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Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

Today is Earth Day – a holiday I have serious mixed feelings about.

On one hand, hooray Earth Day! Let’s all be responsible to the planet! Let’s recycle! Go Druidry! Go Earth Mother! Yay!

On the other? Is this kind of popular activism actually changing anything? Somehow I don’t think so.

Earth Day really strikes me as a big fat cop out a lot of the time. Like Earth Hour (where you use no electricity for one hour on one evening in March), it’s a day where people can pretend to do things that are good for the Earth and feel good about themselves, and then go right back to doing whatever they were doing before. It’s about the warm fuzzy feelings, and not about meaningful change.

For example, today in celebration of Earth Day my office “environmental team” is handing out “Earth-colored” cupcakes and cookies. That’s how we’re celebrating. Who knows what kind of dyes are in the coloring for the cookies and cupcakes, or where they were purchased, or if they come wrapped in plastic.  It’s Earth Day! Any excuse for baked goods is a good excuse! Oh and there’s a contest for the best Earth Day poster, created by the child of an employee.

Still, the sentiment is a good one, and so I’m torn about it. It’s good to do even little things to help the Earth. But I don’t want to overstate the importance of things like Earth Day in the face of very real activism and the very real changes that need to happen to reduce our impact on the planet.

If we keep going how we’re going, we’re going to quickly run out of planet to take advantage of. We’re already pushing close to (or past) peak oil – the point after which the amount of oil we can get out of the ground can no longer continue to expand, but after which our desires for oil and electricity aren’t going to go down. It’s a scary thought, but one that is bolstered by alternative and nontraditional energy sources (of which I think there won’t be “one star savior”, but it will take a combination of energies and conservation attempts and changes in our lifestyle to make work).

In the face of things like that, or the rash of oil related disasters, or the floating trash “islands” or the constant degradation of our wetlands (like the swamp near which I live), it’s hard to be really positive about Earth Day, because I don’t feel like it provokes meaningful change. It’s a great thing to teach kids, but as adults, it loses some of it’s oomph for being just another social excuse and day of pointless social-media-activism.

Of course, I have no better ideas about how to provoke meaningful change from people who aren’t interested in changing. In fact, I think that exercise is pretty fruitless, so maybe it’s through campaigns like Earth Day that we find little handholds and footholds for bigger environmental projects.

And I’m always drawn back to the words of the great Dr. Seuss, from The Lorax:

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

The whole point of the Lorax is individual change, and the impact that one person can have – good or bad – on the world around them. And maybe that’s the whole point of Earth Day – maybe it’s fruitless and silly and superficial, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t personally take it as a challenge to myself as a Child of the Earth.

In short, I want my own Druidry to be a recognition of Unless. I’m going to take up the mantle of Unless, and use today as a reconfirmation of the things that I CAN do to protect the Earth and reduce my footprint, even as a cubicle-working, long-commute-driving, suburb-living Druid.

I CAN compost, and plant trees, and garden organically, and turn lights off, and use LED bulbs, and recycle as much as I can (and try to buy less plastic too). I CAN re-use produce bags and bring my own grocery sacks. I CAN combine errands so that I’m not doing unnecessary driving, and make sure my car is in good working order for my long (70 mile round trip) commute, so that I pollute as little as possible. I CAN work from home when I’m allowed, to save gas. I CAN work on hobbies and crafts that promote reusing things, repurposing things, and valuing the hard work that goes into them. I CAN donate my clothes to goodwill when they no longer fit, instead of throwing them away. I CAN work to value people, time, and experiences over things, money, and stuff. I CAN spend time with my landbase, and support organizations that take care of it and the wildlife who live here.

I can’t change how other people react (or don’t) to Earth Day or Earth Hour or whatever other pop-culture, warm-fuzzy environmentalism that gets tossed around on Facebook but doesn’t create any progress. In the face of the overwhelming mess that we’ve made of the planet, something like Earth Day can seem silly – and maybe it is.

The changes made for one day are only useful if they truly become changes made for every day. A tree planted on Earth Day, but left untended, will die of lack of water in the Texas heat.

I can’t change what Earth Day has become, and I can’t make other people change their habits or live up to the cute graphics they post on social media.

But I can take up the mantle of Unless for myself.

Will you?

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This week’s assignment in the Wheel of the Year book has me answering some specific questions about my landbase and my relationship to it. I thought I’d answer them here in full form, since most of them are near and dear to my heart, and I think it’s important to be a Druid of Your Place.

1. Where does your trash go?

There are several landfills in my area, and my trash goes to those.

2. Are there options for recycling that you’re making use of? Why or why not?

Yes! My area recycles most plastic, glass, aluminum, and cardboard, and I do my best to put everything that might be recyclable into our big green bin each week. My curbside pickup will not take paper, however, and I am not doing nearly as much as I could with that. I’d like to start keeping our recyclable paper in a place where we can take it to a local school to drop off. My community also has “shred days” where you can bring personal and confidential paper trash to be shredded and recycled. I have a pretty big pile of junk mail that needs to go to the next one of those.

3. Are there steps you can take to help reduce the amount of refuse you create?

I am already buying less plastic packaging (mostly through purchasing fewer pre-packaged food products), recycling everything we can, and composting most of my food waste to put on the garden. Also, I make use of a garbage disposal system for foods that don’t go into the composter (namely meats, because while I like raccoons, I have no desire to set up a raccoon buffet in my side yard). I could be more particular about not purchasing heavily packaged or plastic wrapped products, and I could probably be re-using the clear plastic sacks from the grocery store for fresh produce each week. (I already use reusable grocery bags, though that is as much because they’re much more convenient than the silly plastic bags as it is for the fact that they’re made of recycled plastic themselves.)

4. What happens to your wastewater?

It goes to the wastewater treatment plant about 5 minutes from my house, where it is sanitized and then released.

5. What rivers are nearby? Do you have a connection to them? What sort of connection?

There aren’t any actual rivers nearby, though there are a few large streams, a large runoff/drainage area that has water flowing in it year round, and the perpetual bayous and wetlands so common to this area of Texas. I am on good terms with the runoff/drainage area, since I do a lot of walking there, and I frequently go visit the park that sits on the nearest bayou. I have not, however, been to the local nature preserve in a long time, which I should fix. Perhaps I can even do some volunteer work there, since they’re directly involved in protecting this area and it’s native flora and fauna. The San Jacinto River is the closest river to me, but it’s on the opposite side of town from where I live, so I never see it. I am likely to remain more connected to the wetlands.

6. Describe the basic climate of your area. Is it often wet and rainy? Dry and sunny? Wet and sunny? How has this affected the kinds of plants and animals in the area?

This area is predominantly tropical – wet and relatively warm in the winter, drier but still humid in the summer. We are affected by the marine layer (Galveston Bay) and our weather in the summer is typical of the tropics, with frequent but short lived afternoon storms and intense, humid heat. Plants and animals here tend to do well in the heat, but do not tolerate frost or freezing weather at all (it only actually gets below freezing once every few years or so, and even then only stays below freezing for a few hours). Palm trees are typical, as are ferns, and cacti and succulents all grow freely here – I have aloe growing “wild” in my back yard.

Wildflowers are also common in the grassier areas, but do not thrive here as well as they do in other parts of Texas (We do have Bluebonnets, but Indian Paintbrushes and Mexican Hat flowers are more common here). One of the things I like about living in Texas is the protection that the state gives to wildflower areas, so each spring I can look forward to seeing these flowers along the sides of the road without fear of them being mowed over. There is a running joke that anything that survives in Texas probably has thorns or is poisonous, and that’s actually relatively true (though not as much here by the coast, where we get enough coastal rainfall to make up for the heat). It doesn’t take long to get to much drier areas though, and our trees are smaller, gnarlier, and deeper, much more sprawlingly rooted as a result.

Animals include the typical small songbirds (wrens, sparrows, cardinals, robins in the winter/spring, tufted titmice, finches, mockingbirds, blackbirds, bluejays), all sorts of waterfowl, a large assortment of birds of prey (owls, hawks, and falcons), as well as buzzards, crows, grackles, and cara caras. Most of the animal life here has been driven out by civilization, but we still have large numbers of white tailed deer, opossums, the occasional armadillo, raccoons, rats, and mice – and the expected snake population that feeds on them. While rattlesnakes are not super common here, water moccasins are, and are extremely poisonous. Because we live near the water, we also get the occasional turtle (usually snapping, or red-eared sliders). Squirrels are ubiquitous, but compared to their northern cousins are scrawny-tailed and skinny.

7. What visible effects have humans had on the natural landscapes around you?

Our effects are nearly total in the majority of this area, though I do live close to both a university natural preserve, NASA preserved areas, and a wildlife refuge. This area has been settled for at least the last 50 years, and is largely a concrete jungle. While the older homes have mature trees, flooding is a huge problem when we get heavy spring rains, since the few creeks can not handle the runoff problems adequately, and being in the marine layer means we frequently get extremely heavy, if short-lived, rain. Power plants, oil refineries, and chemical plants are also common in this area, and they don’t do good things for the environment, especially when accidents happen.

8. Where do the winds usually come from? Are there different winds at different times of the year?

The most predominant wind in our area is from the southeast, which sets us up for the typical hot, humid air off the Gulf of Mexico that the Houston area is so well known for. This southeast wind is also responsible for heavy fog in the fall and winter, when warm air meets the cold fronts that come through from the northwest. Also common (especially in the summer) are onshore and offshore breezes, created by the pressure differences caused by heat over the land vs. over the ocean. Interspersed with the predominant southeast wind is a dry, hot wind out of the southwest, which causes the dry heat waves that strike periodically during the summer. This southwest wind is strong enough to disturb the sea breezes, and is responsible for long periods without rain. In the winter, the warm, wet southeast wind is offset by a northwest wind that brings in strong cold fronts periodically. While we don’t usually get long stretches of cold weather, these fronts are often wet and bring the danger of frost. In between cold fronts, the southeast wind picks up again, and our weather is mild and pleasant.

9. What major crops are grown in your region? Why are these particular crops grown here?

Most things grow here, and we have multiple growing seasons. Depending on the availability of irrigation, crops can be grown year round. Common crops are corn and cotton, as well as pretty much every vegetable that does not need to freeze to do well (asparagus and rhubarb both refuse to grow here, for example, but cabbage and onions grow well as winter crops). Some areas can support rice as well. The “dead season” happens in the heat of summer, when only established crops will survive the blistering heat and lack of rain. Farmer’s markets here frequently operate close to year round, with the two primary growing seasons in the spring and fall. A lot of our agriculture is hybridized, with plants being bred to tolerate the heat or to take advantage of our shorter (but more frequent) growing seasons.

10. Where does your power come from?

I live in a major oil and gas processing area, so my local power plant is natural gas based.

*****

I will admit to having used Google to answer one (and a half) of these questions. I didn’t know the specifics of my local power plant (I knew where it is, but not that it is a natural gas plant), and I didn’t know the actual wind directions (beyond cold fronts coming from the northwest and the sea breezes coming from the ocean). Still, I’m glad to take the time to answer questions like this, if only because it keeps me thinking about my relationship to my environment.

As to where I think I would like to be, quite frankly there are a lot of things I would like to do that just aren’t possible right now. I can’t afford to install solar power, and my plumbing is firmly directed through the concrete slab foundation so I can’t reuse my greywater as irrigation. I do plan on installing a gutter system that feeds into a rain barrel/containment device to help alleviate the watering that I do in my vegetable garden each spring and fall, but we’re at least several months away from doing that, if not longer. Some things we’ve thought about doing but then decided against it. When we had our plumbing replaced, we installed a gas-powered tank water heater instead of going tankless, because our water heater is in our (large, high ceilinged) attic, and we use almost no power to have hot water in the warm months – which is most of the year here.

I already use almost entirely recycled paper products, and use non-paper cleaning supplies when I can (rags instead of paper towels, cloth napkins instead of paper, etc). I use biodegradable cleaners for everything that it is feasible to do so (bleach is only ever used in the master shower, since it has mildew problems). Most things get cleaned with soap, vinegar, baking soda, or some combination therein.

I also have been switching out our light bulbs to LEDs (we already use CFL’s – which have their own set of problems, as they contain some heavy metals that can make them difficult to properly dispose of). The LED lights are expensive, but they produce almost no heat, which helps in the summer with the air conditioning bill. I also keep the house at 80 degrees or so in the summer to cut down on AC usage (though I admit to keeping it a bit warmer than I could in the winter as well. I have an extreme dislike of feeling cold, so the house stays at about 70 degrees in the winter). I’ll probably be purchasing a new AC unit in the next year or two as well, as our current one is both inefficient and lacking any sort of labeling that would allow a technician to repair it if it breaks. I also make frequent use of ceiling (and other) fans to help stay cool without needing to run the AC as much.

In general we try to choose native or semi-native plants, especially plants that will attract birds and bugs to the area. As a result we have a thriving ecosystem of spiders, lizards, toads, and the occasional turtle living in the yard. We also get monarch butterflies and several types of hummingbirds when they migrate through, and I try to feed the local songbirds in the winter (though with Harold around, that didn’t happen this year). We also do not use pesticides or herbicides on the yard as a blanket treatment. Small applications of fire ant poison or weed killer on the driveway cracks aside, our yard is “organic”. We also use almost entirely organic fertilizer in the garden, a combination of compost, manure, and purchased organic soil supplements.

I’d love to ditch my car and use a bicycle for primary transportation, but I work 35 miles (each way) from my job. Instead, I drive a small, fuel-efficient car and keep it in as good of repair as I can. I’d also, quite frankly, like to work in another industry – my job is on the periphery of the oil and gas industry, and while I know it’s good work, it feels a bit soulless to continue to work to make that industry better (my company does safety engineering for refineries and chemical plants) when I’d really rather be working on something more sustainable. I comfort myself knowing that fewer oil spills, refinery explosions, and catastrophic chemical leaks is always a good thing, but it still feels a little out of place to be a Druid working in oil and gas.

All in all, I think I’ve made a solid start. Unfortunately the changes I’d like to make now all require significantly more time, money, or both – and all of that is in a bit of short supply right now. Making the little changes was easy, but it’s a bit of a slippery slope to the bigger, more life-affecting changes that I’d really like to make to reduce my footprint and be more conscious of my affect on the Earth around me.

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