Oceans: In Praise of Local Communities, In Criticism of Greedy Agendas

"Oceans" Modified by Author. Original by: http://tinyurl.com/3ofq5nu

I have been on hiatus for the past few days, as my f.a.c.t.s. sustainable fashion business is tying the last few loose ends and will be ready to launch its website on June 20th! :) But, as I missed yesterday’s World Oceans Day, I thought I’d say a few words in honor of Poseidon’s mighty dwelling place. It is, after all, according to President Obama, National Oceans Month.  Oceans are important for a number of reasons. One is that they help strengthen the American economy. Yep, in the keynote address at Capitol Hill Oceans Week 2011,  Dr. Jane Lubchenco stated that:

“According to the National Ocean Economics Program, in 2007 the ocean economy generated over 2.3 million jobs and more than $138 billion of the GDP of the United States. One hundred fifty six million people live in coastal counties, where they hold 69 million jobs that contribute $7.9 trillion to the Nation’s economy.”

You can read the rest of her address for other reasons the oceans are so important for Americans.

One thing in particular that struck my attention was her call for

“An era when we embrace holistic, ecosystem-based management of our oceans.  An era when our scientific understanding of the impacts of humans on coastal and ocean ecosystems is being used to inform our management decisions…

With its bold vision for more holistic, ecosystem-based management of our oceans, the National Ocean Policy fully recognizes the critical importance of partnerships — partnerships that collaborate, cooperate, and coordinate across the federal government, across state, local, regional and tribal levels, and within communities themselves.”

I hope that we can not only understand our human impact on our ocean ecosystems (and all ecosystems), but also make our best effort (much unlike BP’s measly $1 billion donation for restoring the Gulf Coast) to change policies and actions that have a negative impact. Supposedly,

“All ocean users — from recreational and commercial fishermen, boaters, and industry, to environmental groups, scientists, and the public — will have a say in planning for, managing, and sustaining the many human uses that healthy oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes support.”

I hope that becomes a reality and soon. Researchers and governments have long ignored the importance of local communities in efforts to preserve our ecosystems. People that live in these local communities tend to have a rich knowledge of local resources, dynamics of the ecosystem, and are often the most driven to helping monitor and manage their local ecosystems. Why wouldn’t they be more intimately familiar with their surroundings than outside researchers who come in, conduct a few tests, and presume to know the entire context for the problem at hand? It’s not like the people living and working in these communities have a stake in their surrounding environment, right? Why the scientific community and policymakers have not tapped into this opportunity for collaboration more often is beyond me. It is also one of the reasons I love applied anthropology and its propensity to advocate for the needs and voices of the local communities in addressing issues of policy planning, nonprofit agendas, and other organizations/protocol that affect the local people and environment.

"BP Oil Spill" Modified by Author. Original from: http://tinyurl.com/42qp5n9

In the meantime, while the BP Gulf Coast fiasco fueled our government’s attempt to put money into green research for energy alternatives to oil, the big oil companies (ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and a few others) naturally decide to put their money and efforts into building a (supposedly) better deepwater spill containment system “to be permanently placed in the Gulf starting next year” (according to a Wall Street Journal article).  Never mind about coming up with a way to clean up the mess already there. Let’s just keep drilling! Makes me really wonder what exactly BP’s laughable $1 billion downpayment to restore the Gulf Coast will actually go towards… And we actually have to debate whether or not big businesses need more regulation? How about yes, because most big businesses don’t care about the local communities, local economies, ecosystems, and the environments they affect. Making the same mistake twice means you never really cared about it in the first place. And it’s quite obvious that these companies care about only one green item: dollar bills. I wish I could believe there shouldn’t be more regulation, but it seems to me that these oil companies, in particular, are not run by people, but rather money-hungry goblins, disfigured by affluenza, greed, selfishness, and an inability to care about the consequences of their actions. And J.K. Rowling deludes us, goblins are not to be trusted…

Look tomorrow  for my new blog post on buying organic, finally getting back to individual ways on responding to overconsumption.

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Mother Earth’s New Curriculum~Because Kindergarteners Are Smarter Than the Rest of Us

I interrupt our series on overconsumption, to bring you this special message in honor of World Environment Day! (Spread the word~ we can’t reverse climate change today, but we can at least use today to spread education about how to change our unsustainable ways one habit, one day at a time!) I want to talk today about a system, a system I believe needs to be updated to be relevant to the pressing issues we live with today. That system is, yes, you guessed it… education. I believe there are many things that researchers have discovered about the way kids learn and what type of content really matters, that show we might have our priorities a bit skewed in this realm as well. I’m not about to begin a discussion of all the things that should have been long-ago reformed, but I will suggest for you several subjects I believe to be missing in our standard educational curricula. Perhaps, education administrators and school boards once thought these subjects to be things kids should be learning at home… Perhaps, kids should be learning these things at home… But, the point is, they’re largely not. In light of climate change, endless wars, social inequality, world hunger, and the myriad of other issues our earth is plagued with (largely our fault), I would imagine Mother Earth would appreciate us adding the following subjects to our schools:

1. Environmental Studies

"Environmental Studies 101" Photography by Author

Well, if we, adults, aren’t even aware of half the things we do that are destroying our earth, how can we expect our kids to know any better? And how can we ever change our ways, if the information is not accessible, and if we don’t spend time studying the information that is available? How can we expect green technology to come up with innovative solutions when our great minds are working on nuclear power plants? We can’t improve our habits, if we don’t learn why change is important and how we can change. The earth mother simply can’t sustain our living habits for much longer. And we certainly aren’t going to evolve fast enough to become “Climate Kid” in time:

2. Cultural Appreciation

"Cultural Studies" Photograph by Author

Next, I think cultural studies should be high on the list. And for all these subjects, I mean that they should be in the first grade agenda, not just in high school or college, when we have already set patterns for our behavior. I feel, considering how embedded into our cultural habitus (the internalization of our cultural habits) things like racism, religious intolerance, and environmental irresponsibility still unfortunately are (at least in America), we should be taught about how cultures develop, how they influence our actions, how we shape our cultures, and how we can maintain diversity despite globalization. In this age of global interdependence, a subject with such an interdisciplinary potential to teach us a holistic kind of critical thinking~ seeking the meaning behind our beliefs, our actions, our economics, our politics, our habits, our religious traditions, our social structures, all under the umbrella of culture~ is absolutely vital to our self-awareness, to realizing the importance of community, to understanding the significance of contextualizing our social issues, and to appreciating diversity instead of waiting for socialization to teach us xenophobia, intolerance to difference, and social irresponsibility.

3. Social Skills, Rhetoric, Communication… 

"Communication Studies" Photograph by Author

Yes, I believe that we should  be teaching our kids a thing or two about communicating while they’re growing up. Have you ever tried to change a bad habit? A struggle, isn’t it? Then, you know exactly why these skills should be learned early. It’s easier to teach my kitten to paw at the bell hanging from the door when it wants to go outside, than to teach my nana’s older rescued cat to stop scratching the door when it needs some fresh air. Communication is necessary to run a good business, to interact with others at our jobs, to work with our communities on projects, and to have good relationships. Along with this, of course, cultural studies should dip in and teach us about other modes of communication in other cultures, so that we don’t go being rude when we visit other countries and we learn what is important to other cultures and why.

4. Conflict Resolution

"Conflict Resolution" Photograph by Author

After our kids learn how to communicate, next on their schedules should be a class on conflict resolution, how sharing is important, and the recognition that what we want isn’t always what’s best for our community and our Mother Earth. The older we get, the less important sharing seems to be on our priority list. Come to think of it, if we learned to share in all areas of life, not just our colored pencils and cheerios, it might lead us to better economic policies and more community collaboration. As my academic area of expertise (if I can be so bold as to say I have one) happens to be violence, I have thought about quite a few ideas for my future “Manifesto of Peace and Holistic Justice.” But each one of those ideas happens to rest on our learning how to think about the whole community (local and global) and not just our individual selves and our nuclear families… In order for us to confront social and environmental justice issues, we have to learn to put our wants in context with other people’s wants and the needs of other living things. Like our spending habits, we also need to learn to put needs ahead of our wants. A simple concept, but somehow in its translation to political policies, the principle gets murky and lost in political mumbo-jumbo that supports the interests of those who can pay for their voices to be heard. Maybe, if we spent 12 years of our lives learning about negotiation, sharing, and peaceful interaction, we might start changing our minds about how to run our governments and when to wage wars.

5. Media Literacy & Applied Ethics

"Media Literacy" Photograph by Author

Finally, because what we learn doesn’t always translate into how we act and because the media has a tendency of reporting only what’s convenient to the editors’ or advertisers’ agendas, our kids should be learning how to read and watch the news, deciphering truth from slant and seeking various different sources to get a wider, more complete picture of the event in question. But not only should kids be taught to critically assess bias and manipulative persuasion techniques, they should also be taught to look at ways to transform media so that it upholds a higher standard of ethics instead of political/financial biases. Ethics should be a stronger part of the school curriculum, in general, and applied projects should be incorporated more, so that what we learn in textbooks becomes more easily viewed as relevant and we begin to practice the principles we are taught. As my beloved piano teacher used to remind me every week, “Practice makes perfect.”

We should have all been taught these subjects in school, but while we try to improve our own ways, we can also, at least, usher in a new generation that has a much broader understanding of our social and environmental issues and hopefully acts accordingly. We need to encourage divergent thinking as an essential part of creativity, which is the only way we can come up with new and better solutions to all our problems. Sadly, mostly, we just conform ourselves with learning textbook definitions and thinking within the boundaries others give us. In an RSA animate lecture, Sir Ken Robinson reports that in a longitudinal study of creative thinking (citing Beth Jarman and George Land in their book Break Point and Beyond) , 98% of 1500 kindergarteners tested at genius level. When they were retested 5 years later, only 32% of the same students scored at genius level. Another 5 years later, only 10% scored at genius level. Our creativity, unfortunately, seems to get curtailed the longer we stay in school. :( How are we ever supposed to come up with solutions to climate change and the recession if our creativity is not nurtured? Perhaps, as Robinson suggests, we should stop teaching that there’s only one answer (at the back of the textbook), and allow that we may not have all the answers and that there may be other better ways to solving social ills. I do not have a Ph.D. in Education, so I do not profess to have all the answers either, but I can imagine that if Mother Earth ran the school systems, she’d probably start with including these subjects. For those interested, below is Robinson’s speech on changing educational paradigms, with other ideas about educational reform.

Happy World Environment Day, all! Remember to do something in honor of our earth mother and remind others to do the same. And we will start off the new week with Tips on Buying Organic.

~Zulema Ibarra

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Stop Being Such a Copy-Cat: Buy Local!

So, what’s the big fuss about buying local? The local shops can be so expensive, and one-stop stores are much more convenient and can even save on gas, right? With our non-stop, go-go-go schedules, it can seem so much more convenient to buy at the cheaper (in quality & price) big copy-cat megastores with dull, copy-cat items on characterless shelves. (Honestly, I feel I turn into a robot every time I shop at one.) But if we really take care to assess the true costs of that $20 bookshelf, we will find that it isn’t actually cheaper and it isn’t in the long-run convenient for us, after all. Let’s look at some of the reasons. (If you don’t have time to read through this post, please go straight to the short animation clip at the bottom… it sums up most of what I cover here.)

1. When you buy local, you have a better chance of knowing what you’re buying.

Let me first clarify that when I say “local,” I am specifically referring to local, independently-owned businesses.

When you shop at a local store, chances are, the products are either made in your town or you can easily ask the owner about the manufacturing process. When you buy from a large multi-million-dollar corporation, chances are, you don’t want to know about the manufacturing process or, even if you do, the managers (because you won’t ever find the owner) won’t be as happy to answer your question. Local stores generally tend to sell items of higher quality precisely because that is the only way they can compete with larger corporations (and many times because the owners take pride in work they produced).  So, yes, you can buy the $30 dresser at the Copy-Cat Corporation and end up trashing it and having to buy a new one, because it was made of cheap plywood and materials that were not made to last, or you can save a little more to get a lasting dresser at local used furniture shops or local new furniture shops.

2. When you buy local, you become a champion for your community/local economy. 

Pat yourself on the back, because when you buy local, you are helping your local community to thrive. Your money stays within your community, which helps keep more jobs and revenue in your town. It is not that we shouldn’t want to help other communities out. We should. We are all inter-connected, after all. However, just like with personal finances, you have to put some money in your savings, before you begin donating it somewhere else. Otherwise, you end up broke, and can’t donate anymore. So, put some money into your hometown’s account, before going to spend any left-over’s elsewhere. This goes for traveling too. Before exploring other cities, we should explore our hometowns. It might surprise us what little treasures we can come across. The best moments aren’t had in fancy faraway places, after all, they happen in the everyday community of the people and things we know and love.

3. When you buy local, you express your uniqueness, and your community gets to stand out a little more. 

Part of the appeal of buying at Copy-Cat Corporations is that you can go in there and know exactly what you’re going to come out with. But wait a minute, didn’t we all complain about having to wear uniforms in grade school? Why are we opting for uniform now? Because it’s easier? Doesn’t it also make us a little more like carbon copy clones?  Do we really all want to wear the same things and have the same decorations in our homes? I doubt it. I believe that the human spirit yearns to assert its distinctiveness, as much as it yearns to belong. Belonging, however, does not need to come at the expense of our individuality.  Local, independently-owned stores tend to offer singular designs, custom-made features, and much more creativity. Smaller stores also make room for the existence of more stores, with different niches to fill, building your community into a diverse patch-work collective, full of character and charm. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place with options, with imagination, with style, talent, and originality? That can only happen when the community atmosphere is ripe, when there is room for different and bold, when there is inspiration for artistry and ingenuity.

4. When you don’t buy local, you must also factor in the invisible costs. 

Yes, I am talking about those things we often ignore: the environment and the labor costs. Imported items take up energy/resources, because they have to be transported long distances. There are also environmental costs in the processing and packaging stages of production, where harmful chemicals can be used and/or emitted and resources exploited. This includes human resources. When companies outsource, it is because they wish to cut down production costs and maximize their profits. According to globalissues.org:

“when it comes to a country trying to impose some environmental or societal considerations and legislation on multinational corporations, they just move to a country where the rules and regulations aren’t as strict.”

Somehow, corporations think that if they can’t get away with labor and business practices in one place because their policies are inhumane or unsafe or unfriendly to the environment, it is somehow okay to continue those policies elsewhere.  I don’t know how this makes sense, but when profits are all that matter, I suppose priorities are also vastly different (and, in my opinion, skewed). You can’t care about your environment and the plight of workers around the world without counting these costs into your grocery expenses. And when you count these costs, suddenly a cheap stop at your local copy-cat corporation is not so cheap anymore.

Is it in our power to change these larger-scale problems? Yes, I believe so. It’s like that South Park episode about “Wall-mart,” where the town discovers that the key to shutting down “Wall-mart” is, in fact, themselves.  When Walmart employees in Quebec in 2005 threatened to unionize, for example, a bustling Walmart decided to shut down before signing an agreement withe UFCW (United Food & Commercial Workers) union, claiming that the store was not economically viable and was not meeting the Walmart business plan, according to the Bloomberg Businessweek. Businesses are open, because we allow them to stay in business. It is ultimately up to us what we want our communities to look like. We have to start with a vision. So, what is your vision?

We repeat the main points of what we learned, with this quick Buy Local animation:

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When Ice Cream is More Important than Clean H2O: The Scale of Inequality & Privilege

"Southern Nights" Photograph by Author

On a late night, like tonight, when all the world is still, and I open my door to gaze at the night sky and listen to the sound of the woods and the crickets nearby, I imagine I can hear the Earth Mother heaving a long, tired sigh. Like every other mother, I’m sure she worries about tomorrow and what will become of her children. Yesterday, as I finished up my evening run, I witnessed a sleepy tangerine sun, yawning as a flock of birds framed its setting portrait. It was a goodnight whisper, like only La Madre Tierra can give.  I realized how very little time I actually spend appreciating the gifts of this Earth anymore. Then and there, I vowed I would go for a walk everyday this summer with no other agenda but to befriend the earth again and take in her splendor. In his book, The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto, Ivan Petrella offers a poignant reminder of how humanity has balanced out its priorities. I’ve read it before, but there are some passages that always shoot straight for the heart, and for me, this falls under that category. He moved me to reassess my other priorities as well, and I’d like to share the passage with you:

“It would take 6 billion dollars of additional yearly investment to ensure basic education in all developing countries;
                                                   VS.
8 billion dollars a year are spent on cosmetics in the U.S.

It would take 9 billion dollars to ensure clean water & sanitation for all;
                                                               VS.
11 billion are spent on ice cream in Europe.

"Guilty Priorities" Photograph by Author

It would take 13 billion dollars to guarantee basic health & nutrition for every person in the developing world;
                                                                VS.
17 billion are spent on pet food in Europe and the U.S. combined.

Petrella goes on to say that

0.1% of the world’s income… would cover the bill for basic education, health, nutrition, clean water, and sanitation for every single person on the planet.

Imagine that?

Yet, currently, while the world’s richest nations possess only 1/4th of the world’s population, they consume 70% of the world’s energy, 75% of its metals, 85% of its wood, & 60% of its food. (p. 17)

I guess one main ingredient to solving our over-consumption crisis is not just to stop consuming less, or consuming more consciously, but also to start giving back (time and money) to help restore balance, to help heal the earth and humanity from this mess we’ve created. I think, given the above data, we can probably stop making a big fuss about using a little less and giving a little more. It’s a small price to pay for all the gifts this earth has given us. In light of where we lie on the scale of inequality and privilege, it’s only fair. Don’t you think?

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It’s not Easy Being Green, But It’s Getting Easier: Tips on Buying Green

Photograph by the Author

We’ve been covering over-consumption and trying to be more conscious about our spending habits. Buying less and only what we need was our first step. As we continue to buy less, we need to also think about what we are buying. The best way to be earth-conscious when we go shopping is to buy recycledgreen, used or vintage, or recyclable items.

Tip #1: Buy Recycled Items

Possibly a better name for this is Precycling, in other words being aware of how what we are buying can impact the environment. Buying pre- or post-consumer content (the higher percentage the better) helps to reduce waste. We can now find opportunities to buy more and more different products recycled. Even our ink cartridges (and this is one we should especially pay attention to) are offered recycled (labeled remanufactured ink cartridges). Office Depot’s Guide to Buying Green says,

“remanufacturing one toner cartridge keeps an average of two and a half kilograms of plastic out of landfills.”

There really shouldn’t be an excuse for not buying recycled ink cartridges as they are about 20-50% cheaper to buy than new cartridges anyway, according to GreenYour.com. Buying recycled products reduces pollution, conserves energy, saves landfill space, and preserves natural resources… all wonderful things for those of us trying to keep our mother earth beautiful.

Tip #2: Buy Green

Besides buying recycled items, another part of pre-cycling is buying organic, eco-friendly products. This reduces the amount of harmful waste that is manufactured and eventually thrown away. We will cover organic foods later, but in this section, I want to stress the importance of watching our consumption of chemical-based products. If you think you must use them for thorough cleaning or powerful pesticides, think again. Seventh Generation and Methods products provide powerful alternatives for cleaning your home, and there are plenty of organic pesticides available.

But you don’t even have to go out of your way to find eco-friendly cleaning solutions or worry about the extra expense on your budgeted shopping list (green products can often be a little pricier, unfortunately).  White vinegar can also take care of your all-purpose cleaner needs (1 cup vinegar to 1 cup water). Here are other useful ways to clean with vinegar. If you’re trying to get rid of chrome sink gunk, you can also cut a lemon in half and cover the open side with baking soda, then rub it into the chrome, making sure the lemon juice is mixing with the baking soda (apply more baking soda if you have to). Take a towel and wipe it down with a bit of your vinegar solution, and your sink will be nice and sparkly! Besides disinfecting, white vinegar is also an odor-absorber.

Which brings me to the next point… air fresheners. I understand that sometimes odors get trapped inside the house and it can get funky-smelling. But if airing out your home is not enough to get rid of the odors, then, a much better solution (rather than exposing ourselves to harmful chemicals from plug-in’s and sprays) is this: take an onion, cut half of it off, put it in a bowl with the cut-side up, and place it where the odor you are trying to get rid off is the strongest. I know this sounds counter-productive, but it really isn’t. Yes, your place might smell like onion for a little bit, but after a while, you will notice the smell of the onion fading  and voilá, it took with it all other odors! I usually do this overnight, and in the morning, I wake up to a fresh home.

Tip #3: Buy Used or Vintage Items

In this age of Amazon, Craigslist, and ebay (and I’m sure I’m excluding a number of other sites here, please feel free to comment and remind me or introduce me to new ones), you have easy access to good quality, used items. If you have things you need to buy that you can do without for a few days, try to buy them on these sites and buy them used. These sites offer a wide variety of items and keep things circulating, rather than ending up in landfills. Also, when you no longer have use for a product, think, before throwing it away, and post it, instead, on one of these sites or donate the item to your local thrift shop. For books, remember that your local libraries also would love to get your donations! You know the saying, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure…

As far as clothing is concerned, I know that organic clothing can generally be quite pricy (too bad there’s not a greater demand for them yet), but there is no shame in buying used or “vintage.” In fact, these items allow for you to brush up on your sewing skills and add your own creativity to the clothing. Also, there are more and more opportunities to buy already tailored,  repurposed, vintage clothing.

My company, f.a.c.t.s., for example, will soon be offering beautiful, vintage flex-wraps (multi-purpose silk wraps that can be worn as skirts or dresses in a variety of different styles) that are made from recycled sari cloth.

Tip #4: Buy Recyclable Items

Bottom on the list, but still meaningful: buy recyclable items. This is different from recycled items, in that these items have not been previously consumed. In other words, buying recyclable items is still consuming resources. The up side is that they can be recycled, so please remember to do so! No, recycling won’t stop our environmental crisis on its own, but it doesn’t mean that we should dismiss it all together. It does help.

To close today’s post, I’d like to share with you a TED talk I found rather illuminating and inspiring.  It is about a different kind of consumption, Collaborative Consumption, which is like the next step beyond buying recycled items from Amazon, Craigslist, and ebay. Basically, the idea is creating a large-scale online marketplace, where you can rent, barter, trade, or lend out items that you may own but don’t really use often. In her TED talk and book, What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live, Rachel Botsman talks about her idea in more detail. I have yet to read the book, but based on her TED talk, I really hope the idea continues to grow!

In my next topic, I will cover buying local. Please note, that in writing these tips, I am also holding myself accountable and progressing in my journey to being a more responsible consumer, and so, I welcome any other suggestions or innovative tips from my readers!

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Somber Reminder of Trash & Glimmer of Hope for Green Plastic

According to the Environmental Protection Agency,

In a lifetime, the average American will throw away 600 times his or her adult weight in garbage. This means that each adult will leave a legacy of 90,000 lbs. of trash for his or her children.”

When we see pictures like the one on the right, we wonder to ourselves if the problem can even be fixed. We need only see an image of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to bring back that old overwhelmed feeling of doom. Sometimes, though, I think we need that feeling of being unsettled and insecure. When we feel all comfortable and cozy, we often slip back into old patterns of ignoring the consequences of our actions. So, the following clip (a talk by Charles Moore, who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) is a reminder of what happens to the convenient disposables we buy… not so disposable, after all. :/

How can we ever reverse what we have done? I don’t know. But don’t worry, I won’t leave you entirely dismal today. People all over the world, from individuals to large groups, ARE looking for solutions, for things we can do right now to stop continuing the damage on our beautiful earth mother, and she is beautiful, isn’t she?

Just recently, I am happy to report that the 2011 Cade Prize went to

Florida Sustainables (formerly Sestar Sustainables), which has invented a plastic capable of biodegrading in 5-10 years, compared to 1000 years for other plastics.”

According to The Gainesville Sun,

“Florida Sustainables has licensed a polymer invented by University of Florida graduate student Ryan Martin and associate chemistry professor Stephen Miller…They have devised a way to synthesize polymers called polyesteracetals, providing the strength of petroleum-based plastics lacking in other ‘green’ plastics made from PLAs — or polylactic acid.”

The article just came out last week, and this really sounds like exciting news! Of course, it will take a while before it will reach the marketing stage. But imagine that? Investing in green research may actually provide us with answers (an ever-so slight hint of sarcasm here)! (The research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.) So, ladies and gentlemen, there may be hope for humanity and our mother earth after all. And while hope remains, we have work to do!

Join me for more tips on modifying our consumption habits at home tomorrow (since time has escaped me today :/). I will be covering Tips on Buying Recycled.

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A Shot of Change: The 7 Bad Habits of People Who Can Buy Less

"The Shopping Cart" Modified. Original from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/coolmikeol/5046645416/

An old (2010) article from the Guardian talks about the “cult of consumption and greed” and how it

“wipes out any gains from government action on climate change…”

It goes on to note that, although over-consumption is often thought to be a Western problem,

“the consumer culture is no longer a mostly American habit… Over the last 50 years, excess has been adopted as a symbol of success in developing countries from Brazil to India to China.”

What does this mean? 1) The planet is in trouble, and 2) we can do something about it. This “cult of consumption and greed” may have been started by corporations and advertisers, afflicted with affluenza. But their secret is this: consumerism and affluenza spreads through people, through you and me. They have found a way to convince us that we need more or better in order to be stylish, to fit into a certain social status, to be looked up to… all so that they can make more $$ selling unnecessary products. This is the sad news. The happy news is that they need you and me to spread the word. And you and me can choose to stop spreading the word, and starting spreading a different message. It doesn’t have to be a pitcher of change, or even a cup of change. It begins with you and me sipping on something as small as an espresso shot of  change. It might be bitter at first, but the effects are powerful and go a long way. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the different ways to reverse over-consumption:

  1. Buy less
  2. Buy recycled
  3. Buy organic
  4. Buy local
  5. Fight for a change in policies (This, I added today.)

This week, I will go over each one, so that we can see the big picture for change, and the little steps we can take to get there. Today, I invite you for a drink of espresso with me, as we look at the 7 bad habits of people (like you and me) who can buy a little less. Our first sip of espresso does sting a little. It means looking honestly at our habits. But it also means being realistic– being open to new ways of doing things, but gradually and avoiding burnout. You can’t run a marathon, after training for a week, otherwise you end up like Barney from “How I Met Your Mother,” unable to get up, let alone walk.  The key is to improve a little everyday, getting used to new habits, and then kicking it up a notch.

Bad Habit #1: A Bad Attitude

I know I said this before, but it really does start with how we look at the world every day. It is easy to ignore the problem, when it doesn’t seem to matter in our everyday lives, but it does in very real ways. Throughout the week, I will be posting clips and photos of the effects of over-consumption. You know this already, but let me remind you. Besides its larger impacts, over-consumption leads to our grumbles over high gas prices every time we go fill up our tanks. It leads to mass amounts of garbage, which means we get stuck with polluted water, air, and soil. It leads to debt, and general unhappiness. Now, that’s personal. I don’t care for debt…or unhappiness.

Bad Habit #2: I Want, Therefore, I Need

We often think we need things, when we really don’t. It’s new. It looks cool. We have some money. Why not? Well, we don’t NEED it. I might need it one day. Well, I know that story really well. It goes like this: One day comes, you decide to move or your’re cleaning out your garage or you have to make room for new stuff, and you discover a lot of unnecessary things. When you need space, you realize the difference between want and need.

Bad Habit #3: Not Knowing What Lies In Your Closet

Have you looked in your closet, storage space, or garage, recently? Can you close your eyes and tell me everything that’s in there? Most of you probably can’t. I’ll be honest… I can’t either. We often buy things, and then, don’t use them often enough or need to make way for other things, so we stuff them in our closets and forget about them. Knowing what you have in there is really important. First of all, it prevents us from buying duplicate items (When I moved to Georgia from California a couple years ago and was packing all my stuff, I found a lot of lost items and also a lot of unfortunate duplicates.)

If you do need a duplicate item, because your old one doesn’t work (unfortunately, companies seem to make things so they break down every couple of years and you have to buy another one), then recycle the items or give them to Goodwill. Do not keep them stored away, because one day, you will get frustrated with all the unnecessary junk and end up putting it on the curb for the garbage man, instead of Goodwill. Yes, I am guilty.

If an item is sitting in your closet collecting dust, you probably don’t need it. So, don’t go buying any similar items. Take me and my scrapbooks, for example. I always had good intentions of doing art with my special memories. So, every time there was a sale on scarpbooking materials, I’d go and buy some and store them in my closet for the day I would finally have time to scrapbook. You wanna know what happened? Over time, I collected about a hundred and fifty dollars worth of scrapbooking material that, until recently, were still in my closet doing absolutely nothing. Please learn from my embarrassing mistakes.

Bad Habit #4: Buying When You’re Hungry

Bad things happen (like today, when I wanted to buy the whole store, and then, ended up with unnecessary things that I really should not have splurged on, and I wonder when I will actually eat all of it…). Enough said!

Bad Habit #5: Buying When You Just Got Your Paycheck

Remember that cartoon segment “Good Idea/Bad Idea” on Animaniacs? I used to love them, as a kid. Well, this habit is a perfectly bad idea. A good idea would be to pay all your bills first, then put some into savings (for emergencies and for those larger expenses you need to save up for), and then, you can buy other things. Also, remember that just because you have $$, doesn’t mean you have to spend it on anything that looks interesting. Choose wisely!

Bad Habit # 6: Winging It All the Time

Now, this one pains me to say, because I like to consider myself free-spirited and spontaneous… but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I can’t be spontaneous all the time and be a responsible human being. So I’ve had to opt out for planned spontaneity– that is, allowing myself to break from the monotony of routine and do things on a whim as long as I give myself ample time to do things that will save me time and money (like packing peanut butter sandwiches for a mini-road trip, or planning out my trip so that I don’t waste so much gas– can you tell I like traveling? :P). A schedule, as odious as it might be, allows us to see the big picture of our bank accounts, and our time, helping us manage both and saving us from future frustration and wasteful spending habits.

Bad Habit #7: The Need to Buy Things Now

This is another problem with our consumerist culture. We have to have things, and we have to have them now. We would rather go to the store and pay for a new product (even though we might not need it new and we might not need it now), just because once we’ve convinced ourselves we need it, we want it immediately. There are times, of course, when we actually need it immediately (like when I’ve waited till the last minute to buy textbooks), but with a little planning (see bad habit# 6), we can usually avoid these last-minute needs and buy things on amazon or craigslist or any number of other sites, where we can buy used items, saving ourselves money and being a little more eco-friendly than before. :)

Remember, lasting change starts one step at a time, one day at a time!

Look for Tomorrow’s Post on: Tips for Buying Recycled

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Filed under affluenza, change, consumerism, environment, Environment, Environmental justice, global solidarity, green, hope, Mother Earth, over-consumption, Overconsumption, recycle

Over-consumption~Where does the change begin?

All of us know this country has a problem with over-consumption. We might ignore the extent of the problem, because the problem is so complex that it seems there’s no simple solution, but we know it’s there– sulking around us, a dark ugly reality, silently hidden behind the glamour of advertisements and our distorted perceptions of what is a need and what is a waste. I know there’s a problem with over-consumption, but rarely do I think of myself as the culprit. It’s not my fault. It’s the system’s fault. And I didn’t create the system. That was somebody else’s mess. It’s something that I’m stuck with, something too big to change, something I can’t do anything about. Unfortunately, the overwhelming nature of many of the world’s problems causes us to freeze up, to don a spirit of nonchalance and numbness, disassociating ourselves from how relevant and personal these issues really are in our lives. And this is why I watch documentaries and read books about social issues– not to be reminded of things that overwhelm me with frustration and profound sadness, but to search within them for a glimpse of hope. I study these issues to understand them better, to see the connection from their global impact to my very ordinary life, so that I can figure out ways (no matter how small) to live a little better (for myself, for my community, and for this beautiful hurting earth).

No, I did not create the system that is in place today; but I do study Anthropology (the study of humans and cultures), and I do read my theory books. And in the theories of Bourdieu and Giddens, I found a bit of inspiration and a sombering sense of responsibility.   In their brilliant works, they end up explaining a very easy concept to grasp: you and me influence the system, as much as the system influences you and me. In other words, we are constantly recreating this society, this social system we are a part of. The system, like you and me, is not static. We change as it changes, but it also changes as we change! That means,

  1. Society can influence the way we see things. (In a society of hope, we can have hope; in a society that ignores pressing social issues, we can be easily distracted or disillusioned).
  2. We can change society! (One person’s actions never go unnoticed. I affect the world around me, even when I don’t notice it. And the more self-aware I am, the more I can be responsible in my actions.)

And that is the inspiration behind this blog. To personalize these large-scale issues, and help us affect change, first in our homes, then, in our communities. And, through connecting our efforts with other like-minded people, we can change the world. What does this have to do with overconsumption and waste? Well, it’s exactly where we begin. An attitude change. How can we ever do anything if we don’t try, after all? And how can we try, if we’re constantly telling ourselves we can’t do anything? The key, I think, is realizing that we can’t solve our issues in a day (I tried, it doesn’t work :P), and we can’t solve our issues by ourselves. “Immediately” and “all at once” are recipes for disaster. They are elements of this crazy, fast-paced consumerist society we live in. They will take us straight to failure, and burn-out, and yes, that oh-so-familiar numbness. But we can make a difference one day a time, and we can reform our habits, working on them one at a time. I call it piece-meal grassroots change. A very personal step-by-step commitment to increased self-awareness. It extends to  how we treat others, to how we prioritize our schedules, to how we construct our budgets. It extends to the attitude we give the world when we wake up in the morning.

This week, the focus of my posts will be on over-consumption– a reminder of its effects, things we can work towards, and things we can do now. I leave you with this twenty-minute poignant video by Anne Leonard, “The Story of Stuff.”  Some of you may already be well familiar with it. It’s been out for long enough… but every time, I watch it, I get a new resolve to try again… to watch myself when I have the impulse to buy something I really don’t need…to make sure, as much as I can afford it, to buy locally, to buy organic, to buy recycled, to buy less. It contextualizes the problem of overconsumption much better than I can probably do. So, instead of re-inventing the wheel, I’m going to ask you to do your two-cents for change today: stop your busy life for at least a few minutes and watch this. It’s captivating, it’s very clear, and it’s personal.

For more information on this project, visit The Story of Stuff website.

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Filed under change, environment, Environment, Environmental justice, global solidarity, hope, Mother Earth, Overconsumption, Unity

Welcome to “A Cup of Change”

Welcome to my blog, A Cup of Change! My name is Zulema Ibarra, and I am about to finish (in December) my Master’s degree in Social Science, with an emphasis in Applied Cultural Anthropology. In this blog, I will be focusing on social issues and positive societal change around the world. I will talk about how the smallest actions or inactions can affect individuals, communities, and society, at large. As a poor graduate student, I entirely understand the struggle of living paycheck to paycheck and being too exhausted at the end of the day to devote time to causes we might otherwise support. I hope that this blog can inspire and offer accessible ways  to create small changes in our lives that can make a difference for us and those around us! Standing in solidarity can be achieved in so many different ways, after all.  I will also showcase examples of social and environmental justice efforts, and community-led efforts from around the world. I welcome comments and suggestions for posts. I hope that you will join me on a journey to explore how, together, we can transform our communities and change our world for the better!

I leave you with the following thought:

“Each choice we make causes a ripple effect in our lives. When things happen to us, it is the reaction we choose that can create the difference between the sorrows of our past and the joy in our future.” — Chelle Thompson

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Filed under change, change, hope, global solidarity, peace, human rights, energy, environment