stemming the flood of apathy

A couple of weekends ago I went to New York City for BlogHer, a big conference for bloggers.

That same weekend, in Pakistan, the disastrous flooding that had started a week before was getting steadily worse.

I’m embarrassed to say that over that weekend when I was in New York, the flooding in Pakistan was not even on my radar. While I can’t say for certain that it wasn’t mentioned, I just don’t remember anyone talking about it. Even at the very activism-oriented sessions that I attended. It could be that I was caught up in other things, or it could be that everyone else was, too.

During the 2 days that I was staying in comfortable hotels, and feasting on the elaborate buffets courtesy of corporate sponsors, hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan were already left homeless, and millions more were affected. Over a thousand had already died.

In the following week, I know that I had seen an email come in from UNICEF about the floods, but I didn’t spend much time looking at it. I confess that it wasn’t until I was glancing at a newspaper left on a table at my in-laws’ house last weekend and read an article about US aid to Pakistan that I really became conscious of the magnitude of the flooding, and reflected on how little I had heard about it. I know that some of this is because I was travelling, and preoccupied with personal business. I was too busy with kids and family to spend more than a few minutes a day online, and I don’t generally watch TV. But somehow in those few minutes a day online I read about other things. I read far more, for example, about the controversy about the proposed Islamic community center in New York City. (You know, the one that’s not actually a mosque, nor actually at Ground Zero.) And I can’t help but feel that the lack of widespread concern over the one story and the furor over the other are related.

Now, more than two weeks after the flooding began, the crisis in Pakistan is still growing, with 8 million people urgently needing humanitarian aid.

I know that I am not alone in my concern, nor am I alone in being disturbed by the unimpressive trickle of response to these catastrophic floods. I think it’s important for those of us who do care to do what we can to express our concern, and show the people of Pakistan, and the world at large, than many of us care at least as much about the survival of their children as the fate of a building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory.

So, you may be wondering why I’m bringing up a conference I attended. Well, for one thing, things that happened there have been on my mind a disproportionate amount of time compared to world events, and that does not make me proud of myself. For another thing, thanks to the kindness of a couple of generous friends, I didn’t need to get a hotel room of my own for the two nights I was in the city, as they let me use the extra beds in their rooms. Both turned down my offers of contributing to the hotel bills. So, I feel like I had a bit of a windfall. And I have decided to donate the equivalent of what I might have paid for 2 nights of hotel in New York City to organizations who are actively providing humanitarian aid to the survivors of the floods in Pakistan.

I donated to IRC and UNICEF, two organizations I have previously supported, and who are already on the ground in Pakistan. I know that there are other worthy organzations at work in Pakistan, such as Doctors Without Borders. If you would like to recommend any others, or any other ways of either helping the situation in Pakistan or voicing your concern, please share them in the comments.

trying to cut down (Petroleum Junkie, part 2)


That’s the goal I’ve set for myself for reducing my personal usage of petroleum products and other fossil fuel gluttony in the next few months. 10%.

Living where I live, working where I work, I can’t stop driving. We can’t completely change our home heating needs. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to cut out plastics entirely without major lifestyle changes.

But I’m determined that I won’t keep going as I have been. I’ve worked with vague goals and good intentions for a long time, but I’m not getting all that much closer to breaking my addiction. I need a specific goal, with a concrete number. Like 10%.

I’ll start with things that I can easily monitor: home electricity use, heating oil, and gasoline. I’ll check our bills for the past year for comparison. For gas for the cars, I’ll have to make a rough estimate of consumption, as I haven’t saved all of our receipts. (I intend to keep better track now.) For other things, like plastic use, I’m still planning to make changes, but I may be less able to estimate a number.

Seeing as I probably won’t get reach the 10% goal immediately, I’ll set a deadline. Let’s say by the end of 6 months. Oh, hell. Let’s say 3 months for electricity and gasoline use. By the end of September. For heating oil the real test will be the winter. For each month, I’ll have to evaluate more-or-less based on the month of the previous year.

Below I’ve broken down my plans into short-range and longer-range ones, and I’ll tell you a bit about what we do now.

The starting point
I don’t know our actual usage is yet. We are a family of 4, living in an 8-room house with drafty 20-year-old windows and an oil furnace for heat and hot water. We use lots of electric appliances and electronics, do lots of laundry¹. We have 2 window air conditioners that we use in the summer, and living in New England, we use heat several months of the year. We drive a fair amount: we live 9 miles from public transportation, 3 to 8 miles from stores and services, 20 and 45 miles from our workplaces. Most of our friends live far from us, and our families are even further. We buy food and beverages in plastic packaging, and the kids have lots of plastic toys.

Efforts we already make/have made:

  • We drive small cars. (mileage in the 26-30 mpg range)
  • We often work from home
  • We use the window air-conditioners fairly sparingly (we don’t have central air)
  • We replaced most of our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs
  • When we had to replace our furnace, we chose a more fuel efficient one
  • Our washing machine, dryer and dishwasher are energy efficient models
  • We use reusable bags for groceries, and increasingly, other shopping
  • I consider packaging when shopping, and favor goods with less plastic.
  • We reuse the plastic bags and containers we do get as much as possible.
  • I try to buy local produce
  • I get much of the kids’ clothing second-hand
  • we recycle plastics
  • We do other kinds of recycling, composting, reusing, and reducing that probably add up

Short term plans:

  • Check last 12 months for electricity, fuel oil, and gasoline usage
  • monitor current usage
  • make better use of informational resources like the ones from my electric company
  • buy more local goods: goal of 50% of produce for summer/fall
  • Select electric company provider which uses renewable energy sources
  • adjust our usage of…

    • Check to see what is plugged in or turned on that needn’t be
    • Turn off lights/don’t turn them on
    • Get better nightlight for bathroom and/or hallway (we leave a light on for Phoebe at night)
    • Line dry more clothes (goal of 1 load in 4)
    • Change temperature of fridge
    • better monitor use of air conditioners

    heating oil:

    • Use only cold water for laundry under ordinary circumstances
    • Time my showers, and reduce time and/or temperature
    • turn down the heat in the winter, especially at night and when we leave the house
    • be less lazy about weatherizing our windows, doors and other draft sources


    • Take train for at least some commutes (at least 1 in 4)
    • avoid using the air conditioner in my car
    • better combine trips for recreation and shopping/errands
    • have occasional family train trips rather than driving for recreaction/visits

Mid-range plans:

  • get programmable thermostats
  • Replace windows or get storm windows
  • consider getting ceiling fans installed
  • Evaluate purchasing habits

Long-term plans:

  • Move closer to public transportation (as well as closer to work & friends)
  • Investigate alternative heating and cooling methods, such as geothermal and solar
  • Get a more fuel efficient car: hybrid or electric (I’m determined that the next car we buy will be one–I’m liking the Leaf)
  • Grow some of my own food

Other green choices I can make along the way:

  • Buy gas from companies ranked higher for social responsibility. (The ranking page has been updated, by the way. Sunoco is still highest ranked, and Hess is next. BP is now near the bottom. Near the bottom mind you–there are still companies that rank lower!)
  • Take the stairs more at work and in public buildings (I need more exercise anyhow!)
  • Invest in green technology
  • Paint my house green.²

I know that these things aren’t enough³, and I don’t plan to limit my efforts to my personal use. I plan to take actions in the public sphere as well: by speaking out in support green energy initiatives, through grassroots organizations and voting. I will support stricter regulations in the oil industry. I intend to participate in bringing about greater energy conservation and awareness in corporate and industrial environments.

This has been a follow-up to my post Petroleum Junkie⁴. If you made it this far, you might also be interested in several recent posts at Momcrats: Where do we go from here?, Baby, You Can Drive My Car., Where Do I Go From Here? A List of Proactive Steps and Planes, Trains Automobiles & BP Boycott: All a Red Herring.


¹ Loads of it, even.
² Just kidding.
³ You may have noticed that I haven’t set any goals as far as reducing my air travel. I noticed that, too. I just can’t go there right now. But I promise not to buy a private jet.
⁴ Sorry this post is so long. I’m very wordy. I’m trying to cut down.

petroleum junkie

Like so many, I am angry at BP. They have done unfathomable amounts of harm to our ocean, to the wildlife that calls that ocean home, and to the economies that rely on that life. They have done damage that will take enormous amounts of time and expense to address, and much damage that may take years to recover from. Some damage may be permanent. The ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is utterly devastating.

It’s appalling to realize how much profit BP has made–over 5 billion dollars in the first quarter of 2010–at the apparent expense of comprehensive safety measures.¹

Many people are calling to boycott BP. I’m not about to go out of my way to patronize them, but I’d never actually bought gas directly from them before.

So, what can I do to send a message?

Clearly, I need to buy my gas from a company that is more socially and environmentally responsible.

Would you believe that in a fairly recent (pre-“spill”) ranking of gas companies by social responsibility, BP came in second. Second from the top!

As gas companies go, BP has had a relatively clean and green record, boasting the following positive actions:

$600m to update pollution ctrl/workplace, working with Amnesty, working with WWF, low-sulfur gas, largest solar company, solar powered gas stations, member of CFCP, 1998 Enviro Steward Award, best overall effort in industry, abstains from political contributions, Malaysian GW education program, Non-Discrimination Policy, 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers, Greenhouse Friendly Autogas in Australia, 2004 model human rights efforts, self-imposed emissions caps

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not supporting BP, and I think they should pay heavily.⁴ I am disgusted by their irresponsible behavior, both in allowing the Gulf disaster to happen, and their actions since. (Such as using highly toxic dispersants, preventing journalists from accessing affected areas, etc.) The trouble is, their actions appear to be based on more-or-less standard practice in the oil industry.

I was horrified to learn about comparably large scale spills that have been going on in Nigeria–for decades. According to the Guardian :

…more oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico…

As you might imagine, the effects of this ongoing situation in Nigeria are devastating to local wildlife, local economies and the health and well-being of the people who live there.

Who is to blame for this? As far as I can tell (from that Guardian article and this source), several oil companies are involved: Shell, Chevron-Texaco, and Exxon-Mobil.

But you know who else is to blame?

I am.

Me, and all of the other hundreds millions of people who use the oil. Like the oil that BP has been pumping out from the ocean floors, the oil being drilled in Nigeria is headed for the shores of wealthy countries: “the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports.”

We use it not just for our cars, but for a whole bunch of other things. We rely on it for our way of life. We lament when gas prices go up, but we still keep consuming. And we are so dependent that we let the oil companies trash our environment and ruin the health and livelihood of thousands of people. All in the name of profit and convenience.

I know I’m not the worst offender. I don’t make billions in profits from oil. But…

We drive. We fly. Our house is heated by oil. We use plastics. We purchase goods that are transported by trucks. Driven on roads paved with petroleum products. We buy goods that come from across the globe.

I use petroleum products every day, in just about every aspect of my life. I am a junkie.

I can’t quit cold turkey.

I’m not ready to give up everything yet, but I’m planning to cut down.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll share some of my plans (both short- and long-term) to reduce my personal dependence on petroleum.

¹ I love this commentary about the grand scale hubris. It’s bitingly funny. With dinosaurs.²

² For that matter, I’m pretty amused by the FB page called “Plugging the Gulf Oil Leak with the works of Ayn Rand.”³

³ In case you haven’t guessed, I am not a Libertarian. I’d like to see heftier regulations going on in the oil industry. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

⁴ BP has had other “black marks,” too, mind you. In addition to those listed on the ranking site mentioned above, there appear to have been many more recent safety violations.

h/t to laloca for the links on Nigeria and gas station rankings.

visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites

What do Casa Batlló (a funky modernist house designed by Gaudí in the early 1900s) and the Pantheon (a Roman temple built in 126 AD) have in common?¹ They are both listed among UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The World Heritage List includes 890 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.

Having been provoked to investigate the question by a comment on my last post, I found myself going further down the rabbit hole to look carefully through the list. I observed that I have visited far more such sites than I had realized.

Those places listed were among the most memorable places–dramatic, intriguing, charming or downright awe-inspiring– that I have been to in my life. I would gladly return to any of them.

What’s more, many of the places that are on my mental list of places to visit before I die are on that list: the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the pyramids of Egypt, to name a few. Still other places I recognized from the travel tales and photos of my mother and grandmother–places I would love to visit as well.

All of these things have made me realize what an incredible resource this list is. I now have it in my head that in the years to come, I will expressly make efforts to visit more sites on the list. I’m going to consider this a grand checklist of wonders of the world.

Below I have listed the sites that I have been to so far. I count that I have visited 24 sites in 9 countries.

How about you? Have you been to any World Heritage sites? Are there places on the list that you long to visit?

UNESCO Word Heritage Sites I have visited²

United States

  • Mesa Verde National Park: This was one of our regular haunts of summer camping trips with my grandmother and sister.
  • Grand Canyon National Park: I went there on a separate camping trip with just my grandmother, when I was a teenager. (I can’t remember the year.)

Japan: I visited Japan in 2004. I went to a conference in Nara, and stayed a few days in Kyoto as well. (I want to go back.)

Heian Shrine in Kyoto.

The giant Buddha in Nara.

Brazil: I visited these sites in 1991, during my semester abroad as an undergrad.

United Kingdom

  • Tower of London: I know I went there when I was 9 years old, but have little memory. I also revisited the Tower in 2005 with John.
  • City of Bath: visited in 2005

At the Roman Baths in Bath.

France: I lived in France for 2 years, though they weren’t consecutive years. The first was in 1980, the second in 1988. Some of the sites here were visited during the first year, some the second. More recently, I visited Paris and Versailles in 2007.

A view of the Seine showing Notre Dame.


  • Völklingen Ironworks: John, Phoebe and I headed here as an excursion from Saarbrücken, during our stay there for a conference in 2007. It was an amazing place, and I would love to return there with more time to explore and photograph. (I posted some photos from that trip before.)

The Völklingen Ironworks as seen from the train station in Völklingen.


  • Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch*: I’m not sure whether or not to count this one. I visited Switzerland with my mother on our European trip of 1984, but I don’t remember exactly where we went. I do know we saw some Alps, though…

Italy: I have been to Italy two times. The first time was in 1984, on a trip around Europe by train with my mother. We visited Florence and Venice. The second time was in 1988, when I travelled with a high school friend. We went to Rome and Florence by bus (from France), and stopped in Pisa as well.

My trip to Spain was just this past September (2009). (I want to go back.)

Columns in the Park Güell in Barcelona.

Details from inside Alcázar in Sevilla.

¹ Aside from being 2 of Sally’s favorite buildings on earth, that is.

² Places marked by an asterisk are those where either I have not been to every monument within a listing, or where I am not certain whether the particular location I visited falls within a region listed.³

³ I haven’t been to the Historic Centre of Brugge, but I did just recently see the movie In Bruges, which makes me feel a bit like I’ve been there. (Or at least like I’d like to go there…)

images: These are photos I took on various trips since 2004. One of these days I hope to unearth and scan photos from my trips before the days of digital cameras…

January Just Posts

jpbuttonjan2009Welcome to the newest incarnation of the Just Posts, a monthly roundtable of posts about social justice started 2 years ago by jen of One Plus Two and Mad of Under the Mad Hat.

This is the debut of the Just Posts in their two new venues, here and over with my co-hostess, Holly at Cold Spaghetti.

We are very pleased to share with you a bounty of posts by people who have in common the desire to see the world become a better place.

Writing about causes that we care about is more than “just words.” The act of writing helps us put our thoughts together, and helps us connect to others. In many cases, the writing then moves us on to further action.

I know that my own participation with the Just Posts has moved me to take actions in my personal life. I buy more local and sustainably grown produce, and more fair trade choclate. I have cancelled catalogs and junk mail. I have donated money and signed petitions. Bought more used clothing items, given gifts that benefit worthy organizations, and stepped back a bit from the consumerist frenzy that constantly beckons. Most of these are small actions, when taken individually. But they are moves in the right direction.

In the months that come, I hope to explore issues of social justice in my own writing, with emphasis on finding ways that I can do more, and make more of a difference. One of my big personal goals is to find a way to do volunteer work that I can fit in with my (seemingly already overloaded) personal and professional life, and I hope to share my progress in that goal.

Now I’d like to direct your attention to the amazing list of posts below.

I would like to encourage you to pay a visit to as many of the folks below as you can. A simple click or two on your part can help motivate a blogger to write and do more. Please consider leaving a comment at a post or two, even if it is only to say “thank you.”

I would like to say “thank you” as well. First, to Mad and Jen for their work and inspiration with the Just Posts these past 2 years, as well as to Su and Hel who helped them along the way. Thank you to Holly for sharing this new endeavor with me. Thank you to all of you who have written the posts below, or nominated them. And I would especially like to thank you, for stopping by here, and clicking on some links below. Click away!

The January Just Posts Roundup:

Some of the January Just Post readers:

Please stop by to see what Holly has to say, too.

better for me than a scone and decaf soymilk latte

After a glorious two years of partnership, Jen and Mad have announced that they are retiring from their work putting together and hosting the Just Posts. Their final Just Post hurrah will be on Monday, and for those asking what sort of retirement gift they’d like, they’ve put in a special request: to make a financial contribution to a charitable organization of our choosing, and to write about it. (If you haven’t seen their posts on this, in which they lay bare some of their behind-the-scenes discussion and debate, go have a look.)

I confess that I have never been great with donations. I’m inconsistent. I have a few organizations that I support, typically once a year. When they ask. And not even a great amount. If friends publicize a cause, or request sponsorship for a charity-based activity, I gladly contribute. But I haven’t made giving a regular part of my life.

So, I have taken a plunge that I haven’t taken before: I have signed up to give a regular monthly gift to the International Rescue Committee, which will be billed to my credit card.

The IRC just celebrated its 75th year of humanitarian relief and assistance to refugees.

Founded in 1933, the IRC is a global leader in emergency relief, rehabilitation, protection of human rights, post-conflict development, resettlement services and advocacy for those uprooted or affected by violent conflict and oppression.

This is the same group I volunteered with back in 2001, when I was an ESL tutor working with refugees who recently resettled in the US. The office out of which I worked closed, sadly, due to post-September-11th reductions in refugees admitted to the US, but they organization is still active resettling refugees in many other cities around the country. They are also active around the world giving humanitarian relief, and campaigning to protect populations that are at risk due to war and other political upheaval in countries including the Sudan, Congo and Iraq. They are among the organizations working to get humanitarian relief to civilians in Gaza, where the crisis has been much on my mind these past couple weeks.

The monthly amount I’ve chosen is not huge for me, especially if I think of it in terms of a weekly amount. I’ve easily spent more than that on an afternoon snack and beverage. In those terms, I feel downright stingy. But it’s a solid start. And it makes me feel a bit warmer, knowing that I am contributing to an organization whose work I find so important, and in a way that will make it easier for them to do that work.

the state of Israel mocks humanitarianism

Tonight I saw a photo that may haunt me for the rest of my life.

I was sitting on the couch, holding my nearly sleeping 4-month-old baby, while my husband was upstairs putting our 2-year-old daughter to bed. And jen directed me to a post at No Caption Needed. It featured an image, under which the first line of the following paragraph reads:

A child’s arm protrudes from the rubble of a building destroyed by an air strike.

The hand is tiny. A toddler’s hand. There is no hope that the child in the photo is alive.

My stomach turned. I found myself crying onto my baby’s footie pajamas, scooping him up and squeezing him tight. I found myself glad that it was not my daughter sitting on my lap, because she would have seen the photo. She would have seen my tears. She is not yet 3 years old, and I cannot yet explain these things to her.

I cannot explain these things to myself.

The International Rescue Committee, an organization that provides aid to refugees, describes the current crisis:

News reports today indicate that more than 570 Palestinians, many of them women and children, have been killed in the violence that began on December 27 following the breakdown of a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Thousands have fled to safety, but most of the 1.5 million people in Gaza have nowhere to go as both Israel and Egypt continue to restrict access to their territories.

The United Nations says the humanitarian crisis is growing as food supplies dwindle, access to clean water diminishes and hospitals fill up with the wounded and dead. More than a million people are said to be without electricity.

Let it not be said that Israel is completely oblivious to this growing humanitarian crisis. According to the New York Times:

Israel suspended its military operations in Gaza for three hours on Wednesday to allow humanitarian aid and fuel for power generation to reach Gazans, who used the afternoon break to shop.

You know what’s more humanitarian than allowing humanitarian aid?

Not bombing people.

making history

There are events that affect us collectively more than others. All too often these momentous events are tragedies. Natural disasters. Attacks. Assassinations. Calamities. These events leave marks in our collective memory, as well as in our history books.

What were you doing when …?

In my lifetime, I can remember quite a few such events. Where I was when I heard the news, saw the footage. How I felt, what I was doing.

Tomorrow, I feel like I’m going to have the chance to witness something monumentally positive. I feel like I’m marching for women’s suffrage. Like I’m marching on Washington for civil rights. I feel like I’m helping to tear down the Berlin Wall.

I feel like I’ll get to see us landing on the moon.

One small step. One giant leap forward.

Progress in this country has moved slowly. But this election shows that we’ve still been, as a society, making small steps forward. I am excited that we may see improvements in areas and issues that I care deeply about. Education. Dipolmacy. Fighting poverty. Making healthcare available to all.

Not least of all, though, I am excited that we will get to see a Black man elected to the highest office in this country. I am thrilled that I get to see this event in my lifetime. That I get to have a vote in this. That my vote will be counted.

And I am even more thrilled that kids in this country will grow up accepting this as normal. That my own children will grow up accepting this as normal. It will be just a fact of history.

Obama 2008




Images: The top one is one that I’d seen in an email making the rounds, and sent to me by mother. I looked for it online, and found it at Yes We Can Hold Babies, where you can see lots more photos of Obama and babies.

I’d also like to direct you to some more photos that have moved me. First, Girls 4 Obama, found via Bitch, PhD. And second, a collection of photos by Callie Shell, a photojournalist. (Sent to me by John.) I was particularly impressed by the one showing the worn soles of Obama’s shoes.

The other photos above are of Phoebe and Theo. My friend Erica, who has been working her tail off volunteering for the Obama campaign, got us the buttons. Thank you, Erica!


Oh, and for my word of the day, let’s say enfranchisement.

an excuse note

Dear World,

Please forgive the recent behavior of our country, especially during this election season. Please understand that it has been a difficult 8 years for us, and that we have taken leave of our sanity. (See attached note from doctor.) We hope to recover from this ugliness soon, and will hopefully be able to make up for it come January. We hope that we will be given ample opportunity to earn extra credit in the areas of diplomacy, health care reform and intensive efforts to break ourselves of our debilitating fossil fuel addiction. Should we fall short in our efforts to make progress towards these goals, we will expect to receive detention and a very poor grade on our global report card.

Some of US in the U.S.

This post was written for this week’s Monday Mission, hosted by Painted Maypole, which called for posts in the form of an excuse letter.