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...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Green Building in the Arava--Part I

I recently traveled to the hottest part of the desert (unless you count the Dead Sea)--the Arava. This was a field trip with my department to see some of the principles of desert architecture in practice. Our first stop was Neot Smadar, a kibbutz. The first picture is a view of the kibbutz from the top of their orchard. You can see the hyper arid desert that surrounds the kibbutz, and the trees and pond that they have created.

The kibbutz was founded in 1989, by a group of friends living in Jerusalem who decided they wanted to form a community together. Another kibbutz called Shizafon that had been formed here did not work out, and was abandoned. The group of friends moved in and began planting trees with water pumped in. The purpose of our trip was not to evaluate the sustainability of their farming, although it was clear that they do what they can to reuse water, and to find uses for saline water. Also their agriculture is organic.

The reason we went to Neot Smadar was that they construct their own buildings, and try to incorporate passive cooling techniques. The most remarkable example of this is their arts center. They built a blue and pink building that looks bizarre from far away, to house their resident artists and eventually to contain a cafe and serve as a spot to sell their artwork. Unfortunately, my picture from far away did not come out well, but I was able to take pictures of many details. And what details. From afar it looks strange, so it is missing something of Gaudi's harmony, but from up close the details are breathtaking. It is cooled by a high cooling tower in the center, so that air conditioning is not needed. The members themselves planned and constructed the building, with some help from an outside engineer. a couple of the details (like for the cast iron railings) were executed outside the kibbutz.

I always love artwork that incorporates natural themes, especially animals, so as you can see this was right up my alley. I just loved their bull designs. It is incredible to me that a community of non-specialists could create such beautiful things. They also have delicious ice cream (possibly from their goat milk?). Join me for Part II, where I will show some pictures of the grassroots green architecture from kibbutz Lotan.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I have to admit from the beginning that I am not a great cleaner. I don't really notice a dirty floor or layer of dust. This is probably good for my quality of life, because I don't have to spend very much time cleaning. I do dishes and clean food messes immediately, but sweeping, dusting and mopping are low on my list. My dear husband feels differently. He doesn't like cleaning either, but his preference for clean is stronger than mine. Which means that he acts as our cleaning conscience every few weeks and we have to buckle down and sweep and mop the house.

Because I think so little about cleaning, I never have given much thought to environmentally friendly cleaning products, and when we moved in here, we bought the old standards. Recently, due to renewed consciousness about living simply, I have discovered that water works only slightly less well than the toxic stuff. I have been adding a little bit of soap if it just doesn't come off. But I don't find an alternative to paper towels. Here in Israel most people use a kind of cleaning cloth that is reusable but I always end up with piles of grime when I use it. I guess when we move we will try to make a more complete turnaround. I hear vinegar, baking soda and lemon can work wonders. The truth is that when we clean, and also when the cleaning lady cleans the floors in my lab, I get a headache, so regardless of long term effects and even environmental effects, I am not fond of the toxic cleaners. If only I can find a way around paper towels.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reduce--personal energy usage

The student housing that I have been issued as a master's student at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research is environmentally friendly. It is lit during the day by daylight. It is heated in the winter by passive solar heating and during the summer we keep it cool by keeping everything closed. We have a solar hot water heater. I believe that the materials they used weren't the most sustainable, although I would have to check. This is a shame because according to the New York Times, the most important energy usage in buildings comes from the construction phase, so the building of the materials and then the durability of the house (if it isn't durable, you have to construct it again quickly).

However, living in a house that is designed to reduce my energy consumption has been interesting. I never gave a lot of thought to these issues, or the thought I gave was based on how much I was paying, before.

Nevertheless, my husband and I found that even here, we are among the highest electricity users. How could this be? I care about conservation. But it appears that like many conservationists, I care, but don't let that translate into action. I think it probably boils down to the big conservation indicator--wealth. My husband is older than I, saved money before returning for his Ph.D., and earns a higher scholarship than I. And we pool our resources and don't have children. So we don't have the same economic incentive to conserve electricity and have more devices that use electricity.

Even so, our electricity consumption is made up of the following:
12 lights (one of which I now replaced with a fluorescent)
1 ceiling fan
1 electronic fan
electronic component of our hot water heater
hair dryer (SELDOM used)
hot plate
electric teakettle
cable box
sony playstation
chargers for camera, cell phones, toothbrushes
electronic fan in the bathroom
2 space heaters
alarm clock
That is 32 items. Since hearing that we are high electricity consumers, I have tried to make some changes.

1. when a light went out, I replaced it with fluorescent lightbulb. DH hated the light, and it was in the area he uses as a workspace when he works from home. Instead, I put the fluorescent in the outside light, which we seldom use, but which it is possible to accidentally turn on and leave on, causing a big electricity drain.

2. I learned that vampires, things that suck energy when they are plugged in, even if not on, can use 10% of your electricity. For example a tv or cable box. So I try diligently to unplug them when not on, and educated DH about that. Also chargers stay unplugged now when not in use.

3. I learned that despite my previous hazy notion, items like computers do use more energy when left on. So now I try to always turn off the computer when not in use, and also pay attention to other things like the ceiling fan or radio, and turn them off.

Even with these changes, we have not done anything drastic. Our biggest usage is probably due to the fact that I am one of those people who is always cold, so we were leaving a space heater on overnight in the winter. What we should have done, is bought an extra blanket. Surely we could have even bought a used one, or borrowed one from DH's family. It is embarrassing to write that we didn't do that, but one must be honest.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Apparently in the past month, several trees have been chopped down on our Sede Boqer campus. A neighbor of mine organized a meeting to discuss this. I was unsure about going. While I do not want trees cut down, I was not sure that it was an issue that merited mass efforts in contra. Nevertheless, I attended the meeting to understand why my neighbor found it important.

It seems that while it may not be strictly necessary to cut down the trees, if they are in the path of a truck, it may just be easier for the construction workers to cut down the tree. With no public outcry, no one was forced to consider this. While the administration representative told us that trees are important to him, he is very busy and surely has no wish to micromanage the grounds crew.

Our first action was to write names for each tree in an area where we believe construction is imminent, in English, Hebrew and Arabic, with a notice asking not to cut down the tree. The names were removed the following day.

I believe that no trees have been cut down since the first meeting, but another meeting was held last night. There was a discussion about solutions, and the organizers said that their ideal is that a committee would be formed, consisting of members from various disciplines, to decide the fate of each tree whose demise might be suggested. Today some participants met with the administration, and will be allowed to see plans. And the administration today had a value of each tree written in at approximately $2000 on their contracts.

This struggle is beginning only now. And someone came up with an interesting idea--that of transforming the gardens on our campus into a botanical garden representing native plants. I love that idea.

While this may not be a standout issue, it is important in our community. It has been interesting to see the way that two meetings have energized a small group of people, and caused innovative solutions to be thought up. We are lucky in that we live and study in a very ecologically aware campus, so the administration ultimately does support these issues, as does the local community.

Ramat Hovav Explosion

There was an explosion today at Ramat Hovav. Three workers were injured, highway 40 was shut down (I hope we'll be able to get home) and it seems that they evacuated the Bedouins who live in an unrecognized settlement across the street.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


In the past couple of years, I have become more frugal. I have the feeling that may end in a few months, when we move back to the US. Now we live in a small desert town. There is a supermarket here, sufficient for buying needs (not wants). There is also a cafeteria that serves the same hot food until 7 p.m. and stays open for simple pastries and ice cream until 11? The truth is that the food there is extremely unappetizing so is no kind of temptation. I would much rather cook, or just make a sandwich, than eat there. Our supermarket closes at 7, so there is no last minute running out for the ingredient you forgot, or midnight ice cream runs. In fact, the supermarket closes early on Fridays (2) and is not open on Saturdays.

So basically there is no way to spend your money unless you travel. Since it is a small community, and we are all students, and things in Israel tend to be casual (except in Tel Aviv), there is no need for designer clothes. In fact, it isn't even a temptation to be at the mall and see fancy outfits because you just can't conceive of wearing them here.

There are no billboards here. The university gives us free satellite tv and internet connection. On satellite tv, most of the stations don't have any commercials. If you want to know about the newest product, you have to do some research.

We do go to the nearby city of Beer Sheva on a regular basis, and our biggest temptation is to go out for a reasonable dinner. Spending more on dinner seldom gets you better food in Beer Sheva. Since we live 45 minutes away, the temptation to drink is minimal.

There is a student pub here, but the prices are very low, so to get very drunk maybe you pay $10. The pub is open twice a week. I can't get very drunk very often (okay once in the close to two years that we have been here), so a further lack of temptation.

Since our housing is environmentally friendly, our electricity bill is low. We pay about $30 a month for my husband's portion of our housing--my portion is covered by my scholarship. Our biggest expenses are car related. We do have a used car, and we drive it to visit my husband's family 2.5 hours away from here every two weeks. We also frequently drive to Beer Sheva if both of us want to go there.

I don't feel deprived. Actually, being a newlywed, most of the time I am very happy. I hope I will take a lesson back to the US, that stuff is not important to happiness. It is harder there, when you are surrounded by advertising and opportunities to buy. I can't say that I am by nature a frugal person. I always try to sock away money, contribute to retirement accounts and find a way to be self sufficient. But I usually exceed my budget for things like eating out. While my dream expenditures are travel and classes, I secretly love clothing and pampering. If I were rich I could probably adjust to designer labels and day spas.

I think most people have some kind of stuff that really appeals to them. A lot of people like cars, or gadgets. To tell you the truth, it takes no kind of discipline for me to say no to an expensive new car or the latest gadget. With cars I just want something reliable and fuel efficient, and prefer public transportation or walking anyway. By far. I don't even want to learn how to use the latest gadget. I like internet radio, I feel like it has eliminated my need ever to buy cds (which I hate anyway--I am waiting for a new medium that doesn't get scratched so easily like almost all of my cd's did when I transferred them to a travel case). Books are a halfway temptation for me--I love to read, but I hate moving books around. I prefer to use the library or buy used and then donate.


Well I started on the muesli today. It is very hard to eat! I think my jaw muscles will get toned. But I feel great... Maybe the next step will be making my own but it seems complicated.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

food stuff

Well I took a blog vacation, and now I'm back, fairly fresh from reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I found the book very interesting. My personal favorite line was when he says that Americans are becoming the koalas of corn. For readers who may not know what the book is about, Pollan traces the path of food from the fields where it is grown to our plates. He checks out conventional industrial agriculture, "supermarket pastoral" or the organic food sold at big supermarkets, food grown at small farms, and hunting and gathering.

I'm still digesting (ha ha) what I learned from the book. It is relevant to my thesis, which is about livestock production systems in Israel. I have still not mentioned anything about organic livestock production in Israel, partially because it is very minor--there is only one organic dairy farm.

I was a vegetarian for a while, 8 years. I was a vegan for 4 of them, although not the strictest vegan you could find. I eventually stopped, and like any personal decision it is complicated. I was in Guatemala, and didn't have facilities to make food, for one thing. There were vegetarian options, but generally in real restaurants only, and for 10 times the price of options that included meat. At any rate there was more to the decision, which also involved health and hunger : )

One of the most surprising statistics that Pollan cites is that for one calorie of Earthbound organic lettuce to reach an East Coast plate, 57 calories of fossil fuel must be expended. Yikes! Of course the choices are complex--there are no artificial fertilizers or pesticides used, so at least the landscape is less polluted than it might otherwise be. Pollan doesn't ultimately endorse any method of growing food. He points out the total unsustainability of the McDonalds meal and of the meal hunted, gathered and grown. So he seems to indicate that either supermarket pastoral or locally grown is the way to go, while recognizing that in the case of big organic, it isn't environmentally friendly enough, and in the small farm, it isn't practical enough economically.

I've been thinking about this in terms of small producers from Bedouin to Jew who leave a small footprint but produce very little of the country's output versus the bigger farms on kibbutzim who require intensive inputs of energy to produce a large chunk of Israel's food. I have to come up with conclusions and am not sure that I have reached them yet either (well okay I have a few).

It is interesting to me that the local food movement ties in with recognizing indigenous knowledge. I read an interesting book by Gary Nabhan that mentions the Indians of the Sonora desert beginning to grow indigenous crops again, an example of ethnonutrition. Reading about Bedouin nutrition prior to westernization, I see that they also had a healthy diet. It would be interesting to see if that is changing.

Meanwhile, I already try to eat from whole foods. We buy very little processed food. Our meals come directly from fruits, veggies, meat and milk. Very little is organic, partially because it is more expensive and partially because there is very little organic food at supermarkets in the area. I have been eating breakfast cereal, though, and I guess I am going to try eating muesli instead (organic and locally produced I think). As soon as this box of cheerios is done.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Green Building

The weekend before last, the New York Times Magazine was a special issue devoted to green building. This is one of my pet interests as a conservationist. Why? Because the housing that I have been issued as a master's student at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research* is environmentally friendly. It is lit during the day by daylight. It is heated in the winter by passive solar heating and during the summer we keep it cool by keeping everything closed. We have a solar hot water heater. I believe that the materials they used weren't the most sustainable, although I would have to check.

It is a shame if the materials were not very environmentally friendly, or were not durable, because:

"a building's efficiency should be measured not just by its mechanical systems but also by how much energy it uses over its lifetime. More energy is expended in a building's construction than at any other stage, so a structure that lasts 100 years will use far less energy than one that lasts 5, no matter how efficient." --from "Greener Acres: Why are they greener than we are?" by Nicolai Ouroussoff, May 20, New York Times

I am also interested in green building because buildings use so much of our natural resources, some estimates say 45% of energy use, dwarfing other sectors like transportation. This means that building design is much more important than the last topic I addressed, green weddings. And there is a lesson in green building, that by defining the framework well from the beginning, you can stem major problems before they happen. I will write about energy conservation here, but that is something finite. After you have switched to fluorescent bulbs, you will still be using a baseline of energy. A house that was built with no reference to local climate will force you to use heating and cooling. You can find ways to reduce your usage, but if the building was designed better, you would be using less energy already.

I was heartened today to see that many schools in the US are starting to look at ways of greening their buildings. Schools going green are especially important because they can teach many people, children and families, about the benefits of green building.

For residential construction, the New York Times suggested that the most important people to reach are developers, because architects may want to build green, and consumers may want to buy green, but developers are the ones making the decisions about what gets built.

What can you do? Green building is an issue that calls out for awareness raising. For example, did you know about LEED? If you are looking for a place to buy, ask everyone about LEED. The reality is that you probably will not be able to buy a green home or apartment, you will have to try energy saving measures (here are some ideas for renters). But as more people learn about green design, your chances will improve for the next move.

*That's right dear readers, I study in Sde Boker, Israel, in the news today here for an epic story of man wrestles leopard to save feline lives. And the AP is incorrect, this did not happen in Kibbutz Sde Boker, but in the Midrasha.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Green Weddings

Yes dear readers, I married just months ago. Weddings right now are an exciting topic, with numerous books like Rebecca Mead's "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding." For us conservationists, the wedding industry has thoughtfully created the "green wedding."

While I was initially interested in incorporating a green element in my own wedding, I came to the conclusion that the green wedding was about hype. Instead of focusing on reducing, the creators of the green wedding urge you to buy more, just more organic stuff.

I, too, love organic stuff. I would have loved an organic silk crepe dress, preferably by a major designer. Also many seated meals with organic local foods, designed and cooked by a talented chef. Unfortunately, my budget did not afford these things.

Interactive Green Wedding Planning Advice:

1. My budget is: a. $20,000 or up b. less than $20,000

If you answered a or b:

point I:
The purpose of a big wedding is to celebrate with friends and family, not to make a political point. If you want both a wedding and a political event, I recommend that you separate the two.

point II:
Please do not ask for gifts of charity donations. It is very preachy (and if it is a "green wedding" anyway, people already understood the sermon once they saw the slow organic food menu).

I already think you are a good person or I won't buy you a gift. I want to give you a gift that celebrates your union and helps you build a household together. I may buy you something from your registry. So why don't you register for gifts that are lasting and useful. If I determine that it might be a better gift, I will give money. Or you can return the gift I gave you. With the money you either receive directly from the giver or indirectly from the store, you can make a donation to whichever charity you choose. I will never know. Or you can use it to help pay rent, or to buy groceries, or for some other nondisappearing bill.


If you answered a: follow the tips you will find elsewhere, and thank you for doing your part for our planet.

If you answered b: come along with me.

The keyword here is REDUCE. All these green luxuries, while "glamorous" have little to do with conservation. If you buy favors for all your guests, for example, each favor is one more extra thing that might never have needed to be produced. Even if the favors are organic seeds--those of your guests that are gardeners can buy their own. The others will just waste the seeds.

The good news is that a modest wedding does not have to use much extra energy. Don't be too anxious about it, and don't worry too much about whether it is "green." Focus on what is most important for you and your family.

10 Greener Wedding Ideas

1. Consider each element of the wedding and whether it is important to you.
2. Skip the favors.
3. Use plants instead of cut flowers.
4. Consider where the majority of the guests live, and have it nearby.
5. Skip extravagant touches.
6. Patronize local merchants.
7. Recycled paper for the invitations.
8. Recycled gold for the rings.
9. Reuse someone else's dress.
10. Register for gift items that you need/will use, and will stand the test of time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Funniest Books I've Read

Here, for free, is a list of the funniest books I have read. Funny as in they make me laugh out loud. I will amend this list when I think of others.

Me Talk Pretty One Day--David Sedaris
A Confederacy of Dunces--John Kennedy Toole
Al Capsella Takes a Vacation--J. Clarke
The Heroic Life of Al Capsella--J. Clarke
Right Ho, Jeeves--P.G. Wodehouse
Leave it to Psmith--P.G. Wodehouse
The Twinkie Squad--Gordon Korman
Go Jump in the Pool--Gordon Korman
I Want To Go Home--Gordon Korman
Who is Bugs Potter--Gordon Korman
Son of Interflux--Gordon Korman
Scoop--Evelyn Waugh
A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag--Gordon Korman

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lesson 1: Reduce

So I started to think, when I was working at my job in conservation, that probably just by recycling or starting a recycling project in your own community, you could make just as important a difference as I could make at my job. That is not terrible. My personal philosophy is that our most important actions (unless you hold a very influential position) are in our private lives, not our professional lives.

I digress. The point is that "glamorous" is not key when it comes to conservation. It can be a tool to make conservation more attractive, but the key is conservation itself. And conservation is nothing more than a fancy word for "keep" or "save." Another nice catchphrase is "Reduce, reuse, recycle."

As you may notice from what you have read so far, I was not well versed in the concept of "Reduce, reuse recycle" when I first became active in conservation work. And I did not yet understand that the emphasis is in that order. You start by reducing your needs. Which is hardly a glamorous concept.

Glamorous Conservation?

As time went on, I began to question the glamorous nature of conservation work. The truth was, that while fundraising parties in exotic locales were glamorous, the people I met who worked day after day on projects trying to rejuvenate traditional authority structures, teach the children, or guard their stretch of forest--they weren't glamorous. Well some were, and a lot weren't. In fact, when I met indigenous workers, some were a lot of fun, interesting, funny, and some were poor, standoffish, hard to communicate with.

I started to think that maybe what was glamorous about this work, was that it was far away. It involved exotic locales and travel.

Glamorous Conservation

When I took my previous job at a conservation organization, I wanted to be involved with a group that was trying to make a difference in the world. I believed in conservation, fighting global warming, saving the rainforest. I had subscribed to Ranger Rick as a child and Audubon as a teenager.

I could see, during my interviews, that my bosses to be were passionate about their work. That was enough for me. I took the job when offered and began working immediately.

And so began an interesting period wherein I learned a lot about:
1. The mission of the organization;
2. The world of conservation organizations;
3. conflicts between indigenous issues and conservation issues;
4. overlap between areas of high cultural diversity and importance with areas of high biological diversity;
5. people involved in conservation work.

While my job was near Washington DC, our organization was international. We were not political, but were concerned with grassroots projects in sometimes turbulent areas. I was lucky to work for a group that was very much centered on indigenous issues.

As I continued working there, I realized that conservation was not, as I had thought, uncontroversial and hands-off. I like consensus, and thought that the environment is an issue that can unite people. While some people may not care very much about environmental issues, everyone can agree that streams shouldn't be polluted and that we need trees.

I was surprised to see big disputes among conservationists. To be political or not. To side with indigenous groups who want to continue living on their land, or to kick them out and make a national park there. To work together with corporations who want to develop unspoiled land in hopes of getting less contamination, or to side against them to remain "pure." To accept donations from organizations or corporations of questionable repute. To be "paternalistic" in working with indigenous groups or to let them represent themselves.

Luckily, these disputes were far away from me. Our work was far away from me. While I answered phones, arranged meetings and worked on the website, other people in another continent were meeting government officials and indigenous representatives. Although my work was fairly humdrum, I was told by people that my job was "glamorous."

Maybe that was a goal: a glamorous job, and a glamorous life. But this isn't confession, and I think everyone wants to feel like their life is exciting and glamorous.

Personal Introduction

I am a conservationist. And I can prove it. If I were to tell you my name, you could google it and see that I worked for a conservation organization for 3.5 years. And now I no longer work there, but I am studying for a master's degree that is all about sustainability.
And I am a newlywed. I married my husband 2 months ago and now we have an idyllic life here in the desert of Israel.
These are two labels that can be applied to me (you see, I did it myself). But part of this blog is an admission that despite my credentials, I may not even be a conservationist. I am interested in conservation issues but I don't always live up to my ideals.
I created this blog to write about my thoughts and steps towards conservation. I hope that it will be useful to other people like me, from developed countries who have a big ecological footprint but who want to do better.