We Might Learn From the Cubans

At 28, 5 years after moving back to LA from my college days in New York City, I’ve bought my first car. He’s all steel, with a curb weight of about 3800 pounds and an engine, I keep hearing, that just won’t quit. “Bulletproof” is a descriptor I’ve heard and read about the inline 6 countless times now. People get into accidents with them and are able to drive away in their totaled cars, unharmed.

If my car was a person, though, he’d be old enough to drink. Born in 1996 with three previous owners and 193,000 miles under his belt, the relationship I plan on having with this car is going to be one that not many Americans will be able to relate to. Jeepers will, obviously: It’s a Jeep thing. But the people I hope to take inspiration from in the years ahead will be the Cubans and their “yank tanks”.

Zero wasters and other low-impact folk really need to look at how Cuba has survived the 60 years since President Kennedy signed the order that choked off all resources to the small, harmless, communist nation in an attempt at attrition. The islanders didn’t succumb to US bullying, though: things were very hard, but they made do with what they had to work with. They are agriculturally self-sufficient, they’ve perfected the art of preventative medicine, and they’ve succeeded in keeping the nation’s fleet of 1950’s-era cars running in spite of sanctions and the complete collapse of a replacement parts market.  Motor Trend magazine sent a writer there to experience the Cuban car culture and this is the sight he was greeted with:

…strolling the busy streets of Havana today is like teleporting back into a 1950s Hollywood movie. You half expect Jimmy Stewart to drive past tailing Kim Novak in his DeSoto. We came here knowing we’d see a few classic American rides, but, in fact, amid a sprinkling of Russian Ladas and the occasional Korean compact, the grand old iron is everywhere. At a nearby curb sits a ’52 Ford Crestliner. There on the Malecón, the broad artery that sweeps along Havana’s waterfront, glides a ’57 Buick Century, followed quickly by a ’58 Chevy Impala and a ’57 Plymouth Fury. Few and far between are the cream puffs, true, but most of the passing museum pieces look amazingly good considering they’re well past retirement age and have never stopped working fulltime.

Most of these vehicles, as the author calls them though, are “zombies” and “mutants”. Many of them don’t even have the original motors anymore, and some of them don’t even have car motors. But is that so bad?

Dimitrio lifts the massive hood [of his 1953 Oldsmobile]. “This engine? Soviet. But not normal car engine. They use this to power welding machine.” Indeed, much of Dimitrio’s Oldsmobile runs on similarly ingenious life support. He points to the driver’s door. “That car is 60 years old. Where you can find a door for that piece of shit? If someone smashes your car, they have to make a new one.” Dimitrio moves to the back of the work yard, picks up a finished rectangle of “new” floorpan. “These guys, they make the pieces by hand — with a hammer.” He runs his fingers over the symmetrical square indentations in the metal, each one hand-beaten into shape. “This isn’t work,” says Dimitrio. “This…is art.”

A sustainable automobile culture and industry could never have looked like anything but this. They would have to be treated as heirlooms, driven by careful owners and maintained by guilds of car-wrights. But instead we’ve built the entire apparatus of automobile construction and maintenance around the rapidly fading mirage of cheap energy. Instead, we live in a culture where people upgrade cars faster than they upgrade mattresses. And like everything else in our failing world of consumer goods, even our cars are increasingly designed to be disposable.

I mean, let’s face the facts here: my 1996 Jeep Cherokee that gets 20 MPG under the best of conditions is, in a number of ways, more sustainable than a brand new Tesla or Prius. The most obvious reason is due to the reality of embodied energy – the carbon footprint of simply manufacturing a new vehicle and getting it to the show floor. If you take a look at the numbers for a Tesla vehicle – or even the new Tesla battery pack “Gigafactory”, the plant that’s due to be responsible for manufacturing the very backbone of its vehicles – it just doesn’t work out. However, it’s more than that: it’s the hidden maintenance costs of flimsy vehicles riddled with computer chips, cameras, and other “smart” technology. Who can fix a Tesla when it breaks down? Not you, that’s for sure – the learning curve for performing maintenance on a Tesla vehicle is so steep that you have currently have no choice but to take it to a dealership for repairs. You can’t just be a mechanic anymore; you apparently have to be a computer engineer as well.

There are other questions too: how easy is it to total? What is the carbon footprint of every individual component under the hood? How many miles will each component last? How easy are the parts to make and what is the embodied energy of the tools required to make them? How long can the workhorse keep running with a simple preventative maintenance routine, or does it need kid glove treatment and witches brews of exotic fluids?

I highly doubt that a Tesla battery can even theoretically last as long as a well-maintained straight 6: I’ve heard from guys who’ve put over 500,000 miles on their Jeeps, and their engines are still going strong. Moreover, when the engine does finally die (and it’s not just a cracked head or broken rod), the block is iron. It can be retooled, rebuilt, and hopefully, reused for another 500k miles. Of course, rebuilding even a basic engine like this costs a few grand and several dozens of hours of work, and most people – most people in the States – would rather just get another car. But I don’t want to be most people if I can avoid it.

Voluntary simplicity doesn’t just apply to wardrobes and kitchen cabinets. In Cuba’s case, the simplicity was quite involuntary, but the things they’ve created due to the strict limitations put on their day-to-day lives forced some amazing things to happen. That’s not to say that the average Cuban wouldn’t trade their 1950’s jalopy with a 4-cylinder Kia motor for something newer; they’re simply a people forced into mind-blowing creative solutions in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. But that sort of convenience that we’ve come to expect from things like “progress” and “growth” hasn’t gotten us anywhere good lately.

I like to joke that the only “power” feature I’ve got in my car is steering. Aside from the 10-year-old aftermarket stereo, the only buttons I’ve got in the Jeep are for the headlights, defroster, and climate control. He’s about as bare-bones as a 90’s car is going to get (aside, of course, from the coveted 4×4 transfer case), which means that performing my own maintenance is going to be about as easy it gets. The DIY ethic among Jeepers, I should note, is generally about as strong as their love for the brand, and community support is phenomenal.

Every make has its group of aficionados, but aside from hot rodders and vintage muscle car guys, the level of dedication just doesn’t compare in the wider car-loving culture. We just don’t need to give a damn about our cars so long as they get us where we need to go. How many folks read their owner’s manuals cover to cover? (did. And I’ll probably be doing it again for a refresher soon enough.)

I won’t lie: the simplest thing to do would be to not have a car at all. In fact, since buying the Jeep, my life has gotten about twice as complex as it was before. If I’m to learn to fix the Jeep, then I need to know the Jeep: I’ve already spent dozens of hours researching parts, model year quirks, potential upgrades, problems, noises, wiring diagrams, octane ratings, maintenance schedules, best practices, and even etiquette. I know how to begin diagnosing problems that I had no idea existed before, or check the integrity of parts that I ever knew needed checking. The Jeep is not a low-maintenance vehicle; he requires a level of vigilance that most other car owners could never be bothered with. I glance at my gauges as often as I glance at the rearview mirror while driving. I keep a notebook in the glove compartment with a list of every single little thing I’ve done to him, who did it, and how many miles was on the odometer when it was done. I keep a towel in the back for when I need to pop the hood and get my hands dirty.

But I need a car now, and I refused to get one that I didn’t love enough to be in it for the long haul. Just as I don’t want my life riddled with disposable clothes, disposable plates, or disposable bags. And the old wartime adage of “make do and mend” extends to so much more than just socks. We don’t get rid of our homes as soon as they show signs of wear and tear, as soon as the plumbing goes out, or the roof leaks, or a fire levels the garage. We do so much living in our vehicles, that the same should be said of them too.

So, I’m going to learn from the Cubans as much as I can. Such a way of doing things is laborious, sometimes not especially cost-effective, and within the unimpressive rigidity of our convenience-driven consumer culture, it’s probably even just plain lunacy. But so long as I can afford parts and can tackle the relatively modest learning curve of car maintenance, then by all means: call me crazy.

(Must be a Jeep thing.)

More on the Cuban cottage auto industry:

More on high mileage cars:

Don’t Be That Lady.

We had a lady show up at work today asking for some water. So my co-worker grabbed a plastic cup, proceeded to fill it, and handed it to her. This was when we found out that she’d wanted to fill up her ostentatiously overpriced Swell bottle.

“I don’t want a plastic cup, that’s bad for the environment.”

We explained that her ostentatiously overpriced personal drinking vessel was not allowed to touch our equipment because of health reasons. My co-worker said this came down from the health department (which is a story I hadn’t heard yet, though to be fair, I haven’t heard any explanation for the change whatsoever), and that there was nothing we could do. This poor woman, thinking of nothing but the welfare of “the environment”, refused the disposable cup and presumably went to a supervisor to find out what could be done. She returned a few minutes later with the supervisor, who explained that he’d talked to one of the assistant store managers, who said that we were allowed to fill her cup with our disposable cup, and then reuse the disposable cup for another customer.

This seemed marginally satisfactory to her, and so she proceeded to awkwardly try to pour water from a 32 oz. cup into the tiny, useless mouth of her Swell bottle, spilling water everywhere in the process.

My co-workers had since turned their attention somewhere else, and sensing that the situation was not adequately resolved, I told her that the decision had come down from corporate, and that if this was really important to her, it would do her well to write them about it. This seemed to reinvigorate her, giving her a kind of recourse she hadn’t considered until then, and she walked away from the exchange with a sense of purpose.

My co-workers laughed about it for a while, and they congratulated me on being such a good mediator. I told them that the rule was “fucking stupid”, since every other coffee bar on earth takes personal cups – we reusable types buy insulated mugs for a reason! – and they agreed.

But the encounter was still funny to them, and me too.

Because this woman is a dime a dozen: your stereotypical conscious consumer who doesn’t actually have a damned clue about what they’re supposed to be conscious of. So let’s break this moment down a little.

First off, she showed up with a ostentatiously overpriced Swell bottle. The design is meant to feel sleek and luxurious, not actually be practical in any way. Wider mouth bottles are easier to fill in all manner of situations, not just sink faucets, and they’re easier to clean. Stainless steel is also neither eco-friendly nor sustainable in any meaningful sense.

Secondly, her verbalized rationale: “That’s bad for the environment.” Nothing sets off my shelteredenvironmentalistdar like hearing words such as those spoken about disposable plastic cups in a corporate grocery store chain with very plainly dubious sustainability practices. Guess what? Her Prius is bad for the environment too – so is the sheetrock in the walls of her house, as well as the manufacturing practices that produced the clothes on her body, and as the energy that will inevitably go into sending her angry email off to Whole Foods customer service. Fixating on plastic cups as part of your strategy to save the environment is about as useful as fixating on dust bunnies in your strategy to save your already burning house. (Keeping a tidy house, however, will make it easier to get out alive when it does inevitably go up in flames.)

Thirdly, the appeal to authority: the poor supervisor she got involved. He wasn’t even our supervisor, but some leadership for what we call “front end” –  basically check-out and all the store infrastructure that concerns coming and going from the store. The woman clearly had no idea how retail businesses actually work, which is her first mistake, because then she would have known that most of us are completely powerless to do anything but obey the health department (where it’s convenient for the store to do so, of course), and make customers as happy as possible while extracting as much money from them as possible. If we tell you that we can’t do something, then know that we don’t say that lightly: one of our unspoken maxims is to never tell a customer “no”. So when we do actually have to tell them no, it’s a big deal. It came from on high. Our non-answer should have clued her into how entrenched we are in this culture of expert lip service and limited liability.

Her last mistake was trusting Whole Foods to give a damn. Let me say this in plain English: Whole Foods does not give a damn. It doesn’t give a damn about climate change, it doesn’t give a damn about waste reduction, it doesn’t give a damn about resource overshoot and depletion, it doesn’t give a damn about pollution, it doesn’t give a damn about sustainability. What Whole Foods cares about is making money, just like every other business in the country. (If Whole foods really gave a damn about any of those things, it’d declare itself a conscientious objector of industrial consumer capitalism and close its doors.) This woman didn’t even have the faintest idea that Whole Foods didn’t have her best interests at heart, wasn’t completely committed to environmental and humanitarian issues, and that money, somehow, doesn’t come first.

Please don’t be this woman. Please get your facts straight, get your environmental statistics from someplace other than Treehugger or Facebook, and stop putting blind faith in a system that only values you for the plastic in your wallet. By all means, make a stink about the ridiculousness of requiring disposable cups at a coffee bar – raise hell even – but as you do it, remember that, in the scheme of things, it’s as futile as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

A Letter to Mark Boyle

I wrote a letter to Mark Boyle recently, the Guardian writer who went off-grid and ditched electricity:

Hi Mark,

I just recently discovered your endeavor to live a quieter, slower, simpler, kinder life, and I applaud you. In the past few years I’ve drifted through the ruins of the peak oil scene, picking up pieces here and there, before doing a intensive immersion into the philosophy of radical primitivism. I didn’t stay long in either of those places, but I learned a lot, and I’ve since come to the realization that industrial society more broadly and digital infrastructure specifically are built on the backs of failed states, gutted wildernesses, and borrowed time whose interest rate we cannot and could never afford.

I’ve also learned that there are only a small handful of things in this world that I can safely take for granted: that human works tend to fail and disappear faster than we can imagine, that plants -want- to grow, and that the most meaningful relationships are built not on shared demographics, but shared experience, cooperation, and most importantly, proximity.

You are living the life I want to live. And if I’m honest with myself, you are living the life I’ve always wanted to live. What child dreams of growing up to pay bills, read emails, and compulsively check Facebook 14 times a day?

I plan on being where you are soon enough, however. My husband and I will be moving out of the city soon enough to hand-build our own house in central British Columbia somewhere. It will be small, and cold during the winter, but it’ll be ours through and through, and that’s more than most people can say about anything they own. The only thing we’ve yet to hammer out is exactly how many light bulbs we want in the house. (I’m thinking maybe two: one for each of us.)

Please keep in touch with the digital world, Mark. There is a great discontentment bubbling up among people of all ages and walks of life, and whether they know it or not, they’re searching for a new story. They want their preconceptions about technology to be proven wrong, but so far no one has given them the excuse they need to walk away. Maybe you could be that person.

I was hoping that I’d be given an address where I could write to you by mail, but it appears that typing this into a form on a webpage will have to do the trick.

Anyways, I’m going to end this on a VERY trite note: thank you for being the change you want to see in the world.

-Lo

Of course I discovered that a mailing address was provided (couched in a paragraph, so I didn’t see it), so I’ll probably write to him that way too. Even if only to say “Ha! Found the snail mail address!”

Book Review: Second Skin

Second Skin: Choosing and Caring for Textiles and Clothing is part how-to, part manifesto, and part memoir by lifelong seamstress, dyer, and textile artist India Flint, made famous by her contributions to the world of environmentally-friendly dyeing and surface design. (I took a class last year to learn her ecoprinting technique from a local Vancouver artist.)

India Flint is a staunch and powerful, though still gentle, voice in the slow fashion movement. And by slow, I mean slow. She is unrelenting in her dislike of synthetic fibers, high-impact dyes, and consumer culture’s influence on design and wastefulness.

The official blurb:

Almost from the moment of our birth, clothing acts as our second skin, yet we rarely consider where our clothes have come from and the effects they might have on the environment and ourselves. This beautifully photographed and illustrated book is about easily achievable ways to care for the planet by living simpler lives and using fewer resources, specifically those to do with cloth and clothing. It discusses the role of cloth in how consumption affects the ecology; looks at what textiles are made from and examines their properties, with an emphasis on those derived from natural sources; and talks about how to make informed choices regarding clothing-including deciding how much clothing one really needs. It also covers how to mend and maintain clothing, repurpose fashion, dyeing, and when all else fails, instructions for patching, piecing, felting, and twining. One ‘gallery’ chapter is dedicated to clothing designers and artists who have made a practice of working with salvaged materials, including Natalie Chanin (Alabama), Jude Hill (Long Island), Christine Mauersberger (Cleveland), and Dorothy Caldwell (Hastings, Ontario).

Honestly? This book is a must-have for people interested in lowering the carbon footprint of their wardrobes. And I don’t use that term lightly. Flint is thorough in her explanations of even the fibers themselves, their histories, and their contemporary processing methods; everything from how to choose the fabric your clothes are made from, to what to do when they start breaking down is under her slow, careful purview. She leaves no stone unturned.

Some reviewers are put-off by her reverence for textiles, and many pick up her books looking for simple step-by-step instruction. But that’s not what India Flint is about – she will not allow herself to abandon the whole picture of the textile industry to focus on some little technical detail, and she won’t let you forget the big picture either. I don’t find this off-putting, actually. I find it refreshing and necessary, and as a low-impact zero-waster (the two are not one in the same!), this provides an important piece often missing from the dialogue we have concerning what, exactly, goes into making our wardrobes.

The book itself is beautifully designed, too, and as a hardback, should last for years to come. Flint’s writing can get a little precious at times, but it really does fit with her slower way of life, and if you take the time to read her stories, you’ll find yourself rewarded with relatable anecdotes and inspiration from where her own life has taken her.

It’s not just about technical know-how for making our clothes last longer. It’s about asking ourselves how many clothes we have, why our clothes look the way they do, why they’re made from the materials that they are, why we wear them how we do, and why we can’t put more care and effort into making them last until there’s barely little more than threadbare scraps left before returning them to the earth.

Second Skin is a book that concerns itself with philosophy and ethics as much as it does with tricks of the trade, chemistry, and why wool felts when you wash it in hot water. If that bothers you, then you might ask yourself why that is. And if not, if you’re looking for a text packed with environmentally-conscious knowledge about textiles as well as one that asks harder questions, then this is definitely the book for you.

Going Analog Part 4: Reclaiming Real Literacy

About a month or two ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to start lettering my comics by hand when I’d originally planned on doing so at the start of the next volume. I finished my page with some time to spare, so I gave it a go.

Lettering comics isn’t like writing at all – professional letterers, who are about as often seen these days as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster – say that proper comic letters must be drawn: each letterform must be treated as its own tiny picture that must be composed, started and finished, just-so.

I did hand lettering in college, but only because we generally had to when turning in pen-and-paper cartooning assignments. I didn’t take a lettering class, so I wasn’t really graded on my pretty sub-par, albeit perfectly legible, letters, but I wasn’t interested in getting good. I wanted my comics to look like the stuff put out by the big name publishers and big name titles. I wanted my work to look “legit”, and achieving that perfectly sterile, flat, and lifeless quality through the use of Adobe Illustrator was the only way to go about it, I though. Deep down, though, I always hated digital lettering.

Compare this:

With this:

Analog, hand-lettering is a living, breathing thing. It’s a creature that responds to the page, the environment it lives in, rather than just blasted over on top of it like a transposed caption from somewhere else. The latter is a fully composed, united piece of art. The former is a Frankenstein’s monster of dead, disparate ingredients forced to life with a jolt of electricity.

The problem with hand-lettering is that it’s slow, and it takes years to master – in short, the problem is that it’s a craft. And the comics industry, for all its noise and production, is actually pretty threadbare. An emperor without clothes, even. Most of the craft involved in making comics back in the 60’s and 70’s (and underground talent of the 80’s) is long gone now, because it’s simply too inefficient a method of producing flashy, colorful stories. Most comic work these days is a digital assembly line set to a ruthless pace and fueled by artistic compromise. I said on twitter recently that most comic creators these days aren’t cartoonists, but rather would-be animators settling for a poor man’s substitute. The things that make comics a unique and beautiful medium are being forgotten in the streaming age.

Lettering is one of those things, and I’m finding that I like the look of a fully inked comic page complete with word balloons and letters too much to ever go back. It’s how a comic pages were meant to look.

But I’m also doing a lot of thinking about writing in general – the analog art of putting words to paper. Penmanship became a lost art a long time ago, and cursive writing too, but it seems that all writing is in danger of becoming a niche skill. When was the last time you wrote something important by hand? Don’t remember?

There’s something about fountain pens that make you want to hold them and write. I plan on taking up scripting my comics by hand at some point in the near future, the idea of which was entirely inspired by my buying my pair of Kaweco pens. There’s a practical reason for this too, though. John Michael Greer and even The Atlantic both acknowledge the negative effects of word processors on writing. Not only do distractions reign on the digital device, but on a more fundamental level, it mashes together the writing and editing processes into one homonculus of seemingly increased efficiency. Turns out, it’s not actually a boon to productivity at all, because each aspect of writing requires a different part of the brain, and trying to do both at once results in a mental gridlock we know as “writer’s block”. And that’s after you’ve managed to stop compulsively checking Facebook for the umpteenth time.

This whole endeavor has made me question the concept of literacy, though. Can we really be said to be a literate culture if we’ve lost the ability to write longhand, or decipher a broad array of writing styles? Has “literacy” quietly come to encapsulate only being able to read letters formed by typefaces, and writing by punching with our fingertips at chiclet keys?

By removing the craft from these basics of daily life, from these art forms, we relegate them to the chronically underappreciated realm of mere utility, where they are eventually starved of passion and meaning until they’re either forgotten or picked up as hobbies by the rich and made even more inaccessible than they would be if they’d just been unceremoniously left behind.

2017 is the year I begin lettering all of my comics by hand, on paper. It’s also the year I start writing more in general. Grocery lists, notes, correspondence. It’s also going to be the year that I start scripting my comics longhand, too. I’ll buy a notebook specifically for this purpose, divide it into two columns – one for a messy first draft, the second for notes, a final draft, or a complete rewrite altogether – and hammer out pages of script just the same as I do on the computer. And unlike a digital text document, I’ll be able to leaf through the pages; dog-ear them; color-code or otherwise index scenes and important dialogue that I’ll need to consult later. I’ll be able to have a spatial understanding of the work I’ve done, intuitively understand where in the story I am just by feeling how thick the left side of the notebook is compared to the right. I will be engaging the whole of my body and senses in the writing process.

Because I’ve forgotten what that’s like.

And so, probably, have you too.

6 Things Zero Wasters Need to Know About US Supermarkets

So I’ve been with Whole Foods for a good 4 months now, and I think I can safely say that I’ve learned and seen enough to write a post like this. Because zero waste people make a lot of assumptions about the way supermarkets and grocery stores work – either in good faith, or because we assume that store policies are logical, which they aren’t sometimes – and I’m here to set a few things straight.

1. Most of how the modern supermarket functions is due to lawsuits.

Americans are a litigious people. We sue at the drop of a hat, and even the most ridiculous claims have the chance of settling out of court, granting the plaintiff a handsome sum of money. But we’re litigious because we also have a long and storied history of being screwed over by business interests, a history that is just as American as apple pie. See: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; the meat-packing industry of late 19th century Chicago; current working conditions of Amazon warehouses.

Part of my orientation involved a 90-minute safety walk around our store, in which one of the assistant managers went over every square inch of the building to outline best practices for emergency exits, eyewash stations, where to put things, and so on. But the subtle language he used made it clear (to me, at least) that these procedures were less about employee and customer safety, and more about avoiding lawsuits, theft, and wasted money. For instance, if someone falls in the store, we are not allowed to help them up – they could sue and claimed we worsened their injuries. Or when taring for an imprecise amount – like butcher paper in the meat department – we always over-tare due to somewhat recent legal action taken against the company for overcharging on weighted items.

Most larger businesses that have been around for a few decades are like this, though, and the vast majority of laws on the books concerning business, public safety, and food handling are because of about 170 years of litigation of consumers and employees against businesses.

When it comes to supermarkets in particular, though, such troubled history sets the stage for the rest of this post.

2. They depend 100% on plastic and disposables.

I’m not kidding. I knew a lot of stuff got thrown away in the process of running a store, but I had no idea until I started working at one. As a floater, if I’m working in a department that involves handling an edible product in any way, I need to wear disposable plastic or latex gloves, and I’m to discard them before handling something else (if I have the opportunity to do so). In this way, I can go through dozens of disposable gloves over the course of a shift, sometimes even most of a box. And I’m just one employee, at one store, at one market chain, handling food at only the final stage of a long assembly line of processes that gets your purchase from the farm to your grocery bags.

Even Whole Foods’ much beloved salad/olive bars and bulk bins use up huge amounts of plastic just to get the stuff from the truck to its final destination out on the floor. For one, bulk product does not actually get packaged in large containers. The biggest olive containers we have, for instance, come from two-gallon buckets of very heavy duty plastic. Some of them come in smaller bags that weigh maybe only a pound or three, and some just come in larger consumer-sized containers.

Without even 5% of the disposable plastics we’re required to use to do our jobs, the store would not be able to function. There would just be no legal way to handle product without it.

3. Everything you return to the store gets thrown away.

Don’t ever, ever return something to a grocery store unless it’s gone bad, because it will end up in the landfill. We cannot put it back on the shelf, even if its been unopened. In fact, if you can compost it at home, do that instead. It’s probably not worth the $4 return.

4. There is little to no auditing of employee waste.

Every department has both black, green, and sometimes blue bins behind the counter, but no one’s there to make sure that they both aren’t treated as garbage bins, and emphasis from management on proper sorting is nonexistent (at my store, at least). Speed of service is valued above anything else at Whole Foods, so during rushes, especially, garbage ends up in whichever receptacle is closest. We have a composting program, but how it works is completely esoteric – we lump stuff that’s mostly compostable together, and set it outside with the other mostly compostable stuff at the loading dock. Where it goes or how they’re able to pick out the thousands of plastic drink cups, straws, gloves, rubber bands, twist ties, milk jugs, juice bottles, and produce stickers is beyond me, and I think, beyond everyone else I work with.

On to of that, there’s really no one to tell us to be more frugal with the tools we have on-hand to accomplish our work with, especially if wasting more translates to being able to do more faster. In the meat department, thawing shrink-wrapped shipments of chickens or racks of bison ribs is done with an industrial sink full of running water. Sometimes it’ll be running for over an hour just for one batch, wasting hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons our precious California water. Or in the juice department, where even the smallest problems are solved by throwing away the first cup and lid and using another one, or using a plastic bag. (And that’s not even mentioning how much waste juicing produces. It’s really almost equivalent to killing an elephant for its tusks or a deer for its antlers and leaving the body to rot. Most of the nutrients is left behind in juicing – it’s truly just a gross status symbol.)

5. Even stuff that looks like it would have been packaged in less plastic is sometimes packaged in a lot of plastic.

During the holidays, all of our drip coffee at the coffee bar came in small baggies of pre-measured grounds that we had to cut open individually, pour into another bag, weigh, and re-measure for use in our industrial coffee maker for the dispensers we have on the counter. At the bakery, all of our “fresh baked” bread comes frozen, shrink-wrapped, and sandwiched between layers of parchment paper (no grocery store actually makes its own batters or doughs on-premises) before being put on baking sheets and thrown in the oven, to give just a few examples.

6. Keeping product topped up is to make you feel better.

Keeping a product topped up – that is, making it look like there’s plenty of it on the shelf – most times has nothing to do with keeping it in-stock in the case someone wants to buy it, and more to do with making the customer feel good. 

This is how a lot of stores wind up throwing so much stuff away – the need to keep shelves and displays immaculately organized and full ensures that there’s more to toss into the garbage bin when the whole display meets its sell-by date.

What does this have to do with customers, though?  Psychologically speaking, a business like this instills in the customer a sense of comfort when they are visually reassured that there is no shortage of goods for them to buy. This is why so much effort is spent on keeping every square inch of shelf full of something, and as I can assure you, doing that with a good ten or twenty thousand different products is a maddening game of physical, logistical, and financial tetris. Because who wants to shop at a store where what you want is out of stock? Or where shelves sit empty because everything sold? Consumers want what they want, when they want it – if that means throwing away 10 pounds of smoked brisket every evening because the display would look bad if one of the warmer trays sat empty for more than a couple hours, then so be it. Spoilage is cheap; customer discomfort is not.

These are all big problems, I’m sure you all can agree. Even Whole Foods, supposedly one of the leading environmentally-conscious companies in the US is up to its eyeballs in environmentally-destructive bad habits with no monetary or legal incentive to change.

The consumer culture we have is ruthless in its hunger for more, for cheaper, and for comfort; the litigious culture we have is ruthless in its conniving greed, its paranoia, and its short-term gain over long-term sustainability.

Most of the problems with the US supermarket, though, has to do with how we understand the concept of sanitation and consumer safety. I’ll dedicate an entire post to that at some point in the near future, but for now, suffice to say, nothing will change if health codes stay the same. I don’t know if we can change them without some major industry shake-up – much of what we want as zero wasters would be considered a step backward, and would be a very hard political sell to anyone, not just policymakers. But I suppose, if you insist on something to do, write to the appropriate people in appropriate places, and write them often. Study the health code, and relevant laws. Familiarize yourself with previous litigation to see how this bloated legal machine came to be.

And while you’re at it – Whole Foods recently, quietly, decided not to let customers use personal cups at their coffee or juice bars. It was a decision that came down from corporate, I heard, and had nothing to do with a lawsuit. So please write them, and please get angry, and please remind them that every other goddamn coffee shop on the planet lets you use your own cup. Thanks.

Body Care

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So I work at Whole Foods these days – I’m a floater. I like it; it’s generally simple, though often fast-paced, work, everyone’s nice, and the customers are easy enough to deal with. I was working in the cosmetics/toiletries/supplements department the other day, and was asked by a young man who had just spent the past 20 minutes reading labels what shampoo I recommend.

“Between you and me,” I said with a chuckle, looking at the wall of plastic bottles, “I wash my hair with rye flour.” He gave me a blank look so I picked a brand at random and made up a brief story about it agreeing with my hair. He wasn’t convinced either way, and spent another 20 minutes studying labels.

Later that evening, close to closing, the woman who worked full-time in the department asked me if I used any of the products myself. I proceeded to make up another story about how I get things from there every now and then. In reality, I think it’s been at least a few months since I’ve bought even a bar of soap, let alone a supplement or cosmetic! Lavender and tea tree essential oil were the only things I’ve bought from that, or any body care department at any store in recent memory, and they’re going to last me a long time.

I stopped using face wash probably 5 years ago; body wash and lotion about 3 years ago; all makeup, deodorant, and hair care products maybe 2 years ago. I may stop using soap also.

So having thrown all that conventional stuff out, how in the heck do I maintain my hygiene?

Like I told the befuddled young man considering $20 shampoos at Whole Foods, I wash with rye flour. My first no-poo endeavors had me using baking soda for over a year, but it only worked where the water was soft, and long-term accounts of using it had me thinking twice. (And forget the methods that call for several bucks’ worth of ingredients, like honey and avocado. I want to spend less, not more.)

So for my hair: About 1-2 TBSP rye flour mixed with 1-2 TBSP apple cider vinegar, mixed well, with water added to make it into a very thin paste. Apply evenly to all hair, scrub/rub/comb in well, and do the rest of your shower routine before washing out. Letting it sit before rinsing is very important. It’s the difference between clean, soft hair, and feeling like you didn’t actually wash it at all. Which leads me to…

For my face: I’m experimenting with using the leftover rye mixture from my hands on the oilier parts of my face, and so far so good. I had previously been using the barest bit of soap suds, but it was too harsh and I no longer enjoy the feeling of my skin being “squeaky” clean… i.e. bone dry and stripped of natural oils. The rye seems to remove excess oil and nothing more.

The most important aspect of a no-face wash routine, though, is being vigilant in removing blackheads. They’re where most pimples come from, so spending a few minutes in front of the mirror after a shower to remove them will do most of the legwork in keeping acne at bay if that’s a concern. This can be done with clean fingers, or a specialized steel tool sold at most beauty stores.

For my body: Nothing! I no longer use any product on my body. My fingers, a little extra rye flour, or even a light rubbing with my peshtemal towel after the shower suffices for exfoliation. I have a small bottle of Aquaphor on hand for when I get tattoos, but I’ve had the same one for years now and don’t use it for anything else.

For my pits: I’m a sweaty person, not going to lie. My body is terrible at regulating its temperature, and I’m still recovering from adrenal issues, so if its above 60F, I’m probably going to be sweating at least a little. After years of being frustrated, embarrassed, and angry about it, after spending lots of money on every kind of antiperspirant under the sun, I gave up on trying to keep the sweat away and just learned to live with it. I dress differently now, I wear different fabrics, different colors than what I was used to, and that turned out to be half the battle.

The other half was dissuading BO-causing bacteria from taking up residence in my pits. I tried different zero waste methods; I tried the crystal, plain baking soda, concoctions of coconut oil and cornstarch. None of it really worked all that well.  Now I use a base application of several drops of lavender essential oil, then a tiny sprinkle of baking soda worked in on top. Originally, I was using tea tree oil, but the smell, being rather strange and strong, confused peoples’ noses (some of whom thought it was actually BO they were smelling) so I stopped. Really, any essential oil that doesn’t irritate your skin would probably work.

I don’t get rashes this way. I think the oil protects my skin from the harshness of the baking soda. The best part about this method is that I’ve had it work for 24+ hours without reapplication, and that’s even with exercise involved.

For my lips: Nothing. My lips are very sensitive. Every single product I’ve tried that was made for lips just make mine worse, so I gave up on ’em. If I get chapped lips, I’m just vigilant about not licking them whatsoever. I also make sure to “stretch” them out; for some reason, this helps to alleviate the burning/itching sensation that makes you want to lick. (It’s similar to the way slapping a healing tattoo is a safe way to help the itching because scratching will make things worse.) Really, though, my best advice is to let your lips resolve themselves. It takes a few days, and isn’t fun to deal with, but it’s the only thing that works for me. If it gets unbearable, however, I’ll usually use a small smear of some kitchen oil and that’s it.

For my teeth: A small bit of plain baking soda and a bamboo toothbrush I use until the bristles fall out.

For my body hair: A safety razor, using nothing but plain water to lubricate. You really don’t need shaving product if you cut with the grain, so just be sure to only cut against the grain when you really, really need to. If you don’t shave the hair so close every day, then you avoid most irritation problems anyways. (A $10 pack of blades lasts me months.)

That’s about it, really. I spend, what, $40 a year on body care these days? Down from at least $200-300 back when I used to think that the only way to take care of your body and make sure you don’t smell like a sock was to stock your shower and medicine cabinet with what everyone else did. I mean, surely it was conventional wisdom for a reason, right?

Sure, whatever you say, buddy.

You’re lucky if you can get me to tweeze my eyebrows these days!

BIFL Drawing and Writing Supplies

A few months ago I emailed Jetpens to suggest that they consider moving away from plastic shipping materials, or to at least give the option of using entirely paper-based shipping materials, and to also ask if they might someday put together a zero waste product guide. They kindly took my suggestions into consideration, but we’ll see if they’ll ever make them happen!

In the meantime, here’s my own product guide. I did a long suggestion list for more zero-waste friendly art supplies a while back, but didn’t get into specifics much. So based on my own experience making art, here’s the closest thing to a Buy It For Life list of drawing/writing supplies that I can think up. (Most of these are Jetpens links; I’m not an affiliate, they just happen to be the only US-based merchant that sells a lot of this stuff. I’m also a happy customer of theirs, FWIW.)

Rollerball Pens

Rollerball and other ballpoint-types, while convenient, are not the most eco-friendly option out there. Ballpoint ink is made via highly complex industrial processes, and is comprised of oil, solvents, and dye. Gel pens are worse, though, and I recommend staying away from them. Their opacity is due to many more chemical additives, gums, and other thickeners. If a ball-type pen is necessary for your use, at least try to stick with a regular ballpoint style ink.

  • The space pen:  This handy pen has been around for years and years, and was immensely popular a decade or so ago (ask around and you’ll surely find someone who still uses theirs). It’s reported to be one of the more durable ballpoint pens on the market, and AFAIK, it can take a good pounding. The refills are not especially cheap, though, and can only be bought in packs of one on a blister card. $20
  • Karas Kustoms Retrakt Pen: This pen made it onto the website’s own BIFL list, but the neat thing about it is that it’s compatible with a huge range of refills from a bunch of different manufacturers, and takes a bunch of different kinds of inks too. It comes in a brown craft box with little plastic packaging. $50-100
  • CW&T Pen Type A: “Over-engineered to crazy town”, this pen seems to be built like a tank. It uses Hi-Tec-C refills, but the pen itself comes packaged in a cardboard tube instead of plastic. $160

Fountain Pens

Ink-wise, fountain pens win the environmentally-friendly race, hands down. Fountain pen ink is, comparatively speaking, simpler to make because its water-based, and it is possible to make them with 100% natural materials (if you so choose to make your own!). A such, there is a much wider variety of inks on the market to choose from, in a wide range of colors, compositions, and amounts (for the bulk nuts among us). For a much greener, BIFL option, I wholeheartedly recommend a fountain pen.

  • Lamy Safari: Yes, this is a plastic pen. But it’s an ABS plastic pen – the same thing Legos are made from, and we all know those things last forever. This model of pen, as I understand it, is a well-loved EDC pen for many people, and may just be the cheapest BIFL fountain pen option out there. $30
  • Kaweco Brass Sport: You didn’t think you could get away without hearing about this pen again, did you? As an owner of this amazing writing and drawing tool, and someone with first-hand understanding of how durable this thing is, of course it’s going to make the grade. This Kaweco – versus the plastic Kaweco Sports – comes in a very nice metal tin. (There is also a Sport pen made with an aluminum body that runs about $80, which I imagine is just as durable.) $96
  • Kaweco Liliput: A few of these have also made it to the site’s BIFL list, and they’re all metal-bodied pens, so there’s not too much more to say here I think. $58-175

Honorary mentions: J. Herbin inks, which are purportedly made from 100% natural components, and dip pens, which are cheap, durable, and rely on even fewer industrial manufacturing processes than fountain pens.

Pencils

Pencils are a bit tricky. Because on the one hand, you’ve got your mechanical pencils/lead holders, the bodies of which could probably withstand a nuclear blast, but whose refills come overpackaged in ridiculous amounts of plastic; and on the other, you have the generic #2 pencils, which are much simpler, but will inevitably wind up a near-useless little stub of wood and graphite. What’s a green BIFLer to do? So here are a few options, depending on your needs.

  • #2 pencil, sans eraser, + pencil extender: I learned to make use of a pencil extender in art school, where sharpenable drawing tools would get used up faster than toilet paper, and throwing away 3-inch stubs every week was like throwing away money. A pencil extender is just a piece of wood or plastic or metal that clamps onto the end of your too-short pencil, and lets you use it some more. I recommend doing this with eraserless pencils, just so you don’t have a metal/rubber end to deal with afterwards.
  • 100% recycled #2 pencils: Another option is to just use pencils with 100% recycled body content. They make them out of wood pulp, newspaper, and other stuff nowadays. Unfortunately, they always come with eraser heads.
  • Carpentry pencils: You know the ones: they’re sort of oblong instead of round, chunky, eraserless, and need to be sharpened with a knife. You can get these by the handful at hardware stores, and if they’re durable enough for use at a contruction site, then they’re good enough for you!
  • Graphite stick: Also known as woodless pencils, using a graphite stick eliminates the wooden body altogether and doesn’t really need sharpening. Not so great for writing, since the larger ones are usually very chunky and not especially sharpenable, but if you really just need to draw with graphite for some reason, this is a good way to go. The other downside is that they usually need to go in their own container, otherwise they’ll get graphite on whatever they come into contact with after a while, and everything in your bag will wind up black and shiny.
  • Lead holder: A lead holder differs from your typical mechanical pencil in that they usually make use of larger lead sticks: several inches long, and at least several millimeters in diameter. These refills last a long time. (A tip on making your leads last longer: go with the lighter, harder leads, as the softer hardnesses break down faster and release more mineral particulate when scraped across paper. So when shopping for leads, be sure to pick out something with an “H” instead of a “B”. But not too hard, though, otherwise you’ll have difficulty erasing.) Here’s a selection of metal-bodied lead holders$20-112
  • Good quality drafting pencil: If you insist on mechanical pencils, then at least pick one with a thicker lead. 0.5mm pencils sure do make you feel like a sophisticated writing machine, but they’re fragile, and their leads are easily broken – and therefore wasted. I recommend at least 0.9mm simply for the robustness factor. If you have a choice of lead hardness, again, go with something on the H side of things. Here’s a selection of metal-bodied drafting pencils. $16-20

When it comes to Buying It For Life, you don’t always get what you pay for – a $30 Lamy Safari will probably prove just as trusty as my brass Kaweco over the years, let alone something well into the three (or four!) digits that was designed with the collector in mind. Meanwhile, none of the pencil options listed above will come as close to being as BIFL as a simple $3 chunk of graphite.

Either way… let’s ditch the disposable pens, yeah?

Consumer Capitalism Doesn’t Want You Going Back To Basics

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Consumer capitalism has one goal: to devour and assimilate; divide and conquer. To eliminate all markets, economies, and human relationships that function differently. Its one part of one part of one part of this thing that this guy named Fredy Perlman called Leviathan. This is a post about one part of one of those parts.

Once upon a time, we lived in a vernacular world dictated almost entirely by our bioregions. From what our houses were made from, to what colors our clothes were, to what kind of alcohol we brewed, to what our instruments sounded like. But most of us in the developed world don’t really have that, and haven’t for generations. So we grope for that sense of vernacularity wherever we think we might get it: and right now, interestingly enough, stuff that looks like it came from 1850-1950’s America is the trend du jour.

You know the look: so-called hipsters with their leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, their plaid shirts, their Edison bulbs, their galvanized steel and rustic wood. Part John Muir, part George Bailey, and part Ozark coal miner, these members of the Oregon Trail generation walk around in the costume of a lost people: those who still had access to the American Dream. I read someone someplace compare this trend to a cargo cult, and it seems apt to me. With a country gutted of its blue collar work, no longer able to afford a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, we’ve taken the old adage of dressing for the job you want and are running desperately with it.

There’s a few problems with bringing these kinds of objects and products into contemporary life, though. The first is due to that aforementioned gutting of blue collar work and increasingly impossible dream of upward mobility, or of living a life on one’s own. One in four Americans is eligible for food stamps (only half that number use them), for instance. Materials like leather and steel were never cheap, so people usually had to scrimp and save to purchase those kinds of goods, and then make them last as long as humanly possible. But we rarely have that kind of buying power anymore – dollars are stretched painfully thin across a veritable tidal wave of products and services that are required to participate in modern life. From data plans, to internet, to legally mandated health insurance, to car insurance, to HOA fees, to school supplies and exorbitantly-priced textbooks, to electronic devices that need to be upgraded every year or two due to planned obsolescence, to gadgets that protect your other gadgets, to… well, you get the idea. Complexity nickel and dimes.

And that’s all on top of the fact that real wages have barely increased since the 1980’s, which has left many Americans struggling to keep up not with the Joneses, but with the fees required to simply exist in one place or another, or the technology required to even find work. These are hidden costs to living that simply did not exist 100 years ago – or even 50.

So the simple fact of the matter is that the effects of yesteryear’s wage laborer is too expensive for today’s wage laborer. Ironic, no?

Scarcity works like that, though. When plastic was introduced to the consumer market, it was intended to provide an alternative to rare and expensive natural materials, which I talked about a little in this post. It was a material for the wealthy and wanna-be wealthy. But as it became cheaper to produce, plastic began replacing everything, and by the 1950’s, plastic’s prominent place in the household was solidified. Note how the current trend of romanticizing blue-collar and pioneer life takes no cues from post-WW2 America – our zeitgeist longs for a return to a world full of things made “the old-fashioned way”, and there is no part of plastic’s manufacturing process that can be done without chemicals and machinery that fly in the face of vernacular sensibility.

The second thing that doesn’t work when it comes to making this old stuff new again is that our current culture was, in its early inception, actively designed to abhor it. The aforementioned objects are, in essence, slow. They are the products of slow fashion, slow food, and slow manufacture. (Well, slower manufacture.) And slow things in a breakneck world are luxuries, because bottom lines wait for no one. Take clothing, for instance. The average American of 100 years ago owned two, maybe three changes of clothes: a filthy, hard-wearing set for work, and a nicer set for Sundays. The garments were likely better made than the vast majority of what passes as clothes in contemporary fashion, and they were meticulously maintained, because a new shirt could cost you maybe half of your weekly wages. It probably didn’t take you very long to realize why this scheme wouldn’t work nowadays. Even if your two sets of clothes were made from the best materials around, were diligently washed, and, too, meticulously maintained, you would face social, and likely job-related, consequences for not having a varied wardrobe.

Clothes were constructed differently then, too, and styles that were deemed “professional” were often in accordance with what a housewife could sew by hand. Not so anymore. “Business casual” is the very definition of anti-vernacular: garment construction that relies heavily on synthetic fabrics and fibers to keep their shape instead of accepting looser silhouettes; knits, a low-tech kind of stretch fabric, and the irregular quirks that gives hand-sewing its charm are both considered sloppy and inappropriate for the workplace; the garments themselves are designed with extensive sitting in mind, not manual work or ease of movement. They are aggressively apathetic to culture, bioregion, and often the physical needs of the wearer.

Where once DIY items were made at or close to home, polyester garments that fall apart after a dozen launderings are now the norm.

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It is also interesting to me to see just what sorts of people are appropriating the wardrobes and personal effects of the early 20th century blue-collar worker. More often than not, it is the pencil-pusher. Why should the WordPress programmer stuck in front of a computer screen all day want to look like a 19th century log driver? In the same way that body fat becomes attractive when food is scarce, someone that looks like they spend their days in the wilderness when we’ve got little wilderness left becomes just another consumer bid at novelty. But it’s also the “creatives” – people who are also increasingly spending long hours in the office, with fewer real art supplies at hand, and more technology. Funny that a commercial artist should romanticize the life of a laborer: someone who, for all intents and purposes, did not do very creative work.

Make no mistake, our culture is in the midst of a crisis. And thanks to generations of rule by neoliberal consumer capitalism, we’ve lost the ability to even put our state of affairs to words. It’s devoured and assimilated us; we have been divided and conquered. Our only recourse in this regime is to consume – to buy our way out of climate change, buy our way out of stagnating wages, buy our way out of an uncertain and fearful future. Individually, we know deep down that none of this will work; but collectively, there’s too much inertia behind it.

All trends of this sort are born from more than just the hand-me-downs of this season’s designer runways. They embody the collective consciousness of a culture, giving form to their hopes and dreams and expectations of the future. Look at the 1950’s again: the cultural obsession with space travel was more than just what the “cool kids” were doing. Sending rocketmen to Mars and beyond was the future on which we all hung our hats of national identity, and consumer capitalism quickly learned to feed on it. The same thing happened to the future as of 1970’s, where increasingly powerful computing technology was central to our vision of Tomorrow, and even so with the birth of the pop culture dystopia of 1980’s cyberpunk.

Even as our idea of what the future meant made a drastic turn from blind optimism to roguish pessimism, consumer capitalism remained in step, ready to appropriate whatever idea was central to the collective unconscious. Ready to sell it back to us with such aggressive insistence that it looses all meaning, and after a few years we’re forced to find a new future to bank on.

But we’re running out of futures, aren’t we? Since the twin birth of modern nationalism and industrialization, our concept of The Future has hinged on technological innovation, fossil fuels, and the conquering of nature to the betterment of all. The bitterness of the 1980’s flipped the narrative on its head, but it wasn’t something truly new: it was simply a diametric perversion of what came before, and it turned out to be just as unfulfilling. It’s left us scrambling for a new story. The 90’s, having witnessed the impotency of smug defeatism from the previous decade, thought it saw something altogether new in the internet, and we allowed ourselves to get unironically excited one last time – though that, too, failed to meet expectations when the corporations moved in like predators circling a kill.

American optimism suffered its final blow when the world trade center buildings fell at the dawn of the 21st century, and for the next decade we wandered aimlessly about our own cultural landscape, searching for pieces of ourselves among the wreckage.

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We’ve found them, alright – or at least, it feels like we have. Too terrified to look toward Tomorrow anymore, we’ve instead turned to Yesterday. What have we found? Leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, plaid shirts, Edison bulbs, galvanized steel and rustic wood. We know that the American dream of the 1950’s was a hollow lie, but maybe, just maybe, the American dream of the pre-industrial age still has something to offer us. Surely, log cabins and subsistence farming and bespoke goods and knitting and Mason jars are sustainable, right?

And still the business interests have us fenced in.  The log cabins have to abide by entire tomes’ worth of building codes and pass inspections cooked up by the stick-frame housing industry. The subsistence farming requires buying land (something most of “the pioneers” didn’t have to do) and navigating an entire farming industry that is still lost in the clutches of the green revolution. The bespoke goods require paying for local skill, the cost of which has skyrocketed due to the aforementioned higher cost of living and education. (We’ve also completely dismantled the old system of trade apprenticeships, so training must now be paid for by the next generation of tradesmen.) And both knitting and the Mason jar product have been co-opted by the crafting-industrial complex, which now provides an endless buffet of consumer-ready materials for us to project our wildest creative dreams onto with abandon.

Every single thing that we have tried to salvage from the past has been taken from us by business both big and small. Vernacularity once again ripped from its native context and placed in a zoo with tickets to be paid for by weekend warriors and rural tourists. While we sit and sip our $12 coffee flights, dandelion, chicory, and cassina languish in our neighborhoods. We don’t know what oilcloth is made from. We still want fresh tomatoes in winter.

When the obsession with our recent past, like the obsessions with the future before it, fail to deliver meaning or solutions for a world and planet in crisis, we’ll move on. We always do. Where do we go now, though? What story will we tell ourselves next?

I’m not sure, but it will be a reaction to all of this. Already there’s a resurgence in the old fever dreams of space travel and interplanetary manifest destiny, but whether that gains enough traction to shape our identity again is doubtful. We’ve been there, already: it gave us the cold war, and we can’t foot the bill anymore besides. The floor, as some are saying, is beginning to touch the ceiling. We’re being crushed.

One thing’s for certain, though: consumer capitalism doesn’t want you going back to basics. It doesn’t want you to buy it for life, it doesn’t want you to only own one, it doesn’t want you taking good care of it, and it absolutely, positively doesn’t want it being made sustainably.

Because odds are, that means it probably wouldn’t have been made at all.

 

Going Analog Sidequest: Ditching the Smartphone Part 2: Dumbphone’d and Data-Free

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I’ve had my “dumbphone” for about week, week and a half, and already I’m noticing big differences in my day-to-day. And not in the way that folks like this talk about going smartphoneless for a few days and then document their existential crisis about it for pageviews.

I have an LG Xpression 2 – a dumbphone with a QWERTY keyboard and extremely rudimentary browser, so it could be dumber. A number of the apps, like mobile email and GPS navigation, don’t work for some reason (the phone is only 2 years old, so they should still be supported) but I’m OK with this because it means that it’s only really good for a few things: calling, texting, and alarms.

I’ve had to make a few adjustments in how I do things. Once, when I missed my bus and needed to call an Uber to make it to work on time, I had to hoof it over to a Starbucks for their wifi and use the old smartphone to do it. (I use it like a tiny tablet now.) When I didn’t see where the Uber driver had parked, I couldn’t call or text him from the device that I booked him with! It was a reminder not of what I’d given up, but how fragile our reliance on smartphone technology really is. What if my smartphone had simply been dead, and it was 11 at night instead of 8 in the morning, and I’d found myself stranded in an unfamiliar part of town? You can borrow someone else’s phone to make a call or send a text, but you can’t yet borrow their phone to schedule an Uber pickup – their account is tied in with their credit card, and I doubt a stranger is going to let you do anything on their phone besides make an emergency call anyways.

So when I caught the bus on the way home, I grabbed a folded paper schedule from behind the driver, and stuck it in my bag. The first step to dealing with a missed bus is to not miss the bus. I also made a mental note to keep the number of a yellow cab company in my phone, as well as written down in my traveler’s notebook. Not that I have to worry about the dumbphone ever dying when I need it most (the thing lasts about 2.5 days on a single charge), but if I lose it, or something else happens, I don’t want to be left stranded.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is how much better at casual conversation with strangers I am – or maybe I was previously pretty good at it, but never created space for it to happen because I always had my nose buried in a screen. The fact that a mere phone could have prevented me from realizing this latent ability just proves my point about the asininity of smartphones’ ubiquity even more.

I’ve had several very pleasant conversations with strangers since this development. One of them was with a young man about the election while at the bus stop; I found out that he’d just gotten into a car accident recently, that he preferred pot to alcohol, and was looking for a job, especially now that he had to pay for a mechanic. He found out that I recently started working at Whole Foods, that my partner worked in a Walmart distribution warehouse once upon a time (which did a number on his body), that I was a conscientious objector to the entire presidential election, and that I’d missed my bus.

There are a lot more very small moments like that in my life now. I’m starting to call it “breathing room”, because it really is. I’m giving myself permission to sit and look at things – to constantly reattune myself with my sensory environment, to familiarize myself with the minutiae of its patterns and magical little details – instead of feel the need to disappear the instant my attention grows the slightest bit diffuse.

In this way I’m reclaiming my time. My days seem to last just a little bit longer than they used to, which has always been one of my biggest gripes about the encroachment of technology on our lives. Moreover, as we’re encouraged to share every little facet of our day (for what? likes and followers?), we become less active participants in our own lives and more passive spectators, like paparazzi always on the lookout for a juicy story, and our online “presences” become more like our very own curated tabloid magazines. It’s all a kind of social rat race.

So for those of you interested in ditching the smartphone, a few things I’ve re-learned in my short time using one:

  • Make plans, make contingency plans, and have necessary documentation with you. This includes written directions to where you’re going, phone numbers for things like yellow cab companies, bus maps and schedules, and so on.
  • Check the weather before you leave.
  • Carry a book with you.
  • Carry a pen and pad with you.
  • Leave early and don’t be afraid to get a little turned around.
  • Have patience.