Sunday, August 3, 2008

Carbon Footprints and a Respect for the Mundane

As a mother, I tend to think quite a bit about environmental health issues. Let's be honest. I obsessed about food politics and the impact of toxins on human health long before I had kids. So it's refreshing to shift my focus and swing over to the topic of carbon footprints in order to participate in the inaugural Green Moms Carnival. Of course, my favorite way to do this is to reminisce about those who figured out how to conserve (through necessity) long before I came along.

My grandmother lived through the Depression and World War II and flourished for years on a not-enormous pension. She loved nature: birdwatching (including taxidermy -- she once saved some perfect specimens in her freezer for some generationally-horrified neighbor children), fuzzy animals, children. She gardened. She made excellent use of the things she had, reusing tin foil and rubber bands, and refusing ever to buy a dryer, instead ironing her sheets and towels well into her nineties. She cooked her own food, including lasssssagna (enunciate that g). Much of what I learned about living sustainably from my father came from her brand of conservation. So my take on living simply is deeply rooted in this old-fashioned, pragmatic valuing of the everyday, coupled with my sixties' parents' conscious devaluing of stuff. It's a delicate balance -- learning to not desire very much, but to treasure and honor what stuff you choose to have. In thinking over carbon footprints, I realize that this respect for the mundane translates into a modern-day low carbon lifestyle.

My grandmother would never turn on a light if there was sunlight streaming in behind her rocking chair to read. She'd put on a sweater instead of jacking the heat and living, as a friend put it so perfectly last week, as if her house were her clothing. She'd walk to the store for supplies for her daily luncheon salad. This turns out to be a good thing in terms of reducing one's carbon footprint, since electricity generation and usage account for more greenhouse gas emissions than actual direct consumption of said fuels for heating and transportation (who knew? Thanks, Nancy S. Grant! leave a comment below if you want a copy of the Pocket Idiot's Guide to Your Carbon Footprint to read and then pass on. And Nancy? Make sure they print your next edition on post-consumer recycled paper).

I don't know what my grandmother would have said about switching to 100% wind power (which I did recently after reading a great discussion of energy sourcing on Burbanmom's yahoo group - many thanks to Green With a Gun for the simple explanation of choices). She probably wouldn't have paid more for either the green energy (biomass) we bought for 8 years or the wind we're now supporting. She was, after all, a thrifty woman. My grandmother did support environmental causes (carving out a share of her dead husband's pension to champion myriad causes for her furry and feathered friends). It's just hard to imagine her supporting new technologies, 'cause when I lived with her in the early 90s, we were still adjusting the rabbit ears on her old tv.

In deference to my grandmother's generation and way of life, I'd like to propose that more carefully valuing what we already have -- treasuring the mundane -- is a shorthand for conserving energy and shrinking our individual carbon footprints.

Sure, we can better source our electricity, purchase energy-efficient appliances when the old ones run into the ground (and only then), we can stop consuming so much electricity and stuff in the first place. We can buy less food of better, local quality, so our food doesn't have thousands of miles attached to it. What we do buy we can try to get in bulk with as little packaging as possible, even if stores are urging us to get smaller and smaller portions for so-called convenience.

But really what I need to do? Aside from borrowing a Kill-A-Watt from Burbanmom to see what the biggest electricity drains are in my house? Limiting my air travel (which is practically impossible, imho, when you're faced with family reunions and great-grandmothers who are closing in on 100)? The biggest thing I need to do (aside from staying away from those jetliners) is to honor the memory of my grandmother by eating a daily salad for lunch (making her rockin' ketchup-garlic vinaigrette) and treasuring the everyday.

Thanks so much to Lynn at OrganicMania who founded the Green Moms Carnival -- head on over there tomorrow to see a myriad of posts about this important topic. I'll put up a direct link tomorrow with a list of green mommy bloggers who took the time to post about global warming.


Annie said...

Hey there Mama Bird!
I loved this post. It reminded me so much of my own grandmother and her own special way of conservation. I used to (when I was much, much younger) think she was crazy because she bathed in only an inch (if that) of water. I didn't understand it then, but now I do and I am thankful for that. Thank YOU for this post.

I would love to borrow the book and pass it along. Let me know what I need to do:)

Annie (Adventures In Mommyland)

MamaBird said...

Hey Annie! I am so glad this reminded you of your own grandmother. How bout this, I will pick a name out of a hat and send the book to that first person book rate (slower, better for the environment, cheaper) -- will post the winner and/or find folks at their blogs to let the winner know. Happy end of summer!

Thrift Store Mama said...

In the trials and tribulations of child rearing, I frequently think to myself "WWLID?" Which translates as "What Would Laura Ingalls Do?" Thinking that way frequently answered a lot of my questions about breastfeeding. Thanks to your inspirational post, I'm now going to use the same philosophy on house management! My own grandmother even saved the wrappers that butter came in - I'm not going to go that far, but I can certainly reuse a piece of aluminum foil!

green with a gun said...

I don't know what your grandmother would have thought about it, but you can use more expensive energy and still be thrifty - you simply use less. For example in our household when we switched to renewable energy the per-kWh price went up by a third, but we halved our power use overall, so our total bill still went down.

And there are other kinds of thrift as well as thrift with money. We can be thrifty with resources, thrifty with energy, thrifty with our time and effort, and so on. We try to conserve what's important to us. Sometimes we spend more of one so we can save the other.

MamaBird said...

Thrift Store Mama - love that, and I have been *meaning* to pull out LI for the 5yo

Green With a Gun - yes, my grandmother definitely subscribed to the less is more theory -- she was so careful with all resources, not just money -- and that's a helpful reframing for lots of us. Thanks for stopping by.

Mother Earth said...

I like thinking and wondering what my grandmother would do now if she could and to be reminded that their old fashioned ways, were way ahead of their time

Anna said...


What a wonderful post about your grandmother. It is so true about just taking the time to be conscious of how to conserve. Your grandma could teach all of us a thing or two!