James Blogs on No Impact Week
So far this week:
Hello from the South Side of Chicago, where I'll be spending my No Impact Week. I've been making changes in my life recently, and I'm hoping that No Impact Week will take it to the next level.
I have no idea what I’m getting myself into, but what is life without something new, scary and challenging?
I work in media, which nowadays is probably one of the least environmentally friendly careers you can pick. Every day, I’m constantly plugging in, linking to, and killing away many hours of electricity and battery life. Each office I’ve worked in has killed a lot of trees in the amount of paper it leaves behind; and most late nights at work call for whatever Grub Hub says is open, instead of a farmers market or homemade meal.
It begs the question: Why do No Impact Week at all? Well, if not now, then when?
I feel myself becoming too tied to gadgets, to driving, and this modern way of life that leaves less time for simpler things. I know there are things I can do, but putting it all together and being persistent have been the hard parts for me. This will be an even more Herculean task because my sister and niece are visiting from out of town this week, and trying to leave a smaller carbon footprint becomes even tougher when also keeping track of a 2-year-old.
But she’s a big inspiration to push forward with this. I think a lot about how the world will be when she’s older. Will it be better? Will it be worse? There are so many big problems out there that I almost feel helpless in being able to do something about them to make things better for her. But not this. I see it as not just something that can help the environment, but also one more important thing I can teach her.
Day one wasn’t so bad. The weather was cloudy and rainy, so that took away any motivation to go out. Even if I did, I don’t think I would worry about purchasing something I didn’t need.
Bills and student loans can make you think twice about buying what you need and not buying what you don’t. Today’s goal made me think of my consumption habits the past few days and I was surprised at how minimal they’ve been.
On Saturday, I helped take my family out to dinner and, later that night, I went to see a movie (no purchases from the snack bar, of course.). The day before, it was a 1 a.m. trip after work to Walgreens to buy my sister some contact lens solution. Recently, I tried to remember the last time I used cash, or went to use an ATM. It’s been at least a month, surprisingly. I don’t know if it says more about me carving out a new way of life or just the times we live in today.
If there’s one really bad consumption habit I need to kick, it’s been food. I would describe myself as the poster boy for eating like a college student long after I was a college student. Whether it is late-night fast food runs or buying a few too many items not on the shopping list before going to the grocery store, I’ve been there. And it’s shown up in my waistline and bank account statements.
But a few months ago, I decided to change that. So far, and 40 pounds later, it’s been a pretty amazing thing. I’ve never felt better, and it’s turned on this risk button inside me that’s pushing me more out of my comfort zone. Maybe it’s kind of what brought me to No Impact Week. I’m excited to see what this week brings and read other people’s No Impact experiences. Godspeed.
Coming into Monday, I was pretty nervous. I kept thinking, “Uh oh, here’s where this thing is really gonna kick me in the butt.” But just like Sunday, it made me realize how much I’ve changed a lot of my habits lately. Although I couldn’t quite make the goal of no trash for the day, I came pretty close: four small pieces of garbage. There were some things that were just unavoidable, such as dental floss and that teeny, tiny piece of tissue paper I used to blow my nose.
My big accomplishment was making use of the regular plates and utensils at home. I don’t know how, but over the last few years I’ve become a slave to all things plastic: plates, forks, spoons, cups, etc. I would even get at mad at a restaurant for forgetting to include a plastic fork with my order. Who does that?
It became even worse once I was on my own. It was the stereotypical life of a young single guy, with enough paper plates to write a book and an assortment of plastic forks collected from the likes of Popeyes and fine Mexican dining.
The weird thing is that it’s not how I was brought up. I actually enjoyed the process of eating with a regular plate and fork and then washing it so well I could see my reflection. It made me think how easy it is to fall into a bad habit, but also how easy it can be to get myself out of it—as long as I put in the work on my end to do it.
Oh, and don’t get me started on paper towels and napkins. I’ve been guilty as charged quite a bit on that end, but getting better. Yesterday, I was able to use not a single piece and—as the song goes—I feel fine. It’s just another habit I have to break.
It’s like when you’re in a restaurant, more likely of the fast food nature, and you pack your tray with extra napkins, and you end up using only one or two. I always know I don’t need the extra napkins, but I would always think, “You never know.” As if some catastrophic sneezing attack, drink spill, or nose bleed will occur, and I need to be on napkin standby. But it never happens, and if it did, I could simply just walk over and get the extra napkins if I really need them. Plus I’d get a little exercise out of it at the same time.
It really is about the simple things. In time they add up and make that bigger impact on our lives and others that freeze us early on when we consider something like the environment. At least that’s how I see it. I don’t know. I’m such a work in progress.
I get a big, fat F for Tuesday. My means of transportation remained the same as always: my intrepid Dodge Intrepid.
It’s not that I didn’t want to give it up for a day. I did. In fact, I often think about how it would be to give up my car and what it would be like. But my current predicament and other unfortunate circumstances put that on hold for the moment.
My current job is 12 miles away from my house. During normal business hours, it could be a simple commute by train or bus, but my hours aren’t that normal. They’re from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and last night, I worked until 2 a.m.
You might ask, what about carpooling with a co-worker, or getting a ride from someone else? Well, all of the other co-workers on my shift live farther north of me, past downtown, and the only one who gets off at the same time I do lives the farthest north.
I considered a car sharing plan with my mom, but she gets off work an hour before I start and because of rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments, she can’t go up and down the subway steps like she used to. It’s not the worst of situations, but it illustrates the limitations we all have in trying to do No Impact Week, especially those who are poor.
Here in Chicago, about 400,000 people live in food deserts—areas that have no or very limited access to fresh foods. Think about that number. That’s bigger than the populations in Miami, Cleveland, Oakland, and Minneapolis. How would they be able to participate in buying nothing but organic or locally grown food for one day—let alone make it a regular part of their lives?
The neighborhoods that do have greater access to fresh foods can be too far to travel. Many bus lines on the South and West Sides have reduced service; fares are up; and gas is higher and higher. Not to drop another number on you, but I must, because it’s not just in Chicago, it’s everywhere. There was a recent Brookings Institute report that showed how hundreds of thousands of households have both no car and limited access to public transit. And even many people who have access to transit can’t get to most jobs in their area within 90 minutes.
But getting off my soapbox and back to life, the one big factor that keeps me from taking the late ride back by train is safety. I’m reminded of what my mom will always say when I go out with friends: “Be careful. There’s too much going on out here.” Indeed, there is too much going in some parts of Chicago, including my neighborhood, Chatham.
A brief history of Chatham: Newspapers will say that it’s known for its black middle class and well-kept lawns and now it’s turned to hell. That’s way, way oversimplifying it. It’s home to the second largest concentration of senior citizens in Chicago and has called Mahalia Jackson, Ernie Banks, and former U.S. Senator Roland Burris residents. There’s a lot to love about it—a rich history, and overall a nice place to raise a family.
But it’s been rough for long while out here, and we were raised early on to watch our backs. My mom, my sister, my grandmother, and I have each been robbed within a one or two-block radius of our house—and this was long before Chatham grabbed headlines for its violence over the last year or two.
Every week, there’s a community flyer about break-ins, stickups and gangs. It’s gotten to the point where some people feel like they need a gun to take out the garbage. Even my mom applied for a gun license. All of this runs through my head almost every night on the drive home. Many times I circle around, and drive through our alley to make sure no one is around. I pray that a neighbor is coming home at the same time, so I’m not the only one getting out of my car. It’s not an ideal way to live one’s life, but it’s home.
Now don’t let my story paint me as a pessimist who thinks No Impact Week can be only be done in certain places. Even with the limitations and adjustments, there’s still a lot that I and others who find themselves in the situations described above can do. A lot of it starts with those everyday habits we fall into.
But I also feel like it points out how connected a lot of these issues are. We make the mistake of thinking one has nothing to do with the other. What do the environment and urban violence have in common? Well, it’s a cause and effect. Because of one problem, some people are unable to fully tackle the other. Connecting those dots, I believe, can go a long way in getting more people involved and painting an even fuller big picture.
Here’s a day where I could have done some better planning ahead of time. I didn’t stray too far, but I also wasn’t able to keep Wednesday’s grub locally grown either.
My main dish for the past few days has been a wheat pasta and baked chicken combo (using no plastic fork) my mom cooked up on Sunday. The ingredients weren’t local, but came from the Food 4 Less just four blocks from our house. It used to be that after the day the meal was cooked—or sometimes after the next day—I would move onto something else and not touch Sunday dinner again. Many trips home after work consisted of getting dinner on the go chocked with all the bad stuff doctors warn you about. How times have changed. Overall, I’m more patient with my food habits. I don’t give in to impulse or eat it just because it’s there.
Changing my food habits over the past months has been one of the best choices I could make. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was hard. It still is, but I take it one meal, one day at a time. As I wrote about a little earlier, it’s resulted in me losing 40 pounds so far. I don’t think I’ve ever been as selective in choosing not just what to eat, but also how much. It almost makes me feel like a student again, studying all these food chemicals and calculating calories, sodium, and sugar intakes.
To go the straight local route feels like that huge next level of a video game I know I have to reach, but not before I conquer that tricky path preceding it. It’s always exciting to daydream about getting there, but it’s still one meal, one day.
I’ve gotta admit that Thursday was kind of fun. I thought it would be harder than it actually turned out to be. What made it easier, I think, is the change in habits I’ve been making the past few months. Things like not watching TV were easy when I was downstairs in my domain – not so much upstairs with my niece who wanted her daily fixings of Yo Gabba Gabba and Sid the Science Kid.
I’ve been weaning myself off TV for a while, actually. I had the misfortune of growing up with one in my room, and it became great to have around for a 7-year-old who was afraid of the dark. As I got older, it became that classic background to whatever else I was doing. I wish I had a dollar for every moment I turned on the TV not to watch it, but to channel surf over and over and over again.
But now, I’m much more picky about when I turn on the TV. It might be as little as once or twice a week.
The biggest obstacles I had to face Thursday were my trusty fan and radio. They’ve probably been my biggest energy drainers over the years – even more than TV. It’s mainly because I have this weird sleeping habit where I need noise or something going as I’m sleeping. A fan, a radio, or both have been my constants for a long time, regardless of the season. I had already been experimenting with cutting out the radio over the past week, and it hasn’t been that tough. My main use for it recently has been when I work out. I found listening to the news to be not only a good exercise companion, but also a better timekeeper than looking over at a clock every two minutes.
But taking that and the fan out of the equation for a day? Not bad at all. The silence was a little refreshing, especially when working out. It was as if an even bigger calming came over my mind. Going to bed was just as simple too. I could always go to sleep without either if I were in a hotel, so I knew nothing was stopping me from doing it at home. It was just a matter of…habits.
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