Friday 24 June 2011


This is my response to this post on decision-making from one of my favourite 'green' blogs, the Green Phone Booth. I'm publishing it here as well as it has stuff in it that I've been wanting to put here about how we decide what's important to us - plus I spent so much time on it that it's just about killed me and I didn't want to waste it!

I hear you!

Around 8 years ago, I developed a neurological condition that means I have very little energy.  I'm literally only out of bed for 3 hours per day max.  The rest of the time I'm lying on my back, doing more or less nothing.  Almost everything* I do in a day - from reading blogs and writing emails to eating and showering - has to fit into those three hours. 
*I can push it a bit on reading blogs and emails, and sometimes even on writing emails and blog posts, but not much and not often. I pushed it a fair bit to write this ;-)

Like you, I'm a details person: I enjoy researching things before I make my choices.  But I've had to learn to make that research effort count.  Maybe what I've learned can help you?

You ask: Is our attention to detail impeding our green progress?

I think what gets in the way is not so much our attention to detail but our not having a clear enough idea of what 'green progress' would look like. I agree that picking battles is important, and it makes sense to work harder on decisions that are likely to have a frequent or ongoing impact.  But I think it's also really important to spell out your over-arching goal(s) so you have a yardstick to determine what is the 'right' choice you.

"Frugal, practical and eco-conscious" is a start, but if you refined it a bit more, then you'd know your own answer to: "is it more important to choose a bag that prevents waste from hitting the landfill or to find a bag that is biodegradable?"

Easily the best example of someone who's done this in the green blogosphere is Beth Terry .  Her over-arching goal is 'no plastic', and every decision she makes gets weighed up against that decision.  If she needed to get shopping bags, any bag that was made out of plastic or packaged in plastic wouldn't even be considered.  I suspect that she'd rapidly be left with very few options to angst over and the decision would be pretty easy!

My husband and I haven't (yet) refined our big goal down to such a simple statement, but we're working on it.  Right now it's a bit of a mouthful:
To live in such a way that everyone on the planet could live just like us and keep on doing so for the next few centuries without anything stopping them.

That big goal has then translated into smaller goals.  For example, to achieve it we have to get down to only using our fair share of physical resources and only emitting our fair share of the amount of greenhouse gases the planet can absorb without warming.  We've worked out what these are for various resources and are gradually working to reduce our use/emissions where we're over that target.  It's also translated into goals with respect to other issues, too - e.g. people couldn't live like us if they were being kept as slaves on a cocoa plantation, so we will only buy fair trade cocoa.

Working out these goals has been a heap of work: it's taken a vast amount of research and thought.  And reaching our targets is very much on ongoing project.  However, it's work that really pays off.  We don't go round in circles when faced with multiple options as we can generally work out fairly easily which one will help us towards our goals the most.  It's also very satisfying having a yardstick to measure our progress by :-)

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

--Heather :-)

PS, if you are interested, you can read about our greenhouse gas emissions targets and how we're doing here and here, and about some of our other environmental goals here.  As part of this we have developed a spreadsheet for auditing our household CO2 emissions in much more detail than any internet calculator we have found.  You can download it from here if you're interested.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Feeling alive!

Recently I've been struggling: it's been hard to be patient and I've been having to really watch that I don't snap at people.  I've also been very jealous of anything that took Martin away from me (i.e. most things) and have felt irrationally neglected.

I've mostly responded by being cross with myself and trying to be less selfish.  However, the feelings of jealousy eventually led me to ask Martin if we could keep Queen's Birthday weekend (two weeks ago, and a holiday weekend here in New Zealand) as a weekend just for us.

After a lovely weekend of absolutely no walking (for me) and lots of baths, back rubs, talking, exploring, eating good food and general decadence I feel like I've had a respite weekend for a change.  I feel alive like I haven't in ages and the world is a much more copeable place :-)

Turned out I didn't need discipline to make me 'nice': I tried that, but it was decadence and a break from my normal routines that did the trick :-)  Apparently, sometimes what grumpy people really need is a hug!

Being included

The other day a friend dropped by to say hello to me before the others arrived for a meeting at our house.  He told me about stuff going on at his work.  I asked a few questions to keep him going.  As he started to run out of stuff to say, I told a funny story - one that was tenuously related and that I'd told many times before.  He smiled and then the room fell silent.  I came up with another tenuously-related anecdote.  Painfully aware I wasn't 'keeping my end up' in the conversation, I tried to tell him about some stuff I'd been thinking about that I knew would interest him.  I didn't make a lot of sense, and made less sense as I went on.  I started to panic.  Finally, the last person showed up at the door and my friend was called through to his meeting.

I felt like crying.  I wanted to interact with my friend - to be included - but my fuddled head had made that impossible.

As I pondered it over the next few days, though, I realised something.  My fuddled head had made it impossible for me to communicate new and interesting ideas to my friend, but those worn old anecdotes had enabled me to be included: at least as far as I let them  They gave me something to say so the flow of conversation wasn't stalled.  Hopefully I'll judge them less harshly the next time they flow from my mouth :-)

I think I might also have stumbled upon why the stereotypical older person tells the same old stories again and again to anyone who'll listen...

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Making yoghurt

This post is a bit different from what you'll generally find on this blog.  It's my response to a discussion on Beth Terry's Show us your plastic trash! challenge.

I make yoghurt roughly once a week.  I like it and it's an easy way to get the extra calcium I need (I have to eat a lot of calcium to prevent my bones from 'demineralising' unduly from underuse).  It also provides one of my twice-daily protein snacks: unusually for a Westerner, I have to work moderately hard to get sufficient protein in my diet as I eat so few calories.  I particularly enjoy a bowl of thick creamy yoghurt topped with a swirl of manuka honey and a sprinkling of milk masala :-)

Over the years I've realised that a lot of people have trouble keeping their yoghurt culture alive batch after batch.  I've been able to use the same culture for around five years now and I believe that the key to doing so is being really careful to keep other bugs1 out of your yoghurt.  In other words, make sure that you use:
  1. Yoghurt starter that has no other bugs in it other than the actual yoghurt bacteria;
  2. Milk that has no bugs in it at all;
  3. A container for the yoghurt to grow in that has no bugs in it at all.
If you get a few bugs contaminating your yoghurt you won't know about it right away.  Over time, however, those unwanted bacteria will multiply and start to take over from the yoghurt-making bacteria, causing your culture to 'weaken'.

It is also important to keep your yoghurt sufficiently warm for sufficiently long, i.e. at 40-45°C/110-120°F for around 5-14 hours.2  The longer your milk/starter mix stays warm, the thicker the yoghurt will become until it eventually separates out into curds and whey.  I have always kept mine warm in a wide-mouthed thermos flask such as you might use for soup or stew.  Other people use a jar placed somewhere well-insulated such as inside a chilly bin or the microwave, or placed somewhere with very gentle heating such as in a crockpot set to 'low' or an oven with only the light on.

So, back to the three things you need to be careful of in order to keep unwanted bugs out of your yoghurt.

1. A starter with no other bugs in it.
When your yoghurt has just been made (or before you first open the container, for bought yoghurt) it only has yoghurt bugs in it.  You need to take out any yoghurt you want to use as a starter at this point, i.e. before you transfer your yoghurt to another container, eat any of it or in any way disturb it.

You also need to remove your starter with a clean spoon that hasn't been used for anything else since it was last washed and hasn't been lying around on the bench picking up who knows what.

Lastly you have to make sure any yoghurt you set aside to use as a starter doesn't come into contact with any other bugs.  I presume that in the 'old days' they did this by putting the starter straight into a clean container and adding more milk to it right away.  That was back when yoghurt was mostly seen as a way of keeping milk edible for a few days when they didn't have refrigeration.

I have a perfectly good fridge and absolutely no desire to make yoghurt every day ;-) so I freeze my starter instead.  I spoon yoghurt straight from the container it was made in into a clean icecube tray and freeze it.  Whenever I want to make yoghurt I just take a cube of frozen yoghurt out of the freezer and add it straight to my warm milk (there's no need to thaw it out before using it).  When I'm down to my second-to-last icecube I freeze some more starter culture from the yoghurt made with that icecube.  That way I'm not caught short if I overheat or contaminate the yoghurt made from my last icecube.  Ideally you use at least 20mL of yoghurt to make a litre (or quart) of yoghurt so you may need more than one icecube per batch depending on the size of your container and the size of your icecubes.  A little too much starter is much better than not enough.

If you don't want to freeze your starter then you'll need to be very careful to keep it uncontaminated until you're ready to use it.  I've only very occasionally done this so I don't have much experience here.  In general you need to spoon the first of each batch of yoghurt into a very clean container with a tight lid and store that out of the way in a cool part of your fridge until you make the next batch.  You shouldn't leave yoghurt culture in the fridge for much more than a week before using it as various bugs will gradually find their way into it no matter how careful you are.

2. Milk that has no bugs in it at all
I expect that in the 'old days' yoghurt was made immediately after milking so bacteria in the milk wasn't really a problem.  They would barely even have had to warm the milk.  These days, however, most of us use milk that's a little less fresh than that and has at least a few bacteria lurking in it.  These would multiply rapidly in the warm conditions we use to make yoghurt so the milk must first be heated almost to boiling (above 85°C/185°F) and kept that hot for at least 10 minutes to destroy them.  Any bacteria likely to be found in your milk are now dead and you can add your starter as soon as the milk has cooled down enough (it needs to be no more than 45°C/120°F: if you can keep your little finger in it for at least 10 seconds then it should be fine).

These days my various physical restrictions make this too hard so I use milk powder instead because it has many fewer bacteria than fresh milk.  I simply dissolve the powder in cold water, heat it to 45°C/120°F and add my starter.

In the past I have also used a previously unopened carton of UHT milk instead of standard 'fresh' milk.  The UHT process has already killed all the bugs in the milk (that's why it keeps so long) so you only need to heat it to 45°C/120°F and add your starter.

3. A container that has no bugs in it at all
You must grow your yoghurt in a really clean container with a decent lid.  If your container is hard to get really clean with normal washing then just fill it with boiling water and set the lid on top while you prepare your milk (don't screw the lid down as a vacuum will form inside the container and the lid will be almost impossible to remove!).  The boiling water will also preheat your container and help your milk to stay at the right temperature a bit longer than it otherwise would, which is especially useful if you're using a lid with a less than perfect seal.  When your milk is warm simply tip out the boiling water and pour in the milk and your yoghurt starter.

Yummy, thick yoghurt
One final thought: if you want your yoghurt to be as thick as commercial yoghurt then you'll probably need to thicken it a bit no matter how long you keep it warm.  Commercial yoghurt is practically always thickened, either by adding thickeners such as gelatine or by concentrating it.  I always go for concentrating, either by concentrating the milk before making the yoghurt or by concentrating the yoghurt itself.

If you make your yoghurt with milk powder then you can simply make concentrated milk by using more milk powder than it says on the packet. I like to use nearly double-strength milk, i.e. 1 1/2 cups of milk powder per litre instead of the recommended 4/5 of a cup.  Yoghurt made this way comes out quite solid but if you give the container of yoghurt a bit of a shake after it's set then it transforms into lovely creamy yoghurt.  I did indeed find this out by dropping a container of yoghurt one day!  I expect you could also make nice thick yoghurt with unsweetened condensed or evaporated milk but I've never tried this myself.

If you make your yoghurt with actual milk and want a thicker yoghurt you will need to concentrate the finished yoghurt itself, i.e. drain off some of the yellowy whey.  I find the following method works well:
1. put a seive over a bowl and cover it with a fine-mesh cloth (I use cheesecloth or an ironed hankie);
2. divide your batch of yoghurt into two roughly equal portions;
3. pour/spoon one portion of your yoghurt onto the cloth on the seive;
4. put the other portion of your yoghurt into the container you want to keep your yoghurt in;
5. put both lots of yoghurt into the fridge overnight;
6. the next day, using a fork, blend the stiff white 'yoghurt cheese' left on the cloth into the unseparated yoghurt you put into your container to thicken it (you can also use a blender or food processor for this).

When you do this, don't throw away the whey from the bowl!  It makes a great substitute for milk in any baking and acid-loving plants also appreciate a drink of it from time to time. I like a drink of it, too :-)  In Switzerland, carbonated, sweetened, thinned-down whey is a very popular soft drink!  Who'd have thunk it?  I was quite sure I'd misunderstood something when someone explained to me what 'Rivella' was made of. I came to like it so much that I've even made a few (unsuccessful) attempts to concoct something similar now I'm back in New Zealand.

That's all I can think of, but I'm happy to answer any questions you may have.

Happy yoghurt making!

1 I suggest a particular set of ways to keep unwanted bugs at bay: if they don't suit your situation then maybe you can work out others.  You need to bear in mind that the bacteria most likely to be in your kitchen and in your milk:
a. won't survive normal dishwashing with soap or detergent;
b. generally won't survive being dried out and certainly can't multiply in a dry place;
c. need warmth, food and water in order to grow and multiply;
d. are very good at finding what they need, even if it's inside a closed container;
e. can live no more than a few minutes at temperatures hotter than 80°C/175°F;
f. multiply more slowly the colder they are (i.e. slowly in the fridge and barely at all in the freezer).

2When I make yoghurt in a pre-heated thermos flask I find it's reasonably thick after about 5-6 hours and even better if it's left overnight.  At the moment I'm making my yoghurt in an Easiyo thermos and leaving it for 18 hours to set.  Yoghurt will always take a bit longer to form in an Easiyo thermos than a regular thermos.  An Easiyo thermos system consists of a container that you fill with cold milk and a reservoir that you fill with boiling water.  The yoghurt culture only starts to grow once the heat from the water has warmed the milk to at least 40°C/110°F and this takes a bit of time.

Friday 10 June 2011

God speaks through the Bible

While I have questions as to just what the Bible is, one thing I am sure of is that God speaks to people through it.  I am grateful to live in an age and a country where Bibles are readily available to me and to practically everyone I know.  I believe that anyone who reads the Bible carefully and in its entirety will meet God in its pages and will be challenged to respond to Him.

I also believe that God uses the Bible to critique (and judge) the way we live.  In a society where Bibles are freely available and are being read, people can only keep on claiming wrong is right for a limited time: eventually the truth will out!

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to an episode of Outlook (the BBC World Service's daily 'human interest' show) that I had downloaded earlier.  One of the stories* was of Joan Mulholland, one of the many 'freedom riders' who were part of the US civil rights struggle.  She told how, as a kid, she had ventured into the black part of town.  She was shocked by the primitive conditions she found there because she had been taught at Sunday School to love her neighbour as herself.  She saw what her elders hadn't noticed: that her neighbours included black people and that it wasn't loving to treat them so badly.  When she grew up she worked to change the system that she realised was at odds with the teaching of the Bible.

* this link will only work till the end of June 2011

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Older people

Everyone knows that our youth are our future.  It's seen as madness for any social group (from the local stamp club to the largest nation on Earth) to ignore or exclude them.  But what about old people?  While we generally care about them we don't squander many resources on them: everyone (including the elderly themselves) knows that they would be better spent on the youth.

But is that how God sees it?  This paper made me think maybe not.  It's one of the papers from the International Conference for Ageing and Spirituality 2009 hosted on the website of the Selwyn Centre for Ageing and Spirituality (I can't remember how I came across them but their whole site is well worth a look).

I find myself currently asking one question rather a lot: "do I think/do that because of a Biblical value/perspective or a cultural one?".  So do I think the youth are of special importance due to Biblical or cultural values?

This paper suggests that the elderly are a group requiring particular care - like the 'widow and orphan' mentioned so often in the Bible. It also suggests that while the default is that families should care for their own elderly (quoting, for example, 1Tim 5:3-8), the church as a whole should also take on responsibility for the care of any in need.

My church is currently going through the process of appointing a new pastor and a big part of this is thinking a lot about who we are   One question that is being explored is whether there are people groups in our area that none of the other local churches are seeking to serve.  I wonder if the elderly are one such group?  I wonder if any church has 'adopted' our nearest rest home, for example.

The paper mentioned a church in Texas that is inviting elderly folk from their neighbourhood to live with church 'foster' families, and apparently such foster care of the elderly is practised in Israel, too. I wonder what we could/should do?

Lastly, may I reccomend one more paper from the same conference?  Being Old in the 21st Century - the elder person's experience by Sister Pauline O'Reagan RSM  Some interesting insights for all of us who are frail.

Monday 6 June 2011

Mission statements

In recent years I've been trying to put into words what I'm trying to achieve through reducing my use of various resources, supporting Fair Trade, having the neighbours over for a cuppa etc..  I've often lamented that I can't put what drives me into 'a simple, snappy statement'.  And I've recently joyfully celebrated that I'm starting to be able to express it as a statement (although it's more of a paragraph than a slogan...).

Martin pointed out that I'm reaching for a mission statement.

I've always been sceptical of mission statements.  They seem so often to be nice banalities that mean little and have minimal connection with reality (aka the day to day activities of the organisation whose mission they puport to encapsulate).  It never occurred to me that I should want such a thing for myself.

Instead, I've simply been reaching for a way to express some things that have become important to me.  I want a yardstick by which to judge initiatives I come across: a means to assess whether or not they are working towards goals that I see as worthwhile (and hence whether I should consider supporting them).  I also want to be able to communicate why I do what I do and where I'm trying to head.

Martin has drawn to my attention that, in so doing, I've stumbled upon the purpose of mission statements: why it came to be seen that every organisation worth its salt needed mission statement.  A set of meaningless platitudes may be a set of meaningless platitudes, but a thought-through statement that encapsulates what you're all about is a mighty handy thing to have at your fingertips :-)

the Queen's birthday

Today in New Zealand we celebrate the Queen's Birthday (always celebrated on the first Monday of June, regardless of the actual date of birth of the current sovereign).

Presumably this day was instituted as a day to celebrate the British Monarchy.  However, no one I know of celebrates the Monarchy on this day.  Queen's birthday is just a long weekend: and precious as such because it's the last before Labour Day.  It's your last opportunity to snatch a long weekend away while the weather's still sort of nice.  The long grind of winter is approaching and after this it's all downhill till Labour Day.

It certainly doesn't have anything to do with the Queen!

On Waitangi Day we (increasingly) celebrate our  nationhood; on Auckland Anniversary Day we have a massive regatta to celebrate our Harbour - our pride and joy as Auckanders; on Labour Day National Radio, at least, puts on documentaries that draw attention to the fight for the 40 hour week and better labour conditions.

Christians often lament that Christmas and Easter seem to have little to do with Jesus's birth or death and ressurection, at least in the public consciousness.  It seems they aren't the only public holidays to have become divorced from their intended meaning.  Indeed on Christmas and Easter you would expect at least some religious programming on state radio and TV, not the generic 'public holiday' broadcasting we're having today.  It seems like they aren't the only 'debased' holidays: relics of a past when NZ saw itself as a part of both Christendom and the British Empire.

I'd never thought of it like that before.