Thanksgiving is a day of overindulgence. Americans eat and drink too much. We travel long distances by car or plane. From an environmental perspective, Thanksgiving is not typically a green holiday. However there are many easy ways that you can decrease your emissions and use of resources and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to make your Thanksgiving a bit greener:
Grow your own: In most parts of the country fruits and vegetables can be grown well into the fall. With a little planning many of your Thanksgiving favorites can come right from your own backyard or a plot in a community garden. If it’s too cold to keep the garden going into November, harvest earlier and freeze or can.
Check out your local farmer’s market: If you can’t grow it yourself, buy it from someone else who has grown it locally. You may even be able to find a locally raised free-range turkey at a farmer’s market or local farm.
Limit travel: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Millions of us get on the road or in the air to celebrate the holiday with friends and relatives. Consider keeping your Thanksgiving celebration close to home. Technology has given us wonderful ways to connect with loved ones without having to burn tons of fossil fuels. Use face time or Skype to say hi to Grandma instead of making the 300-mile drive. If you are obliged to get on the road, make sure that your tires are well inflated to improve gas mileage. If your family has more than one vehicle take the more fuel-efficient option and carpool with friends and family if possible. Air travel uses far more fossil fuel than driving so if you are flying consider researching options for carbon offsets.
Plan the meal: If you are hosting, have a plan for what you will prepare and what your guests will bring. This will eliminate the possibility of having several of same dish and being left with too many leftovers.
Use what you have: Disposable plates and silverware are convenient, but using dishes you already have saves you money and lessens that amount of waste you produce.
Use natural decorations: If you like to decorate opt for natural decorations you can make on your own instead of elaborate store-bought centerpieces. Collect brightly colored leaves or cut some of that bothersome bittersweet in the backyard to use for homemade decorations.
Rethink Black Friday: One day of indulgence is often followed by another for those who partake in the retail “holiday” Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. If you plan to shop on Black Friday go into it with a plan. Figure out what you need and where you need to go to get it and stick to only those purchases and places. Don’t buy things you don’t need just because they are a good deal. If you can resist the urge to shop on Black Friday you can celebrate the counter-culture holiday of Buy Nothing Day instead. Avoid the crowds and spend a relaxing day with family and friends.
Featured image: American turkeys. Photograph by Christine Harris.
Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.
On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.
On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:
We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:
The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.
E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.
There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the supermarket, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. […]. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
When I bought our 1770 center-chimney Cape Cod home in northeastern Connecticut in the summer of 2003, I thought little of the coming winter. Our Cape had dilapidated windows, an open fieldstone foundation, and no insulation to speak of, and I spent $3,500 on oil during that first winter to keep the inside temperature at 55 degrees F. My daily wardrobe included long underwear, ski pants, and several layered sweaters, and I often found myself excited by the prospect of getting into my heated car and heading off to my likewise heated workplace. During the following summer, I began gutting sections of the house to retrofit insulation, but the going was slow, and the second winter proved little different than the first.
Aware that my house restoration and improvement efforts would likely take a decade, I knew that I needed to act in the short-term to stave off the winter financial bleed and to mitigate my general discomfort. Thus, in 2005, I installed a Jotul F118 CB Black Bear woodstove in an existing steel chimney in a section of the house that was added in the 1850s. That 60,000 BTU stove effectively heated half the house. My oil bill that winter reduced to $1,800, and I passed most of my waking hours at home within a 25-foot radius of the Black Bear’s penetrating heat.
I married the following year, and my wife and I welcomed our first child into our home two years later. My daughter’s first bath occurred in a portable tub only a few feet from the Black Bear on a cold October night. Realizing we couldn’t spend our winters living in a hermitage in one section of our house, we bought a 70,000 BTU Jotul F500 Oslo and installed it in one of the two flues of the center chimney. In doing so, we committed ourselves to heating fully by wood. We shut our central heating system down for the winter, opting instead to burn roughly ten cords of mixed hardwood annually. This was more of a life change than we first anticipated, and, in addition to the financial stability and physical comfort we initially sought, it has provided us many valuable lessons.
According to the Utah State University Forestry Extension, one cord of wood—128 cubic feet by volume—weighs between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds. Annually, we stack roughly 40,000 pounds of wood throughout the spring and summer, only to unstack it throughout the late fall, winter, and early spring as we carry loads into the house. Prior to burning wood as our primary heat source, the only measure we had of our heating resource consumption was the dollar amount of our check to the local fuel oil distributor. While that was all too palpable in a financial sense, it was utterly abstract in all others. Fuel oil was pumped into a holding tank in our cellar, combusted in a closed chamber, and its remains emitted up the flue, largely unseen by us. It was emblematic of our pervasive societal disconnection from the impacts of our resource use, be it fuel consumption, electricity generation, the management of our excessive waste production, or the unsustainability of our food system. Burning wood has given us a deeper awareness of and connection to both our resource use and our reliance upon the land itself—a valuable, life-changing lesson.
Complete reliance on wood for home heating forces a rapid learning curve. Fueling a woodstove with insufficiently seasoned wood is a recipe for winter discomfort and a creosote-choked chimney. The act of properly seasoning one’s fuel wood avoids the above and offers the wood burner an education in the physical properties of various tree species. The different varieties of birch, maple, and cherry, for example, will season considerably faster than red or white oak. While birch, maple, and cherry will provide a good burn when seasoned for one year after being cut and split, the oaks, in my experience, require at least two years. This is in part due to differing densities of the various tree species. According to the Utah State University Forestry Extension, one dry birch cord weighs roughly 3,000 pounds, while dry cords of red and white oak weigh roughly 3,600 and 4,200 pounds respectively. These variations in density give each species burn properties that are critical to understand in order to heat efficiently and effectively with wood.
To raise the temperature of our woodstoves quickly, we load them primarily with birch and maple. Doing so, we can bring a 200 degree F stove up to 500 degrees F, the “sweet spot” for our stoves, in about twenty to thirty minutes. That speed is very important in the early morning when the house is cool after the stoves have been banked for a low, slow, eight-hour overnight burn. Using well seasoned oak to start them up would require at least an hour to make the same temperature gain. Oak, however, will maintain temperature significantly longer, with hickory a close second in this regard. Thus, while we begin the morning burn with maple and birch, we mostly feed our stoves with oak or hickory throughout the day, and it is oak that fills our stoves overnight. This system, of necessity, has taught us to quickly identify any log by its grain pattern, color, bark, and density.
The deliberateness of the burn procedures outlined above is echoed in the deliberateness of both the procurement and the stacking of our fuel wood. Our three-acre lot, though mostly wooded, is far too small to sustain our wood burning. Thus, each year, we buy six cords of mixed hardwoods and six cords of red oak, all locally harvested and seasoned at least one year. We have two wood sheds which, combined, hold about seven cords. The other five cords are stacked on pallets and covered with tarps. We dedicate one shed solely to red oak, while the other holds both red oak and mixed hardwoods. The oak needs full protection from the elements and good airflow to fully finish its seasoning, while the mixed hardwoods will season sufficiently even if a little weather-exposed. Each load we bring into the house is likewise carefully assembled by species for optimal burning. The deliberateness of these processes connects us deeply to the land; it is a connection we speak of often as we tend our woodpile through all four seasons. It is an affirmation for us that we have not fully fallen prey to the spiritual danger Aldo Leopold notes above.
Many other lessons abound in our woodpile, both in knowledge and appreciation. Birch, for example, is the wood burner’s friend. Be it from paper, yellow, black, or silver birch, the easily-stripped bark burns intensely, making it the best starter for kindling in the early morning woodstove. The bark, which contains a resinous, flammable oil, lights easily, even when wet, and emits a wonderfully sweet odor when burned; it is an odor we savor. There are other moments of appreciation, too: the arrival of wood thrushes to our loose wood piles in springtime, where they forage the freshly split logs for insects; the phoebes that annually brood twice in our rear woodshed, the winter calls of barred owls and coyotes that cut the crisp air of late-night wood runs; the profound stillness of our woods during pre-dawn trips to scout dry kindling and tinder. In an increasingly complicated world, wood burning represents a simple equation of knowledge and labor that yields many beneficial sums, some readily measured, others not so easily.
Lest this all sound too idealized, I must emphasize that burning wood as one’s primary heating fuel is a for better, for worse commitment. We have spent some winters struggling with wood that was not as seasoned as we thought. On particularly bitter or inclement nights, the trek to the woodpile can certainly lose its spiritual luster. At times, a cold woodstove can be a hard starter, despite our best efforts. Winter housecleaning becomes a long, losing bout with pervasive powder ash, wood splinters, and bark peelings. Still, we have achieved something of a rhythm with our wood burning, and that rhythm has woven itself into the rhythm of our family life. For this, we are ever grateful, despite the challenges or perhaps because of them. Our wood gives us warmth, both physically and spiritually; independence from the whims of the fuel oil distributor; and, most important of all, a greater awareness of our dependence upon and connection to the land, this at a time when we need that awareness more than ever.
I teach Freshman Composition. Recently, I assigned Charles Fishman’s “The Squeeze,” a chapter from his book, The Wal-Mart Effect. Fishman’s book was published in 2006–it’s been around awhile, and it is not my story here. Nor is Wal-Mart. I want to talk about another effect, an environmental effect exemplified by Fishman’s story of the gallon jar of pickles.
“The Squeeze” begins:
“A gallon-sized jar of whole pickles is something to behold. The jar itself is the size of a small aquarium. The fat green pickles, floating in swampy juice, look reptilian, their shapes exaggerated by the glass of the jar. The jar weighs twelve pounds, too big to carry with one hand.
“The gallon jar of pickles is a display of abundance and excess. It is entrancing, and also vaguely unsettling. Wal-Mart fell in love with Vlasic’s gallon jar of pickles.
“Wal-Mart priced it at $2.97…”.
This low price created an unbalanced demand for a gallon jar of pickles. As Fishman explains in his essay, families bought the gigantic jar rather than one of more practical size because of the price, “200,000 gallons of pickles, just in gallon jars…every week. Whole fields of cucumbers were heading out the door.” Families would “eat a quarter of a jar and throw the thing away when it got moldy.” In turn, cucumber growers were unable to fill the demand to Vlasic, and here in lies the environmental problem that is my story.
Every time a consumer–any one of us–spends a dollar, he or she is creating an environmental impact. Here’s how the waste of pickles ripples through the environment:
All those gallon jars were trucked to Wal-Mart, so there’s fuel source and expenditure and carbon emissions to consider;
All that fuel was drilled for somewhere, and that process affects water and air quality;
Processing all those cucumbers into pickles took large amounts of water and energy;
Manufacturing the glass gallon jars also took large amounts of water and energy;
Growing cucumbers is water-intensive, so all the water used to grow the thrown-out extras went to waste;
Growing cucumbers is also fertilizer and pesticide-intensive (those Vlasic pickles aren’t from organically grown vegetables), and that fertilizer poisons water and creates green-house gases;
Chemical run-off from major agricultural regions causes dead zones in the ocean;
Farming involves fossil fuel, so more carbon emissions and fuel expenditure;
Agriculture requires that land be cleared to make fields, so deforestation occurs. No trees means no carbon storage, so more is emitted into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas;
Deforestation causes habitat loss which contributes to endangerment of species;
And I bet most of those moldy glass jars went into the landfill rather than the recycling bin.
When families chose to buy that jar, symbolic of “abundance and excess,” they also chose to add to these environmental problems. As consumers we have, embedded in our daily habits, more power than we realize in terms of environmental solutions.
Wal-Mart’s use of the gallon jar of pickles is not much different than the recent free shipping gimmick employed by companies like Zappos and Amazon. This past holiday season, NPR covered the effects of free shipping on working conditions at both of these companies (actually, Zappos is now owned by Amazon). I know working conditions is not an environmental concern, but it’s a similar consumer issue. By paying $5 for having my shoes sent to my home instead of expecting them to arrive at no cost to me, I can promote fair treatment of workers in those supply warehouses. Same with the pickles–by purchasing only a usable amount, the consumer takes strain off the environment being used to produce the wasted excess.
By wasting pickles, we’re wasting land, water, air, fuel, and putting at risk the vitality of other species.
In my work as a nurse coach, I often explain to my patients the finer nuances of blood cholesterol laboratory results and how changes in nutrition can improve their numbers. One type of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), is otherwise known as “the bad cholesterol” because it is the type of cholesterol most responsible for causing blocked arteries. Blocked arteries increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, such as palm oil, significantly increases these risks because doing so raises LDL levels in the blood. I liken it to pouring grease down the kitchen sink. Eventually, the pipes are going to become clogged unless some action is taken to break up and eliminate the ever mounting accumulation of sticky goo.
Given this well established wisdom regarding palm oil’s negative effects on health, a logical expectation would be for a decreasing demand for palm oil. Instead, demand has increased significantly. From 2005-2012, the United States Department of Agriculture reported production and importation of palm oil had doubled. In 2012, importation of palm oil to the U.S. was 2.7 billion pounds. This is approximately 380 million gallons. To give you perspective, that is 500 Olympic sized pools or more volume than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by BP Deepwater Horizon in 2010.
In addition to being a food additive, palm oil is used in personal care products (shampoo, lipstick), detergents, and has increasing use as biofuel. By 2006, palm oil represented 65 percent of oil traded internationally. Consumption of palm oil is expected to double again by 2020.
Why are we using so much palm oil? Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature and one of the world’s most versatile raw materials. Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers, with each fruit containing about 50% oil. Palm oil is obtained from both the fruit flesh and kernel of the oil palm tree. Oil palms can grow 66 feet tall with leaves up to 15 feet long. They bear clusters of fruit all year long, with each fully matured cluster weighing up to 110 pounds. This efficiency leads to land requirements that are ten times less than other oil-producing crops.
Historically, palm oil production has come at a great price to the environment, with a particularly negative impact on orangutan habitat. In 1900, there were around 315,000 orangutans. Today, fewer than 50,000 exist in the wild. Scientists say the palm oil industry is the biggest threat to orangutans, with the potential for orangutans to be extinct in the wild within 12 years. But there is more to the story. I like to believe this is an emerging positive story of the environment.
There is growing movement towards sustainable palm oil production. Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO was founded in 2003 and is the world’s leading initiative on sustainable palm oil. The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders.” Forty percent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO. Members and participants include oil palm growers, manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, environmental non-governmental organizations, and social non-governmental organizations. For a list of members and other details, you may visit http://www.rspo.org/. The following brief video summarizes the history and development of sustainable palm oil production and the RSPO.
Of course, the single most effective way to prevent the extinction of orangutans is to protect their habitat through decreased demand for palm oil products. For humans, that would include decreased consumption of food-like products that elevate LDL. There are several smart phone applications developed by zoos to help you determine which products are RSPO certified and/or palm oil free. The app developed by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Android) provides a searchable list by product brand name and advises if the manufacturer utilizes RSPO certified palm oil providers. The El Paso Zoo (Android) app utilizes a bar code scanner function to check items which are in their database and only advises if the product has palm oil, regardless of source certification. Here is the link to the El Paso Zoo iPhone app version. The El Paso Zoo app is the better choice if you wish to avoid palm oil entirely.
There is room for everyone on this planet. We do not have to choose between anything except how to be smarter and more humane in the equitable development and distribution of resources. A world with more orangutans AND healthier human hearts is one example of an ideal outcome and what this nurse coach considers to be a win-win scenario.
I think about climate change daily. It saddens me, to a grave extent, that humans have done so much damage. Now, our way of life is such that it seems we are stuck. But, I don’t buy into that lazy fantasy that we’ll just keep keeping on. Each one of us is a citizen of the world, and with that right comes responsibility. I’ll shoulder mine, and I hope you’ll shoulder yours.
Here are my thoughts today on climate change (by the way, there’s no new information here–but, as a teacher I know people have to hear things over and over again to get the message):
The US is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, yet our national policy about adapting for it is one of the weakest.
Yesterday’s New York Times article was about the reality of it, and that the work now is for society to adapt. Society is people… that’s us, you and me.
Much is being done, but the time of it’s not real, I can’t do anything because it’s such a big problem, I’m not an environmentalist, it’s not that bad, what do I care is over—even if you haven’t yet committed to change.
And I hate to be this blunt, but the cause of climate change is greed. Human greed that manifests in unrestrained consumption. Since the start of the industrial revolution humans have managed to disrupt the natural systems that keep this planet and its inhabitants alive.
Climate change is the result of unsustainable use of natural resources. When scientists look at sustainability in a system, they look at sourcing of raw material, energy use in production, and the waste stream—what waste is created in the process, and what waste is created in the use of the end product.
Changing our ways to adapt comes on three levels: the personal, the industrial, and the political. So what can each individual do? There is much you can do. Just change one habit. Then another.
1. Stop drinking bottled water. This is a significant positive step to make because trees are cut down to get to the water that is bottled. The bottles are made out of petroleum bi-product which increases the demand for fossil fuel extraction, the water it then trucked to a processing facility, a lot of energy is used to create the product and bottle it, and it is then trucked to the store for you to buy. You then drive to a store to buy it, drink it quickly, and have a non-biodegradable little bottle to throw away. Much of this type of plastic ends up in the ocean, where it does great harm. In this whole process, not only are forests destroyed—and trees store carbon so that it doesn’t go into the atmosphere as a green house gas—but habitat is destroyed for other species and water is polluted in the process. Yes, water is polluted when the forest is trampled for the spring water to be extracted.
2. Drive less. We’ve all heard this a million times. I was a little girl during the 1970s gas crisis. TV ad even urged people to combine trips and to take other drive-less measures. Today, our mentality is to drive, drive, drive. The American way of life is oriented around the car, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk a little more or make better choices about why and when we drive. Today’s article in Grist documents that this change is happening, in America’s biggest cities.
3. Eat less meat, especially factory raised beef. Much of the deforestation around the world is caused by agriculture. Of course, we need agriculture, but not on a large and destructive scale. There’s a secondary issue with beef ranching—the amount of methane generated, which is also a greenhouse gas. Americans eat far more protein than is necessary in a day. Smaller burgers and fewer steaks will help the planet, quite a bit actually, and might help with our nation’s obesity problem
4. Eat organically grown fruits and vegetables. The pesticides used in non-organic farming are mostly derived from petroleum and are quite harmful to the earth, the atmosphere, and you. Organic doesn’t cost that much more, and the quality of the food is greatly better.
5. Stop buying too much stuff, especially cheap stuff made in China. Overconsumption is a huge contributor to climate change. Our buying patterns are an opportunity to think of the source-energy-waste cycle, and an opportunity to consume more sustainably.
A week or so ago I was listening to the NPR report on Amazon’s contract with the US Postal Service for Sunday delivery. The commentator made the point that all these companies–the big money companies like Amazon–are simply reacting to what consumers want. That idea alone signals the power we all have in creating change. Even when the problem is as large as climate change, we can vote with our dollars, create change with our expenditures, and make the big industry polluters change.