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by Meg O’Brien

Recently, my family participated in the NWEI EcoChallenge with the goal of reducing our driving.  My initial suggestion to my family to go “car-free” for two weeks was not wildly popular, so I settled for cutting our driving in half.   Though I thought we could be a bit more ambitious, I agreed to the compromise goal and hoped this small step might lead to something bigger.   I was confident the EcoChallenge would convince my husband that we could in fact, manage with one car.  And I had high hopes for converting my car-loving children into young champions for alternative transportation.  I imagined that they would come to realize that biking or bussing is more fun, interesting and freeing than being driven everywhere and that our efforts , no matter how small do matter.

How did we fare?  Well, in terms of our primary EcoChallenge goal of reducing our driving, it was an absolute success!  We found that with a little more biking and bussing, and a lot more coordinating of rides, we could reduce our driving by 60%!   The weather cooperated perfectly – we had sun for most of our bike commutes and bus rides and rain to cancel the long-distance baseball games.  Soccer games happen rain or shine, so we relied on a lot other families for rides to games.

My plan to become a one-car household was furthered by the timely demise of our station wagon.  For months it had been emitting a nasty plume of exhaust each time it was started and the repairs cost more than the car itself.  So once the engine light went on, we knew it was only a matter of time before it landed in a scrap heap.   But by that point, we’d nearly completed the EcoChallenge and were confident we could continue to choose more alternative forms of transportation and make one car work.

As for the third hope of converting my children into champions for alternative transportation- well, it may be a bit too early to say. There was a fair amount of grumbling about the extra busing and biking, but once it was over, my daughter (the most vocal grumbler) allowed that she really didn’t have to do that much.  No kidding!  And my son, who remarked during the EcoChallenge that he wished he could just have a normal family, recently gave me reason to hope.  As we biked home from his soccer practice the other night, we passed a teammate who lived, no joke, two blocks away from the park and was being driven home.  Owen looked over at me and said “that’s pretty silly, isn’t it?”

So, all in all, two out of three of my EcoChallenge goals were met.  And realistically, the third goal of raising eco-conscious kids is going to take a lot longer than two weeks.  So I’m not at all discouraged, after all, I have many more years of EcoChallenges  left to whip my children into shape!

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For this year’s Northwest Earth Institute EcoChallenge my family and I chose to take on several of the key areas of sustainable lifestyle habits: transport, food and waste. We were looking for a way to kick-start (and re-kick start in some cases) more simple and sustainable habits after having our heads deep in the sand of new parenthood. We committed to biking, busing and walking in lieu of using the car, a goal we met with reasonable success given we live in a community that supports alternative transport. We committed to eating more locally grown and processed foods, as well as to reducing the amount of waste we generate .

Perhaps the greatest lesson and reawakening for me was in the realm of our commitment to reduce our use of plastics and disposable items. Author and activist Julia Butterfly Hill says that “Disposables are a main sign that we have lost our connection to the sacred.” Day in and day out I am inundated with plastics. Plastics at the grocery store, plastics at the bakery, plastics at the restaurant, plastics, plastics, plastics. Hence the challenge to reduce plastic use presented me with a whole new lens through which to see my immediate surroundings. Plastics are everywhere! In fact, to try to buy food without buying plastics is a task commensurate to climbing Everest. At every turn, plastic: fruit in plastic, bread in plastic, crackers in plastic, cheese in plastic… The list goes on and on.

Julia’s musings on how disposables are a sign that we have lost our connection to the sacred stays with me. Every time I make a choice I am acting out my values, or not. The problem is that in a cultural pace that is quick as silver, and in a cultural scenario where plastics are a dime a dozen, even when you are trying to resist it is like being the proverbial Salmon swimming upstream. Of course I feel the Earth is sacred. Of course I know that plastics account for 25% of all waste in landfills. Of course I know that plastic doesn’t biodegrade quickly (ever?). Of course I know that plastic makes its way to the oceans, threatening birds and wildlife. Of course I know there is a floating plastic island the size of Texas in the North Pacific, formed from our (my) trash moving with ocean currents. So why did I just buy that loaf of bread wrapped in plastic?

Even when we know something, it doesn’t always serve us in closing what NWEI’s Executive Director Mike Mercer often talks about – the “say-do gap.” The problem is that we don’t always do what is ‘right’ based on our understanding, or our beliefs. We can say we understand something, and even that we ‘should’ take certain actions based on this understanding (ie: drive less, eat local, waste less, live more simply) – but the gap continues.

Here is the great task of our age – to close this gap and to act in accordance with what we know to be ‘right.’ This means vigilance at every turn. As the EcoChallenge reminded me this month, it means buying bread fresh and handing the baker my own bag to put it in. It means buying in bulk. It means thinking ahead and bringing my own utensils and containers when eating out. It means asking a lot of questions and talking about my concerns with decision makers. It also means reconnecting again and again with the sacred dimensions of life and Earth – and feeling how each gesture throughout my days is an opportunity to give voice to this experience.

This year we were fortunate to have many eco-friendly businesses donate prizes for our EcoChallenge Raffle.  The EcoChallenge Raffle is one of the ways that we say a very big THANK YOU!! to the EcoChallenge participants who fund raise on behalf of the Northwest Earth Institute.  This year we had 103 people sign up on the individual/fundraiser side (and another 200 people who participated on teams, without fund raising). The entire NWEI staff and Board of Directors participates in the EcoChallenge to raise money for our sustainability education programs, and it’s inspiring to be joined in those efforts! This year we had long-time volunteers collecting pledges for their EcoChallenge, along with some folks who are brand new to NWEI.  It was inspiring to read their stories on the EcoChallenge website, and if you have a few moments I highly recommend clicking around on the “List of Participants” page and reading about the always inspiring, sometimes humorous, and generally motivating experiences that the EcoChallenge participants had this year.

Back to the raffle. Like I said, we had a great collection of prizes for the EcoChallenge Raffle and only wish that everyone who participated could have won a prize!  Here are this year’s winners:

A Green Dog Pet Supply gift package: Eric Park
Round Town Cycling Pannier from REI: Beth Jackson
Laughing Planet gift certificate for $25: Bradford McKeown
Hopworks gift certificate for $25: Stacey Ho
Hopworks gift certificate for $25: Kim Smith
SoupCycle soup, delivered by bike, for a month: Bethany Waggoner
River Organics facial: Erin Simons
EcoMaids gift certificate valued at $150: Alysa Rose
Cupcake Jones gift certificate for one dozen cupcakes: Jenna Ringelheim
Hoptlips Pizzagift certificate for a 13″ pizza:  Elise Lind
Burgerville gift card & BPA free REI water bottle: Teri Hong
Burgerville gift card & BPA free REI water bottle: Jill Sughrue

Excerpt from Think Like an Ocean by Andi McDaniel (used in A World of Health: People, Place and Planet)

Lately, millions of well-intentioned shoppers have begun to connect the food they buy with the land from which it comes. They read the fine print on their vegetables, meat, and dairy to assure themselves that their purchase will benefit the iconic farmer, cow, and beautiful pasture featured on the label. What could feel more wholesome than helping out these friendly, familiar characters, so central to our concept of America?

It’s harder to identify with tuna.

And yet, mysterious though they may be, our oceans sustain us. As renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle says, “Without the ocean, life on earth would simply not be possible. Should we care about the ocean? Do we care about living?” All told, the health of the oceans affects our livelihood as much as our farms and forests do. The connection just isn’t as apparent.

  1. Do you agree with McDaniel’s assessment that “It’s harder to identify with tuna?”  Explain.
  2. To what extent are you aware of the issues plaguing the health of oceans?  Is your environmentalism more “land-oriented” as McDaniel suggests?
  3. What actions can we take to reflect an understanding of the connection between the health of the oceans and our livelihood?

Today marks the last official day of the 2010 EcoChallenge.  I say the last “official” day because many people will continue on with their individual eco-challenges.  Which is exactly what we we were hoping for!  The EcoChallenge event is an opportunity to try out a new sustainable behavior (or two or three), and our goal is for participants to have the “aha!” moment where they realize that their new behavior has become a new habit.  There are many things we can’t control in this world, and the EcoChallenge is an opportunity to examine the flip side of that coin–the things we can control.

This October we had 103 individual EcoChallengers and 39 teams participate in the 2010 EcoChallenge.  The EcoChallenge is a fundraiser for the Northwest Earth Institute–and just as importantly, it’s an awareness-raiser for sustainable living.   We had nearly 300 people total taking on a sustainability challenge during the two weeks of the EcoChallenge event–and many of these individuals will continue to live a lower impact lifestyle thanks to their challenge becoming a new habit.  Our goal is for the end of the EcoChallenge to be the beginning of new habits, for the EcoChallenge participants and those who they inspire with their actions.  When we talk to participants from past EcoChallenges they very frequently say “I’m still doing my challenge!” and even better is when they say “I’m still doing my challenge–and I inspired my friend/neighbor/coworker to act too!”.

On the fundraising side, we have many successes to report this year.  First and foremost, we owe a very big Thank You to the amazing volunteers who signed up to participate in the EcoChallenge and helped us raise over $15,000 so far! This year the entire staff of the Northwest Earth Institute participated in the EcoChallenge and stepped up with impressive energy and inspiring results– a very big thank you to my coworkers! (While the event ends today, the website is still up and running and accepting pledges, see here for some pledge making inspiration too).

The funds raised during the EcoChallenge will support NWEI’s efforts to develop new sustainability education programs, and bring those programs to communities across the United States.  Every day we hear about an exciting new group, school, or business participating in one of our discussion course programs, and the EcoChallenge is both a complement to our discussion courses–and a funding stream to make them possible.   Thank you to everyone who played a role in making the 2010 EcoChallenge a success! (and if you weren’t able to participate as an EcoChallenger but still want to play a role in the EcoChallenge, there’s still plenty of time to make a small pledge and show your support.)

Excerpt from “Beyond the Patient” by Lee Thirer (this full article was used in our newest course, A World of Health)

Hippocrates taught that nature was the doctor, the doctor its aide. Studying the interchange of the internal and the external, a Hippocratic healer paid careful attention to food, exercise, and the ways the waters and the climates acted on the four humors—blood, phlegm, and yellow and black biles, each associated with a particular temperament. By trusting and helping nature, the great healer, to maintain health, Hippocrates’ students sought to provide preventive care over a lifetime. Only after nature had begun to fail would the doctor prescribe treatments that would, in Hippocrates’ words, “help, or at least do no harm.”

For the first time in millennia, however, nature itself is so unwell that doctors cannot fulfill their ancient duties. Twenty-six centuries of medical innovations cannot now protect the patient from the wider world, with its modern stresses and toxicity. And even if they could, modern doctors are focused elsewhere. “We shouldn’t pretend that clinical medicine is really doing primary prevention,” says Ted Schettler, science director of the non-profit Science and Environmental Health Network, “because it’s not—and it’s not particularly interested in it.”

  1. What does preventative medicine look like to you?
  2. If healthcare practioners are to be “trusting and helping nature, the great healer, to maintain health” what actions might they prescribe for individuals? For society as a whole?
  3. What are ways an individual can be “helping nature to maintain health?”

Looking to join a Northwest Earth Institute discussion group this fall?
Now’s your chance!
Portland State University students are organizing Voluntary Simplicity discussion courses that are open to the community.

Eight different groups will be starting next week, and you all are invited to join!  Click here to order your copy of Voluntary Simplicity, and simply show up to one of the following locations to get started.

Food for Thought Cafe/PSU campus, 11:30am-12:30pm on Mondays
contact: jwanm@pdx.edu
Food for Thought Cafe/PSU campus, 2:30-3:30pm on Mondays
Chit Chat Cafe/PSU campus, 5-6pm on Mondays
contact: rayko@pdx.edu
Vancouver area (location to be announced), 6-7pm on Mondays
Food for Thought Cafe/PSU campus, 12-1pm on Tuesdays
contact: abellm@me.com
PSU/URBN Building, 2nd floor commons, 2-3pm on Wednesdays
PSU/ISS Building Room 115 (4th and Market), 12-1pm on Wednesdays
PSU Campus McMenamins, 11:30am-12:30pm on Fridays

T
he goals for the discussion course are:
-To understand the meaning of voluntary simplicity
-To explore the material and psychological distractions that prevent us from caring for Earth
-To acknowledge the connection between our lifestyle choices and the condition of Earth

Please be in touch with the students by email if you have any questions.


Here’s the third of our salon series which pulls an excerpt from our newest course, A World of Health: People, Place and Planet.  We hope this little snippet gives you a sense of what the course is like.  Enjoy!

“One Approach To Sustainability: Work Less” by John de Graaf

In response to escalating fuel costs, many companies are now considering going to a four-day work week.  They believe this will save large sums on commuter fuel expenses and reduce traffic congestion.  The problem is that they mean four 10-hour days.  But for many American families in which both parents work, such long days will intensify daily stress.

The real solution to this problem is to go to a four-day workweek of eight-hour days.  Total production would be reduced slightly, but this will make us more sustainable.  The commuting/energy benefits of the four-day week would be kept, without the negatives.  We could expect significant reductions in energy and resource use, and in health problems and health care costs.  Talk about a win-win situation!  The Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland non-profit has had such a 32-hour week for 10 years, with excellent results for productivity, creativity and worker morale.

  1. Do you tend to agree/disagree with John DeGraff’s assertion about the positive health and environmental benefits of a shorter workweek?  Why?
  2. What concerns might employers have regarding a shorter work week?  Are they valid?
  3. Does a 32 hour week sound appealing to you?  Would it affect your productivity?

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