Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

The challenge facing a call to action to deal with climate change is that the issue is not an obvious problem on a daily basis. We might notice an unseasonal heat wave, or be inconvenienced by a drought that restricts our water usage; we might even have an intellectual awareness that the issue is a serious one, but most average consumers in our country don't really suffer as a result of it -- not yet.

The majority of people probably don't even see much of a connection between consumerism and climate change, but it exists. Every product that we consume requires not only the ingredients or components of the product itself, but also a manufacturing and distribution process for those components and the final product, all which have some sort of environmental impact. Often there's also an environmental effect during or immediately after the consumption of the product.

Probably the most obvious example that contributes to the climate change problem: a car. When we buy a car, we're not just buying transportation; we're buying the various metals, glass, fiberglass, rubber, etc. that were used to build the car, as well as the manufacturing process itself. Then we need fossil fuels to run the car. Fuel requires not only raw materials (which are extracted in an environmentally unfriendly way), but also plants to process them (also not environmentally friendly). When fuel is burned in the car (and in the giant tanker trucks used to deliver the fuel to our gas stations), the waste product contributes to pollution. The Environmental Defense Fund states, "U.S. autos emit more than 333 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than one-fifth of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions. Any serious effort to fight global warming must include cutting auto emissions." (Click here for a detailed analysis on the EDF site about how cars contribute to global warming.)

Everything that we consume has some kind of environmental consequences, so limiting our consumption seems to be a simple way to lessen our negative impact (our carbon footprint) on the environment. And because we are such a wealthy society, our impact is substantial. Global Issues reported that "using the latest figures available, in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%" (See Material World: A Global Family Portrait, one of my favorite books, for some startling images that show the differences between us and consumers in other cultures.)

We may not have a lot of time to make changes in our patterns of consumption in order to halt and perhaps reverse the climate change trend. A recent British study predicts that the polar ice caps will be gone in twenty years. "Remove the Arctic ice cap and we are left with a very different and much warmer world. . . Loss of sea ice cover will 'set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself' . . . This could lead to flooding affecting one quarter of the world's population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emission from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes."

Well, that would get our attention, but let's not wait that long. We can get involved right now by supporting these or many other fine organizations that are making efforts to deal with climate change:

The Nature Conservancy

Greenpeace

Oxfam

There are also opportunities for political involvement here:

350.org (sponsors of the International Day of Climate Action, October 24th)

TckTckTck (a cooperative umbrella organization working for an international agreement to address this issue at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 7-18, 2009. You can read more about the UN's effort to make this deal happen.)

And you can check out the other 7900+ blogs from all over the world that are participating in Blog Action Day. [Update at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time: over 10,000 bloggers are participating and the event was kicked off by a topical post from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.]

I know, it seems a little overwhelming. I've written in the past about "shopper's compassion fatigue," that oppressive feeling of the weight of the world on our shoulders that we can get when trying to make the "right" decision about what to buy, or whether to buy at all. But as long as we're all traveling together on this small planet, it seems like a good idea to do what we can to keep that planet healthy enough to take care of us. And nobody ever said that being a thoughtful consumer was easy.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Alternative Housing: Intentional Communities

[There was a Feedburner technical glitch affecting the distribution of my last post on September 25th, "Going Wrong Going Green, Part 2," and I was never able to get the feed to update. If you subscribe to this blog by RSS Feed, you probably didn't receive the post, so you may want to take a moment to read it at your convenience.]

I’ve talked in the past about alternative types of housing, but the alternatives have always referred to structural and environmental issues. What about other types of alternative housing? What about housing that encourages people to live in a more communal spirit?

Throughout human history, groups of people with common bonds have lived together in a community, either a shared physical location or, in the case of nomadic tribes, a shared pattern of roaming. When civilization moved beyond the tribal stage, religious beliefs were the common bonds that held together villages and most small towns. When we moved into the era of multiple types of groups living in larger urban areas, ethnic bonds usually prevailed. Sometimes this offered the comfort and familiarity of a community; sometimes it resulted in impoverished ghettos. Larger societies also have class or caste systems that create communities. Some are blatant, like those in India or England; some are more subtle, like Japan or Israel. Here in “the land of the free, home of the brave,” we have a massive mix of groups, many still astonishingly segregated, and a class system in which higher echelons can be cracked, to a substantial degree, with enough financial success.

So where do modern “intentional communities” fit in? There are still religious and cultural forms like ashrams and kibbutzes, and, in the U.S., communities like the Amish, or Native Americans who live on tribal lands. But there are also other types of intentional communities, communes and cohousing, which are based on shared philosophies or on simple economic need.

In addition to shared philosophy, communes have a shared economy, i.e., the communal structure generates at least some income for the members. Aging Boomers who were politically active liberals probably remember The Farm, Steven Gaskin’s “noble experiment” and a classic commune. An English professor at San Francisco State, Gaskin witnessed the explosion, then implosion, of the Haight-Ashbury district during the late 1960s. His response was to buy land in Tennessee and, along with a few hundred followers, set up an intentional community that was held together by the philosophical beliefs of anti-materialism, vegetarianism and self-sufficiency. The Farm still exists, in spite of bumps along the way, and now includes charitable service as part of its philosophy.

According to the CoHousing.org website, "The cohousing idea originated in Denmark, and was promoted in the U.S. by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in the early 1980s. . . [Cohousing brings] together the value of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable living. . . The common house is the social center of a community, with a large dining room and kitchen, lounge, recreational facilities, children’s spaces, and frequently a guest room, workshop and laundry room. Communities usually serve optional group meals in the common house at least two or three times a week."
Click here for the six defining characteristics of cohousing. One is that the cohousing community is not a source of income for its members, making this arrangement distinct from a commune.
Check out EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York; Milagro Co-housing in Tucson, Arizona; and Prairie Onion Cohousing, right in the city of Chicago for examples of cohousing.

Finances may be pushing a lot of people who have never considered it before into alternative living arrangements. Multi-generational families are sharing homes again after the latest stock market and housing meltdowns. Finances are also often an issue for older people who are alone and either have limited resources or want to spend their later years in a more collegial setting than what passes for "neighborhood" in many larger cities. Boomers Go Back to the Commune in Retirement, an informative article from Bankrate.com, discusses this trend. It's particularly significant for older women, who usually outlive their husbands. A Smart Money magazine article states, "The 2006 Census found that 7.4 million women aged 65 and older live alone, compared with 2.7 million men. . . Even scarier: In 2005, the Census found that 12% of women age 65 and older were living in poverty, a sizable chunk more than the 7% of men in the same group."

But I liked the story of one resourceful Asheville, NC, woman: "[I]nstead of joining an existing [intentional] community, the self-described maverick set up her own, buying two houses in a three-house enclave. Now, she lives in one house, rents her second property to two other single women, and has a friend living next door. 'It's like being married to four different people,' says Kilkenny, who helped organize the 'Women Living in Community' conference in Asheville in July. 'You drive into your driveway and there's someone there. It's huge for me. I can walk out on my porch and say 'Morning, Bobbie, want a cup of coffee?' There's camaraderie.'"

We can talk about all kinds of ways to live more lightly on the Earth, we can debate all kinds of strategies to get through difficult financial times, and we can lament the lack of community that so many of us feel. The simplest solutions for most of us are to live in smaller spaces, keep our living costs affordable and get to know our neighbors. I've got the first two solutions covered, but I just met my "new" next door neighbor last week. She's lived in her townhouse for a little over a year. What can I say? LA's a tough town.

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© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Jackie at StockVault.net