5/24/2006

The New-Aged Hippie's Urban Survival Kit

After finishing an immersive semester in sustainable design, I've been reconnecting with old friends who have been to the far reaches of the earth. There seems to be a recognition among those of us who are experiencing reverse culture shock upon coming home, that our mainstream American society can be quite accurately described with one word: disposable.

This disposability, though, seems ultimately to be rooted in the much broader cultural indicaor of how we value time. A friend who just returned from 10 months in South America says she misses the slower pace of life down there. People live their lives day-to-day, contributing to their families and communities as determined by the roles they have adapted themselves to fulfill.

Returning to the States imparts an immediate feeling of stress upon remembering that in this country, we are constantly trying to climb the ladder until we find the rung on which we want to settle (but does anyone ever get there?), or to find the next big adventure that will prolong our state of transience (a state that our generation is first to enjoy on a large scale; but also to discover the downfalls of not being able to identify, though maybe temporarily – or so we tell ourselves - with a true home).

And the result? Lots of waste! Return to South America and you won’t find the prepackaged frozen meals, plastic utensils, and paper cups that feed our hungry-for-something society. I remember my shock at learning from a British friend that cars in England don’t have drink holders. Why would a person eschew the opportunity for social engagement - or solitary reflection - presented by a hot drink in order to cram its consumption into a tiny vessel that moves 80 miles per hour? I decided not to ask him what he thought about fast-food drive throughs.

To change our values as they relate to time would surely constitute a paradigm shift. But from the perspective of right-here-right-now, where trying to shift a paradigm feels as difficult as knocking over your local coal processing smokestack with one hand (you’re holding your coffee in the other, remember) we see that we may not realistically readopt our colonizers’ time-valued tradition of high tea at the expense of commuting with coffee or fast food on the road.

So what CAN we do?

After a few days of struggling with eco-ethical questions such as ‘is it cool to “let it mellow” in a friend-of-a-friend’s house’ and ‘am I really going to carry this banana peel around with me until I find a compost bin,’ I began to feel like I was falling into the trap most aptly portrayed in a recent Southpark episode in which all the characters buy hybrid cars, only to replace their SMOG problem with a SMUG problem.

So for now I’ve decided I’m quite comfortable with what I call my Urban Survival Kit - four simple things that are easy to carry, and allow me to opt out of the most prevalent disposables of a typical day:

  • A durable water bottle
  • An insulated coffee mug
  • Camping utensils (though chopsticks may be more appropriate lest you ever be faced with the unsuspecting sushi-diner’s option of destroying the planet or being culturally insensitive…)
  • A bandana

While the Survival Kit doesn’t require me to slow down at all, it certainly allows me to slow my rate of contribution to the landfills without much expense to my million-mile-an-hour life.

5/17/2006

Most of us have seen this bumper sticker at some point while cruising the open road and it was interesting to see it again after having spent the last four months immersed in ideas of sustainability. The original message is obviously that we better take care of the trucking industry and make sure they get what they want since they're responsible for getting all of our food from the farm to our plates (the average piece of food travels over 1200 miles to reach your grocery store). Viewed in a new light however, it's a powerful argument for supporting locally produced food since sooner or later the trucks will stop. Oil prices will get too high, we won't be able to spend billions of dollars building and maintaining highways, and it just won't make sense to transport our food this way when we can grow it in our own backyards.