Category Archives: Sustainability

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Costa Rica “Gift of Happiness”, Part 1: Arrival in San Jose

We just got back from Costa Rica, thanks to an all-expense-paid trip from the Costa Rican Tourist Board through their Costa Rica’s Gift of Happiness Sweepstakes. It was a terrific and amazing trip in every way — providing adventure, relaxation, stunning natural beauty and diversity, warm and wonderful people, fascinating culture, inspiration about sustainability, and numerous opportunities for us all to practice our very middling Spanish.

Because our trip was scheduled to begin the day after Anna’s school year ended, we experienced a bit of a whirlwind leaving home. Our adventure began immediately, though, with an easy day of flying and arrival in “The Happiest Country on Earth“.

We truly knew we were in excellent, capable and caring hands when Carlos met us at the airport, in a Gift of Happiness shirt and bearing gift bags for each of us, along with a booklet of vouchers we would use throughout the week for hotels, tours and more.

Because we arrived late in the day, our first night was spent at the Ramada Plaza Herradura in San Jose, where the airport is located. It was a fine and vast hotel, with a Catalan-meets-Miami feel. We relaxed, sampled the Costa Rican liquor, Cacique (the brand) guaro, a strong sugar-cane-based, vodka-like liquor, and then a coconut-based cocktail called a Miguelito, while all-purpose international dance music pumped into the lounge.

The next morning we enjoyed the typical Costa Rican breakfast, Gallo Pinto, or rice and beans, along with sumptuous tropical fruits, grilled vegetables and dark bread. We marveled at our good fortune to have landed in this lovely, exotic country for a week and were full and smiling when Carlos came by in the Gift of Happiness van to take us to what he promised would be a very special place.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Gift of Happiness adventure.


Coffee Roasting and Cupping with Highwire

We’re such fans of coffee in our house that when the opportunity came to attend a Coffee Roasting and Cupping at Highwire Coffee Roasters in Emeryville, CA, hosted by Slow Food East Bay, caffeinated or not, we jumped at it.

About a dozen people gathered over coffee and pastries at metal tables in a small industrial warehouse to learn a bit about the artisan company, which was started in 2011 by three friends with a shared passion for good coffee and talents ranging from evaluating, roasting, cupping and blending beans and coffees to retail and marketing, business and education. (Eric, Robert and Rich, below).

Highwire receives coffee beans from all over the world, based on a constantly shifting equation of availability, price and taste.

Eric is the master roaster, and he demonstrated his expertise and quality control, through a number of steps in the 15-minute roasting process — removing small amounts of beans from the oven during roasting to look, smell, feel, and ultimately decide when to release the beans from the oven to let them cool down. This is a process that he usually does alone and quietly, as it takes a great deal of  concentration.

This mesmerizing machine moves and fans the beans to help them cool after roasting.

Once the coffee was roasted, we went into the cupping room, where the Highwire folks routinely evaluate the various coffees.

We learned what a coffee taster looks for in a good cup, such as aroma, acidity, body, balance and flavor, all of which serve to bring out the subtle flavors and profiles that bespeak the region where the coffee was grown and harvested. Highwire favors a fairly light roast because, as they explained, once coffee is dark-roasted, one begins to taste the roast taste (which can have caramel or other notes), as opposed to the subtle taste of the various beans.

We each tasted three types of coffee – Sigri Estate from Papua New Guinea, Tano Batak from Sumatra, and Santa Isabel from Guatemala — using the cupping method of letting boiled water settle over the fine grounds and then tasting a small amount with a spoon. The fresh-ground coffee, drank this way, was quite mellow in flavor, even as its caffeine packed a punch (both are characteristic of lighter roasts.)

After smelling and tasting each, my favorite coffee kept changing. The Sigri Estate was slightly spicy, the Tano Batak and the Santa Isabel slightly fruity and sweet. The Tano Batak had some earth notes that we were told are characteristic of coffee from Sumatra. If I had to pick, that one would have been my favorite. Michael seemed to prefer the Santa Isabel.

It was an educational and fulfilling morning. We even left with 2 pounds each of Santa Isabel coffee and San Rafael coffee from Guatemala. And the coffee that Eric roasted in demonstration that morning? Because he had been talking through the roast, he deemed it not good enough for resale.

Photos: Highwire Coffee, Susan Sachs Lipman, Michael Lipman

New Book: Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play

Parent and play advocate Mike Lanza is not one to move into a new neighborhood and hope for the best for his kids. The author of the new book Playborhood describes in great detail his philosophy and the elbow-grease steps he undertook to create a life for his kids, and those who live in proximity, that more closely mirrors the kind of playful, neighborhood-based childhood kids had 30-40 years ago than the sedentary, living-room-based one that many have today.

Lanza accomplishes this with great humor and plenty of vivid examples of people reclaiming their community spaces for play and gathering, from inner city Bronx, to an apartment-complex courtyard in CA, to a formerly faceless intersection in Portland, OR. As such, his can-do spirit is not only infectious, but is backed up with specific how-tos, so a reader could turn a driveway into a giant game board, or a yard into a nature or other playscape where kids will want to come play. A self-proclaimed neighborhood play evangelist, Lanza and his wife and three sons are walking the walk (and playing the play), and clearly influencing others to come along and have fun.

Playborhood also explores the larger issues of what makes a community work, from home and neighborhood design (think front porches and calm streets, for starters) to human behavior, such as having block parties and community dinners, and giving kids a little room to roam.

Lanza has created a terrific and heartfelt blueprint that should result in safer neighborhoods, more joyous and cohesive families and communities and, ultimately, more kids getting out to play.

Photos: Playborhood

See CHIMPANZEE, Save Chimpanzees

Did you know that you can help the world’s chimpanzee population simply by seeing a movie? The movie, Chimpanzee, which opens Friday, highlights the plight of chimpanzees, which are gravely endangered — 100 years ago, roughly 1 million chimpanzees lived in the lush rainforests of equatorial Africa. Today, only 1/10 of them remain, primarily due to habitat loss and illegal hunting. African ape populations are expected to decline by an additional 80% in the next 30-40 years.

Disney and Disneynature have teamed with the Jane Goodall Institute to bring this story to life, which is told through a curious and entertaining young chimp named Oscar and his triumphs and family bonds.

Disney founder Walt Disney was a pioneer in wildlife filmmaking, and Disneynature continues to bring the world’s top nature filmmakers together to share wildlife stories in the hopes of inspiring and educating people about nature.

The Jane Goodall Institute has been working in Africa for almost 35 years and developed out of the research begun by Dr. Goodall in 1960. Said Dr. Jane Goodall:

Together, we can truly make a difference and are thrilled to have Disneynature join our efforts to protect chimpanzee habitats, care for orphaned chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo and educate a new generation of young people and connect them to nature

Here’s where you come in:

For every moviegoer who sees Chimpanzee during the film’s opening week (April 20-26, 2012), Disneynature will make a donation to JGI through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund in order to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, now and into the future.

Will you see Chimpanzee opening week? I will! Take the pledge by leaving a comment here.

Dr. Jane Goodall Photo: Stuart Clarke

Chimpanzee Photo: Disney

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count

I am very excited about the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place Friday-Monday, February 17-20, all over North America. Anyone can participate, even if you only have 15 minutes and are completely new to birding.

Here’s how it works: You can pick a spot to go watch birds (a backyard, a park, a trail, a marsh, or anywhere you think birds might be) or you can join an organized event. You can download a very thorough check list of birds that are likely to be seen in your area. You record the birds that you see and then go home and either send in your checklist or enter the names and numbers in online.

There are lots more tips about counting and recording birds, tricky identifications, binoculars, and much more on BirdSource’s Great Backyard Bird Count page. The site also features recordings of bird sounds and more activities for kids.

The All About Birds site has beautiful photos and information that can help you identify birds. These are the top 10 birds that were reported during the count last year.

So, why count birds in the first place, and why now? The Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Audubon Society and others use the information from the annual February count to track the health of various bird species over time and, in some cases, take steps to protect them. Mid-February has proven a good time to count, as it occurs just before the major Spring migrations. If you find you like counting, you can actually help year-round on various projects.

Last year more than 11,400,00 individual birds were reported by more than 92,000 people. This year you could be part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Read about and see pictures of the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count.
Get ideas for other great Citizen Science projects.

Photos: Painted Bunting and Green Honeycreeper by Doug Janson, Flame Colored Tanager by Jerry Oldenettel, Blue Jay: Creative Commons, Northern Spotted Owl by Susan Sachs Lipman

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Green Gift Wrapping

With all this attention to green holiday gifts, it seemed time to address the wrapping.

The practice of wrapping gifts in paper began modestly enough, as people around the world utilized cloth, brown paper, even wallpaper, to disguise their gifts. Hallmark is credited with creating the current gift-wrap industry, which earth911 tells us accounts for as much as half of the 85 million tons of paper products Americans consume every year. Wrapping paper and shopping bags alone account for about 4 million tons of trash annually in the U.S., and the vast majority of that is generated during the holiday season. In addition, they note that the act of recycling wrapping paper presents more challenges than we might think.

Now, the good news: There are lots of alternative wrapping ideas worth exploring, many of which are as creative and fun (some perhaps more so) than traditional wrapping.

Green Wrapping Ideas

Furoshiki — This long-time Japanese practice of wrapping gifts in cloths. Presents are wrapped in lovely fabrics, ranging from traditional Japanese fabrics and designs to silk, cotton and designs that are modern and retro, all of which can be used over and over. The wrappings and decorations themselves can also be quite elaborate and pretty. This method requires no cutting, only wrapping and knotting, so that it is also practical and sturdy. You may have scrap fabric you can wrap with at home. This Furoshiki site has lots of great fabrics to choose from, in a variety of prices, including fabrics by San Francisco design studio, Chewing the Cud.

This video provides a fantastic Furoshiki tutuorial (thank you to Recycle Now). Once you learn this technique, it’s very easy to do. (Click on “Furoshiki gift wrapping”):

Furoshiki gift wrapping from RecycleNow on Vimeo.

The Fabric Society also offers wonderful inspiration, tips and fabric for wrapping with furoshiki.

Clothing – This is really thinking outside the box — why not wrap a present in a fun recycled shirt?

Recycled Paper Items – Fun wrappings can be made from old paper maps, Sunday comic pages, sheet music or tissue sewing patterns. Feeling especially artistic? Decorate paper bags, or easel or other artist paper that you already have on hand. Color, paint, stamp, sticker, create collages from other papers or magazine pictures, dip old cookie cutters in paint to create a unique stamp, or create a decorative paint roller: Glue yarn or string onto a coffee or other can in striped or zig-zag patterns, let dry, paint the string, and roll the wet-painted can onto the paper.

Reusable Bags – If you don’t want to go the wrapping route, there’s still time in this holiday season to buy (or perhaps even make) reusable bags. These fabric bags from Lucky Crow are super-cute and come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. They really solve the problem of wanting to use recyclable wrapping materials, without going the route of a grocery-supplied bag. They work for party favors, too. The Portland, OR-based company also sells its bags in stores. Check their web site for details.

Just as with the wrapping, there’s no need to buy new gift tags. Make your own by cutting rectangles of construction paper and folding them in half. Decorate with paint, stickers, stamps, drawings, glitter, or other items you have on hand. You can also cut up from recycled holiday cards from years past. Tape to the gift or punch a small hole in one corner and tie on with ribbon.

You might also like these Green Holiday Gifts:

Gifts that Help Others
Butterfly Girl Dolls
Homemade Cookies
Root Viewer Garden Kit

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Katorisi, Philip Friedman/Studio D (three photos), Lucky Crow


I Won a Costa Rica Gift of Happiness!

What do you do when, out of the blue, you get an e-mail, inviting you and your family to visit the country the Happy Planet Index has rated Number One in national happiness? When the country is Costa Rica, you immediately picture lush rainforests, gleaming and growing under a canopy of bird calls and life, miles of gorgeous coastal beaches, and, yes, happy people in a mellow, ecologically sustainable, place. I’d heard about “pura vida”, the phrase that denotes the Costa Rican spirit, a “bounty of life”. People I’ve known who have spent time in Costa Rica tell me they can’t wait to return – for the natural beauty, spirit, adventure experiences, and ease.

I read and re-read the email from the Costa Rican Tourist Board I didn’t tell anyone about it or answer right away. The offer came because of my Slow Family blog readership and the alignment the Board felt with the blog’s message of slowing down and enjoying life with family and community. After all, the spokescreature for the Costa Rica’s Gift of Happiness Sweepstakes, which my prize is a part of, is a relaxed and happy sloth.

So many “offers” come by email and phone that I had trouble believing this one. I googled “Gift of Happiness”, liked the Gift of Happiness Facebook page, and made a tentative call to the number on the email, where a very friendly person on the other end of the phone told me that the trip was part of the Costa Rica’s Gift of Happiness program, which is giving away $1,000,000 worth of trips in the next few months (a trip each weekday) to help North Americans experience Costa Rica’s spirit.

The consultant detailed our (!) trip, one of six themed experiences — the 8-day, 7-night Family Happiness package, in which our whole family would stay in three CST-rated (Certification for Sustainable Tourism) hotels in three distinct regions in Costa Rica (Sarapuiqi, Monteverde and Matapalo Beach). Transportation and all kinds of fun family side trips and adventures, from visiting coffee plantations to walking on hanging bridges over the Cloud Forest, would be included. All so we could experience our own Costa Rican “pura vida”, in the happiest place on Earth.

What does one say to that? YES!

Things moved quickly. Family members checked calendars and watched a video of Anderson Cooper sending a surprised pair of honeymooners on their own Gift of Happiness (the Romantic Happiness package, no doubt), just to be extra, super sure this thing was real. I was sent a beautiful wooden certificate for the trip and put in touch with a travel consultant.

The trip is a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to visit Costa Rica with my family. And now we’re going! I will be sure to blog all about our adventures.

Read what another happy winner, Lindsay at Eco-Chick Escapes, writes about her trip and the great things she discovered about Costa Rica’s happiness rates and sustainable practices.

Read more about the Happy Planet Index, which measures countries based on a  matrix of environmental impact and physical and psychological well-being to illustrate that high levels of resource consumption do not reliably produce high levels of well-being. (In other words, simplifying can lead to happiness.)

Enter to win your own Costa Rica’s Gift of Happiness trip by “liking” the Gift of Happiness Facebook page.

Photos: Costa Rican Tourist Board, Lipman Family

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Gifts That Help Others

Updated December 21, 2012

Last year, my family gave me a cow for my birthday. I never got to see it, but it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. The cow helped its recipient family, which may be anywhere on the globe, in multiple ways. Milk from the cow offered nutrition to the family and neighbors and was sold to support the family and buy needed food and supplies for a larger circle. Calves from the cow were given or sold to others in the town or village, so that they too could be nourished and supported. The cow was bought through Heifer International, which offers gifts of sheep, goats, chickens, pigs and other animals and resources, to help people worldwide achieve hunger relief, self-sufficiency and income by becoming trained in farming skills. My family chose the cow for me because it seemed the most directly nourishing. I was extremely pleased and moved to be part of such a beautiful and empowering gift from an organization that has made a big impact using a simple model.

Read more stories about Heifer. They offer gifts at many levels and opportunities to get involved.

Looking for other groups to support with a gift? There are a great many organizations doing wonderful work. The following are just a few. Think about the recipient and something that would have meaning for him or her. (Please send your suggestions for more, especially those outside the U.S., so we can learn about them.) Also be sure to take these steps to research any group before donating:

Here are some organizations that have crossed my radar and are doing good work.

Children & Nature Network

Full disclosure: I work for these folks. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe heartily in their mission of building an international movement to connect all children, their families and communities to nature. In an age when many children are deprived of school recess, let alone nearby yards, parks and woods, it seems essential for their future physical, psychological and spiritual health, and the health of the planet, that we support those working to reconnect children and people with the green spaces around them. C&NN does this by providing the latest research and resources to parents, teachers, urban and playground planners, health care professionals, nature professionals, and those working at the grassroots level to enact change.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

An incredible number of children, particularly those at risk, cite the lack of a caring adult in their lives. For more than 100 years, BBBS has been providing and supporting long-term, caring adult mentors to youth ages 6-18, in communities across the U.S. The carefully administered one-on-one relationships between the “Bigs” and the “Littles” has changed many lives, in terms of confidence and personal and academic achievement.

First Book

First Book provides access to new books for children in need, sometimes the first book a child will ever have. Expanded to include online content and other educational resources, First Book has distributed more than 85 million books and materials to programs and schools serving children from low-income families throughout the U.S. and Canada. Judging by its ratings, it’s an exceptionally well-run non-profit with an admirable track record and goal.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Many historic homes and sites, neighborhood schools and public lands are in danger of being lost forever to development. Their loss can affect more than aesthetics and character — communities and livelihoods, resources and aspects of America’s rural and cultural heritage are destroyed as well. The THP brings awareness and considerable public-policy muscle to saving endangered sites. The group also works to rebuild neighborhoods after natural disasters and to revitalize communities using smart growth and sustainable practices.

American Farmland Trust

About an acre of American farmland is lost every minute. Family farms are in grave danger, from factors ranging from corporate farming to unsustainable development that results in the paving over of farms for roads, housing tracts and malls. American Farmland Trust works with legislators, communities and farmers to protect America’s farm and ranch land; promote environmentally sound farming practices, clean air and water, and a healthy food supply; and ensure an economically sustainable future for farmers and ranchers.

Your or Recipient’s Local Land Trust

Many areas have land trusts, which work to purchase and preserve land for the enjoyment, recreation, habitat preservation or agricultural use of future generations. A donation to a local land trust makes a wonderful and thoughtful gift. The Land Trust Alliance has a list of accredited land trusts.

National Wildlife Federation

NWF works to protect wildlife and wild spaces in the U.S., for everyone’s enjoyment and health. They are actively working at the public policy level to expand clean energy, reduce our dependence on oil, and improve our relationship to the natural world through areas like health and urban planning. They provide resources and education about the many ways families can enjoy nature, through programs like their popular Certified Wildlife Habitat, which allows people to nurture and learn about animals and the ecosystem in their own backyards.

Teens Turning Green

Started by students a few years ago, TTG has grown into a national movement devoted to education and advocacy about environmentally and socially responsible choices for individuals, schools, and communities. The group promotes global sustainability by identifying and working to eliminate toxins that threaten public and environmental health. At the same time, it empowers young women and men to lead and advocate.

Looking for more?

My Slow Family Resource List offers still more wonderful groups who are working to help create a rich, just and sustainable world for children, families and communities, such as The Center for Ecoliteracy, Edible Schoolyard, the National Park Trust and many more.

This list of 25 Top Children’s Charities includes many well-known ones and some you may not know, that I think are doing great work, including KaBOOM!, CASA, Children’s Defense Fund and Locks of Love.

The Good Human lists wonderful Green Charities who are doing great work, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Earth Justice, The National Resources Defense Council, and The Center for a New American Dream.

Mother Nature Network offers a list of Green Charities that features Earth Island Institute, The Sierra Club Foundation, the California State Parks Foundation, which desperately needs our help this year to prevent park closures, and the only group to make both “Green” lists, The Nature Conservancy.

And, now you can even give the gift of giving! I recently learned about Charity Checks, which allows you to order blank checks for recipients or even for your own family. Recipients receive checks in the denominations of your choice, and then they get to choose their own charities. The entire face value of the check goes to that charity. No money goes back to Charity Checks. This unique organization was the brain-child of Lisa Sonne and Victor Dorff. Not only is the structure of their organization highly unusual (a charity whose sole purpose is to funnel funds to other charities), it can have a powerful and tangible impact on families and children. Explains Lisa Sonne in Huffington Post:

You really get to watch the kid think about something that never has occurred to him or her before. There’s a certain empowerment there. It’s one thing to say, ‘What do you care about?’ when it’s abstract. But if you say to a kid, ‘Okay, here’s $25. Do you want to save a puppy’s life? Feed a hungry person? Buy a book for the library?’ Suddenly, the kids find themselves thinking about things they never thought about before.

Gifts that help others work in so many profound ways. They are truly the ultimate gifts.

Friesian Holstein Photo: Keith Weller. Bear Photo: Charity Checks.
Other photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Butterfly Girl Dolls

I adore these Butterfly Girl Dolls from the Canadian company, Little Humbugs. Each of the cute 12″ plush dolls comes snuggled inside a chrysalis, the way a real butterfly is. It’s a great idea — The chrysalis provides further play, teaches about nature, and doubles as the dolls’ packaging as a way to cut down on waste. Each doll is cutely designed in a color-coordinated outfit and bright wings, and each has a nature-inspired story — Jasmine is a protector of nature, making sure animals and plants are safe; Chloe is a gardener, growing beautiful and healthy things in her organic garden; Lucy is a bird keeper, nurturing and spending time with her feathered friends; Nika is a gemstone collector, making beautiful things with found objects.

There’s even an eco superhero for boys, Flint the Dragonfly Boy, who is strong, mischeivous and courageous.

Little Humbugs also offers beautiful Butterfly Girl books, custom prints and colorful fair-trade felt beads.

Little Humbugs and Butterfly Girls are the creation of children’s book author and illustrator, Marghanita Hughes. Marghanita is passionate about connecting children to nature and encouraging them to enjoy and steward the Earth, as well as appreciate its magic. This is easily apparent in all she does, from creating a company and products that use resources consciously to share a gentle message about the Earth, to exploring the wonders of the outdoors with groups of young children through a series of nature workshops, videos and books. The Butterfly and Dragonfly dolls are lovely, made with heart, fun to play with, and devoid of the consumerist trappings that similar plush dolls include.

Photo: Little Humbugs

My criteria for a green holiday gift? One that :

Promotes nature play or care of the earth
Uses all or mostly natural ingredients
Fosters observation and/or open-ended active and creative play
Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping
Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Got any suggestions? Send them my way!

Other Green Holiday Gifts:
Homemade Cookies
Root Viewer Garden Kit

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Root Viewer Garden Kit

I recently saw this wonderful toy and immediately got very excited about it. The Root Viewer Garden, from Toysmith, allows you to see what’s happening underground when you grow root vegetables like carrots, onions, radishes, and beets. And, best, it contains everything you need to grow your own root veggies and watch the show: a wooden tube holder; three 5 1/2” plastic tubes; growing medium; carrots, onion and radish seeds; instructions; and a journal for recording their progress from sprouting to harvest.

I’ve forced flower bulbs before, by growing bulbs in a water-filled bulb-forcing vase, but I think growing root vegetables in the Root Viewer’s tubes is far more visual, and therefore rewarding, for kids. With root vegetables, all the action is normally underground! Plus, there’s something about growing a food and learning about that process that is educational and stays with one for life.

Find Root Viewer Gardens at Home Training Tools or Wild Bird & Gifts. Or, make your own and spend time this holiday season enjoying it.

You’ll need:

Clear plastic cups, or bottles or jars
Seeds and dirt

Fill containers most of the way with dirt.
Plant root vegetables or quick-sprouting seeds, like beans, peas, lettuce, radishes, bachelor’s buttons, Sweet Alyssum, or Sweet William, close to one side, one or two per cup.
Place containers in the sun or on a sunny windowsill and water gently.
Watch as roots form and plants sprout.

My criteria for a green holiday gift? One that :

Promotes nature play or care of the earth
Uses all or mostly natural ingredients
Fosters observation and/or open-ended active and creative play
Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping
Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Got any suggestions? Send them my way!

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