Archive for diy

Lessons from the Campaign Trail

Whew!  With the 2008 election season finally over, it almost feels anti-climactic not to be talking about “the issues” all the time with everyone I meet.  Over the last few weeks of the campaign, I volunteered some time for the Obama campaign, and was thrilled to see him win in such a landslide on election day.  But this is not a political blog, so here I offer some tips I learned along the way about how to effectively promote a social cause such a return to simpler living.

First, the Obama campaign succeeded largely because they were able to successfully brand themselves outside the traditional political system.  Rather than “Vote Democrat”, they emphasized “Vote for Change”, a tag line that excluded far fewer potential voters.  When framing a campaign to raise awareness, sticking to the issues and resisting the urge to paint yourself in one camp or another is a valuable tool for reaching across to people who might not share all of your views, but who are passionate about an issue that you are too.

Also, the campaign made excellent use of people’s strengths, asking them to donate whatever they could, and allowing them to contribute in the best way the knew.  This meant that rather than a shy computer genius signing up and getting told to go hit the streets and talk to people, they were encouraged to do what they knew best… design a computer interface that allowed for easier donations, in this example.  Campaign benefits, and the volunteers feels that their talents were put to good use toward a real contribution without trying to pound square pegs into round holes.  Being mindful of people’s preferences is very important, especially in a situation in which you depend on volunteerism to complete your goals. That being said, I was asked if I wanted to hit the streets on election day, and though it wasn’t something that would generally appeal to me, I found the experience so uplifting, I can’t wait to do it again.  But the fact that it wasn’t shoved down my throat had a lot to do with that.

On another level but related, the Obama campaign made use of people’s existing resources in a way that most previous presidential bids have not.  In the past, volunteers would show up at a call center with all the resources needed to promote the cause, assigned, and then controlled centrally from this point.  This year, people organized home calling parties, a la MoveOn.org’s movie watching parties, and left it to participants to bring laptops, cellphones, and other necessary equipment to make the calls.  This was accomplished through good use of an internet hub, the Obama website, which allowed volunteers to access necessary information in one spot from anywhere.  They also gave each volunteer a blog to share their experiences with one another.  So if you had a sudden urge to call people at 9am Saturday morning, you could log on, find a list of people in swing states who needed to be called, and do that from the comfort of your own home.  Brilliant.  Careful planning of the central hub allowed for a diverse and decentralized force of volunteers to stay organized.  And by using people’s inherent talents, Obama was able to recruit a young and diverse set of talents to his cause, ending up with an iconic poster by one of my favorite artists, Shepard Fairey, a 26 year old speech writer who had everyone crying on election night, a social media campaign designed by one of the top dogs at Facebook, and a legion of dedicated campaigners who’d never even considered getting involved before.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the campaign strongly emphasized a “no drama, vote for Obama” ethos that carried through to the volunteer level.  Volunteers and campaign workers were there for one thing only, to help Obama win, and they managed to avoid most of the infighting that is usually associated with political campaigns.  By running things like a business, keeping to set goals and the fulfillment thereof, personal differences became less and less important.  After all, if you and your buddy both care about composting but disagree strongly on, for example, the benefits vs. risks of offshore drilling, there’s no reason to hamper your home composting conference with discussion of drilling when you are trying to teach 100 people how to set up a worm compost bin.  Stay to the stated goals, accomplish them, then set new, loftier goals!

This was a historic campaign in every sense of the word, and I’m sure the coming weeks will see many more positive strategies identified as routes to Obama’s great success.  Me, I’ll be kicking back and letting my feet rest a little from all that walking, and thinking about ways that I can use those same lessons from above to make Solarious the best resource ever for people trying to escape the trappings of on-grid living. To everyone who voted last week for either candidate, I heartily salute you for taking an active part in shaping the future of American politics.  After all, changes don’t make themselves, and true democracy depends on its constituents to frame the dialogues that will guide its elected leaders.

Now that election season is over, I’ll have more time again to post here, so check back for upcoming profiles of some amazing companies who are taking green living to the next level.  Because in today’s marketplace, you vote just as strongly with your pocketbook as your ballot.  We can, we did!

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Make History Today

I’ve pretty much kept out of the political fray here at Solarious, but on this historic election day at the end of the longest presidential campaign in American memory, one cannot help but realize the importance of participating by voting in this election.  So regardless of the yucky weather (can they plan that?), get out and vote today!  I’ve been so impressed to see people talking for weeks about having voted early to make sure their votes were counted.  Between the official polls and the unofficial internet popular polls, we’re in a unique position to make our voices heard today in a way no prior generation has.

No single act you do this year, perhaps even this decade, will so influence your future possibilities of an off-grid life as getting your vote counted, no matter on which side of the fence you stand.  After all, the next president will be in charge of steering the green market and renewable energy to their destinies.  Who do you want in charge?  See you at the polls!

(If you need a little help deciding, go to SmartVoter.com or VotefortheEnvironment.com and read up on the issues.)

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Plants Need Rescuing Too!

The other day I was out for my morning run when I happened upon an all-too-common urban sight: gardeners pulling up plants to make room for the next season’s flowers in commercial flower displays.  To be precise, the gardener was pulling up young boxwoods which over the course of the growing season had lost their perfect lollipop shapes, and replacing them with rounder versions of the same plant.  Anyone who has boxwoods in their yards will know that they are perennial plants which grow slowly and make excellent living borders.  Certainly not landfill material after a growing season.

To replant the same thing and toss the old plants seemed like such a waste for a little aesthetic symmetry, so I stopped and asked to rescue as many as could be carried.  The gardener said sure, and in fact, wouldn’t I like to come back the next morning, too, when they would be pulling all the marigolds and replacing them with mums?  Of course I would!  So the next morning I bundled up early and went to retrieve the flowers.  Though marigolds are annuals, and were near the end of their lives, they were heavy with seeds, and easily yielded at least 2000 for planting in the spring.  Not bad for a morning’s work!  And in two months, the whole process begins again as a new season’s colors take over the beds.

This is pretty much the norm for commercial landscaping services.  If you are looking for inexpensive (usually free!) plants for your garden, consider asking your local plaza who does the gardening and contacting them about rescuing unwanted plants.  They usually keep a regular schedule which you can put on your calendar.  Even almost-spent annuals can make great displays of color for entertaining before yielding seed for future plantings.  If you have a compost pile, this organic matter will greatly aerate your pile, increasing the speed at which the soil is formed.  And, of course, you learn a little more about what goes into creating the perfectly manicured version of the world that we urbanites take for granted.

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Coastal Cleanup Day 2008

If you’re in the Los Angeles area this Saturday September 20, join over 11,000 volunteers in the LA basin alone for California Coastal Cleanup Day 2008, a 24 year tradition that’s become the largest volunteer event in the world. Last year, over 60,000 volunteers picked up almost a million pounds of trash across the state, and this year, the Los Angeles event will pick up its millionth pound.  You’ll find everyone from the corner grocer to celebrities shoulder to shoulder attacking the coastal waste that causes visual blight and environmental danger.  Did you know that the North Pacific Trash Gyre, the large swirling mass of trash floating between Hawaii and Japan is more than twice as large as the state of Texas and is growing faster than even the scientists studying it had feared?  Or that plastics, which break down into little tiny pellets after extended exposure to water, are so prevalent that you could cover the surface of the world’s oceans with a saran wrap coating of the plastics in them? Obviously every bottle you pick up helps stem the tide.

If you’re not able to join everyone in Los Angeles (check out the website, complete with map of locations, here), consider starting a similar event in your area.  After all, waste has a not-so-funny way of wandering toward the sea, even from far inland places.  Or if this Saturday doesn’t work, make any day your cleanup day! With a few fliers and an ad on Craigslist you’re sure to attract a like minded crowd to help get some unwanted trash off the streets.  Often, local parks have cleanup days that offer both benefit and beautiful surroundings in addition to an educational afternoon.  Some of my favorite memories from youth are of going to my local park and cleaning up the riverbanks.  Needless to say, cleaning my room didn’t hold the same appeal.

If you can’t do any of the above… (you didn’t think I was going to let anyone off the hook, did you?)… then sit your butt down on that couch if you’re not already there and get to thinking.   The best way to eliminate waste is to avoid creating it in the first place. Find a way to encourage recycling or to make throwing things in the trash more appealing than tossing it on the ground.  Design a better trash can, out of which waste doesn’t blow away in high winds.  Create a non-toxic biodegradable packaging so that when people do throw their containers down, it’s not creating an everlasting toxic legacy.  There are at least as many ways to help the planet as there are people to try them, so find yours and get started! Hope to see all you locals at the beach!

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Living Roofs: A Little Greener than Usual

When installing a photovoltaic, solar heat, or wind generation system, one concept with which you’re sure to become familiar is that of structural load. The concept of a twenty foot wind tower on your roof spinning down free energy all year is nice, but in practice, you’d more likely rip a hole in your house without some careful consideration.  Therefore, sustainable roof design has adapted to include a variety of green techniques, each requiring their own load profile.  When used in combination, the elements can add a visual and technological depth to a space that is almost hard to describe.

Living roofs are required by law in some European cities, so it’s strange that so few people in the US have ever even heard of them.  Basically, in a city, roofs cover between 30-40% of the available land acreage. Streets cover a good percentage more.  By building a living roof, you offset the loss of porous surface area by simply elevating the layer above the structure.  New sustainable design firms tend toward relatively autonomous plantings so that care needs are minimized.  Varieties of drought resistant grasses or low-water plants like ice plants for a more spectacular display.  Traditional examples of living roofs often display a more cultivated cover.  Some are actually used as rooftop garden spaces, with fully functional plant beds in frames. They slow down water across their surface area and help promote local biodiversity.

The largest challenge in making a rooftop garden (besides keeping the frame watertight so it doesn’t leak onto your roof) is one of structural load.  Obviously, cubic feet of dirt are heavy – just ask anyone who’s done construction or landscape work lately.  On your roof, they bear down on the surface, creating stress on the seams between fastenings and structural supports.  It is important to find ways to relieve this stress either in the building phase, or, as is more common, in the design phase of a remodel. Soil scientists have designed artificial soils that weigh less than traditional soils, and other growing mediums such as local crushed brick can be used. But usually this involves restructuring the load on beams so that the roof avoids carrying actual weight.

As mentioned earlier, a living roof may not be the only alternative energy installation vying for structural load bearing on your house.  If you install solar panels or a solar heat collector, the same weight issues come into play, and careful siting along strong structural axes or retrofitting are necessary.  With wind, add in the force of the tower’s rotation and the wind profile of the actual tower and it’s probably better not to site a tower on your house at all unless you like weird noises and warped beams.  Save that for the back yard.

If you are considering installing one technology already which calls for boosting the load structure of your roof, why not design for the (future) implementation of another complementary technology now? As hurricanes so aptly illustrate, a little extra roof support ain’t gonna hurt you.  With as much roof space as we have in this country, we could probably meet half our food needs if everyone started a garden today.  Victory Gardens for a new millennium.  Even just switching from a traditional tar shingle roof (made from petroleum) to a gravel-based cover slows water loss considerably across your whole property.  Take a look at these examples of how nice living roofs can look, and consider integrating a little (more) green into your next roofing project.

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Hitting Your Stride

Going green or cutting off the power line completely are not easy tasks. We are accustomed to our routine conveniences and live in a world that is loathe to advertise the actual costs of the products we consume.  When viewed in its entirety, the global environmental crisis we are facing is so daunting that many people fail before even beginning by despairing at the enormity of it all and then lapsing into apathy.  Obviously this is the largest waste of creative capacity imaginable on our planet.  You get it, so you’re smart enough to do something about it, yet you don’t.  So don’t let yourself become one of those people.  Do something today. Maybe you already are.  The thing about “Do something today.” that is so great is that when you take that approach you tend to set realistic goals, more on the level of an hour or two’s commitment than the nebulous grand ideas that tend to live largely on paper and never in the real world.  And you set a pattern that defies apathy, even if you eventually change the depth of your commitment. And one day, you will find yourself hitting your stride and it will become natural part of your life instead of a scheduled task.

There are a million ways to break a habit, and only one to make one: practical application.  You can read every book in the library about art, for example, but until you create something, you cannot call yourself an artist.  Your friend’s kindergartener who brings home finger painted pictures daily is.  Which should make potential artists feel better about the quality which one considers art (Isn’t art, in the end, really largely an issue of attachment?), but it usually doesn’t.

What it all means?  You don’t have to be a maestro to get involved.  Just pick something and implement it in your life.  Chances are, no matter what strategy you pick, it will be an improvement over the standard.  Many people spend a lot of time wondering which choice will be best for them, and in the end, don’t get anything, because the spark of ingenuity has faded which led them to that point.  Do your research, but understand that the energy revolution is not a plan for tomorrow, but for today. You’ve heard me say it before.  In the spirit of kindness, I won’t leave you all pumped up with nowhere to go.

Here’s a little inspiration for you for things that won’t take more than a few moments:

Plant a tree. The EPA estimates that a mature tree provides the same amount of air conditioning as five AC units.  You can take cuttings of most plants and root them, or simply plant a sapling or seed that you find in your surroundings.  Of course, if you then take care of it, making sure it has enough water to survive the first crucial year or two, then you can count that as doing something in the future too.  But by then you’ll probably feel so good from doing that, you’ll have a whole colony of trees somewhere.  Estimated time: 10 minutes, and time spent finding a tree to plant (or cultivating stem cutting in moist plastic bag).

Buy recycled shopping bags. It’s no accident that reusable shopping bags are popping up in stores these days.  What used to be the exclusive realm of whole foods has become big business.  And when you think about what you’re saving in terms of landfill space, and add in the fact that most large retailers give reusable bag discounts, you really can’t argue against them.  Of course, you’ll need your shopping bags if you take the next step and start shopping at the local farmer’s market once a week instead of a comparable grocery store trip.  Local farmers supported, all for the price of a little gas. Estimated time: under a minute.

Hydroscape your yard.  Print a Google map of your house and yard and draw on it the places where water tends to collect when it rains.  These are the low points, and when planned right, you can save a lot of money on property maintenace just by regulating the flow of water across your land.  Create a conceptual path through your area, create a path for water flow, and raise beds surrounding this natural flow to minimize your need to water.  This also gives you the opportunity to have a larger variety of plants, because you create tiny climate zones specific to each bed.  Estimated Time: a few hours planning, 2 hours per bed.

Freecycle something. Find something in your house that you don’t use and offer it to the local population at large for free at http://www.freecycle.org .  If you’re feeling generous, offer to post the item through the mail to the lucky recipient.  It really IS a good way to keep things out of landfills and it fosters your non-retail community.  Estimated time: ten minutes, including finding something to post.

Buy at least one solar light. These days, you can buy a set of solar lights for $10 -15.  The nicest ones I’ve seen are floating pool lights which change color, but there are also lots of varieties of solar yard lights, and also solar Christmas lights.  I particularly like the Lampion, pictured above. Try leaving these lights outside during the day while you are out of the house, and then using them to replace a light you use at night.  Carbon free power and mood lighting might prove the perfect combination for your evening.  Estimated time: half an hour on eBay and a minute a day.

Use greywater to flush your toilet.  Unscrew the pipe below your sink and place a bucket under the now-open pipe.  Use this water to trigger the toilet’s automatic flush response.  Combine it with the old “milk jug in the tank” trick and you’ll use a lot less water.  This will save you however much water you use at the sink by recycling it at least once.  Estimated time: fifteen minutes, and a slightly altered routine.

Visit your local library instead of the bookstore. Similar selection, better price.  And since you share the book with your community, you save resources and encourage further government spending in future libraries.  How many books do you read more than once anyway?  Donate the ones you own (outside your core library) to the local library so others can learn too.  I hardly have to explain the benefits of that!  Estimated time: Twenty minutes to clean out your closet.

So there you have it, something you can do today.  One last freebie: write a suggestion below, so that others can learn about your own great action idea.  =)

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HOW TO: Create a Seed Bank

As another hurricane bears down on the gulf coast, one has to wonder whether the glass half empty crowd which has been predicting increased damage in upcoming years due to natural disaster is correct. Nature does go in cycles, and we may end up laughing off current pessimism about the planet’s inability to regulate herself. But current data does suggest that we are facing at the least a massive migration of plants and animal species to inhabit new regions of the planet. Global environmental organizations are already seeing plant and animal species move to new elevations of previously frigid territory and dead zones showing up in previously fertile areas.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment we as humans will have to make, provided we don’t all take each other out first, is that of food supply.  When the local soils no longer support the crops to which we’re accustomed, we’ll be faced with two choices: move, or learn to cultivate something new.  This migratory period will be critical to the existence of all life on earth.  By creating and maintaining seed banks, we are helping to sustain the biological diversity of life on earth.  This is the aim of the latest biological depository established in Scandinavia, into which governments from around the world are locking seed samples in preservatory conditions in case of Doomsday.

But while the establishment of such seed banks are admirable, the greatest potential for preserving biological diversity lies with the individual.  After all, your grandmother’s mint patch that grows in your backyard probably isn’t on the seed registry’s radar, and neither are your neighbor’s prize heirloom sunflowers.  For any planet to sustain a wide diversity of genetic material, it is we, the people, who will have to stash away the genetic legacy of our lives thusfar as a gift to the future.  So why not get started now?

Making a seed bank is ridiculously easy.  You could well go from a single set of seeds to more than you could ever plant within the span of a single growing season.  Of course, seeds are most fertile when fresh, but stored under the right conditions, most seeds will last for years.  It is a good practice to plant from your seed bank each year, and replenish the stock with fresh seed over the growing season.  This way, most of your seed stays fresh at any time.

Now, how to get started?  First, buy an pack of little brown paper envelopes, or even just a package of writing envelopes.  Then stash a few in your pocketbook, briefcase, or car, and start hunting!  Every time you see a particularly beautiful tree in fruit, a really nice flower, or healthy looking seed grasses, take a handful of seeds, pat them dry if they are wet (say from being removed from their protective fruit coverings to prevent rot), and place them in the envelope.  Be sure to label the outside of the package with what type of plant (if you don’t know, just describe it as best possible), the date on which you collected it, and ideally, where you found it. Then transfer your sealed envelopes to a cool dry storage place next time you are home, to keep the seeds from germinating and then dying from lack of soil nutrition. Then you simply hit the road again and look for more!  Most people won’t mind you taking a handful of anything from their lawn, but certainly some tact and discretion are in order always.

The next step in a successful seed bank is to increase the diversity through exchange with others. In most towns there are groups of seed savers who get together periodically to have exchanges, in which you give a little to get a little of something else.  This is the true gem of seed collection. You are gaining access to the best of all local areas, all of which should be relatively well suited to cultivation in your area, simply for having an eagle eye in your own neighborhood.

As with all great ventures, the best time to get started is before everyone else catches on. That way, when seeds become more scarce, you’ll already be a practiced veteran of the seed trade.  This is truly a return to the simpler life our parents parents experienced, and is a selfless act of philanthropy you can complete without spending a dime.

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