Going Analog part 6: Dealing with Belligerent Incredulity

If there’s one thing that not having a smartphone, barely using social media, and not keeping up with pop culture will earn you, it’s endless belligerence from incredulous screen addicts. Of course, doing much of anything outside of the norm will earn you much of the same, but in the spirit of documenting my slow journey into the world of slower technology, I’ll dedicate a blog post to it.

A while back I wrote about Shooting the Messenger, a related social phenomenon that happens when you encounter people struggling with guilt and cognitive dissonance who have nowhere to direct their anger but at you, the pointer-outer of some inconvenient truth. This sort of hostility is different, and likely to be encountered more often because it doesn’t hinge on having a conversation with you about an important topic: all it takes is for someone to notice that you’re doing something differently than them, by which they can pigeonhole you into a stereotype of some sort and make their accusations from there.

Recently I dealt with some run-of-the-mill belligerence with some family members who like to run their mouths – but who I love dearly, mind – and the subject of their ridicule this time was my vegetarianism. Being vegetarian, unless you get all your food from farmer’s markets, isn’t anywhere near an analog diet in any way, but the idea, to their mind, serves the same function: my choice to deprive myself of something that they couldn’t live without makes me holier-than-thou. Nevermind that I’m probably the chillest vegetarian they’re ever likely to meet – that I don’t proselytize, I don’t badmouth meat-eaters, and that I actually whole-heartedly condone small-scale livestock husbandry, hunting, and other related kinds of manual slaughter – but my live-and-let-live attitude probably makes me an easier target.

Vegetarianism, even done wrong, has a smaller carbon footprint than American-style meat-eating, and done right, can lighten the impact you have on the earth by many orders of magnitude. (Strict veganism, on the other hand, is pretty much a case of heavily diminished returns. Unless you live in a grass hut in the tropics, veganism is financially and environmentally expensive when all is said and done, and needs to be propped up by large subsidies of smug satisfaction to make it worth it.) Meat-eaters know this, which is what makes their derision so strangely obsessive.

Likewise, reducing screentime or eliminating them altogether can really do nothing but benefit the earth and in many cases, your mental health as well. It’s like quitting a hard drug. Except that everyone in our society is addicted to the drug, nobody wonders what life would be like without the drug, and nobody talks about the downsides of the drug. Given such a saturated environment, it’s no wonder that encountering someone who is not addicted to the drug, or who doesn’t use the drug at all, is such a jarring encounter.

The belligerence I’ve experienced from “downgrading” seems to have two other components: one, the sense that I’m withholding something others are entitled to have (voyeuristic glimpses into my personal life from using social media, and instant access to my attention using the same), and two, that I now need their “help” for things that I didn’t before.

These two notions together form a microcosm for much bigger trends in the way human social relationships are changing thanks to the ubiquitous use of mediating technologies. That is to say, we are becoming emotionally and materially estranged, while becoming more impersonal and fetishistic.

Someone recently posted a thread to the r/Collapse subreddit about the strange reactions friends and family were having toward his re-adoption of a landline in lieu of any cellphone at all:

I recently got rid of my cell phone and switched to a landline only. I also got rid of Facebook. Just to be clear, I am not asking or telling ANYONE else to follow in my footsteps, it is just a choice I made for myself for personal reasons. I don’t want to get into too much detail on my justification, but let’s just say the stuff I see on this subreddit doesn’t help, lol. Clearly I have not completely sworn off technology. Anyway, friends and family who are finding out all have different reactions. Some people are mild or just seem slightly annoyed that we can’t text anymore, but some people are SO angry about it. Their reaction is ridiculous and I swear it is as though they are defending their precious!!! Little golems just blinded by their need for it. One friend seemed mad cause he hates calling people but other than that people are defensive! I say I did it and they lash out as if I told them they are idiots for having phones. Which I didn’t.

Thoughts? Why do people behave this way? Is this deep attachment a sign of something to come?

The responses range from the humorous:

How old are your friends and family? 12??

I say, try not to make a “thing” of it. If you were poor enough not to be able to afford these things, your real friends wouldn’t blame you for being poor. You shouldn’t have to justify it to anyone.

But get used to the derision as you make other, more substantive changes.

To the piercingly observant:

  • You made it less convenient for them to get what they want from you.
  • Your actions telegraphed to them that you don’t fear (overall) losing access to what they think you should want from them.
  • Your rejection of your cell/Facebook causes them to question: ‘should I quit too?’

Someone else drew the same comparison with vegetarianism/veganism as well:

same effect as stopping eating meat and mentioning it to people. vegetarians / vegans get the same sort of backlash. its just because of cognitive dissonance etc in people who are living partially examined lives

The ‘partially examined life’ concept intrigues me, and I think it’s a pretty good explanation for most of this kind of behavior. Different ways of doing things is generally no real threat to the unexamined life – that sort of person takes everything for granted and doesn’t question what they or other people are doing. The examined life usually reacts in kind, because that person has likely done the mental legwork of putting themselves in somebody else’s shoes and come to the conclusion that there is possible a multiplicity of motivations, questions, and answers in life. What’s the partially examined life, though? To me, it seems like that sort of person had come into questioning, gone looking for answers, and then stopped when the answers threatened to upend what they held to be true. They are the most keenly reactive to the whims of their ego and identity, because they’ve caught a glimpse at the shaky foundations they’re built on and have chosen to ignore the truth. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too – this is cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, making someone aware of their cognitive dissonance is almost always a dangerous, losing game.

I’m thinking also of the couple behind This Victorian Life, who have routinely received hate mail and even death threats over the years for choosing to live the way they do.

Of course its a threat response: when you see others happily choosing to do without that which you’ve deemed a bare necessity, what does that say about you? Moreover, while marketing buzzwords like “luxe”, “designer” and “chic” dominate our consumer-driven lives, nobody wants to be accused of being extravagant. It is, I suppose, the modern loophole around our culturally-learned sense of Protestant ethics, without actually having to live up to those ethics. For workers of yesteryear, for example, it was more socially acceptable to brag about how little you had to work for your high salary, but not anymore. (In spite of steadily declining rates of office worker productivity, as well.) It’s a competition to appear that everything you have has been hard-earned, well-deserved, and morally justified. Yes, even that $50 water bottle. Because you worked so hard for it, and it does its job of holding water so well, right? And besides, we all need to “treat ourselves” sometimes. Even if “sometimes” actually means “every day”.

The question, though, is simple: how to deal with others’ cognitive dissonance? In the wake of the 2016 election, it seems that all options have been rendered moot. There are no discussions now, only arguments; no arguments, only ad hominems and death threats.

My method of dealing is to just try and avoid such conversations in the first place. Just as I now avoid giving unwarranted advice (nobody wants it), and avoid pointing out major flaws in someone’s reasoning, I generally just avoid pointing out hypocrisy for the simple fact that everyone’s a hypocrite in some way, and that, again, those conversations never end well. I figure that if someone is open enough to the idea that they might be wrong about something, then they’ll find out sooner or later on their own.

That’s not to say that you can’t defend yourself, though. It takes having a thick skin, but so does doing anything that goes against mainstream values. Other ways to avoid heated confrontation:

  • Say your choices are purely personal and have improved the quality of your life: “I just don’t like ____.”
  • Say that your choices are financially motivated. Playing the frugality card is often a safe bet.
  • Among the somewhat-environmentally-informed, you can frame it in terms of your carbon footprint.
  • Turn the awkward moment into a joke. Play dumb, misanthropic, or elusive. I’ve done all three.

At the end of the day, dealing with incredulity at doing things differently than ‘everyone else’ is just going to be par for the course. And when it does happen, it helps to keep a level head: nobody wants to be preached at, told that they’re stupid, or hypocritical. And ultimately nothing comes of those kinds of heated discussions except a bad mood at best, or a ruined friendship at worst.


Book Review: The Organic Artist

I didn’t know what to expect when I bought this book, honestly. The cover makes it seem a little cutsey, and some of the pictures seem, in the tradition of craft a la Hobby Lobby, to be more novelty than anything genuinely useful.

Boy was I wrong.

First off, the author is described in the back as (more or less) equal parts artist, survivalist, and caveman. Or, to put it more accurately, stone age technology aficionado. What this should have told me is that the man takes his work seriously, and that his breadth of very real knowledge is to be found in this book. He lives this stuff, he works in these media, and he’s been doing it for years.

Most of what he shows you how to do will not be of any real interest to most folks, though I suspect zero wasters will find some of the projects immensely useful. For instance, his paper-making guide is much more thorough, and results in a much more useful finished product than Bea’s instructions in Zero Waste Home. He shows you how to make crayons out of nothing more than beeswax and pigment; he shows you how to source your pigment from the landscape around you; he shows you how to make felt-tip pens out of little more than sticks, twine, and a bit of hide; he shows you how to make glue; he shows you how to make charcoal.

And the list goes on. Those beautiful little paint pots featured on the cover? Those are all handmade by him as well, and he shows you how to make them too: every step from finding and tempering natural clay, to shaping and firing.

There’s even recipes in here for the zero waste, organic printmaker: he has instructions on how to make an all-natural brayer, and suggests an ink recipe thickened with honey to use with your woodcuts. And for painters, he shows how to make animal hair brush bristles, complete with quill ferrule. (Guides for which are difficult to come by, I’ve found.)

Nick Neddo is a monster. And I mean that in the best possible way: he’s a person who knows his craft so thoroughly that you can’t help but let your jaw drop at the sheer absurdity of his knowledge, talent, and dedication. Included also are examples of his work made with the relevant tool or medium, and these proof of concept are not only astoundingly beautiful, but with no noticeable difference in quality compared to the plastic, commercially-produced equivalent that he is recreating. Most of these tools are so easy to make, so beautiful, and so personal, that in showing us how to make them Neddo almost asks, between the lines, why don’t more people do this? After all, up until very recently in human history (a period that can be measured in mere decades), most artists had to make their own materials.

Do I recommend this book? For artists looking to turn away from high-impact, toxic, and fossil-fueled-sourced tools and media, this is an absolute must-have. For zero wasters or organic households looking to replace a few of their casual art supplies, this is also a must-have. (Just about everything in here isn’t just non-toxic, but free of synthetic ingredients entirely, and probably also safe in the case of accidental ingestion, for those of you with children.)

For everyone else, this book is probably just a novelty – but get it anyway. It might inspire you take up doing even just one thing the Nick Neddo way.

Starting Simplefit: Week 1

I started a simplefit exercise routine today, and I think I’m really going to like it.

Simplefit is probably the simplest exercise program in existence: there are only three exercises to do, you do them three times a week, and the only equipment you need is a pull-up bar. No fancy gym equipment, no membership fees, and unless you’re a real dunce, no way to seriously injure yourself. My kind of minimalist exercise.

Unfortunately, I do not have a pull-up bar or any suitable anchor point to do the recommended substitutes, so I’ve been using a 15lb kettle bell weight and doing front raises with nearly-locked elbows. Not the same thing at all, but it’ll have to do for now. And in either case, it’s kicking my ass!

I’ve started off today at Level 3, and managed to get 4 rounds done in 20 minutes. I probably could have done 5 if I hadn’t just spent 45 minutes gardening!

I went to the gym regularly for a few months, and while it was fun to try out all the fancy machines, I ultimately came away from the experience feeling weirded out. A gym is a place full of high-tech gadgetry that western adults feel obligated to throw money at because they no longer use their bodies for anything else in life. We go to the gym because we don’t want to take the stairs. We go to the gym because we don’t want to wash our dishes by hand. We go to the gym because we don’t want to walk to the store two blocks away. We go to the gym because we don’t do anything ourselves anymore. So we pay for the convenience of having a machine do manual labor for us in the home, and then we pay the gym to go do manual labor over there instead, which doesn’t even accomplish anything but use up electricity. It’s all very silly to me.

At any rate, I’m trying out this Simplefit thing. I’ve been somehow inspired to be a physically stronger person lately, and with all the adventuring and off-grid living I see in my future, it’ll be a good foundation to build on.

Going Analog Part 6: Goodbye, Nexus


My first few smartphones were second-hand iPhones; my favorite was the iPhone 3, which was built, as far as smartphones go, like a tank. I had it for about 3 years, I believe, before an “update” killed the wifi antenna and all but bricked it. (Apple is into the planned obsolescence thing to the point of belligerence.) It wasn’t a slow death marked by intermittent hardware failure; it was working one day, then my phone forced an update, and it stopped working thence. A lot of other 3 users experienced the same “update”, which appeared to be rolling out in waves. After all, Apple couldn’t just remotely disable the wifi on all iPhone 3s at the same time, could they? It would have been easy pickings for a good lawyer and a class action suit, and terrible press. But disable one mostly vital piece of hardware for a user here and there, and tell them their only option is to upgrade? At a glance, the strings being pulled are invisible. Either way, Apple really wanted us stubborn iPhone 3 users to hurry up and shell out for the iPhone 6 already. Our preference for tech that works and works well was getting in the way of their profit margins. Fortunately, with smartphones, carriers and OS developers can pretty much do whatever they damn well please with your devices – without their continuous, second-by-second permission, you don’t have a device.

I didn’t really think that deeply about it at the time; I knew that Apple was an obsolescence plannin’ fool, and that Android was greener pastures in the user autonomy department. So I switched platforms. I really prefer platforms that are transparent; platforms that let me know exactly what’s going on at any given moment, and platforms where I can diagnose and fix my own problems. That’s why I bought the car that I did, and it’s why I’m typing this up on a Linux netbook. (Unfortunately, I’m still forced to run a Windoze machine for the sake of Photoshop – GIMP and Krita have not, after months of forcing myself to use them, been suitable substitutes for my rather meager needs. I will sooner move to traditional media than use them to continue making digital art with their maddening and poorly designed interfaces. Anyways, that’ll be a later development in my long and slow Going Analog series.)

So, after much research, I found the Google Nexus phone. Specifically, the Nexus 5, which gave me everything I wanted in a smaller package; I bought one gently used out of pocket for a reasonable price (how many people can even say they own their phones outright anymore?) and it even came rooted. Over the next few years I wound up with two, and swapped parts between them as each of their performance slowly started to decline from regular use. Eventually, I cracked the glass on my then-better one, and once the screen started to discolor, I switched their batteries and set it aside to be used for Skype calls, using the other as my daily. More recently, the glass finally cracked on the other – I dropped it at such an angle that the screen underneath my Gorilla Glass protector shattered – and the body dented in just the right way to keep the back plate from ever being securely snapped in place again. About a week later, and the thing began to shut off at random, no matter how much battery life was left. It’s dead, Jim.

While I still technically have a backup smartphone, I’ll never use it for such. I have exactly three apps on it – a music player, Slack, and Skype – and the battery lasts me for days because it only ever gets used for a single daily Skype call. The screen is just too broken and battery drain for typical use too rapid for anything else. I’ll probably install a single other app, though: Uber, for when I need to take the train.  (My town is so pathetic that it doesn’t even have a bus stop at our lightrail station, and on weekdays, the parking lot is full by 7am.)

As soon as I find a place to recycle the Nexus, I will. Though I’ll probably still keep the battery as a backup.

While I’ve talked about ditching the smartphone before, it wasn’t all told, a complete transition. I still had the devices in my possession, and they still had wifi capability, so I’d use them like tiny tablets here and there. Mostly to read articles I’d saved to Pocket, or to check traffic, or to call that Uber ride. I also used it extensively as a music player. So what the heck do I do now?

At the end of the day, the Nexus allowed me to do three important things that I need to work out other arrangements for. In my previous Going Analog post, I talked about overcoming the fear of having to navigate without the use of GPS, and I’m improving my navigation abilities by leaps and bounds by no longer relying on technology to do that kind of thinking for me. I’ve since done dozens of drive-by comp shoots for my father, who’s a residential appraiser, with nothing more than a printed map and a list of address numbers. I’m confident that I could find my way anywhere without GPS at this point.

The first problem though, the music player, is not really that much of a problem at all – or rather, it was, until I remembered that I still have my old Zune MP3 player from circa 2008. Microsoft discontinued the Zune product line many moons ago, even though it was an arguably better product than the iPod, had better internet browsing capabilities than most of other pre-iPhone smartphones of the time, and its touchscreen keyboard was better designed than that of the early iPhones as well. I’m currently waiting for my new sync cable to arrive in the mail, at which point I’ll fire up the Zune for the first time in at least 6 years. (And then see about stocking up on spare batteries from ebay.) And when I’m in the car, I’ll probably be listening to my growing CD collection (though CDs are hardly “analog”; however, they are not ephemeral like digital files are). So that’s one problem dealt with.

The secondproblem is Uber, though I rarely use it. In the past few months I’ve learned that it is illegal to hail cabs in Los Angeles, and that in order to get a ride, you have to call a central dispatch to schedule a pickup. My research has left me a little skeptical of LA’s cab industry; no company seems to have more than a 3-star rating, and many of them only have 2. On yelp I’ve read a lot of horror stories about taxis arriving an hour late, or not showing up at all, and drivers trying to inflate their fare by not taking the fastest route. If I’m taking Uber to the train station and need to make it to work on time, I need to know that my cab ride will arrive when its supposed to arrive. Likewise, if I’m stranded someplace late at night, then I don’t want to wait around for an hour then either.

Of course, these fears are a little overblown – the telltale mark of a convenience being taken away from somebody who’s long since taken it for granted. Being a car-owner now, I don’t take the train as often as I used to, and therefore I don’t often find myself needing an Uber much at all. My fears about getting stranded too, that typical “what if” scenario that is never likely to happen, are also needless: there’s nowhere I’d be where I could call an Uber but not be able to have a family member to come get me. In in truly exceptional situations, like my last year’s solo trip to Olypmia, WA, which left me stuck at the train station after the last bus had come and gone, I could always call somebody and have them arrange a ride for me.

The final problem is photos. I will probably get a point-and-shoot to solve that problem. Remember point-and-shoots? Battery lasted forever, they could more or less withstand being dropped, and they took great photos to boot. Smartphones have completely gutted the low-end market, though, so most of the worthwhile ones nowadays cost at least several hundred dollars. Thankfully, I bought my husband and I a pair just before the aforementioned gutting happened, and he is more than happy to give me his. (I, of course, managed to smash mine a year after I bought it. And I mean smash: accidentally positioned a chair leg on it and proceeded to sit down.) Point-and-shoots require more diligence than the ubiquitous smartphone, though. They require more planning, more thinking, more process than simply pushing a button and uploading the thing to Instagram. A while ago I realized that I no longer wanted to take pictures of things willy-nilly like everyone else; we are drowning in cheap images, and I didn’t really want to contribute to that cognitive fog. And I definitely didn’t want to take selfies anymore. (Especially knowing what Facebook was doing with them without my permission.) So now, every time I want to share a photo with the world, I’ll have to take it with a disconnected, specialized device, upload it to the computer later, sort through them, and then decide if any of them are worth sharing. Just my kind of tedious.

More broadly, though, there’s still a finality to all this. I had the emotional support of at least wifi-powered devices that could fit in my pocket, but that too is on the way out. I’m channeling a frame of mind I had for the first 22 years of my life: being disconnected is natural. And, arguably, it’s good.

The whole smartphone thing seemed like such an amazing leap forward. Internet communication and digital entertainment wherever there was a cell signal. It promised an end to boredom, to inefficiency, to loneliness, but it really did nothing but make us allergic to spare time, addicted to mindless “productivity”, and terrified of solitude. In reality, all we got was that famous line from the chorus of an Eagles’ song: Everything, all the time.

My other problem is that I read too much now. I go through a book a week, it seems like, what with all these extra little moments I find myself with these days. But there’s an old school cure for that too: a library card.

California Grown

I’ve made a soft resolution recently to eat as locally as possible. I didn’t wake up one morning and go “I’m gonna be a locavore from now on”; it’s just that I found myself making the decision to buy local produce more often than not in recent weeks, and I encouraged myself to continue doing so.

I live in the easiest place to do this in the entire US, though: California. A huge portion of the nation’s food comes from here, and we’re the #1 exporter for a number of crops for the whole planet. Things are in-season for a long time around here, too.

So I thought, why not give it a go? Or at least, pay attention to where and when it becomes a difficult decision. This means I’ll probably be giving up things like chia seeds, quinoa, and a number of varieties of rice. I’ll have to do my research. I won’t be giving up spices – I rarely use them anyway – and I will pretty much be forced to limit my sweeteners to… honey. (I don’t think there is any agave production in CA.) I’d use dates, which we do grow fairly close by, but they have a high glycemic load and aren’t great if you’ve got iffy blood sugar like I do. Plus, they’re not all that useful where liquid sweeteners are concerned.

I’ll also be limiting my purchases of bananas. I probably won’t be able to eliminate them, but I can personally avoid buying them. The banana industry is… pretty ugly on the whole. More on that in a later post that’ll rip into veganism again and paleo, though.

I probably won’t be following up on this too much; it doesn’t feel like that big of a change, being fortunate enough to be where I am, and aside from a few take-for-grantedables, there probably won’t be much to write home about. There is no grain or legume that can’t be substituted with another, banana substitute suggestions are one google search away, and the more exotic stuff that I only just in recent years got used to eating aren’t non-negotiable in any real way. Not to mention the fact that, I’m so used to making sudden changes to my life that most of them don’t feel particularly special anymore. I became vegetarian; so what? I stopped wearing makeup; big deal. I haven’t bought shampoo or paper towels in two years; yawn.

Anyways, that’s happening now. If there’s any noteworthy developments, I’ll keep you posted.

Remove Lint with Water

I have a white cat, a wardrobe that almost entirely consists of the color black, and I don’t own a lint removal tool. I mostly just… never got around to getting one. Thoroughly shaking clothes out does an OK job, but sometimes I have to pick him up and my black shirt is suddenly heather gray.

So in a pinch, I’ve discovered that a hand moistened with water does the trick just fine.

You want the palm of your hand just went enough to be damp, but not wet enough to drip: it seems like this has something to do with the surface tension of the water creating friction, therefore clinging to your skin as well as whatever else comes into contact with it. Once you’ve got your palm and fingers wet, pull your shirt (or whatever) taught, and drag the flat of your hand down the length of the fabric like you would a lint brush. Your skin will be dry after doing this a couple times, but re-moisten and repeat as necessary. Once all the hair/lint is bunched up in one spot, just pick it off.

Easy peasy.

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.


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.

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.