The Carbon Free Home

Before I move on from January’s Quiet Riot focus of electricity, water and garbage, I want to review a great energy book– The Carbon Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Reduce the Fossil Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. I had looked past this book several times, something seemed too fad-ish about the cover and I expected the projects to be along the lines of ‘replacing your incandescents with CFLs’ and ‘setting up a recycling system.’

But when I finally bit the proverbial bullet and got it out from the library, I realized I had been duped by a good cover designer to think it was fashionable. When in fact it’s a meaty book with loads of substantive projects! The authors are approachable and honest, clear and thorough. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy.

The book includes a full range of projects– from insulating your fridge to installing solar heating tubes. Each project has a list of stats including the approximate cost, time and potential energy savings. Some are appropriate for renters, though I think the book is much more useful for homeowners who can really re-cap their investment over time. The small to medium sized projects are the stars of the book, in my view– the low to no cost things that most folks could do if they set aside a weekend for set up. The more complex projects would require considerably more information, but this book provides an overview of what’s involved as well as just plain inspiration for things like masonry stoves (yummy).

I look forward to outfitting our own home back in Alaska when we return. I never wanted to live in town, in a real sheetrock and plumbing house (I was going to build a log cabin in the woods), but over time as I’ve come around. I’ve realized the usefulness of it, given the way things actually are. I’ve re-written my goal to owning this modern system, knowing how my plumbing works and how to fix it, and eventually how to divert it into gray water garden irrigation! This book is not just empty inspiration for beginners though, as these books can sometimes be, it’s got real meat.

If you are thinking about putting a little time into the energy efficiency of your home, this would be a great place to start.

So Quiet You Can’t Even Hear It

I have not forgotten my Quiet Riot. But it has, errr, slipped under the rug a bit. This month was supposed to be all about electricity, garbage and water, remember? But first let’s have a little update on the project in general.

I spent almost two hours yesterday looking over bills, totaling receipts and entering numbers in my charts for the last two months. And you know what I think? I think I don’t care. I care about making changes, I do not care about recording them in detail. It would be fun if I had unlimited time, but as you know, I don’t. It’s a shit ton of work to keep track of all those numbers, and since I am not 100% consistent about keeping receipts, the numbers are patchy and therefore possibly worthless anyway. For example I have a little card in my wallet for purchases that don’t come with a receipt, but I didn’t record any money spent at the farmer’s market for December. I remember going at least twice, but it is so hard for me to remember to jot down each purchase as I traipse from booth to booth with 40 lbs of groceries and 60 lbs of kid hanging off of my arms and legs.

The utilities vary so much seasonally that keeping track wouldn’t tell you much unless you tracked an entire year. Although our electric and water bills have fallen like rocks, this has mostly to do with the fact that it’s not 95 degrees anymore.

As I said in the beginning, I don’t believe that the numbers are not a necessary indicator of change unless you are trying to prove something to the world, as the real Riot for Austerity is trying to do, bless their better organized souls. Myself, with my quiet exploits, I am just trying to draw my own focus back towards things that are hard to stay focused on. Try a little harder, remember that each small change adds up.

By the measure of my own estimation, I think I’m doing good. Without needing to keep track of and tally receipts, I can see my small successes marked by the specific changes I’ve made.

My eating local week went pretty well and throughout November I pushed more decidedly toward the farmer’s market. I had been allowing myself to buy brown basmati rice at Whole Foods because I just like the flavor of basmati better, but I locked myself into local with a 25 lb sack of perfectly tasty brown jasmine (for only $25! Steal!) I am lucky to be able to buy a locally grown grain here, and I’d better take advantage of it. I also switched to the local cheddar cheese, even though it costs $12/lb and we go through a pound a week. A new farm started selling milk in glass bottles, oh joy of my heart, for only $3.50/half gallon, so I dutifully added huge heavy bottles to my farmer’s market pile in the pantry– bags, coolers, egg cartons and strawberry baskets to return. Geesh.

December could be viewed either way, a huge Stuff transgression, or a concerted effort to navigate the line between my own values and participating in cultural tradition. I did think very hard about Stuff for almost an entire month, which prompted more advance planning than usual and planning is always helpful at Christmas. My own gift range was all over the board, from thrifted goodies for the kids, to hand blended organic spice mixes and local art for relatives, to a remote controlled helicopter for My Man (if we can’t play with battery operated toys, we don’t want to be part of your revolution.)

Although I haven’t been focusing on the Riot this month as much as I would like, I started tightening the belt on electricity, water and waste as soon as this whole Riot idea spawned back in August. I’ve been turning off lights and computers and faucets everywhere I go, and thinking about each item I put into the trash can. Which is largely my point here anyway– I had gotten so lazy, I would see a light on and just feel that I couldn’t be bothered to reach that far. So, a little practice leaning was in order.

Specific projects for this month were to test every appliance with the Watts Up, insulate the refrigerator and build the kids play fountain. One down! Awesome.

I did have a few blog posts in mind that I haven’t gotten to– cloth diapering, line drying, and a lazy man’s compost bin. Any requests?

Austerity Fast

November is more than half over. What do I have to show for it? I have been putting some time and focus into my Quiet Riot’s food month, but predictably not as much as I’d hoped. Like many of you, my time is very limited and I seem to put any spare change I have into this addictive blogging endeavor!

I have made the switch to farmer’s market cheese as well as the newly available milk in glass bottles (hooray!) And that good ole’ $16/lb coffee. But since food is my overarching life focus, there weren’t too many changes to make. I mean, there’s always more changes a person could make, but I was doing more or less what I am comfortable doing and can afford. I already buy almost entirely ethically raised meat and dairy, grow a large portion of our vegetables, keep chickens, cook seasonally and efficiently, and minimize waste in the kitchen with Type A fervor. I go the extra mile. Spend the extra (5) dollars.

Only one thing left to do.



Enter my week-long Austerity Fast, beginning this Saturday. The Fast will be a reigning in of all excess for me. We have such a warped standard these days, it’s hard to figure out what is and isn’t luxury. But since this is just a week long exercise, I want to draw a pretty hard line, this will be the corporate boycott (of one) I wrote about last month. No buying anything except locally produced groceries from the market. Furthermore, I’m not even going to use those Whole Foods groceries which are always well-stocked in my pantry. This means a week of eating entirely local food, which is a little intimidating and also a little exciting. **Note: Coffee is exempt from this and all other challenges. Otherwise I simply would never do it.** We are lucky to have local brown rice available, as well as squash and potatoes, so we won’t go starch-less, plus all meat and dairy, and a great selection of vegetables this time of year. Eggs of course from our home coop. This adds up to pretty plush for a supposedly “austere” diet.

Most notably cut from my week will be sugar, variety and convenience. I am a sugar fiend. I make most of my sweet-tooth-satisfying treats at home with top quality ingredients, nevertheless I know it isn’t right to eat rich, sweet foods once or twice every day. I hope to write a penetrating post about luxury as standard this weekend, in the midst of my sugar withdrawl.

Variety is taken for granted these days too, I’m sure we’ll be sick of rice by the end of the week. But perhaps most critically for this particular time frame, as My Man’s finals are bearing down on us, will be the loss of convenience. Nix the belovedly quick and easy whole wheat noodles from Whole Foods. Nix the uber-quick snacks of bread, sandwiches and granola– wheat, wheat and oats from afar.

And now, aren’t you wondering how I’ve roped my family into this? I think a lot of concerned mamas face this dilemma. You’ve determined the ethical thing to do, and you are willing to pony up the extra 40 minutes/day to make it happen, but your family’s not remotely on board.

Here’s my tactic, it may or may not be ‘right,’ but I think it’s relevant–

I haven’t roped my family into it, this Quiet Riot and the upcoming Fast are all me. I may accomplish less, true, but it will be without coercion of any kind. For one thing, coercion doesn’t work. Difficult things like self-limitation need to be chosen of one’s own free will. (And no, guilt from behind does not count as free will.)

But more importantly, who am I to say what anyone else should do? Everyone has their own unique thing to offer the world. My Man works on a different plane. We intersect, and that’s awesome. We have lots to offer each other. As Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the difference between us, and I know there is comfort where we overlap.” And who’s to say this little exercise is even useful anyway? It’s useful to me, and that’s why I’m doing it. But is it really useful to the world at large?

Fortunately, I am queen in the kitchen. Although I am not prepared to refuse my 4yo granola if she insists on it, I hope that by planning ahead and providing rice porridge with cream and honey for breakfast, the entire conflict can be avoided. The burden will lie solely on me, where it belongs, since this is my crazy idea. I hope that, again– with good planning, I can have local meals ready for My Man to take to school so that he doesn’t need to buy a Big Ag lunch out.

That is how women have influenced the world throughout history– covertly, from the kitchen. They’ll never know what hit ’em.

Priorities, Compromise and The Privilege of Doing Good

Thursday’s post on Fair Trade was a soap box, no two ways around it. This whole Quiet Riot is going to involve a lot of soap boxing. Worse, because we are (most of us) inescapably consumers, a lot of living more responsibly involves spending more money. Let me assure you, as a born cheap-skate, it seriously disturbs my soul to be up here, looking down beneficently at my gathered crowd, telling you all to go out and spend more money.

A woman commented on the Bank Transfer post the other day wondering how to choose priorities from the endlessly long list of things a person really ought to do. Especially when responsible choices often cost more and, in the real world of limited incomes, conflict with her highest priority of staying home to raise her kids.

I can word out a few seemingly sensible soap box responses to this, like– ‘well, what kind of world do you want to be left for those children to live in’ and ‘don’t you want to set the example to your children that you do the right thing, no matter how hard?’ Etc, etc. But as convenient as that kind of black and white thinking is, I know full well about the incredible gulf of gray between.

I suspect everyone reading this blog cares deeply and honestly about the future of our world, and is doing what they can. But the devil is in the details, ‘doing what we can’ is a tricky statement. We could all do more, no doubt. We could probably survive with less sleep, spending those precious kid-less hours gardening by headlamp. We could certainly do with quite a lot less food and more ruthless austerity. We could… And those of us with overactive guilt complexes instilled by Catholic/Jewish/Baptist/privilegedwhitepeople backgrounds are sometimes consumed by that needling ‘could.’

But what value do we place on living a joyful life as a part of our particular community of humans? How much margin do we allow ourselves in that ongoing effort to be a part of our world, while also trying to change that world for the better?

Fair trade is a perfect set for this confusion. All jokes aside, coffee, tea and chocolate are far from necessary to our actual survival. A person could afford to buy ethical luxury items simply by treating them as luxuries, which is to say reserving them for special occasions. You can have a chocolate cake on your birthday, the other 364 days of the year you can eat a second helping of locally grown vegetables for desert. And haven’t you heard of roasting the dandelion roots you weed out of your garden for a local, sustainable coffee substitute?

I lived that way for a handful of years in my rugged youth. We ate plain oatmeal for breakfast, beans, rice and foraged greens for dinner. No sweeteners, no butter, and hell no coffee. We were austere, in the first degree. After a year or so, I started finding reason to go visit our neighbors strangely often. Who, coincidentally, would always offer me a cup of coffee. And, if I was lucky, a piece of pie. I am quite certain that better people than me are capable of maintaining a hard core rebellion against the western world’s interpretation of luxury as standard, without becoming neighbor junkies. Those years proved that I am not.

This is a theme I want to explore over the course of this Riot. How to keep doing the hard thing when everyone around you does the easy thing. How to maintain a poverty standard in a world of flagrant excess. How to feel okay about holding your children to that ethic. Not that I have any answers, understand, only a sticky ball of questions and personal failures.

After accepting that I didn’t have what it takes to live the ascetic life, it boiled down to a matter of priorities and consequently compromise. Which is the quagmire I have been slogging in ever since. To get back to that original comment– how do we choose the most important things to do with our limited energy, time and funds? How do we balance ethical (read: expensive) consumption with our decidedly low family incomes? I think the answer is intensely personal. I don’t mean personal as in emotionally yours, though that is also true, but so completely based on every particular situation and family that there’s hardly any generalized objective truth.

It seems to me that we mostly choose our battles based on what we’re good at and what we want to do anyway. And when you think about it, isn’t that the best way after all? We all have our inborn talents, our callings in life. We will work hardest, most passionately, most effectively doing what we are drawn to do. Hopefully the community at large will cover the rest, right? Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, and so between the all of us, we’ll lick the platter clean.

As you all know, my calling in life is food. I work very hard at it, and if I may say so myself, have fair natural talent. I’m also really good with systems, which I think is an extraordinarily helpful skill to keeping a home. I do hope that this blog lends a hand with some specifics of Sustainable Housewifery on the Cheap, because if we can’t do it on the cheap then most of us simply can’t do it.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room.


Privilege comes in all sizes and shapes, but for now let’s talk about economic privilege. Neither My Man or I were born into money, but his folks have made a goodly stash in their mature years, and are very generous with us. Sometimes so generous that my teeth hurt. Many years ago they took out the mortgage for us on our house back in Alaska. We are slowly buying it from them as they buy it from the bank. All very convuluded, more than you can even imagine. At present, they are loaning us more than half of the money we burn through here in New Orleans, while I stay sweetly home to watch my angels grow up and nobly shop at Whole Foods (the other half is student loans, we didn’t have any savings at all). They also loaned us their car to use during our 3 year stint here, so we do not have car payments. They gift us big, nice, useful presents at Christmas and birthdays. Just about everything we own either came off the side of the road or was given us by My Man’s folks. It’s a motley collection.

Admitting this all, in print, to the wide world, is nothing short of excruciating for me. I grew up with hippie parents who scraped together $12-15,000 year, total. We lived extremely frugally and always by the skin of our teeth. I was endowed with a fierce spirit of individualist pride. Doing it yourself. Never accepting, or even deigning to need, help from anyone.

I have come around, intellectually, as an adult. Even before I married accidentally into money (hey, he was living in a moldy plywood tipi at the time, how could I have known?) I was beginning to realize the importance of interdependence, of accepting help and yes, even needing each other. I see now that family is meant to help. Our situation looks new and fancy, but the bones of it are ancient– parents establishing themselves, passing on what they can to their kids as they take out into the world.

Another important kind of privilege is less tangible– knowledge, attitude and expectations. I didn’t get any economic privilege growing up, but those anti-materialist DIY hippie parents gave me all kinds of essential mental tools to pursue this life. They also encouraged me to skip college and debt, and I spent those formative years instead learning more specific homesteading skills, living without butter, and hanging out in moldy tipis with suspect young men.

I don’t reference tv much and I’m not about to start a regular thing of it, but I did see a good Michael Moore interview on the Colbert Report a few months back. Colbert had quipped something about him “making bank” and that his sweat pants and ball cap didn’t fool us. Moore blushed deeply but countered with, “Yeah, you’re right. And that’s exactly why I think it’s our responsibility to do something with ourselves.”

I certainly wouldn’t say My Man and I have made bank– we live on about $40,000/year. We are very frugal in some ways. I rarely buy clothes at all, and always second hand. I don’t buy any kind of lady potions, handbags, or other female paraphernalia. We don’t drive much, so save quite a lot on gas. My money sink is food, both quality and ethics. On one hand you could say I make it my priority, I scrimp in other ways to pay for better groceries. I make everything I can at home, I work hard in the kitchen. I brew my fair trade coffee one cup at a time so that none is ever wasted, and I drink one or two perfect cups a day instead of a whole pot of mediocre cheap coffee.

On the other hand, I know plenty of you do the same and still can’t afford to spend $16/lb on goddamned coffee. I know I am lucky, very lucky to be able to be home with my kids and spend my few spare hours blathering on about responsible consumerism. It is a privilege to be able to ponder what is right, a privilege to be able to do it.

We all know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to one another. Do what you’re passionate about, push yourself as often as you can, ease up when you need to. Feel good. But in case that old dog comparison creeps around in the dark of night– don’t ever forget that, for the most part, those of us standing around on soap boxes had a boost up.

Related Posts: 
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?
Why We Do What We Do
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

What’s in a Name?

I guess I am ready to work my way back into Rioting. I will be frank though, I am very tempted to change the name of my gimmick to Occupy the Home Supply. The two concepts are one in my mind (even if my small efforts are hardly worthy of either) and who wouldn’t want to be part of the coolest new thing? Certainly both names have patent appeal. And isn’t it all about branding?

Name and logo notwithstanding, I am ready to get back on track. Or, to write myself a new track, after our terrifying intermission. We will be moving back to Alaska in May and I want at least a month margin, so I have to finish out by the end of March. It’s a bit condensed, but I think there’s still enough time to get a good groove on.

September/October– Audits and Goals. Anyone still wanting to follow along with me? No pressure, it’s make your own rules, remember? You can follow along without the paperwork, if that’s more approachable. But I’ll email out the audit forms to anyone interested (some of us get a perverted buzz off of graphs and tables). If you haven’t already, leave a comment here so I have your email. I’m sorry not to have sent those out earlier, but y’all can catch up in November.

November–Food. As well as focusing on my garden during this month, I’ve decided to do a week long corporate food boycott (Occupy Your Food Supply). We are lucky to be able to buy a reasonably rounded diet of local foods at the market here: meat, dairy, rice, veggies. It will be challenging for sure, but certainly doable. I’m debating pre- or post-Thanksgiving. If anyone else is interested in joining me on this, state your preference. I know pre-Thanksgiving is very soon. Could be cool to start the day after instead, on Buy Nothing Day. Hell, we could start on the day itself and Occupy Thanksgiving!

December– Stuff. I had planned to take December off from the Riot, since Christmas is already a source of great angst for me. It would certainly be easy to do a ‘Stuff Boycott’ in January, but honestly, kind of a redundant cop-out. Focusing on stuff for the stuffiest month of all is doubtlessly more useful. There won’t be any boycotting (though I personally adore the idea), but it will force me to buy higher quality gifts, instead of resisting gift-giving till Dec 22, then bowing out at the last minute to corporate crap. Which is my usual plan.

January– Garbage, Household Fuel. What better to follow the stuff month than the garbage month right? Also, the coldest month of the year is a little late, but better than never, to consider heating efficiency and leaks.

February– Electricity, Water. Hopefully I won’t wait till February to use the Watts Up I ordered, or build that cool kids water play fountain. But, can’t do it all at once…

March– Transportation, Continuation. This will be my wind down month. Transportation is not a big one for us. We only drive a few times/week and those trips are pretty much non-negotiable, though a little belt-tightening is always possible. Perhaps more importantly, I want to spend the last month focusing on what qualities allow or encourage a person to persist with doing things the hard way, when everyone around us worships ‘the easy way’ with religious fervor. Because while a few months of focus is certainly helpful, sustaining the good habits is the important (and hard) part.

So, you’ve seen my audits (home and food), patchy as they are. Those are the straight numbers, and they are worth something. But I also made out a list of the everyday things, in each category, that I do now to lower our household’s resources consumption (Riot perspective) or contribute less to the top 1% (Occupy perspective). After listing out my good stuff, I made a parallel list of weak spots, specific things I could do in each category. Having concrete goals suits my mind better than an abstract lowering of numbers.

I consulted various online lists for lowering one’s energy and water consumption, both for ideas on what more I could do as well as reminders of what I already do. For example, “Consider re-using bath towels.” Huh? People out there seriously only use them once? Also, apparently the recommended thermostat settings for “saving money” are 68 for winter and 78 for summer, making us semi-radical!

As my Riot progresses, and I focus on each category, I’m sure more goals will emerge, but here’s my current dos and shoulds:

do now changes to make
electricity Hang laundry

Compact florescents

Handwash dishes

Set AC high (79-81)

Toaster oven on porch

Make coffee stovetop

Push mower

Turn computers off between use

Lights off

Fridge/freezer settings up

Test appliances with Watts Up meter

water Handwash dishes

Save rinse water for kitchen clean up

Dip out kiddie pool for plants

Shower only once every 5-7 days (don’t tell!)

Wear clothes till they’re truly dirty

Rarely water lawn

Mulch garden heavily

Run washer full

Low-flow showerhead

Recirculating fountain for kid water play

Displacer in toilet tank

Rain-fed chicken waterer

garbage Recycle


Buy from bulk bins in re-used bags

Cloth grocery bags

Cloth diapers

Reuse paper for kids

Scavenge still good stuff from trash cans!

Try switching to cloth diapers at night? (when we’ve tried this before we had leaking and rash problems)

Seek out food with less packagingBuy less stuff

stuff Do without often

Buy used whenever possible

Do without even more

Seek out higher quality, ethical production for the new things we do buy (a very weak point for my uber-cheap self)

transportation Bike and walk almost every day

Drive only a few times/week

Plane travel only once or twice a year

I already minimize my driving as much as I am comfortable with

But, buy more local = less food transportation

household fuel (heating, cooking, hot water) Cook/bake efficiently

Wash clothes on cold

More crock pot

Solar cooker

Turn down hot water heater

food Buy mostly organic and/or local

Research OG companies

Buy from bulk bins

Buy unprocessed

Make at home: bread granola, jams, treats

Use leftovers



Order wheat from Texas

Start buying farmer’s market cheese

See about bulk prices for FM meat

Garden more seriously

Locally grown chicken feed?

It’s essential to note that in every category there is the unlisted, vague, yet crucially important goal to simply be more vigilant. I have already started this, even over these last two derailed months. Just tightening my belt a little, when I can muster the energy. You know I’m all for allowing ourselves a wide margin, but I often find myself having become lazy for no good reason whatsoever. How hard is it really to reach out your hand and turn a light off as you pass an empty room? Yet I had gotten so slack about it, leaving lights on because I couldn’t be bothered to waste that extra action. Absurd!

It’s challenging to remember the importance of these small actions when we are inundated by an (ad-based) culture of could-give-a-shit. It’s extremely profitable to the corporate world to make not caring stylish. They frame it like it’s all or nothing– if you’re not going to save the world then sit the fuck back down. And since no one of us is prepared to give it all, we figure why give any? Sit back, relax, look out for #1.

Even if small habits won’t change the world, they nevertheless do add up to something. But perhaps even more important is the exact thing that makes doing the little stuff so pesky– when you try to remember to turn off lights every time you leave a room, it forces you to think about the lights, and the electricity they suck, a hundred times a day. Which is downright annoying. When you try to live ultra-frugally, it forces you to carry the weight of money and spending with you constantly. I have been there and know how obnoxious the incessant racket of responsible thinking in the modern world can be. But what else is there for us at this point? Blissful ignorance?

Too late.

Back to Business: QR Food Audit

[Here is the much awaited (by me at least) continuation of my Home Resource Use Audit for my lil’ Quiet Riot.]

As you’ve probably noticed, food is my thing. Partly because I think food is one of the areas of our lives where we have the greatest possibility for responsible action. Everyone eats, most of us eat a few times a day. Big things like your home’s electricity, water and heating fuel can seem impenetrable, but the changes that need to be made to our food system can be made in little chunks, millions of small decisions every day which add up.

Perhaps even more importantly, we stand to gain the most direct value from our efforts with food. Almost every more responsible food also offers dramatically better health for you and your family, not to mention just plain better eating. Though some of this is surely a personal bias– I love food. I love growing food, I love preserving food, I love cooking food, I love talking about food, I love looking at food, and I love eating food.

When it comes to making those every day changes, I think homemade food is the first step. Moving the preparation of your meals from factory to home kitchen is good for everyone involved. The next step is homegrown. Although lining your front steps with pots of lettuce has quickly become cliche in this new urban homesteading fad, I do think that growing your own is incredibly useful, even if the scale is tiny. As with anything else, doing it yourself is sobering. No amount of reading can teach you the truths about food production that one summer garden will teach you. Namely that it’s hard. When you consider the amount of work you put into each head of bug eaten lettuce, you will begin to understand the incredibility of the supermarket’s rows of perfect heads for $2 each. You will become more flexible to imperfection and more understanding of the high prices at the farmer’s market.

Most of us are not set up to grow a very significant portion of our food, and so sourcing ingredients is the next important step. I have been working on this for awhile, it’s a confusing topic. Local non-organic? Or organic from Whole Foods? What items are most eligible for the inevitable compromise of a low budget?

I did some research and detailed my own grocery decisions last year in this little series:

Responsible Consumerism: How to Make It Work

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Part 1

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Part 2

A Trip to the Grocery Store

Going back over those posts I saw that I was only spending about $400/month on groceries. My average now is $5-600. Part of that is that we had a freezer and pantry full of wild game and fish brought from Alaska, and now I am buying all our meat at the farmers market (can’t afford fish), but I don’t think I spend more than $80-100/month on meat, the rest I fear is due to the ever increasing list of what we consider “essentials.” Juice for example, I used to buy once in a while as a treat, now it’s a staple. During this Riot, I hope to pare that list back down.

At any rate, on to that audit, right? I had piles of grocery store receipts saved from three (non-consecutive) months and a pretty good estimate for what I spend at the farmer’s market (I always go thinking I’m going to spend just $30, and almost always spend close to $40). Putting a dollar value on our eggs was easy, but I really pulled the garden vegetable dollar amount straight out of my ass.

I counted everything from Whole Foods as “industry organic.” Although they actually sell quite a bit of non-organic stuff (watch those labels!) I am pretty specific about my purchases, why pay Whole Wallet prices for the same stuff I can get at the regular grocery store?

I didn’t add the restaurant expenses into the percentages, because much of what you pay for at a restaurant is service, which seems not applicable to this resource-use study. But leaving it out seems wrong too, especially since it’s most certainly industrial food. I think for the coming months, I will add it into the percentage calculation, but at one third the value. When you spend $15 on dinner, it’s probably not more than $5 worth of food, right?

So, as you can see, a little more than 60% of our diet is industrial organic from Whole Foods. All industry organic is not equal, by any means, and I have done some research. I buy almost exclusively Organic Valley dairy (dairy is a large portion of our grocery bill), based on this Cornucopia Institute report, I do believe Organic Valley has an honest organic standard, whereas I wouldn’t trust Horizon and the other biggies farther than I could throw them. OV’s milk says it’s from “Southwest Farms” which is at least moderately regional. I assume the rest of their dairy line, and everything else I buy from WF, has plenty of miles under it’s belt by the time I bring it home. As well as the copious packaging.

I often waffle back and forth between the local non-organic dairy from the farmers market, and the Organic Valley dairy. Because of having kids, I mostly settle on organic. Pesticides, and all toxins, accumulate in breast milk, and particularly concentrate in the fat. I believe butter is one of the most important things to buy organic. Especially when kids are involved.

However, there is a new vendor at our market, who is about to start selling (non-organic) milk in glass bottles, and I don’t think I can resist that. I hate those big plastic jugs piling up in my consciousness. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been buying plain old crap industry cheese and I intend to switch to farmer’s market cheese even though it’s (deep breath) $12/pound. And I don’t want to hear any more comments from any readers in Wisconsin who can get 5 kinds of local cheese for $6/lb. Go away from me with that information.

As far as the garden goes, the flush season is upon us here in southern Louisiana but I am sadly behind the curve. Remember my earnest decision to actually follow my garden plan this season? Well, given the events of September 2011 in our particular household, I missed the boat. Late September and early October is the time to be in the garden in our climate, and I was anywhere but. I killed a whole flat of starts, and was too late with planting the next. I will still have a fine garden this fall, I’ve got green beans, cucumbers, peppers and collards coming on now, and broccoli, cabbage and beets on the horizon. But I have missed my chance for peas, potatoes, brussell sprouts, onions, leeks and carrots. Thankfully, “spring” planting starts here in January (!!!), so I have one more chance at this New Orleans gardening business.

Thank goodness.

Occupy Your Food Supply

You might be wondering whatever happened to my Quiet Riot in light of last month’s jolting speed bump. I will tell you, it was not forgotten. Strange as it may seem, the Riot was one of my first thoughts. ‘Shit, there goes that idea…’ But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in times of crises, having something external and good to put your energy into can be extremely helpful. Maybe the Riot would be the perfect anchor to get me through these hard times. I figured I’d give myself a month or so, then go easy, but not give it up altogether.

One of the positive things about this harrowing experience was that, rather than give me any crazy carpe-diem panic attacks that we were living our lives all wrong, it just reaffirmed to me that we are living the life that matters most. Although we fall short all the time, we are at least going the right direction, we are doing what we can.

Cancer is the industrial disease. Environmental pollution, chemical-based agriculture, denatured and processed foods, and the overriding ethic of Profit Makes Right– all the things I rail against– were given a big stamp of approval as worthy causes. According to the American Cancer Society, 44% (almost 1 in 2!) men will develop cancer in their lifetime, and 23% (almost 1 in 4) will die of it. Rates for women are respectively 38% and 20%. I know that the majority of cancers occur to older people (a shocking 4 out of 4 people die of something), but cancer in younger people is getting disturbingly common. Almost 40% of cancer incidences are people under the age of 65 (here). New studies are always linking cancer with all kinds of things, but they never make a big deal about it. It’s always sited as just a slight increase in likelihood. They never add the numbers together. Pesticides + refined foods + chemical additives + air pollution + sedentary lifestyle + continual low level radiation from electronics + off-gassing, PCBs, BPAs, BHT, DDT, and the FBI = 1 out of every 7 of you gentle readers will get cancer before the age of 65.

We have put the corporate world in control and, whoops, they don’t give a shit about us. In fact as My Man often points out, they aren’t even allowed to give a shit. As corporations, they are required by law to make money, at all cost. And they will. They will do anything they can get away with. They will scrimp and cheat and lie till their last breath, with which they will beg for bailout.

Though the real Riot for Austerity is about climate change and peak oil, my Quiet Riot was more broadly about lessening my family’s support of this system of corporate power that places no value whatsoever on anything but profit. Climate change and peak oil are the sharp, scary parts, but it’s quite a bit bigger that. It’s everything, and it’s already happening. It’s international human rights, it’s loss of wilderness, it’s the degradation of our family meal and social soul.

It’s cancer in 1 out every 2 men, and My Man is 1.

What better motivation towards focusing my efforts than such an intimate threat?

Strangely, after we got the almost glowing test results back and the over 99% cure rate, we both got very depressed. My Man felt it immediately, mine took a few days to set in. I’ve been feeling downright deflated. I have no energy or desire to do anything, let alone change the world. I haven’t been writing, as you know. But it’s not because I’ve been too busy kicking ass on my Riot, or being a good mom, or cooking extra nourishing foods, or getting our house really clean. Honestly, I’m not sure what the fuck I’ve been using up my days with. In between my reluctant and short-tempered parenting, I’ve just been laying around the house reading while my kids veged in front of dvds for hours at a time.

Partly I know we had just been holding our breath, not feeling things really for those two weeks of waiting, and the respite of good news and crisis averted finally gave us a chance to process everything. But also I think we had felt so motivated to noble and essential action at first, we were going to conquer cancer! And then when it turned out our efforts were not needed, there we were, standing around shuffling our feet. All dressed up with no place to go.

I am trying to be patient with myself through this low-energy phase. I know we’ve weathered a storm, and although it was quick and seems to have mostly blown itself out, it was the real deal, The Big One. We need to be easy on ourselves for awhile, allow for recovery. But there is a very fine line between going easy on yourself and slumping into a depressed lethargy of paper plates and glowing screens. After emotional upheaval, we need time to feel what we are feeling, to be sure. And then we need a pry bar to get ourselves up and moving again.

I’m hoping this malaise won’t last much longer, that I will soon have the strength to heft the pry bar. This morning I read about Homegrown’s Occupy the Food System and felt a refreshing spark of inspiration. My Man and I have been following the Occupy protests and it’s killing him not to be able to go to NY. He loves big, extreme action; I’ve always been the quieter homebody revolutionary, the change from within type. When I saw Homegrown’s article today, a little bell went off. I’m not sure what HG’s purpose is exactly, it seemed exploratory. They know they belong somewhere in this movement and are trying to figure out where. I wish I were feeling a little more peppy right about now, because I suddenly understood that all of us can, from our very own homes, Occupy Wall Street. And I don’t mean in any quaint, anecdotal way. We could effect a very real disruption of the corporate beast by simply refusing to feed it with our money. Imagine if everyone who supports the Occupy concept but can’t get to a protest, instead boycotted all corporations for a month. As in, really didn’t buy anything beyond absolute survival necessities. If enough people did it, even just a week could make an enormous statement!

I might do this on my own, incorporate it into my Quiet Riot. But that’s not what my mind’s eye is conjuring. I’m imagining it big, as a real, recognized, meaningful part of the Occupy movement. The other side of the protest coin. To be that, it would need critical mass. A thousand people look impressive waving signs in the street, but it would take many more thousand people to put a visible sag in that ever-frisky market erection. And although there have been successful boycotts of specific products and corporations in the past, would such a complete boycott be possible for a meaningful number of people? Even if the word could spread far enough, could enough people take such drastic measures? Seems impossible, but if we could…. Oh how they would squirm!

But, hey. Not me, man. I’m not leading this bull out. Surely someone else will get this idea, if they haven’t already. Right? Someone else will come up with a catchy logo and eloquent manifesto for the Occupy Corporate Boycott. I don’t really have to be the change, do I? Can’t I just tag along with someone else’s change?

And, not that I’m so brilliant, but why couldn’t they have called it Occupy the Food Supply? Is it really so hard to get a rhyme around here?

Quiet Riot: Home Audit

I’m starting off my Quiet Riot this month with a (very approximate) home audit. If you feel remotely inclined, I do recommend taking a look into your own household’s economics. It’s enlightening, though perhaps not exactly the kind of brain-warp I wanted to spend (several of) the Babe’s naps sucked into.

The Riot for Austerity identifies 7 categories– electricity, gas, other fuel (such as natural gas, propane, etc), water, food, consumer purchases and garbage. Sharon lists out average consumption for each category, though I have to say, I found her numbers confusing. Then I did a little research and found some very reputable sites with statistics drastically different than Sharon’s. I had been hoping to funnel my few months of numbers into a clean little formula, and spit out my family’s ‘percentage of the American average.’ But, as usual in real life, it doesn’t turn out to be so clear cut.

Instead of getting my knickers in a bunch about numbers, I decided to keep it simple. As I said before, this Quiet Riot is about intent. I did an extremely informal tally of the receipts and random bills I could find just to get a basic idea of where we are at. I offer up Sharon’s statistics  (as best I could understand them) as well as the differing statistics I found.

Here’s my semi-random collection of household numbers. I considered making a bigger effort to look more complete and organized. But I thought maybe the reality of my haphazard attempts might, in a backward way, inspire others to give it a try. If you’re participating in any way in this lil’ Riot and feel up to a bit of number crunching, leave a comment here and I will email you these fun forms to print out and fill in! These will also be useful for keeping (better) track over the next few months of course. Please note that my computer skills are extremely patchy. These aren’t anything special, just some tables on Word. But hey, I do know how to put them into a .pdf and email them. I’ve come a long way, baby.

Sharon lists the avg home electricity use as 2,000kWh/person/year, which would be 167/person/month. This is quite different from the US Energy Information Association page I found that lists the per household use at 908/month. Hmm. Make what you will of that. Furthermore, they list the monthly average in Louisiana as 1,273– quite a bit higher because of our tropical climate and more than 6 months/year of AC use (if you want to see your state’s avg, go to the page linked to above, scroll down and click on Avg Monthly Residential Use, under Consumption and Price.) At 657 kWh, our household ranks at half of that state average, and this for the summer months. Sadly, if I follow Sharon’s stat, we are using almost 100% of the average.

Water found me at another big canyon-gap. Sharon says the avg household (2.6 people) uses 130 gallons/day, equaling 50 gal/person/day. The EPA says “a family of four can use 400 gallons of water per day,” fully double Sharon’s number (though they do say “can.”)  At 4,030 gal/month, we fall somewhere between 34 and 67%. Not so bad as I had feared.

I couldn’t find any statistic for natural gas usage. But, even if I could, since most natural gas in homes is used for heating, and none of the months I recorded included any heating, a national average wouldn’t really be that helpful or relevant.

Gas is the big blank column. This summer My Man was working across the river. He spent at least one hour/day driving. We weren’t keeping any receipts, but it doesn’t really matter because that job has finished and he’s back in school, a pleasant 20 minute bike ride away. If I had our gas numbers for the summer, and compared the next three months to the summer use, it would make it appear that we had really kicked ass to get our consumption down, when really, the circumstances just changed.

Sharon describes the consumer goods category as “non-essential, luxury items” and says that “The average American spends $11,000 per year on items that don’t include food, insurance, energy, housing and other necessities.” I’m not sure I believe that, considering the Census’ Bureau listed the median income for 2009 at just under $50,000, how can people spend more than a fifth of their income on “luxuries?” But, then again, I am completely naive to credit card debt.

At any rate, that’s about $900/person/month. I had a few months of receipts, but no particular reason to believe they were complete. Certainly these totals only includes my spending, none of My Man’s. But, assuming my receipts were somewhere near complete, I spent an average of $293/month. Say that covers two people, half my household, that’s $147/person,  a mere 16% of average. But, unless I had kept careful track for a year, this category seems too variable to be worth considering at all. This list does include one month where I made a big purchase (new bike trailer) and our daughter’s birthday. But it doesn’t include any of our vacation costs.

I’m hoping over the next 6 months I can get a more accurate measure.

Trash was an absolute estimate. We don’t even own a scale. Should I go out and buy one just for my Riot? Seems counterproductive. I take the trash out once every few days, when it has filled up our approximately 5 gal trash can. I am estimating each bag weighs somewhere between 5 and 10 lbs, though I’m pretty certain it’s closer to five. So, say 15 lbs/week. Following Sharon’s numbers, the average American household produces 40 pounds/week, meaning we weigh in at 38%.

I’m going to continue the saga with my Food Audit in the next post. My brain feels positively fuzzy. Yours?

Bringing the Riot Home

First of all I want to make one thing perfectly clear. My kids have hit a little bit of a stride lately. I find my mothering job getting– not easy by any stretch, the 4yo has re-entered screaming fit territory– but easier. Enough that I sometimes catch myself feeling kind of… bored. The immediacy of survival mode, which usurped me for some year and a half, has abated. I need a project.

The Riot found me at just the right moment. I wanted it, needed it. I needed a way to reinvest myself, to assess where I am at with this punk housewife gig and determine how to proceed. A bi-yearly review if you will. I love nothing, nothing so much as devising a system, and a system for a 6-month household economy audit sounded perfect. As is perhaps always the case with us humans, I had the desire first and then found an explanation.

I don’t know that this fundamentally self-serving motive undermines my project, so long as we keep it in perspective. I have a very active (hampster wheel) brainy brain, I have to use it for something. Why not optimizing the efficiency and ethics of my household?

But let’s just bear in mind that this project is for anyone else who feels similarly available, ready to tackle something new. Not for those of you who are already working at capacity and battling burn-out (that means you Dixie…) Also note that if my own household slips back down into survival mode, all bets are off babe.

That said, there won’t be any contracts for this Quiet Riot. No rules except those you choose for your own family, no catchy emblems for your sidebar, no number competitions. I encourage anyone who feels they have just a little bit of time, energy and desire to throw it in the hat! If want to sign yourself up, in your own mind or here in the comments, that’s fine. Verbalized commitment is a huge help-mate. But if even committing puts you off, or as some of you said in the last comments, you are already at work on a Quiet Riot of your own, you can just dip in here and there over the next 6 months. Take what works.

It’s worth mentioning that spousal involvement is optional in this most basic of challenges. At our house, this sort of thing is all me. My Man is patently not the type of person who enjoys saving receipts or making rules for himself. Correspondingly I am not the type of person who enjoys guilt tripping, nagging, pressuring or any other kind of spousal manipulation. I read on someone’s blog that she was ‘quite over following her family around the house reminding them to turn off the lights.’ I’m not interested in even starting. I already battle martyrdom at the dinner table, and that’s perfectly enough.

I have taken a look into our bills already, and I can tell you, it is not encouraging. Which is revealing. Here I am, doing what I consider quite a bit, given my circumstances, and still barely managing to keep my consumption to 80% of the American average. The big Riot’s goal of 10% is truly outrageous. Like I said in my first post, I think that’s awesome. I love outrageous. They will be able to make a very real political statement with 10%. Nevertheless, I do think that goal is only achievable for people who

  1. have already started on the path (ie: are already operating at a lower consumption rate, going from 50% to 10% is quite a bit different than 90% to 10%)
  2. own their own home
  3. have the monetary resources necessary to buy new energy saving appliances
  4. have either no small kids, or family support nearby to help with childcare

Of course, on one hand, it’s just a line-up of excuses. If My Man and I really believe in change, maybe we should move to Spokane where grandparents could provide that childcare and we could own acreage in a hospitable climate for farming. I won’t say we haven’t thought about it. But, we’re not moving to Spokane. When we finish here in New Orleans, we’ll be moving (quite gleefully!) back to Alaska, where we own our own home in a walking friendly town, with abundant wild fish, game and firewood resources, but no grandparents, laughable farming conditions, and a jet flight away from anywhere else.

[In Spokane we would have help with childcare and great farming possibilities but My Man would have to commute at least one hour per day to get to work. Which is the eternal rural vs. urban debate. Unless you are prepared to largely extricate yourself from your culture/community, rural living = driving.]

But back to the task at hand! Haven’t I already defended myself against imagined attacks on my soft-core riot? Time to quit bitching and get to work!

After my audit I’ll set some goals. I’m not sure if I will set percentage reduction goals. I know that can be useful, but it seems like one of those ‘rules made for breaking’ things. I won’t drive to my friend’s house across town, forcing her to drive to me instead, so I can meet my gas goal? Or do I just quit seeing them altogether and lose out on one of my best friends who coincidentally has two kids, just the ages of mine, who are not in “school” like everyone else, who my kids equally adore? No, not an option.

I’m thinking my goals will be more of the general ‘try harder’ and specific project kind. Establish better habits for turning lights and computers off, something I’d gotten much too lax about. Put more concentrated effort into garden efficiency and production. Stop buying crap cheese (my last industrial dairy hold-out) and start buying the good stuff from the farmer’s market, at (gulp) $12/pound. Turn my kids’ little plastic pool into a DIY fountain, so that I don’t have to make them stop playing with running water (one of the great joys in the world!) but can recapture at least most of it– our water bill is truly outrageous.

I want to spend each month focusing on two of the big Riot’s categories. I’ll list out the ways I am already working towards lowering our consumption, offer up ideas, links and resources and tackle special projects. My calendar will look something like this–

September. Home economy/consumption audit. Identify weakest links and highest return projects. Goal setting.

October. Electricity, Heating Fuel and Water. Get those good habits going! Weatherize (for me this is against heat, yes still in October, but for y’all this would be against cold) Make the kids’ fountain.

November. Food and Cooking Fuel. This is the biggest month for me. From gardening to grocery shopping to cooking, there’s a lot to think about. I want to start this month out with an Austerity Fast, cutting my luxury foods out completely (except coffee, god help me!) for two weeks. I don’t expect that anyone else will want to do this, but I have a terrible sweet/fat tooth and indulge much more than I ought to. Cookies after lunch and ice cream after the kids go to bed? Every day. Add in a trip or two/week to the bakery for chocolate croissants. Ahem.

December. Take a break. For others this might be a perfect time to tackle the Stuff and Waste categories, but I already have enough stomach-clenching angst at Christmas. I do my best, and that’s that. I’m not willing to give up family or make everyone else’s holiday miserable just to impress my ideals.

January. Here’s where I will take on Stuff and Waste, after those damning holidays. A month long Stuff fast. Also, prepare yourselves for some shit talking and finally, finally! I swear to you, I will write a tutorial for the waxed cloth produce bags I made two years ago.

February. Transportation. This one is relatively easy for me, as I’ve explained before, we are set up for foot power. I do drive, once or twice a week, and I’m not likely to give up those two trips (see ‘friend’ caveat above). But there’s always room to shave a little off, surely. I’ll finish out the Riot with a special focus on how to keep up doing things the hard way, when everyone around you does them the easy way.

Even if you don’t want to participate directly, don’t think you get let off the hook! I’ll expect advice and tips from all of you every month as well. Cough it up, folks!