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Monthly Archives: April 2014

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For these poor marshmallows.

At Easter, my au pair family was nice enough to give me a little easy basket of my own. I never say no to chocolate, so I loved it. But these packets of marshmallows, in surprisingly thick plastic, made me kinda sad!

Why must everything come  it at least two or three layers of packaging?!

I’m posting this to raise the age-old question: what do you do when someone gives you a gift and it has three unnecessary layers of plastic? In this case, the only thing to do was to make hot chocolate, heartily enjoy those marshmallows, and recycle the plastic. But note well: this little plastic packet was one of two (to make “individual serving sizes” and the entire thing was wrapped in another layer of plastic.

I’m all for food safety, believe me, but I’m not actually convinced that we all need individual, moon-landing ready packets of everything. Any suggestions how to steer generous-minded people away from this kind of gift? Any ideas how to avoid giving this kind of gift in the first place?

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When the family I work for left me home while they’re at the beach, they also left part of a cake. It’s getting stale on the kitchen counter. I want to eat it. I am eating it.

In theory, I could resist. I’ve already had dinner (and dessert). It’s not even a kind of cake I like very much. But I’m finding self-restraint nearly impossible, and eating this damned thing is making me think not only about how and why we make decisions, but maybe more importantly, when.

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The culprit.

I bring this up because a lot of conversations about climate change focus on decision-making of various forms. There’s decision-making on an individual level (i.e. do you buy organic or not?) and there’s decision-making on grander scales (GMO labeling, Kyoto treaty…). Although I’m going to talk about cake in this post, the point is not to criticize cake consumption (or to make you salivate).

I know that eating this cake is not “good for me.” Rationally, I should stop. I shouldn’t have started in the first place.

But what should I have done? The cake is there. I didn’t bring it into existence and I certainly didn’t want it to be left here while I’m all alone with no social pressure to restrain myself and no one else to eat it before I do. It’s already at least half-way to stale; if I don’t eat it, who will? What will happen to the poor, fruitless fruitcake? (Sorry, as with eating it, I couldn’t resist the play on words.)

Now that I’ve eaten more of it, I’m starting to get a telltale sugar high, one I know will end in a pretty nasty crash. I worry about developing diabetes. I’m disgusted by the packaging of this thing (half of which I’ve already thrown out–it was neither recyclable nor compostable, and was too beaten up to reuse in any way). Like I said, I’ve had dinner. I’m full. I’m thin now, but I know that’s not something I should take for granted.

But the cake is right next to me. It’s staring me down. And when I take a bite, in that moment–and only in that moment–it tastes, well, sort of good. Even in one bite I don’t love the flavor, but it’s sugary. Sugar = energy = “good.”

The thing that really gets me is that I’m capable of having a very healthy diet. Last year, making my own decisions about what groceries I would buy, I stopped purchasing anything with high fructose corn syrup. Then I stopped buying almost anything that was highly processed at all; my staples were pasta, rice, couscous, a range of fresh vegetables, beans, eggs, and anything I had killed or canned the previous summer–so chicken, rabbit, jam, green beans, homemade ketchup, and pickled zucchini.

The only thing that hasn’t really changed between my diet last year and this year is my copious yogurt consumption (every morning for breakfast). Even with breakfast, however, there’s a big difference: last year, I would buy oats (yes, plain oats) and a few sweet bits (raisins, semi-sweet chocolate chips, honey, walnuts) and have some combination of the above. This year, I have a bit of yogurt with whatever cereal is on hand–sometimes something organic, sometimes sugar puffs. It depends.

Earlier, before I started in on the cake, I had settled into making soup. Left to my own devices and knowing there were plenty of odd vegetables ready to expire in the fridge, I set about throwing something together. Melt a little butter, add onions and garlic, add a cube of bouillon and some water, add other vegetables, add lentils, add spices, add more spices–woohoo, soup!

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This soup, in fact.

Eating the super-gross-sugarfest that is that cake right after the super-awesome soup, I feel like I’ve cancelled out my “good decision” to make and eat soup for dinner with my “bad decision” to hack into that cake. In fact, I’m going to compost the cake right now, before I get any more ideas (eating it is, if anything, more wasteful, since it will just make me feel sick).

But why did I find it possible–in fact, easy–to eat really well last year, while I find it really challenging this year? I’m not just talking about the cake, either. I binge-eat cookies regularly; I overindulge in chocolate; I take too large servings at dinner of food I don’t even like. The answer says a lot about decision making in general.

The first aspect of this question is a weird one for someone who has never experienced true hunger: a lot of my over-eating comes from insecurity about the next meal. I think about food a lot, but I think about it even more when I’m totally dependent on other people to stock the pantry or cook the meals.

I’m also partly paid in food (or being fed, rather). Food arrives in the house and I have the option to eat it or not. To eat it is to be paid, to not eat it (even if I’d feel better) is, in effect, not to be paid (at least in that form of currency). The second effect of being paid in ‘board’ is that I don’t get paid enough to cover that expense on my own; while I can afford the occasional indulgence (like a 2 euro bar of chocolate), that’s about it.

These are sort of psychological motivations for over-eating and especially over-indulging in foods I perceive as “valuable” (whether they actually are valued by the family or not). But, beyond my inability to pay for my own groceries now, there are other economic factors at work. Last year, I bought all my own food. There was a strong incentive to eat cheaply. Believe it or not, that means staying away from processed foods.

It also meant never wasting anything. If I bought celery, for example, the main part of the stalk could go into tuna salad, or into a stir fry, or into soup (I make a mean celery soup!), or onto eggs (fried eggs with celery and paprika is shockingly delightful)… but the rest of the celery plant could also be used. I would only cut off the very very bottom; the tough end would go into a soup or stew, and the leaves could also be chopped up and used to season (and add some bulk to) a soup.

I’m not a great cook by any means, but I do have a few solid fallbacks up my sleeve. Rice or couscous can round out nearly any meal. Making fresh pasta to go with bits and bobs of leftovers is a great way to use them up in a way that doesn’t feel like “eating up leftovers.” After a few weird loaves, I perfected a bread recipe for an extremely basic white bread. Not the healthiest, mind you, but by making it with only honey, butter, yeast, and flour, I at least knew what I wasn’t adding. And it was fresh. But once it had gone stale, I grated it with my cheese grater and used it as filler for burgers made from ground meat (such as the mutton I “earned” by helping butcher an older sheep), or as a way of livening up soup, or as a slight crunch in scrambled eggs.

The most important factor was that I never (or, okay, not that often) gave myself the option to “be bad.” When I bought junk food, I inevitably consumed it almost instantly. But it didn’t feel like deprivation of any sort, at all. I never went hungry. I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with ways to use the odds and ends I could find instead of relying on easy tastes like potato chips or cookies.

There’s an expression you hear a lot when you train horses: Make the right choices easy and the wrong choices hard.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a funny phrase, because it’s making the assumption that the right choices are likely to be the hard ones unless we–the horse trainers–do something about it. Intuitively, we–people in general–tend to think the easy option is often the best. Sometimes that’s true, but we have to be aware of why various options are alternatively easy or hard.

Leaving the kitchen, we can think about transportation. In the U.S., it’s almost obligatory to own, or at least have access to, a car. Once you have a car, using it to get somewhere is almost always the easy–or at least the easiest–option. (Especially outside of major cities with decent public transport, such as New York and Chicago.) The drive between my house and my college was almost a straight path North-South, but there were no busses that could get me even halfway there. (Forget about trains.)

Two of my friends decided to bike home as an adventure for one break. Although there were many treacherous patches–practically no bike lanes or any kind of path or paved surface designed for something other than a car–their journey began with me driving them and their bikes across a major bridge–one they needed to cross to get home but which was illegal to cross except in a car–and for good reason, since it was steep and had no shoulder on either side.

In that case, biking wasn’t necessarily the “right” choice–but it certainly wasn’t easy. And in far less dramatic situations, biking, walking, or taking public transit in the U.S. are still notably difficult options. One of the biggest culture shocks for me in France was learning what it was like to live with public transportation that is actually more efficient (most of the time) than personal transportation–a car.

This has almost nothing to do with French individuals being more civic minded people and deciding to choose the bus rather than the car; although the French are pretty civic-minded, the individual decisions that contribute to high usage of the public transportation network depend on an array of circumstantial factors making public transit–the “right” choice–easy (or, at least, easier).

Parking is expensive and hard to find. Roads are relatively narrow. Bikes and busses both have their own lanes, making those forms of transit quicker and less dangerous. The public transit system as a whole can be accessed with a ticket or subscription card, both of which offer access to all three forms of transit–tram, bus, and Metro. Getting a driver’s license in France is hard, time-consuming, and expensive. I could (and probably will, in a later post) go on, but the important idea is that the successful public transit system doesn’t depend on many individuals inconveniencing themselves; it depends on the overall environment being more conducive to public transportation than to individual drivers in most situations.

The question, then, is how to we facilitate these situations? Who is the ‘horse trainer’ making the right choices easy and the wrong choices hard? When it comes to avoiding binge-eating, a big factor for me has been having control over what comes in the house. I have relatively high self-restraint in the grocery store, where price tags and a desire to get in and out quickly make me stick to wholesome standbys. Even still, I rarely buy organic (shocking, I know). While I insisted on high-quality eggs (like eggs from local farmers or from chickens at home), I rarely bought organic vegetables between the prohibitive prices and excessive packaging.

Yet there was an exception to this: strategic purchases at farmers’ markets usually proved cheaper than organic buys in regular grocery stores. This is because a lot of organic stuff in the grocery store is falsely expensive–it’s heavily marketed ($$), shipped long distances, and often grown with chemicals and extra water usage that while still falling under USDA organic standards fail to make these products truly sustainable. Plus, “conventional” products are typically subsidized at various levels in their production. The end result is that organic and conventional products do not have equal footing on which to be competitive and consumers are faced with easy, though wrong, decisions.

The increase in farmers’ markets throughout the U.S. is an encouraging prospect, but there are still many if not most areas where it is difficult to find a farmers’ market or where these markets can’t meet the demand of the population. In other sectors, it’s also important to note that we can’t and don’t rely on individuals making good choices–we rely on policy makers to shape situations conducive to making good decisions.

The trouble is that the people responsible for making decisions for ‘the group’–for populations, not just individuals–are individuals themselves. They are just as swayed by individual motivations, as irrational as they may be. They are just as likely to eat the entire cake.

Sustainability measures do not always involve unpleasant or sensitive topics–my old standby anecdotal environmental gesture, composting, is a great example–but sometimes trying to live a more sustainable life means changing diet (possibly incorporating a different range of types of meats and vegetables, eating more unusual parts of animals, restricting consumption of junk food), reducing the amount of stuff in a household, moving to a smaller house (or a bigger property), etc.

In my last post, I talked about eating rabbit and some of the various conversations that has sparked in my life. I also touched on how we can talk about decisions such as eating rabbit (instead of chicken, if chicken is normally a part of our diets and rabbit isn’t) with children.

In this post, I will outline ways to talk to children about three lifestyle changes relating to sustainability. The biggest thing to remember is that you should believe in your decisions. Bringing sustainability issues to the attention of children can help them become more empathetic and sensitive not only to the environment but also to other people. I have consistently found that children are more open to new ideas or to changes than they are often given credit for; a lot of it seems to depend on how you break the “news.” If you believe in what you’re doing and you believe it is a positive step, your children will probably come to agree with you.

It is important though to see their side of things, too. Children may be facing pressure at school from peers to do things like buy certain clothes or bring certain foods to lunch. If you decide to enforce household-wide rules about consumption habits that may prevent this sort of thing, you should be prepared to support your child in some way and/or make small concessions occasionally.

Not buying stuff (Minimalism)

Okay, minimalism is not just not buying stuff. That said, that may be how it appears to kids. Especially if you start your journey into minimalism by throwing out (or giving away, donating, etc…) their stuff. A few strategies:

  • Even if it is the 5 million plastic cows scattered in your kids’ rooms that really bothers you most, start with your own stuff and make your reductions the most visible.
  • Remember why you’re doing this and make it explicit to your kids. Explain that you want to have fewer things, maybe so that you can spend more time with your kids instead of cleaning up after them, or so that you can move to a smaller house and have more money to spend on vacations.
  • Instead of taking a top-down approach, try making a communal spot for donations. You might be surprised what your kids feel they can do without! Of course it’s a good idea to maintain veto power, but including them in the process may make it more agreeable.
  • Talk about where things go. Try to find good homes for as much of the stuff you get rid of. In the process, you may be able to expose your kids to people who have a genuine need for the stuff that is, to you, excess.
  • Talk about where things come from, how things are made. Children may appreciate their stuff more when they realize how really complicated even commonplace battery-operated stuff is.

Eating local/changing diet

Diet is something we typically have a lot of control over, though it may not feel that way. Eating “real food”–whole foods, natural ingredients produced with as little chemical use as possible, in season and minimally processed–is an important habit to adopt. Depending on your current habits, though, this may take a lot of adjustment! Before you decide to make an extreme diet change, especially with kids involved, inventory what you currently eat. What would you really miss? What would make the biggest difference?

In 2012, one of the aspects of my senior thesis project for my undergraduate degree was raising and learning to slaughter chickens and rabbits. As a lifelong omnivore, I wanted to have personal understanding of this process that I had never before taken part in, but had profited from. You may just be contemplating buying more organic food, but whatever your personal step is, kids are capable of getting involved.

  • Do it gradually. Talk about your thought process in age-appropriate conversation before you really start changing things. Two year olds may not need to be fully informed about the horrors of factory farming, but 12 year olds are more than capable of understanding those ideas. Understanding the philosophical backdrop may make kids more into the idea of giving up certain foods.
  • Replace, don’t just take away. Make it clear that kids won’t have “nothing to eat”–instead of soda, you could try getting a home-carbonator and making fizzy fruit beverages; instead of fruit gushers maybe give kids real fruit.
  • Make concessions. Not only are you more likely to win kids over with a gradual switch, but you’re more likely to stick with a new diet if you don’t make really dramatic changes. Let’s say you’re trying to reduce your household consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)–maybe forbid gushers at home, but still allow your kids gushers in packed lunch.
  • Give kids ownership of these ideas. This shouldn’t be about you trying to make life difficult, this should be about all of us trying to do what is right. Kids are often quite flexible and ready to adapt new ideas and values. Try planting a garden with their help (or with older kids, letting them do a lot of that on their own). I never ate eggplant until I grew some myself (now I love it). If you don’t have room for a garden, try container gardening, or find another part of the process kids can “own.” Many love cooking/baking and may be willing to help make family meals. Or, they may get excited about getting to choose which vegetables you buy at the farmer’s market. Whatever works.

One final note: if you’re going to start family dinners (which is a great idea), try to make them as pleasant as possible. Be clear about rules and enforce them from day 1 (i.e. if you say no one gets up from the table without asking permission, there needs to be a reaction/consequence to getting up without asking). Take interest in your children’s days and encourage both thoughtful questions and respectful listening. When in doubt about what to talk about, consider talking about the food (especially if kids had any role in the process–if one sibling was involved but not the other, for example, you could ask this child to explain his or her role to the other).

With young kids, food is a great opportunity to talk about the senses (What do you taste? What do you smell? What do you see? What do you feel?) and numbers and quantity (How many carrot sticks? Is there more applesauce than yogurt? How can you tell?). As they get older, this can expand into a conversation about origins (Where do you think this comes from? How does this grow? What did we have to do with it before we ate it?). Later, the dialog can be a launch point to talk about human and animal rights (Who worked to make this possible? What do you think the people picking this were paid? What are “fair” labor conditions?).

Reducing screen time & energy consumption

While you may be sick of staring at a computer from doing it at work all day, kids may see screens as purely vehicles of entertainment. Trying to reduce screen time can be a tough challenge, especially if kids are addicted, but learning how to defeat boredom creatively is a great skill.

  • Make sure there are other options. Do not just take away the TV, and the iPad, and the computer in one fell swoop and then expect kids to be cheerful about it. For young kids, have plenty of craft supplies on hand. This may go against minimalism goals a bit, but consider keeping stuff like old sheets and really worn-out clothes to let kids do whatever they want with these materials. When I was young, one of my favorite “toys” was an old multicolored sheet. That sheet was everything from a picnic blanket to a tent to a toga-like dress. The best thing was that it didn’t matter what I did to it–it was pretty hideous and no one cared.
  • Produce limits before bans. Instead of saying “no TV,” try setting a time when kids can watch TV. In the household here, the kids used to demand TV as soon as I brought them home from school. I started saying they couldn’t watch anything until 6:00, and now they often forget about it by the time 6:00 rolls around. Likewise, I don’t let them use the kid-iPad when they’re at home all day on Wednesdays except for the 15 minutes I’m preparing lunch. By being firm and consistent about these rules, they’re no longer a struggle.
  • Alternatively, consider a “screen vacation”–make it a challenge to see if kids can really truly not use whatever screens are a problem (except for homework, if necessary). Some kids may find it more fun to have a challenge in front of them than to have set limitations.
  • Unlike food issues, talking about energy consumption can be super abstract. Try doing research about energy consumption together, or share energy bills with kids and explain what the numbers mean. Whenever I was home when “the BGE guy” (our meter reader from the gas and electric company) came to the house, I used to go outside and read the meter with him. I was curious about the bizarre device and although the numbers didn’t mean much to me, having awareness that the reading was different every month did make me curious about what was causing those differences–heating? cooking at home more? leaving lights on by accident? being able to leave lights turned off more on long summer days?
  • Make kids deal with boredom. I think a lot of parents really fear their kids saying, “I’m bored!” and I don’t think there’s any reason that should be alarming. We all get bored sometimes, and it’s something we need to learn to conquer. The more permissive you can be, the better–just as it is important to teach kids how to be neat and keep themselves tidy, it’s also important for them to have spaces to be messy, to get dirty. Additionally, give it time. Try giving kids a few ideas of what they could do instead of setting them up with an activity right away. Offer open-ended activities like access to blank paper, working musical instruments, a sandbox (or for a neater alternative, a sandbox filled with dry rice!) and some buckets and shovels.
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This is the direct result of bored kids getting creative with the materials at hand–sticks, grass, and an old wooden duck.

Links to check out

Story of Stuff

How Stuff is Made

Carbon Footprint Calculator (The Nature Conservancy – for people in US)

Environmental Footprint (WWF)

Ecological Footprint (Center for Sustainable Economy – for people in UK)

Zen Habits

Becoming Minimalist

About a week ago, we had rabbit for dinner. Now, to most Americans circa 2014, this is pretty weird, but I’m one of the few who is exceptionally OK with eating rabbit meat. Because I’ve learned how to raise rabbits, and slaughter them, and butcher them myself. In France, there’s basically no taboo about eating rabbit (or anything else), so finding rabbit on the table was not so surprising. However, we couldn’t talk about it.

The rabbit was cooked with potatoes and tomatoes and other veg in a thick broth, so the children assumed it was chicken. (Plus, rabbit tastes and looks an awful lot like chicken. It’s not a crazy notion.) The mother of the family let them keep this belief and made it clear to me that we were not to discuss what kind of animal was in the pot. Okay. I didn’t say anything, of course, but as an avowed rabbit eater, it did make me think.

Note: I ate this little guy.

Note: I ate this little guy.

What we don’t talk about with children often reveals our own insecurities. What we do talk about shapes how they interact with the world. One white lie about what kind of meat was in the pot isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things. But that dinner jumped out to me as a failed opportunity. A failed opportunity to normalize eating an “unusual” (to the limited palettes of Americans and Brits) meat, and a failed opportunity to talk about where our food comes from.

It seems like the typical American attitude about meat these days is “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At least that’s been my experience. The day I sold my breeding rabbits so I could travel, I had a date on my way home from the 100+ mile drive. I was supposed to wear something nice (and presumably not smell like rabbit), but in exchange I’d get a home-made dinner at this guy’s apartment. If I sound bitter, that’s because I showed up only to find out that cooking dinner was left to me and he had practically no food in the house–mostly a few shrink wrapped pieces of something I can only hope was chicken.

Cutting a slit into the watery packages and pulling out the lumps of indistinguishable stuff really disgusted me, as I was used to dealing with animal body parts you could identify and even imagine going places, running around, hopping onto your lap, for example. When I pulled open one of my butchered animals, I could tell you all about its life just by looking at its bright, healthy organs and clean, nearly fat-free musculature. A happy animal is a beautiful piece of meat, let me put it that way.

He had gone out to buy wine while I scrounged up something that would feed two people (one of whom, at least, was ravenous). When he came back, I was apoplectic about the meat, dancing on my toes in disgust about what I had to deal with. “You can’t even tell what this is! Where did this come from!” I was alarmed. Having experience butchering both rabbits and chickens in the past week, I was intimately acquainted with these animals–yet I hadn’t a clue where, on any animal’s body, I could have found meat that looked like that stuff. I didn’t really want to eat it, and I felt bad it had been brought forth into existence. Something without obvious muscle structure hasn’t had much of a life; it’s been packed tight and prevented from moving, then basically force-fed. That’s the only way to get meat that looks like that.

“Honestly, I don’t want to think about where this came from,” was his response to all my indignation. He was happy to pick up something from the grocery store, pull it out of the box, throw it in a pan, and have no further relationship with it. He thought of it as “protein,” not “former chicken,” and while he admitted to a slight twinge of conscience–he knows about factory farms–he also appreciated that separation of bird and plate.

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I’m not trying to say that everyone needs to be comfortable getting their hands gut-deep into a chicken. But we should at least be able to talk about this stuff. One of the big motivations for me in learning how to slaughter animals was having more personal accountability for something I was already doing by proxy–by buying meat, I’m paying for someone else to kill it and get it to me in a nice package. By doing it myself, I not only take responsibility for the quality of life the animals had before they were killed, I learn firsthand what it’s like to be a killer.

I learned a lot of useful tips about slaughtering while I was getting the technique down, but the biggest thing I learned was that it no one should have to do that all day. Most of raising livestock should be the raising part, not the killing. Yet our level of demand for meat products means that a lot of the meat industry is assembly lines of people killing all day to make a living. These are not good lives or good jobs–for the animals or the people involved.

In France, a much higher proportion of the food comes from local producers. Even in the “hypermarchés” like Carrefour, some of the meat and produce still comes from local farmers. There is pressure for this. French people typically have a good understanding of where food comes from. Practically every house in my neighborhood has a small vegetable garden. Many have chickens as well. Even small plots have fruit trees. But the French also hold farmers and people who deal with processing food (i.e. butchers, bakers, not as much candlestick makers) in fairly high esteem. These are cultural values working against the economic incentives of factory farming.

And cultural values are transmitted through action and discussion. If you’re going to eat meat, rabbit is one of the more ecologically-sound options. Rabbits grow quickly and easily, they breed quickly and easily, and their butchering is… you guessed it… quick and easy. They can even be fed a diet partially composed in certain kitchen scraps (like chickens), require extremely little space, and can provide a source of excellent, nutrient-rich, immediately usable fertilizer through their poo. Because rabbit is not a super popular meat in the U.S., that also means that the rabbit meat you find is more likely to come from a small, local producer. So having rabbit on the table is a great start.

But then we need to talk about it.

One Thanksgiving, my mom invited some of her students to join us. Coming from California, Afghanistan, and China, they were staying around during the school break. The students from Afghanistan and China were basically nonplussed by our combination of rabbit in the stockpot and turkey in the oven, but the Californian was shocked by the rabbit. Even more shocked when she learned that I had not only killed it, but cuddled it when it was a baby. Personally, I was shocked we had a turkey there at all–I hadn’t raised it, and based on its bloated, overstuffed appearance (not to mention that it had been given away as part of a rewards program at a local grocery store) you could tell it had come from a less-than-ideal situation.

One of the less graphic photos of me killing a rabbit (thanks Mom!).

One of the less graphic photos of me killing a rabbit (thanks Mom!).

I’m used to talking to adults about these matters. Most people are already aware of some aspect of this issue, whether that’s animal cruelty or the high fat content of feedlot beef. Once you figure out a starting point the person already understands, you can start to draw the conversation into larger relationships between different systems–economic, moral, practical (etc). And you don’t need to sugarcoat things.

But children–especially young children–don’t necessarily need to have their heads filled with visions of hapless cows having their brains shot out. That doesn’t mean we need to put a veil over our dinner plates, though. I think the biggest problem with the meat producing industry is that it is so far removed from our meat eating.

If we had to kill all the meat we ate, we’d eat a lot less of it. We’d also be likely to raise a variety of animals (as people used to on family farms) so that we weren’t stuck with pork for a year. We could also reduce our municipal waste streams by using a lot of food “waste” to, in turn, feed animals with stomachs less fussy than ours. In the bargain, we’d have healthier meat. (Or you can look at local, organically-raised meat as a way to get healthier meat with the side effects of better environmental consequences. Either way it’s a win-win scenario.)

Kids can begin to comprehend a lot of these relationships perfectly well. We can start the conversation ourselves, by understanding what is at stake. We can then transmit some of these values to children through actions (like putting rabbit on the table and acting as though everything is normal, because it is) and words. The words are sometimes hard to find, but talking about equality and justice are things even young kids seem to be able to understand pretty intuitively. They get it when we say that this way, even though the rabbit’s life came to an end, it had a good life before hand. We can also make comparisons between treating animals well and treating ourselves well; when we’re eating something that had a healthy life, it’s usually healthier for us, too, and kids will understand that transitive property.

When it comes to meat (and ideas like reducing meat consumption to be more ecologically-minded), there is an easy route into the subject, which is through eating. Other topics relating to environmental concepts might be harder to explain (like “greenhouse gasses” or just the idea of “climate change” in general), but I do think it is worthwhile making an effort to give kids a mental framework for these ideas. After all, they are going to have to deal with climate change effects much more than we have. They have a right to know the basics now, and to start thinking about these ideas from an early age.

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Yesterday I read a comment on an article about climate change that really frustrated me. Today I woke up angry about it. The article was a pretty excruciating list: Eight Ways That Climate Change Hurts Humans. The comment, which I’ll reproduce here in full against my better judgment, is this:

Remaining “beleivers”; We deniers demand that certainty be determined by the world of science not a goose stepping mob of determined “believers”.

Science is 100% certain the planet is not flat and 100% certain smoking will cause cancer but if 32 years of science’s “95%” certainty that THE END IS NEAR from Human CO2 is good enough for you to condemn your own children maybe you just hate humanity more than you love the planet.
“Believe” all you like but do not tell our children that science has the same certainty of “belief” that you remaining “believers” have. Now who’s the fear mongering neocon that is “ignorant” of science; you “believers” didn’t know that it wasn’t a consensus of “will be” and only just “could be” a “threat to the planet.”
Your eagerness to “believe” is sickening.

There are a lot of sort of interesting arguments against climate change. If you read as much “skeptic slush” as I do (aka the comments section), you start to see patterns. Within the broad category of deniers, there are those (like this ‘person,’ username “mememine“) actually take pride in going against scientific consensus. Frequently this is in the name of jobs/the economy. (I.e. most of our jobs are in coal mining therefore when we take that away we are DESTROYING THE ECONOMY. None of which, by the way, is true.)

But as in this comment, denial is sometimes in the name of–interestingly enough–free thought and a theoretical love for humanity.

I’m conflicted even writing this post, because I don’t like giving attention to denialism. Too many people “believe” that climate change is basically a large, extremely elaborate hoax already. Too many Americans, especially (from what I can tell, most of the rest of the world is either seeing consequences already or ideologically on board with it).

However, I want to take this (ahem) opportunity and provide a positive perspective on climate change. While some people have tried to argue that global warming will be good for the planet because it will mean more warm areas and therefore longer seasons for growing crops, I’m not going to take that tack (while a few areas have the possibility to become more productive agriculturally, I think it is more likely that the overall effects of climate change–not just warming–will be mostly negative for most agricultural environments due to the likelihood of severe events like major storms and droughts in areas that will have experienced more stable weather in the past).

Instead, I want to argue that we are at a point in human history when we still have the chance to do some pretty cool things for humanity (*)At the same time, climate change is a real and urgent problem and I’m far from thinking everything will be peachy. But I do have a lot of love and respect for humanity, and it is for humanity, more than for the environment, that I am concerned about climate change.

Innovation should trump exploitation

“Developed countries” are currently extremely wasteful. Yeah, I know I said I was going to be positive–what current wastefulness means to me is that we have a lot of opportunities to be more efficient. This means room for innovation. Further exploitation is just going to waste more resources, including human lives–but we’re already seeing a lot of innovation, in part because of people being able to collaborate in different ways than were possible in the past. (See next point.)

Some examples of what I’m talking about:

Learn how to share like kindergarteners were supposed to

When I was in Stockholm in the fall, I went to a meeting of OuiShare. This is a really exciting community and some of their biggest and best ideas are being practiced already. The gist of it is that more localized, person-to-person economic strategies can work with a degree of trust. It’s not just economic, though; it’s also a way of trying to re-wire social networks to be more connected and more inclusive. Here are a few big moves:

  • Collaborative consumption (sharing stuff and services)
  • Crowdfunding and person-to-person banking
  • Open knowledge

The big idea is that we can all benefit from sharing information, whether it’s in the form of seeds (genetic information) or plans to build cool tables. We can also be less consumerist if there are people we trust with whom we can share stuff. This isn’t a new idea (I’m thinking especially of rural communities, which typically had to operate in the ‘sharing economy’ to succeed–barn raising, anybody?) but needs to be adapted to the way(s) we live and work now.

Experience over stuff

“Minimalism” (the philosophy more than the aesthetic) seems to be becoming more and more popular. While I don’t fully embrace some aspects of minimalism, I do think that people in my generation are finding themselves moving frequently and experiencing reduced possibilities to hoard stuff anyway, while simultaneously being more connected to work and community through virtual means. I don’t necessarily think those aspects are good, but I do think they will drive consumption trends towards experiences over material purchases. Although the Walmart economy might/should take a hit, hopefully these sorts of things will be able to grow:

  • public spaces like cafés and bars, especially local spaces that can react to their customer base
  • art institutions
  • recreation spaces (ice rinks, movie theaters, paintball fields, bowling alleys, etc.)
  • services such as fitness classes, yoga, massage, etc.

Not only is spending money on experiences over stuff typically better for the environment and the local economy, it’s also shown to make us happier. While traveling this year, I quickly learned that skimping on admissions fees or a few dollars (or kronor or euros or pounds) to spend time with people over a drink or a meal was absolutely miserable, and the money I could save didn’t bring any pleasure. Now I try to over-budget when I’m planning for trips so that when I’m actually on the road, I can spend without worrying too much. (Note well–I have to counteract overly stingy tendencies; if you tend to be more of a spendthrift, you will probably need a different strategy!)

Djurgärden, Stockholm, Sweden (September 2013)

Djurgärden, Stockholm, Sweden (September 2013)

Back to climate change. At this point, I don’t think there’s much utility in discussing whether climate change is or is not “believable.” It’s real, it’s happening, and there’s 97% scientific consensus about that. The earth is not flat. (If you’re actually trying to figure out what to believe, talk to me and I can direct you to some resources.) Most people who do not “believe in” climate change cannot be convinced through words (I’m convinced of that). That portion of the population–the die-hard deniers–needs to be left in the dust.

What we need to be thinking, talking, and writing about–and more importantly, doing–is creating adaptation strategies that DO work for humanity, that DO show love for our fellow humans. I believe this is possible. Not easy, but possible. Further, while we may never be able to end poverty, we should at least give it a try. Part of the solution is technological; a big part of it is social.

What does denial offer? Denying climate change is “real” means putting your human energy–which is a valuable and beautiful thing–into harming your species and (if you’re gonna go there…) your children’s futures. Climate change is extremely discouraging. When you believe modern science and try to wrap your head around it, the situation seems really dire.

Yet there are a lot of people out there who believe in climate change and are trying to figure out what to do about it, not to save polar bears but to save ourselves. Sometimes it can also be threatening to realize there are so many people who are smarter and cooler than you are working on the same thing you want to work on (I feel this way a lot!). Still, it’s easy to find a positive way of looking at this: these are all potential partners, people you could find yourself working with. You’re not alone.

And that’s really it–the best and worst aspect of climate change is that it’s a global problem. We can ignore it, and hope it goes away, and watch a lot of human suffering as the effects become more drastic. Or we can work on it, figure out ways that both our individual lives can be more ecological and our social lives–our interdependent existences in various forms of community–can be improved while using ecological concepts.