Environmental Nirvana is Unattainable

I am killing the planet.

You are too, don’t worry. We’re in this together. Despite the fact that I campaigned door-to-door to fight fracking, repurpose plastic bags, and use public transportation—let’s be honest: I am punching Mother Nature in the junk.

I don’t buy organic. Those eggs? They’re factory farmed. My facial scrub has microbeads. I order Chinese takeout and it comes in styrofoam boxes. I threw a hot dog bun in the trash yesterday. It didn’t have mold on it, but it looked kinda stale and I couldn’t remember when I bought it.

I’m ready to inspire outrage with my mediocrity, if only to point out that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have empathy.

But what about the chickens, the hordes cry, who will have empathy for the chickens? Yes, environmental stewardship is important, and like most I do what I can while always knowing that I could be doing better. But when the demand for total devotion to environmental purity turns away the casual recycler (i.e., the majority of Americans) the movement is doing more harm than good.

The trouble is balancing a desire to be sustainable with the practical realities of the country we live in—a society that drives us to consume because more Things will make us likable, happier, sexier. But having those Things is also necessary in order to be a functioning member of that very society.

I’m not putting down environmentalists, because we need empathy on both sides. It too infuriates me when the easiest and laziest attacks on activists are “Did you drive your car to this rally?” and “How much oil did it take to make your Nikes? How many Cambodian wage slaves toiled over your H&M t-shirt?” as if perceived individual hypocrisy invalidates the argument that we should take better care of our planet. “You hate big banks, well maybe you should stop having money.”

Unfortunately, I have neither a cotton farm nor the ability to spin cotton into thread or weave it into a piece of cloth to make into clothing. Our industrialized society has outsourced those tasks to machines or less developed economies, for better or worse allowing us to develop service skills and become more highly educated so that we have the time to rally around causes like conservation.

Yet in the face of Capitalism 101, we demand sainthood from people advocating change. Reprimanding the activist whose shoes have rubber soles to me is not that different from telling the woman fighting to keep abortion legal that if she can’t afford children she should just stop having sex. It’s like if we can’t all be the girl who produces zero trash, we should stop trying.

Empathy, people, empathy.

I grapple with the tradeoffs of reality and environmental stewardship. If I buy a compost bin for my backyard, will it offset the carbon emissions of the Amazon truck that brought it here, and the plight of the warehouse pickers? Am I literally strangling baby seals when I buy a plastic water bottle on a hot day because I forgot my reusable one at home? I’d love to buy organic, but right now it’s really important to me to pay off my student loans and build a nest-egg, while organic food is a great way to jack up my grocery budget.

Even the efforts we make feel hopeless when the system is stacked against us.

Take recycling, which is supposed to keep greenhouse gas-producing waste out of landfills. As of 2015, single-stream recycling is a huge mess. A recent Washington Post feature reports that recycling is becoming less cost-effective as recyclables lose value. District recycling officials lamented that because blue bins are getting bigger, people are tossing in more nonrecyclables and contaminating entire batches.

Some months ago, in an attempt to be a smarter consumer, I scoured D.C.’s recycling website for guidelines and found that all but four items can be recycled: styrofoam, “clamshell” packaging, foam packaging, and pizza boxes.

But what does that mean for those bags that shredded cheese comes in? Metal and plastic bottle caps? Deli meat containers? If something has the triangle with a number inside it, does that mean it’s recyclable? Are egg cartons that aren’t made of styrofoam allowed?

We’re not too dumb to recycle, we just don’t know the right way to do it because no one’s bothered to explain it to us.

But for a few people who have achieved carbon neutral-nirvana, life can’t revolve around the pursuit of environmental enlightenment. We should certainly reduce our consumption of packaged, processed, disposable goods, but an abstinence-only approach will fail. One person living a zero-waste life won’t force Kraft to use recyclable packing. Change has to happen outside of us too.

Development or just gentrification?

Like so many people in DC, I moved over Labor Day weekend.

While I didn’t shed any tears for my old apartment (thanks to memories of bedbugs, shootings, and cockroaches) I missed watching the rapid development on the right arm of the Red Line.

For two years, I commuted downtown on the Red Line. Half of it was aboveground, a perk to living in the northern part of the District. I now travel from Eastern Market, which means that while my commute is shorter, it is also now entirely underground.

The perks of an aboveground commute go beyond exposure to sunlight and cell service–you get to watch the city grow around you.

Here’s some of the development I saw between Union Station and Fort Totten in just two years:

NoMa/Gallaudet University

NoMa has undergone such rapid development in the past few years that many of its high-rise apartments are still vacant. The station opened in 2004 amid warehouses and industrial parks. Then named New York Avenue, it didn’t take long for high-profile tenants like the Justice Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Securities and Exchange Commission, CNN, and NPR to draw development to the area, and the neighborhood’s eventual rebranding to NoMa – “North of Massachusetts Ave.” According to The Washington Post, as of March 2014 NoMa was 50 percent built out, with “16 million feet of office space, two hotels, almost 5,000 residential units and 200,000 square feet of retail space.”

I’m unsurprised by NoMa’s boom because opening new transportation options to previously less-accessible areas creates the kind of demand that leads to widespread development. Check out a brief history of NoMa’s development in Smart Growth America and the Urban Land Institute for more.

Rhode Island Ave. (I moved to DC in 2012, but don’t forget about the big construction project in 2011 to build Rhode Island Row, a new set of shops and apartment buildings adjacent to the Metro.)

Watching the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School go up was a staple of my morning commute. The building went up so quickly that even Google Maps still shows anempty, overgrown lot.

carlos rosario before

Now it’s this cool, modern building overlooking the Metro Branch Trail.

Carlos Rosario 2014

Today you can watch construction start on a long-awaited pedestrian bridge that givescommuters on the west side of the station safe, easy access to the platform.

Ped Bridge


Brookland’s trumpeted development project, Monroe Street Market, surged to life last year. The mixed-use development was intended to create a “college main street experience,” according to UrbanTurf. Within the last year, several boutique shops have opened and a large Barnes & Noble now draws CUA students shopping for textbooks.

Last month, MRP won a bid to develop nearly 300 additional apartment units and a new Kiss & Ride lot just east of the Metro. This has some, including the president of the local civic association, up in arms, accusing Metro of being more concerned with their bottom line than the health of the community. Construction will begin in 2016.

Fort Totten

Speaking with long-time neighborhood residents, development in Fort Totten was stalled in the talking phase. While the luxury apartment complex that now surrounds the station was completed in 2012, the neighborhood is still a food desert — grocery stores had been promised for decades without being delivered. My cheap rent on the other side of the tracks made sense.

Fort Totten, 2014

However, recent reports say my former neighborhood is becoming a hot item for developers. Construction has finally begun on Art Place, a $116 million mixed-use complex with 500 residential units and a children’s museum. Fort Totten Square is another planned development, a four-story apartment complex anchored by a Walmart on the first floor.

The Walmart has obvious benefits (jobs, no more driving to Maryland for groceries) and the children’s museum would hopefully provide cultural benefit or fun activities for the many young immigrant families in the neighborhood. But will the “market rate yet competitive” apartment rents promised by Totten Square be affordable for the people pushed farther and farther from downtown DC to find places to live?

From Columbia Heights, Brookland, and Petworth, development approaches Fort Totten from all angles. What that means for the current residents is unclear.

Final Fantasy VII: Aren’t we getting away from the point, here?

Yeah so it’s been a while since I’ve actually done what I promised I’d do in this blog. i.e. Finish things and then write about finishing them and crocheting. The reason is – bed bugs!

[IMAGE REDACTED] (No seriously you should look up what they look like so when you have them, you know that you have them.)

In the interim, while 90% of my possessions are either in plastic bags or being fumigated, I’ve been staying with my boyfriend and playing Final Fantasy VII.

FFVII cast

Continue reading

Strangers telling stories

I love listening to people tell stories. In fact I often wish people would just stop expecting me to say things at parties, and talk about themselves instead. This is probably why I feel closer to podcast hosts than to actual humans.

Many of you know how much I love  the radio show This American Life, which recently aired its 500th episode. Hosted by public radio heartthrob Ira Glass, each hour-long episode explores a topic, often through reporting, personal stories, or readings of short fiction. The investigative reporting on the show has exposed arbitrary drug court sentences, Mike Daisy’s lies about what he allegedly saw at Chinese Apple plants, and how shady groups are using patents to shake down tech companies.

My affinity for podcasts (I’m subscribed to twelve, and I regularly listen to four or five) probably comes from being raised by audiobooks, many of which bordered on radiodramas with full voice casts. Over and over, I played Russian cassettes of Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, and a Swedish series about a fat man named Karlsson who lived on the roof and flew around using a tiny propeller.

And their many adventures.

And their many adventures.

This fits into the “completism” theme of this blog because of my tendency to listen through the backlog of shows once I find a new one I really enjoy. Not usually from beginning to end, but keeping up with current episodes while simultaneously listening to older shows. (I’m currently on episode 413 of This American Life…) But while I’m not writing this having recently completed any shows, a number of the shows I listen to have hit milestones. Slice of SciFi also recently celebrated its 500th episode – which they hit after eight years, rather than TAL’s 20.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know podcast hosts even better than some of my close friends, seen shows breed spinoffs, podfade, and even cried when a favorite host passed away. There’s something intimate about the audio format. Something special about feeling like a person is sitting with you and telling you stories, or feeling like you’re hanging out with a group of nerdy friends talking about the latest in sci-fi television while you crochet something new.

The Geologic Podcast, a weekly skeptical one-man-show, this week aired episode 324. I’ve been listening since episode 20. It’s weird and comforting to me how these shows have stayed with me through thick and thin. They’ve been there for me when I was in high school, on a long, boring flight to Europe, and while our tour bus drove through the Irish countryside. They’ve been there for me when I drove to college every day. There for me through all of my major relationships. I feel like I’ll never be able to stop listening to strangers tell me stories.

Favorite shows, through the ages.

Favorite shows, through the ages.