Monday, October 29, 2007

Where Are All the Green Toys At?

The Ramadan Compact seems to have trickled into my every shopping experience.

I went to Target (my most favorite shopping venue) yesterday to buy a gift for my nephew and a few friends who have young children.

As I walked down the toy aisles looking at the selection I had second thoughts about purchasing anything. I looked at all that packaging for just one toy and could not stomach having it go into the landfill.

More importantly, and I have been having this on-again off-again conversation with my sister, what am I teaching the children around me. As an adult I have had to struggle with realizing that happiness and fulfillment do not come from things. I often wonder if I learned this lesson as a child and if I am, inadvertently, teaching the young children in my life this lesson?

Here’s another dilemma. I like giving gifts to kids. It’s just so much and fun and they get such joy out of it.

As I stood among the selection of toys contemplating what to do, a few choice thoughts crossed my mind.

1. I could go ahead and purchase toys. I mean who at the Ramadan Compact would know that I was living out of integrity with my core values.

2. I could not purchase anything and explain the environmental and socio-political impact of purchasing toys to the kiddies. I just have a feeling that would not work.

3. I could give each kid a little certificate that says “A donation was made on your behalf to plant trees” or “save the whales”. That would go over really well with a five year old, don’t you think?

What is the middle of the road answer to wanting to be a responsible global environmental citizen and spoil a few kids with stuff they will play with for a few hours and then forget?

I did buy a few toys. Actually I bought kids craft kits packed in cloth bags with minimal packaging. As a bonus I will stuff the bags with candy. I figure the parents will really enjoy having their kids hyped up on sugar.

With the marvel of the internet I found a great activity. Having the kids hunt for treasure…Argh! I am creating a treasure map and inviting all the kiddies (about five very loud kids) over to my parents place to go treasure hunting. At the end of the treasure hunt they get their treasure (or craft kits).

Sure it’s not gold, or Sponge Bob, or Dora the Explorer paraphernalia. But isn’t the fun in searching for the treasure, sharing the fun, and getting doped up on sugar than the actual treasure. Something like…”it’s the journey not the destination that’s important”.

I’ll let you all know how it goes.

P.S. Some Companies that Make Ethical Eco-Friendly Toys (just found this in an internet search after I purchased the craft kits).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Random Thoughts

While I wait for my macarona bechamel to cook:
  1. This morning, I attended an interfaith breakfast, "Caring for Creation: How to Build a Sustainable Future," organized by GWIPL. Really inspirational (there were 7 muslims in a room of about 40! Muslims do care about the environment :). The keynote speaker - Rev. James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool - has been a leader in the UK in climate activism. Part of his concluding remarks emphasized a something I've learned from my teachers and found to be so true in my life, that is the reformative nature of khidma (serving others). "Create change by linking with other faith communities to act for the environment [and the common good] and not just for the self."
  2. (Related to an earlier concern of mine) Rev. James mentioned that he purchases carbon offsets for his air travel from the Rainforest Concern - an organization dedicated to preserving rainforest areas and the livelihood of the people that live in them.
  3. The second speaker, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, emphasized the importance of the shabbat, where you take 1/7th of your life of your life to rest, reflect, and renew. The shabbat is a time to refrain from work, economic activity, take yourself out of the rat race. And invest instead in spiritual wealth. "Realize that we live in a world of spiritual abundance but material scarcity." Although the concept is somewhat different from Muslims, I loved his approach to this Judeo-Christian concept. The shabbat is something to keep ourselves in check, so we only we use what is necessary.
  4. The third speaker, Imam Yahya Hendi, chaplain at Georgetown University, made an interesting calculation of how much water is saved by Muslims fasting during Ramadan, something like 1 billion gallons a day. Wow. I mean, I never really thought about fasting like that...but it does show you the impact of small changes across a large groups.
  5. They handed out copies of this fun book: How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take to Change a Christian (available here). It would be great to have a Muslim version
  6. And why I love trees, from a friend in Qatar: "I remember watching a Survivorman episode on the Discovery Channel where Survivorman lies under the shade of a tree and says that shade can provide up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit worth of temperature reduction." Reminds me of how the clouds would shade the Prophet as he traveled in the desert sun and when he would stop, the trees would shift their branches to shade him. Allah, may God bless and grant him peace.
Ok, the macarona is finished baking. Now I should try this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Is vegetarianism better for the environment?

Following up my previous post, Tanz sent me this article. Seems to go well with my plan of being a moderate vegetarian (oh no, no KP!! [kabob palace]).

Vegans vs. Vegetarians: What kind of diet is best for the environment?
By Brendan I. Koerner
Posted Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007, at 7:43 AM ET

Some excerpts -

"According to a 2005 University of Chicago study, a lacto-ovo vegetarian emits far less greenhouse gas than a counterpart adhering to the standard, meat-rich American diet—the difference is equivalent to around 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, assuming the same daily caloric intake. (The study's authors thus claim that going vegetarian has the same effect on carbon dioxide emissions as switching from a Chevrolet Suburban to a Toyota Camry.)"

"In fact, a recent Cornell University study concluded that modest carnivorousness may actually be better for the environment than outright vegetarianism, since cattle can graze on inferior land not suitable for crops."

"And it wouldn't hurt if people got wise to the fact that meat needn't be the focus of every breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Debt is Normal. Be Weird

Coming in to work this morning I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read “Debt is Normal. Be Weird”. Ha! That made me laugh. I used to be one of those people in debt. I understand what it can be like to want stuff and unconsciously rack up a nice credit card balance.

I went into debt because I wanted stuff, and I wanted stuff so I could feel good about myself and my life. Now I look back at myself and laugh. At the time when I had debt I was not laughing I was actually experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress. I was a walking paradox. I was buying stuff so I could feel better about myself and my life. Yet the excess purchasing was causing me to feel bad about myself, my life, and my finances.

As the bumper sticker implied (now) I would probably be considered weird. I have no debt, I buy stuff that I need (ok, sometimes I do fall off the wagon), and if I do not have the cash flow I refrain from buying (well, sometimes I do fall off the wagon). I do feel better about myself and my life since I do not have the stress and anxiety which happens with excess debt.

As so many environmental messages imply when we make a decision to genuinely create health in our lives (financial health, economic health, physical health) the planet inadvertently benefits. I would like to say that I got out of debt and stopped unnecessary purchasing to help the planet, but that would be a lie. My primary reason was to reduce financial stress. Inadvertently I helped the planet.

Just to clarify I am not saying purchasing is a bad thing. I am saying that purchasing stuff that I do not need is not helpful. I believe purchasing is an action that can generate good and can benefit people and the planet (in moderation).

From a spiritual perspective the debt mucked up my relationship with God. I was so busying worrying about how to pay off my credit cards that contemplating my relationship with the natural world, with my pets, or with Allah was almost non-existent. Also I was completely absorbed in finding fulfillment through things. Intellectually I understood that things could not fulfill me but breaking the cycle (I will speak about this in another post) was hard.

Finding fulfillment from listening to the wind move through the trees, or hearing a bird sing, or in silent meditation, or watching my cat go crazy for cat marijuana (cat nip), or having tea with a friend is a high that has no comparison. Best part...its all free!!!

I never thought of myself as weird until I read the bumper sticker. I have to say life feels better in this weird place.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What I've done to reduce my environmental impact

Last week, I signed up our blog for Blog Action Day - "an initiative to get blogs around the world to write a post on the environment on that day (and thereby spark a mass discussion on creating a better/more sustainable future...)." But aided by (not) great internet connectivity (thanks Verizon) and being the last minute person I am, I've decided to take the easy route and share some things I've done in the last month to reduce my environmental impact:
  1. Found a more eco-friendly dry cleaner. Instead of going to the oh-so-cheap dry cleaners in my office building, I took some time to find a more environmentally friendly one in my area via Green Earth Cleaning. See also this post from Treehugger (the CO2 cleaners are better that the ones that use a silicone-based substances).
  2. Shared clothes. What's even better than having sisters? Good friends :) I cleaned out a bunch of clothes from my closet and while the bags were sitting in my room, ready to be donated, I pulled out some nice office clothes that don't fit me and gave them to a friend - they worked perfect for her. In exchange, I'm going shopping at another friend's closet next weekend.
  3. Bought used items. I maybe spent a bit more time, but I saved money, protected something from ending up in a landfill, and got some fun stories to share. Spending the extra time searching for what I wanted also made me think twice about whether I really needed it. If you have an active craigslist in your area, it's pretty amazing (and addictive). Check out estate sales too - it's pretty interesting to see what sort of stuff people accumulate over their lifetimes. And if you're like me, you'll find some really cool old skool appliances for real cheap.
  4. Carpooled. For real. I even picked up a hitchhiker at the airport yesterday. (Well not really, but it was kinda like that)
  5. Used public transport to go to work. Even though the metro doubled my commuting time (but 30min ain't that bad), I stayed comitted to public transit for the month. Well, all except for a couple of days ;)
  6. MOST IMPORTANTLY - didn't buy anything new (other than #1 below) for the ENTIRE month of Ramadan. In case you're wondering, it was really hard. I'll write another post about my experiences and where I'd like to go with my personal "Compact" post-Ramadan.
Things I probably should not have done:
  1. Buy two amazing metal spatulas - perfect for icing cakes - on the last day of Ramadan. The justification: I really needed them? I make a lot of iced cakes? I can lend them to someone who wants to make an cake?
  2. Fly home. I should have hiked the Appalachian Trail (the good 'ol AT) but fasting and walking just does not mesh. Ok so I'm kidding about this one. But airplane travel is grossly carbon intensive. Plus, being the transportation expert that I am, I've heard that the CO2 emitted at higher altitudes has a more significant/faster warming impact than those that come from ground level emissions. (I'll add the link to the research once I find it...) I need to look into the possibility of carbon offsets here.
Things I need to do:
  1. Get a bike. The really fast motorized kind is more to my liking, but I think the two-wheeled, low tech bicycle is what I need. It'll be great exercise and totally boost my green creds.
  2. Replace the light bulbs in my apartment. We have massively inefficient light fixtures and a electricity system that creates DISincentives to conserve energy (I need to talk to the management about this..).
  3. Eat less meat. It's part of the being healthy thing with #1. But its hard when there's a great kabob place (literally) in your backyard. See this article from the LA Times today.
What about you? [For another great post on consumption and the environment, see this.]

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eid Mubarak y'all

May you and yours have a blessed eid.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Consumers with Scruples

“If you pray until your backs become bent and fast until you become [thin] like strings, God will only accept this if done with a safeguarding scrupulousness.”
-Abdallah ibn Umar (son of Umar ibn al-Khattab)

In Arabic, the key word above is wara’, a “safeguarding scrupulousness.” The Prophet PBUH and his companions were quite scrupulous about what they ate and what they wore, no doubt. But sometimes I find myself thinking that must have been so simple to do that back then. People were only separated by two or three degrees, if that, from the source of their food or clothes.

Does it matter that our world is much more globalized and complicated now, leaving us that much more separated from the origins of items like our food or clothing? Or is it a matter of principle that we know where such items came from?

In this day and age, we’d call that being an informed consumer: someone who knows something about the life history, so to speak, of the goods they consume. More specifically, how “factors of production” like the earth, plants, animals and people were treated in the production process.

Virtually anything we buy or use can embody the injustice of mistreating any of the factors involved in its production and distribution. This applies as equally to vegetables and clothes (to say nothing of the myriad of other modern consumer goods) as it does to a pound of beef of uncertain origin.

Imam Abdallah ibn Alawi al-Haddad – whose chapter on scrupulousness from The Book of Assistance I’ve based this post on – outlines a simple yet elegant framework with which to deal with people (and remember corporations are, legally, also people) according to 3 categories:
  1. People you know to be just or good: so deal with them without inquiring.
  2. People you know nothing about: so inquire gently, but desist if this would cause harm.
  3. People you know to be unjust: so it is best not to deal with them at all, but if you must then inquire greatly and continue to be careful even if you find nothing wrong.
Most of our dealings as consumers in the mainstream probably fall into the second or third categories. For the second category, we should inquire into the history of the product and the integrity of its producers with gentleness and tact.

If such inquires reveal these producers or their products to be questionable (think the modern meat industry and sweatshop clothing) then we have two choices. The first is to choose to buy nothing (see Sanjana’s Freegans post for inspiration) and the second is to choose to be scrupulous and ever vigilant (more on ethical consumers and businesses).

Thanks to Sanjana and Anila for the links!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

UNPLUG 2007: October 13th Give Mother Earth a Rest!

Although this falls on Eid - which requires (usually) driving to prayer - there are still many things we can do to "unplug" for the day.
  1. Unplug and don't use your TV or computer for the day.
  2. Try to unplug as many non-essential items as you can (lamps, appliances, cell phone chargers, etc). From the Dept of Energy website - "In the average home, 75% of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while the products are turned off."
  3. Carpool to Eid prayer.
  4. Walk to your neighbor's house when visiting them for Eid.
From the website:
The "Unplug America" campaign was introduced by Indigenous Peoples in 1992 in response to the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of Columbus to the Americas. October 13, 1992 was designated as a starting point to look forward to the next 500 years and work to make a sustainable and just world, starting by giving Mother Earth a rest!

Unplug Day is an invitation to all people to show our love and respect for Mother Earth by challenging unhealthy patterns of consumption and the continued production of poisons that destroy our environment. October 13th is a day to unplug - turn off the TV and radio, shut off the taps, and leave the fossil-fuel burning vehicle at home! Instead, take a walk with friends and family, tell stories, do something artistic, and say a prayer for Mother Earth and our communities. It's only one day but also a fist step in reducing our carbon footprint, exploring consumer choices and ways of life that are more healthy and sustainable, and acting for future generations!

Visit htttp:// to let us know what you plan to do for Unplug Day!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Creating Change Maybe Easier than I Think

I have told everyone at work about the Ramadan Compact and why I am choosing to purchase only essential items for the next 30 days.

Every now and then a co-worker will jokingly taunt me about what I can not buy because “remember you made a commitment to only purchase essential items”. That being said we have all contemplated whether cat treats are an essential item, my cats think they are, my co-workers disagree.

Yesterday I mentioned, to a few female co-workers, that Ann Taylor Loft (now I’m not much into clothes but I love Ann Taylor Loft clothing cause of the fit) was having a 60% OFF EVERYTHING SALE!!!!!! Ok I am exaggerating here cause everything is not 60% off, but you get my point. This was a great opening for my co-workers to level their finest comments, in jest, at my expense.

I have not told them, but eventually I will get each and every one of them back. Vengeance will be mine (insert evil laugh here)! Apparently revenge is not something I am giving up this Ramadan ;)

Reducing my consumption has seemed to trigger my co-workers into believing I am some profoundly enlightened being. Of course I have not attempted to sway them from this.

I get comments like “Wow, I could never do that, I really admire what you are doing”, “There’s not many people who would be willing to do this” (I disagree), “Can I worship the ground you walk on” (ok, a slight embellishment here).

Getting serious for a moment. I have realized that by being open about what I am doing people around me have begun to contemplate their individual impact on the environment. Asking questions, inquiring. That is the spark of self-awareness which starts the process of change, and I see it happening with people around me.

Having learned the hard way, I do not tell people what to do, or lecture them, or guilt them into changing behavior (though it seems to work for my mom). I have recognized that the only thing I can do to create change is, as Ghandi said, be the change.

I used to think I had to do something big, I mean BIG to create change. My experience with this project has reminded me change is something that can be simple, unnoticeable, gentle, allow me to be the target of jokes, and can have a big impact.

Do you ever wonder how many people you are influencing by being your very eco-conscious self?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Water Misgivings...

I'm sure you all have seen it, you know the image: Cool college student, slim trim ahtletic build, talking and laughing with friends, and chug-a-lugging any one of the numerous branded bottled waters; and if they are particularly chic and sophisticated, then they have the fruit-flavoured variety for just a few cents more.

Okay, I'll be honest with you, I just dont get this bottled-water thing. I've never gotten it. I mean do we really need to drink soooooooooooo much water. Yes, I know it's about 75% of our body make up and so forth, but I just don't think it's natural to be constantly satiated with water... unless you're a fish.

Sidi Hakim Archuletta did a seminar in the DC area, and naturopathically speaking, drinking so much water is unnatural and in some cases dangerous. A couple of years ago, a police officer/cyclist actually died from overhydration. According to Sidi Hakim, previously, humans never took in as much water as we do now; it's become an image thing.

In addition to this -- and although I realize the concerns regarding the DC-area tap-water supply -- it may just be best to use a filter attached to the tap. I do realize that in certain parts of the world, it is better to drink the bottled water rather than the tap water even with a filter; but honestly speaking, we don't live there.

So consider careful consumption; substituting the bottle of water with foods that are high in water (specifically fruits and vegetables coz everyone needs their greens anyway!); and try kicking the water bottle habit...because it's not just about the water, it's about the bottle too...

Finally, something I came across this morning: talk about wasteful consumption, here comes Bling H20 at $55 a pop!...Funny thing is, most people during a blind taste test preferred Manhattan tap water to Bling H20...perhaps image is everything...truth be told though, that bottle looks kinda cool...Swarovski crystals and all.

So drink up if you must, but instead of a bottle, use a non-disposable cup! :)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Musings on American-ness

To follow-up on the idea of "less" Anila brought up in the comments here: In my work, I'm continually amazed at how the "more is better" principle is reinforced by public policy. For example, the rate formulas for electricity providers, set up by local regulatory agencies, link profits to increased electricity consumption. Some of that is changing now, with a focus on limiting CO2 emissions (see this article). Power companies have used this rate system to their advantage. I've heard that the TVA (power generator in the Tennessee valley) had an ad campaign in the 1950s where they actually encouraged people to keep their TVs on all night. Why? Because electricity was so cheap! And of course, because it increased TVA's profits and changed the habits of subsequent generations of consumers. In my research field (related to transportation/vehicular efficiency/climate change), one of the things that continues to perplex researchers is this energy-efficiency gap, where people routinely fail to consider the monetary (and environmental, if you happen to think that way) benefits from consuming LESS. Fuel efficiency ranks around 19 in the list of attributes that people consider when buying a car.

So the question I end up thinking about a lot is how do we craft policies that change these perceptions and values? Is it through education? A shift in advertising by companies? One of the things I hear over and over is "Why can't we be more like the Europeans?" (See a recent piece by the NYTimes). I mean, they got it figured out - compact urban design, fuel efficient vehicles, state provided health care, etc (anti-Muslim sentiment...but that's another story for another day). Problem is, only us greeny liberals want to be like the Europeans. The rest of America just wants to be American. So, when it comes to policy, how do we craft policies that protect the environment yet do so in the American way? Not the way that says more is better (you can still be green and consume) and economic growth is our sole objective, but the one that draws our history of innovation and dialog and openness. Can we, as a society, retain our identity but shift into a "walk lightly on the Earth" philosophy? Or will it require a fundamental paradigm shift, advocated by people like Herman Daly (father of ecological economics)?

I leave you with something from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption:

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ending is Better than Mending: The Disposable Society

As predictor of an age that is – and was – yet to come Aldous Huxley probably never guessed the extent to which his words would play out, albeit a few decades down the road. One of the mantras of A Brave New World, “ending is better than mending,” lends itself to what we are now becoming: a disposable society (A funny conversation; a more serious one). We throw away things simply because they are designed to be thrown away.

Case in point: Sanjana related to me a story that she heard at a session on the environment at this year’s ISNA convention:

A scholar from Mauritania came to a community in the US. He was given a styrofoam cup for his drink along with other guests at an event. What completely boggled his mind was the idea that he was required to throw away his cup after using it only once. He kept his cup for about a month before he finally disposed of it. (paraphrased from Sanjana…please correct if wrong :))

More recently, I pulled on a pair of socks before I headed out and noticed a small hole in one of them. I actually debated if it was worth darning this sock or just easier to get a new pair. The entire concept of darning a sock doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Perhaps it is because sometimes ending is better than mending due to the quality of the goods that we purchase, and the required time and effort it would take. It’s just easier, more consumer-oriented to simply buy another pair. Plus, who actually has that skill anymore? Who knows how to sew?

The quality of the goods is also tied to where they come from. I remember while growing up, my mum would sew numerous outfits for my sisters and me. They were late night projects that entailed numerous trips to the fabric stores, measurement sessions, and a few tears because “That’s not how I wanted it!” Each outfit was made with love, an understanding of who was going to wear it, and the hope that it would last a long time. These pieces were difficult to part with for my mum, and for us. There was also the understanding that when my sisters grew out of their clothes, they would be handed down to me, perhaps even to my children.

As my sisters and I grew older, the concept of hand-me-downs became hand-me-arounds. When my sister became pregnant, she’d give away some of her clothes till she could fit into them again (however, she didn’t always get them back :)). As friends became pregnant or grew out of clothes the circle grew larger and what may have been something sitting in one person’s closet became a new outfit to another.

As with any child from a large family, or with many siblings of the same gender, the concept of hand-me-downs is a natural – and sometimes reluctant – acceptance of one’s birth order. However, it is also a symbol of one’s status; the more off-the-rack items you have the higher your status. For us it wasn’t about status, but about love. No store-bought piece -- no matter what the brand -- can be measured against these handmade/homemade pieces that were in some cases works of art, always inspired by love. I have seen my nieces wear some of the same beautiful dresses that I wore as a child.

Our society’s values have altered such that we need to buy and we simply function through impulse shopping. The Prophet warned us against excess in anything, and consumerism is based on the premise of excess.

As I watch my mum struggle to sew simply out of the love for the feeling it brings her, I think of how we treat the world around us. My mum has arthritis now, and cannot sew as easily as she once did; her body is slowly going past the age of when it can heal itself of even simple bruises and aches.

A characteristic of all living things is their ability to heal themselves. One day soon our earth will go beyond the stage where it, too, can heal itself. We must become cognizant of this fact. Our lifestyles must reflect the concept that “mending is better than ending” and look for ways to renew and reuse items. We are quickly altering the earth’s ability to heal itself; therefore, let us not bruise it beyond repair. Hopefully, Huxley had it wrong. I leave you with these…

When the earth is shaken with her (utmost) convulsion;
And (when) the earth yields up her burdens.
And man says (distressed), What is the matter with her?
On That day she will relate her chronicles.
Because your Lord will have inspired her.
On That day mankind will issue forth in groups sorted out to be shown their deeds.
Whosoever has done even an atom's weight of good shalll see it,
And whosoever has done even an atom's weight of evil shall see it.

Surah Zilzaal (The Quaking), verses 1 to 8

The Beloved of Allah, said, “The earth is your Mother, so take care of your Mother.

NOTE: In the previous post, Mohamad highlights some examples of how to change our lifestyles minimally to elicit major impact.