Erin Blogs on No Impact Week
So far this week:
- Sunday: Consumption
- Monday: Trash
- Tuesday: Transportation
- Wednesday: Food
- Thursday: Energy
- Friday: Water
- Saturday: Giving Back
- Sunday: Eco-Sabbath
A couple of years ago, I was living outside of Delhi, India, in a community of formerly destitute people. My life with them made me realize the effect that Western lifestyles often have on the rest of the world, and especially on those living in poverty.
Now that I'm back in Australia—in a town of about 40,000 people on the edge of the outback—I want to learn how to better live lightly on the earth, without destruction. I've had both times where I was depressed about it and didn't try as hard, and times when I've been quite hardcore, but I'd like to find a balance between idealism and inertia.
I'm doing this challenge because I know I need a bit of a shake up again, I know I'm becoming more and more unconscious of my 'impact' the longer I live at home in Australia, and I'm looking forward to spending a week examining myself (in a playful way) along with everyone else who is taking up the challenge!
I’m really looking forward to this week. And I’m also wondering if I’ll need a holiday afterward because it already feels kind of intense.
Just one day has left me reeling a bit because when you start to carry your rubbish around; and then go into the cheap shop to by “essential items” (see list below); and then come home to notice how you tend to reach for the hot tap by default and how much water is going down the loo ... So much is automatic and it’s a challenge to actually think about it!
Just the anticipation of the challenge over the last week has been good for me—it's agitated me and got me thinking. Good stuff.
Sunday was really great: After a cultural festival, a dig in the community garden, and a bag of my collected rubbish, I was cycling home (unfortunately uphill) and my neighbor passed me in her car. She stopped for a chat because we haven’t actually seen each other for the past week. Better than just passing in our cars and waving!
Never say Never
After an intense time working with the poor in India, I embarked on a bit of a journey with some friends, trying to make sense of the world and its inequalities and our part to play in it. I was pretty active and passionate about things, and at the time I made a lot of “never again” statements.
Now, back in Oz, I feel like I’m doing all those things: I’m living alone, working full-time, driving my car to work most days (all of 5 minutes), buying things wrapped in plastic, getting more and more possessions as time goes on.
I’ve tried to be a bit ‘conscious’ about my consumption, but if I look hard at myself, I’m slowly getting lazy and comfortable again. That’s not to say that being crazy hardcore about these things is right either—I actually think that the "never" statements can be harmful because when you inevitably go back on them (and I think there’s some universal law that says you will), you feel like a failure.
And there are the shades of gray: I live alone because I feel somewhere inside that I need to for a while—for my mental health. And working full-time again has turned out to present new challenges and room for growth that I didn’t expect.
The system certainly isn’t perfect, and so many things frustrate me. But hey, maybe I have more chance to grow by being in a challenging situation than the ideal life of living off the land in self-sustainable communal bliss.
Final thoughts on me vs. consumption
- Thankfully I’m not much of a shopper and I usually go to the shops with a mission…but that’s not to say that I don’t usually come home with much more than I planned—and somehow I still manage to gather a lot of stuff.
- My neighbor mentioned that she’s going to have a garage sale at the end of the month—so I’ve got a purging task this week. I’ll pull out a big box and start throwing things I don’t need into it.
- I’ve just joined up with freecycle. Not much happening in Dubbo but I love the idea.
- I’ve set myself the challenge not to enter a supermarket this week. Thankfully I have enough toilet paper to last me.
- My list of things I will buy this week is as follows: My weekly newspaper (it’s only once a week, it’s small, and I like my weekly chat with the newsagents); bicycle lights from a local bike shop & high viz vest (legal and safe); a compost bucket; a few packs of seeds (it’s time to start planting in the Southern Hemisphere). I should get by with food after a big farmers market shop on Saturday a quick look in my pantry will assure you that I won’t starve.
I like how this challenge is making me horrified about "normal" things. I was horrified as I peeled a sticker off an apple, horrified by the pile of uncollected paper next to the printer at work, horrified by my hand reaching for a paper towel to dry off ...
Spookily—to extend the horror theme—a recycling program started at work today. For me it was also a significant day because after weeks of thinking about it, I finally took my food scraps to work to give to a colleague who has chooks. This has a rather exciting spin-off for me: It means that there is no excuse for using plastic bags to collect my rubbish (excuse being that they neatly contain oozy foodstuff). I got so good awhile back at using my reusable shopping bags that I actually purposely didn’t use them so I could get plastic bags because I had run out.
So a lesson learned: There are a lot of hungry chickens out there who want my scraps. A decision was made today from all of this (along with the first colleague with the chooks) that we would start a scrap bin in the kitchen at work and see how it goes. A little bit of horror goes a long way!
This week has happened at "that time of the month" but thankfully I started using reusable alternatives to disposable pads and tampons years ago. I remember the pivotal point of decision with that was when I was in India and had the (extremely horrifying) realization that whatever I put in the rubbish bin there would invariably be opened and touched and sorted by a poor rag-picker. I couldn’t wish that on anyone. I’m also glad that I didn’t have to carry anything like that around with me as part of the challenge!
A few “highlights” from my rubbish collection:
- Plastic plate and Yabbie heads—from the cultural festival yesterday. I wanted to eat and it all looked so good and there was only throwaway plastic to put it on. And Yabbie heads…well what the heck do you do with them? (Yabbies are Australian crayfish).
- Tag from the reflective vest I bought (see day one for excuse)—can be recycled.
- One of those stretchy plastic stringy orange bags that Oranges come in—this was being used as a "reusable bag" to collect my rubbish in until I realized that yabbie heads would not be contained (and juice would escape through holes) and therefore had to wrap yabbie heads and plate in a plastic bag.
- A tissue that I blew my nose with (should use a hanky).
- Food scraps—(now making chooks happy).
- Cotton bud used to clean my ears (I guess I should let the wax come out naturally).
- Tissue used to wipe blood after bike stack (I probably should have just left it).
Things I’m thankful for:
- Colleagues who graciously listen to me rave on and on about whatever is happening in my life at the time (which now happens to be No Impact Week).
- The lady who slowed down so as not to run me over when I stacked my bike today.
- My ‘patch’ in the community garden—and the sunset I enjoyed down there this eveninghe perfectly peaceful end to an horrific day!
I own a car. And frankly, there is a list of excuses for having one here. I’ve got good friends who live out of town and riding my bicycle 30 km just ain’t gonna happen. My parents live 250 km down the road and to coordinate with the bus or train times I need to take a 4-day weekend. And up until recently I hadn’t really thought there was a good enough alternative for getting home after dark.
For getting around town there are good options. The bus isn’t really a good one unless you don’t want to go out on Sundays and don’t want to stay in town past 5.30 p.m. Walking is good—I already try to walk to work (sometimes) because 20 minutes walking is a great way to frame the working day.
But Dubbo is rather sprawling and the best way to get around in general, I think, is by bicycle. Because the very good bike that I bought a few months ago hasn’t seen much of the road, I decided prior to No Impact Week that I would leave my car at home for the whole week (at least until Saturday) and cycle everywhere: to work (2 km), the community garden (5 km), one evening meeting and whatever else comes up. Simple, right?
A quick “up to speed” on the harsh reality of cycling in Dubbo.
1: Magpies. If you’ve never been swooped everyday for weeks in spring by a deranged magpie trying to protect its young, you don’t know how traumatizing this can be. Happily the cable ties projecting from my helmet like antennas seem to have worked at deterring them so far.
2. Snakes. This is no word of a lie—my friend Bron was cycling today and nearly ran over a big brown snake. Luckily it was slithering fast. Not sure how you can avoid snakes except for keeping an eye out for them!
3. Potential for knee grazes and ankle bleeds (probably more to do with me than Dubbo): Yes, this happened yesterday close to home. I was signaling whilst slowing down whilst looking behind etc etc and went all wobbly and fell off in the middle of the road. Ouch!
4. Cat heads. Not the furry kind—rather, the freaky, can-stab-through-your-thong-(flip-flop)-through-to your-foot variety. Described as “thumbtack-like," I have shredded tubes on these before.
Well you would think that with all these reasons why cycling in Dubbo is probably more hazardous than wrestling crocodiles, I would give up. But after three days of cycling at least 10 km per day and only actually experiencing number three above, I think I’m hooked. I feel good, I love the feeling of physical exhaustion when I hop into bed, I love riding under the stars in the fresh air at night, and I love being less in my car. And there are pluses about Dubbo: It is relatively flat and the wide roads mean nice big shoulders, even if there are not many bike paths.
So it’s easy enough to reduce my car dependency for myself, but what about for work? Our team of Occupational Therapists travel far and wide to provide a service to a big chunk of western New South Wales. On a big trip this means traveling a minimum of 400 km one way. More regularly for me it means once or twice a fortnight travelling to a town 120 km away. I’m wondering what my profession would look like in a post-cheap-oil future? Hmmmm.
Lunchtime discussions today at work included thoughts on energy use, a toilet cistern that doubles as a handbasin, and whether I would need to put out a bucket and wait for it to rain in order to drink truly local water. I ate my local parsnips and salad with delight (my shop at the farmers markets on Saturday has already meant a lot of local, healthy food). And when I washed my hands I pulled out my little square of old pillowslip that I had in my pocket rather than use the paper towel!
Aside from all the fun that this challenge is proving to be, I have to admit I’m feeling really exhausted. Partly the increased physical activity, but it’s also the mental/emotional stuff—thinking about everything I do (and facing a lot of my habits) and blogging about it means sitting down each evening trying to write something coherent and staying up later than usual. But I think it helps with being mindful.
And now, I’m going to steal a line from my fellow blogger, Ta’Kaiya: "No Impact Week can lead to No Impact Month or Year or a complete change altogether.”
I’m beginning to hope so!
I read Vicki Robin’s article 7 Ways to Cook Up a Sustainable Diet on the weekend and thought it was great—nice and concise and sensible. It planted a few things in my brain for the week: I started sprouting again (for some reason I didn’t do it over winter), and I have made a commitment to myself to consider what is in my cupboard as “local” for the next weeks and try not to buy any food except fresh fruit and veggies. I have also tried to ‘savor’ my food more, and eat slowly. Last night I experienced even more ‘savor’ as I was sharing with new friends.
I’m not so good with the local food thing, aside from vegetables. Looking at labels, a lot of things are “made in Australia from local and imported ingredients.” Even if things are made in Australia it could be thousands of kms away. If I think about things I don’t want to give up—they’d be my oats and nuts and tahini (all from the supermarket). But I didn’t eat them today.
My local food adventure began on Saturday with a trip to the local farmers markets. Knowing what was ahead, I made a point of asking most of them where their produce was from. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of great local food. Most of my veggies came from Neurea (66km) and some from Cowra (211km). Even more local were the Narromine Oranges, the mushrooms, olives, avocados, and seedlings. Probably the thing from the farthest away was the sourdough bread from the Blue Mountains (about 300km)…I couldn’t resist and I needed some kind of “staple.”
So yesterday it wasn’t so hard to eat local. I made a nice salad for lunch and munched on oranges and apples throughout the day. In the afternoon I did crave a packet of chips (which I don’t even want very often), but my colleague Michelle listened to me complain about this and talked me through it. I drank water instead.
Dinner was special. I came home from work (by bicycle of course), to greet two lovely couchsurfers who came to stay the night, Andrew and Nici. After offering them a cup of tea I realized that none of my tea/herbal options could be considered local. It’s moments like those when you get close to just bending the rule a little bit….but anyway I searched around and decided to squeeze some very local lemon (given away at a meeting I went to the other night) into my water.
I was all excited because another purchase I had made at the market was “saltbush lamb chops”—a local lamb that claims to be more sustainable because the lambs eat a lot of saltbush.
What's so good about Old Man Saltbush? This is a native plant supplying lambs with a rich source of minerals and nutrients not readily available from other plants. It is a deep-rooted perennial that assists with sustainable land management as it helps to prevent salinity.
- It is hardy to the outback country and requires very little water to grow, so needs no irrigation or watering.
- Lambs grazed on Old Man Saltbush require no drenching which means they are much healthier animals.
- Old Man Saltbush is environmentally sustainable as it allows a diverse array of native wildlife to co-exist with the lambs.
I very rarely cook meat (my friend Amy can testify to that: She has supervised my two attempts at cooking meat in seven months) and I know that part of the challenge for this week was to reduce meat consumption. But I was happy to go the other way if I could find something more sustainable. It was a great idea, but it was thwarted when I pulled the meat out of the fridge and smelled it… maybe it was a sign!
Andrew and Nici happily went along with my local rules and we feasted on steamed vegetables (potato, broccoli, beetroot, parsnip, onion, sweet potato) and bread with avocado and olives! It was really delightful to share a meal together as we got to know each other, to savor the food slowly and also enjoy the solitude around us.
Our conversation led us to talk about some of the craziness going on in this world. Wondering about the future, I was reminded of something I felt I’ve learned over the last years after talking and thinking over and over again about these topics: It’s our inner sustainability that matters in this crazy world, and it’s the only place that we can start from where all of us have the choice to change, regardless of the circumstances around us. For me, something deep says that that should be a priority. I think that trying to be more aware and present through this challenge helps that, or at least reminds me of that.
I must say that doing this day alone would not have been anywhere near as fun.
I experimented years ago for a short time with not turning on artificial lights at all—only using candles when it got dark. I also tried not to have other forms of artificial light (like TV or a computer screen) on either. What prompted me to do that was thinking about how our bodies must be so out of whack when we try to prolong the day artificially (I guess you kind of need to if you live somewhere with extremely short winter days), and our bodies probably don’t get all the cues they need to get ready for sleep. Like that it’s getting dark.
As I write this, it’s 6.40pm. I’m sitting in my dark unit, and the sun has just gone down. There are a few candles lit on the table and otherwise it is just the computer screen (a necessary evil if I’m to write this blog post!).
I came home absolutely exhausted today after staying up late last night and getting up early to write the last post, and thought I’d get an early night. How convenient—the darkness is adding to my sleepiness.
Probably the biggest energy-suckers in my unit are the hot water tank, the fridge, the heater or air-con if I use it, and the washing machine.
Winter is pretty much over, so I thought, why not switch off the hot water? It’s a huge tank. I have never run out. I probably don’t even use a quarter of what’s in there (not sure, really!). But certainly during summer I should be able to get by with cold showers, and will probably even want cold showers (it gets hot in Dubbo). And I usually wash my laundry with cold. And I could always boil the kettle for the washing up.
Well my friendly couchsurfer confirmed that if I flick the switch that says “hot water” it will turn off (for some reason I’m nervous about touching these things without a second opinion) so I will do it….soon….maybe after my next hot shower! I can certainly turn it off anytime I go away, at least.
About the fridge: I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up. But I must say, it disturbed me last night, as I sat at the table with Andrew and Nici—we had a moment of silence before dinner and my ears were filled with a kind of screeching noise that I think was coming from the fridge. It’s that constant electrical noise that you don’t usually notice. It might be radio waves, etc., as well, I don’t know. But it’s a shame when you can’t have total silence because of these darn appliances!
Right now we’re in that beautiful mid-season where I don’t need heat or cooling. But I hope this summer I will be able to minimize the cooling… this may be aided by the cold showers.
The washing machine gets used a couple of times a week (lights and darks). I don’t have a dryer, so I always hang out my washing on my clothesline—or if it’s too cold or raining then it’s hung inside and it dries nicely, especially if I’m heating.
On the plus side, I don’t have a TV, and I think that has a lot of pluses. TV can be such a time-suck. And an energy suck. I’m just not exposed to all those commercial messages that contribute to the consumption-urge: I totally missed Fathers day this year. and I think it’s because of lack of TV and junk mail…and because I didn’t go shopping except to the supermarket.
I do still watch the odd thing on the Internet, but I choose it, rather than plonking down and flicking channels and just watching for the sake of it.
Woops! My computer is telling me it’s running out of batteries‚‚—and I’m getting very sleepy sitting here in the dark. Goodnight.
In Australia, being conscious of water use is drilled into you at a young age. To think that some adults actually leave the tap running while they brush their teeth shocks me. There’s a lot of education around on how to save water, and during summer we are often under water restrictions (at level 1 you can still use a sprinkler, by level 6 you must use recycled water to water your garden).
During restrictions we also have rules where you only water every other day, depending on your house number. So, it’s something we’re aware of. You don’t want to be caught washing your car with a hose during water restrictions!
Having said all of that, the country as a whole (we’ll get to me personally in a minute) doesn’t seem to give a stuff when it comes to preserving our precious (finite) water resources like the Great Artesian Basin (GAB), an underground aquifer that is a source of water through springs to much of inland Australia, and a valuable support for wildlife. The Olympic Dam mine in South Australia (mining uranium, copper, gold, and silver) uses 35 million litres of GAB water each day. It’s not just Olympic Dam that’s doing this—coal seam gas mining also poses a significant threat to this resource. (Don’t get me started on coal seam gas mining—they want to cover the amazing Pilliga Forest with extraction sites…it just shouldn’t happen).
The water is effectively being “mined,” as it is not a neverending supply. As it is mined, the pressure decreases and natural springs dry up. It worries me to read that there is no consensus as to whether the recharge rates of the GAB are equal to the total of discharge rates (via natural discharge and pumping/exploitation). So why the heck are we exploiting this precious resource without knowing if it is just going to dry up one day?
Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?
Australia is pretty much gaga about mining at the moment. It’s the lifeblood of our economy, and the government is rolling in revenue from it. But at what future expense, I ask? Do the powers that be just not care about future generations in such a dry land?
I’d say I’m "fairly" aware of water use. It doesn’t help, though, that until now I haven’t had to pay for water in my rental unit. And money can be a big incentive. But I do have a two-liter milk bottle in my toilet cistern to reduce my flush; I tend to take quick showers; I sometimes reuse laundry water for a second load or to water the lawn; and because I live alone it’s easy to do the "mellow yellow" thing and not flush unless I have to.
But in watching myself use water the last days, I realize that most water I only use once, so I have decided to try my hardest to get at least two uses out of all the water I use (except drinking). That means using a tub to wash my dishes (using less dishes would be good too!), having a bucket in the shower, not letting laundry water go down the drain, using steaming and sprouting water to water my plants. Not sure about hand washing, or mouth rinsing water…but I’m sure I’ll work it out.
I kind of dropped off the No Impact perch yesterday by driving 300 km in order to wade for three hours in the Macquarie Marshes. I suppose you could say it was “balanced” by helping me become physically aware of an extremely important part of our local ecology, and participating in a small fundraiser for people who are passionate about the health of our river systems!
In a way it fits neatly in with this challenge: These people were trying to connect people’s lifestyles (in particular water use) with the “bigger picture”—the environment that we live in and which ultimately sustains us.
This week has been a lot about developing awareness for me. But it’s probably not going to last if I don’t go some step further than just thinking about “lifestyle choices.” Because, let’s face it—if it’s just about little me, or us, trying to ‘make a difference’ in the face of such huge scary problems on a scale that looms high above us…well, isn’t it just all pointless to make sacrifices?
I don’t believe it’s pointless. Not because I believe that we will actually end up having world peace and no poverty and that my future grandchildren's grandchildren will live on a pristine planet (I can’t honestly say I believe that). But because I believe that I have a soul, and that there is some ‘connectedness’ somewhere hidden within, there is something in me that is probably screaming when I do waste, when I do consume more than my fair share, when I do create problems for the earth by my “little” choices.
I guess it’s good to hear this little voice again, to feel my conscience and know that to follow it, whatever that means, will ultimately mean peace, connectedness, and less fragmentation. If we dig deep enough, Something in us just knows.
When I contemplate today’s theme—Giving Back—I think of fellow blogger Rebecca’s comment that she wants to find ways to “reduce my family’s negative impact on our planet while increasing our positive impact.”
I think that the name of this challenge is perhaps misleading, making you think of taking up neutral space on the planet…What about making a real, positive, subtle, surprising, soulful and personal Impact?
There are so many benefits to living a lower-impact and simpler lifestyle. Reading the other bloggers, I can see a common theme of re-discovering neighborhoods, good conversation, peace, healthy eating, and exercise. I guess that it’s all stuff that also enriches our souls as well as the more "inner conscience" stuff I talked about before.
As I write this, I’m sick at home, not sure if it’s the cumulative "impact" of No Impact Week (I expended a lot of personal energy this week!), but it shows me how easy it would be now to just do things that are easy and comfortable, to keep old habits alive because I just “can’t be bothered.”
But thankfully this experience has been rather powerful and inspiring, and I hope that I will continue this reflective way of living, making small changes along the way.
I’m already pretty astounded by the number of changes I have already made that I think will stick at least to some degree. Who would have thought what just a one week commitment could achieve?
A big thank you to YES! for inviting me to blog about this experience. The sharing of it has certainly made it a far more intense but also personally rewarding experience. And a big shout out to all the fellow bloggers and participants in this No Impact Week. We Did It!
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