Living like a king

May 30, 2009

What’s this – an English castle in suburban Virginia?

McMansion3What’s with the giant crystal chandelier in the massive foyer, the countless “sitting rooms” and the 21st-century movie theater in the basement?

Who needs an industrial-size stainless steel kitchen and a marble bathroom next to every bedroom? And who, anymore, can afford to heat and cool rooms with 18-foot ceilings?

Lots of people, apparently. Although government statistics suggest that Americans are downsizing (the average square footage of single-family homes under construction plunged from 2,629 in the second quarter of 2008 to 2,343 in the fourth quarter) there is no shortage of McMansions a short drive outside Washington, D.C.

I know, because I see pictures a photographer friend takes for real estate agencies to stay afloat during the recession. My husband and I look, horrified, at his images of vast lawns, tennis courts, indoor pools, wet bars and giant wine cellars. “Who,” we ask each other, “would want to live like that?”

We feel rather proud of ourselves, in fact, having just closed on a 1,400-square-foot, 1940s brick home on a humble-looking street just outside the D.C. line. It’s a great little house, except it has almost no closets, only one bathroom, no guest room, no home office, and no room for a long dining room table or a kitchen island.

So we’ve hired an architect who’s designed a plan: we’ll blow out the back wall, dig an extra room in the basement, add space for a big walk-in closet or bathroom on the second floor, attach a screened-in porch on the side of the house…

homeaddSuddenly, our not-so-big house is starting to look – well, almost big. We’d even have room for a wine cellar and jaccuzzi one day if the budget permits – and a TV room in the basement. Could it be that we have more in common with those McMansion suburbanites than we think?


The new eco puritans

April 21, 2009

My husband is reading out loud from the latest issue of Dwell, our favorite home design magazine. The topic of this month’s issue is “Beyond green – from niche to 889156_dirty_laundry1normal.”

“You can make a big impact on your energy and water consumption simply by modifying your laundry practices,” he reads. Tell me about it! I just ordered an Italian-made laundry drying rack, shipped up by truck from a store in North Carolina. It holds a whole load of laundry that is now drying in our sunny back yard.

But here’s the clincher: “Use cold water only,” my husband reads. Wait a minute: Clean our underwear, smelly socks, and the 6-year-old’s stained shirts in cold water? Visions of women standing barelegged in cold northern rivers on laundry day flash through my mind. Has it really come to this?

Apparently, there are many sacrifices we must make as we go green.

The Washington Post has a photo in today’s paper of a couple that grinds their own wheat to make bread because this, somehow, helps combat global warming. It also tells the story of a family in the Washington-area that keeps their home at 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) during winter nights to save energy. “It just feels cold, and then I [went] into my friend’s house and they had the heat on and I was like ‘Oh, my God, that feels so good!” says the family’s 10-year-old, chilled daughter.

The same story quotes a couple that decided not to have a second child because of the high environmental cost. Each person has a carbon footprint, so better to not produce another person, their thinking went.

890649_kneading_dough2Environmentalism, it seems, is becoming just another form of Puritanism, minus the religious context. We need to deny ourselves, in order to gain salvation. That essentially requires rolling the clock back (i.e. grind our own wheat and shiver in our cold homes, like they did before electricity and home insulation was invented.)

A Puritan, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is a person who “practices or preaches a more rigorous or professedly purer moral code than that which prevails.”

As in saying no to delivery pizza, a television in the bedroom, and newly built furniture, according to Dwell.

But aren’t these petty, little feel-good green measures we take to show that we’re holier than our neighbors and relatives a distraction from the real environmental battle – the big policy decisions that will ultimately decide whether or not our energy-wasting society manages to curb greenhouse gas emissions?

That battle is being fought right now in Washington between industry lobbyists and environmental groups over the country’s first emissions cap and trade plan.

A green victory is less than certain, even with a cap-and-trade supporter in the White House. Utility lobbyists and mid-Western politicians call the proposed emissions trading scheme a punitive tax, saying it will hurt poor and middle-class Americans mired in recession.

Their propaganda seems to be rubbing off. A Gallup poll released in March showed that for the first time in the survey’s 25-year history, a majority of Americans feel the economy should be prioritized over environmental protection.

Which brings us back to the cold-water laundry. Congress may not do it for us. So what’s an eco-minded citizen to do? Grinding that flour and showing up at work with a not-so-crispy white shirt, is a little therapeutic, perhaps. Even if it doesn’t do much for Mother Earth.

The upside of recession

February 28, 2009

It’s back to basics for Americans living through the worst recession since the Great Depression some 75 years ago. And what can I say? Recessions seem to be good for the environment. Something to be happy about these gloomy days.

Reading USA Today, I see that citizens are – wow! – giving up drive-through restaurants because this all-American convenience wastes gasoline, and therefore household money.

Kelly Porter, a Salem, Mass., mother of two young children is quoted as saying, “Anyplace where your car would be idling, I just automatically shut the car off.” What’s more, “I used to drive 80 on the highway, and now I never go over 70,” Kelly says. Her new driving method not only saves gas, the newspaper reports, it’s also 627247_washing_daysafer.

In the latest issue of National Geographic, I read about Janice Haney of Greensburg Kan., who is featured in a double-spread color photo hanging clothes out to dry. “We don’t have to waste electricity on the dryer,” Janice says. “The good old Kansas wind can do it on its own.” (Now, didn’t my mom used to say that 20 years ago: “Why run the dryer when you can just use the clothes line in the back yard?”)

Eating out is out, I read. Families are discovering the charm of cocking together and eating, everybody at the same time, around the kitchen table. “Giving up meals out of the house was tough, but once they did, they started saving and became closer as a family,” the USA Today says about the Walkers of New Haven, Mich. “Going to the grocery store and making dinner has become a family event,” mom Mitzi Walker says, pleased.

Hmmmh. Is this what it takes? A major economic crisis for us to rediscover the mossy lifestyles that our parents and grandparents enjoyed? Perhaps those days weren’t so bad, after all? We do know that those pre-internet, pre-globalization people didn’t waste energy the way us Baby Boomers learned to do. They were frugal and therefore pretty green.

Recession, got to love it.

Recycle – what for?

January 31, 2009

Ouch. Another wine bottle tossed into the kitchen trash can. Another empty cracker box, plastic milk jug, soda can, margarine container, folded newspaper. It’s Christmas and the amount of trash we produce during one single family dinner is enormous. N932064_city_dumpothing gets recycled and nobody seems to care.

Then my mother-in-law makes a remarkable and unexpected statement: “One of my New Year’s resolutions is to start recycling,” she declares. She has barely finished her sentence before I get to work, digging wine bottles out of the trash. “We’ll keep them in the garage for now,” I tell my surprised in-laws.

This is what Sweden does to you. It turns you into a recycling zealot. Once a week, the garbage truck showed up in our Stockholm suburb to weigh our garbage. The more garbage we produced, the higher our monthly bill would be.

Those of us who separated our organic food waste and stuck it in biodegradable bags in a special trash can paid less than those who would throw everything in the main trash can. And those who produced less garbage by bringing paper, plastics, cans and glass to one of the many recycling stations in our county paid even less.

Recycling, to Swedes, is a lifestyle.

Every weekend, I would fill our Honda Combi with bags of 736426_recycle_2waste. Green glass was separated from clear glass, plastics from newspapers, soup cans from milk cartons, and thrown into large green containers. Plastic soda bottles and beer cans, however, would go in a special bag destined for the grocery store.

There, people lined up in front of large machines that swallowed the cans, crunched them up and spit out a receipt. We’d give the store cashier the receipt and the bottle redemption was deducted from our grocery bill.

A small incentive, but it worked – just like the threat of a larger garbage bill did. No wonder, only 4 percent of Swedish garbage ends up in the landfill.

Although the country of 9 million produces nearly 24 percent more waste today than a decade ago (4.7 million tons), nearly 50 percent of all Swedish trash is recycled. Another 46 percent is incinerated at high temperatures to produce heat for apartment buildings in metropolitan areas. By comparison, more than half of all municipal waste in the United States still still went to the landfill in 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report.

This is not rocket science. Give people a financial incentive and efficient recycling programs and they do the right thing. So why don’t we?

Glimmer of hope

December 9, 2008

Gloom and doom is everywhere.

Huge corporations are going bankrupt. Half a million people were laid off in the United States alone last month. Homes are foreclosed on in record numbers and Christmas is shaping up to be a bust.

On top of it all, a cold front is gripping the American East Coast, making our noses red and fingers cold.

920015_commutersBuried in today’s morning paper, however, was an astonishing piece of uplifting news. Forced to park their cars at home as the price of gasoline rose above $4 a gallon over the summer, Americans may have – for the first time ever – gotten a taste for public transportation.

During the third quarter, Americans logged more than 2.8 billion trips by train or bus – an increase of 6.5 percent over the same period last year and the biggest quarterly jump in a quarter century, the American Public Transportation Association reported. The steady rise in ridership came despite the fact that gasoline prices dropped down to near-“normal” levels during the quarter.

At the same time, the number of miles traveled on public highways declined by 4.6 percent.

Could it be that Americans are finally discovering what Europeans and Asians have known for decades: that riding buses and trains helps us relax and focus – and perhaps even happier?

In the subway car in the morning, I’m surrounded by people who read novels. The car is very quiet. Unlike in Stockholm, where mobile phones jingle incessantly and private conversations invade your private sphere, the wireless signal dies the moment the D.C. Metro train goes underground. Some commuters take a short nap before starting their work day. Others just sink into their own thoughts, iPods in hand.

“At first I really didn’t like to move farther away from the city,” an executive and father of two young children told me. “But now, I relish those extra 20 minutes on the train because it’s my own time and the only time I have to myself all day. Nobody can interrupt what I’m doing.”

Could it be that those harried folks in Los Angeles think back at the eight-lane traffic gridlock that used to be their morning commute and decided they wanted no more? (L.A. train ridership rose 17 percent during the third quarter.)

Or that people in Atlanta finally got over their fear of black crime and discovered that not only do you survive the subway trip, you can also enjoy it? (Atlanta ridership rose 11.3 percent last quarter.)

Could the American love affair with the automobile, in fact, be fading – and for reasons that have nothing to do with oil prices? Stay tuned.

Where’s my cheap charter flight?

December 2, 2008

“You went to India?” Lisa asks surprised over lunch.
Yes, just like that. And to London, Amsterdam, Tallinn, Prague, Hong Kong and Italy (twice) – in the span of just two years.
How unconscionable of us, considering that air travel has become Europe’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases – and even though the region is in a desperate race to meet its Kyoto obligations. (Unlike the United States, which wouldn’t even sign the treaty to halt global warming.) 1055986_clouds_and_shadows4

Indeed, a nation as eco-minded and prominently green as Sweden is breaking all-time records for long-distance air travel thanks to a still-booming charter travel industry. I did my best fueling this trend while living there for two years, thanks to cheap flights and generous vacation benefits.

And here I am, picking on Americans who still drive around in their big SUVs when they just as easily could bike, walk or take public transportation. I can’t feel holier than thou, knowing that by taking one round-trip to Asia, I emitted as much carbon dioxide as I would have if I drove my car 9,000 miles for several years. Which, of course, I don’t. Where’s the logic here?

Well, for one, it sounds a lot more cosmopolitan and global to tell people, “We had to land in Azerbajan so the plane could refuel,” or “We spent two days in Palermo,” than to say “I sat in traffic for an hour on the Beltway trying to get to work,” or “We’ll drive up to New York for the holidays.” A well-traveled person is perceived to be educated, cosmopolitan, experienced, smart…


As for the Swedish charter tourists who flock to far-flung destinations such as Thailand, Brazil or India, traveling is neither about class nor world citizenry. They’re just after cheap beer and sun. Here’s the story I reported for The Christian Science Monitor earlier this year on the globetrotting Swedes.

Eco Shopping: A Matter of Class

November 29, 2008

Why do they put your groceries in ten flimsy plastic bags when they would fit in three? Annoyed, I watch the tired Safeway cashier stick a loaf of bread in one bag, a quart of milk in another, a couple of oranges and some bananas in a third. Doesn’t he care about all the plastic that goes to waste? It takes 1,000 years for a regular plastic bag to break down in a landfill.

wfm_organic_today_s_18671It’s a completely different story at Whole Foods, which famously banned plastic bags earlier this year. There, they sell chic designer grocery bags made from recycled plastic bottles that you can buy to prove that not only do you care for the environment – you can also afford to belong to the green club.

Besides selling reusable grocery bags, Whole Foods gives you 5 cents for each used paper bag that you bring back and fill with groceries. It feels so right, but our family is burning too much money at Whole Foods – at least $700 a month, in addition to the shopping we do at other grocery stores. Our monthly food bill easily exceeds $1,100 for a family of four. While surveys show that you actually pay less for organics at Whole Foods than you do at other chain stores, we could save money by picking up “conventional” lettuce, crackers, ground beef and bread at Safeway or Giant.

The class gap is evident when you travel a couple of blocks from Whole Foods to Safeway in downtown Silver Spring, Md. Gone are the tempting displays, the free food samples, the exotic fish counter, the self-assured professionals – and the recycled grocery bags. Tired moms with kids in tow hurry through the wide aisles with their endless rows of cereal boxes and chips bags. I leave Safeway disgusted, having acquired only half the items on my list. Of course, I tell myself, I should spend more at Whole Foods to get chemical-free snack bars and lunch meat for my kids! And certainly, it’s worth paying $4.50 for a loaf of bread when it’s both nutritious and fresh.

But many regular families on a tight budget may not have that choice. For if you’re poor in America, you tend to be relegated to disposable plastic bags, industrial spongy bread, sprayed fruit, and snacks laced with preservatives, artificial flavors and coloring. You’re no more likely to eat organic beef than you are putting solar panels on your roofs or driving a hybrid car.
The market for organic food has exploded in the past decade, with sales increasing by between 20 percent and 30 percent annually, according to the Nielsen Group, a market research firm. With the economy falling into the hole in recent months, consumers are becoming less likely to pay $3.50 for half a gallon of organic milk when conventional milk can be had for $2. U.S. sales of organic products for the four weeks ended Oct. 4 grew 11.2 percent, down from 27.1 percent a year earlier, Nielsen reported.

And even before the economy took a turn for the worse, research showed that people buy eco food when they can afford it. A study released last summer by an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rachael Dittman, confirmed that people with higher income (annual household income of at least $70,000) and higher education are more likely to spend more on organic food than poor Americans (annual household income below $30,000) or people of color.

Conclusion: Shopping green and eating healthy is still about education and cultural values, but even more about economic class. And me? I’m stretching my budget every month to stay in that coveted club.

Back in the U.S.A.

November 14, 2008

1075772_the_metro2In the two years that we’ve been overseas, green has – finally – become hip in America.

The subway car that whisks me to work in the morning is sporting ads from Chevron, the oil and gas giant, that urge us to conserve. Close-up portraits of sober citizens proclaim: “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will use less energy.” Wow!

Public transportation ridership has soared in tandem with rising gasoline prices. Americans took 140 million more trips by bus or train during the spring than they did a year earlier, the American Public Transport Association reports. And as investments plummeted in a weakening economy, venture capitalists managed to pour a record $1 billion into renewable energy projects during the third quarter alone.

Change is definitely in the air.

At my workplace, we have blue recycling bins in the office and the lights automatically turn on and off when we come and go. But progress is uneven – or, should I say – half-hearted?

In September, as outdoor temperatures in Washington, D.C., dropped to a comfortable 80 degrees, I piled on sweaters and cranked up the electric space heater next to my desk because the air conditioning was turning my windowless office into an ice box. There was no way to turn it off, our maintenance man explained. I drank hot coffee to keep my fingers from going stiff.

Our fancy coffee maker, however, is another environmental concern. To brew a cup, you stick a small, sealed plastic container with coffee grains in the machine. When your cup has been filled, the now-empty container automatically falls into a trash bin. How much plastic do I go through in one week?

“And why are there only plastic forks in the kitchen drawer and paper cups for coffee?” I ask a co-worker. “Can’t we buy some cheap mugs and silverware at IKEA and just wash them after lunch?” That would never work, he replies. “People would just leave their dishes in the sink and we’d have a mess.”

papermug11At the take-out restaurant downstairs I’ve made a point of telling the woman at the cash register that I don’t need my wrapped sandwich stuck in a plastic bag. “I’ll just grab it like that,” I say, sounding green and chipper. “It’ll save you some plastic!” I get a blank stare in return. She has no idea what I’m getting at and couldn’t care less.

The printer at the office spits out paper all day long. How many trees did we consume in the past month? I soon learn that some of my colleagues print out reports and documents to read and edit on the train home in the evening. The workload is such that tasks can never be completed even if you log eight or nine solid hours in the office and eat lunch at your desk. Best to print it all out and bring with you.

I rarely see people working on their laptops while in transit and I have yet to hear any discussion about deducting such telecommuting time from the regular workday, as many Europeans do. There’s also, still, no wireless access on the trains that run in and out of D.C. So people do it the old way: On paper.

But hey, we’re making efforts where we can. Metro officials are scrambling to put in more bike racks outside the subway stations, because so many more people are biking rather than driving and parking the car there. That’s progress!