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:

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

The Sustainability Problem of Digital Currencies – No Tech Magazine
The average Bitcoin transaction uses about 4000 times as much energy as a credit card transaction, or enough to drive a Tesla for 300 miles, found the author of this short article. Yikes.

Vietnam’s Low-tech Food System Takes Advantage of Decay – Low Tech Magazine
A very interesting survey of Vietnamese food culture, and the ways that they avoid the costly use of refrigeration by various fermentation methods.

The Dutch love affair with natural gas: A cautionary tale for the United States? – Resource Insights
Kurt Cobb explains the history of natural gas harvesting and use in the Netherlands, and where it’s gone horribly awry. To make a long story short, early projections about the output of the Groningen Gas Field turned out to be far too optimistic. Unfortunately, they”re still obligated to export their rapidly shrinking reserves thanks to long-term deals, and have become a net importer just to keep their own pipes flowing.

Is Facebook a Structural Threat to a Free Society? – Truthhawk
For some time I’ve been urging readers and fellow zero wasters to think critically about their use of social media, and to ditch Facebook in particular. If you haven’t because of it’s convenience and ubiquity, then hopefully this terrifying piece will change your mind. Facebook is bad for the environment, bad for human health, and bad for the future of democracy. Not to spoil anything, but the piece ends with this:

Are we willing to trust one man with:

  • The largest share of wealth on the planet?
  • The biggest trove of private data ever assembled?
  • The greatest control over information flow ever seen?
  • The biggest psychological research facility in history?
  • The most significant influence machine ever?
  • All five?

Zuckerberg is human. As the saying goes, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Don’t forget this is the man who gave us this gem:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks

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.

February is InCoWriMo!

February is International Correspondence Writing Month, where participants are challenged to write and mail or otherwise deliver one piece of hand-written correspondence a day. Whether it’s a longform letter to a friend or relative far afield, a handful of valentines, a greeting card for a co-worker, or an anonymous note left for a stranger in a public place, it all counts so long as it’s a hand-written piece of writing that winds up in someone else’s possession.

From the official FAQ:

InCoWriMo is the short name for International Correspondence Writing Month, otherwise known as February.

With an obvious nod to NaNoWriMo for the inspiration, InCoWriMo challenges you to hand-write and mail/deliver one letter, card, note or postcard every day during the month of February.

It’s simple. It’s fun. It’s rewarding.

When you think about it, paper correspondence has a much smaller carbon footprint than digital, though the latter might at first glance seem so clean and compact. While they might perhaps be close to parity at first, the longer your timeline stretches out, the less that becomes so. Once a piece of paper is made, it’s made – digital services, being entirely ephemeral, requires a vast infrastructure of electronics to keep media not just relevant and accessible, but to keep it from winking out of existence altogether. Properly kept, a letter can last centuries or longer. The best digital devices, on the other hand, barely make it to their 5th birthday, let alone 10th, before needing to be replaced. (There’s a reason new hard drives are delivered daily, by the truckload, to server farms the world over.)

So let’s slow things down just a little bit this month. I’m definitely not going to write 28 pieces of correspondence (or who knows, maybe I will), but my husband has a birthday coming up, and I’ve got a good friend who lives just far enough away to make visiting her a big ordeal, so there’s two excuses for me at least.

How about it? Can you commit to sending at least one piece of written correspondence to someone else this month? It’s not even close to meeting the InCoWriMo challenge, but for the sake of a slightly slower, slightly saner, slightly kinder world, I’m sure we could do it.

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

Breathe less… or ban cars: cities have radically different responses to pollution – The Guardian
Coming as a surprise to no one, when faced with a choice between continuing to permit the use of cars or allowing residents to breathe freely, many cities would prefer to tell people not to breathe.

The Office Needs a Typewriter Revolution – Low-Tech Magazine
A very thoughtful, thoroughly researched piece on the history of the modern office and office equipment. It makes suggestions on ways in which it might be possible to return to a more analog and mechanical office experience, or at least greatly reduce energy consumption in the information-based workplace.

Smartphone users trust strangers less: New research – Journalist’s Resource
Smartphone use is officially linked with distrust of strangers, neighbors, and people of different backgrounds. Causation is not specifically established, but based on my own anecdotal evidence, it’s likely.

The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism – The Archdruid Report
In this post from a few weeks ago, Greer explains how the myth of liberal progress – that human life is destined to always get better, fairer, and more complex – is a complete fabrication by parties interested in reducing history to a series of caricatures that serves to prop up their vision of an unlikely future. (Read the latest blog post if you want a real kick in the teeth.)

And a sobering quote for the difficult times ahead:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied.

Kansha: Appreciation, or, F— You, Fossil Fuels

Kimchi.

Fermentation is really, really in right now. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is due to the mere movement of trends throughout the culinary consumer zeitgeist, and how much of it will stick around and be absorbed into an American way of life that will persist for years to come.

I, like our ancestors before us, came into fermentation as a strategy because I’m a cheap-ass.

My husband likes soda; soda is expensive; who says I can’t make my own soda? If I can make my own tonkatsu ramen, surely I can make my own soda.

My several attempts at getting a ginger bug started didn’t amount to much, but the logic was sound, and moreover, I wound up discovering a whole world out there of fermented, probiotic, and shelf-stable food that once stocked the larders of peasant households the world over. (And if it’s one thing peasants and I have in common, it’s a lack of money.) My second foray into home fermentation was kimchi, something I learned to love (and live off) in college, thanks to some Korean roommates. It was wildly successful. After that, I was a fermenting machine. Well, as much as I had the time, energy, and counter space for.

For me, fermentation isn’t about being culinarily impressive – though it often is – but rather more about being less reliant on my refrigerator.

Almost everything I do with food now I try to contextualize in our vast, sprawling, largely invisible web of fossil fuel usage. How much energy goes into making my condiments? My alcohol? How much energy goes into keeping my produce fresh? How much energy goes into making a salad?

I bought myself a used copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions for my birthday recently. Not only did it immediately find itself in heavy rotation in my small cookbook collection, but it will have a place in the kitchen, I believe, for the rest of my life. The premise of the book is basically how to cook frugally and mindfully the Japanese way. The lengthy appendices talk about how to reuse water used to cook noodles or rinse rice (make a sipping broth with leftover sauce), how to use every single part of a daikon in the same way that the subsistence hunter uses every single part of a kill. In the pickles section, there’s also a few pages dedicated to the Japanese nuka pot, a pot of pickling paste made from rice bran, beer, and vegetable scraps that is maintained not unlike a sourdough starter.

Eventually, the husband and I want to leave the city. We want to leave the grid behind; the nine-to-fives, the endless hedonic treadmill of bills and debt, the noise and light pollution, the carbon-heavy, digitized lifestyles that every single person I know claims to depend on for sanity and survival. We want to remove the countless middlemen between us and that which sustains: the earth, the plants, the animals, and the quality relationships with other people that made most pre-industrial cultures worth fighting for in the face of enclosure, capitalism, and colonialist greed. (No really: most peasants through history had to be forced off their land and into the cities at sword or gunpoint.)

And even though that goal will be years in the making, we’re doing all the mental prep work we can. Right now, that means taking a long, hard look at the refrigerator. If we break down what a refrigerator is and what it does, its workings becomes less mysterious and the prospect of going without one less terrifying.

So what is a refrigerator? A refrigerator is a heavily-insulated box that plugs into the wall which makes food cold so it lasts longer, basically. Or, to put it a slightly different way: a method of food preservation that depends entirely on unsustainable energy* and dangerous chemicals to function. Once you frame it in those terms, it suddenly becomes just one in a variety of methods of preserving the harvest. And when that happens, why, again, are we collectively choosing the most expensive, most environmentally suicidal option?

That’s where kansha and fermentation come in. The two seem to go hand in hand, really – if you have a deep love and appreciation for the bounty of the earth, then frugality should follow, no? Kansha the book is full of tricks on not only preventing food from winding up in the garbage, but from the compost bin too, even. Obviously, the recipes are Japanese in origin, but many of the ingredients, from cabbages to root vegetables, fresh greens to foraged mushrooms, are staples across much of the temperate world, and the author’s careful consideration of the daikon could be applied to almost any sort of root vegetable.

Nuka pots, if diligently kept, can last for decades, even generations. They are a common sight in many Japanese kitchens, and where food scraps that Americans would have no second thought about throwing away are given another lease on life in the form of a crisp, delicious pickle.

Nuka, the Japanese word for rice bran, needn’t be made with the stuff – I hear that wheat bran works just as well, and only needs a little tweaking in how its used. I plan on starting a nuka pot myself in the next few days, as I explore the household feasibility of fermentation as a viable alternative to refrigeration, and as I get my taste buds used to the slow introduction of more and more fermented foods in my diet. (Because someday, pickled vegetables may be the only vegetable I can eat for a good chunk of the year. I’m learning to be OK with this in practice.)

S in addition to kimchi, my list of successful ferments are steadily growing, and I’m getting better at sussing out the particulars of each kind, its strengths and weaknesses, the culinary niche that it might fill in my diet. Here’s what has stuck so far, or will absolutely need to stick before we pack up and head out, like some kind of parallel universe, anti-matter Beverly Hillbilles:

Kimchi

I love the taste of kimchi. It’s tangy, spicy, crunchy, and fantastic on a bed of warm rice. It’s also dirt cheap to make and almost impossible to screw up. (Seriously, I don’t know why anyone buys the stuff. It’s as absurd to me as buying water.) My latest batch I made with gochujang paste instead of chili flakes, because it’s all I had on-hand, but it worked really well all the same. I also replace the shrimp paste with miso in my batches, being vegetarian and all. As for its versatility, there are as many kinds of kimchi as there are vegetables in Asia – this is good news for those of us who might be growing things other than napa cabbage.

Sourdough

I’m still not great at making bread from a sourdough starter, but maybe that’s because I’ve only tried with stone-ground wheat. I can make bread that tastes good and very edible, but it’s dense. The starter, though, is also absurdly easy to cultivate, and is edible at just about every stage of the fermentation cycle.

Kvass/Sima/Cider

I don’t know what to call this stuff, to be quite honest. I’ve got a post written up about it, but the jist is this: it’s chopped fruit mixed with sugar, warm water, and whatever herbs/spices you like to taste, and left to get fizzy on the counter for a few days. It’s a little like the Finnish sima, a fermented lemonade, minus the added yeast… and all those other complicated steps.

Mead

Yes, I’m a burgeoning mead-brewer now. I’m going by a sort of eyeballed, wild-yeasted recipe that an acquaintance of mine wrote about a few months back, and it’s also easy as dirt so long as you know how to adequately sanitize your equipment. It’s one part unpasteurized (preferably local) honey to three to four parts warm water. Add fruit, aromatics, or what have you, and let sit at room temperature for a few months until the mead turns clear, making sure that your containers of choice don’t explode. Taste, rack, enjoy. It’s not cheap alcohol, but boy does it mean more when you make it yourself. And it tastes damn good too.

Nukazuke

If the magic happens in a nuka pot, then the magical result is the nukazuke, rice bran pickles. Again, I haven’t actually done this yet, but I see this being a seamless and delicious addition to my fermentation scheme, and a really good way to prevent otherwise good food scraps from winding up in the compost pail. (This is good for those of us who have a jar in the freezer specially dedicated to broth scraps, and don’t know what to do with the leftovers from cruciferous vegetables, spines from leafy greens, or other miscellany. Pickle ’em!)

Vinegar

I have also not made a vinegar yet, though I intend do as soon as I amass enough apple scraps or wine remnants. From what I’ve read, it sounds similar to making my fizzy fruit drink, except you let it turn alcoholic, then let the alcohol turn into acid. By all accounts this is also ridiculously easy.

Miso

Homemade miso paste is actually really easy to make, it just takes a long time – at least a year – and requires inoculation with a special culture found in a product called koji, where the fungus aspergillus oryzae is grown on specially prepared rice. The inoculated rice is a required ingredient in miso of any type (I’ve seen miso made from all manner of beans, not just soy, as well as barley, which is another traditional variety), though it too doesn’t take too much effort to make if you’ve got koji spores on hand, and the dried koji lasts a long time if stored properly. I love miso and use it in a lot of my cooking, so I can see myself doing a big koji/miso-making spree once a year, maybe entirely out of barley if it’s easy to grow.

With the help of a root cellar, a smoke house, and icy winters, I think we just might pull it off. One caveat: we will probably have a small deep freezer for helping store larger amounts of meat and processed game, which we will likely be able to get away with turning off when outside temperatures are below freezing.

We’ve already committed ourselves to living in a ‘dry’ house – that is, a house without plumbing – thanks to Berkey water filters, and strategically-located cisterns around/under the house and their associated hand pumps, and compost toilets. We’ve already committed ourselves to living with as little electricity as we can get away with also: a DC solar arrangement for a laptop or two, record player,  and occasional light bulb, perhaps. But it definitely won’t be enough to run appliances, let alone one that needs power 24/7.

Yeah, it’s going to be a huge change. But that’s why we’re starting here and now, with the concept of kansha. 

From the book’s dust jacket:

The celebration of Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions begins with kansha – appreciation – an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform nature’s bounty into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, encourages all cooks to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve our natural resources.

It’s not about saying “no” to the comforts of a modern Western home. It’s about saying “yes” to a different way of doing things, because if you don’t welcome it with open arms and appreciate it for what it has to offer, then… well, you’re up shit creek, aren’t you? Nothing worse than changing your life for all the wrong reasons.


*All energy that relies in any way on electricity at any point during it or its components’ sourcing, manufacture, use, upkeep, and disposal, is unsustainable in my book. My book is very strict.