Category Archives: Environment

What Can You Do Without?

Earth Day was on Saturday, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I make every effort to “honor Earth Day in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

By American standards, Clif and I live modest lives. We eat little meat, we only have one car,  and we put a lot of thought into our purchases. We don’t buy willy-nilly. (I also realize that we are blessed with many things—running water, electricity, toilets—that other people don’t have, and I am very, very grateful for these conveniences.)

However, as I discovered when reading a current piece by Melissa Breyer in TreeHugger, there is plenty more we could be doing to lead a more Earth-friendly life. The title of Breyer’s piece is “10 Things Not to Replace Once They’re Used Up or Broken.”

Here is the list:

  1. Microwave Oven
  2. Ziploc Bags
  3. Liquid Soap
  4. Keurig Coffee Maker
  5. Plastic Food Storage Containers
  6. Wet Wipes
  7. Non-Stick Pans
  8. Scented Cleaning Products or Air Fresheners
  9. Toxic Personal Care Products
  10. Disposable Plates, Cups, and Utensils

For some of these items, Clif and I pass with flying colors (Numbers 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10). Others, not so much. But it is all food for thought, so to speak, and throughout the year I will be considering the other items on the list, one at a time, so that it is less daunting to make the change. Baby steps. And I’m going to be honest about Number 1—I really like my microwave, and I use it for all sorts of things. Therefore that suggestion has a big “maybe” beside it on my own personal list.

A note about Number 10—Disposable Plates, Cups, and Utensils. Clif and I rarely eat out, and when we do, we usually go to restaurants that have reusable cutlery and plates. We always say no thank-you to straws, and we seldom order more than what we can eat in a setting. However, we have friends who love taking home leftovers from restaurants, and they bring their own reusable containers to eliminate waste.  What a great idea!

That particular tip wasn’t mentioned on Breyer’s list, but no list will be complete.

Also missing was the suggestion to give up a clothes dryer. When ours broke, several years ago, we decided not to fix it, to see if we could do without. As it turned out, we could do without just fine. There are only two of us, and from spring through fall, I hang laundry on the line outside. In the winter, I have racks in the basement, where everything, including sheets, goes to dry. Clif teases me about my Rube Goldberg arrangement of racks, but I suspect that he’s secretly impressed with the set-up.

When the girls were little, I’m not sure we could have managed without a clothes dryer. However, as now there are only two of us, we don’t miss the clothes dryer at all and have no plans to buy a new one.

How about you, readers? What have you given up? What could you give up?

 

 

Beyond Meat: A New Meatless Product

IMG_8365About a year ago, for environmental reasons, Clif and I decided to stop eating beef and pork. In addition, we don’t eat much fish or seafood—even though we love it—because we have come to believe that there is no way the oceans can sustainably feed so many people on this planet. (For more on this, watch Mission Blue, the terrific documentary about the oceanographer Sylvia Earle.) We do eat some chicken, often organic but at the very least antibiotic free.

We also eat some dairy and eggs, but mostly what we eat are plants, many of which are grown by our own Farmer Kev. Because I have long been interested in a plant-based diet, I have a repertoire of vegetarian dishes, some that I’ve developed on my own and some that come from other sources, including the inimitable Mark Bittman and his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (America‘s Test Kitchen, the polar opposite of Mark Bittman but excellent in its own way, has recently come out with The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. I don’t have it, but this book is on my wish list.)

Most of the time Clif and I are more than happy with our plant-based diet. He could eat my vegetarian fried rice once a week, and my bean burgers, based on a Mark Bittman recipe, are pretty darned good if I do say so myself. Nevertheless, at times we do miss the texture and taste that ground beef brings to such dishes as chili, spaghetti sauce, or tacos. We could certainly use ground turkey or chicken, but we don’t want to eat too much poultry, either. Besides, nothing can really compare with the umami of ground beef.

We’ve tried texturized vegetable protein (TVP), and it’s about as appealing as the name suggests. TVP has a blah flavor, and it brings nothing but, well, texture to chili and spaghetti sauce. We scratched that one from our list long ago.

More promising have been MorningStar Farms crumbles. While they don’t have the smooth and mellow taste of ground beef, these crumbles aren’t as tasteless as TVP. They are fairly expensive, and for those who live on a modest budget, the crumbles would have to be a once in a while kind of thing. Unless, of course, you can find coupons for them.

Not long ago, I learned about other meatless meat products made by a company called Beyond Meat. On a recent show, Tom Ashbrook, of On Point radio, featured Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, which manufactures fake chicken and beef  made from pea protein and soy.  While doing the show, Tom Ashbrook munched on one of Beyond Meat’s burgers, and he indicated that he liked it pretty well.

Naturally, Clif and I were curious about Beyond Meat, and we were eager to try it, too. We had a coupon for the product and a very good thing as Beyond Meat is not cheap—an 11 ounce package costs $4.99 at Target. Therefore, with coupon in hand, Clif duly picked up a package of Beefy Crumble, and last night I used it with a jar of spaghetti sauce.

The results? So-so as far as I was concerned, and I thought the MorningStar Farms crumbles had a better flavor. While the Beefy Crumble wasn’t as bland as the TVP, it was certainly bland enough. The texture was good—I’ll give it that—and the Beefy Crumble had a satisfying chew. But other than that, it didn’t bring much to the sauce, and I would rather have mushrooms, peppers, and zucchini to add taste and texture. Clif understood my point of view, but, to him, the pleasing texture more than compensated for the bland taste, which he said he liked.

What next? As long as I have some coupons, which I do, I would be willing to try some of Beyond Meat’s other products—the chicken, the meatballs, maybe even the Feisty Crumble. However, after eating the Beefy Crumble, my expectations are not high.

In the end, I expect Clif and I will stick with our simple homemade meals made directly from vegetables.

 

A Quiet but Nice Easter: On the Rail Trail in Augusta

Clif and I had hope to host an Easter brunch for our family, but for various reasons this didn’t happen. Therefore, we were on our own. We had planned to go to the ocean if the weather was warm enough, but, alas, it wasn’t. When the temperature is a brisk 39 degrees in central Maine, there is no telling what it will be like on the beach, where the wind can blow hard and cold. As it is a three-hour round trip to the ocean and back, we just didn’t dare risk it.

Time to move on to Plan C—a walk on the Rail Trail in Augusta, a fifteen-minute drive from where we live. Although the day was brisk, it was sunny. Because of the cold weather we’ve had this winter and spring, the ice still isn’t out on the Kennebec River.

IMG_8122As we walked on the Rail Trail, we met many other walkers who were enjoying this fine, chilly day by the river.  I grew up by the Kennebec, in Waterville, when the river was dark and dirty and used primarily for dumping. In the I960s, nobody would have thought to walk by the river on Easter Day. But the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, changed all that, and slowly, slowly the Kennebec came back to life. Now there are eagles and ducks and fish. And walkers.

“This just shows how the right kind of regulation can be a very good thing,” I said to Clif as we caught glimmers of the Kennebec on the Rail Trail. He agreed. He, too, is old enough to remember how dirty and polluted rivers were in Maine.

A glimpse of the blue Kennebec
A glimpse of the blue Kennebec

Liam loves walking on the Rail Trail. So many things to sniff and explore.

Liam on the trail
Liam on the trail

It is not a lovely time of year, but there were some visually interesting things to notice.

A bench in need of repair.

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A rusty bridge.

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A purple fence through the trees.

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After our walk, we treated ourselves to ice cream at the Dairy Queen, just down the road from the Rail Trail. As we seldom go out for ice cream, it truly was a treat for us. (We had hoped to go to Fielder’s Choice in Manchester, but they were closed for Easter.)

That night for supper, Clif made pancakes, and I cooked home fries. We might not have been able to host brunch, but we could still enjoy Clif’s delicious pancakes.

Have I ever mentioned that Clif’s pancakes are the best? I think I have.

From the Green-Bean Weirdo Files: Our Carbon Footprint

IMG_7848Clif and I are proud to admit that we are a couple of green-bean weirdos who love to talk about things like our carbon footprint, global warming, resource depletion, and overpopulation. While these topics might be a tad grim, we generally maintain an optimistic attitude as we work to align our lives with our environmental values.

Clif loves to figure out what our carbon foot print is, and this is the time of year for him to do so. As a sideline, he is a computer consultant, and the tax information we need for his business overlaps with what he needs to calculate our carbon footprint. Therefore, as is his wont, after finishing our taxes this year, Clif then moved on to figure out our carbon footprint. I must admit we were pretty pleased with the results. Last year, our CO2 emissions were  6.7 metric tons per capita. (A 13.4 total for our household divided by the number of people who live here, which in our case is two.)

To put this in perspective, in the average United States CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) are 17. 56. This means our emissions are half that of the average American.  In Australia, they are 16.93; the United Kingdom—7.86. But to keep Clif and I from feeling too puffed up, we have Sweden (5.6) and France (5.6) to show us that it is possible to live in a modern society and go even lower than the 6.7 Clif and I are each responsible for.

How do we keep our carbon footprint relatively small? Here’s a short list.

  • We only have one car—something we can do because I stay at home. Our car is a Honda Fit, which is very fuel efficient.
  • We severely limit our travel. For the most part, we stay close to home and bike whenever we can. When we travel to visit Dee, we go by train or bus. We always combine errands. I never fly, and Clif flies only very occasionally, for his work.
  • We heat with wood and electricity. Our wood is local and sustainably harvested. In Maine, electricity production is fairly clean, with more generated by wind and falling water than the national average. We also have signed up for a carbon offset.
  • When we heat with electricity, we keep the house at a cool 60 degrees if we are not using a room and between 66 and 68 if we are.
  • We eat a lot of local food—by a rough estimate at least 50 percent.
  • We eat mostly vegetarian, which means some chicken but no beef, pork, or lamb.
  • We don’t produce much trash. We reuse and recycle. We don’t buy a lot of new things.

Here is what we could do to lower our carbon footprint even more, and in the upcoming years, we plan to do as many of these things as we can.

  • Install more insulation in our house.
  • Replace all the windows.
  • Further reduce our trash.
  • Replace the Honda Fit with an electric car.
  • Bike more.
  • Use LED lights.
  • Buy even more local food—flour, dried beans, corn meal. Unfortunately, right now these items are just too pricey for our modest budget.

Many years ago, it dawned on Clif and me that we could no longer pretend that it was perfectly all right for us to consume heedlessly and drive or fly wherever we wanted. As the climate changed and resources were ever more depleted, we knew that we were part of the problem and that our little actions mattered.

Therefore, we strive to live as lightly as we can while still living a good life. It is not easy. It requires effort and mindfulness and restraint. But never for one moment have we doubted that we are on the right path.

(If you want to figure out your carbon footprint, then there are a number of online options. Clif has used this spreadsheet, originally from the University of Maine at Orono, for a number of years.  2014 carbon calculator annual.)

A “Baked Bean” Lentil Dish

IMG_6746One of my favorite cooking and food websites is Food52, where the emphasis is on unfussy food made with inexpensive ingredients that most home cooks have in their kitchens. There are also many vegan and vegetarian dishes, and this goes in the direction in which Clif and I are heading with food. We are both very much concerned with overpopulation, limited resources on our finite planet, and living lightly. (I plan to explore the living lightly concept in future posts, and I am currently reading a book with the apt title Living Lightly.)

Lately, I have become enamoured with red lentils, which are not as, ahem, earthy as the brown lentils. (I have uncharitably referred to the flavor of brown lentils as “muddy,” and Clif is not a fan of them, either.) For our Labor Day get together, I made curried red lentils in my slow cooker—thanks, Susan Poulin, for the terrific recipe!—and they were a big hit. It was the first time I had used red lentils, rather than brown, and I was hooked by their smooth, subtle flavor. Red lentils, I knew, would become a staple at the little house in the big woods as we turn to a plant-based diet.

Therefore when Joe Beef’s Lentils Like Baked Beans recipe was featured on Food52, and I saw the primary ingredient was red lentils, I decided to try it.  I did make some changes. I did not use bacon. No explanation needed, I think. Rather than cooking the lentils on the stove, I cooked them in a slow cooker, which thanks to Shari Burke’s encouragement has become my favorite little appliance. I just tossed everything into the slow cooker, let it come to boil on high, and then turned it down to low so that it could simmer until supper time. I also added more cider vinegar, maple syrup, and ketchup.

Finally, I served it over rice, which is the way I prefer most bean and lentil dishes. While I like lentils and beans, they can set heavy, especially at night, and I find rice lightens the dish. I also sprinkled ground peanuts on top, because, well, nuts and lentils go together like apple and pie.

The results? The lentils did taste a little baked beans, although nobody would ever confuse the two. “Pretty good,” Clif said, going back for seconds. Perhaps not company good—somehow the dish lacked the pizazz I look for when cooking for a gathering—but certainly good enough for a Tuesday night supper. And good enough to make again.

Then there is the price. I figured I used about $2.50 worth of lentils, which were organic. The other ingredients—maple syrup, cider vinegar, dried mustard, oil, onion, garlic, and ketchup—I had on hand, and the small amounts I used certainly didn’t come to more than a dollar or two. There were rice and ground peanuts—again, no more than a dollar or two, and I expect I am estimating on the high side. Even erring on the high side, say, $6 or $7 dollars for the whole meal, which would easily feed six, makes this an extremely economical dish that would fit in with most people’s budgets, even when they are tiny, like ours.

Among foodies, nutritionists, and activists, there has been much talk about the cost of healthy eating in the U.S. , and rightly so. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, food prices have risen 44 percent over the past fourteen years. And salaries? Well, not so much. Nevertheless, in comparison with beef and pork, lentils and other legumes are a great bargain.

For confirmed carnivores, making the transition from meat to legumes is probably not an easy one. However, for those of us with more flexible palates, eating more beans and lentils is a tasty way to eat lower on the food chain. Right now, I have a good supply of black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils. I will be adding other beans to my stockpile, and I’ll be experimenting with various meatless recipes so that our diet is varied and satisfying.

Stay tuned!

 

Sustainable Seafood?

On Wednesday, on MPBN’s show Maine Calling, the subject was sustainable seafood. While I made an apple pie, I listened with interest because lately I’ve been wondering if there is such a thing as sustainable seafood, and I was curious what the gist of the show would be. The program was hosted by Keith Shortall, and the guests were Jen Levin, Sustainable Seafood Project Manager, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Barton Seavor, chef and author of four cook books.

Shortall began the program by acknowledging that we “know some of the most popular fish are in trouble because of overfishing,” and much of the show revolved around encouraging people to turn to “underutilized fish” such as dogfish, Atlantic pollock, and whiting, all species that, according to Jen Levin, are flourishing.

When the question arose of what exactly sustainability meant in terms of seafood, Barton Seavor did recognize that one aspect involved promoting thriving, resilient species. But, and it’s a big but, he went on to state that “ultimately the measure of sustainability must fundamentally be measured by the ability of human beings to thrive.” Levin did add that a growing population needed to live within its means.

Now, I’m distilling an hour show into a post for a blog, and as such, I can only include snippets of what the guests discussed. Readers who are interested in this subject—sustainability and seafood—should listen to the podcast for a longer, more complete version of what Shortall and his guests actually said.  However, not once during that hour-long show did I hear about the importance of abundant fish to the vast, interconnected chain of life in the ocean or of how quickly humans can change abundance to scarcity, even when fish seem to be plentiful.

For this we must turn to Sylvia Earle, author, marine biologist, former chief scientist of NOAA, and “National Geographic explorer in residence.” As Sylvia Earle eloquently puts it, “[T]he ocean is the cornerstone of Earth’s life support system, it shapes climate and weather. It holds most of the life on Earth. It is the blue heart of the planet.” (I must admit that I was surprised to learn that most of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is generated by life in the sea. I thought that trees and plants had a much larger role.)

I am currently reading Earle’s book The World is Blue, where she clearly and beautifully explains the importance of the abundance of fish and other creatures to the health of the ocean and indeed the planet.  Earle writes, “There is no surplus in a natural, healthy system. What appears to be overabundance to human observers is a natural insurance policy against population reduction by diseases, storms, ups and downs of predators and food supply…” and “[S]pecies do not live in isolation. They are integrated into exceedingly complex systems…the first fish to be taken from an unexploited population are the largest…the ‘old timers’…They are also the ones that produce the most offspring.”

So here are my questions: Does anyone know what a truly sustainable harvest of dogfish, Atlantic pollack, and whiting would be? Are we viewing them as so abundant that we think we can eat them on a regular basis? If so, is this a correct assumption?

Sylvia Earle indicates this is not the case at all. On NPR’s The Bob Edwards Show, Earle said that she doesn’t eat fish and instead eats a plant-based diet. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Earle was asked, “What about eating fish sustainably? For instance, trading top predators for smaller fish?”

Earle replied, “I think that’s disastrous, really…. The large fish have to eat the small fish. We have choices; they do not….  And there’s another aspect as well. All fish are critical when you think of them as middlemen, because they consume phytoplankton and zooplankton, the little guys that the big fish cannot access….we shouldn’t take fish on a large-scale basis; there’s simply no capacity left to do this.”

Except for island nations that don’t have much of a choice, Earle believes that fish are wildlife that should be left in the ocean, Earth’s “blue heart,” from which most of our oxygen comes and has developed over hundreds of millions of years.

So, two opposing views. The first, espoused by Keith Shortall’s guests was that even though fish such as cod have been overfished, there are plenty of overlooked and underutilized fish in the sea to eat. And we should do so eagerly. The second, put forth by Sylvia Earle, is that the oceans are in such peril that we shouldn’t be eating fish and seafood on any kind of regular basis. Once in a great while, at the most.

Even though I love seafood and could eat it several times a week, I’m casting my lot with the marine biologist. Sylvia Earle has been studying the ocean for decades and has lived long enough to see the terrible degradation of the world’s oceans as we humans eat our way through the fish and other creatures that live in the sea.

For me and for my husband Clif, it will be mostly plants that we eat.

 

 

The People’s Climate March: A Good Planet is Hard to Find

IMG_6610Today, in New York City thousands and thousands of people walked in the People’s Climate March, a coming together of organizations and individuals to protest the inaction on climate change. Oh, how Clif and I wanted to go, but for a variety of reasons we had to stay put at the little house in the big woods. In our opinion, climate change is the biggest issue of our times, and while the world heats up, our leaders fiddle and fiddle. Instead of putting money, energy, and resources into solar and wind power, the powers that be foolishly and destructively continue their quest to extract as much fossil fuel as they can from rocks, from tar sands, from mines, and from the ocean.

Clif and I might not have been able to participate in the People’s Climate March, but we watched some of it live, courtesy of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! As Goodman noted, this is the largest climate march in history, with “people as far as the eye can see.” And indeed there was an incredible stretch of people up and down the street. Many of the people looked like everyday folks—running the gamut from very young to quite old. Of course, there were some exotic folks, too, dancing in gauzy costumes and doing their best to look like Stevie Nicks in her younger days. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon marched, and so did the actor Mark Ruffalo. Ditto for Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio.

To get to this historic march, people walked across the country or took the Climate Train. Some even biked. Bus loads came from Maine, and, I expect, from other parts of the country that were vaguely within driving distance of New York City. Meanwhile, there were similar events in England, Germany, and many other countries.

Amy Goodman, normally quite reserved, had clearly caught the spirit of the climate march. “Something is coalescing,” she said, and there was a decided sparkle in her voice. “There is a turning of the tide.”

Oh, we hope so. This problem is so big that it needs to be addressed at all levels—from government policy to individual action. Clif and I try very hard to do our part—by buying as much local and organic as the budget will allow, by combining  errands so that we don’t drive unnecessarily, by not overconsuming. But there must be structural changes as our society turns from using fossil fuels to using renewable energy, and our leaders must initiate those changes.

In honor of the People’s Climate March, we decided that today would be a no-car day. We took the dog for a walk to the Narrows, where I snapped some pictures of leaves just beginning to turn. The day was overcast, with the sun breaking through here and there, making the water glimmer.

I was reminded of a sign we saw in the People’s Climate March: “A good planet is hard to find. Let’s save this one.”

Yes, yes.

Addendum: According to an article from Reuters, posted after the event, there were 310,000 people at the Climate March in New York. No wonder Amy Goodman was so enthusiastic!