Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Sea Turtle's Lament

I've always leaned toward doing the right thing to protect the earth's natural resources. But my desire to actually act on that hankering and make it less hypothetical really intensified this summer, in part because of an encounter with a green sea turtle.

My family was visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. We were in an exhibit called Hot Pink Flamingos, which focuses on how climate change is hurting marine plants and animals around the world. It was heartbreaking, even though the exhibit's creators tried to offer signs of hope and change.

For a long time, my two kids and I stood watching green sea turtles in their tank. I don't want to be maudlin or anthropomorphize too much, but as I looked into one sea turtle's heavy-lidded, ancient-looking eyes, I truly felt as if it were asking me a very direct question.

"We've lived here so much longer than people like you have. Why are you making it impossible for me just to live?"

The Gulf Oil Spill had already been hemorrhaging for over a month. I'd just read Thomas J. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which brought to vivid life the problems of an overpopulated, warmer world with a rising middle class in countries like India and China, a middle class who might not react too kindly to the idea that they ought to nobly forego the conveniences and pleasures we've indulged in for years.

I can't stop thinking about that green sea turtle.

Full disclosure: I drive a minivan. My husband commutes 50 miles total every day to work in his Honda Civic. Our family is going on two airplane trips this year, and my husband flies a few more times than that for work. We own a big old house that consumes more natural gas every winter than most of our neighbors' houses do. I have a secret weakness for clothing catalogs and buying too many things online around Christmastime.

On the plus side of the environmental ledger, I do recycle. I buy many of my clothes secondhand. I turn out the lights when I leave the room and save running our window unit AC only for the most unbearable days of summer. I try to choose activities in my neighborhood that my family can bike to over activities we have to drive across town for. I buy mostly organic food and belong to a CSA. In many ways, our family is doing our part to limit our greenhouse gas emissions.

It's not nearly enough. As Sharon Astyk puts it in her life-changing book Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, people in rich countries need to stop waiting for their governments to do the right thing when it comes to climate change and instead step forward to reduce their own emissions by 90 percent of the average in their country. She and a friend started a "Riot for Austerity" aimed at cutting their own energy use and inspiring others to do likewise, and by 2008, there were a thousand people around the world taking up their challenge.

"If there are a thousand people willing to make a 90 percent reduction in their energy use, even though it is hard, simply because it is right," Astyk writes, "perhaps there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who might do so if they knew it was possible."

As she puts it, we may be fooling ourselves if we think buying Energy Star appliances is enough. We may need to just get rid of the appliances and learn to live without them.

I don't feel ready to go that far, but I would like to push my edge more. I'd like to leave the minivan parked more often and ride the bus and bike instead. I'm not quite ready to dump our dryer, but I'd like to hang up more loads of laundry to dry on a clothesline this summer. I'm not going to tear out our stove, but I am learning more about raw foods, which allow me to feed my family without heating up the stove.

I'm starting this blog in part to give myself some accountability for sticking with the effort instead of giving up when the novelty wears off. I'm sure I'll be documenting plenty of shortcuts and shortcomings, too. But I think it's important to start with where I am instead of focusing on all the ways I fall short if I really want to make this a lifetime effort. If it's going to work for the long haul, it can't be an exercise in Puritanical self-punishment and guilt. I'll start with what gives me pleasure AND seems helpful--like growing more food in my backyard and biking more--and try to add in a few tasks that seem daunting or boring, like sealing up cracks in my house's foundation, and keep going from there.

Please share your own stories by commenting. I have a lot to learn, and I'd love to learn from you.


  1. I will be following and commenting along! I am low on the spectrum of resource use, as hubby walks to work, I never shower or bathe my children and rarely wash my clothes ( luxury I have since I rarely work outside of motherhood, and therefor rarely find myself in situations that require a higher level of hygene). But mostly, we are lazy and a bit poor, and that cuts things down too! We dont have AC and we leave the house at 58 in the winter because it is expensive to heat a house! we eat raw fruits and veggies so we dont have to cook much, no T.V because the old one broke, etc. But having lived for years in a Ukrainian village without power, plumbing and whatnot, and working so hard for every last bit of food and heat, I am SOOOOOO grateful for the things that make my life so easy, that I may have FREE TIME to PLAY with my children, read and think, type, laze about and whatnot. Here is to your venture, Carrie! I will be following along :)
    Kristin, down the street

  2. Oh, and Skills for Tomorrow, the school on wheeler, is closed down now, did you know? :(

  3. Kristin, thanks so much for commenting. I've been thinking about you and enjoying the beautiful photos of your family on FB. I didn't realize the school on Wheeler had closed. That phrase just really stuck in my mind and took on an ironic turn in the last few weeks. Kristin, I so appreciate your perspective, since you've lived without power and plumbing, and know what that's really like. I can't imagine how hard that would be, and yet I know you often say you're longing to go back there. What was it about the place/experience that makes you want to return some day?

  4. Kristin, I found your blog when an unschooler posted your article in home learning magazine to a local list. (I don't unschool myself, because I'm a single parent working fulltime.)

    My life seems like a similar mix to yours. I don't buy clothes online, but I do buy an awful lot of books (mostly used). I don't take the bus much, but my daily driving is very short. I wrote something I called Slouching Toward Simplicity, at a friend's request. I never finished it, because I always felt I could do more. If you want what I wrote, I can email it to you. My email is suevanhattum on hotmail.