far No Impact Week principles can go in the Global South.

So far this week:

Denisse McLeanDenisse McLean

Valle del Yeguare, Honduras

I am a 24-year-old research assistant for Zamorano University in Central America. Born in Nicaragua, I have lived in Honduras since 2005. I'm currently studying the economies and vulnerabilities of coastal communities. I'm intrigued by life, and trying to survive the attempt of figuring it out.

I joined the No Impact Week Experiment because I feel the urge to act. I’ve been fascinated by human nature and how we relate to our planet, but most of it has been reflection.

Lately I got more actively involved in the topic by participating in the Environment Plenary at One Young World Summit 2011. I’ve been highly influenced by YES! Magazine’s ideas on the possibilities of the New Economy, so this is a perfect time to officially join this enthusiastic community. I am very intrigued to see how the changes will apply to the context of a developing country since many things are different already. Can´t wait to start!

Sunday Consumption

 




Live a fuller and happier life by buying less stuff.

Hello everybody, I am very happy and honored to join you! First I need to provide some background about our teams in Honduras.

I started with the idea to sign up for No Impact Week alone since I read about it in YES! Magazine. But I invited my Honduran family and, as eco-conscious as they already are, they liked it very much and immediately jumped in!

Denisse McLean Honduras Team

From left to right: No Impact Week participants Naffie, Oliver, Mario, Denisse, Namig, and Alejandro.

Photo courtesy of Denisse McLean.

We have Namig (we are housemates), Oliver (her son / my baby brother), Alejandra (our friend, coworker and neighbor) and my mom (she is joining from Nicaragua). We are the Sanders-Herrera Family team. On Saturday we screened the No Impact Man movie and presented the No Impact Week challenge to our sophomore students. Five more friends joined us: Naffie, Mario, Monica, Alejandro, and Diana. They formed the Zamorano University team. We will be working as one team, but we are different. I’ll tell you why.

We live at Zamorano. It is an agricultural international university, with students and staff from various countries from Latin America. As so, our team members come from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and the Netherlands. 

Mario even skipped lunch because he missed the dining hall schedule and was not willing to produce trash by buying at the food stand. Namig took a preparation tour to the supermarket to anticipate which of the products we usually eat are local or not.

The family team lives off-campus, about 2 km away.

The University team lives on-campus. It’s a boarding school (this is not common in Latin America, by the way). We are located at the Yeguare Valley, a rural area 30km from Tegucigalpa. As you will see through the week, this will have many implications on how we conduct the experiment.

Today’s challenge on consumption was fairly easy for us. Why? Because we already live isolated! (This is the first time it looks like an advantage.) We go to Tegucigalpa once a week to do the shopping. I basically shop for food or things like toothpaste. Namig buys many more things for the family, same with my mom in Nicaragua. But they did not have a big issue staying away from consumption for a week because we can survive with what we already have.

The kids (the students) can only go off-campus during the weekend and were pretty much OK with not buying anything new (great thing about being on budget). Mostly we do not have that much of a shopping addiction—or shopping opportunities for that matter—so we did great today.

In addition, many of us are so excited about this project that we already started to do some of the extra challenges! For instance, some of the kids have already left the meat for this week. (And some others struggled to do so, but could not say no to the only-once-a-week-available homemade food. Fair enough.) Mario even skipped lunch because he missed the dining hall schedule and was not willing to produce trash by buying at the food stand. Namig took a preparation tour to the supermarket to anticipate which of the products we usually eat are local or not. And at home we are getting the candles ready for tomorrow night.

What I am not proud of today is my trash bag. OK, it’s not even a bag! It’s a trash registry. I spent the day out, and I had to eat out of course and I was not ready. So I have: foil paper, a carton cup, an iced tea bottle, a yogurt container, a polystyrene plate, a plastic coffee cup, a straw, and about five napkins. Everything used for slightly more than 10 minutes!

What a true mess.

And I saw this TV program at NatGeo where they show the urban divers at Mexico City going into the sewage full of trash to clean the pipes, which makes me feel even worse. Moral of the story: get ready! Because the simplest adjustments like carrying food clothes and a cup could have saved such unnecessary harm. I’m taking note for tomorrow.

Luckily the day ended up with some improvements. We met with part of the team at the café on campus to review the day. By then, we were all with our travel mugs.

See you guys tomorrow!

More stories from No Impact Sunday: Consumption

Monday Trash


 

 

 

Discover how wasting less improves your life.

The overall outcome of today’s challenge was 9 out of 10—yet not as easy for us as yesterday’s challenge. We had to think twice on many occasions. For instance, I was not that aware of the tiny bits of plastic I discard during my morning routine, which I happily skipped today. But we unavoidably ended up with the plastic seal of our natural yogurt container. And midmorning stress-related unexpected hunger left Namig and me with a cookie package (local bananas were a car ride away). Talk about trade-offs!

I felt somewhat overwhelmed. How is it possible that this idea, which makes perfect sense to us, makes no sense for others?

The team on-campus on the other hand did great!: Zero trash by saying no to snacks and fast food, even when they were offered it. Actually, they are very much of an inspiration to me. At home we’ve been fairly eco-conscious for some time, and some more since we moved to the house. The Zamorano team were inspired from scratch by the movie and they dealt with skepticism from colleagues during the day. Yet they are always so enthusiastic about the challenges and take things as far as they can!

We had two things to reflect on Day 2: First were our product choices. We have no farmers market culture around here, which is somehow ironic because rural is still the rule in Central America. We do have traditional markets selling fruits and vegetables, but it isn’t usually the producers who sell there but the retailers. Most producers lack the means and infrastructure to take the produce out of the field by themselves. 

Wouldn’t it be great to have more environmentally friendly products made in Central America? This could represent an enormous opportunity for our local industries.

In addition, our tropical weather makes it necessary or at least preferable to immediately process perishable products like dairies and meats. Agro-industry, food processing, packaging, and the whole value-added philosophy is the tendency. As a result, even when most of our food is local, it is generally packed. Not to mention other non-food items.

Eco-labels are relatively new as local trends, mainly in Costa Rica or for export goods such as coffee. Wouldn’t it be great to have more environmentally friendly products made in Central America? This could represent an enormous opportunity for our local industries.

The second issue was our solid waste management program. While there has been an on-campus classification system with separated bins for "paper and carton," "glass and aluminum," "organic" and "other" for more than five years (a local advantage we are very proud of), classification rates have been consistently declining and essentially everything is now mixed up. This made us think about what will happen to our behavior once we finish the challenge. As in this case, just putting our trash in the right bin will not be enough. We will be working this week to find an answer for this question.

This made us think about what will happen to our behavior once we finish the challenge. Just putting our trash in the right bin will not be enough. We will be working this week to find an answer for this question.

We also met for feedback and ended up brainstorming about what we can do at the Giving Back day. We think that in order to make an impact, we have to share the idea about what this project is about.

I have to admit that at some point, while looking at the big picture, I felt somewhat overwhelmed. How is it possible that this idea, which makes perfect sense to us, makes no sense for others?

But as I reviewed the outcomes of the day—not only in terms of the trash produced but in terms of feelings—I remembered why I’m doing this: I’m grateful because today we did not cause unnecessary harm to the planet or to others. Because the extra time we took to reflect on the things we really needed made it easier for us to actually identify them. Because we had the chance to know each other better as persons and as teams.

Then I recall the quote that impacted me the most from the movie: “The most radical political act there is, is to be an optimist”. And I cheer up. Ready for tomorrow!

More stories from No Impact Monday: Trash

Tuesday Transportation

Burn carlories, not fossil fuels.

Denisse's Team photo courtesy of Denisse McLean

Trying out a day without using fossil fuels showed our team in Honduras how much we need a better, broader transit system.

Photo courtesy of Denisse McLean.

Transportation at Zamorano is fairly easy, nice, and green. There are bike lanes and bike parking all around the campus and most places are a ride away. Underground tunnels cross the Panamerican Highway and connect one side of the campus to the other to make it safe for pedestrians, bikers, and electric utility vehicles to cross. Regular cars are required to circulate at 20 km/h. Students take the most advantage of this. Unfortunately, most of the staff, including me, does not take advantage of these facilities, driving cars everywhere.

To go to Tegucigalpa there are two options: take a bus or a car. However, the bus system is not that fun to use. Well, it's fun if you are looking for an interesting local experience but not fun if you are running late for work. The stop is hardly recognizable, unless you know it’s there. The schedule isn’t exactly reliable. No buses depart directly from here. 

We had to take our car to campus because the Panamerican Highway is full of freight trucks running at high speeds which could easily throw little 6 year-old Oliver or naturally unbalanced me out of the way.

You need some practice before getting familiar with the time ranges. A time range goes like this: “Bus passes between 7am and 7:20, sometimes at 7:30 or more.” And the discarded U.S. school bus units are usually crowded. Because of this, when most people are presented with the option, we take the car. Getting around the city is just about the same story.

I believe this has a significant effect on people. By not meeting regularly—on the same buses or in the same public spaces—we interact less. And for that, we care less about others.

As you can guess now from this review, the Zamorano team had no problem undertaking today’s challenge. They already bike or walk all the time while on campus.

At home it was a bit harder. We had to take our car to campus because the Panamerican Highway is full of freight trucks running at high speeds which could easily throw little 6 year-old Oliver or naturally unbalanced me out of the way. At least we got to carpool with friends. 

I knew our system had still a way to go, but after looking at places like Amsterdam or Zurich I realize really how far behind we are.

Once on campus, we were able to take the bikes and ride around. It was fun, relaxing, guilt-free, good for our joints. But we need to get better at handling the load. Either we reduce the things we carry or we find a way to adapt the bikes to fit our needs. We will have to update this post to see how we do during the weekend, when facing the city.

Transportation in the developing world: I knew our system had still a way to go, but after looking at places like Amsterdam or Zurich I realize really how far behind we are. No, actually, I realize the endless possibilities that a safe, reliable, and comfortable transportation system represents for a city and its residents. How vibrant communities become both for locals and foreigners with this single optimization.

I trust we’ll get better at this. We have plenty of opportunities to advance and models to build upon. Our whole society could greatly benefit from this. Meanwhile, I’ll improve my skills as a bus rider and carpooling coordinator.

More stories from No Impact Tuesday: Transportation

Wednesday Food

 

 


Healthy eating can also lessen your footprint.

Food day photo by Denisse McLean

The campus team opts for vegetarian food in the cafeteria, compared to the standard choice of meat.

Photo courtesy of Denisse McLean.

The greatest thing about changing what you eat is that, because food is such an essential part of your life, it represents not just an improvement but a statement.

The food challenge for our teams has been one of the hardest. But the results have been meaningful. The team on campus had the willingness to give up meat from Day 1 or 2. Every day, they have a single-food menu at the dining hall. Changing to self-prepared local food would imply buying packed ingredients at the supermarket and wasting their food ration at the hall. So their contribution is focused on less impact by choosing vegetarian.

We said goodbye to cereal and hello to granola; goodbye to pears and hello to bananas, papayas, and watermelons.

This hasn’t been easy. The menus are good but they are designed to have meat as the main course and side dishes do not compensate for the protein loss. And by tradition, we have a taste for meat. However, guys have been brilliant at this, doing with plain salads, rice, potatoes, and soups for a week.

To better understand where their food comes from, they will be talking with managers and cooks from the dining hall researching which ingredients are local, how much trash is generated, and how waste is being managed. We believe it is our responsibility to be aware of this, as most times it is within our freedom to handle it. 

We are not only the consumers but the future food producers, processors, packagers, distributors, and traders. What will our role be?

At home it is easier because we cook for ourselves. Mom already shops at the traditional market in Nicaragua. I became vegetarian about five months ago and have received a lot of support from the family in Honduras. This week the menu has been vegetarian for everybody and the emphasis is on local. We said goodbye to cereal and hello to granola; goodbye to pears and hello to bananas, papayas, and watermelons. Luckily enough, most of the food here comes from Central America, the area we have chosen to define as “local.”

But the issue has been the packaging. At the supermarket it is something that follows you around, even for hardly necessary items such as packed local peppers, beans, corn, and tangerines.

For our teams in particular, this challenge represents an important reflection. We come from an agricultural university. We are not only the consumers but the future food producers, processors, packagers, distributors, and traders. What will our role be?

Profit, yes, it is compulsory. But how will we influence the life of the people and the spaces our products reach, beyond profit? We need to ask these questions because even if we do not, we will have an impact.

I think there are few things that represent our stand in so many political issues as much as food does. Our choices both in production and consumption represent who and what we support: which productive systems; which ways to manage our natural resources, our land, our water, and our energy; in which way our people will grow. And we have options. We exercise this vote daily and we can change it—make it better—as soon as we want.

 More stories from No Impact Wednesday: Food


Thursday Energy

 

 


Replace kilowatts with ingenuity.

Frankly, there is one thing I like a bit less about the energy and water challenges: I feel like I am less in control. In our countries, we cannot choose where our energy comes from. In the case of Honduras, energy comes from hydropower which is at least a renewable source, although sometimes criticized because of the loss of ecosystems, lands, and settlements associated with it.

It’s as if in these challenges the lines between our true needs, our preferences, comfort and luxury become even more diffuse. The cost-benefit analysis becomes more complex. And the final picks become more personal.

Other green sources like solar panels are not widely subsidized. This makes them relatively expensive as an alternative to the regular source (although they do make an attractive option in areas where there is no electricity). So if we want to reduce our energy impact, the choice for now is to cut back our consumption. And since easy and abundant electricity and water facilities have become so deeply embedded in our modern lifestyles, it means getting out of our comfort zone.

While I can feel certainly good about not making trash for example, as trash is clearly an unnecessary harm, I am more in a debate when I have to choose whether to use the warm water or not because I strongly dislike cold water. It’s as if in these challenges the lines between our true needs, our preferences, comfort and luxury become even more diffuse. The cost-benefit analysis becomes more complex. And the final picks become more personal.

They are building habits. Yesterday, Naffie’s roommate went back to the room before leaving to classes because she remembered she had left the fan on.

In our teams as well, the strategies have been diverse. The campus team has worked in their context. While they can’t control how energy is being used in common areas like classrooms and dining halls, they have reduced standby power consumption by unplugging cell phone and computer chargers that used to stay plugged in all week long. They have also reduced their reliance on fans, microwave, lighting, and their time online. They have unplugged some common-use appliances like washers, water dispensers, and hall lights—not to the pleasant surprise of their roommates. But they are building habits. Yesterday, Naffie’s roommate went back to the room before leaving to classes because she remembered she had left the fan on.

At home, Namig decided to go for cold showers and no appliances, a bet I have not been able to match. After a deep and honest review I chose my keepers to be warm water and hair straightener (for bangs), which I would minimize as much as possible but would not completely quit. While I am aware I’m not being fair with the whole idea of the No Impact Week, I don´t want to make a hell out this. I want to adopt practices I can keep on with once the week is over. Am I being too weak?

On the great side, we went without light bulbs last night, lighting our house completely with candles which was very nice, even when I was not able to update the blog on time. The house looked great (although the pictures look way darker), we did some fun cooking for the No Impact Dinner we are planning for tomorrow. We rarely watch TV but I am usually hooked up on the computer until late, and as this wasn´t the case yesterday, Namig and I had time to talk. Maybe we will keep a weekly candle night from now on.

Once I think about it, it wasn´t so bad, there are many things that are within our hands. Let’s see how the water challenge goes.

More stories from No Impact Thursday: Energy

Friday Water

Soak up the benefits of using less water.

Meal photo by Denisse McLean

Being on No Impact Week, we’ve become much more aware of how we use our resources and we’ve reframed the way we think about what it is to waste. Clearly one of the greatest advantages of our times, which we tend to take for granted, is to have running water in our taps. But this privilege can give us a false sense of abundance. While water might in fact be abundant in the places we are living, it is unfortunately not a service that everybody can enjoy.

Just 30 km from here, in Tegucigalpa, entire neighborhoods experience chronic water shortages, having water available only during a couple of hours a day. We own our fellows in scarcity the responsibility to use water properly.

It is hard for us to eliminate most of our water uses which are pretty basic already, but we have made them a lot more efficient. We have cut back the time of our showers to about three minutes of running water, either by being extremely fast or by picking water on a bucket to shower patiently but without wasting. We have done the same when brushing our teeth using a glass. I have introduced some sand-filled bottles in our toilet tank to reduce the water volume it takes to flush. And Namig has lowered the flow of most of our water pipes.

One of the largest savings has been to become more efficient at dishwashing. We do not have a double sink to soak dishes but we’ve used less water by removing everything mechanically and using water just for rinsing. Now we are amazed by how much water was used every time we washed dishes the regular way.

Another great highlight from yesterday was that we organized a No Impact dinner with the teams. All the food was local, vegetarian, and cooked and served with as little electricity, water, and resulting trash as possible. Choosing a vegetarian diet for the week has also contributed significantly to reducing our water footprint. However, it has required an enormous amount of willpower for the team on campus. We decided to prepare a true vegetarian meal for them so they can be sure that choosing vegetarian does not have to be a sacrifice but that it can be certainly delicious.

The menu included a vegetable, white sauce and cheese pie, curried beans, local salad with yogurt dressing (no olives, no mushrooms), homemade whole grain bread, local cheesecake and watermelon juice (ultra local, as they are cultivated in our university fields), candles, reusable plates, and no napkins.

Everything was amazing, although the menu turned out to be a bit veggie-full for the audience. But they liked the experience and were happy to leave full for the first time in the week.

And the cheesecake that was a hit. It was worth the complication for Namig to figure out how to make a cheesecake using ricotta (from a reusable container), sugar, eggs and no condensed milk at all.

The fun thing about the meeting was that we talked about the experiment—with our usual updates and anecdotes, but we ended up talking about just any other thing that came to mind. At one point we said “You really get to talk about anything when there is no light, right?”

And my mom arrived from Nicaragua to join us for the weekend. We had a good time.

You see, I'm very grateful for our No Impact Team. They’ve really known how to make a fun and interesting experience from this.

 

More stories from No Impact Friday: Water

Saturday Giving Back


 


Discover the benefits of service.

Embroidery photo by Denisse McLean

Our Giving Back day has been postponed. Weekends in our University are rather hectic. Students are allowed to go out and they use this opportunity to visit the city, buy what they need, party, and clear their minds. At home, we would usually go to Tegucigalpa to visit the supermarket and all the other stores for the things we want and the things we need (which now we know are different).

As so, some of the guys from the campus team had already planned activities in town with their colleagues. And for those of us staying here, we did not want either to burn fossil fuels or to generate trash by consuming things. We realized too late that the idea to bike from the campus to our house, challenging the freight trucks to celebrate Moving Planet Day needed more time to organize. Student bicycles are not allowed to leave the campus without the corresponding permits. So we decided to hold an Eco-Sabbath weekend starting today, sharing family time and eating leftovers from yesterday’s dinner.

But that was not the main reason to postpone the Giving Back day. Being a mixed team including faculty members, students, and family, it would be hard to arrange our schedules to go somewhere else to volunteer. Plus, there is a lot of work to do right on campus and it makes more sense to start with our own community. The project we came up with was to work with the community kids.

There is an elementary school on campus were most kids from the faculty and staff go. Both the teachers and the students are very proactive and we figured out it would be the perfect place to get more people enthusiastic about this No Impact philosophy! And by gaining kids attention we can extend the message to their families.

Our idea is to hold a consumption awareness session. We would visit the 5th- and 6th-grade kids on the first day to tell them about our experience in the No Impact Week day by day, with lots of visual resources, and to orient them on how to collect their trash for one day. Two days after, we would visit them again to analyze their trash bags by separating items according to the time used and by classifying them as dispensable or indispensable. Later we would discuss measures on how to reduce our footprints.

The school principal immediately supported the idea. But we were only able to schedule the sessions two weeks for now. Anyway, we really love the idea and we are very excited about it! (even if it’s not on the right day.)

And as for a giving back treat, my mom is embroidering some beautiful cloth napkins for each of our team members. Paper napkins no more! A No Impact permanent practice we are eager to adopt.

Take a break from it all. Ohm Shanti.

I’m very excited to write this post! I’m also somewhat sad that the experiment is over. I think I’m going to miss it. It has been a really positive experience to participate in the No Impact Experiment.

 

 

While on our Eco-Sabbath, we are still having some delicious leftovers from Friday which seem to taste even better. My mom and Namig are working on the cloth napkins. We will have some friends for vegetarian pizza in a while. And, realizing how hard it is to stay away from the computer even for one day, I want use this time to reflect on the highlights of the week. What have been the hardest, easiest, the keepers, and the going-backers for our teams?

To start with, I have to mention how grateful I am to have had such an amazing team. The No Impact Week can certainly be a great experience for anyone, whether with company or on your own. However, not only did our team members make it easier for us to make the experiment work in an environment for which the No Impact philosophy is brand new, but each of the them was so inspiring in their own way as well! They gave the best of themselves day after day.

From our feedback meetings I have realized we’ve gone through a mix of feelings and context-related difficulty levels as we confronted each challenge. Those feelings and contexts defined both how easy it was to adopt each new habit (and get rid of the old ones) during the week, and how easy it would be to maintain those new habits once the experiment is over. To review the outcomes of the week, I tried to classify the challenges within those axes. Here is the view:

Context/Feelings
Challenges in which we usually enjoyed the benefit of the old habits but not the habit themselves.
Challenges in which we usually enjoyed the old habits themselves

Challenges in which the context we live in supports the new habits (1)    Transportation (on campus) (3)    Eating local
Eating vegetarian (off campus)

 

Challenges in which the context we live in does not support the new habits


(2)   Trash
Consumption
Transportation (off campus)
Giving back

(4)   Electricity
Water
Eco Sabbath
Eating vegetarian (on campus)

The first box is about challenges in which the old habits were easy to kick out during the week because they created unnecessary harm (although they made our lives more comfortable). They are also the challenges where the new habits will be easy to maintain now that the experiment is over because our context supports them. These are the definite keepers. They include mainly the on-campus transportation challenge, thanks to our fine campus bike lane system.

How about meatless days, renewable energy systems, water collectors, and a more responsible system for administrating time that leaves space for the things that really matter?

The second box is about challenges in which the old habits were easy to kick out for the week but where new habits will be harder to keep because our context does not support them. These will be the keepers, but with extra effort. We felt great about getting rid of old habits like trash, overconsumption, fossil fuels, and not giving back. But the ways our lives are wired mean we need to work some more to deal with the status quo—and change it—perhaps by designing an adequate lobbying strategy.

The third box is for challenges in which the old habits were not as easy to get rid of because we actually enjoyed how they spiced up our lives (for instance, eating imported goods and meat). But they are challenges where the new habits will be easy to maintain thanks to the options available, as the wide arrange of local foods and vegetarian recipes. These will be the more conscious going-backers. Sure, we will go back to olives, mushrooms, and hams to enrich our salads at home. But we might stick to the healthier and less energy-intense local choices whenever possible.

The last box is for challenges in which the old habits were not as easy to get rid of because they make our lives a lot more comfortable. And the context, well, does not help either. These included: meat on campus, and easy access to electricity, water, and connectivity. We did well controlling our consumption during the week, but I think these are the challenges where we can get more creative at finding post experiment alternatives. How about meatless days, renewable energy systems, water collectors, and a more responsible system for administrating time that leaves space for the things that really matter?

There are ways to address the challenges that we did not get to explore this week. Next time we get involved in the experiment, as we certainly plan to, we would like to create an aromatic herbs nursery with our yogurt containers and to explore mitigation options for our remaining carbon emissions. Moreover, we want to have a stronger promotion strategy to get more people involved in our teams. And we already have pending plans such as our consumption awareness school session, figuring out where exactly food comes from at the dining hall, and an environmentally friendly sharing afternoon we want to invite our community to.

Once we were done with the experiment, understanding that our happiness and satisfaction levels actually increased during the week, we realized that the No Impact lifestyle is not a matter of privation. It is a matter of choice. A matter about achieving the same standards of life or better in a more efficient way.

The experiment extended our awareness on the things we do, our perspective of what we think is possible and our conviction about the meaningful things that are within our hands. We encourage anybody to engage this experience to see how far you can take it. We can assure you that there is a lot to win.

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