Thursday, September 6, 2007

Big Donors and the Gub Ment

There was an interesting story in the New York Times today about current laws that allow Americans to take deductions for charitable donations. The crux of the article is that the system gives an additional advantage to very wealthy people at the expense of the mass of taxpayers. The example the writer gives is that donations to schools are tax deductible, so that a wealthy school district like Woodside receives much more funding than a district that was already poor.

I never thought about the big subsidy that taxpayers give to allow people with means to fund--whatever they want. But it does concern me that very wealthy Americans have so much control over major world issues. And I am skeptical of the idea that say Bill Gates is a saint, or Bono. Basically these are very wealthy people who don't have to sacrifice their least desire, and their philanthropic work increases their fame. It is not a case of giving and getting nothing--all of a sudden they are named Man of the Year. The same is true with other famous philanthropists--We've all heard of the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Mellons, in part because of the money they gave away. But other people worked hard, suffered, to get them those riches. Those people don't have the same philanthropic choices.

On one hand I think the tax deduction is good, because it does provide an incentive to give. I have previously seen figures showing that the US is exemplary in the rate of private charitable giving. And the philanthropic choices of the rich that the article mentions, like art galleries, concert halls, the environment, and foreign plagues--these are important, and our government does not fund them sufficiently. On the other hand, maybe it is just too undemocratic to allow this massive shelter for the rich, who then control situations all over the world.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Couples and Conservation

The biggest thing that happened to me in the past few years was meeting my husband, and getting married. I never had a lot of boyfriends, and went from being very single to being in a serious relationship within a space of two weeks. It didn't let up from there. Meanwhile I found my life changing in other ways. Rules that I had tried to live by were relaxed. Things were more hectic. Hobbies were abandoned.

I know that I have changed a lot. I believe that my husband has changed a lot as well. I see the changes, although I didn't know him before I started dating him, so my opinion is suspect.

One challenge that we face and that I imagine is common to face when you start a relationship is how to live your values. I care about conservation. I was working in the field when I met my husband. But I don't think that he had ever though seriously about conservation. He has other pet issues, which I had also not considered.

As we have grown closer to each other, we have both started adopting part of each others' pet issues. I have become more frugal. He has become more interested in conservation. He warns me against becoming a fanatic when I state that I don't want to buy any cheap plastic toys for our future progeny. But he is often the one to point out how we can cut down on driving to save energy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


There is an interesting article in the New York Times about the rapid industrialization of China and the (dire) effects it is having on the environment. It leaves me pondering a couple of questions that sound stupid. How much should I care? What should I do? These questions are difficult for me as someone who cares about conservation.

I sense that I should care a lot about what happens in China. Here are some very basic thoughts about China. Clearly I want the environment in China to be pristine. I don't want pollution. I cynically believe that maybe even the majority of Chinese will be losers from this rapid industrialization. Their health problems will overshadow any economic gains that might eventually trickle down to them. I also believe that our current and China's growing usage of fossil fuels is bad, and not sustainable. At the same time I know that China has a bad record with human rights, and that workers often have very bad conditions. I don't know much about biodiversity and species loss in China. China is a big country (the fourth largest). If their environment is bad, it is bad for the world.

I am just not sure what we can do, observing this. I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine, a Kenyan conservationist, over the use of DDT. I had read in Tierney Lab in the New York Times an argument towards the use of DDT in Kenya, because the threat of malaria there is more important to Tierney than the environmental threats caused by the usage of DDT. This made me think. But my friend told me that in western countries, we developed our economic system rapidly and devastated the environment. They have the chance in Kenya to develop economically without replicating our mistakes. And environmentalism is a marginal movement in Kenya (like in many western countries) so they really need the support of us Westerners. On the other hand, if the people of Kenya overwhelmingly want to devastate their environment, one could argue that it is imperialist of me to insist on "sustainability," especially while the US emits carbon at such high rates and destroys its own resources.

My value for the environment mostly trumps my desire not to be imperialist, but to what extent? At some point the situation in China will get bad enough that they will have to change. How much can efforts, especially from abroad, do to hasten changes before necessity enforces them? I don't actually have a plan to make a difference in China, so I suppose this is mostly an academic posting, but I think about these issues. And maybe if I could be convinced that my efforts could make a difference I would change my plans.

I wonder about this question a little bit in terms of the climate change issue vs. peak oil. If we have passed the period of peak oil production, maybe climate change will be halted. The problem comes if we have to tackle climate change while there is plenty of oil left.
If we could really make the polluter pay, and include costs of pollution in the price of commodities, these issues could be reframed.

Monday, August 27, 2007

So sad

Owen Wilson tried to commit suicide. Just the look on his face can make me laugh. Sometimes I think about people who choose to pursue careers in music or the arts. Almost everyone will try to deter them. Usually they have to spend a lot of time before making it big. And there are plenty of the ones that do make it who to me are generic and interchangeable. Owen Wilson is not one of them. I love people who can make me laugh (one of the many things I love about my own husband).
Thank you Owen for all the enjoyment you have given me by making movies.
Please don't try to commit suicide again. There are so many things in life that are worthwhile. Learn a language! Go get a master's degree in desert studies! Or something else : ) Help the cause of environmental conservation!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Frugal Lifestyle

Phil Brewer at Wise Bread wrote a post asking whether frugality is a tactic or a goal. There was a time when I would have said that it was a tactic. But while living in Sede Boqer on very little money, I have changed my mind. I hope not to lose my newfound perspective when we move to CA at the end of theyear.

First of all, my definition of frugality. To me, frugal living means paying attention to how you spend your time and money. Aiming for value. I want to do that in my life. Part of the conservation ethos is “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” That phrase is also relevant to frugality. Trying to use what you have, to be creative, to spend your time and money on what is most important to you. Here are seven benefits (okay six benefits and one justification) of a frugal lifestyle. I also think that No Impact Man has a good post detailing benefits here.

  1. The frugal lifestyle builds community

How many of the things that we buy keep us away from other people? When you have no car, you walk, or take the bus, or get a ride from someone else. Each of these options means some interaction. Once you buy your own vehicle, you are on your own. Your commute is solo. Housing is similar. Maybe you start out with roommates, then move into your own apartment, then buy a house. At least in the apartment building you probably utilize some common space, even if it is the nearby park. When you own your own home, you can even build a playground for your kids. Everyone has their own space in the house, which is great, but you don’t have to spend time together. That time together is how you bond, how you learn to form friendships and negotiate conflicts.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is active

No Impact Man recently posted on a Shabbat dinner he attended in the home of orthodox religious friends. He mentioned that they sang together, and he enjoyed it so much that he vowed to bring music making into his own home. The consumer lifestyle brings you perfect singing. You get used to perfect, packaged goods. You become passive. You don’t want people to hear you sing, because you don’t sing that well. Something you make is not good enough to be in your home, to be displayed, or to be given as a gift. Your activity becomes shopping, to buy the music, to buy the artwork or the mosaic table.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is fun

Singing and making art is fun. Much more fun than shopping. It is relaxing. It will teach you about yourself. It is a great way to spend time with other people. It should not be reserved for professionals. One thing I’ve noticed is that Americans seem more self conscious than people from most other cultures. I think it is because we compare ourselves to perfect packaged goods. Relax! Sing, dance, draw, sculpt—just have fun with it.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is comfortable (for the soul)

I went to Guatemala for three months when I was 21. I stayed with a host family, and had a lot of fun playing with the six year old boy. We played with all his toys. They fit in a shoebox. We had fun. It makes me uncomfortable to see the plastic wave of toys that engulfs my friends’ houses when they start having kids (note—I am sure it will engulf my home as well when we start a family. I’ve never seen anyone successfully resist this). Plastic is a petroleum product. Fossil fuels are so named because they are like fossils, they are remnants of an ancient process. When you use it all, it is gone. Isn’t it a shame that we are using it for all these toys? It is very hard to resist buying these things, but if you can shield your household just a little from the consumerist urge to buy these toys, no one will be worse off. It is sad to see all the waste we create in the US. It will take a lot of work to change this.

Note—plastic toys make a good example because they are ubiquitous and so wasteful, but most consumer goods can be classified in this way at least to some extent. We all have our favorites.

  1. The frugal lifestyle is healthy

I never use coupons. Because I buy whole foods and cook from scratch. You can’t find coupons for “apples.” Making meals out of whole ingredients is healthier for you, and pretty much beats all the diets you can find in weight loss books. A goal I have when we move is to try making cleaning products or at worst buy natural ones. This will take away the headaches I get every time we clean with the industrial stuff. It will reduce my family’s exposure to toxic chemicals. By riding a bike or walking to work you exercise.

  1. The frugal lifestyle takes less work

This is a philosophical point. If you can live on less, you have to work less to achieve your income. Also, if you buy labor saving stuff, like dryers, dishwashers, disposals, microwaves—they cost money to buy, the repairs cost money, and using them costs money. You are working at your job to earn that money. If you love your job, it is a good exchange. If you don’t like your job, it is a bad exchange. Keep in mind, most of these don’t save you all that much time (depending on your family situation of course : ).

But here’s another example. A lot of people spend money on landscaping services. A company comes in, sprays their yard with pesticides, lays down fertilizer, cuts the grass with noisy machines. We are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. If more people would let their yard go wild, or mostly wild, it would be a great thing for birds, native plant species, and other wild critters. Plus think of all the energy that would be saved. Plus, there is beauty in every landscape, from desert to forest. Display that beauty in your yard. It is much less work than mowing your lawn!

  1. I hate driving

Okay, so one of these things doesn’t belong here. But I can tell you that while living in the suburbs and working12 miles away, if I drove I was spending around 2 hours a day driving. Sitting in traffic. I was half crazy. Not everyone feels this way, but Penelope Trunk wrote a column where she mentions that people’s commutes are a very unhappy time of their day. I can't find it now, but I have seen research that claims that the commute is very unpleasant, but by carpooling or taking public transportation, that time is transformed into happy time, or at the very least, happier time. By trying to minimize your commute, you do yourself a big favor. Trust me, walking to work beats driving there, even in a beemer.

Charity Begins at Home

I planned to write today about conservation and personal finance. But instead I will go off on a tangent.

I don't claim to be a Biblical scholar, but I do believe that charity begins at home. Some people believe that active commitment to abstract ideals is the most important; they strive to be leaders of thought and action. I tend to believe that being a good person in your limited sphere is most important. Hear me out. Let's say you volunteer in a soup kitchen, or as a big sister to a troubled child. But meanwhile, you don't spend time with your spouse, your kids, or your extended family. Inattention from family is part of what gets people in the situations that you are trying to ameliorate with your volunteer work. So you would be better off listening to your sister, offering your nephew a place to stay.

I recently (okay yesterday) had a very trying experience. My husband and I are going through bureaucratic perdition, otherwise known as immigration to the US. He has applied for residency, and we have spent large sums of money and uncountable hours filling out paperwork, making phone calls to various agencies, trolling forums for advice, talking to lawyers, obtaining documents and translations. If you hate foreigners, you will be glad to hear that they suffer while trying to immigrate to the US.

We have reached the final stages. Yesterday I went to the library to make copies of my husband's documents (birth certificate with certified translation, police report, marriage certificate to give you a sense). I walked over with the documents and with the equivalent of $2.50 in my pocket (a 10 shekel coin, which I had received for change at lunch). I made the copies, and the total came to $.40 (2 shekels). I handed the money to the cashier. She told me, "This is counterfeit. I can't accept it. We're closing now. Come back tomorrow with the money for your documents." And she took my husband's documents from me, and the copies, and the coin.

I tried to argue with her, asking how she could know the money was counterfeit, and begging to have the documents. She went to security. I started to cry. While this may sound petty to the reader, I felt totally desperate. These documents represent hours of work. My husband's father picked up the birth certificate when he traveled to Argentina. We don't know anyone with plans to travel there anytime soon if this were to get lost. We also paid more than $100 for a certified translation, which took three weeks. My husband had to take a half day holiday to obtain his police certificate, and had to ask his father to pick it up from the consulate a week later. If these documents went missing, it might mean a month's delay in his green card application process, which we can't afford. My husband has a job offer in California starting in November, and we have to move out of our apartment here in mid October. Just like that, for $.40, the cashier was willing to put this in jeopardy for me.

The story has a happy ending. The security guard agreed to wait five minutes for me to get more money, and we were able to pay and receive the documents. My behavior was far from perfect, as was my husband's. I was still crying and he was irate. We did apologize afterwards. While I could have had faith in the library staff, that they would keep the documents, I live 45 minutes away, so it is an ordeal to come back just to pay them. In addition, I have bad experiences with the "come back and get it" setup. Sometimes, "it" is there. Sometimes, the person who said they would have "it" for you doesn't work that day, and no one who is working knows anything about your situation.

Call me an idealist, but the cashier and the other library staff had the opportunity to do a service yesterday. By trusting that I would bring them the two shekels, and giving me my original documents, they could have given me an invaluable gift. They could have avoided the scene that did ensue.

Sometimes it is easy to feel supportive of an abstract cause, like disaster relief. But it is harder to give to the person next door, in everyday circumstances. We like the excitement of a major tragedy somewhere far away, but we don't care to avert the major inconvenience of a friend or acquaintance. As a society, we give people awards if their work leads to a "major advance." We name buildings after people who give large sums of money. But it is just as important to recognize people who give bus fare to the woman who realizes she left it at home, or lend a cell phone to the man who needs to call his wife, who support family members at critical times, and who understand when a friend needs a little extra time to pay them back.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Part II of Green Building in the Arava

Our green building pilgrimage continued through the Arava, and we visited several other sites. Worthy of mention is Kibbutz Ketura, the site of the Arava Institute. The institute recently renovated a duck? turkey? coop and made it somewhat green, in order to house their offices. The kibbutz also houses a new aquaculture program, which we did not hear about. Some of the housing features shading above the houses, which helps keep them cool during the summer.

But we spent more time at Kibbutz Lotan, site of the green apprenticeship program (worth a visit if you are interested in learning how to make your own green home or community). Our first stop was the "happiest bus stop in Israel." Like many of the buildings we were to see, it was made of mud-encrusted used tires. Our guide proudly explained to us that the kibbutz is a net importer of used tires. In the top picture you can see their transition from trash to building materials.

We walked over to their recycling center, and then on to their small community of geodesic domes (modified) used for housing in the green apprenticeship program, and currently under construction by green apprentices. The little houses were comfortable in the heat of the day (we were there at around 4 p.m.). I especially liked the little touches--the bottles that gave illumination in the communal kitchen, the recycled glass placed to make whimsical mosaics a la Gaudi, meandering designs for benches. Again here I enjoyed the details that people cared enough to create. The toilets in the area were composting.

We walked around to see the water recycling area, where they have planted wetlands to purify wastewater. Much of the new building they do is designed to take advantage of passive cooling and heating techniques. Our guide had put water to boil in a solar heater when we began the tour, and it was ready in time for us to have tea before leaving. I declined the tea, as our walk included plenty of time in the sun, and I tend to doubt that drinking hot beverages really cools you down. I will have to see documented scientific proof...