Involuntary Simplicity

Behold: true minimalist sustainability. Photo courtesy of http://www.old-photo.com.

I was going about my usual business this morning–doing laundry, straightening some things up–when it occurred to me that I am already living a relatively minimalist life.

Why doesn’t it feel like it, then?

Well, it probably has something to do with my current living situation not being once that I chose. Or rather, it’s a product of necessity and nothing more.

My living space consists of 120 sq/ft. I have access to a bathroom (which I’m not really allowed to keep things in other than shower stuff), a single cupboard in the kitchen, the refrigerator, and the occasional nook in the garage. I don’t buy an excess of things because I’m broke now; and in the case of food, it’s because it’ll either get eaten and replaced with cheap substitutes, or because there’s literally no room in the kitchen for it. I have a bike and take transit not just because I hate cars and car culture, but because I am nowhere near being able to afford one even if car ownership was something I aspired to. My bed is on the floor not just because it’s aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, but because I also don’t expect to be able to afford the frame I want for a long time.

Why is talking about minimalism by necessity rather than choice such a taboo? Is it because the subject is sobering and depressing, anathema to the cool aloofness that is at the core of minimalist design sense? Or is it because, at the end of the day, it really is just lifestyle porn? A chic aesthetic to put on the list next to “country modern” and “warm industrial”? And aesthetic without deliberation, it might be argued, is merely either an accident or a trick of the eye.

There are lots of choices I have the liberty to make as I go through my day, sure. I can decide what I want to wear, what I want to eat for breakfast, what book to read next. But I have little substantial control over my life. I live where I do and how I do because it was the only option. My 3rd wedding anniversary is coming up this winter, and I still live in a different country than my spouse because surviving in the day-to-day makes planning for something as distant as immigration a struggle. I have a lot of free time to contemplate the beauty of nature and the virtues of doing everything by hand because I got laid off and have nothing else to do sometimes.

This is a criticism that comes up a lot when talking about lifestyle minimalism and voluntary simplicity. Why do we fawn over people who choose to live sparsely and ignore those who have no other choice? Why don’t 200 sq/ft apartments get the same love as 200 sq/ft tiny homes? Why aren’t subsistence farmers in Brazil or backyard gardeners in the Bronx applauded for saving the planet in the same way that middle-class people are? (Most of the world isn’t middle-class, yannow.)

Why can’t I congratulate myself for having achieved the minimalist lifestyle with so little fanfare?

Because it sucks, is why. I have about as small of a footprint as you can get in the city/suburbs, and I have only a few bills to pay. My life is, all things considered, very un-complicated. But it’s not my life. It’s just life, one that was thrust on me. One that happens to meet a number of minimalist criteria. I consider myself fortunate enough to not just dream of a more ideal future for myself, but actually maybe be able to take steps toward achieving it, and I’m glad that vision revolves around minimalist and zero waste principles. But not everyone else’s does. When you have nothing, of course you’re going to dream about having everything.

What do we do about that, community?

Is It Possible to be Vegan and Zero Waste in the US?

Short answer: I don’t think so.

Long answer:

Dietary veganism, yes, but with lifestyle veganism, I just don’t see how it’s possible. Not in the world we currently live in, at least.

Think about it for a moment. Up until the 19th century, every material we had at our disposal was sourced from either the natural living (and recently alive) or mineral world. Aside from some peat and very limited coal use, there really was no such thing as releasing million-year-old carbon back into the immediate environment. It just didn’t happen. Sure, animals were hunted to extinction as soon as we learned how to sharpen points on sticks, and sometimes rivers overflowed with human feces and dead animals near large city centers, but the claim that we were capable of irreparable and catastrophic harm pre-Industrial Revolution just cannot be made.

Animal and mineral-sourced products only started to be replaced with synthetic materials and plastics during the 20’s and 30’s. Hair combs that had traditionally been made from turtle shell (driving the excess hunting of turtles) were replaced with celluloid. Billiard balls, which had  historically been made from ivory, were soon manufactured from the same. And so on, until nearly every consumer product had a cheaper, thermoplastic variation on the market.

Photo courtesy of http://chemheritage.org

So what, then, were things made out of prior to the age of plastics ushered in during the early 20th century? The answer is obvious: plant-based materials, wood, fur, bone, stone, minerals, metals, water, flesh, resins, heat, animal-made materials, and mixtures of these. You want cosmetics? Mineral powder, beeswax, oil. You want building materials? Stone, wood, straw, peat, plaster. You want vessels to hold things? Clay, cloth, yarn, metal, reeds, fibers, leather. And what have those animal-based products been replaced with in the past 80 years the vast majority of the time? That’s right, oil-based synthetic materials.

Say that you have to buy a new reusable water bottle. You’ll likely have to choose between three materials: metal, glass, and plastic. Technically, if you look at the life cycle of each of those products from manufacture to consumer, they’re all vegan options, so no need to worry there. But it’s when you take a deeper look that making the “vegan” choice becomes rather redundant.

Plastic, as we all are well aware, does tremendous harm to the environment in the form of industrial pollution from manufacturing, as well as  via end-of-life pollution when it comes time to discard the product, whether its used for 5 minutes or 5 years. There’s 600% more plastic particles than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre, for instance–according to a 1999 survey, and that ratio is only expected to have gone way way up–which obviously causes great harm to marine wildlife. Abusing not just individual creatures, but entire ecosystems.

What about metal? Surely that’s a much more responsible option. And it is! But it’s still not guiltless. Where does the ore come from, and how is it mined? Much of aluminum, called bauxite in ore form, is extracted in Brazil, China, and Australia, and it’s a very energy-consuming and environmentally disastrous process as Ranforest Relief details. That’s not to mention that the inside of aluminum water bottles are coated with plastic. Stainless steel is no better, though you’d think it’d be– what else would warrant such a steep price tag? Stainless steel is an alloy of steel and chromium, steel itself being an alloy of iron and carbon. And iron is mostly acquired by means of strip and open-pit mining.

Open-pit iron mine in Ontario. Image courtesy of Northern Ontario Business.

How can anything but 100% recycled stainless steel be seen as vegan in any way shape or form? There is no denying the horrific implications of such industrial operations on wildlife and then some.

Lastly, there’s glass to consider. Glass is probably the most vegan-friendly option available, but it’s not perfect. The main ingredient in soda-lime glass is silica, also known to us plebians as “sand”. And the sand to make not just glass, but to be used in all sorts of other industrial processes needs to come from somewhere. And as Wikipedia puts it, there really isn’t any such thing as a “best” somewhere to get it:

Sand mining is a direct cause of erosion, and also impacts the local wildlife. For example, sea turtles depend on sandy beaches for their nesting, and sand mining has led to the near extinction of gharials (a species of crocodiles) in India. Disturbance of underwater and coastal sand causes turbidity in the water, which is harmful for such organisms as corals that need sunlight. It also destroys fisheries, causing problems for people who rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

Removal of physical coastal barriers such as dunes leads to flooding of beachside communities, and the destruction of picturesque beaches causes tourism to dissipate. Sand mining is regulated by law in many places, but is still often done illegally.

Not very vegan either.

Though it’s not like I’m advocating for everyone to go back to using sheepskin flasks or stomach lining to hold their Gatorade while on a hike, my point is that, really, animals are going to get screwed over somewhere along the line. Water bottles are a good example because the myriad materials are so common and their price-points generally comparable.

Moving on from water bottles, though, there’s also the issue of longevity when it comes to vegan alternatives. How long can you expect your pleather jacket to last vs. a real leather one? Your polyester broom vs. a horsehair one? Or your saran wrap vs. beeswax cloth? Is contributing to pollution by using disposable items or plastic items truly in the spirit of veganism? I’ve heard stories about horsehair bench dusters being used for 40 years or more by a careful owner– and at the end of its life, it’s compostable to boot.

The point of this post isn’t to try and say that Vegans Are Doing It Wrong. It’s to ask whether moral veganism as we know it here in the west is really only able to exist because of how many steps separate us from the damage our purchases produce. Killing an animal is wrong to a vegan, eating or using a product made directly from animals is wrong to a vegan, but using a product whose manufacture kills animals is okay? That is such suspicious reasoning to me, and can be stretched to fit many of a ridiculous standard. I could use that logic to argue that, because I’ve never directly and willingly killed an animal with a face, I could count myself as vegan. On the other end of the spectrum, I could argue that the only true vegan is the individual that offs themselves because there is no way to exist on this planet without necessitating the harm or death of another creature.

I’m not trying to make veganism redundant if that’s what you’re thinking– raising awareness about the nightmare that is industrial meat, dairy, and egg production is an incredibly worthy cause. But I think what needs to happen is that it needs to be recognized that a spade is a spade. An anthropogenic extinction-level event is happening all around us, and we are complicit in it. Every single one of us. While we may not eat eggs or kill spiders, it must be understood that roads result in roadkill, that mining results in clear-cutting, that pollution results in global warming, and global warming results in drowned polar bears. If your clear conscience relies on you being 5 instead of 4 degrees of separation away from a dead animal, then I think you need to seriously reconsider what veganism is doing for you and for the animals that you claim to care so much about.

Can you be vegan and zero waste? In my non-vegan opinion, no. But I don’t use very mainstream definitions of “vegan” and “waste”, either. Maybe some meditation of what those words mean to us is in order.

Stop Eating Fish

As a big sushi lover, this is going to be an extremely difficult thing for me to do. But, like eating factory farmed chicken and eggs, I simply cannot morally justify it anymore. And you shouldn’t be able to either.

Update on the Compost Experiment

My bucket in action.

So I’ve been attempting to compost since, oh… March? I live in a condo (with someone who thinks absolutely nothing of wasting food, too, so my bins fill up fast), with about a 200 sq/ft yard in the back and pretty much nothing in terms of yard waste. And I gotta say, it’s been a little less than stellar.

At first I tried “traditional” composting in a 5 gallon bucket from Home Depot that I drilled a bunch of holes into. It… worked? I think? But it’s probably going to be another year at least until it breaks down into anything that resembles soil. Right now most of it is in discernible, bone-dry chunks. It was a failed attempt, and I think I’m just going to throw it all out to be honest. That bucket is taking up precious real-estate in the yard.

About 3-4 months ago, I got a Bokashi bin online to try out, since Bokashi is supposed to be much more apartment/condo-friendly. And for the most part, it is. I managed to get a crappy bucket with a leaky spout, though, so that made for a pretty miserable first batch before I could get back in there and tighten it up. Lets just say that the fruit flies had a field day with the compost tea residue while it lasted.

But then I figured out that you generally have to deal with the food waste when the bucket is full. It doesn’t magically turn into something useful in there all on its own–aside from the tea–and you have to intervene to make that last step happen. And that last step may or may not involve more space.

These are the options you have. From Sunburst Unlimited:

 1.  Bury the contents of the bucket in a hole or trench about 8-12 inches deep.  Use the soil that was removed to cover the fermented food waste.  You can plant seeds in the soil immediately after filling the hole.  Wait 1-2 weeks before planting transplants.

2.  Fermented food waste can also be added around established plants throughtout the year without causing any damage to the plants.

3.  Add it to an existing compost pile.  Just dig in the pile, empty the bucket, and cover fermented food waste with compost materials.

4.  You can make your own “soil factory” in a storage tub:  put some good soil on the bottom, add a layer of well-drained fermented food waste, mix well.  Cover with a layer of soil and flatten.  Cover with plastic or a lid to keep it from getting wet.  After about 30 days, it’s ready for use as “good dirt”.

The last one is what I tried. But still, after more than a month, the food waste hasn’t broken down much at all, from what it looks like to me. I probably did something wrong, but that’s still a time-consuming, and frankly sort of stinky, mistake to make.

Sunburst Unlimited recommends that if your Bokashi compost smells putrid more than fermented, then add some sugar and let sit. My second batch of Bokashi compost looks to be doing much better– there’s white mold growing along the top layer of scraps, and it doesn’t have too much of a smell when I open it up. It smells a little bit like garbage, but mostly like an odd, weak vinegar. (I don’t have much of a sense of smell, though, so I’m not really the one to ask anyways.)

So I’ve got a bucket sitting out in the yard, full of, hopefully, properly fermented compost sandwiched between two layers of soil and sprinkled with a bit more Bokashi bran. I’ll probably have to add more bran and some sugar to help it along at this point.

If this doesn’t work, then I’m not sure what else to do. I might try to dump it in a larger, wider-mouthed container so I can keep a better eye on it, or I may attempt to dig a hole to bury it someplace inconspicuous around the complex. (Good thing I’m good friends with the grounds’ landscaper/gardener!)

Either way, I don’t see how practical Bokashi composting would be if you didn’t have access to any sort of yard at all. I guess you could do it on a balcony (I’d never do it in the house) if you had your secondary container and some store-bought soil handy, but then you’d better have something to do with the resulting compost!

In conclusion, I’m glad that Vancouver is ramping up its curbside compost pickup program, which will be in full-swing for apartment-dwellers by the time I get up there. And while I’ll keep doing it myself as long as I have to, not gonna lie: this is a pain in the butt so far. I will not be unhappy to have the city take care of it for me.

No-Bake Chocolate Tarts

no bake chocolate tarts The recipe, and that wonderful photo up there, courtesy of Free Range Cookies.

Ingredients

Crust

  • 1/2 cup almond meal, packed
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons raw sugar (or sweetener of choice)
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted

Filling

  • 3 tablespoons coconut milk, full fat
  • 1/3 cup chopped dark chocolate or chips
  • Cocoa powder for topping

Instructions

Place 6 paper liners in a cupcake pan.

In a medium bowl, combine almond meal, cocoa powder, sugar, and salt. Add liquified coconut oil and stir to blend thoroughly. Divide mixture among liners and press into bottom and up sides a bit. Let chill in fridge while you prepare filling.

Heat coconut milk until bubbly. Pour hot milk over chocolate. Let sit for a minute before stirring. Pour filling over each crust in pan. Refrigerate (or freeze for quicker gratification) until chilled. Dust top of tarts with cocoa powder. Store tarts in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.

Mine came out a little gooier than the recipe intended, but they were delicious and easy, and that’s all that really matters. Coconut oil is amazing stuff, I learned. I didn’t jump on the bandwagon with everyone else a couple years ago, but in making this I discovered that it’s really the only single-ingredient, vegan, substitute for lard. Amazing!

These are very ZW desserts as well; if you have access to a suitable bulk section, and are reusing bags/containers, then everything can conceivably be gotten there except for the coconut oil. Coconut milk can be made like any other nut milk, and I’m sure another full-bodied vegan milk would suitably substitute here too if you wanted to make it.

Here’s a photo of mine, though they’re not quite so photogenic:

Breathing Hand Washer Review

For the life of me I cannot recall how I stumbled upon these things–even though it was just a few days ago!–but I’m glad that I did.

A breathing hand washer is a very simple tool used for doing laundry. It looks a lot like a toilet plunger, and functions a lot like one too; essentially, it pulls water and detergent up through the clothes with some force, yanking dirt and grime free of the fibers. This is the one that I bought, though I got mine from Amazon for a few dollars cheaper.

 

Photo courtesy of Lehmans.com

This is what the one I got looks like, though there’s a tin version available too that has more or less the same product rating.

I absolutely love the very idea of these things. They’re very simple tools, easy to maintain and care for, do the job well, and only use a bit of elbow grease to operate.

Personally, I hate doing laundry. Always have. I especially hated it when I lived in the city and had to trek to a laundromat in the snow, paying upwards of $5 for a single load. I would often avoid washing things like blankets, sheets, towels because I was too broke to do them nearly as much as recommended. $20/month for weekly laundry, $260/year, is an arm and a leg any way you look at it. But that’s apartment living for you.

And beyond getting gouged on coin-op laundromats, washers and dryers just waste so much energy. Why anyone is allowed to operate a dryer here in Southern California during the summer is beyond me. (I say this as I sit, waiting for my load of laundry to finish drying. But I’ll get to that in a second.) No, I’m not trying to romanticize the laborious process of doing a family’s laundry with a tub and washboard. It’s plain hard work. and convenience definitely has its place. But what if there was a convenient manual alternative?

Enter this thing!

I’ve only used it once so far, and probably on the worst thing possible: a terrycloth towel. Let’s just say that I’ve forgotten how heavy those things get when completely saturated. But work it did. Such are the wonders of fluids physics! It probably would have been better to wash something I knew for a fact was pretty dirty, and a few of them at once, but practically all of the reviews I’ve read so far have lead me to believe that I’ve got nothing to worry about when it comes time to do some real loads of laundry with this clever little device.

The downside is that yes, while you clothes do get clean, the breathing washer doesn’t have a spin cycle. So because I’m a dupe, I sat for a few minutes, wringing that towel out with every ounce of strength that I had. Lets just say that my arms were jelly afterward.

But in the future, I will definitely be doing a setup like the one explained in this video. Freakin’ brilliant. What’s even better is that the water can be very easily reclaimed from using pretty much any method involving the breathing washer, and used for watering the garden, etc. Assuming you use the proper laundry soap, of course.

The routine I end up with will take some time to hammer out, obviously, but light to medium-weight clothing will definitely get washed this way and go straight to the clothesline during the summer. Terrycloth towels will definitely NOT be getting washed this way, and neither will heavy blankets. Jeans, I’m not sure, though some combination between hand washer/dryer will be what I end up doing.

So yeah. If any of you are interested, it seems like a fantastic investment that will last for years and years– hell, possibly for a lifetime, even.

Eating on the Cheap

It’s 10:30 and I’m just now getting into the shower to start my day. Hello Monday (not that it matters one whit what day it is when you’re unemployed). It’s been 3 months without unemployment checks, and things are getting real tight for me. I’ve got $30 to last me an indefinite period of time as far as food and necessities go, I’ve had to cancel the internet at my office, and I’m thinking about ditching the lease on it too. (Unfortunately, there’s no space to work in my rented room, so I’d have to put all my furniture into a storage unit and grab a coworking membership someplace downtown. Which altogether will save me in the ballpark of $250+/mo.)

But hey, speaking of being completely broke and buying food…!

So there’s a gal named Leanne Brown who runs a food/cooking blog called Leanne Cooks. I was introduced to the website recently for the purposes of spreading the word about her two cookbooks: Good and Cheap, and From Scratch.

Aside from being beautiful to look at, useful, and inspiring, the PDF versions of the books are completely free. You read that right: FREE. In a blog-eat-blog world where everyone’s out to make a quick buck from aping each others’ recipes, I don’t think it’s possible to understate how exciting and refreshing this is to me. Not to mention that Good and Cheap is, essentially, a cookbook for the broke or those living on food stamps. (Because poor people deserve to eat well too.) While the subtitle touts eating on just $4/day, that amount is still quite expensive at $120/month. The good part is that Leanne breaks down her recipes by price per serving as well, and with a little luck (access to decent markets) and practice, it’s possible to cut that in half without compromising too much on quality or nutrition.

Enjoy!

“Beware of Leo Babauta’s minimalist lifestyle”

Some interesting criticisms of the minimalist lifestyle:

I was talking with Leo Babauta a few weeks ago. The topic of the conversation was his new book, focus. But of course I am not good at focus. So here is a picture of a book I just bought that is not Leo’s book, but I really like it: The Selby is in Your Place. It’s full of photos of people who turned their apartments into art. Totally eccentric, often over-furnished, but always totally interesting.

I would not have bought the book if it didn’t match my house so well. More on that later.

I told Leo I thought it was BS that he is Mr. Minimalism and he moved to San Francisco. I told him that the biggest cultural shift for me from New York City to the farm is the surprise shift to extreme minimalism. So I am sure that his move to San Francisco means he is tossing in the minimalism towel.

Leo has great resources on his blog about leading a minimalist lifestyle. But I think minimalism is lifestyle porn. It’s something that people think would be nice to dream about for their lives, but in fact, there is the dirty flip side to minimalism: It’s scary boring, which, I think, is why Leo moved his family to San Francisco—to expand what’s available to his kids.

I have thought often about the slippery slope from minimalism to boring even though I don’t write about my own minimalism issues that much. First of all, my own minimalism is totally accidental, so I didn’t even know I was a minimalist until recently. Second, I think a minimalist life is a product of many small decisions rather than a single big one. (For example, losing all my possessions to bed bugs.)

Plus, I discredit all straight men who do not have a wife or kids and claim to be minimalists. They are not minimalists, they are just bachelors, programmed over thousands of years to use sex to accumulate possessions rather than shopping.

And anyone who is doing minimalist experiments—like not buying anything for a year, stuff like that—isn’t really a minimalist. It’s like doing a dog trick. People clap, and then you go back to stealing from plates on the dinner table.

Read the rest at Penelope Trunk’s blog.