The Practical Enviromentalist

Solar ChiefBy Rose Marie Kern

I grew up in the suburbs, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Louisville – they were all pretty much the same in the 1960’s and 70’s, The paved streets were shaded by overhanging branches, and illumined by yellowish streetlights that attracted clouds of moths and bugs each evening. Ranch style homes boasted big yards with no fences, every week Dad and the neighbor took turns mowing a long strip along the mostly undefined boundaries.

There were flower gardens, but only an occasional small vegetable plot. Dad always had a couple tomato plants tucked out of sight along the side of the house. A big metal barrel along the back of the property was where we burned our paper trash, and garbage was picked up from the stinky, smelly trash can set outside once a week. Luckily I had four sisters, so there were a lot of hands sharing the dishwashing duties. My brother, being a guy, was excused from kitchen work. (But he did have to take out the trash!).

Every morning Mom slathered peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread, folded each sandwich in a napkin, put them in paper bags and handed them to us as we ran out the door to the school bus stop. Breakfast was a bowl of cereal, drinks were kool-aid or ice tea.  Mom, sometimes Dad, would cook dinner every night. It was usually something high in carbs like tuna and noodles, meatloaf and potatoes, or spaghetti. Once a week, if we were lucky, we got to go to Burger Chef for dinner – FRENCH FRIES and COLAS!

Like most of middle America, my parents saw advances in technology that made life easier as wonderful. For years during the summer, my siblings and I would come out of our bedrooms and sleep on the floor of the living room or hall – wherever we could find a cool spot. Air conditioning was installed about the time I got into high school – Wow!

One of the most welcome innovations was the plastic bag. Finally, a “clean” way of disposing of trash! Sandwich bags had foldover tops at first. When the Ziploc type closures were added, Mom would buy a box and wash them by hand until they could not be used any more. I think that is the first “sustainable” action by today’s definition, that I remember. Taking something that was designed to be disposable and re-using it.

At the age of 27 my company transferred me to Albuquerque, and I met a wonderful group of people who taught me the concept of “green living”. I became a member of the New Mexico Solar Energy association and through my association with these environmental gurus I learned to examine all aspects of my life as it relates to the welfare of the planet.

Having two young daughters of my own at that time, I did not cast off the trappings of middle class suburban existence overnight to embrace the practices of self-styled privation sometimes referred to as the “good life”. But I began to consciously study ways to incorporate sustainable actions in our daily routines.   We began with collecting our aluminum cans rather than just throwing them away.

I read Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News. Houses in Albuquerque have yards that are much smaller than back in the Midwest, and every one of them is surrounded by rock or cement walls. I rented a rototiller and ripped out a part of the backyard to create an organic garden. Now I would be able to feed healthier meals to my kids. I built a compost bin and became a successful “leaf thief”. I don’t drink coffee, but Starbucks became a frequent stop on my way home from work – by that time they usually had a ton of used grounds to give away.

The house was also chosen because it was only a couple blocks away from the kids school and a couple blocks the other direction to a grocery store. Walking or bicycling assumed an importance that they had not had since I first earned a driver’s license.

Luckily I did not live in an area subject to the restrictions of a homeowner’s association, and with the walls around the back yard the neighbor’s never objected to my use of a “solar” clothes dryer. Although I had a fire pit with a grill in the yard, I fell in love with solar ovens – the concept that you could cook a meal with sunlight!!!   Wow!

Piece by piece, bit by bit, I have made changes in my lifestyle to reflect a conscious decision to reduce the impact of my existence on the planet. I turn down the heat in winter and wear more sweaters, not because I can’t afford the utility bill but because it means less pollution. I donate time, and money, to those environmental organizations that I feel are making a difference in our world. Do I intend to sell my house and leave behind all the advantages of civilization…no. But I do purchase “green” energy credits , drive a high mgp car and bug my congress people to vote responsibly.

The New Mexico Solar Energy Association had been keeping the flame of sustainable living alive ever since the Reagan administration had ripped away the solar tax credits introduced by Carter. Every year they would have a conference at a retreat up in northern New Mexico where the membership would talk passive solar, active solar, wind energy, solar cooking etc..   It was a fun reunion of like minded individuals, but it was singing to the choir. About ten years ago I worked with the group to create a venue for middle class homeowners which would allow them to taste and investigate the wonders of renewable energy and sustainable living.   The Solar Fiesta was born, and the citizens of central New Mexico embraced it. Each year it gets larger and incorporates a greater variety of green concepts and ideals. Exhibits, demonstrations and workshops are designed to intrigue the average homeowner and lead children and adults toward a future green ideals are the norm rather than merely interesting.

Practical Environmentalism begins with understanding at a deep level that there is a need for change, then instituting those changes incrementally, but steadily, so that over time they become a part of who you are. I knew I had succeeded with my daughter when we were at a friend’s home. He tossed an aluminum can in with the trash – and we flinched.