28 August 2019

A book I loved #7: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The final book in this review series of mine is the saddest and most revealing. How did it feel to be in Auschwitz? What were their emotions and attitudes?

We'll never know that about the nicest people. Frankl explains that they were the ones who didn't push someone in front of them in the round-ups for the gas chambers. But Frankl tried to inspire at least some the remainder to live by reminding them what focus on what they had to live for. He maintained that if you have a meaning and a purpose to life, you're happier and more resilient.

He persuaded many of his cabin-mates, at least, by the sound of it, to refrain from giving up (there was always a convenient suicide option in the form of a nearby electrified fence) by getting them to think of this meaning - to transport themselves away from reality into whatever it was they wanted to live for.

For many of them, including Frankl, it was their family. Incredibly sadly, when he dragged the sad remnants of himself back to Vienna after the war ended, he learnt that his wife, parents and siblings had mostly all died at the hands of the Nazis - and the people who had remained in Vienna barely acknowledged what he'd been through: "Oh, we suffered, too."

A lesson I got from this book is that we can do more and bear more than we think we can. Within a few days of arriving at the concentration camps, men who thought that in order to sleep they needed perfect silence and a soft bed were slumbering deeply on a hard platform full of men packed like sardines. All comforts were gone, and they were surprised at what they could bear.

What a comfortable life we live! Let's hope we never have to explore that dark and deeply uncomfortable side of life ourselves.

A book I loved # 6: One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein

For this book, allow me to refer you back to the post I wrote about it a few years ago, here.

22 August 2019

A book I loved #5: Affluenza - When Too Much is Never Enough by Clive Hamilton & Richard Denniss

How could you possibly buy this book? After all, it's a book about the problem of wanting and acquiring too much stuff! (Affluenza = the disease of affluence.)

As a result, I don't own it but read our local library's version of it, which in the meantime someone has pinched, as I learnt when I tried to get it out again. I can understand why they did that - when I read it about three years ago, there was so much I wanted to absorb that I kept writing down certain phrases and taking notes, which is a rare thing for me to do. I LOVED it and it changed my perspective greatly. It's beautifully and insightfully written.

I re-read a couple of pages of it recently - perhaps it was in a bookshop - and it explained how affluenza fuels desire, misery and crime. It hits the poor even more than the rich. The rich kids wear the latest fashionable shoes, the poor kids see them and harass their overworked and underpaid parents for the shoes, and some attack and rob to get them. The nasty ripples spread out from there.

But that was only a two-page snapshot. Elsewhere in it these authors show us ourselves through a mirror we rarely look in, and what shines back at us isn't pretty in terms of our finances, our free time, our overall happiness or our environmental footprint.

I see there is a follow-up book that's no doubt worth a read: Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World, by Richard Denniss.

21 August 2019

A book I loved #4: Waste-free family by Lauren & Oberon Carter

This visually stunning book written by a Tasmanian family gave me a much-needed shot in the arm when it came to my waste production. The most admirable thing about it was that their knowledge and explanations extend well beyond zero waste to the bigger environmental picture. I find that this big picture is so often lacking.

This book is a visual stunner.

For example, instead of extolling the virtues of waste-free travelling, it points out the massive contribution of aviation fuel to greenhouse gases. It's not just about travelling with a reusable straw - holidaying close to home is going to give vastly bigger gains!

A clean bottom

And when it comes to the frequent task of butt-wiping, they point out how many trees are grown and felled each year to keep our backsides clean. Turning trees into toilet paper is an energy-hungry and polluting practice. Their answer is "family cloth" toilet paper, which is somewhere we're not quite ready to go yet, but we are looking at better alternatives (the latest is this recycled toilet paper because recycling paper is much less environmentally demanding than producing virgin paper).

We're currently using this recycled toilet paper from Pak'n Save.

Daily bread

I don't eat bread any more and my belly is much happier for it. But for the rest of the family, as a result of this book I've dialled back the bread purchasing and resumed making my own. Our bread machine makes that fast and easy.

Canned food

I've also resolved to grow more tomatoes this year - we love tomatoes! I regularly use tins of them in cooking, but when you think about the energy and materials required to produce and then recycle food tins, it's not trivial. This summer I'm keen to preserve enough pureed plain, unseasoned tomatoes in jars to last us the winter.

This book is easy to read - but it's not a shallow, fashionable skim-over that extols products like stainless steel lunchboxes (although interestingly, the family do run a zero-waste shop). They've done their homework and done a great job with this book. It would be a great gift for any environmentalist, including those who already seem to live the life but would enjoy a burst of inspiration - and I think we all do!

19 August 2019

A book I loved #3: The Art of Living by Epictetus & Sharon Lebell

This book describes an ancient, empowering way of thinking that is incredibly soothing. I'm so pleased I found it because once it's absorbed, there's a strength inside you that can never be undone. Although the way of thinking is called Stoicism, it has little to do with the word 'stoic' in the common English sense of the word.

My husband read it earlier this year before he had a piece of his bowel removed (it was nothing scary like cancer - except it was scary to have it done). Just before he went into the operating theatre, he had a wave of terror about the possibility of coming out with a colostomy bag. I simply reminded him that if it happened, we would cope, and in any case, it was out of our control. There was nothing we could do about it. This reminded him of the lessons he'd learnt in this book, and his whole body relaxed.

There was no bag and all went well. But he said that the most helpful thing that got him through the whole deal was Stoicism.

I truly recommend this book.

16 August 2019

A book I loved #2: Movement Matters by Katy Bowman

This book that connected what I do with my body to the world around me. It pointed out what should have been obvious: If I outsource the energy to something else, I miss out on the movement. I therefore get stiffer and weaker. After doing this often enough, I now NEED to outsource the energy to be able to do achieve the task.


For example, when I use an electric beater instead of a whisk (a fork), I outsource the energy to whip and beat. When I sit in an armchair instead of on the floor, I outsource the energy that I'd otherwise use to keep myself upright. When I drive to the shops, I mess up an ancient system that went like this: Feel hungry. Move body to obtain food. Eat food.

But then what? Why does this matter?

For a start, I decry drooping arms, flabby belly, tight hamstrings and a sore back, and I put it down to inevitable aging instead of accumulated years of under-use. (Actually I don't, because this book shifted the gears in my brain which allowed me to shift how I use my body.)

Katy Bowman is the first person to truly open my eyes to this way of thinking. She's let me see the shortcuts I always want to take, such as taking a backpack to the shops instead of a carry bag - yes, the backpack uses less energy! It is more convenient and comfortable! It uses fewer parts of me.

Because it's not just energy expenditure that we instinctively try to cut corners on. It's moving the full range of our body. When we sit in chairs, we spare our joints from using their full range of mobility. And soon that full range is gone. When we never vault over a fallen tree, soon our shoulders can't take the weight or the torque any more. When our bare feet don't regularly mould to uneven ground, our feet grow stiff and weak so we need shoes to support them. When we sit the washing basket on a table instead of the ground when we hang out washing, we don't stretch our hamstrings as we bend down to pick up the garments.

Then we tax the environment again

After many years of under-use, we end up hunched, wearing orthotics, with restricted movement and pain. Having taxed the environment to avoid the movement in the first place (cars, shoes, furniture, appliances, etc.) we compensate for the limitations by taxing it further (orthotics, hospital beds, wheelchairs, mobility scooters, surgery, painkillers).

The best gift I got from this book was the power to shunt away the thoughts "It's too hard; I can't be bothered; how can I do this more efficiently; but it's so comfortable". I am happier with relying more on my own body instead of props and aids - and my back pain is gone. Now, a woollen blanket spread on a wooden floor in front of a roaring fire seems like a blissful place of rest to me.

15 August 2019

A book I loved: Energy and Civilization - a History, by Vaclav Smil

Here's the first post of a 7-day book challenge I've taken over from my greenie friend Alice Bulmer, who writes the Waikato Foodbasket blog. I'm also posting it on my Facebook page, which is where I do most of my posts these days. Please feel free to have a look!
This book drove home for me what a momentous change it was for humans when coal and the internal combustion energy came into being.

Long before that, all our energy came from our own muscles, via the sun that grew the plants and fed animals that we ate. Then we started felling trees for heat and cooking, deforesting the planet as we went. However, most people outside the tropics still spent the colder months absolutely freezing, with incredibly inefficient heating.

We took on farm animals to toil in the fields (but had to feed them) and harnessed water and wind. I was stunned by how the invention of a new yoking system for farm animals massively changed the crop yield - how physically hard people worked once we started farming - how tenuous was their food supply, making hunger an ever-present risk.

And then less than 200 years ago we learnt how to tap into fossilized energy (coal, gas, oil). That energy's given us an ever-exploding source of convenience, comfort and 'stuff'. Inconveniently, the carbon released from burning the fossil energy hangs around in the atmosphere (it's now a bit over 400 parts per million, whereas the highest it's ever been in the last million or so years was 300 ppm). Now half of us are suffering from not enough movement and too much food!

And it's almost impossible to obtain anything at all that doesn't rely on fossil fuels as part of its journey to us.

That palm oil does not grow in New Zealand nor arrive by wind-powered ship.

This book is the most complex non-textbook I've ever read. The author's brain overflows with historical and modern energy-related facts - he can estimate how many calories it took to build a pyramid or haul a load of coal up from a mine - and his book is a massive brain dump. I couldn't read it all. But it truly changed my perspective on what we have and how, compared to the other 250,000 years worth of humanity's existence, it is abundant, luxurious and also somewhat sick.

26 February 2019

Minimalist (and therefore green) skin care

Sometimes when I wander into the library, the library fairies quietly show me what book I need. At least, it feels that way! This is one I grabbed on a whim and it appealed greatly to my sense of making do with less while becoming healthier and better off as a result.

This book has already saved me money and time and given me healthier skin (well, it's not any less healthy, and I do less to it). This blog post will do the same for you!

Minimalist, paleo skin care

The author of Beyond Soap is Sandy Skotnicki - and yes, she looks great. But more importantly, she's a dermatologist who got sick of seeing people with irritated skin because they use so many products! She advocates what she calls minimalist (or paleo) skin care - i.e. putting a lot less stuff on our skin. But she also knows we care about how we look and smell, so she's got plenty to say about what actually works.

Be honest: Most of it doesn't work anyway

The marketing and advertising experts have "educated" us about what really works to beautify us. But they are not objective. They utterly inundate us with "buy me" messages about so-called beauty products, complete with photos of stunning women who we, of course, will be transformed into!

You, too, can look like this.

But shall we all be honest with ourselves: they don't really work, do they? When you see a beautiful person, do you truly think it's got anything to do with her patronising an expensive beauty counter? And haven't you noticed that people who use expensive products actually look no better than the average person?

The healthiest skin, please

When we sever our gullibility and connection to the people who want to transfer money from our bank accounts to theirs with the help of suck-me-in marketing, what are we left with? Dr Skotnicki targets her advice to people with sensitive skin who get itchy rashes, etc., because tthat's her speciality. My family doesn't suffer from that, mostly. So here's my summary of what the non-sensitive skin person should do according to Dr S:

1. Stop washing yourself so damn much.
Human skin was never meant to be scrubbed and stripped once or twice every day with hot water and strong products. Dr S. calls that damaging your body's natural armour. We have natural barriers and microbes that keep our skin healthy, and which are destroyed by soap and hot water. To spare your skin this socially-accepted onslaught, have just short showers (or baths if you must), the cooler the better, at most once a day.

In addition, wash less of yourself. The only bits that need cleaning with soap daily (if that) are armpits, groin and feet. Say farewell to all-over lather.

I have taken to using an old-fashioned flannel (facecloth), the cotton type that lasts for years and years. I soap it once and scrub the bits that need it. Other parts of me, if I can be bothered, get a scrub with an unsoaped flannel. Friction does a great job. If I had visible dirt on my arms, for example, they'd get soaped too.

Our minimalist shower.

But what about your face? Wash it only at night, says Dr S. (more on why later). I give mine a good rub with a wrung-out wet flannel in the morning.

Dr S. actually recommends a non-soap cleansing bar like Dove instead of soap. I have no problem with soap, so I use gorgeous soap from Ria's Natural Health Soaps (Ria sells at our local market). Yes, $2.20 a bar is more than the supermarket, but I reckon that if you're not using much of something, you can have a much nicer version and still spend less overall.

2. Wash your face at night.
Believe it or not, there is good evidence that air pollution and the residue it leaves on your skin is more aging than the sun! So wash it off before you go to bed. Dr S. has a list of cleansers (scroll down her website to the facial cleansers section) she thinks work well, but remember that most of them are targeted at sensitive skin, and most aren't available in New Zealand. Cetaphil is, though.

I use the Ethique bliss bar and absolutely love it.

A soap-free bar from Frankie Apothecary.

When it comes to moisturiser, Dr S has some she recommends - including Cetaphil - on her product elimination diet website. I just use jojoba oil.

3.  Use sunscreen every day (on your face, at least).
If you're using anti-aging skin products but not sunscreen, you're going about it the wrong way. Sunscreen is your most important beauty product. The sun ages the skin, full stop (and Dr S. lives in Canada - never mind our New Zealand sun!).

I learnt that mineral sunscreens don't cut it when it comes to the UVA rays that cause aging, although they protect well against the UVB rays that cause visible burn. All the "natural" sunscreens are mineral sunscreens. They're okay on a day-to-day basis, but if you're gardening or walking or beaching it, your skin's only being protected from the aging rays if you use a high SPF sunscreen with chemical sunscreen agents in it.

This new knowledge threw me a bit. What to do? I bought some of this. I like it, and it has chemical sunscreens in it (not that their website makes that obvious), so I guess that's good enough! I always wear a hat in the sun, too.

4. Exercise and diet really do help.
There is great evidence that a healthy diet that's low in sugar and has plenty of vegetables is really good for your skin, as is exercise, which improves aging skin's structure. "... if you're looking for a low-cost, age-defying beauty regimen that actually works, try exercise," says Dr S.

5. What beauty products really work?
I like this section. Instead of some $120 cream from the Farmer's beauty counter, Dr S. looks at the published research on what really makes your skin look better. She has a few recommendations - vitamin C, B3, E, niacinimide, alpha-hydroxy acid - and I found them online at great prices by the company The Ordinary, sold in NZ via this website.

Perhaps it's time to get serious.

I don't use them, but I'm 46 now and I should probably start!

I really recommend reading her book for her technical advice on these specialized products. Lots of expensive products advertise ingredients like vitamin C, but it could be an unstable version that will be of little value.

Dr S. also has recommendations for teenage skin, and her command to stop using foaming cleansers is one that we obeyed in this household.

How green is this strategy?

You know I'm a greenie, so what does this book have to offer the likes of me? Her product suggestions are traditionally packaged and not particularly environmentally friendly. But I think it's important to appreciate a vital point here: using less of anything is very much a planet-friendly move! It also saves you time and money. Thanks, Dr S.

I've managed to instigate a mostly unpackaged version of the Beyond Soap approach, so my next blog post will be about what that involves. Prepare for photographs of unstylish bathrooms.

The thrill of breaking a habit

Many people will quietly freak out at the thought of ceasing their daily scented foaming all-over scrub in a long-steamy shower. I get that - we are creatures of habit, particularly when it comes to what we think of as hygiene. But I invite you to try it for a week. Giving things up is more liberating and elating than I, for one, could ever have imagined! Especially when you realise that you're no worse off - or better off - than you were before.

8 January 2019

How not to feel like a weirdo at the Bin Inn

Soft plastic recycling bins have disappeared! These bins had been present at many towns and cities in certain shops and supermarkets, and many of us saved up our plastic bags and packaging and stuffed them into these often-full bins.

It felt virtuous, and it was very popular. So popular, in fact, that the recyclers got too much plastic and couldn't find enough customers to buy the end product of their recycling!

The scheme is just on hold for now and is expected to start up again. In the meantime, we have to either landfill our soft plastics or watch it pile up horrifyingly.

Or, perhaps, bring less of them into our lives.

Waste-free Bin Inn shopping trips

One answer is to use your own bags and containers to shop at the Bin Inn. If you do so, they'll give you a 5% discount! Here's how to do it like a pro, with maximum efficiency and ease.

It takes a bit more thought and organisation than a supermarket shopping trip - but not much.

Step 1. Compile a list

I have a separate Bin Inn shopping list, and when something in the pantry runs out that can be bought there, I add it to that list. My shopping lists are old envelopes or the back of used paper.

Step 2. Gather your containers and bags.

Gather enough bags and/or containers to hold everything on your list.

You do not have to have special versions of anything for this. You can use old bread bags and whatever containers you already have. For easy pantry restocking, it's easiest to take the containers you already store the item in. This only works if they are empty or have just a little bit left in the bottom.

Yes! You can even take in a container with the dregs of rice or cinnamon or whatever you're buying in there! More on that soon.

When it comes to bags, remember to take something to fasten them shut (if they're not resealable). I sometimes use clean, used plastic bags (I wash them and line-dry them) and some pegs to fasten them shut. I also use my Pouch Products produce bags. The produce bags are fairly tightly-woven, but finely-ground things like desiccated coconut tend to escape and leave a sifted sprinkling of powder-like coconut around the shop! They are best for chunkier items like nuts and beans.

Loosely-woven produce bags will quite useless here, I fear.

If you're buying ingredients that might be hard to identify, like sugar and salt, or different types of flour, take a pen to write on the bag or container so you know exactly what it is both at the checkout and when you get home. A piece of masking tape placed on the bag or container in advance makes an easy label to write on.

Unlike supermarket bulk bin shopping, you don't have to write a code (or anything else) on bags to show the cashier what you've bought.

Step 3. Choose a basket or carry-bag

Obviously you will not be putting your items in a Bin Inn plastic bag! So, what do you use instead?

A reusable shopping bag is one option. But if you're taking containers, rather than bags, the resulting load can be very heavy, particularly if you're using glass jars. I use a sturdy basket for heavy loads, and I try to park reasonably close to the shop.

But if you don't have a basket, you'll manage with tough recyclable bags.

If you are biking to the shop, I admire you. You'll puff on the way home, and a bike trailer would be perfect for a big shopping mission.

Step 4. Get your containers weighed

When you get to the shop - having remembered your list, bags and containers, and a basket or shopping bag, of course - head to the counter to get any containers weighed. It may feel strange, but the staff are very used to this! Put them on the counter and they will weigh them and write the weight on the bottom with a marker.

If there's a weight already written there from a previous trip, they'll probably just leave it there for this time. Point out to them if there are dregs of ingredients left in the container, so they can re-weigh it - otherwise you'll pay for the dregs again!

Step 4. Fill your bags and containers

Here's where I get crafty if there are dregs left in my container. Because who runs out of cumin, coriander and cinnamon simultaneously just as they're about to to to the Bin Inn? Most likely you're getting low on it and know you'll need more. In this case I either take a different container, or I take my "real" one with dregs in it. But I don't want to put the new item on top of the old one - I want the old stuff to end up on top so I can keep using the freshest ingredients.

Therefore, I just tip the dregs into the container's lid, mostly fill the container, and then tip the contents of the lid back on top of the new stuff. It works a charm.

Label things if you need to.

And try the peanut butter. Oh, the peanut butter - it is the best! We used to buy Pic's peanut butter, but this is much better. Their almond butter is also delicious.

Step 5. Pay

You know how to do this part. They weigh it, you pack it, you pay. They subtract the weight of your containers (and any dregs) from the purchase price.

Bin Inn gives a 5% discount for each item you pack in your own packaging, and it also supplies Bin Inn loyalty cards, and you get a stamp for each $20 you spend. When the card's full you get $5 off your next purchase. Granted, you do have to get 15 stamps, so it's not a huge bonus, but I enjoy the little $5 thrill anyway.

Compared to Pak'n Save prices, I find the Bin Inn to be cheaper for loose items, which is mostly what I'm there for. They also sell plenty of normally-packaged goods (jars, tins, etc), which don't seem to be cheaper. They do, however, sell some packaged items that I can't get anywhere else.

Step 6. Restock your pantry

Here's the best bit. When you get home, it is SO easy to put the groceries away when they're already in the correct containers!

For bagged items than I intend to leave in bags, I have a huge plastic container I store them in to keep out pantry moths.

Notes on the greenfulness, freshness and hygiene of Bin Inn shopping

1. Biodegradable and paper bags. The Bin Inn has always supplied plastic bags to put your purchases in. These days they're biodegradable plastic, which doesn't mean much, because most such bags don't biodegrade completely but simply break down into microplastics. The shops now make paper bags available, too, but given that paper takes more energy to produce than plastic, they're not an ideal alternative. Just use what you already have, instead.
2. Less packaging, not no packaging. Of course there is some packaging involved in this process, because the shop itself has received the items in a packaged form. But because they receive it in bulk, there is much less packaging over all compared to packaging each little half-kilo of sugar, for example.
3. Quality. The food at my local Bin Inn, at least, is always good and fresh. No rancid nuts (although to be honest, I haven't tried their walnuts - rancidity is very hard to avoid in walnuts).
4. Germ exchange. It is entirely possible that there are germs exchanged at the Bin Inn. I pick up the scoop of a bin with my unwashed hands, fill my container or bag, and put the scoop back in the bin, resting on the food. The scoop handle probably touches the food. Every customer does this. Maybe this would concern me if I had a suppressed immune system. But at present I'm fine with the human-to-human exchange of microbes. We were never meant to live in sterile environments.
5. Ecostore refills. Some Bin Inns, at least, do refills for Ecostore products. This got me excited until I saw the prices. The refill prices are much higher than for either their packaged Ecostore products or the supermarket equivalents. When I queried this, they explained that it is due to the huge amount of wastage they have to subsidize. People are messy and spill the stuff. Once, a person let a five-litre container of dishwashing liquid drain out on the ground, they told me! Sad.

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