Many of us are concerned about the environment but don't know where to begin. Others have just jumped in, adopting many green practices in order to live more in harmony with nature. I've been planning to share some of these stories, to inform and inspire our readers. Talking with Susan Agate and Mike Slutsky is a great way to kick off the series. Welcome to OpEdNews. I've known the two of you for over thirty years. You've always been environmentally conscious. What got you started, way back when?
Susan: It's difficult for me to remember how I originally became interested in environmental concerns. I do remember writing a letter to the editor of our local paper about recycling. That was back in the early '70s, when I was in college. Not many people were recycling then. Sometimes I tell my students that when I was their age, no one had recycling bins, or knew what recycling was, and they are amazed. We used to have to drive our recyclables to a recycling center - no one picked it up in front of your house.
When Diet For a Small Planet came out in 1971, it made a lot of sense to me that we should not be eating high on the food chain. We were struggling graduate students at the time, so eating less animal protein and more plant protein made sense economically as well.
We were supporters of Sierra Club and later the Nature Conservancy. In recent years, I've become more concerned about the environment and perhaps more knowledgeable about the problems. So as I've learned something I've tried to put that knowledge into practice in my life. For example, when we were remodeling our kitchen, before there were actually green architects and renovation companies, we chose to put in a bamboo floor. Our designer didn't know anything about bamboo, which grows back in three years, so I had to find a company and pass the information on to her. There were only two colors of bamboo at that time, so we designed the kitchen around the color of the floor. The same thing happened when we asked our painters to use clay paint. They had never heard of it. We sent them to a store we'd found and they got it and started painting. We also wanted compact florescent light bulbs, which were hard to find in those days. We had to order them ourselves.
When I learned that for every pound of cotton grown, 1/3 of a pound of pesticides is used, I figured that this could not be good for people or the environment. I went on a quest to find organic cotton. It's gotten easier now to find organic cotton sheets and towels, and baby clothes. I occasionally even run into some organic cotton women's clothing in department stores. It takes some effort to find organic cotton, and there is usually an added expense.
I teach about ecosystems. The students learn that the biggest threats to ecosystems are habitat destruction and invasive species. When I learned that only 1% (or maybe less) of the original, not replanted, prairie is still in existence, and that native prairie plants are better for our midwestern environment, I wanted to do something about it. I spent some time reading and talking with Mike about the possibility of turning our front yard into a native habitat, and that's what we did. It's been three summers since we had someone plant it, and I think it looks great.
What makes this native habitat such a good idea?
So many gardens have species in them that are not native to this area. Some of them are invasive - with no natural predators in the area, and they take over. A beautiful example is purple loosestrife, which is good looking but an invasive species here. Another common invasive plant species in this are is the buckthorn tree - it grows fast and blocks the light that oak trees need. You may have seen notices about people working to remove buckthorns - North Park Village Nature Center does this regularly. It seems to make sense that the species native to this area are the ones that should be growing here - they don't need TLC or fertilizer or extra water, and they belong here. People who plant native species gardens report seeing a greater number and variety of wildlife in their gardens. We've got lots of milkweed, which I've been reading lately is a good plant to put in to help the monarch butterflies, whose habitats are disappearing.
Mike: On the home garden front, some years ago, we learned that it was environmentally better to, and so we changed our practices to(1) leave the grass clippings on the lawn; (2) compost remnants of fresh fruits and vegetables;(3) not use fertilizer on the lawn (which has the collateral benefit of not having to mow as often); and (4) replace our dead power mower with a hand/reel mower. Susan was the initiator of most of these changes.
Don't be so modest, Mike. You've initiated some changes. How about how you use your car? Where did that come from?
I'm not sure. My Dad drove to work in the Loop [downtown Chicago] and my Mom drove to work on the north side of Chicago every day. And, as a teenager, being able to drive was a great thing. When I started to work downtown, we lived in Hyde Park, and had only one car. The commute on the IC was fast, comfortable and easy. When we were looking for a house in Evanston, we wanted a place near the L, but I don't think there was any analysis that went into it. It was just one of those assumptions. Public transit has gotten worse since '83 when we moved to Evanston, but the ride on the L is still a time when I can read or do work, without many interruptions.
So, how much do you drive these days? Is there some ideology behind your practice? What about the decision to buy a hybrid? Where does that fit in?
I hardly ever drive on weekdays, unless we have something in the evening, or, on rare occasions, if I have to get to a meeting out of the Loop. On weekends, I drive on Sundays for errands, etc., or to visit [daughter] Rachel and her family. On Saturday nights in the "winter" we sometimes drive, but we will also walk to downtown Evanston if we happen to be going out to dinner there.
At this point, it's something that evolved, and now we have connected the ideology to it. About the hybrid, Susan was behind it. As I recall, it was both to do our part and to be a role model, as it were. At the time, gas prices were relatively low, and we were told that it was unlikely that we would recover the cost difference in fuel savings (especially given how little we drive). I don't know if that calculus would have changed if the $4/gallon prices last summer had continued.
What other kinds of things have you added along the way?
Mike: Some small things: We put up a clothes line last summer, and use it as a partial alternative to the dryer, but only weather permitting, and only for certain types of loads. In the summer, we try to run our washer, dryer and dish washer late at night or early in the morning when demand is lowest (and cost is less -- we have the plan with ComEd where our rates change each hour). We wash all clothes, including linens,with cold water.
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