Thursday, February 26, 2009
How To Ditch Your Refrigerator And Be Happier
It is January in Paris and I secure a well-wrapped bag of Brie outside my third floor window.
Street lamps shine on deep green leaves as snow melts in the air. I roll my window back, holding the edge of the plastic bag until the bag is firmly held in the protective corner of my outside window. With one kitchen and hundreds of students I would be giving my food to the next starving student were I to risk the fridge.
Four years later, I stand in front of what sounds like a fridge with bronchitis. I have just arrived at my new Toronto apartment during a troubling January of autumn-like winds.
Craving sleep against the noise, and for some power to stop the seasons from shifting, my fridge starts to seem less like a tool and more like a heel. The image of my window in Paris returned to my mind, with my simple bag of Brie and bread.
Torontonians know about shifting temperatures. Winters can be extremely cold, summers sweaty. Thoreau says, “The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot.” Last year, my fridge felt unnaturally cold. Right outside my window I had an abundance of cold. I did not need a machine to produce more. In what felt like a radical decision in North America, I unplugged my fridge.
The soft quiet that followed offered an immediate reward. My shoulders slightly relaxed and I felt more connected to the ease of my time in Europe, of anticipating local markets and eating simply. I mused that living more lightly off of the earth would be to feel lighter myself. After all, we remain inseparable from this planet.
As one of the countries in the world with the highest carbon emissions, it’s no accident that often our lives in Canada have the highest degree of small, but cumulative stress.
We over do life and then escape to places with a much lower consumption rate for our vacations to regain some sense of balance. Spain, the Caribbean, we need to visit places where rhythms impelling us to stop are woven into the fabric of life, be it the call of the beach, a siesta, or a two hour meal with friends.
Our conveniences have isolated us from the earth and the cycles of the earth. Many of us can choose to unplug and come out of the closet, acknowledge that to be human is to be connected with our true source of life, the earth.
After unplugging my fridge, I found myself in new conversations with my family. I learned more about my father’s family grocery store. They had built a barn and insulated it with sawdust. A man with horse and cart sold them huge chunks of ice that he had sawed from the river that winter.
This ice lasted all year stored in their barn and they used it to keep the meat cold in the store that served Guelph Little Italy. I was amazed that with absolutely no power other than a horse and strong arms, and ingenuity, that they were able to maintain a grocery store that fed the neighbourhood for an entire year.
When I told my mom that I was writing this article, her warning was: “I hope that people don’t sue you from getting food poisoning.” Of course, you don’t want to throw the basic science of hygiene out with your fridge.
Surprisingly, there is little that needs refrigeration. Cups of herbs or red chard in water are a cheerful but constant reminder of the passage of time and will keep one alert to their metamorphoses.
There is nothing more invigorating than the smell of fresh mint upon coming home. Even eggs last. Root vegetables, onions, peppers, and zucchini will stay true. I realized after turning off my fridge that somehow I had equated the existence of my fridge with the natural life of my food. Amazingly, the food came first and was fine until around 50 years ago with refrigeration.
To actually see my food makes me feel blessed and keeps me aware of what I need to eat. When I wish to consume something perishable, I simply grab what I need for the day as I pass a shop on my way to the subway. I always pass somewhere where I can pick something up and toss it into my bag, or pocket like a regular Huckleberry Finn. Sometimes having food stockpiled would have warded off a late night run to the grocer.
It has not always been perfect.
The first weeks were the hardest, because I did not know how to shop to keep enough food at home. Still, I wouldn’t go back to that big appliance that is always on. There is a feeling of freedom to be gained in taking just what one needs.
One of the biggest drawbacks of not having a fridge can by summed up by my friend and ecologist Albert’s question: "But what about ice cream?" Albert had decided to accompany me on this journey in his own way.
Indeed. What about ice cream or a cold beer?
Albert’s solution was to use his non-heated mudroom in winter and to get a very small ecologically sound fridge for the summer.
I chose a cooler and snow in winter, and the Annex sherbet stand in the summer.
I recently refrigerated some ginger carrot soup by putting a small pot into a larger soup pot filled with pure snow and protecting it with a wool blanket. It was a great feeling when it worked.
In the past, leftovers were like a guest that had worn out their welcome. Now, I began to take fresh leftovers to share with my neighbour and I became the guest. I liked sharing food discoveries, for instance, the organic local apples I brought. Bradley realized that they actually tasted better than what he normally bought. When I had a bad cold, Bradley heard me coughing through the walls, called and offered to buy some oranges for me. In an unsocial condo setting, we forged a true bond.
It has been over a year since I used a fridge. I feel better about the future living without relying too heavily on waning resources. My experience of life without a fridge is that my life is healthier. I am more relaxed and more in touch with the rhythms of the earth and food. I have a greater sense of connection to the ingenuity of my ancestors. Almost no food goes to waste. I have a peaceful sounding home, a new neighbor, and a deeper feeling of harmony with nature and the changing seasons.
Living sans fridge is an easy way to start living more lightly before it is too late.
Lord of the Fruit Flies
History shows that human society can change if some moral force (civil rights, women’s rights) challenges convention. However, before we can be optimistic about solving the environmental crisis, we must be realistic. Otherwise, our confidence is delusional.
Human analysts struggle to assess our predicament because we live inside the experiment we are attempting to understand. We are the fastest changing variable in the experiment. Sixty-thousand years represents only a blink in the story of life on earth (one-thousandth of one percent), yet those millennia comprise the entire history of humanity from a million wide-eyed hunter-gatherers to six-billion humans clinging to a shrinking resource pool. From inside this surging human wave, particularly from one single lifetime, it is difficult to witness the forces that erode civilization. We must take a step back.
In my high school biology class, we put a dozen fruit flies – male and female – into a jar with a tomato. The flies multiplied day after day. We counted and graphed the population, and the data made an elegant sweeping curve that I recall drawing on a piece of graph paper: twenty, forty, and soon hundreds of fruit flies feeding on the tomato. After a month the jar was full of fruit flies and the tomato was half-eaten away. We went home for the weekend, but when we returned to class, the tomato was gone and all the fruit flies were dead.
This little experiment illustrates exponential growth in nature. There are no cases in which such growth continues forever. None. The global economy cannot double every 20 years forever. The planet cannot support even a one-percent population growth forever.
An important feature of the fruit-fly lesson is that for a month, everything appeared groovy in Tomatoland. The collapse arrived in a relative flash. Are we smarter than the fruit flies? We’re halfway through our tomato, the earth, and the time to wake up to this reality is now. The time to wake up has been “now” for several hundred years, but the head fruit flies keep insisting everything is fine, party on. Can enough people step outside the frenzy of their own craving and consuming long enough to alert the swarm that the tomato is finite?
What Malthus got right
At the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus predicted that exponentially growing human population would eventually overshoot the fixed land base of the earth. “Premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” He cited war, disease, and famine, to which we might now add dead rivers, eroded soil, swelling deserts, global warming, rising sea level, and so forth.
Among twentieth-century industrialists arose the popular notion that Malthus was wrong. He had failed, the theory went, to account for technology’s windfall – cheap fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, and the so-called “green revolution” – that would allow us to escape nature’s laws.
But technology only helped us eat the tomato more efficiently. In the end, natural law prevails. An exponentially growing population, with exponentially growing demands, cannot sustain itself on a fixed planet.
Disconcerting events shocked world fisheries in the 1970s. For centuries, humans had increased ocean yields with faster boats, bigger nets, and advanced sonar. Then, suddenly, in 1970, ocean production plateaued at about 65 million metric tons (mmt) per year. More technology could not create more fish. The Peruvian anchovy fishery plummeted in the mid-1970s and has never recovered. The North Atlantic cod fishery was devastated and remains so.
Writing about this in 1977, Paul Ehrlich predicted that the fishing industry would “move down the food chain” to harvest deeper, smaller fish and phytoplankton, and might increase annual yields to 100 mmt by 2000. He pointed out, however, that even if this could be achieved there would be less fish per person because of population growth. This is exactly what happened. Fishing technology went deeper, after swarms of ocean biomass, yields reached 100 mmt/year, but fish yields per capita has declined by about eight percent. More fish, yes, but less quality and less per person.
Forget quibbling about peak oil. We are way past peak everything. There is no natural resource available on the planet today that we are going to have more of in the future, except perhaps heat. World oil production has now peaked, and if you add in a “net-energy” factor, it is already in decline. Net petroleum energy per capita peaked three decades ago, in 1979.
There were once eight billion hectares of forest on the earth. There are now 4-billion, and we high-graded the best timber, so on the remaining half of the forestland there is less timber per hectare and a lower quality. Meanwhile, Each year, we lose 20 billion metric tons of topsoil, emit 20 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and create two million hectares of new desert. None of this is remotely sustainable. We’re halfway through the tomato. Tick, tick, tick.
Population and consumption
Annually, human population swells by about 75 million, equal to about 50 cities the size of Amsterdam or Vancouver. Energy, food, water, and infrastructure all lag behind this crush of humanity. Consider water:
About 1.3 billion people – one-fifth of humanity – lack safe drinking water, but each year, this number swells by 150 million people – twice the net population growth. We drain rivers and aquifers while adding thirsty people. This scenario fulfills the 1970s “Limits to Growth” study prediction that declining resources would meet rising population. The result: starvation, drought, deserts, refugees, and resource wars.
Reducing population growth presents a delicate challenge. Governments and even environmental groups often avoid the issue. The presumed freedom to reproduce remains a powerful force, tied to cultural and religious beliefs. Excessive consumption by the rich is indeed a major factor, but pure population growth puts pressure on the planet’s resources. China, India, South America, and the rest of the developing world long for European and American prosperity. Dispossessed fruit flies covet the fortune of the greedy fruit flies, but none of this creates more tomato.
We learned last month that the UN food program, which attempts to feed about 73 million of the world’s 1-billion undernourished people, cannot even do that because of the rise in global food prices. And what is driving up prices? (1) increased oil prices for shipping, (2) desertification and loss of topsoil, and (3) the use of agricultural land to grow corn for ethanol, fuel for the rich “eco-conscious” consumers.
The UN report shows that disproportionate consumption in the rich countries takes food from the mouths of the poor. The earth is finite. Technology cannot change the laws of nature. Humanity must consume less, and we must slow down and reverse population growth.
Another favorite theory of the chirpy industrialists is that “wealth creation” will reduce population and increase incomes. This is a convenient theory because it is partially true, but wealth consolidation is the real goal of these social planers, and population is outpacing economic growth. We add more hungry and thirsty people every year. China’s attempt to create 700 million urban consumers is destroying their environment and the environments of their imperial colonies.
However, there exist two authentic solutions to population growth: (1) improve women’s rights and (2) make contraceptives available. These goals should be top priority for the wealthy nations.
Where is the hope?
Annual global military spending exceeds $1.2 trillion. The United States spends half of this and Europe one-quarter. The big consumers have all the guns. We can see from all of this that global peace, social justice, and ecology remain intimately linked.
The wealthy fruit flies are defending their right to consume most of the tomato, especially now that they have glimpsed the limits of resources. China has now joined Europe and America in the bid to eat the tomato before someone else does so. Are we smarter than the fruit flies?
A friend insists I’m too pessimistic, that I don’t trust human ingenuity to solve our crisis. He confuses realism for pessimism. I don’t think ingenuity is what we lack. What we lack is compassion, common sense, and courage. We will not engineer our way out of this. The necessary change requires a radically new paradigm. We must adopt ecological living and toss out excessive consumption the same way civilization denounced slavery and sexism. We’re attempting to green up our consumption without really changing our habits. This just won’t work. It reminds me of those who proposed laws to improve the living conditions for slaves.
The optimism I possess comes from the knowledge that courageous, compassionate human beings – Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi – will, in a crisis, stand up for truth and justice. These are the real warriors of humanity, who are not intimidated by the consequences of acting on their conscience. The human courage to face the facts is our hope. Imagine if each one of us took up one critical issue and never rested until it was solved. That is our hope. - Rex Weyler
Simplifying our lifestyles now means that we are learning to ease off our energy systems. There is a general agreement that oil is in decline - a resource to potent to be replaced by another of equal strength. Here's a recent article by Cathal Kelley from The Star.
While panic is not the prescription, experts are warning that the time to begin taking Peak Oil seriously is past.
“It’s not about believing. It’s about facts,” said Gord Miller, Ontario’s environmental commissioner. Miller has been warning about Peak Oil for years. He thinks we hit peak around early 2007.
“If we’re not there, we’re awful close,” said Dave Hughes, a geoscientist who once ran Canada’s national coal inventory.
Peak Oil doesn’t mean we have run out of the stuff. It means that we have crested the top of a bell curve of supply. Then it’s a roller-coaster ride down. Depending on who you ask, that ride will either be slow and uncomfortable or teeth-rattling and destructive.
“Depletion is taking somewhere between 5 and 6 per cent of (existing) world oil production per year,” said Hughes. “The reason that oil price is where it is today is that the economy has reduced demand.”
No one has found a major new oil field since the 1960s. It’s getting harder and more expensive to bring up the oil we know is there. All these signs point toward the peak.
What happens now?
The first stage is price volatility, a little like the $100-per-barrel drop we’ve seen in less than a year.
The current low price “will increase demand to a certain extent, which will then increase price,” Hughes said. “There will be a few cycles of that. That is, until depletion kicks in for good.”
Hughes guesses a barrel of oil could cost $200 (U.S.) within the next two to four years. It sits at $41 today. Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands, imagines it could go as high as $300 in that time.
“The second stage is supply shortages,” Hughes said. “We could see a replay of the (oil crisis of the) early ’70s.”
Canada might initially be insulated from supply shocks, owing to our huge deposits in the Alberta oil sands. Of course, most of that oil is pumped into the U.S. Since Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes get most of their oil from overseas, we are vulnerable.
To continue reading this article, go to the Toronto Star.
This also applies to dairy and meat products. Keep dairy and meat cool either in your freezer section of your now re-used fridge that now holds snow to stay cold. Or, over ice that you purchase. Or, simply eat these items right away, within a reasonable time of bringing them home from the store. This is my personal favourite. Pick up very fresh stuff on the day!
It's extremely easy shopping if most of your dried foods are at home and you just need to toss a few items in your pocket as you pass by a store or deli.
Meat has been safely stored in ice boxes and cold storage for hundreds of years, at the proper temperatures it will be fine.
Another easy option is between the screen and front door in late fall, winter, and early spring depending on your climate.
For example, whether you keep eggs in or out of a fridge makes little difference as to whether they have salmonella. With eggs, the salmonella can only be on the shell. Just make sure to cook your eggs well.
For further information see this useful website: http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/health_advice/facts/salmonella.htm
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
How to live without a fridge
I first lived without a fridge as a student in Paris. Because of the abundance of local markets and bakeries, I hardly even noticed its absence. Years later, back in Canada and feeling that life had become too complicated, I thought unplugging my fridge might be a simple way out. Running such a huge machine, larger than a coffin, just for myself and my two-fist-sized stomach suddenly seemed more bizarre than convenient. I have now been living without a fridge for two years.
If you want to live without a fridge, all you have to do is unplug. Your fridge can be immediately converted into a storage unit right where it is. The lower portion can create space for your cupboard by holding canned and dried food, herbs, teas and spices. The upper portion makes a practical cupboard or can be filled with snow or ice and used as a cooler. (Unless you are using your fridge as a cooler, always keep it open a crack to prevent smells from forming.) With the hum of the fridge’s motor finally still, you will be amazed at the peace and quiet you bring to your home.
Most foods can last for a considerable time without a fridge. Cups of herbs or greens in water are a cheerful but constant reminder of the passage of time. Root vegetables, onions, peppers, and zucchini stay true. Eggs last for weeks. Somehow I had equated the existence of my fridge with the natural life of my food, but really, the fridge is a steroid - it can keep food fresh for a very long time, but why not just eat the food in a somewhat shorter time? I’m vegetarian, but dairy and meat are both to be treated with care. Use milk and meat the day you buy it and try to keep it cool. Cheese and dairy lasts overnight in a ziplock bag in cool water. In winter, these will be fine either in your garage or mud room, or in coolers that you fill with snow.
One of the biggest drawbacks of not having a fridge can by summed up by my friend Albert’s question: “But what about ice cream?” (Albert, an ecologist, had decided to accompany me on this journey in his own way.) Indeed, what about ice cream or a cold beer? Albert’s solution was to use his non-heated mud room in winter and a very small fridge for the summer. This can also be a great option - either reducing the size of your fridge, or choosing to unplug during certain seasons.
The summer months can be a sweet time to go fridge-free. Local produce is so fresh and plentiful that it will last longer than food shipped from abroad. Eating locally in the age of peak oil is best for farmer, earth, and consumer alike. To keep a year-round supply of local produce, fresh berries, corn and small cucumbers can all be canned for a great winter of local food with no freezing needed.
Of course, in the winter, you can keep anything cool for as long as you want due to our abundant resource of cold air, snow, and ice. Wool blankets can also be used as a cooler. I stored some ginger carrot soup for three days indoors by putting a small pot into a larger soup pot filled with fresh snow and protecting it with a wool blanket. Using ingenuity rather than energy adds a kind of adventure to everyday life that we seldom get to experience anymore. And it gives a more realistic picture of nature - a picture of abundant yet finite and delicate gifts, rather than an infinite source of power for all of our desires.
In the past, leftovers were like guests that had worn out their welcome. Post-fridge, I simply took fresh leftovers to share with my neighbor Bradley and I became a guest myself. I liked sharing new food discoveries, such as organic local apples I brought. Bradley realized that organic apples tasted better than what he normally bought. When I had a bad cold, Bradley heard me coughing through the walls, called and offered to buy some oranges for me. In a compartmentalized condo setting, we forged a true bond.
In giving up my fridge, I have gained a greater sense of connection to the ingenuity of my ancestors. I have a peaceful-sounding home, a new friend next door, a low electricity bill - and a deeper sense of harmony with the changing seasons.
I published my first article on living without a fridge for The Vancouver Observer, the article can no longer be found on the website. I got some good feedback from that initial article! Below are some great comments from people around the world that share their experiences.
Reflections from Katherine in Germany on living without a fridge:
"I have been living without for some seasons. I think it was the sound that first made me unplug it...! I used to keep cheese and butter cool by wrapping them in newspaper and putting them in a plastic bag placed in cold water... eggs will naturally stay good for some 5 weeks or so, only if placed once in a cooler you should not store them out again...there are many techniques for winter-storage (earth cellar) or outdoor-storage in summer or hot places, deserts (dripping water)... my parents used to hire a storage place in a huge deep-freezer-place of the community... in the alps they use of course the fresh cool river waters for the beer, the fresh milk..."from Katherina, Germany
Stephanie Walker from Waterloo, Ontario writes on "cool storage":
I remember ice boxes, ice houses where the ice from the local dam was stored in straw for summer delivery, farm basements where dairy products were set out on cool tables, stairs to the cellar with narrow shelves for leftovers. It worked & was visually stimulating.I also remember fridges that needed complete defrosting once a week when food stuffs, in ever greater varieties, were inspected. A couple of decades later, with more prepared foods like ice cream, the fridge became just another cupboard and convenience a murky good.Your proposal is a delight. I look forward to a sensible route ahead, a journey of gathering good practices and imagining others which can be arranged and rearranged to work across the fluid stages of our lives. And of course time to monitor natural processes of decay!
Sarah writes on sharing a compact fridge in London:
I must admit I don’t want to be rid of my fridge and freezer; however, I would like a much smaller one. The problem is I don’t think my new flat permits me to bring in my own appliances. What a shame and what an unnecessary cost to me and the environment!
I lived in Europe for over two years and got quite used to sharing a ‘bar fridge’ with two other people so that generally I had a shelf worth of space. It was nice walking to the store every few days to get what I needed and slow down my pace of life. I realized I had time if I made a choice to find it. Then I realized what fun finding new places and products could be – much better than spending an extra hour in the office that was for sure! One of the few people without machines always plugged into my ears, I found ‘new’ sounds of the city, new smells of food and was able to watch different people as they went about their day some in a very different fashion then my own. It was intriguing when I felt like I was on a different planet and enjoyable when the world passed by without notice of my watchful eye.
Now, back in Canada I rent my flat with a ‘normal’ sized fridge, my eggs inside on the door not on the counter as I did in Europe, but still unable to fill more than half of the top shelf. Who, in a one bedroom apartment, needs such a large fridge? I can’t fathom it anymore but I think I did have a fairly full fridge before my habits were forced to change. So, what I am saying is congratulations to you Andrea, I think it is a wonderful experiment you succeeded in. What I hope it shows others is if they want to go without a fridge or perhaps consider a smaller fridge sometimes the challenge is not the experience but getting our minds past our habits that hinder us from trying something new.
Advice from India: Yogurt out of the fridge:
An Indian friend has told me that yogurt will last in India outside of the fridge for 2-3 days. This is in a very hot place. I have not personally tried this - but it's encouraging as it is in such a hot country. This is, of course, with homemade yoghurt (something easy and fun to do). So the milk is fresh.
Alternative Air Conditioners in Japan:
In Japan we have air conditioners-using a block of ice housed in a fan that blows the air over the ice block to cool the room etc.
Table of Contents
- ► 2012 (33)
- ► 2011 (43)
- ► 2010 (25)
- Andrea Peloso: How to Ditch your Refrigerator and...
- Rex Weyler: Peak Everything
- Cathal Kelley: Take Peak Oil Seriously
- Andrea Peloso: Keep your Food Fresh and Healthy
- Andrea Peloso: Salmonella: a risk with or without...
- Andrea Peloso: "How-to" article from Briarpatch Ma...
- Messages: Tokyo, Germany, India, London, the 1940s...
- ▼ February (7)