Yesterday one of the headlines in Google was “Economy Contracts as Consumers Retreat“. There is a nice rhythm to that phrase, don’t you think? And, also like a good line of poetry, it says a lot in the most subtle of ways. The bellicosity of this phrase reveals what we all really know about consumption in a more-is-more, me-firs, “free” market: it’s a battlefield.

Who are these consumers at war with on this field, and to whom are they losing the upper hand? And where can they retreat to, to which safe haven?

Since beginning the Riot 4 Austerity I have had some conversations with friends and family members about reducing one’s footprint. I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, that invariably the first two questions from family members  are: (1) Are you in financial trouble? (2) Isn’t 64 F (17 C) too cold? No to both. That was easy.

But friends have more complicated, diverse reactions. They run the gamut of (1) a smile (you-goofy/silly-people-now-on-to-a-different-topic) to (2) “why on earth would you deprive yourself of Coke and cable”, to (3) “I really admire that but we just can’t do it like you”. So far I am ashamed to say that I haven’t made any convert, but then again I’m so non-confrontational I am probably the lamest activist you’ve ever met!

But here’s the thing: I get the sense that none of my friends are happy in their role as consumers, to which they choose, nevertheless, to cling. I have the feeling that they all long for something different than a life on the battlefield/market. I have heard them talk of their need for something spiritual, a different kind of riches. For a return to daily rituals of comfort and belonging, like they remember from their childhood perhaps (because most children, if you let them, are so naturally at home with themselves). And for time: time to be at home with oneself and one’s family, time to reflect on something beautiful, to read a book, time for friendship. Time that is not hurried, not stuffed up with stuff, but calm and warm and ample.

They want these intangibles (a nice way of avoiding calling them “things”), but they seem to deny  that the only way to get them back is by taking them back from the mass  marketplace. Because in my honest opinion, that’s where we have traded them in, our time most of all, for stuff, for plastics, for vapid “entertainment,” for glossy magazines and a glossier, paper thin life.

The mass marketplace where we are at war. The “economy shrinks” as we “retreat” from a battlefield: what does that mean? The newspapers and politicians and Wall Street investors would have us believe that it means that we are losing jobs, so money, so stuff, so happiness. They would have us believe that the only way to win it back is to ratchet up our consumption again, to “have confidence in the market”. They want us to believe that the enemy is the Chinese toymaker, the Euro, the Japanese car manufacturer and the Indian telemarketer. And they want it to be taken for granted that our retreat can only be temporary and that a victorious recovery just around the corner. That there is no other place to be.

But I believe that we are really at war in that field with our worst enemy: ourselves. We have been pitched against ourselves. No wonder no one can win. And even if the market recovers, “victory” is only Pyrrhic. Pyrrhus after winning one of many battles said that one more such victory would utterly undo him. It’s the same with us, only worse. I’m saying that we have already been completely undone.

I’m not just talking about global warming, peak oil, and all those “obstacles” to economic growth and ultimately, of course, our self-preservation. I am talking also of our loss of our “spiritual needs.” Yes, let’s name them: love, home, kindness, peace, and time. I believe that’s what my friends have been saying, suffering. Not the loss of stuff, but of soul.

And no marketplace is going to return these to us.

There are many other ways to recovering  happiness. By avoiding the mall and the box store, and saving the money for something more permanent and less polluting to the body and the mind (a woodburning stove, in our case), or for a sense of security at least. By coming together every evening in the kitchen, cooking together and then sharing the meal at the dinner table. By congregating in the living room, telling stories and listening to music or discussing a book,  and playing board games or making art together. By staying home, going for a walk in the woods and listening to the birds.  By counting what we consume in energy and goods  and how much we trash our planet, and reducing those. By planning our garden, our self-sufficiency.

By knowing where we stand, as a family, on that marketplace: more and more on the sideline, less and less at war with ourselves.

Amie’s sewing card, october 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Amie has taken up sewing. So far we’ve kept it simple: I  fold a piece of thick paper several times across and along the folds I cut some holes. Then I put some colorful yarn in a huge plastic needle, tie a knot at both ends and off she goes.  She’s not always sure where to put the next stitch and has to fight the urge to skip ahead (don’t we all?). So I came up with the device of putting a red dot on the hole on the side of the paper where the needle needs to go in.

It still takes a lot of concentration!

Amie sewing her card, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

The new Orion Magazine came in the mail today so the next couple of days are days of concentration and quiet inspiration. I can now ask Amie “can you play by yourself for half an hour? Mama needs to read,” and she’ll say “of course,” and 15 minutes later she’ll ask me if I’m done, and that’s cool. When she’s gone to sleep I read the sumptuous, hope-giving words: “beloved place,” “baseline of honesty,” “measure and proportion”… If you can put it in words, surely it can be a reality?

over Orion Magazine nov-dec 2008 (c) Orion

Over the weekend Amie watched with fascination as a friend carved this big pumpkin. Isn’t it spooky!

@’s pumpkin, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

She couldn’t wait to carve one herself. We compromised: she could “design” the face (draw it on the pumpkin) but Mama would do the actual carving, under her direction of course.

Amie drawing the pumpkin face, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Amie’s pumpkin, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Compared to the skullish one, hers looks so cute and golly.

– I’m growing!

That’s what Amie would say if she realized that some months ago she couldn’t tell the difference between a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy Woodpecker – and that therefore she couldn’t tell which was visiting our bird feeder either – and that now those appellations simply roll off her tongue:

– O yeah, the one on the left, the small one, is the Downy one (female) and the bigger one on the right is the Hairy one (also female).

All it took was seeing the two of them  within a reasonably short span of time and then, for good measure, at the same time.

Downy and Hairy Woodpecker (c) Katrien Vander Straeten, october 2008

The Cornell website – All About Birds – informs me that

The Hairy Woodpecker is attracted to the heavy blows a Pileated Woodpecker makes when it is excavating a tree. The hairy forages in close association with the larger woodpecker, pecking in the deep excavations and taking insects that the pileated missed.

So the Pileated is around somewhere…

Riot for Austerity first with Thermometer

  • Update on WATER

I found the water meter reading from when we bought the place at the beginning of May. We only moved in at the end of June, but we’ve had house guests – sometimes 1, mostly 2, and sometimes 3 – for most of the time since then, so I will let those even out and count the numbers for just the 3 of us for those 6 months.

Turns out we consumed 1418 cubic meters in 6 months = 1768 gallons for the 3 of us per month = 589.3 gallons per person per month = 20% of the US national average.

That’s not bad but we should be able to reduce that.

Hey, my estimate of 20 gallons a person a day wasn’t too far off!

  • Update on HEATING OIL

DH explained to me the workings of our boiler and I went down there to take a reading.

Since its installation on 24 July, the boiler has run 66 hours. Each hour it runs it consumes 0.85 gallons of oil. So in 3 months we have consumed 56.1 gallons. That is 30% of the US national average and pretty bad news considering the coldest months are still ahead of us.

I wonder how to bring that down? We’re already Freezing our Buns. Can we save on hot water, which is heated with the same boiler/oil? We usually do our laundry and dishes with cold water and use little water as it is, hot or cold. Also, in times of cold weather our water is heated, as it were, for free: the boiler is running anyway, so it might as well heat the water too. We did int he beginning have some trouble closing off “the Annex”,  the part of the house we don’t use and so don’t heat (turns out the thermstat was broken), so we may already be saving there. And let’s see how well our new insulation serves us…

Why do I even look at the news – my “consumption” of which is out of spiritual necessity minimized to reading the headlines in Google News? 8-year-old boy shoots himself in the head at a firearms expo, 7-year-old boy kidnapped then shot to death, Neo-Nazi plot to assassinate Obama.

The places where my jawbone fits in its sockets floods with hot anger. My spirit rebels against the hard and cold instances of brutal despair for the individuals and their loved ones, but my mind quickly makes a getaway into the general meaning of such instances. We are supposed to have biophilia, an affinity for the earth, for rivers, for other creatures, for life.

Quickly put on some Bach, open again David Orr’s Earth in Mind on the environment and education – book seem so innocent compare dot the internet, but that’s a illusion – with Amie on my lap “fishing” while she sings about the Whoop-Dee-Dooper Bounce. From the corner of my eye I also stalk the new bird that has been frequenting our feeders, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I’ve been wowed by its red hood, its novelty and most of all, I admit, its rarity here in the North-East. I feel shamefully proud that it is here with us and to make things worse I’m intent on stealing its soul with my camera. Why this need to possess its image? Well, here it is anyway:

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I also “caught” the Carolina Wren, who has been around all this time, but whose presence at the feeder is new. Here’s the bird in its box:

Carolina Wren, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I am well aware that the presence of a lens between myself and these birds only distances us further, and that that is an arrogant statement. “Us”, as if the bird cares about how distant I am (as long as it’s at least ten feet). “Further”, as if I can ever bridge even those ten feet. And as if I could feed wildness so I could take a picture for a reward.

Why wasn’t it enough to just see it? The same with the book.  I often find my character has been ruined by my education in general but especially by academics and my “specilisation” in philosophy. It is addicted to sentences and abstractions and  incapable of spontaneously undergoing awe and joy at a natural instance. Such moments of simply being-in-the-moment are too rare, such moments like yesterday, when I cleaned out some of our gutters and marveled at how this wet black soil came to be in them, ten feet away from the ground. Then I thought it’s not soil but decayed leaves and pine needles, and then but that’s what soil is and I nearly fall off the ladder.

Back in the living room I read Orr quoting Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac):

One of the penalties of an ecological eduction is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.

I write “for Amie” in the margin (it is something I need to equip her for), close the book and plot the making of bread and this entry.

Riot 4 Austerity fist with thermometer

We have decided, DH and I, to try the Riot 4 Austerity. It was that whole business with Sharon’s run-in with the New York Times that finally did it: we got really upset about it and this seems the best way to address that kind of inanity.

We’re now trying to establish our baseline (starting point) for the 7 categories. For some it’s as easy as looking at the utilities bill, for others it’s more difficult, but mostly because we have never kept a tally and merely have to start doing so now.

1. gasoline consumption

The desired 90% reduction of the average American usage (500 gallons per person, per year) is 50 gallons.

When we lived in the city we had only one car, a station wagon – bought second-hand with the safety of our still-to-be-born daughter in mind. We still have that, and now another car (a sedan), because in the burbs it is impossible for me to be without a car and drop Amie off at and her up from preschool (5 x a week) and do grocery-farm stand-Farmer’s Market shopping and library (1 x a week) . There is no public transport here. The preschool,  food places and library are each only 1 mile away. DH drives 3 miles to a shuttle into the city three times a week.

Add to that the occasional trip to another store, the landfill to drop off our trash and recycling, and frequent trips to visit friends and that  makes us fill up each car about once a month. It’s not exact science yet, but so far we estimate:

+/- 36 gallons a month for the 3 of us = +/- 150 gallons a person a year.

As I expected, this needs a lot of work, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The cold months are here and I doubt we will ride our bikes to school/shop/shuttle when it’s freezing, let alone snowing. Still, we can consolidate drives and as soon as it is possible switch to the bike.

Here’s a tough one: air travel. It’s been so expensive lately that we haven’t been flying much – 90% of our family live across one ocean or another. But family has been flying in to see us… Should we count that? This is a really difficult issue, something but for another post.

2. Electricity

Last month we used 448 KWH.

The goal is 90 KWH per household per month.

We can’t figure out why we use this much. We used to live in a basement and had the lights on all the time, and we used almost half that amount of electricity.  Here we don’t need the lights on during the day, use compact fluorescent bulbs throughout, never have lights on in rooms we’re not in, turn off computers when we’re not working on them, line dry our laundry – if not in the yard, in the dry basement next to the boiler – etc. Maybe it’s the old fridge that came with the house? The radon remediation system that we were promised uses very little? We have a power meter that you plug in in between the socket and the appliance, so we should find out soon.

3. Heating and Cooking Energy

Average US usage is 750 Gallons per household, per year. A 90% cut  =  75 gallons.

We cook with electricity since there are no gas lines here.

We heat the house and the water with oil. We had one of the most efficient burners installed a month after moving in and we also had the house insulated, but we don’t know yet what our consumption is going to be. We do know we have 2 honking big black tanks with 490 gallons of oil sitting in our basement (they came, full, with the house). We are planning on having that last us 2 years, because we signed up for Chunky Chicken’s Freeze Yer Buns challenge, so we keep the day temperature at 64 F and at 58 F at night.

Our baseline?

No real idea, but let’s (over?)estimate at 500 gallons a year and we’ll find out soon.

4. Garbage

According to the numbers, the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage per person, per day. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage.

4.5 lbs a day! It boggles the mind. Discounting recycling and all the kitchen waste that becomes compost, I think that

we make that reduction at about half a pound a person a day quite easily.

I haven’t weighed our garbage yet, but will do so from now.

5. Water

The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water per persons,p er day. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons.

I think we will do well here as well. We shower every other day and we make it quick, and Amie gets a bath once a week (she won’t stand for more often, abhors it!). We flush selectively and are very water conscious otherwise as well. In the garden next year we plan to have water barrels and other ingenious water saving measures in place. We’ll start keeping a tally on the water meter but for now

I estimate we use 20 gallons of water per person a day

 6. Consumer Goods

The average American spends 10K per household, per year on consumer goods. So A 90% cut is 1,000 dollars.

This is a tough one to estimate. DH insists we collectively buy only about $1000  a year. I’m not so so sure, but it’s possible. We go shopping for clothes once a year (e.g., I own 2 pairs of shoes) and I don’t do cosmetics. We  get a lot of second-hand and hand-me-down children’s clothes. As for toys and books, a lot of these come from friends (thank you!) and we are frequently at the library. We shop wholesale and in bulk for many things like paper goods, etc. Furniture, garden tools and those things often come through Craigslist and Freecycle.

We’ve managed to become quite thrifty with our weak points as well: electronics for DH (he’s been eying that flat screen tv but we don’t have cable anyway) and books for myself (since taking Chile’s Quit Now challenge I have bought only a few gardening and homesteading books). So,

 I estimate that we spend $2000 per year, half on new stuff, half on second-hand.

I don’t know whether that’s a conservative estimate or not. It’ll be fun to see how well I guessed once we have more concrete numbers.

 7. Food

Oh, tough one, and the organizers seem to have had a tough time coming up with a good calculation as well. I like it that instead of sticking a dollar price on this, they have opted to tie the reductions to the percentages of

  1. locally (within 100 miles) and organically grown foods
  2. dry bulk foods transported over distances longer than 100 miles
  3. wet goods transported over distances longer than 100 miles.

The idea is to bring  the percentage of (1) up and to lower the parts of (2) and (3). Ideally, one’s  food purchases should be (1) 70%, (2) 25% and (3) 5%.

During the growing season I shop for most of our veggies and fruits at the Farmer’s Market and at a farm stands right nearby. All that has closed down now, and we were too late to sign up for the winter CSA’s.  Our town only has only one supermarket: Whole Foods. Going anywhere else means more gas mileage. WF is expensive, but we are careful when we go there. We seek out the local produce (keeping in mind that WF does dare to call “New York State” “local”in Eastern Massachusetts). We also think twice before buying exotic foods such as kiwi’s and mangoes, and often stick to apples. We buy our cereals, grains and flour from the bulk section (and use paper bags), but more at wholesalers like BJ’s if they have the organic kind. We have cut down substantially on meat (and often buy that local) and fish and make our own pizzas. Our major vices are coffee and tea.

I would estimate for now that our percentages are (1) 50%, (2) 35% and (3) 15%.

There is much scope for reducing (2) and (3). We’re working on our garden and as of this summer, we’re counting on being more or less self-sufficient for veggies. We’re also going to can and freeze, and install a root cellar so we can get by next winter. Other more short-term projects are to bake our own bread again and to revisit (with the town) the possibility  of keeping chickens.

I plugged all this into the calculator (so cool!) and this is what our baseline looks like:


RIOT Calculator 081027

Here’s what Amie drew today. She is obviously feeling much better, as testified by this springy Tigger. He’s jumping, see, and holding a black balloon, and there’s a tree behind him. She drew this at her little table while no one was watching.

Amie’s Tigger holding a balloon, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Winnie-the-Pooh has become Amie’s favorite. We read a story from the original book every evening. She doesn’t quite understand everything, but loves it nevertheless. She walks around saying “O bother” and pretending all her stuffed and Schleich animals are characters from Winnie-the-Pooh.

Amie Drawing of Christopher Robin, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This is Winnie-the-Pooh on the left, holding a balloon and a branch, with a tree behind him, an Christopher Robin standing in the doorway. Notice the mix still of figures with bodies and those without. I’m really impressed because she used two colors without being asked, and thrilled that she is also adding context spontaneously now.

Someone suggested we buy her a Pooh or Tigger doll, but we don’t see why. It’s great that she can think of her old Sleepy Bear as Pooh, and of her IKEA kangeroo as Roo. Her imagination makes them so, and so much more beloved too because of that investment.

I have been a daily reader of Sharon Astyk’s blog Casaubon’s Book for years now and I am rereading her book, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, with pencil in hand.  Sharon was the one who made me conscious of the opportunity for a different, more sound kind of lifestyle, like I’ve outlined in What We Do and in this blog. And while persuading me Sharon made me laugh and cry and made my heart race with indignation and swell with hope. But first of all she was and is always thorough in her discussion, brutally honest also about herself, and, most importantly, down-to-earth and practical, feasible. What she was doing, I could do too!

So like many I was holding my breath when Sharon announced on her blog that a visit to her homestead from a reporter and a photographer from the New York Times was imminent. What an opportunity, but would the Times do her – do us, the believers – justice?

The resulting article, “Completley Unplugged, Fully Green,” by Joanne Kaufman (sorry, you may need to subscribe, for “free”), was a grave but not unexpected disappointment. To Sharon first of all, as is noticeable in the title of her blog entry on the subject: I was a Whore for the Mainstream Media (19 October 2008).

The article appeared in the “Fashion and Style” section of the paper. Fashion and Style? Really now. It’s no wonder then that, while presenting a typically short, superficial and selective portrait of Sharon and some of her colleagues, Ms. Kaufman devoted the article’s last page to consulting “some mental health professionals, to whom “the compulsion to live green in the extreme can suggest a kind of disorder” (my italics).

In the extreme.

True, unplugging the fridge, using a composting toilet and heating with a wood stove to an indoor temperature of 52 degrees, cosleeping in some form or other to pool body heat is not something we all do, but compulsive? Are refusing to drive many miles every Saturday to a Little League game,  washing out Ziploc bags, growing one’s own produce, raising chickens and containing one’s spending on consumer goods dysfunctional? Even air-drying  one’s clothes, keeping an eye on one’s trash-output, and taking showers rather than baths (which is “Among the less intuitive” of measures) are made to seem obsessive.

To believe Ms. Kaufman, these are all signs of the “carborexic” “zealotry” of “energy anorexics,” who obsess “over personal carbon emissions to an unhealthy degree, the way crash dieters watch the bathroom scale.” One has to ask: “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work? Is it taking precedence over everything else in your relationships?” “If you can’t have something in your house that isn’t green or organic, if you can’t eat at a relative’s house because they don’t serve organic food, if you’re criticizing friends because they’re not living up to your standards of green, that’s a problem.”

That’s right, but really, none of the people presented in the article, least of all Sharon, fit that description. One only has to read the words of the interviewees closely to realize that.

So one might then say that in Ms. Kaufman’s defense I have the wrong impression of what she “suggests”. But this one line gives her away: “Certainly there is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the compulsion toward living a green life“: at this point in the article, the italicized part is stated as a given.

I resent that.

Wanting to live a more sustainable life, safeguarding a better future for our children, and taking up one’s responsibility as a citizen of the world are not a compulsion. A compulsion is “a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will“. What Sharon stands for is on the contrary a fully conscious and conscientious positions to proven problems.

Sharon deplores that the Riot for Austerity – a community effort of many quite sane people like you and me – was not mentioned. She no doubt also regrets the last line of the article, in which her own words – spoken perhaps, off guard – are co-opted as the inane  conclusion that the whole issue is like a fun game.


It is clear to me that the article philanders to the lowest common denominator by presenting  Sharon and “her ilk” (that’s me, too!) as being just as crazy as the gun-toting survivalists who hole up in the hills. And the constant mentioning of the children (Sharon’s, Colin Beavan’s , the Lavines’) suggesting, as Sharon comments, her “low-level child abuse (cold house, no baseball)” are a clear grab for outrage.

This article reveals more about the writer – and her media outlet, since it chose to publish her article – than about her subject. It’s bad and irresponsible reporting, and it demeans Sharon, her admirers (like myself) and the Times readership. I don’t care if this is how “the Mainstream Media” usually operates. We still need to speak out against it.