Tuesday, March 17, 2009

You can only do the best you can

That is something I used to tell myself frequently when reading, "No Impact Man," one of my favorite environmental blogs. NIM, aka Colin Beaven, is a New Yorker who, along with his wife and young daughter, embarked on a year-long experiment to see if they could make no environmental impact. Since no impact is literally impossible, they wanted to make as little negative impact as possible, and counteract any negatives with positive impact (i.e., doing such things as environmental cleanups and advocacy). The year is now over, and they are retaining many (but not all) of the habits they developed during their no-impact year. A documentary has been made about them, and a book is forthcoming.

So I'd read his blog, and sometimes I'd go nuts, thinking, "How in the world could I ever do that!" I remember commenting on one entry in which he described the solar panel used to power up his laptop. I said something like, "The average person can't afford solar panels." Someone commented back, "The Beaven's can't either! Someone donated that to them!" Um, OK. The average person isn't likely to have someone donate solar panels to them, either.

Another issue that came up for many readers (not me, living in public-transportation friendly Boston at the time), was Colin's discussions of taking public transportation and biking instead of driving. A lot of readers lived in rural areas, or in urban areas with poor or no public transportation and with such heavy traffic that biking is very hazardous. These readers often responded with the same anger/ guilt/ defensiveness that I often felt when a green idea seemed impossible for me.

Anyway, I finally decided that I could only do the best I could do, given my circumstances, and to stop feeling guilty about the things I can't do (although I want to keep learning new ideas). For me, cost is a big issue. One of my reasons for starting this blog is that I am always searching for very cheap ways to go green, and I want to share what I discover. For example, I can't afford to buy expensive organic clothing. But I can buy all of my and my daughter's clothing second-hand, except for underwear and socks. (Hubby is a different story. He's 6'7" -- it's nearly impossible to find used clothing in his size).

"Crunchy Chicken" is another environmental blog I read, based in Seattle. She often issues challenges to her readers, and the current one is the "Sustainable Food Budget Challenge." The goal is to eat sustainably on the same budget allotment as food stamps. For my family of three, it's $463/month. The goal is to eat almost everything either locally-produced or organic within that budget.

Several people wrote in saying that that was totally doable, and were excited to accept the challenge. Then I wrote about the fact that my grocery budget is already below that amount (about $300/month), and I can't afford to increase it, and at this point, only about 25% of what we eat is locally produced and/or organic. After I wrote, several other people said something similar, including questioning the assertion by both Crunchy and several commenters that produce at farmer's markets is cheaper than in supermarkets. (That was true in Boston; it is NOT true in Tacoma). Others commented that to travel to the farms or farmer's markets where they could then then buy the local and organic foods, they'd have to drive a considerable distance; all the driving then cancels out the sustainability of the food they purchase.

So what can I (or anyone) do if they want to go green in an area, and find it's not feasible for their circumstances? I'll use the Sustainable Food Challenge as an example.

1) Don't feel guilty about it. Guilt is generally counter-productive.

2) Decide what you can do. In my family's case, we are eating less meat (less meat being less poultry in our case; we already almost never* eat red meat). We stock up on non-perishable organic foods when they're on sale. And we can try to grow our own.

3) Work with others for more collaborative solutions. In Boston, there is an urban gardening and youth development program called The Food Project (thefoodproject.org); the Dudley Street farmer's market run by the kids was one of the affordable ones where we shopped in Boston. I currently work in a Tacoma neighborhood called the Hilltop; my husband has an idea for a Food Project-like program that he's calling Hilltop Farms. We are also members of the not-yet up and running Tacoma Food Co-op, and we can see how we can do more to help that group get started.


* "Almost never" is literal. We'll eat red meat if it's being served at someone's home, and two or three times per year, my husband gets a hankering for steak or ribs.

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