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Bike and Beer

June 8, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an incredibly fun birthday party, wherein a group of about 30 of us rode 15 miles through back country roads to enjoy a couple of beers at a local brewery, and then back to a park for a barbecue. It was fantastic. But that, unfortunately, is not the kind of biking and beer I’m talking about today.

This morning, taking advantage of unusually cool weather, I went out for a long ride. Just Ruby (my trusty bike) and me, flying down the back roads through lush countryside that somehow holds every single shade of green this time of year. It was amazing: just the rubber hitting the road, and my inner wheels turning about how I can best save the world. Oh, and Bud Light.

Yes, you read that correctly. There were inordinate numbers of Bud Light cans thrown out car windows, now scattered throughout nature’s own wonderland. Pepsi, too. And a little bit of McDonald’s waste. I felt like an alien: not only do I never consume any of those products, but I just can’t even remotely begin to understand how anyone could throw trash out of their cars.

I don’t have much to say about the litter I saw, except that it brought me down to a disappointing reality. Usually I am all riled up about both big and individual solutions to our pollution problems — citywide composting, robust recycling programs, cradle to cradle design, buying local, bag taxes, high costs for garbage disposal, public education campaigns, victory gardens, etc. — that I forget just how far we have to go. Since I automatically consider every single thing that even goes down my drains (What are my soaps made of? Are there any toxins being washed off of my apples and peppers?) and take very seriously my responsibility to compost and recycle and, more importantly, to not create waste in the first place (cloth towels work just as well as paper, and there’s really no need for plastic bags when you’ve got canvas … etc.) that I can barely even process that any human would think it’s okay to throw a piece of trash out the window.

It brought me back to when there was a huge anti-litter campaign when I was about seven, and I couldn’t believe even then that anyone needed to hear that it was unacceptable to throw trash on the ground. Somehow, I guess I just figured that everyone had already learned that littering is not an option, for very obvious reasons. It also brought me forward to the future effects of that litter: into the bellies of wildlife or all the way into the water table, into our little streams to bigger streams to rivers to the ocean … and on World Ocean Day, no less!

Seeing litter definitely adds fuel to my fire, and offers a reality check into where lots of this country’s psychology rests, unfortunately. Education is so key in all of the messaging around pollution and all of the options we have for making sustainable choices, and I absolutely hope to be part of the solution.

– Rachael


Old Home

June 2, 2010

After a lot of searching and looking and hemming and hawing and thinking and budgeting and, more recently, grunting and stressing and packing and unpacking and buying and donating and … well, all of the everything that goes along with moving, my husband and I are in our new, old home.  On paper, this Queen Anne was built in 1920, though I suspect it was a good bit earlier, since that was the year all of the houses in this area were forced to record their homes. I’m ensconced in what the paper said was a “romantic turret”, which is surrounded by open windows. I’m noticing that unlike in my Miami, NYC, San Francisco, and Charlottesville apartment living for the last ten years, the healthy ecosystem outside has made some inroads inside: I’ve got seven ants marching across my cell phone at the moment, for example. Oh, and several spiders climbing around on the screens, and a few dead on the windowsills. This all makes me very happy.

When we moved to our new city, we had dreams of buying a plot of land in town, and building a sustainable house from ground up. As we searched, however, we realized first that there weren’t really any viable (i.e. walkable to everything we need) plots available and, second, that the more sustainable thing would be to live in an existing structure. We’ve got a lot to do in order to make this house as efficient as a new home would be, but it feels like it’s very, very worth it. Plus, this house has soul. And bugs.

I’m enjoying this top ten list of actions I can take, and, since we have what’s called balloon construction, which has been recently insulated, and our no-VOC paint job is almost finished, I think my next actions will be to replace our shower heads with low-flow options, and to explore what LED lighting options I have for replacing the six (!) chandeliers in my home. Oh – and to try to remember to feed the fish.

Undoubtedly, I will record my adventures in making an old house efficient on this blog, and welcome any suggestions any of you have.


Whale Watch

May 13, 2010

I decided this morning while watching this video of a “hopelessly lost” gray whale sighted in the Mediterranean Sea in Israel that I’m just going to publicly admit it: I’m obsessed with whales. I’m typically not an animal-obsessed-sort-of-environmentalist (my personal “hook” to sustainable living was food, not animals), but somehow those snuggly creatures who reign the the deep blue just have me wrapped around their tails. The news of a beached baby humpback on a familiar beach in East Hampton, NY earlier this year had me practically sobbing at my desk, and all of these videos and photos of whales full of plastic bits and other trash consistently instill a more deep, concrete sense of societal failure than just about anything.

So there it is. My name is Rachael, and I’m addicted to whales.

Mother’s Day

May 6, 2010

It’s almost Mother’s Day. I love the excuse to celebrate my mother, who is truly incredible in so many ways.

Sometimes, however, I have a hard time deciding what to get her for such an occasion. It’s not just the old story of “she has everything already!”, but also that I am so painfully aware that there is no “away” for any gifts I might give. I certainly am no longer able to just buy her (or anyone) a gift without considering how it was made, what it may be off-gassing, how long she is likely to use it, where it will go after she’s finished using it, etc. For the most part, I have transitioned my gifts in recent years from “things” into “experiences” – honeymoon massages for weddings, dinners for birthdays, etc. Sure – every once in a while I buy a gift – but even then, it’s usually the recipient can eat (Dagoba chocolate or organic coffee beans from Blue Bottle) or something really useful (soaps from Pangea Organics or, if I’m feeling extra generous, something from Farmaesthetics) or, sometimes a plant or a window herb garden. But often, as I am blessed to be able to do this weekend with my Mom, I choose something that is truly memorable, like sharing a delicious meal, tickets to a concert or a play, or even a long walk in the woods.

When it’s your Mom, though, and you can’t be there with her (as has been the case for much of my adult life), sometimes you need to fall back on tradition. Moms love flowers, for example. Well – traditional flowers, grown in mono crops and sprayed with pesticides – are not necessarily the best choice. I like Organic Bouquet for bright cheer – without the toxins – delivered to her doorstep. Organica Deluxe has some lovely gifts across several Mom-appropriate platforms: yummy snacks (the cookies are ridiculously good), beautiful organic cotton this and that, face and body products, and soy candles.

Whatever you choose to do for this or any holiday, I encourage you to try to be creative and to consider the environment. Maybe the way to frame the gift shift is this: if given the choice, would your Mom want you to contribute to destroying her grandchildren’s planet by purchasing cradle to grave products that she doesn’t need? I know mine wouldn’t.


Wind Farms are Prettier than Oil Rigs

April 28, 2010

That’s just my somewhat educated opinion: I’ve been on an oil rig (in Denmark) and have seen lots of wind farms (mostly in California). But honestly, these aesthetic arguments against offshore wind farms have always gotten under my skin. We’ve got bigger fish to fry (and no, I don’t mean the inevitable few small fish that will die as a result of building offshore wind farms) than worrying about what’s going on in the skyline a mile offshore. Consider, for example, how much you would rather see a windmill in the far distance – or is it a pelican? – than see a company like Massey chopping off the top of the mountain you’ve always considered home.

But, this isn’t a time to bemoan lost opportunities: this is a time to celebrate! Today, the US issued it’s first-ever approval for an offshore wind farm, off the coast of Cape Cod in the Nantucket Sound. This is thrilling, especially after a ten-year legal battle. If you’ve ever been sailing or even ocean swimming in the northeast, you know that there is quite a lot of wind energy to be harnessed in that region. I think this shows good sense on the part of Ken Salazar and the Obama administration, and I, for one, am all for supporting more and more offshore – and on land – wind farms. Photos and more facts on the Nantucket Project (like the fact that the turbines will be between 5 and 12 miles from land) can be found here.


Business Legally Empowered to “Do Good” in MD

April 15, 2010

I can’t sit still today: I’m too excited  that Maryland’s governer Martin O’Malley passed a law which designates a new kind of company (think LLC, C Corp, etc.) called a B Corp – a company which creates social benefit and shareholder value. Sure – it’s only Maryland, for now – but the fact that any state would be willing and able to pass a law that starts to recognize the powerful potential of business to improve this world is game-changing.

It’s no secret that we at re:SHIFT believe this to be the path of the future – or, actually – of the present. This new law makes the efforts of many entrepreneurs, investors, consumers, employees, and communities that have been working hard to communicate (actions speak louder than words) that business doesn’t have to be the enemy; that in fact, we can harness the business community’s energy and power to make real positive change for people and the planet.

Congratulations to the B Lab for all of their hard work. I, for one, am all for keeping the ball rolling across all the states on this one.


Redefine Hospitality

April 9, 2010

As I work in the supposed luxury of a fancy hotel on a business trip, I am in a panic.

Why do they give me a USA Today even though I can’t stand reading that paper? I’d read it online if I wanted. Do you think they even recycle all these papers people aren’t reading? And, what’s more – why is the USA Today in a plastic bag? I work so hard to avoid plastic bags in my daily life. Uh oh – what is this shampoo doing to my endocrine system? And who needs four tiny plastic water bottles that are probably filled with water from a tap in a place not unlike this place? There are glasses and a tap right here. What chemicals, exactly, are used to clean these sheets, and wow – there must be major flame retardants on these mattresses that are probably interacting with all sorts of my body’s systems. And why, oh why, are they charging two extra dollars for organic eggs? They simply don’t cost that much more. I wonder what farm they come from. Probably some industrial organic farm across the country.

Well, I’ll open the curtains and take a look outside, maybe get some fresh spring air in here. Oh – the windows don’t open. And yikes! Why are the lights on at night in every building outside my window? And – by the way – who the heck decided to develop Tyson’s Corner like this? I remember my Dad saying it used to be beautiful farmland, and now I can’t even go for a walk, unless it’s inside the luxury mall that is attached to this hotel, which I’ve scoured for sustainable goods as a mini market survey and there’s … nothing.

I could go on and on. Though I love to travel, it’s hard to swallow the general absence of sustainability in “hospitality”.  It’s hard for me to feel truly welcome when I feel uncomfortable: barraged by toxins, inefficient energy and water use, being served food that I would never usually eat because of its ripple effects on the health of the planet and our bodies, and the full-0n lack of fresh air.

So, this morning, I’m particularly happy to read that San Francisco’s W Hotel has joined the uncommon ranks of hotels that are LEED certified. Maybe we can get somewhere in this industry. re:SHIFT sure would like to help make that happen.

– Rachael