Archive for inspiration

Wildcraft: learn while you play

Simply put, I love the idea behind this board game! Wildcraft is a Candyland (remember that?) style board game for ages 4 to adult which teaches kids how to identify wild herbs and about their medicinal and culinary uses. Sure wish this game had been around when I was a kid! En route to Grandma’s favorite huckleberry patch, players encounter wild herbs which are stored for use as remedies for various “troubles” such as hunger and injuries. Here are a few of the beautifully illustrated cards:

Echinacea Bee Sting

If you have young children and are trying to encourage them to look more closely at the world around them, this is a great way to get them thinking about plants without it coming off like a school lesson. Heck, even if your “kids” are 40, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun to be had. Additionally, the game emphasizes teamwork and comes with all sorts of excellent bonuses like an organic cookbook and wall chart of wild herbs and their medicinal uses. If all board games were this practically educational, kids would probably be better prepared for life by the time they hit our mainstream schooling system, where, to be honest, all bets are off as to whether they actually receive the knowledge to which they are entitled. Given that the game is completely made in the USA of recycled cardboard and vegetable inks, it makes a perfect gift for parents of youngsters that you know!

We all love to play, and cloaking excellent knowledge in a game makes it so much easier to digest. Know of any other great environmental education games for children or adults? Please share!

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A Very Excellent Article

Well, you all have heard me sound off about getting away from Big Spending and returning to a simpler lifestyle, but here’s someone who’s written it all down in way better form than I could hope to articulate.  Read this article if you need any inspiration for getting off grid.  In fact, read this article whatever your motivations, we’re in for an interesting ride in today’s economy, and this explains both how we got here and how we can change the future.

Here’s the link: Money and the Crisis of Civilization.  Bravo!

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Eco-conscious Christmas

It can be hard, come holiday time, to stick to your eco-guns when purchasing gifts for others.  After all, even though you LOVE your NatureMill composter and would like to buy one for the world, to your auntie Mary, no matter how well you explain the concept, it’s just plug-in box full of trash.  So unless you want some serious regifting going on, you might want to find  some products that sneak your eco-conscious sensibility in the back door, while your none-the-wiser fam revels in their tasty and chic gifts.

For some eco-chic clothing that doesn’t slack on style, check out nau.com, a socially conscious outwear company that offers coats galore for the dark days of winter.  They offer all sorts of other great clothes too, but hey, it’s cold out there!  I especially like the Shroud of Purrin Hoodie (yes, they have a good sense of humor!), which takes the classic hoodie and adds some super soft lovin’ to the inside, while sporting class it up cut details that take it from the gym to your dinner date without a change of clothing.  For urbanites, they also offer the super soft coat in a trench version, shown below.  The best thing about nau.com is that for any purchases made, 2% of the sale price will be donated to your choice of five eco-conscious causes.

Of course some people are receptive to getting green gifts, and for them, please, promote away!  Perhaps you could send a sheep or cow (in their name, not to their doorstep, can you imagine the shipping?) via Heifer International, an organization that lets you adopt a livestock animal or flock of birds for a family in a developing country.  Or maybe buy a TerraPass with carbon offset points for someone you love, helping them to green their whole year.  It’s a little less cute than a smiling cow, but promotes alternative energy development and comes with a convenient calculator that will let you offset individual actions such as that holiday plane flight to visit Grandma. And if you’re stuck for green ideas, they also have a gift store on their site which makes it easy to pick up eco-gadgets for anyone in the family.

And finally, if you want to give a present to your whole town, visit RecycleBank.com and express your city’s interest in joining their recycling program, which actually PAYS YOU TO RECYCLE (which you do anyway, right?  So it’s free money!!!)  When a city signs up with RecycleBank, the company puts RFID tags on your curbside recycle bins and on the trucks that come and pick up their contents.  For every pound you recycle, the truck logs the weight of your bin, and you earn points and coupons which can be redeemed at local businesses for free or discounted stuff, thereby stimulating your local economy and encouraging recycling at the same time!  Some cities currently using the program have seen recycling rates go up from around 3% to almost 30%, and the cities themselves save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in reduced waste transport costs to the landfill, which they split with the company.  So next year, there will finally be enough money in the town budget to buy LED lights to power the annual light festival, or switch to CFLs in city buildings, saving money (and landfill space!) for generations to come.

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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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QUICKIE: Solar Powered Christmas Lights

Looking for an easy way to integrate a little alternative energy into your holiday festivities?  There are a lot of exciting solar products coming out of Asia these days, as several eastern countries have gotten the jump on the US in terms of R&D and product development.  Which isn’t so good for the US’ current energy market, but it is good for solar energy enthusiasts!  Why don’t you try a string of solar powered Christmas lights in your front yard?  They turn themselves on automatically at dusk (if you want them too), similar to existing solar lawn lamps, they have solid light or blinking options, and they can easily be strung around fences, eaves, railings and wreaths to create a cheerful effect that’s also effortlessly green.

I have a set of white fairy style lights of this type, and they are great.  Not having a yard, I simply place the receiver in the window each morning and come sunset, I have a 60-LED solar powered flashlight for late night reading that lasts several hours! They throw a surprising amount of light for their tiny size.  If you’re interested in these or any other solar power accessories such as solar powered flashlights for emergency or off-grid use, head to ebay today and search for solar lights.  Finally, sunshine you can hold in your hand!

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The Solar Necktie

It seems inevitable that eventually clothing designers will hop on the solar train and integrate solar power into their designs. Already, Noon Solar and several other handbag manufacturers are realizing nice profits creating stylish solar designs that charge your cell phone on the go. But this invention takes the solar geek award by a landslide. The Solar Necktie, brainchild of researchers at Iowa State University’s Textiles school, is a perfect integration of office style and solar cool. It even has a place to tuck your cell phone in the back while its charging!

I have to admit, I’d have expected to see this sooner on the runways of Calvin Klein than a university. And most of the other designs left a little to be desired in the style file. (though they designed a solar jacket, too, which has potential!) New Flexible Thin Film solar technologies will be greatly expending the potential for power generation in our daily activities very soon. They can be wrapped around buildings, woven into fabrics, and used in other compounds to generate power from all sorts of things. Though this design still pays obvious homage to the solar look we are used to, soon, you may not even notice that you are using a solar appliance until you actually draw power from it. Kudos to these researchers on a nice application and guidepost for future designers.

Read all about the products here: Research Bulletin

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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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