Stuck in the middle with you?

All that space between recycling and revolution

Lots of people shared this good article about making do from my hometown rag this weekend. It covered all the bases and ticked all the boxes. And yet, it all feels recycled. We’ve tread this territory for so long it sometimes shocks me that we are still teaching ourselves how to make do, how to not buy unnecessary stuff. Our grandparents would guffaw at the fact that we need articles, books, and infographics to remind us to not waste. And yet, I know that I still need these reminders. And yet, I know that we have to start with the basics to get to the not-so-basics, like fending off ecological apocalypse, and using Excel properly.

I dwell on the fact that we’re in a giant MOOC called Waste Not 101 because I’m constantly wondering how we collectively pass the class and move on. It often feels like there’s no way to get from 101 to the graduate seminar on peaceful overthrow because there aren’t any courses being offered in between. What happens in that missing middle space where we’ve done all the small stuff we can do, and we still haven’t fomented a revolution? I guess this is how I feel on downer days, when I want to put all these slow reckonings on fast forward, and get to the nosebleed portion of the ladder despite my late onset vertigo.

Of course, it’s a social-norms numbers game. I’ve always looked to the adoption curve for guidelines on percentages, but tucked inside George Monbiot’s latest truth bomb is a sweet stat that makes change seem a little more doable:

As Erica Chenoweth’s historical research reveals, for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, a maximum of 3.5% of the population needs to mobilise. Humans are ultra-social mammals, constantly if subliminally aware of shifting social currents. Once we perceive that the status quo has changed, we flip suddenly from support for one state of being to support for another. When a committed and vocal 3.5% unites behind the demand for a new system, the social avalanche that follows becomes irresistible. Giving up before we have reached this threshold is worse than despair: it is defeatism.

3.5 percent is you-and-two-and-a-half of your mates in a room of 100. 3.5 percent is milk that tastes like ice cream. 3.5 percent is a decent return once you divest of all the evil companies. When we look at adoption of new norms, transformation can be rapid. Think how quickly everyone started wearing scrunchie socks in 1987. Think how quickly everyone stopped wearing scrunchie socks in 1988. Think how quickly we could all stop flying or listening to Michael Jackson if it was suddenly deemed the worst. Oh wait.

Everyone’s been talking about flygskam, the Swedish term for flight shame. It seems fringe now, but there are many hypothetical scenarios that might not seem so remote in a few years. For example, will there come a day when takeout coffee cups are as stigmatized as cigarettes? My Magic 8 Ball’s at the repair shop, but I’m comforted by the fact that tipping points can happen quick. And if that’s not cheery enough, here’s another one of those positive future pieces about how we solved climate change in 2050. I mean, this week Toronto’s city council took us one gear shift closer to an almost halfway decent cycling network, though I’m not holding my breath. Yes the world is absolute shit on so many levels, but CHANGE CAN HAPPEN and WE CAN DO THIS. (Maybe?)

More on A-words (see last week’s newsletter)

I had a great talk with an amazing reader named Pat about another A-word her organization frequently tosses around - Advocate. I like it so much. It’s the less social, more nerdy cousin of activist. If activists want to mobilize those around them, advocates often work solo, figuring out how to change power structures and lend support. It’s an A-word I can get behind. You?

Maclean’s Climate Package

Canada’s newsmagazine, Maclean’s, has a huge climate issue out. Lots of really good articles. I did comics for it.

THIS WEEK

Who or what can you Advocate for? Let me know.

And a weekly reminder that if we’re going to get to 3.5% we have to talk talk talk talk talk talk talk climate (seven is the funniest # in repetition, no?):

 Have a great week!

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Don't Use the A-word!

The activist albatross

At a talk I went to in Seattle months ago, the panelists picked apart the word activist and why they dislike it so much. Somehow, I’d never actively thought about it. But as soon as the semantic quartering began, I knew I was onside. Activist has always seemed like a club I didn’t have the street cred and Molotov bonafides to join. 

In university I remember the PIRG types and the attendant woker-than-thou elitism. (Yes, I know woke was anachronism twenty years ago, but it was there in spirit). I remember a guy freaking out when I didn’t know what Stonewall was (I was a sunbaked Floridian. I also didn’t know what international development, The Tragically Hip, or kale were.) I remember the feeling that I had way too much learning to do and ambiguity to overcome if I was going to be an “activist.” So I went to concerts instead.

The Seattle panelists were chafing about labeling from the other side, though. Specifically, the presumption that the status quo is de facto good, and that activists are violent upenders of the peace. The verbal pigeonholing puts anyone suggesting even the mildest change into an adversarial position, when what they’re working for is often the opposite of adversarial. So much duh. Such a deft linguistic owning, used so ubiquitously I didn’t even think to question it. Were they protesting at Standing Rock, or protecting? More of the latter, no? Why is someone who wants something as basic as clean water an activist, and not just a defender of basic human rights?

The talk got to me because I realized this anti-progressive labelling had played a part in my own perceptions of so many things, and for someone who presumes to love words, I hadn’t investigated these ones very deeply. Though I support so many of the ‘protesters’ doing great work around the world, there’s always the mild hiccup that comes with aligning yourself with something that is positioned as contrary. It takes more work. It creates extra friction. The behavioural science term is disfluency. 

Terms like activism also alienate so many fence-sitters. Ask an average human if they support protesters and they may demur. Ask someone if they support clean water, and they’re yours. And if the latter doesn’t work, it wasn’t the verbal gerrymandering that took them away from the side of good to begin with.

What can we do? Constantly investigate the language we see around us to open doors and reduce barriers. For those that self-identify as activists and protesters, great. For those that don’t, also great. For me, activism just tweaks my imposter syndrome. I’ll never be activisty enough. Activist feels full-time, irate, perfect. I’ll always feel a little too armchairy, even if I summon great change from my midcentury La-Z-Boy. And I don’t want to be labeled as an agitator when I advocate for things that are just common sense, like reducing waste, stopping the scourge of shirts with shoulder cut-outs, or halting our planetary demise.

As for protest, though I have cartoonishly enthused about the collective joy that comes from shouting down stupidity, I think it might be better to refer to these passionate gatherings as rallies or parties or actions or raves or confabulations. I want to enthusiastically stand up for education, the planet, and midday dance parties, even if I’m aggressively fighting inanity while doing so.

How do you describe yourself? What do you do? Who are you? What’s your sign? What did you advocate for this week? I wrote letters to Doug Ford, about patronage and planet, and planet patronage.

Thank you and welcome to all the new signups. You can always let me know how I can make this newsletter better by sending me puns and criticisms.

Unrelated/related: my husband, Ben (he who patiently removes all the unnecessary adjectives from these here newsletters), has started a dynamite newsletter, Get Wit Quick. It’s all about snapifying your language, and the first issue is about unicycle politics for pete’s sake. Subscribe!

Push It

Push it real good

There’s this idea on the left that if you push too far you’ll lose the majority of people you need to make change. (The right has no such compunction.) This manifests in all kinds of debates, but none more high-profile than the U.S. elections, where notionally centrist Democratic candidates attempt to hold the line against so-called progressive candidates. It’s weak hedging dressed up as political strategizing. It’s also deeply uninspiring. Vote for the middle! We’re middling!

At the same time, many of us live in places where just such a bargain is all we can hope for, based on crappy, first-past-the-post systems (Hello, Canada!). If you’re lucky enough to vote somewhere with proportional representation, you can at least know your environmental voice will be advanced by a minority constituency of actual, elected officials. Genius, really. For those of us with rudimentary democractic systems, there’s Washington State Governor Jay Inslee.

Jay Inslee is running for President of the United States. He won’t win. And he knows that. But he’s the new climate anchor. His plan is called the Evergreen Economy. It’s smart, doable, and includes actual numbers. It’s the opposite of one recently released Canadian political party’s climate plan, which contained less substance than cotton candy and no numbers to speak of. Well, page numbers.

Jay Inslee is our new climate anchor. As a behavioural science nerd who loves a good nautical sweater, I’m into anchors. Both how we establish them and how we amplify them. Obama raised the civility bar so high, he set a beautiful anchor. We looked to him and measured actions accordingly. Trump has ground everything to such mud that if someone in his government does anything vaguely principled, we want to give them a medal and a parade, such is the low anchor from which we now measure for decorous behaviour.

When it comes to climate change, we need a weighty anchor. For years, we haven’t even been able to drop anchor, because despite 97% of scientists claiming the existence of a sea, there were those who insisted it didn’t exist. We know that the sea exists. And that it is warming at a precipitous rate. And if Jay Inslee is top of the climate leaderboard, everyone else must now scramble to get on it.

The Democratic front runners had barely touched on climate change for months, but Inslee’s arrival on the scene as The Climate Candidate set the bar, moved the dial, flipped the switch, turned the tide, you get the idea. He’s reframed the debate and pushed climate to the fore, though lord knows it needs even more fore.

We all need to push it. And we all need to anchor. Easy for me to say, I’ve just eaten a heavy veggie burrito. Plus I’m wearing clogs.

But seriously. We all measure against the things and people around us, creating anchors around the behaviours we see as most normative. Social proof makes people save their towels and turn their engines off. It also makes people get lip injections, but hey. Be the anchor you want to see in the world, and hopefully people will join you—and share the weight you bear.

Born on the 40th of July

I turn 40 today, the 4th, and this newsletter hit 400 subscribers yesterday. I am not superstitious and I don’t believe in signs or fate or ghosts or vibrations, but I can say that 4 is one of my top nine favourite magical digits. The past decade passed by in a blur of child-rearing, eco malaise, coffee consumption, and ill-advised jumpsuits, punctured frequently by great parties and beautiful vistas and good sandwiches. I don’t know how time moved so quickly, and though I mourn its clichéd rapidity, I feel I’m in a better place than I have been in years when it comes to this planet and my thoughts about it. Writing this newsletter has played no small part in making me feel okay. Knowing there are others who feel similarly worried about our human predicament is calming, inspiring, insightful, and hilarious all at once. Thank you to everyone who has sent me links, ideas, support, tips, hedgehogs, jokes, and thanks to those who have read along. If you have ideas for how to make this newsletter better, as always, send them my way! (You can also now leave comments on Substack!) Thank you!

Eat it, just eat it

A BUNCH OF LEFTOVER THOUGHTS ON FOOD WASTE

The Case for Just Enough

Every year, we have a street party. We close down our block for games, music, and a big communal meal. The kids run wild with water guns all day. The adults sit contented with beers all day. It’s one of my favourite events of the year. I always put out a ton of food. And the food gets sad and sweaty in the heat. Just like me. But this year, I was determined to curb the food waste. 

I’m a maximalist when it comes to hosting. One year I misgauged our New Year’s party numbers so profoundly that I had to invite everyone back the following day to finish up the food. No doubt I still threw away enough miniburgers to equal a Guinness Book megaburger. Since then, I’ve been hacking away at our waste, making a point of salvaging everything salvageable and putting it away right after the party. Because no one wants to eat anything that’s sat out all night like a bad still life.

My friend Dylan chafes at the gratuitousness of party food as well, the gross overstuffed condition that has come to pass for hospitality. “What if there was just enough food,” he asks. “Or what if, heaven forbid, people even left a bit hungry...it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” (Plus, who doesn’t like a late night snack?)

I agree. And I marvel at my friends who are able to serve just the right amount of food. It’s never been one of my superpowers. At the street party, with numbers always in flux, I’ve tended to order piles of pizza that either get eaten up in one go, or languish untouched. The latter results in me freezing forty slices of pizza. And in our house the freezer is pizza purgatory, where all slices are eventually deemed evil.

This year I tried to think of on-demand foods that would feed as many as needed, but not go to waste. We landed on a grilled cheese station. My husband could serve up plates of grilled cheese to rounds of peckish persons on an as-needed basis. And instead of putting out all the food at once, I replaced items as people finished them. This had the added bonus of keeping kids from consuming exclusively chips all day. (Who am I kidding? Kids mostly consumed chips all day.)  It wasn’t perfect, but at the end of the day, there were only a few sorry chopped peppers that didn’t find an audience (except in my stomach). And yet, no one was hungry.

The Survivorship Bias of Food Waste 

For the longest time, my calculations about food waste have been guided by nonsensical biases. If I could put the food in our compost, then I didn’t feel so horrible. I was seeing only the end of the food chain.

Survivorship bias is our tendency to concentrate on things or people that survive, while overlooking the things that didn’t because of their lack of visibility. This bias is at the heart of food waste. We see only the less-than-fresh avocado sitting on our counter, not the strain and energy and packaging and work that took to get it to said counter. As a result, our food waste calculations are hopelessly off. For example, before I began carrying a trusty tupperware EVERYWHERE, if I found myself at a restaurant with leftover food on my plate, I would often forego taking it home because I didn’t want to waste the packaging. This horrid math forgets to carry over the weight of all the energy that it took to bring that food to table — the shipping, the cooling, the packaging, the human labour. A bit of packaging at the end of the chain is worth it if it completes the chain! If I’m going to eat the food for lunch the next day, it was in some way worth it. If I’m not, well, hello sunk cost fallacy. It’s even worse to throw bad styrofoam after bad food.

I’m Stalking You

I’ve learned a ton from Lindsay Miles at Treading Your Own Path, with the biggest takeaway being that you can pretty much eat every part of every fruit and veg. This means you, broccoli stalks. Just about everything leftover can make its way to a broth or a pesto, and since I manage to destroy all soup, I opt for the latter. Not sure my husband is as into sautéed kale stalks as I am, but I’m willing to take one for the team.

The Eat Me First Bowl

Put everything that needs to get eaten towards the front of the fridge. Eat it first.

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And finally, a Russian proverb updated for modern living: Don’t throw old peppers into a new smoothie. (Learned this one the hard way).

(Another benefit of my Substack is you can now leave comments right on blog posts. It’s like 2008 all up in here!)

Have a great week!

What's guilt but a secondhand emotion?

Or, why we just don't need a fickle motivator that frequently backfires

My friend Indira felt guilty about bringing packaged food to a potluck. I felt guilty about my packaged offering as well. My husband felt guilty about a recent transatlantic work trip. Everyone feels guilty. Except Drake. Drake doesn’t feel guilty. Ever.

But so few of us are Drake. Those of us who are not Drake are racked, mired, consumed, and plagued with guilt when we buy something overpackaged, or do something less than planetarily perfect, because we didn’t have the time, money, or energy to weave it by hand out of organic, small-batch yarn.

A few weeks ago an article titled “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle” made the rounds. Here’s the key bit:

When people come to me and confess their green sins, as if I were some sort of eco-nun, I want to tell them they are carrying the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes. That the weight of our sickly planet is too much for any one person to shoulder. And that that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom.

It’s easy to say don’t feel guilty but DON’T FEEL GUILTY. Guilt and its introverted cousin shame seem to exist solely to make the people who are actually trying to do good stuff feel really bad when their work is imperfect. Meanwhile, the people who could use a bit of guilting don’t have the gene that makes them capable of such feeling. This is why shaming doesn’t work on Donald Trump.

From a behavioural science perspective, guilt is a fickle motivator that frequently backfires. No one wants to be around the Ellie Ecoqueen who makes them feel bad about the strawberries they just bought. If your kid subsists entirely on strawberries and won’t eat anything else, guess what? You’re going to buy strawberries out of season. And you won’t have much time for the people who try to shame you for doing as much.

Of course, I tell myself not to feel guilty all the time with limited success. I’ve bought my son the strawberries and then eaten myself up for it. Which is letting guilt win, twice. In a world that asks so much of individuals working to circumvent the system, being perfect would take all my time and more money that I have. So when I buy the strawberries I want my son to enjoy them, and I want to give myself a bit more fruity grace.

If we’re going to get systems and people to change, we have to propose a more beautiful story. In the case of my kids and strawberries, it’s asking them to really taste the delicious Ontario strawberries that we have for just a few beautiful weeks, and to compare them to the football-sized strawberries that come via California clamshell 365 days a year. Even just this little thing (and the zero-waste propaganda I throw at them on the daily) has made them change their fruit tune. They’re more open to the idea of a rhythm to what we eat, in season. And if kids love anything, it’s routine. What do you mean we’re not getting a pint of the first fresh Ontario strawberries at the farmer’s market and covering our entire bodies and clothes in sticky juice that will then attract dirt? That’s our thing!

The goal is to be good, most of the time. My friend and personal exercise queen Oonagh includes cheat days in her workout plans because you need a release valve. You won’t be successful if you force yourself to adhere to impossible goals. In other words, in-season fruit most of the time, and bit of slack when you need to buy a thing wrapped in a thing.

THIS WEEK

Recognizing your guilt and establishing what good, most of the time, looks like.

Do you feel guilty? Is it helpful? How do you stop it? LMK!

LAST WEEK

How I feel when I think about the enormity of the climate catastrophe:

“I get emo lethargic, like I wish I was an extra in The Crow with mussed hair, and not a person using Microsoft Outlook eating salad out of a glass container.”

MVP reader Jaime feels the same way, only like this:

“My version is wind-swept hair in any British period piece.”

And now I too will imagine myself a morose Jane Austen character whenever I feel these earthly blues. So much lovelier!

New platform, who dis?

I’m on Substack now! Why? I like the idea of an easy-to-upload blog, so you can dip into MVP.ist if you feel like it, when you feel like it. Climate stuff can be heavy, sosometimes you might not want to open the mail. But when you’re in the mood to read, it’s all there. Let me know your thoughts on this new platform! And whatever you do, keep talking!

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