Sunday, November 29, 2009

Garbage Warrior

I'm going to veer off the traditional book path and review a movie that I recently ordered for my Library. I first read about the concept of Earthships from Chile's blog, Chile Chews, and do want to make sure I give credit where credit is due! As part of my initiative to bring Green books and movies into my Library I've kept an eye out for materials on the concepts and work of eco-friendly housing as it is an increasingly important topic.

Over a year later I encountered reviews of a movie describing the work of renegade eco-architect Michael Reynolds in the wonderful move Garbage Warrior. A brief trailer of the movie is featured above.

Two definitions are important for an understanding of the film's contents:

Earthship n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.

Biotecture n. 1. the profession of designing buildings and environments with consideration for their sustainability. 2. A combination of biology and architecture.

Now both of those definitions sound rather easy to understand in my opinion. We are searching to find ways to develop sustainable housing that use less energy, and perhaps may use readily available ingredients along the way. Unfortunately part of this film documents Reynolds incredible struggle to be allowed to experiment, research and develop concepts that may be crucial to architectural revolutions needed in our coming years with shrinking resources and climate destabilization.

Want to make things much more difficult? Throw in politicians and lobbyists that may have hidden agendas of which we are not aware that decidedly swing our ability to move forward in the opposite directions. Though Reynolds is obviously more the builder than spokesperson to politicians (creative thinker meets a few Type As) he perseveres and manages to make some headway through a restrictive maze of regulations.

There were a few key points that came out during the film that really made me stop and ponder how much we, as regular people, must stand up and support research revolutions. Creating homes that do not contribute to the "grid" of economy, challenging building and construction unions that want maintain the status quo (if you build homes out of recycled ingredients you may be challenging the bricklayers union) and creating a push to allow innovation is incredibly important.

Are safety and building regulations important? Absolutely yes. However part of the struggle is the film is even the right to research and develop beyond our current norms. Obviously we have to start changing how we build both for now and for our future, and without experimentation we will have no success.

Warrior documents the building crew as they take their radical ideas into areas of natural disaster to create self-sufficient housing out of ingredients that are readily available. One home built is made from recovered plastics and features an external lip that will catch and drain water into an underground storage area - also serving as a cooling mechanism for the household above.

The movie is entertaining, nicely paced and ties into our topics of sustainability. The documentary was eventually picked up and supported by the Sundance channel, and you may most likely find it in your local Library. If not, just ask!

I won't give away the ending, but I was left cheering because big change does come in the face of our everyday heros.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter

There's just no beating around the bush with this one. The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter (2006) by Peter Singer an Jim Mason is an intensive look at the ethics of eating, something that seems almost lost in our modern Western culture, but that is gaining ground once again.

Singer and Mason explore every last nook and cranny of our food system from factory farming to the organics and local food movements, to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, even into dumpster diving and obesity - all far deeper than even Pollan dares to tread. Because contrary to what we'd love to believe about food, it's not just about what we do to our own bodies. Our food choices affect the rest of the world around us, far beyond what we could ever imagine.

The authors have done extensive research, but the best part is that they come at each ethical question as a non-believer, asking tough questions; but more importantly, demanding that you take the information, analyze it, and decide for yourself where your ethical lines are drawn.
When we buy food we are taking part in a vast global industry. Americans spend more than a trillion dollars on food every year. That's more than double what they spend on motor vehicles, and also more than double what the government spends on defense. We are all consumers of food, and we are all affected by some degree by the pollution that the food industry produces. In addition to its impact on over six billion humans, the food industry also directly affects more than fifty billion nonhuman land animals a year. For many of them it controls almost every aspect of their lives... Through the chemicals and hormones it puts into the rivers and seas and the spread of diseases like avian influenza, agriculture indirectly affects all living creatures. All of this happens because of our choices about what we eat. We can make better choices. [emphasis mine]
Whether you're a meat eater, a devoted organic foodie, a locavore, a vegetarian/vegan, or simply a conscientious consumer, this book will challenge what you believe about food. Put plainly, this is not an easy book to read. There were times I felt sick about the treatment of animals and farm workers; there were times I felt defensive, particularly of the local food movement; and at other times, to be honest, I felt the need to reform some of my views on ethical food choices.

Again, it's not a quick and easy read, but it's a must read for anyone looking to live a more mindful life.
Rated: 5 out of 5 stars
Recommended: Do you eat? You need to read this book!

Friday, November 20, 2009

And the winner is...

I put all your names in a bucket and had my 4-year-old pick one. The winner is... Bev! Please email me at with your address and I'll put your book in the mail!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Just in time for Christmas (Update!)

Hi fellow bookworms! I'm doing my first ever book giveaway by giving away a free copy of my new book, The Purple Elephant! The book would make a great gift for the gradeschooler in your life.

To find out more, check out The Purple Elephant Blog or leave a comment below to enter. I'll announce the winner on December 1. (Update! Silly me -- I thought Dec 1 was next week! I'll hold the drawing this Friday, Nov 20. Sorry!)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating

When a friend mentioned that Mark Bittman's new book had made it to our local library stacks, I immediately added my name to the queue. Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating is an easy-to-read, well-written guide to eating for the benefit of our health AND the environment; far from mutually exclusive, he argues.

Bittman's writing style reminds me of what would happen if food advocates Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle got together to write a book. Food Matters presents eating in a way we can all understand: more plants, fewer animals, and as little highly processed food as possible, combined with advice on navigating your market in spite of confusing health claims on food packaging. Sounds easy, so what's the catch?

Absolutely nothing! Bittman explains this "diet" is meant to be long-term; one that relies on common sense, not confusing (and often conflicting) scientific studies or national food guide pyramids designed to make "Big Food" industries fat and happy. Best of all, Bittman gives you his own story, only to tell you to do what works for you. There's no one, single way about it.

The key is to exercise what he calls "Sane Eating." Eat lots of plant-based foods - LOTS. But most importantly, enjoy food! Don't eliminate anything entirely. For instance, have some cake - just limit it to rare occasions or have a much smaller piece.
This is not about deprevation or ironclad rules, but about being sensible.
In the end, not only is this better for our health, but it's better for our pocketbooks and the environment too! In other words, eat as though "food matters" - because we have an amazing amount of power as individuals over our health and even global warming. In fact, studies show our food choices make more of an impact than our driving choices.
[E]ach time you make a decision to support an alternative to the industrial meat complex, you're rejecting that type of agriculture in favor of something far better for the planet, and for you.
After explaining the whys and hows of "eating as though food matters," Bittman offers us Part II, which includes tips on saving time in the kitchen, tips on eating out, a list of items to keep stocked in your pantry, examples of dynamic meal plans, and recipes that range from simple dishes and snacks to more elaborate (though easy to fix) meals.

And to further whet your appetite, here are a couple of the recipes I'll be trying:
Nut-Wich: Lightly mash something delicious, smear it on toasted bread, then sprinkle chopped nuts on it. Some excellent combos: banana, honey, and almonds; avocado and peanuts... (page 198)

Vegetable Spread: Baba ghanoush, the classic middle-eastern eggplant dip, is the model for this dish. However, I've turned the procedure into a master recipe that applies to nearly any vegetable... (page 222)
Convinced? Check out Mark Bittman's Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating today and discover the ease of eating for two: you and Mother Earth.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Recommended: for newbies to the sustainable food realm or those wanting to be re-inspired

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife

Quite unexpectedly, I had the opportunity to enjoy Kelly Conrad Bender's Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife (Texas A&M University Press, 2009). Bender, an urban wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has definitely done her homework, for what began as a series of pamphlets has become an extensive guide into transforming your property into a wildlife habitat.

Don't have 1000 or even 100 acres? It doesn't matter, a series of "wildscapes" throughout a neighborhood can still create a sanctuary for an amazing variety of plant and animal life. Similar to other contemporary authors like Heather Flores (Food Not Lawns), Bender challenges us to rethink sprawling suburbia and gives us all the tools to do it!

Of course, first thing's first - Texas actually has 10 ecological regions, each vast and varied as to rainfall, temperature, and plant/wildlife. Bender describes each one, helping you determine in which you live and what plant and animal life naturally thrives there.

Next, the sky's the limit. Bender takes you through step-by-step instructions on designing your own wildscape, from mapping your property to prepping your soil to building a backyard pond, and of course includes the most important features of your wildscape - food, water, and cover.

The book concludes it's final chapters describing the native wildlife of Texas (including birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, insects, and spiders), how to attract them to your wildscape, and how to keep unwanted pests out. And if you still can't get enough, attached to the inside back cover of the book is a DVD that includes more extensive brochures on Texas wildlife.

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect when I first laid eyes on Texas Wildscapes. It wouldn't have been something I would have picked up on my own. But I was quickly entranced by this alternative to the standard lawn, the opportunity to lighten our ecological footprint by truly sharing our living space with the nature suburbia seems so intent on pushing out. Not to mention, I could immediately think of quite a few friends and family that would love to get their hands on a copy of this book. And hey, the holidays are coming, so check it out!

Rated: 5 out of 5 stars
Recommended: to the naturalist or environmentalist (or both) interested in rethinking lawn space
NOTE: In compliance with FTC regulation, I disclose that I received this book free of charge from the publisher as a review copy. However, this review is my own evaluation of the material, with no influence by the publisher or author.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Roundup

Hope everyone had a wonderful and safe Halloween! Life was crazy at our house as we witnessed more than 700 kids trick-or-treating as well as enjoyed the evening with good food and friends.

Despite the craziness of the season (and it's only going to get crazier, isn't it?), I have a couple great reviews for you this week, one of which I believe should be on the "must-read" list for those new to the world of sustainable food consumption.

What books have you read that you consider "must-reads" for newbies to sustainable food?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Appetite for Profit

Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back by Michelle Simon is a book that explores social, economic, political and health related topics of the United States food industry. Published in 2006 it exposes many of the issues of Big Food that we've seen in the other likes of Big Pharma or Big Tobacco in that there is an element of government involvement that runs counterproductive to the health and sustainability of our planet and citizenry.

In 2006 Simon writes that the processed food industry is a $500-billion-a-year money motor that has a great deal more cogs in the wheel then we realize. Specific examples include the MyPyramid nutritional guidelines that are heavily influenced by corporations, nutritional information manipulated and distributed by the industry itself (think nutritional discussion on a cereal box) and nutriwashing processed foods so that consumers think that they may be healthy.

Of particular interest to me was the chapter on attempts to regulate junk food marketing to children. Topics such as the "nag factor" for children, the extend of commercial free speech under First Amendment law and how parents can fight the tide were points of key discussion. In 2005 specific large giant food industries formed the Alliance for American Advertising in an effort to protect their right to market specifically to children. The absolute free speech right to market to children is a topic that has many layers - do companies have the right to nutriwash, nicktritional, and use captive audiences as in children in schools? Spongebob Pop-Tart or Spiderman Macaroni anyone?

Simon's book is a bit harsh, abrasive in facts, and clear political call to action that we are responding to in ever increasing numbers in 2009. If you've been interested in topics of food in relation to our health and sustainability, Appetite is a clear and easy to approach start to learn about the topics.