Resource-full

When the Amazon fires were burning at their fiercest in August, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (The fires are still burning, but less rampantly, which is what passes for good news these days.) My life still contained some of that precious end of summer happiness, that emotional golden hour, but those fires burned on my mental horizon, sending urgent smoke signals across blue skies.

The realities of the climate crisis make us feel small and powerless, and maybe we are, but I needed to do something. So I organized a small fundraiser, inviting people to my yard to pick their own bouquets and donate to the Rainforest Action Network. Making bouquets has been the great, unexpected joy of this year, and I figured I could turn that light on my despair.

In the two weeks before the event, attendance was rather low, and I feared a flop, but when they day arrived, the weather held and a handful of people turned out. I picked as many flowers as I could and put out a rainbow of blooms. “I don’t know how to arrange flowers,” said one friend. “Me neither,” I said. “Just start.” And her flowers looked wonderful. Everyone’s did. I think it’s safe to say everyone was in a great mood, me especially, happy to share both my flowers and the joy of arranging them for a good cause.

Later, on request, I started making bouquets to order for people who couldn’t make the event. There was enough momentum that in the end I raised $610 by doing something that gave me major joy. It won’t put out the fires, it won’t save the world. But it’ll do a little bit of good.

When we think about resources, especially in an environmental context, we usually focus on what we take. (Too much.) But we also have resources, and many can be shared with a glad heart. These days it’s a question I want to ask everyone. What resources, talents, skills, do you have? And instead of using them for your own gain, as we’re taught, can you use them for the world’s?

For me, this means more flowers next year, and another fundraiser for sure. I’m also currently saving seeds so I can give away some Victory Garden starter packs in spring to people who might want to start growing their own food but don’t have the resources. (I’ll even be including copies of my favourite urban gardening book, which is what really started me down this garden path.) For others it might be using their yoga teacher skills, or their knack for carpentry, or sharing an abundant harvest.

People and communities can be resources too. My dad and his wife travel in well-heeled circles, and they love food and drink and hosting. What if I paired them with an activist chef I know, and we made a fundraiser? How much money and awareness could we raise? I’m taking steps to find out.

In green communities online, there’s often talk of hoarding resources, which sounds dramatic but can happen in innocuous, everyday ways: those clothes you don’t wear, those tiny bottles of hotel shampoo slowly losing their potency, the food you throw out or ignore in the back of your cabinet, the housewares gathering dust, the books you aren’t reading and probably never will. These days, as I go about my business, I’m looking for excess. I’m giving away the rain barrel I can’t use (a good eco-tool that’s been terribly wasted on me), and a lot of my bumper crop of parsley, sage and thyme so that people can use it for Thanksgiving dinner this weekend. Someone on the really lovely Zero Waste Toronto FB group needed a scoby, so I’m giving her a piece of mine. A friend was getting rid of some nice clothes, so I brought them to work, where they all went to new homes. This doesn’t require a full Kondo, and it fact it might be much more sustainable just to take things as they come, since responsible disposal can overwhelm.*

At a conference I attended recently, we watched a video that reminded me that not everyone needs to be a capital-A activist, quitting their jobs and decamping to an NGO. Often you can make the most effective change amongst the spaces and people you know well. We need adaptation and tough conversations everywhere. “What can you touch?” they asked. For me, at least, it makes the whole thing less daunting, and is a good reminder that opportunities for positive global change can be surprisingly local.

So much of what’s happening in the world is heavy, unbearably so. But instead of puddling under the weight of it all, let’s start by looking to our strengths, our community, our abundant resources. It’s an exercise in gratitude and generosity, and we all could probably use more of both. My fundraiser reminded me that there are some things we can give easily and happily with a little creative thinking. Hopefully once we’ve caught our stride, we’ll have the momentum to take on so much more that isn’t, figuratively or literally, sunshine and flowers.

 


* A note here about responsible rehoming: dumping everything at your local thrift store is not helpful, nor is chucking a bunch of stuff on the curb (especially right before a rain—a pet peeve I see all the time). But there are so many other good avenues: local buy nothing groups, Freecycle, Bunz/Palz, local swap meets, friends and colleagues, etc. BlogTO also has a great list of places to donate stuff in Toronto. If you actually want something to stay out of landfill, a little more effort is required, but on the plus side, you often get to meet the people who are happy to have your stuff.

 

 

 

 

The rebels we need

I haven’t been writing much lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot. It’s the kind of thinking, though, that resists tidy little posts, my thoughts not a piece of yarn that unwinds neatly with a tug, but more like an elastic-band ball, ideas encircling and overlapping. A recurring theme is the systems and conventions that we can challenge or rebuild for the benefit of all. I’ve been thinking a lot about individualism too, about the great fallacy of it, and the ways in which it diminishes our lives and leads us to fail one another and our planet.

You may have heard about the Fortune 500 bigwigs of corporate advocacy group Business Roundtable releasing a statement that acknowledged that profits to shareholders can no longer be a corporation’s exclusive focus. Suddenly the well-being of employees, communities, and the environment are worthy of discussion at the boardroom table. They’ve realized, I guess, that there are no shareholder profits if the 99% comes for their heads, if the world is a fiery hellscape. They’ve realized that they’ve stripped the nutrients from the soil for too long, which is metaphorical in most cases, but also literal in some.

It’s easy to raise my eyebrows at these out-of-touch elites, but I’ve been trying to question individualism in my own life too. In the Western capitalist model, we’re taught to put ourselves first, or, at the very least, put our family units first. And while we’re biologically engineered to favour our kin, and to a certain point it’s useful, at what point are we hoarding resources as surely as a Fortune 500 fat cat? I was really roused by Adam Roberts’s piece in Vox (wonderfully rendered as a graphic column by Alex Citrin), which asks, how much money is too much? When does wealth become immoral? What does morality look like in a capitalist system? What obligation do we have to make society more secure for everyone?

So I’ve been trying to find ways to upend certain capitalist and individualist actions and assumptions in my own life. For instance, I discovered a friend has $2000 of charitable contribution matching at her work. Since I’ve committed to donating 10% of my income, I have a chunk of money to give, and could easily give some of it to her. I could double some of my impact! And of course this money, invested in the right programs, can have a positive ripple effect beyond the food or contraception or mosquito nets it buys. The drawback is that I lose that charitable tax credit — about $500 if I gave her $1500 — which I’ll admit, made me nervous, setting off scripts about “my” money and what I might “deserve.” But I’m learning to shut those down. Because life ain’t fair, and while I am frugal and financially responsible, it’s ludicrously deluded not to factor privilege and plain dumb luck into my own financial situation. Let’s face it, those factors count for much more than 10%.

If I give the money to my friend, I can give twice as much money to organizations I believe in, and also I can give some money to her as a tax credit. Her family had a run of terrible luck a while ago, and I love her dearly. If I’m for expanding models of family and kinship, why wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to benefit? Also, I don’t desperately need that money. If invested, it might give me more security down the road, but if I’m honest, in the decades to come, I should inherit some money too. In the meantime, I could save someone’s life. There are people looking out for me, who am I looking out for?

On a smaller scale, a friend of a friend recently gifted me her old patio furniture. It’s a huge upgrade from the rundown street findings currently in my yard, and means new stuff without consuming new resources — a great treat. I offered to pay her for them, but she declined, and my friend suggested I make a donation to Amazon protection instead. Another win and a net positive for the system. I needed to get the furniture to my house, though. I could have rented some sort of truck, but a friend’s husband has a pickup truck, and I was able to enlist his help in relocating my new patio set. My first thought was to buy him a nice bottle of something, but then I realized I had something more valuable to offer: my babysitting services. My friend happily agreed, and it reminded me that this is something I should offer more often. No money needed to change hands, nothing new needed to be purchased, and we generated some social capital and rainforest protection.

For now, we’re largely stuck with capitalism, but individualism can be undermined more easily. These small acts of resistance give us power, and we can be the rebels we need. We don’t have to wait for the Business Roundtable to start looking above the bottom line to make this world better. Yes, we need to vote, write letters, protest, and publicly advocate for systemic change, but the system lives in us too, in our homes and hearts, and there a brave new world is entirely possible.

Use It Up

I have a mug I painted at a pottery studio in my university town in 2006. My painting skills were adequate but art it is not, and now it’s got a few chips in it, but it’s still usable. My partner occasionally grumbles about the number of mugs in the cupboard, and I’ve recently thinned their ranks. I’d get rid of this one, but I don’t think anyone really wants it. So, what to do? I can’t bring myself to throw it out, because it still functions as a mug, and that hardened, glazed clay isn’t breaking down for a long time. (Consider: pottery shards are how we learn about civilizations thousands of years ago.) I’m a bit haunted by this lately: envisioning the things I throw out in a landfill for millennia.

I’ve been thinking more about the responsibility of taking on stuff, what should be a lifetime commitment, a sort marriage to a mug. I’m grateful to avenues like Freecycle, Bunz, the Really Really Really Free Market, and the good old Curbside Economy, which all have helped me rehome quite a few things that I can’t use anymore. But it’s another reason to pause before getting something new.

Lately I’ve been getting some satisfaction from using things up: the old pens with some ink left,* the lotion that’s tough to get out of the bottle, the half-bottle of hotel shampoo. I’ve been drinking a backlog of random teas. Sometimes things last days, weeks even, longer. I’m going on about three months of daily tea drinking, just using up odds and ends. It’s oddly satisfying in a war-effort kind of way. And it was a part of the Patchett piece that really resonated for me. Don’t a lot people have five lip balms if we looked for a minute? Or a bunch of lotion that is maybe not our first choice but perfectly fine? Aren’t most things we have, in fact, totally and completely fine?

I had some time off over the holiday, and found myself turning to the Bunz app more as I cleaned out closets or tried to unload unwanted gifts. Uncharacteristically for me, I ended up posting a lot of smaller items, making trades with a value of only a few dollars. Normally, I’d think deals that small weren’t worth the time, since people can be flaky, arranging meetups annoying. But interestingly I’ve found that people have been less flaky about the smaller trades. Could be coincidence, or it could be that these are the people who believe in the philosophy the most. Or, perhaps, for whom trading is economically necessary. Most of the trades have been “true trades,” which is to say stuff someone had already instead of bought just to trade with me, so I’ve ended up with an odd medley of things: a couple of enamel pins, a stick of deodorant, some assorted teas. I’m finding it kind of charming. I’m helping other people use things up.

I haven’t moved from my one-bedroom apartment in over eight years, and I am occasionally astonished at the stockpiles of stuff I have in rarely used cupboards and corners. The economic insecurity of my twenties + eco principles that make me loathe to discard anything usable make for a lot of stuff I forget I ever had. At Christmas, I found the perfect gift from my dad in the depths of the closet I call Narnia. Recently I was on the hunt for an old journal and unearthed a shocking volume of unused stuff: greeting cards, blank journals, pens, notepads, picture frames, and on an on. Some of those things date back about twenty years, because I’m a saver through and through and I didn’t want to use up anything nice. But now I have a notepad I was given by my uncle and his wife when they went to Australia around 2000, which is absurd. And while I want the things I own to last, enough hoarding of single-use items (and clearly I don’t need to buy paper products, for, oh, years). Time to use things up or give them to someone who will.

But my mug is starting to grow on me again. It’s a reminder of a different time in my life, of how I still find painting soothing even though I hardly ever do it and I’m not good at it. It’s a reminder that stuff should be a commitment, and that, maybe, what we need most is just to look on the things we have a little more love.

 


*Once empty, these are going to Staples to get recycled. I’m going to try not to buy any more pens for the foreseeable future because I am pen rich, but the new ones will be ones with replaceable cartridges.