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Sustainability* in the Bathroom

(*I recognize that using this word without defining it is problematic.  I am writing an entire dissertation on this, and recognize that I am guilty as charged.  This is simply a catchier title for my entry than “How to reduce the disposable, non-biodegradable plastic consumption in your bathroom habits”)

In an effort to prepare for my friend Renata’s visit tomorrow (as well as to be procrastinating productively), this morning I took down my shower curtains and put both the inner plastic liner and the outer cloth curtain through the wash.  This reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post about the changes I’ve made in the bathroom this year.

As you may recall, when I left my house in town and moved out to the country, I purged my home of as much plastic as I could possible eliminate.  Most of this was found in the kitchen – tupperware containers, plastic wrap, plastic utensils, plastic dishes and so on.  Kitchens are typically chock full of plastic products.  I now cringe when I visit homes with small children and see all the plastic dishes they are given to eat from, day in and day out.  Regardless of claims now of ‘BPA-free’ plastic, I firmly believe that it is all toxic and want as little interaction with it as possible, especially around food!

Of course avoiding plastic is completely impossible, but we can certainly reduce it in our daily practice.  My food is now only stored in glass, be it Mason jars or Pyrex dishes.  I bring my lunch to work in variously sized Mason jars.   Cooking is done in glass or stainless steel bowls, and stainless or cast iron pots.  I stir things with wooden spoons, and flip pancakes with a metal spatula.

While it took a fair bit of time to identify, and subsequently replace, the plastic in my kitchen, that project is mostly complete now.  It wasn’t long into this purge, however, that I realized that my bathroom was another plastic haven. And surprisingly, getting rid of plastic in the bathroom has posed far more of challenge than doing so in the kitchen!

Why is that, you ask? Well, mostly it’s because the products we (I) use in the bathroom almost all come in plastic packaging, and or are made of plastic: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, hair brush, hair clips, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, skin lotion, make-up, tampons, razor blades, liquid soap, shower curtain, face puff.  The list goes on and on.  I’m a minimalist in the bathroom, but I’ve seen some that could rival a drugstore for how much plastic they contain.

The first thing I did was eliminate everything I felt really wasn’t necessary.  This left me with the list I just mentioned.  But that is still far too much plastic in my house.  So I started to search for alternatives.  And you know what?  There aren’t many out there.  Food has definitely come farther along this path than cosmetics, let me tell you.  Yet the more I learned about what I was exposing myself to (watch, for example, The Story of Cosmetics), the more urgently I wanted to get rid of this stuff.  It’s been a frustrating struggle.

Very fortunately, Taina – anti-plastic activist and author of the outstanding and inspiring blog Plastic Manners – has done a lot of research on the subject, and generously shares her findings herean extremely helpful list of bathroom (and household) alternatives to plastic.  She uses a bone and boar bristle toothbrush.  I haven’t quite been that brave (the assurance that the ‘wet pig taste’ eventually goes away has not inspired me to rush out and buy one…yet) and instead purchased a Preserve Toothbrush at London Homeopathy in Covent Garden.  This toothbrush is still made of plastic, but it is 100% recycled plastic.  And, when you are done, you can mail it back to them to be recycled again.  I have just worn out my first one and am getting ready to send it back. I am undecided if I want to go the wet pig route for my next toothbrush, or buy another Preserve one.  The last time I went to London Homeopathy, they were sold out. I’m tempted to order the boar brush as surely natural bristles are gentler on tooth enamel than plastic, and of course hopefully less toxic! So maybe I’ll muster up the courage and give it a try.

I decided to stick with my current hairbrush – it’s mostly ceramic, with plastic bristles.  I also have a wooden one with natural bristles.  Both were expensive and are lasting well, and I see no need to replace them as I’m not ingesting any plastic by using them.  That said, I have seen some nice wooden and rubber brushes that I’d be tempted to try if I was more flush.  Not a priority, however.  And buying a new brush would just generate more waste.

One of the biggest plastic items in my bathroom is my nasty, plastic shower curtain.  I fully intend on replacing it just as soon as I can afford a $100 hemp curtain.  Not likely to happen today, but it’s on my wish list.  Now why replace the curtain if I already have it?  Isn’t that just wasteful?  Well, yes, it is, as there’s no way to recycle it.  I will try to find some other use for it rather than throw it out, such as keeping my kindling dry or covering something in my shed.  But the bottom line is that every time I take a hot shower, the heat causes the curtain to release toxic chemicals.  That nasty plastic odor of a freshly purchased shower curtain?  Toxic fumes!  And just because I can’t smell them anymore doesn’t mean that they still aren’t being released, albeit at a lesser intensity now.  So the curtain must go.  Soon.

What I had the biggest trouble replacing is the consumables: toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, tampons, deodorant.  Potentially toxic in and of themselves, these products also come in non-recyclable plastic packaging.  Thanks to Plastic Manners, I learned that Lush sells (relatively) natural products without packaging, and I recently ventured into their store in White Oaks Mall.  Initially knocked off my feet by the intense perfumes, I spent a good half hour with one of their clerks discussing solid bars of deodorant, shampoo and conditioner.  I settled on a chunk of each and brought them home.  It took a good couple of weeks before I could walk past my bathroom without be assaulted by the perfumes from these products, but that eventually went away.  Now that I no longer use any scented products, items that have been infused with scent I find really obnoxious.

So far, I am quite happy with the deodorant.  It works well, and doesn’t leave me smelling like artificial vanilla or strawberries.  But the shampoo and conditioner were disappointing.  The shampoo bar worked well, but left my hair too dry.  I have found this to be the case with every single ‘eco’ shampoo I have ever tried.  The others all came in plastic bottles, which immediately rules them out now, but I had hoped for something different with the Lush bar.  No luck.  The conditioner, on the other hand, conditioned my hair but left a significant residue.  My hair dresser was very concerned about how my hair felt when I saw her after just using the conditioner twice.  So both bar and conditioner now sit unused in my window sill.  What a disappointment.

Having used the last of my shampoo, needing to go out in public, and deeply reticent to purchase another plastic bottle of questionably safe hair cleaner, I finally decided to take the plunge and try going ‘no poo.’  Not the prettiest of terms for a cleaning process, ‘no poo’ in fact cleans my hair and leaves it feeling better than even my $30 bottle of salon shampoo!  Not only that, it is non-toxic,  extremely cheap, and can be purchased everywhere.  So what is ‘no poo’?  Simple: wash with baking soda, condition with vinegar.

I now keep two mason jars in my bathroom and when I want to wash my hair, I put one table spoon of baking soda (which I buy in bulk, alumnium free, from Eco-Pioneer, but I expect any brand will work just as well) into one jar, and a tablespoon or two of white vinegar into the other.  In the shower, I then fill each jar  with a cup or so of hot water from the shower head.  I start with the baking soda, pour it through my hair and massage it in.  Rinse.  Then rinse again with the vinegar and water.

I have been doing this for over a month now and my hair has never felt better.  It stays clean, feels soft, has no residue build up and looks great.  I will never go back to shampoo with its plastic bottles and unknown toxic chemicals.  Thanks but no thanks!

Regarding the other consumables I use, I now use bar soap instead of soft-soap.  There are many places where you can find bars of soap for sale in paper wrapping, or better yet, no wrapping at all.  Hand made soaps abound at markets and in local gift shops.  Likely you can find someone local making soap, or even learn to make it yourself!

For toothpaste, there’s baking soda (you can brush your teeth and wash your hair at the same time!).  For skin lotion: olive oil.  Coffee grounds make a good exfoliant.  I still haven’t resolved razor blades, and try to console myself with the fact that they are tiny, and at least in part metal.  And unlike a man’s course beard, my legs don’t beat up a razor blade so I can use it over, and over.  Finally, make-up.  This is a very problematic on so many levels.  Do I even need to wear make-up?  Why do I conform to social pressures and do so when I went without for years and years?  The bottom line is that I am getting older, work with perpetual 20-year olds, and, at least in winter, feel I need a little added colour.  There are some really wonderful (and expensive) non-toxic, all-natural make-up lines out there.  I personally use MAC.  Not the company it used to be since being bought out, but it still avoids animal testing and takes back 100% of its packaging.  Lately they have started making eye shadows without plastic containers that you can just insert into a re-usable holding case (sadly, made of plastic).  It’s a lesser of many evils.

This leaves the taboo subject of ‘feminine hygiene.’  Surprisingly, there are more options here than with many of the products I discussed above.  For straight substitution of conventional sanitary products (liners, pads, tampons) I buy Natracare organic products (available at London Homeopathy, LynDys and also in the organic departments of Loblaws and the Superstore).  It makes no sense to be careful to avoid putting toxic chemicals in my mouth, and then use a bleached, toxic tampon.  And so for years I have spent more and purchased the organic version.  These products, however, still have some plastic in their packaging (although this is much, much less than in most conventional brands – or at least it was the last time I bought those other brands).  Regardless, there is still packaging, and the product itself is disposable and ends up flushed down the drain with what otherwise would be drinking water.  It really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

An alternative to using disposable sanitary products is to try something like the Diva Cup.  This a reusable, latex cup that works a little like a reverse diaphragm.  It’s a little awkward to use at first, and unfortunately doesn’t work for about 20% of women (there are only two sizes).  The company will reimburse you if you try it and it doesn’t work out, so it’s worth giving it a shot.  You can also try LunaPads – washable, reusable pads.  And I expect more products will come to the fore as demand increases.

I have not come up with an alternative to toilet paper – quite frankly I can’t even imagine what that could be – and as such just use recycled paper products you can buy at Loblaws and the like.  It is one of the few things I still occasionally venture into a grocery store to buy!

Finally there’s water use.  Last, but most certainly not least.  Reducing water consumption is a very big part of being more environmentally friendly, but it’s not always easy.  You can purchase a low-volume shower head and toilet, or just focus on taking shorter showers and flushing less often.  I’m afraid I tend to use a fair bit of water – hot showers are one of my guilty pleasures and an area I need to cut back on.  Check this little video out on ‘the Bathroom Reconstructed‘ for ideas around where we might be able to go with a little political well.

Well the washer is done, my soup pots need checking (making a 48 hour beef stock) and  those essays are not grading themselves.  Time to make a pot of tea and get back to work.

And Another Month Flies By…

Goodness, I can’t believe it’s been a whole month since I last wrote.  Again!  I haven’t even logged in to check my comments in so long that WordPress has significantly overhauled some of its major features and I hardly recognize the place!

So, what have I been up you ask?  What has kept me from tending to my poor, neglected blog?  The short answer is: Life.  Life of a working person, that is.  The big change from being just a grad student, with a nicely flexible schedule and an ability to work to the beat of my own drum.  Now that I’m teaching (more than) full-time, and also in a relationship, I find myself scrambling desperately to keep on top of the domestic side of my life.

In other words, the reality that most people live is now staring me directly in the face.  Or rather, it’s pulling the rug out from under my feet.  The reality that our society is structured around fast food and harsh cleaners and cars and power tools and purchasing and lack of exercise, all to make time for work and some semblance of a social life.

Not that this comes as any surprise.  I knew this, and expected this, and braced myself for this.  It’s what I have been talking about, reading about, writing about for the last three+ years: the (near?)impossibility of working full-time and eating locally and ecologically.

Yes, I have been sticking to my guns – to the best of my ability – and still buying and eating local food and preparing everything from scratch.  But twice out of the last three days I drove into campus for work I ended up having to buy my lunch.  It was gross and I hated it.  And I felt disgusting afterwards.  I have now eaten every scrap of food I cooked and froze over the summer and have nothing left in the pantry other than basic stores and ingredients waiting to be turned into meals.  In fact lunch on Wednesday was tomato sauce poured over rice I steamed while getting dressed for work.  That was all I could come up with!  (but just reminded myself that I can make tomato soup from this sauce in the blink of an eye – lunch for next week!)

So this weekend – Thanksgiving Weekend – I am staying home, alone, and trying to resolve this dilemma.  I had a couple of very tempting invitations for the weekend: spending it with my wonderful man – who I miss constantly due to the 8+ hour drive that separates us – or going home to visit my family and enjoy my mother’s fabulous cooking.  Instead I am here, doing my best to get on top of my house and pantry while simultaneously trying to catch up with the never-ending, constantly growing pile of academic and teaching work inundating my desk.

I started by doing some basic cleaning and taking stock of my fridge, which was full-to-bursting with produce waiting to be turned into something tasty.  Last week was the last day of my CSA so the constant flow of fresh, organic veggies into my home is going to stop.  Good thing too, as I have done nothing with the last three pick-ups and am sadly having to compost way too much of it.

Last night, too tired to cook, I plopped myself down in front of  The Price of Milk, a quirky, fun love story from New Zealand (funny how I suddenly have a thing for romances…), opened a bottle of wine, and peeled 7lbs of beets that have been collecting and waiting patiently in my fridge for weeks.  This morning I grated them (with my food processor), salted and sprinkled them with caraway seeds, and packed the whole red mass into my new 1 gallon ceramic crock.  The idea is to make sour beets a-la Wild Fermentation.  From what the book says, using fermented beets is how borscht was traditionally made.  Seeing as I love borscht, and that I had a ton of beets, I thought this would be an interesting experiment.  By the time I finished shredding and packing them, enough juice had been expressed to cover the beets.  So no brine was necessary.  I just put a plate on top of them and weighted it down with a large jar of water, then covered the whole crock with a cloth.  Now I just sit back and wait.

Emptying my fridge revealed another 10 large beets so I need to find other things to do with these wonderful root veggies.  I will likely just boil some and eat them with butter.  And I’ll chop some into a fresh batch of fermented veggie ‘kraut.  And the rest I’ll roast with garlic and eat with a balsamic & olive oil dressing.  Simple, but delicious!  I think I have the recipe on here already somewhere.  I’ll put up the link under my recipe tab if I find it.

My fridge also contained two rutabagas, which I am going to shred and ferment as well, just to experiment.  Perhaps I’ll steam a cup or two to enjoy with butter.  I also have half a bushel of tomatoes waiting to be turned into sauce, about 25 pears waiting to be canned, two baskets of plumbs withering away waiting to be turned into sauce, and half a bushel of red peppers waiting to be made into jelly.  Oh, and four egg plants that are starting to droop.  Likely I’ll turn one or two into ratatouille, and the rest I’ll roast and freeze to use later.

I really don’t know when I’ll get all this done, but I’m hoping it will be this weekend.  I tried to also do academic work (and still may do some reading this evening.  Then again, maybe I won’t!), but I have a huge list of things that need doing around the house.  So instead I chipped away at that as well: laundry, cleaning, sorting the shed so there’s room for the patio furniture and boxes of kindling, putting away the patio furniture, boxing up the kindling, cutting the lawn and moving several car loads of wood.  Amazingly I got most of it done today.  Not surprisingly, I’m beat and ready for bed by 9pm.

I knew the food-centered lifestyle I have chosen would be tough to maintain once I went back to working and having a life beyond my writing.  But I am determined to make it work. I have the advantage of having had three years to learn many of the skills I now possess, making cooking and preserving much easier now.  Most of it is so routine that I can whip off a batch of cheese or butter or soup without much thought.  Still, I am finding it tough to keep up.  And it’s going to get tougher.

If I don’t write for a while, don’t worry.  I have not given up.  I’m just setting this aside, along with a few other things, in order to make food first.  But I’ll be back.  Perhaps even tomorrow.  Or maybe in a month.  Until then!

“Cool” Sustainability

I should have been in bed half an hour ago, so I’ll try and keep this short.  I just finished cleaning the kitchen after feeding the dogs and making myself a small snack, and now I’m catching up on email and writing here.  For some reason all I can smell is sheep manure – I expect one of the dogs is still dirty from training tonight.  I’ll have to figure out who it is and keep them from getting up on the bed!

Tonight I am feeling tired and overwhelmed.  I’m still not sleeping well (I have not slept well since my car accident in November) and woke up this morning feeling tired and a bit anxious.  I have a ridiculous amount of work to do and feel like I am slipping farther and farther behind every day.  And this is my ‘slow’ time!  Yikes.  I am worried about the year to come.  If I’m tired now, how I am going to survive come the school year?

Today I reviewed five books as potential texts for one of the courses I’ll be teaching in the fall.  The upside is that the books I’m looking at are really interesting.  One is called “The Essence of Capitalism: the Origin of our Future,” which traces the history of corporate power, with a focus on Coke.  Fascinating stuff and very much the foundation I’d like to present to my students.  And then there’s “Cool Capitalism,” which argues that neoliberal capitalism (the present form of our economic system) co-opts its resistance, making symbols of the resistance “cool” and then marketing them, thus making itself stronger.  In this way, Capitalism consumed the radical ’60s and made quite a profit.  Indeed, the present day heads of Big O-organics (i.e. corporate production of “organic” food) in the US were in fact the leaders of the ‘back to the land’ hippie movement.  This certainly explains why we don’t see much attempt at change these days.  No flag burning or protesting anymore, at least not on the scale we saw a few decades ago.

Next I looked at the No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization.  These No-Nonsense Guides are neat little books that present very clear arguments in an easy-to-read, short presentation.  The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food is another, and is an excellent read.

Because I am trying to sort out textbooks, I didn’t get any dissertation writing done today.  Tomorrow I’ll get back to it.  I am trying to get a rough draft of one chapter written by the end of the week.  I need to discuss it with my supervisor as this particular chapter is going to be the framework for analysis throughout the rest of the discussion.  The chapter is on Sustainability.  Specifically, I am tracing the origins of the term, and it’s use.  Sustainability is such an over-used word now that I question whether it has any meaning at all anymore.  The word is used to describe everything from small-scale organic farming to Monsanto’s GMOs to the growth of the economy.  Talk about co-optation!  So when I say I’m studying sustainable food systems, what do I mean?  What definition am I following?  Why?

While this sounds potentially boring, it’s in fact surprisingly interesting in its complexity.  The word sustainability emerged from economics, and thus has an inherent economic side that works in tension with social and environmental efforts.  Indeed, sustainability includes the notion of trade-off.  Who knew sustainability involves compromise?  And here I thought things either were, or were not, sustainable.  Hmm…. Sounds like a term of convenience, no?

In addition to it’s market focus, sustainability has a strong environmental component as well.  The word was adopted by environmentalists at pretty much the same time as the economists were embracing it.  I shouldn’t be surprised, then, by the dual focus on economics and environment that I am finding in the literature.  Heck, it inspired a whole new field called “ecological economics.”

This certainly explains why the third aspect of sustainability – the social component – is largely left out of most discussions around sustainability.  Or if it is mentioned, it is almost as an afterthought or side-bar.  I suspect that this is because it’s hard to come up with a way to make social sustainability profitable.  Most ways I can think of involve radical change to the current economic structure, such as returning to the concept of the commons and other more collective ways of living.  What was I saying about convenience?  Restructuring capitalism doesn’t exactly fit the bill.

I’ve written before about the impact of language, and this is indeed another example.  The words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ invoke warm fuzzy feelings, but the deeper I delve into the real meaning behind them, the less comforted I am feeling.  Are these more terms of co-optation?  Is all the language we are using around trying to identify modalities of change merely means co-optation by those in power? “Alternative,” “organic,” “ecological” – and so on.  These words all sprang up with certain intention but have taken on other meaning altogether now.  That is the dance: those attempting change are kept busy coming up with new words with which to distinguish their efforts while the mainstream keeps consuming these terms and making them part of the mainstream.  Making them “cool.”  And then marketing them and making a tidy profit.

Decisions, decisions…

I really need to get more work done on my dissertation this week.  I have now collected a number of excellent articles for the chapter I’m writing, and am starting to read through them.  Very interesting stuff, which will likely inspire me to compose a few posts here. I am presently researching the definition of the concept  of ‘sustainability’ – a word frequently used (abused?) in just about every context.  Sustainable food, sustainable living, sustainable economy, sustainable technology, sustainable fuel, sustainable GMOs… the list is endless.  With such constant use, does the word even mean anything anymore?  This is what I am exploring. In the process I came across this particularly interesting site on Critical Sustainability, which asserts that the concept is a social construction put forth by those in power to maintain the status quo.  I’m afraid I tend to agree with this, but there are definitions that try and do otherwise.  I think.  I’m not sure to be honest.  Maybe the word is not helpful.  Perhaps no words in the English language – the language of the Imperialists and global hegemons – can be used to effect fundamental change in this system.  I guess that’s what I have to try and figure out.

I’m sure struggling with such abstract concepts sounds perfectly boring to most of you, and to an extent it is.  I enjoy it, but I also am easily distracted by more practical uses of my time.  Such as training my dogs, or doing my food gathering and prep for winter.  And for summer.  Yesterday I picked strawberries at my CSA; lovely organic ones.  I now have 10 quarts in my fridge that absolutely must be processed today.  It will likely take me a couple of hours.  I also have several pounds of rhubarb, and three huge bags of spinach.  Oh, and four loaves of bread to bake (my gas got cut off yesterday due to construction next door, and I had to put them in the fridge to retard them while I waited for the gas company to come back and turn it on again), and three liters of milk to turn into yogurt.  I am leaving town this evening and none of this food will last until my return on Sunday.  I’m glad I won’t be traveling again for a month after this, as it is very difficult to stay on top of my food processing at the best of times, let alone when I go away for chunks of time.  Summer is simply not the time of year to travel if you put food at the centre of your life.

So now I am faced with the dilemma of deciding how to prioritize on a shorter day than usual.  I also at some point need to pack!  I think the food is going to have to take priority.  The dogs have had good exercise lately, and it’s too late to run them this morning anyway.  By now the conservation area will be busy.  I should have left 45 minutes ago.  I will just have to play ball with them in the yard, and do some brainwork with them.  Tomorrow we will hike the Bruce Trail by my parents house, and that should make up for today.

I have just done a couple of hours of work, mostly reading through that critical sustainability site.  This has given me food for thought, so perhaps I can spend some time cooking now while mulling it over.  Then back to some writing in a couple of hours.  Yes, maybe that will work.

As I’ve written many, many times, finding time – no, making time – for food is a constant challenge.  Our society simply does not value this work, and in fact tends to look down on it.  There’s even a voice in my head nagging me to keep working rather than dealing with my strawberries. Heck, I shouldn’t have spent 2 hours yesterday afternoon picking them.  After all, I can always go to the store and buy some if I need them.  Even in winter.

That’s the problem.  We are not starving here.  I could survive quite easily without going through all this fuss.  In fact, that’s the point.  Our economy depends on cheap, easy, fast food.  It needs people to spend time working at their jobs rather than working for themselves.  This is the only way to keep the economy expanding.  If we all stepped off the treadmill and spent our Tuesday afternoons hulling strawberries, the economy would grind to a halt.  And then the world would stop spinning.  It would be a catastrophe.  Or so they – the all powerful ‘they’ – want us to think.

Regardless of the risk to the future of civilization, today I will bake my bread, make yogurt and hull my strawberries.  I’m even going to make a big batch of spinach & corn chowder (the only recipe I know without having to do more research, that uses a lot of spinach).  Then I’ll pack and hopefully find time to do something with the dogs.  And do a bit more reading and writing.

If the world stops turning at some point this afternoon, you’ll know it was my fault.  Apologies in advance.

What’s Stopping YOU From Making Change?

OK, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and would really love to hear what people have to say.  In my last post, I mentioned that it seems like an increasing number of people are changing their eating and shopping habits and buying from small-scale and more sustainable producers.  Here’s a short clip from Plastic Pollution Coalition.  It’s of 14 year old J.D. speaking out against the use of plastics:

J.D. makes a very interesting argument here: he asserts that people are aware of the problems we face, but they don’t care enough to do something about it.

I’d like to think that most people do care, so I’m not sure that’s the best way to look at the apparently apathy of the masses.  I know that the readers of this blog are likely already involved in change, or at least interested in and thinking about making change, and may not be representative of the general population.  Nevertheless, most of us had to go through some thought process to get to where we are now.

So here’s my question to you: We know, and presumably care, so why don’t we change our habits?

What changes have you made, or would you like to make in order to live in a more eco-friendly way?  What inspired you to make this change?  What got, or is getting in the way?  What would need to happen to allow (or convince) you to turn thought into action?

I am not asking to pass judgement.  I am genuinely interested because if we don’t understand what’s getting in the way, we can’t do anything about it.  There are plenty of things I keep thinking about doing that are more environmentally friendly, yet fail to get my act together and do, for a variety of reasons.  I know what’s stopping me but don’t want to generalize to others.

I’d really love to hear from you.  Thanks in advance to anyone who takes a minute to share their thoughts!

The Ongoing Struggle Against Stuff

I just walked into my bedroom and was greeted by a vision of clutter.  How did this happen?  Why do I still have so much stuff?  Do I really need it all?  Certainly part of the problem is that my room is messy – I’ve had another busy week (I’ve resigned myself to this being the norm for a least a few more weeks).  But it’s messy because I have enough stuff that it is a trick to put things away.  Shelves quickly look messy – because they have too much stuff!

Time to do some more unstuffing.

Another issue is that once I get rid of things, a vacuum is left.  Space is created that can easily be filled with more stuff if I allow it.  I need to be strong and not fall prey to temptation!  This is much harder now that I actually have a little income left in my bank account after all my bills are paid.  I am carefully squirreling most of this away as my contracts end in April and I won’t have work again until August.  Still, it’s tempting to buy a few things after so many months of just squeaking by.

I have indeed succumbed to these urges a few times over the last two weeks.  It was hard not to, considering the bargains I came across.  Specifically I bought myself two lovely stock pots – which I’ll use for years – one a 12L pot and the other a 15L pot.  I paid $85 for both, a large sum for me to let go of these days, but a tremendous deal.  Regular price for each pot on its own cost a fair bit more than what I paid for both.  I had been saving to buy a good stock pot, and to get two for less than I expected to pay for one was more than I could pass up.  But still, I could have just bought one, and saved even more.  In fact, that’s what I did, but a few days later I went back and bought the other.  I do cook a lot, and having pots of different sizes is very useful.  The biggest pot is one that I will likely rarely use, but when I need a pot of that size (typically during canning season), it will be very handy.  I used my roommate’s pot of that size this fall, which made it clear that such a big pot is a fantastic tool to have on-hand.  So I have two new pots and, despite agonizing over the ethical (and budgetary) impact, I don’t regret it.

Now, you’d think that would have scratched my need-to-buy itch.  But no, I further gave in to the urge on another occasion.  I recently discovered a new second-hand clothing store – Talize, a new Canadian chain – which not only has terrific prices, but also has really nice clothes.  Very well organized by item, size and then colour, this shop is full of great second-hand finds.  I bought two sweaters ($6 each), several blankets for the dogs ($2 -$3 each, including a full size wool blanket in perfect condition) and a beautiful piece of jewelry ($0.99).  I am sick to death of just about every item of clothing I own, and I can’t tell you how excited I am at the prospect of revamping my wardrobe at these prices.  Most second-hand clothing stores I have been to either have nothing but poor quality items for cheap, or have nice clothes but at much higher prices.  I’m not sure how this one offers the best of both (nice clothes, cheap prices) but I’m going to enjoy for as long as it lasts!  Shopping here fits both my budget and my life-ethic.

This week I hit the jackpot at this store.  I found a beautiful, full-length genuine sheerling coat in lovely dark taupe with cream colour trim.  A coat like this would cost easily $1000 new, if not more, and I got it for $18.  And given the current cold snap, I couldn’t have found this coat a day sooner.  It is far warmer than anything else I own, and I’ve even been wearing it around the house as I’m rationing wood until get more until Monday (figures we’d run out of wood on the coldest week of the year, the same week our wood supplier went on vacation!).

Exciting as all of this is for someone with a deeply programmed desire to shop coupled with a horror of consumerism, I need to make sure I don’t fall into the trap of buying things because they are cheap and used.  To make sure I don’t do this, or at least avoid it as much as possible, I am working on a set of shopping rules for myself.  The few I have come up with are as follows:

– I must need it before I see it.  No impulse purchases (i.e. I was saving for a stock pot, and then waited until I found a great sale on stock pots)

– No random shopping trips.  I only go into stores if I am looking for something specific.

– If I have a similar item, I must be willing to replace it with the new item.  For example, I bought two new sweaters, so need to select two of my old sweaters and donate them to charity.

– I must be able to pay cash for it.  Credit cards are for emergency break-downs on the highway 200Km from home only.

– I can only purchase clothing items that are in excellent condition and fit perfectly, including when done up (i.e. no jackets that look great as long as I don’t do them up!)

– I can only buy something new if I can’t find it used.  Exceptions include underwear and footwear.

I have been trying hard to stick with this, and so far these rules have kept me from coming home with armfuls of new or new-to-me stuff.   And as I have developed a gag reaction to my space being cluttered, I will harness this reaction to further destuff every time I do bring in something new.  Now I must sign off to go and select two sweaters, a bracelet and a coat to add to my charity pile.

The Locavore’s Dilemma

Another busy week, and now… vacation.  Well, at least a vacation from having to drive into London and teach.  Unfortunately, not a vacation from work.  I have such a mountain of it piled up in front of me that I have pretty much resigned myself to having to skip Christmas this year.  I am going to head down to Niagara to stay at my parents’ house, but they are actually leaving town.  My mother leaves today to spend a few days with her parents in Kingston, then is heading down to Ithaca to  my brother and sister-in-law’s.  This is where we spent Christmas last year and it was quite delightful.  They bought a new house this summer and are looking forward hosting Christmas there.  My father and other brother will be leaving for Ithaca on Wednesday, as soon as my brother finishes work.  I, however, will be sitting in an empty house for a week and grading essays and writing my dissertation.

On the one hand I am looking forward to finally getting a chunk of time to get caught up.  On the other, I really could use a break and some social interaction.  Life gets depressing quickly when living and working in isolation and I am already feeling pretty bleak after just a few days alone here out in the country.  This is why I want to at least stay at my parents house as I know neighbours and have friends relatively nearby whom I can visit in the evenings.  Where I live now, the neighbouring houses are mostly empty and my closest friend is an hour away.

This week I actually enjoyed my first local dinner invitation.  It was absolutely delightful to spend an evening chatting and eating with a group of really interesting and kind people.  I haven’t done anything of the sort in ages.  In fact, while enjoying the meal I realized that it was the first I had eaten in ages with multiple courses.  As I cook and eat alone about 99.9% of the time, I usually just  make one thing and eat it until it is gone, then make something else.  This could explain why I am starting to get bored with just about everything I put on my plate these days.  Having a multiple course meal adds variety and makes eating more fun and exciting.

I just finished (re)reading Michael Pollan’s The Omninvor’s Dilemma. This is really a great book – very interesting and eye opening.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand our food system.  There are a few points where I think Pollan falls a bit short on his analysis (for example, when talking about the ethics of eating meat, he doesn’t even touch on the ethical problems of eating the mainstream alternative: Soy), but for the most part the book is an excellent introduction and even fairly advanced analysis of how we feed ourselves.

One point raised in this book that is really starting to resonate with me is Pollan’s comment that we (in North America) no longer have culture to guide how we eat.  Instead, we turn to so-called experts.  As a result, for the first time in history, children do not turn to their mothers (and grandmothers) to learn how to eat.  This is very problematic for the omnivore, according to Pollan.  For the omnivore can eat almost anything, but that doesn’t mean that we should.  Indeed, the reason behind cuisines is that they offer us guidance as to how to eat well.  Many food items do not release their nutrients in ways that we can use them unless they go through a certain process.

Take soy, for example.  Its proteins are essentially unavailable to us until soy is fermented.  This is why traditional cuisines use fermented soy products.  Our new uses of soy (for example, textured vegetable protein or TVP, as a ground beef replacement) is not fermented and thus a very poor source of protein.  People don’t seem to know this, and the “experts” don’t tell us.  Well, at least not the “experts” we have ready access too, through media and advertisement – those paid by Big Ag and Big Pharma.  They push soy as the ultimate healthy solution to eating meat and all the ethical and environmental problems that causes.  These claims are true, I believe, of ecologically grown and traditionally fermented soy products (tofu, soy sauce).  Independent researchers, however, have very different stories to offer about their industrially produced counterparts: these soy products are a poor quality protein source, genetically modified and potential carcinogenic, and produced using very environmentally and socially damaging practices.  For more on this topic, read this article and its many links.

While I never thought much about it before, it is indeed striking that we don’t eat the same way as our parents.  What does this say about our society?  I completely disagree with my mother’s obsession with low-fat products, for example. I eat full-fat everything, believing it to be healthier.  She believes the exact opposite.  Each of us has come to our conclusions through listening to “experts.”  Her advice comes from conventional medicine and nutrition, mine comes from alternative medicine and nutrition (such as from the link above, or books like Nourishing Traditions).  So who’s right?  As our eating traditions have been destroyed, we no longer have any way of knowing.

As Pollan points out, different cultures around the world have dramatically different approaches to their diets.  Some eat mostly plants, others mostly meats.  All tend to be quite healthy, except for Western diets.  So one thing I am certain of is that the way we eat here in North America is wrong.  But even if I turn to my grandmother for help, I can’t find what I am looking for.  She also learned to cook in an era of processed foods, with recipes that call for ketchup or bar-b-q sauces, or cans of mushroom soup.  Of course in her youth, these items were still probably relatively healthy and cooking this way a relatively close simulation to older traditions.  Not today, however.  Nearly 70% of all processed foods on the market today contain genetically modified products and I am not interested in eating any of it.  I strictly avoid anything that contains soy, and do my best to avoid corn and wheat unless organic, locally grown and (in the case of wheat) fermented before I eat it.  I cannot, therefore, use my grandmother’s recipes.

As I get ready to head home for a couple of weeks, I ponder just how much food to bring.  I don’t like making a fuss over this, separating myself from others by my choices around food.  Food actually is often used to draw lines of distinction between different groups of people – for example not eating pork, or beef and so on, according to religion.  But while these customs serve to distinguish various collectives, they also serve bond together the people within them.  This is simply  not the case with all the eating fads found in North America (of which I fully agree that eating locally is one).  Here, as Pollan remarks, you can find four different eating regimes within a single family of four.   This does little to strengthen social ties.  Indeed, it serves to further fracture and individualize our communities, not coincidentally very helpful to the capitalist cause.

In many ways, my determination to eat as ecologically as I know how goes against what I believe food to be all about: community.  At the same time I am becoming more and more adverse to eating industrial food.  While eating locally has introduced me to new friends and community, it is separating me from others.  Trying to decide where to draw the line, how to find the balance between an ethic of eating and building community is what I believe to be the Locavore’s Dilemma.