Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Ecology of Ease

The Green Phone Booth welcomes back Karen Moser-Booth.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

The sharpest moment I remember in moving to Montreal—beyond the weight of cardboarded-up belongings, the frenzied home search in August, and the constant corralling of a toddler, partner, two dogs, and a cat and all our stuff from one temporary home to another—is the trash. Or, specifically, the trash can.

We moved into our city apartment three weeks before Claire left it. It was chaotic. Stuff was strewn about. “Where’s the ___?” was the question of the day. She packed; we unpacked. And when I pulled out our good ol’ 13-gallon trash can and set it down next to hers, I knew we had something.

It was big. No. It was ginormous next to hers. The American trash can, in all its stainless steel, contemporary-designed aerodynamic beauty, looked ridiculous. It was embarrassing. And it was a revelation. I pushed aside the stress and started to study.

In the States, green habits took concentration. Each time, I had to think before I acted, and dissolve old habits first. I needed reminders. I needed encouragement. I needed to make mistakes. I needed to research the right method. I needed to keep my resolve. I needed to explain myself to neighbors. I needed community (hello, Green Phone Booth!) to keep me on task. And even then, my old instincts sometimes reared their ugly heads.

Here in Canada, they are effortlessly ecological. It is second-nature to use less, save more. I envied the ease at which they moved through the day, the relaxing lifestyles these Canadians lead. They make more sense. Here are a few observations I made while sweet Claire packed up.

That trash can. The Canadian trash can stood next to its American neighbor and was dwarfed. By “guerrilla composting” and offering such services as $5/biweekly pick-up for food waste and free weekly recycling pick-ups, waste is cut by almost half. By not buying excessively wrapped packaged goods, only buying what you need, cooking from scratch, buying used goods, and so on—we know these things, but do we always do them?—Canadians create less waste than Americans. And their trash cans show it.

Display your food. When you put whole oats, colorful spices, dry beans, whole wheat pasta, and dried wildflowers into glass jars on your kitchen shelves, you’ll find yourself creating new, homemade, healthy dishes just so you can buy something beautiful to put in a jar. I’ve discovered, and devoured, cassava flour and several new types of beans, and we’re cooking more from scratch as a result.

One night, Claire jumped up and began soaping up the dinner dishes. I was floored. She ran the faucet into an easily accessible tub stored beneath the sink, scrubbed the dishes, and dipped them into the water, smiling and recounting stories of canoe trips all the while. This Canadian just did the dishes from a made-from-scratch meal for four using maybe six cups of water.

Enter a Montreal bathroom, and you’re likely to see a detachable shower head above the bathtub. They jump in, sprinkle a handful of water on the soap bar, soap up, and then turn on the shower head to hose off. No standing in your own personal waterfall. And when they take a bath, they share the leftover water with other family members.

There is a thermostat in each room of this apartment. ‘Nuff said.

Claire kept an entire shelf of rags in the linen closet. In Boston, I knew better than to use a disposable paper towel, but sometimes when you have to clean up dog puke or toddler puddles, you’re inclined to think a cloth rag is too beautiful for such a chore. Not so when you have dozens to choose from, I found.

They house their post offices in drugstores. No separate buildings needed. You eliminate the drive to the post office, parking in a massive concrete lot, and driving back. You simply mail your packages while picking up some bread, just as you would in an American pharmacy-in-a-grocery-store.

Digital tools like WalkScore and green American mags tote the walkability of certain areas. Most articles sound the same horn. It’s healthier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly to walk. You might have to plan ahead and take an alternative route, but it’s for the good of the Earth. Come on, people, chose walking over cars! As a blissfully car-free Bostonian, I weaved my way through the streets with my handy T pass in hand. But here’s where Boston is quite different from most major American cities: it is European in urban design, and thereby walkable. I mean, actually walkable. You don’t need to worry about the sidewalk randomly ending, being the only pedestrian in an unsafe area, or getting to the nearest grocery store in less than an hour. The neighborhoods and the city’s urban plan are human-scaled. They don’t cater to the car as much as, say, Dallas. Or Los Angeles. Or Chicago.

So imagine my surprise when I hit Montreal: it’s more walkable than Boston. The variety in architecture and neighborhoods makes it easy to figure out where you are—and want to walk. In five minutes, I could walk out my front door and get to anything I need, really: restaurants, bookstores, five grocery stores (two organic), a farmers market, coffeehouses, the library, a green dry cleaners, bakeries, a bike-repair shop, bus stops, four parks, five playgrounds, BIXI stations, two schools, friperies (resale shops), and thousands of neighbors’ houses.

Guess what? I don’t even buy a monthly public transit pass anymore. And if I needed to get on the bus, I could just grab a BIXI bike from the city’s bike-share; there are stations every couple blocks throughout the city. Biking is very common here, to the point where folks have trouble finding an open spot to lock it up.

My perception of walking distances has even changed. Growing up in the Midwestern suburbs, we thought a short walk was five houses away; a long walk was maybe half a mile. In Boston, a short walk became half a mile or less; a long walk took a brisk 30 minutes. In Montreal, we don’t even use the terms short or long to describe our walks. They are just walks, and said with an exclamation point to boot.

The most important thing I noticed was the people. Montrealers are much more relaxed and happy than their American counterparts. They don’t have a prevalence of carry-out food and disposable coffee cups; rather, they take the time to sit and enjoy their food. They don’t honk their horns at passerby or slow-moving vehicles; rather, they bike or take pleasure in a conversation out the window while they wait. We are in such a hurry in America. We are so busy; we barely have time to ______. How many times have you talked about how busy you are this week? I haven’t heard that phrase uttered once by a French-Canadian. Why take on so much? What is the payback here? Your frenzied life—my frenzied life—is a life less enjoyed. And that’s at the heart of this ecology of ease I find in Montreal: it is easier to make ecological choices and enjoy life. It is natural. How did America get into the busy mindset? More vitally, how can we learn to slow down?

All of this got me thinking. If other countries are naturally doing right by nature, does that mean foreign travel—even by, gasp, those fossil fuel-monsters they call airplanes—is necessary to make amends with global warming? Should environmental advocates focus their campaigning on study abroad programs and Peace Corps-like activities? If we Americans study the ecology of ease through the daily lives of foreigners, this idea of the “inconvenience” of ecological choices in America becomes absurd.

Claire’s trash can now serves in its rightful place—our kitchen. And our American trash can? It’s the recycling bin.


Sense of Home said...

Excellent post! I think there is a lot we can learn from others. Being eco-minded should be second-nature, we just need to retrain our minds.


Theresa said...

Fantastic! I'm Canadian but have never been to Montreal - even other Canadians can learn from this wonderful example :)

Amber said...

What a great post, lots to think about. Your right about community, I fall 'off the green wagon' so often its great to have people encouraging me.

Green Bean said...

Thank you for sharing what life is like on the other side of the border. We Americans, heck, we everyone, have a lot to learn from one another.

I, for one, am inspired to wash my dishes a tad differently tonight!

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I love this post. I lived in Spain for half a year and I loved the pace of life there -- the slow-cooked meals with several courses eaten luxuriously and followed by a siesta, walking everywhere. I esp. loved walking everywhere. I hate driving. Maybe I should live in Montreal. I feel sad that so many of my college friends are in the rat race (working so many hours they only see their kids on the weekends, etc.)

TheoJess said...

Hi there,

Thank you for your lovely post! As a Canadian, though, who studies environmental ethics, I should say that, unfortunately, we are not greener than Americans - if you check the stats, our consumption rates are nearly as high as Americans'...and we seem to love to be wasteful. Two big differences that you hit on, though, are our public services, like recycling, and how walkable our cities are. I think that we all have strengths and weaknesses - I am envious of California's law that bans incandescent light bulbs!

Daphne said...

My daughter is in Canada now studying in Waterloo. The thing I was most in love with about Canada is that they don't have the cell phone culture like we do (at least no that I saw). The traffic from Toronto to Waterloo was worse than our Boston traffic, but I only saw one person on a cell phone. I figured it must be a cell phone law. But then while walking down the streets I saw the same thing. I only saw one person on a cell phone while wandering around.

BTW I live in the Boston area too (East Arlington), and walk, bike and T everywhere. I've found that I don't walk if it is over 1.5 miles, but otherwise walking is fine. Though biking is better. We have a nice bike path in Arlington so it is easy. I'm on the Cambridge line and despite the bike lanes, biking there scares me so I always walk or bus if I go that direction.

Daisy said...

We made a short visit to Nova Scotia a few summers ago. Besides falling in love with the people and the countryside, I was so enamored of the eco-consciousness of Canadians that I was eager to move. Even the McDonald's sorted their garbage. If fast food folks can sort out their organic waste, come on, USA, we can do this, too.

Heather said...

That's so cool!

Not sure that *all* travel is the answer for spreading ideas like this, though. You only learned all this by *living* in Montreal, not by visiting. So a big 'yay' for study abroad and anything else that enables people to *live* in a different society. I've benefitted hugely from living in Tahiti as an exchange student, in Switzerland as an intern and in the US as a graduate student. But most travel seems to be short-term trips, be they for business or pleasure, and I don't think you'd get these kind of advantages from those!

--Heather from New Zealand

Jessica said...

I love this post! I totally agree with what you said about Americans veing in a hurry. I grew up in California where people would speed, but that was it. I moved to Utah 2 years ago and the people here are maniacs. They honk at you if you're going under 80 on the freeway, tailgait in the freeway, and if you don't speed up they just move around and tailgait the next person and the next after that until they get to where they are going. Ugh! When I was working I would walk to work and almost every day I'd almost get hit by someone who was in a hurry, despite the fact that it was my turn. Then they'd flip ME off like I was the one who did somethhing wrong. Jeez! Anyway, sorry to ramble. Slow down, America! Stop and smell the roses!

Anonymous said...

@Sense of Home: Thanks! The writer in me loves that you used the phrase "second-nature." :)

@Theresa: You should visit Montreal! It is fascinating, fun, and creative.

@Amber: I find community is more important than any other factor in going green--and I think that's why the personal battle is worth waging.

@Green Bean: Thanks for the encouragement and the opportunity to post.

@Betsy: I highly recommend Montreal. Happiness is where you feel at home. And Spain sounds wonderful.

@TheoJess: Good point. I believe, the last I looked, that Canada scores slightly better on the eco side than the U.S., but not by much. That's actually one of the reasons that the green learning struck me so much here: I wasn't expecting it, and it made me think, if I learn a lot here, imagine what I could learn in, say, New Zealand ...

@Daphne: No way! I lived in Arlington! I encourage you to get involved with LivableStreets Alliance in Cambridge if you're not already. They do a lot to promote safe biking and walking.

@Daisy: A McDonald's sorting their garbage! This I gotta see.

@Heather: 100% agree with you. I'm literally nodding my head at the computer. How can we encourage study abroad programs and develop new programs where Americans can actually live in another country instead of drive through during a one-week vacation? I think part of the answer lies in encouraging all slow movements: with more time and less office work, living and learning abroad becomes more feasible for the average person. As it is now, people see study abroad as something for college students with no "real" responsibilities.

@Jessica: Thanks! That is pretty crazy ... and yet I recognize all of those behaviors instantly. Slowing down and enjoying life is key to the ecological movement, I think, because it affects so many other areas. To be honest, I have to remind myself a lot to slow down, to not worry about the to-do lists, to just breathe. How wonderful it would be if my kids didn't have to think about it and it was, as Sense of Home put it above, second nature. This needs to be a national, top-priority discussion. We're slowly ;) getting there, I think, in part because people are recognizing the negative health effects and general unhappiness that is a direct result of always being on the move.

Thank you all for your comments and creating this community.



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