Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Taking on Goliath

I never gave much thought or did much research into the greater impact my small choices would have on the environment or the economy at large. Why? "One person can only do so much", I'd shrug. I didn't see that my little ways could make much of a big difference beyond the four walls I inhabited.

Even before prices started trending upward and the economy spiraling downward, my husband and I had been discussing sustainable living and implementing greater measures of it here in our home and on our land. Our motive? It is just the right thing to do. Again, we didn't really consider an impact beyond the borders of our property.

So, what has changed? The longer I live in a small rural community, the more I realize that our seemingly small choices add up--not only in our own bank accounts, but for our local economies. The more I've read and studied on sustainable living over the past few weeks, I realize that the ripples from one well-thrown pebble continue out beyond town and county, gaining momentum as they merge with the ripples from others, until our national economy is affected as well.

In case you doubt whether small lifestyle changes have a significant cumulative impact, consider these examples:

  • Kicking a daily soda habit can save you $130 a month. That's a savings of $1,560 over a year.

  • Cutting your daily shower to 10 minutes from 15 minutes will save you $102 a year.

  • Brewing your own cup of coffee instead of picking up a latte at Starbucks will save you
    $912 annually. A tall latte at the local Starbucks runs about $3 a cup, or $1,095 a year if you go there every day. If you brew your own at home for 50 cents or less per cup, you'll pay a more modest $183.

  • Preparing your own lunch rather than buying out will save $1,460 to $3,650. If you make lunch from last night's leftovers, you can avoid spending an extra $4 to $10 a day.

  • If you can avoid paying for bottled water (at $1 to $1.50 a bottle), you can save at least $5 to $7.50 for each five-day work week. That's a yearly savings of $260 to $390.

  • If you replace just one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent one you'll save $6 in electricity costs over a year, according to the EnergyStar program. If you've got 20 bulbs in your house, those savings will start to look even brighter--around $120.

Little things? Perhaps. But these six minor lifestyle changes would put $6,734 per year back in your pocket--a significant impact, indeed. That's bigger than any economic stimulus package the government could ever whip up.

One person can (only) do so much.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

~Margaret Mead

Thursday, July 10, 2008


A few people have recently emailed to see if I am alright. It seems they found the dearth of new posts rather worrisome, given that I usually have an observation to share about everything. Fret not...I have just decelerated into the standard pace of summertime living in the Deep South: slow motion.

It's not the heat; it's the humidity.

After all, 94 degrees isn't hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. Yet after a short walk to the mail box at the end of the driveway, I have perspiration dripping off the end of my nose. I am not quite sure why I dry my hair every morning, because as soon as I step outside, it's wet again. Makeup would slide off of my face like a clock in a Salvador Dali painting, so I don't bother. Even the most put-together, perfectly coiffed southern belles are looking a bit wilted.

I thought that I would have acclimated by now, as this is my third summer here. I haven't. After taking a closer look at my neighbors, I realize that they haven't acclimated, either. They have merely adapted: they slow down.

The heat does sap a person's strength, but if one moves slowly enough, there's time to enjoy any breeze generated by the movement, right? Seriously, working hard in these conditions requires frequent breaks in order to avoid heat exhaustion. I now understand why movies set in the Deep South have everyone sitting under a fan on a shady porch, drinking iced tea. It helps like nothing else does.

Slowing down has its benefits. We spend more time talking with family and friends. We are more aware of the beauty of creation, and our dependence upon it. We have time to dream and to plan; time to give attention to the little things that are overlooked or forgotten when life is busier. We tend to look toward heaven and say 'thank you' much more often than we would otherwise do, because there is time to reflect on our blessings and the bounty that is ours.


Guess this transplant has taken root.

Pardon me, ma'am, but your roots are showing

The dictionary defines 'grassroots' as of, pertaining to, or involving the common people, esp. as contrasted with or separable from an elite. I am definitely of the common people. I also get very passionate about issues that pertain to jus' folks, especially when they involve imbalances perpetrated by the privileged and powerful.

It is written that much is required from those to whom much has been given. The public must call to account not only elected authorities, but also those in positions of economic influence. We need to be certain that we elect individuals who will be faithful stewards of the power and resources entrusted to them for their term of office.

However, there is far more to activism that voting, writing letters, making phone calls, and increasing public awareness. Mountains aren't moved by screaming at them or by glitzy ad campaigns. Mahatma Gandhi--perhaps the ultimate example of a grassroots activist--wrote, "BE the change you wish to see in the world". In modern terms, it's called walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

Crisis demands change, and we are a nation in crisis. One person can make such a difference! If a growing percentage of the American population were to step out of the comfort zone and make simple, easy to implement lifestyle changes and choices, the cumulative effect would be powerful. Vote with your wallet, and I guarantee that those in power will listen!
  • If you can, buy organic foods and green products. Not only are they free of harmful chemicals; a recent study has proven organic foods to be higher in nutrients than their chemically bombarded counterparts. They also have more flavor. Both of these factors lead to you feeling satiated more quickly, and therefore eating less.

  • If you can't--and perhaps even more important than buying organic--buy local foods and eat what is in season.

  • Patronize farmers markets.

  • Start or expand your garden. Even city dwellers can grow a few things in containers.

  • Move your diet away from restaurant fare and over-consuming meat and animal products.

  • Buy in bulk and cook your meals at home with healthy whole foods ingredients--vegetables, fruits, beans and grains.

I am grateful that rural life enables me to live these choices on a daily basis. The fewer processed, imported, or transported goods I buy, the less fuel is used to make them and move them. The more I buy locally, the stronger the local economy becomes--which, in turn, benefits me economically. As a fringe benefit, I also spend less on gas and on shipping costs.

Small choices are like pebbles thrown into a pond--they create ripples that spread incredibly far and wide. Small choices lived collectively by large numbers of people make waves of change that improve life for us all.

Make positive choices for yourself, and then take action.

Do something.

Be the change.

Be the pebble that sends out ripples of empowerment.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The High Cost of Low, Low Prices

Wal-Mart is a big deal in small Southern towns. People are either for it or against it, and most likely have personal reasons for their strong opinion. I used to poke fun at the heated debates over the existence of Wal-Mart until I moved here and began to observe its effects firsthand.

Unfortunately, once Wal-Mart takes hold and flourishes in a small community, it soon becomes just about the only gig in town. Over the first five years after a Wal-Mart opens, retailers' sales of apparel drop 28% on average, hardware sales fall by 20%, and sales of specialty stores fall by 17%. Food stores lose 17% of their sales. The flow of money into the local economy dries to a mere trickle. Local businesses are forced to close their doors; Main Streets and old downtown store fronts are boarded up.

Since this once-remote issue is now just outside my back door, I've been doing a lot of reading lately. I once ignorantly thought that Wal-Mart provides jobs and thereby benefits the economy. Alas, the jobs it provides come at a high cost to the community.

A recenty study by the National Bureau of Economic Research used Wal-Mart's own store data and government data for all counties where Wal-Mart has operated for 30 years. It found that the average Wal-Mart store reduces per capita earnings by 5 percent in the county in which it operates.

The majority of Wal-Mart employees' earnings place them far below the poverty line. In addition, Wal-Mart has a habit of forcing employees work off the clock in order to avoid having to classify them as full time and therefore provide benefits. The result is that one 200-employee Wal-Mart store may cost federal taxpayers $420,750 in federal assistance per year.

I was amazed to find that state and local governments actually subsidize about one-third of all Wal-Mart retail stores--at least $1 billion to date.

We have all seen the political cartoon where Wal-Mart is handing U.S. Dollars to China, but here are the actual statistics:

70% of the commodities sold in Wal-Mart are made in China.

Wal-Mart was responsible for about 1/10th of the U.S. trade deficit with China in 2005.

If Wal-Mart were an individual economy, it would rank as China's eighth-biggest trading partner, ahead of Russia, Australia and Canada.

I don't know about you, but I find it absolutely scary that a corporation has that much power to influence the U.S. government and the world economy. Wal-Mart is not the only corporate entity we should be calling to account...the oil companies and pharmaceutical giants are members of this echelon, too. Oh, how far we have fallen in just six decades!

In 1945 most of the United States' six million family farmers were still rotating their crops and cultivating a wide variety of fruits, grains, beans, and vegetables organically, fertilizing with natural compost, and generally practicing sustainable farming methods they had learned from their parents and grandparents.

The nutritious, primarily non-processed foods that people cooked for their family meals were purchased from locally owned grocers who stocked their shelves with a wide variety of items - typically grown or raised within a 100 mile radius of our communities.

The post-war generation was relatively healthy in terms of low rates of diet-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, food allergies, birth defects, and learning disabilities. In spite of the fact that average life expectancy has increased over the past several decades, the health of the general population has declined drastically.

Sixty years later we have become a Fast Food Nation, stuffing ourselves on the industrialized world's cheapest and most chemically contaminated fare. We allow out-of-control politicians, corporations and technocrats to waste our tax money on corporate welfare, destroy the environment, and starve the poor.

Does this mean that I'm becoming a grass roots activist for socio-economic change? What next? Stay tuned for part two...

PPS Local 455--Come on down and set a spell

Professional Porch Sitters (PPS) is an informal organization with a large and growing grassroots membership. To become a member you simply need to say you are a member and agree to sit around with friends and neighbors shooting the breeze as often as possible or practical. Preferably on a porch, but that's not critical.

There are no dues, no membership requirements, no mailings, no agenda, no committees, no worries. PPS believes that the radical act of sitting around sharing stories with no specific agenda is critical to building sustainable communities. Indeed, PPS believes that building sustainable communities is one of the most important things that can be done in these trying times.

Television and air-conditioning have moved far too many people off their porches and into their homes where they quickly become isolated from their communities. We believe that sometimes the most effective course of action is to sit down and relax while sipping lemonade and sharing stories.

PPS only has one rule, but it's more like a suggestion: "Sit down a spell. That can wait."

Starting your own chapter of PPS is simple. You simply declare yourself a local chapter, pick a number to represent your Local Chapter identity and then sit back with friends and neighbors to celebrate with an interesting story or two. Meetings can be called at any time by any member and attendance is optional.

You are invited to communicate with PPS Headquarters but that is voluntary since no records are kept. PPS was founded on a porch in Louisville, Kentucky in 1999 but many additional chapters have been founded since then. Perhaps your chapter will be next.

We would love to hear from you if you start up a chapter, but don't sweat it if you don't. Inquiries can be addressed to:

PPS Local 1339
1339 Hull Street
Louisville KY, 40204