Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet

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9781416571827: Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet
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Sandbeck preaches a return to a more primitive way of life—a life with more joy and fewer household products. Green Barbarians demonstrates that by mustering a bit of courage and relying less on many modern conveniences, we can live happier, safer, more ecologically and economically responsible lives..

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About the Author:

Ellen Sandbeck is an organic landscaper, worm wrangler, writer, and graphic artist who lives with (and experiments on) her husband and an assortment of younger creatures -- which includes two mostly grown children, a couple of dogs, a small flock of laying hens, and many thousands of composting worms -- in Duluth, Minnesota. She is the author of Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles and Eat More Dirt.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

I got the idea for this book as my husband and I were eating a picnic lunch in front of a bonfire in our back four. (We own five acres. A back forty is beyond our capabilities.) My husband, who is more domestic than I, brought a tray loaded with a lovely post-Thanksgiving feast: hot spiced apple cider in a jar; capicola ham; smoked cheese; homemade bread; goat cheese; apples; and pumpkin pie. I was happily contemplating the prospect of enhancing my garden beds with charcoal dust from the soon-to-be-quenched fire, and wondering whether I should wipe the capicola grease on my husband’s pants, since he had forgotten to bring out napkins, and his pants were dirtier than mine, when it occurred to me that a barbarian would wipe her hands on her slice of bread. So I did, and as I did, I realized that it might be time to resurrect the concepts of bread-napkins, trenchers, and other premodern conveniences. After much labor, and many more than nine months later, this book was born. It is filled with domestic strategies both ancient and modern—many delicious, all amusing—that I hope will improve the lives of ecologically minded people, and perhaps serve as a guide to the more feral side of life.

Those who walk the wilder, less-trodden path have always served as scouts for the rest of us. These venturesome souls are the explorers, the discoverers, the early adopters who help blaze the trails that will eventually take the rest of us where we need to go. Human survival has always depended upon intrepid individuals who cannot wait to discover what is just around the bend, on the other side of the river, or beyond the hills. They call to us from cliff tops, treetops, and mountaintops, saying, “Look! We’ve just found a new food or water source, a good place to make camp, or tool-making material.” Nowadays, many of these seekers wave to us from bicycles and skateboards, from cars that belch french fry–scented exhaust, from thrift stores and rooftop gardens, even from Dumpsters.

Almost immediately after the atrocious attacks in September 2001, the Powers That Be strongly urged us to go shopping; they informed us that our economy rested upon the backs of shoppers, without whom our entire culture would collapse. This may have been the first time in recorded history that a government deployed shoppers to protect a country from attack. Now perhaps the renegades among us who delight in thumbing their noses at (and sometimes even sticking their thumbs into the eyes of) the agro-pharmo-military-industrial complex may reasonably be considered members of a new tribe of barbarians: the Green Barbarians.

The classical Greek and Latin definitions of barbarian simply meant one who was not of the dominant culture, and who was therefore considered strange or bizarre. Green Barbarians are those who define themselves by what they do and what they create, what they save and what they preserve, rather than by what they buy and what they consume. Thus the horde of Green Barbarians marches firmly upstream, against the flow of consumerist propaganda.

Taking the free advice Big Business so generously provides has enticed us into a trap baited with toxic food, drink, and playthings. Maybe it’s time to learn from the wild ones who are searching for a way out of the trap. Advances in science and technology have given us ways to live longer, healthier lives, with a greatly reduced incidence (in the First World) of infectious diseases caused by poor sanitation. However, we may have made a mistake when we threw the barbarian out with his dirty bathwater. That bathwater probably contained everything from beneficial insects, to immunity-building bacteria, to inoculating dirt that could have protected us from asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. In some ways, our hypersanitized, consumer-product-driven culture has made us sick. Ancient barbarians may have lived short, brutal lives, but it is highly unlikely that they suffered from asthma, hay fever, diabetes, or ulcerative colitis. Nor were they beautifying themselves or their surroundings with products so full of hormones that they polluted the waters and forced male fish to fully explore their feminine side.

If you’ve lain awake nights anxious, worrying about how clean—or unclean—your house is, this book is for you. If you’ve ever wondered “Are these leftovers safe?,” this book is definitely for you; if you would like to spend less time cleaning your house and more time doing things that you really enjoy, this book will show you the shortcuts. If your dog is having inexplicable coughing fits that last most of the day, this book is for you. (Note: The dog may be reacting to that plug-in “air freshener.” Unplug it and throw it away.)

If your idea of a ripsnorting good time is to don heavy clothing, a hard hat, and safety goggles, and then run at high speed through pitch-black woods until you fall over, this book is really for you! If you pride yourself on your ability to eat bizarre foods; if your loyal gym socks stand up by themselves in a corner of your room until you need them again; if you only clean before company comes, and sometimes not even then, this book is for you. If you’ve ever tried to clean the mineral deposits out of your toilet bowl with a power grinder, this book is for you. If your cat refuses to enter your bathroom in order to use its litter box, this book is for you. If you are already a barbarian, this book will help you become a Green Barbarian. (Note to self: Would a paste of woad and turmeric turn the skin green? Investigate.)

Our home planet is, after all, planet Earth, not planet Just-cleaned-deodorized-disinfected-shined-bleached-and-polished. Life here can be a bit scary. It is frequently dirty, grimy, and gritty, and it is, and always has been, bacteria-laden. These are not sufficient reasons for letting the advertisers scare us into emptying our pockets and poisoning ourselves. Use what you have at hand in new and innovative ways. Take stock of what you have in abundance. Frustrate and thwart the powers that be. Use your mind, hands, and heart to make a better life for yourself and for those you love.

© 2010 Ellen Sandbeck|INTRODUCTION

Bravery



To believe yourself brave is to be brave; it is the one only essential thing.

—Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
When I began doing the research for this book, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what I would find. I could not have been more mistaken. I thought I understood that Big Business is only interested in money, not in improving their customers’ lives, but when I really began digging, I was deeply shocked by the astounding depth, breadth, and density of Big Business’s indifference not only to their customers’ well-being, but also to the common good and the survival of our biosphere. I hunted down leads for days, trying to make connections between maternal diet and birth defects, and was successful in making these connections more often than I had any right to expect. I was nauseated for a week while researching and writing about the health effects of some hair care products. I read scientific papers that made my hair stand on end, and my hair is thick, heavy, and a foot and a half long. I discovered the truth, and the truth is that Big Business does not give a damn about you or your family, and it never has.

Big Business does not care whether you are alive or dead, it just wants your money, and the main tool it uses to empty your wallet is fear. You may think you are buying that face cream, shampoo, deodorant, or fancy purse because it will make you more attractive and more desirable, but the real message underlying the advertising is that if you are not beautiful enough, or don’t smell good enough, you will be lonely. You may think you are buying that fabric softener, bleach, dish liquid, air freshener, floor wax, or “weed-and-feed” product because you love your family and want your home to be pleasant and attractive, but the advertisers’ underlying message is that if you don’t keep your home up, your neighbors will disapprove, and you and your entire family will be lonely outcasts. You may think you are buying that antibacterial aerosol air freshener because you want to do the best thing for your family, but the underlying message is really that if you don’t kill all the bacteria in your home, you will die.

Much modern advertising is pure fear-mongering. You can save your money and your health by educating yourself so you can distinguish between a real threat and an advertising ploy, and then you can act accordingly. Whenever someone tells you that you need to be afraid of something, and that person conveniently happens to sell the perfect product to defuse that threat, you can never go wrong by asking yourself whether the threat is real or whether it is just a sales pitch. Advertising has made us fearful, and fear is dangerous. I hope this book will help people pry themselves away from harmful products they don’t need and the environment can’t afford. I also hope readers will take away the message that people who are willing to dig deeply and in the right places can unearth information that can dramatically change their outlook.

I do not consider myself a particularly brave person, and I am generally quite sanguine when confronted by utter harmlessness. But I do try to keep myself well informed so I can be appropriately cautious when faced with real danger. This attitude obviously leaves me quite far from the realm of heroism, but I lead a fairly quiet life that rarely necessitates actual bravery.

I am not generally afraid of spiders (spider-bite fatalities in the United States in 1997: zero) nor am I frightened of most snakes (snakebite fatalities in the United States over a recent twenty-year period: 97). Even the West Nile virus does not particularly alarm me (161 deaths in the United States in 2006). During the panicky season of 2002–2003, I was quite optimistic about my chances of surviving SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed 801 people worldwide, and no one in the United States. And I’m usually not worried about shark attacks. Shark-bite fatalities in the United States average one per year or fewer, though in Minnesota, where I do most of my swimming, the annual number of shark attacks is generally zero. (Although in August 2004, an eleven-year-old boy who was wading in Island Lake needed eleven stitches after he was bitten by either a muskellunge or a northern pike.)

Though I am brave in the presence of spiders, I have a healthy fear of handguns (gun fatalities in the United States in 1998: 30,088). I am terrified by incapacitated drivers (drunk driving fatalities in the United States in 2004: 16,694) and by drivers who are talking on the phone, eating, smoking, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, and shaving and/or applying makeup while driving. (According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-misses involve drivers who were distracted within three seconds of the event.) And since we moved to our rural home in 2000, I have begun to flinch at the sight of an oncoming gravel truck. We have had four windshields cracked by projectiles ejected from uncovered gravel trucks; I reckon that every time we head toward town, we have approximately a 1 in 750 chance of a gravel strike.

But what really frightens me, in a lasting and permanent way, is the ongoing degradation, destruction, and poisoning of our environment. This fear is, unfortunately, rather all-encompassing, since environmental degradation, like greed, easily crosses geographical boundaries and political barriers. A study released by the World Health Organization in October 2006 estimates that air pollution causes the premature deaths of two million people every year. More than half of these victims are poor and live in developing countries, and up to 750,000 of those victims were Chinese. The Chinese government unsuccessfully attempted to suppress this dismal statistic by pressuring the World Bank to delete the mortality numbers from the formal draft of the 2007 report “Cost of Pollution in China.” As Shakespeare wrote, “in the end, truth will out.”

Before we climb onto our high horse to look down upon China’s pitifully polluted soil, water, and air, we should ask ourselves whose filthy lucre finances that pollution. It turns out that more than $232.5 billion worth of China’s environmentally costly goods were exported to the United States so that Americans could buy dirt cheap whaddyacallems. Unfortunately, cheap is not simply “1 a: purchasable below the going price or the real value,” it is also “3 a: of inferior quality or worth ... b: contemptible because of lack of any fine, lofty, or redeeming qualities” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition).

In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a final ban on lead-containing paint on toys and furniture in order to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in children. Between 1977 and the end of the twentieth century, there were a total of six recalls of toys due to excessive lead content. The largest was in 1994, when 996,547 individual boxes of Chinese-made coloring crayons plus 430 cases of the same types of crayons were recalled. The pace increased in 2003, when 1.4 million lead-based children’s necklaces from India were recalled. In 2005, several thousand lead-based children’s bracelets from China were recalled. In 2006, there were 5 lead-induced recalls of toys—4 of the recalls were of Chinese-made toys, and 1 was of toys from Hong Kong. So far, the biggest year for recalls of toxic children’s toys was 2007—by November, more than 5 million toys had been recalled because they contained enough lead to harm or kill children who sucked on or swallowed them.


“There is no safe dose of lead.”

—David Jacobs, former director, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Recent studies suggest that children’s IQs drop six points even when their blood-lead levels are well below the levels the CPSC considers too high. And adults should not be too complacent about their own risks from lead: Some studies suggest that a failing memory may not be a normal sign of aging, but rather a sign that one has ingested too much lead, and a study published by the American Heart Association in 2006 links high lead levels to an increased risk of stroke.

CREATIVE CONTAMINATION

The much-heralded Aqua Dots toy, one of the leading contenders for “gotta have it” toy of the 2007 Christmas season, was recalled in November 2007 because children who swallowed the little beads had fallen into comas. When swallowed, the water-soluble glue in the beads metabolized into gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), the “date rape” drug. (And who could possibly have predicted that children might swallow small, brightly colored beads?) An overdose of GHB can cause seizures, coma, or death. The Aqua Dots factory is located in Shenzhen, in the province of Guangdong in China. GHB’s precursor chemical, gamma-butyrolactone (GBL), is a solvent that is used in floor-cleaning products, paints, metal-etching solutions, batteries, nail polish, pesticides, and superglue removers. The Chinese manufacturer had substituted the toxic but cheap solvent for a much more expensive water-soluble glue that was in the toy’s original specifications.

WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

According to the U.S. State Department’s report on China, “respiratory and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China,” and “every day...

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