By Eric Francis with help from Ma Kettle. This originally appeared in Cosmic Confidential.
The Shaving Brush and Mug
Discovering my first shaving brush (at the local food coop) and mug (with some searching around town) was what inspired the idea that some very cool old things can have a new role in a sustainable world. Well, it was actually my second encounter with the shaving brush — when I was about five and my father showed me how to shave, half of the instructions involved the use of the brush and mug; they were still in common use in the Sixties.
Decades and many cans of Edge later, I discovered that the shaving brush and soap were better, less expensive, more fun, cheaper and far more environmentally friendly than canned chemical shaving cream.
These became the criteria for “Everything Old is New Again”: the old item or method had to be better, less expensive and more ecologically friendly than the new one. Yet nearly everything we suggest on this list has one other common theme: it requires a skill. In every case, the older, better method requires you to know something, or take care of something, in a way that the modern method does not. The little cake of shaving soap you put at the bottom of a ceramic cup will last for a year or longer, if you keep it dry between uses. Part of the skill is keeping it dry. The soap comes in a cardboard box; that’s the only packaging. A good brush, if you keep it dry between shaves, will last for years. It’s fun to whip up all that lather, which comes out warm if you use warm water. And for ladies it’s the most fun of all: the brush has the approximate consistency of a tongue, but it never gets tired and it’s available any time. You’ll be sitting on the edge of your tub for hours on end.
Most of what we call soap is not soap. It is detergent. Soap is made from animal or vegetable oil; detergent is made from petroleum. It’s closer to plastic than to cooking oil. Miraculously, it is still not only possible to buy actual soap, but to find really incredible handcrafted soap. You will often find it at craft fairs or farmer’s markets, usually available cut off of a block by the craftsperson. Or you can get Dr. Bronner’s soap in any health food store and many local grocery stores. Bronner’s is an amazing product. Made from organic, fair-trade hemp oil, you get a gentle soap that is good for 100 different uses. The company is still owned by Emmanuel Bronner’s descendants; I called up the company one day and talked to Dr. Bronner’s great-grandson. Emmanuel the Original was a Pisces: exactly who you might expect to put evangelistic mystical messages from the Essences all over his extremely useful product, and whose motto is “All-One.” Later generations removed his original instructions that said “dilute-dilute-dilute,” but the modern product seems no less concentrated than the early versions. All you need is a little. A bottle will last for months and can replace many disgustingly toxic cleaning products. Dr. Bronner’s soap is also available in bars, and though they’re not 10 for 99 cents, they last a long time and are a quality product.
For detergent needs, non-petroleum-based products like 7th Generation are based on naturally detergent plant extracts and are available without dyes, fragrances and masking agents.
Old-fashioned soap and warm water, medical science has lately discovered, turn out to be the most effective protection against bacterial infections, especially antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA staph. Side-note about antibacterial chemicals in modern “soap” — they are dangerous (usually chlorine-based and therefore possibly contaminated with dioxin), often cause skin irritation and allergic reactions, and to the extent they do anything at all, they kill the natural probiotics in your skin that keep you smelling good. Also, like pesticides that kill the good along with the bad, antibacterial soaps kill beneficial skin organisms that control staph and other infectious bacteria. Apropos of this discussion is the topic of hand sanitizers. These are being touted as a substitute for hand-washing, though like many products of the chemical industry, they have the reverse effect than the one that was intended. Hand sanitizers contain 62% alcohol — not enough to kill dangerous bacteria, and they contain a form of sugar that makes one’s hands sticky and nurtures the bacteria, therefore spreading it rather than preventing disease. Note that Purell was invented not because it was better, but rather to save nurses time between patients. Someone figured out how much time they spend washing their hands and wanted things to be more ‘efficient’. Turns out to be more efficient for dangerous bacteria and highly profitable for chemical merchants.
Cast Iron Cookware
How could something from the Iron Age blow away all the technology in the world? It just does. Cast iron cookware heats evenly, works well at both low and high temperatures and provides iron for our iron-deficient diets. When properly cared for (that is the catch), cast iron cookware is better than Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene) as a nonstick surface.
But this takes some attention, skill and practice. If you take care of cast iron (which means using and seasoning the pans regularly) it will last for generations, yet it costs far less than premium Teflon or enamel products. Teflon has a problem: not only does it scrape off quickly in normal use and degrade at higher temperatures; its degradation products cause flu-like symptoms in humans and are lethal to birds: meaning, we don’t really know what it does. (It’s a carbon-fluorine compound with weird properties that too often point to danger to living things.)
Cast iron develops a natural, very effective nonstick surface, as long as you don’t wash it aggressively with soap (no soap is better, unless you’ve cooked fish). Keep it away from the dishwasher. The cleaning routine is to swish or very lightly scrub it with a large, plain stainless steel brush or scrubbing pad; not an SOS or Brillo pad — that will ruin the finish. No soap works a lot better than using soap, and yes, the pan is still sanitary because it’s heated up each time it’s used. Then dry the pan on the stove on very low heat (do not burn the pan) and season it lightly with oil (some kinds of cooking oil such as canola tend to varnish at high temperatures; best to use a high-heat oil like safflower or olive). Give it a chance — you may just fall in love. A cast iron Dutch oven (used on the stovetop) is amazing for soups, stews or roasting small items, and more efficient than heating the whole oven. In a pinch or on a camping trip you can even bake bread or chocolate cake in one, over a campfire, primus, or Coleman stove. Leave it to the Dutch.
Where the heck did all this plastic come from? And where is it going? (Answer: the North Pacific Gyre — and our blood streams.) I remember the first plastic soda bottles. My family (under my mom’s dominion) was not that into soda, but it seemed a little weird. Reusable bottles seem so much more sensible. Who knew that within a few years, every last packaged food product that we purchased would come in plastic, right down to organic eggs? Glass is now a rarity; yet it has many advantages: it’s durable, reusable and non-toxic. Plastic is disposable (most packages cannot even be reused because they chemically alter so quickly, though never fully breaking down) and it poisons every person who uses it (plastic leaches hormonal toxins — not good, and some plastics create dioxins in the microwave — very, very, very not good). Mason jars go for $12 a dozen and last for years. Originally designed for canning and preserving, they are good for storing leftovers, taking stuff to work, brewing tea and for storing beans, lentils, pasta and rice. They come in many sizes and do not leach toxins (though some lids have an issue). They are actually washable and last for years. If the lids and bands get rusty, they can be replaced separately. Mason jars are the perfect sustainable all-purpose product, reminding us to keep an eye out for products that come in glass — like milk and cream from small, independent dairies. There is no need to recycle these bottles; they have so many other uses. Reusing is much more efficient than recycling.
A note on mason lids: all the ones sold in the U.S. contain bisphenol-A (the same stuff other countries won’t allow in baby bottles because of its toxic effects) in the rubber seal, which can leach into food sealed in the jar. If this concerns you, contact Kerr/Mason, the company that makes all U.S. jar lids, and demand that they produce a non-toxic, non-bisphenol-A lid. And if you discover a source for such lids, please let us all know! Meanwhile, store your food upright when you can.
Cloth is great, old stuff. A few years ago, in an effort to save paper towels, I invested in a bunch of cotton washcloths to use as all-purpose cleaning cloths. They are cheap enough to keep lots on hand, enough to last between laundry projects. They are durable; they last for years and have countless uses. Costco and other outlets sell bundles of unhemmed cotton terry squares, 60 or more to a bundle, very cheap, great for everything from napkins to towels to oil spills. If you want rags and towels with higher absorbency, also get some made of flour sack-type cotton. Because they are fully reusable, they will save you hundreds of dollars in paper products, as well as saving trees and paper bleaching. When cloth rags start to get old, use them for heavier cleaning or crafts. Cloth napkins are luxurious and reusable. You can get creative and save paper with reusable cloth ribbons and gift wrapping, bags and lots of other things. Bandannas have countless uses.
We must support the hemp industry any way we can. Hemp products can replace many inferior chemical, paper, plastic and cotton products, all while saving resources and replenishing soil, rather than depleting it. Read a little about this stuff: it’s one of the most versatile substances on Earth and will boggle your mind with the possibilities. I will cover one of the truly excellent hemp products, cannabis, separately.
The use of Cannabis as a psychic tool and healing herb is so old that some sources credit the development of agriculture with the desire to have ready access to the stuff. The homeopath Vermeulen writes, “Cannabis is amongst man’s most ancient cultigens, dating back almost to the origin of agriculture in the Old World. It is known to have been valued by the Chinese some 8,500 years ago.” There are many ways to use cannabis: some help you shut down and some help you wake up. Use of cannabis to wake up requires the addition of intention, creativity and a measure of authentic skill. It will rarely have this effect when used as a recreational, social drug; use of cannabis as a healing and creative influence is best done alone or one-on-one, as it evokes the dreamtime powerfully. Cannabis also has use in medicine helping people deal with the effects of toxic drugs such as chemotherapy. This use is widely documented and is becoming socially acceptable.
Who would have thought sugar – old-fashioned sucrose — would be the new health food? But guess what? It’s not really health food, nor is it what you would call good for you. But it’s not quite the supertoxin that high fructose corn syrup is.
Sugar is not only a healthier sweetener than high fructose corn syrup, but also it will not compromise liver, kidney, bowel, neurological or circulatory function as do many artificial sweeteners, all of which are toxic (but of the ones currently available, we believe that old-fashioned saccharin is the safest and NutraSweet or aspartame is by far the most dangerous). As always – and the one thing growth-mad corporate America doesn’t want you to do – old-fashioned moderation is the key word in all things. First rule: make everything possible from scratch. Second rule: in all baking recipes, cut the sugar in half for starters. Then adjust the amount either way according to taste. With half the sugar, most will agree that cakes and cookies come out better. You can actually taste what you’re eating.
Most of what humans are fed these days is not food. It may remind us of food, and look like food, but it’s not quite up to such a high commendation. Entire volumes and a lot of web space are now available on back-to-the-future food production: local foods, organic foods, slow foods, etc. Among the easiest and least didactic are Michael Pollan’s articles and books (The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and In Defense of Food). In most areas, there are farmer’s markets and small manufacturers of many things, from pickles to eggs to meats. The main points to remember are:
— If you can’t pronounce it, avoid it.
— Eat fresh food (not preserved, processed, etc.) as much as possible.
— As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
— to which we would add, “And don’t be so bloody superior about it!” Dolphins are really smart, and they eat meat.
Walking and other old-time ways to get there
Study after study has shown that we could cut our use of fossil fuels in half today just with simple conservation measures. One of the easiest is to put the car keys away and save the poor doomed dinosaur for absolute necessity or emergency. If where you’re going is within a mile or so, try walking. Wow, what a concept! It not only provides exercise, it can also improve your whole outlook on the world when someone says hi from a doorstep, or a kid grins at you, or you discover a cooper’s hawk in the trees, or someone’s roses shower you with a fleeting sweetness. For longer trips, old-fashioned bicycles and public transportation are the only viable future; demand them, lobby for them, why wait for the future?
Like ants and chimney swifts, humans are social animals. Many of our most grievous ills and errors stem from forgetting this, replacing community with electronic abstractions that are the equivalent of junk food for the soul. For example: all the electronic gadgets and wizardry in the world, useful as they are, cannot replace the joy of face-to-face conversation; smell, touch and even taste are essential elements of body language, elements no amount of electronics can provide. Similarly, no on-line “community” can provide the joy and camaraderie of working with others in a communal garden, theater, building project, concert, or other collective effort. Unplugging ourselves long enough to become truly engaged in such old-fashioned communal projects can restore the humanity missing from modern existence.
Do the math. Do you really need a $300 power drill to install a coat hook, or that most insanely superfluous item, a leaf-blower to blow leaves onto someone else’s lawn? A two-dollar screw driver and a nine-dollar leaf rake will last for years, will not cause noise and air pollution, and will give your muscles a pleasant tune-up. Even in the competitive world of lawn care, which is truly more macho: a 5-horsepower lawn mower doing all the work, or a reel-mower that runs solely on muscle power (or even a glorious scythe, one of the oldest, most elegant and efficient tools ever)? In my computer bag, I carry a Maglite, a good knife and a Leatherman. In my camera bag I keep a set of hex wrenches, a Swiss army knife, a Maglite and a compass. These are your basic survival tools: urban, rural or subterranean.
Thinking has become a thing of the past that could use a revival. I don’t harbor delusions of a golden era when everyone walked around talking about Niche and Descartes on trolley cars, but we are moving so quickly into automatic mode that few remember that there is such a thing as manual mode: wherein, you and your brain work together to come up with original ideas, to solve problems, and to work out our differences in an intelligent way. Steve Jobs once said that a computer is like a bicycle for the mind. It helps us move around town effectively, store information and find it quickly. Yet the computer is a thinking aid — not something to think for you. Information that doesn’t really move your mind isn’t really information. It’s for this reason that I encourage everyone to be an Internet contributor, not just a consumer.
It’s more difficult to find a good therapist than it is to get a prescription, but it’s worth the work. It’s also more expensive in the short run, but money well spent in the long run. It works out to be less expensive (because you get your life) and more effective than taking meds (which don’t really do much, and if they do, it comes at a price). The keys to therapy are understanding what it’s for; why you need it; sticking to it; and initially, grasping what makes a good therapist. Part of the problem finding a good therapist is that in a frame of mind when you need therapy, you’re unlikely to be discerning of what would be helpful; most people don’t study up on the subject in advance. I suggest you do. I propose that everyone benefits from well-done therapy because it’s a powerful tool for self-awareness and self-reliance. Most people avoid therapy wanting to be self-reliant; and this rarely works. The book to start with is A General Theory of Love, published in 2000. The authors explain their theory how therapy works, using a neurological model, and what a relationship with a therapist is for (it’s about building trust, and it takes a couple of years to get there). It’s not about ‘talking things out’; it’s about building a relationship that is then used as a model for other relationships. In our world of quick fixes, therapy may seem arcane. In our world of manipulation and power abuse, it may seem impossible to find someone good. It helps to recognize certain psychic and ethical postures that are the mark of a good therapist: for example, understanding how important sex is, and being in tune with its inherently revolutionary nature.
For the past 30 years, since the day Ronnie Rayguns took office, we have been subjected to a federally funded, deceptive and genuinely vicious campaign about how bad sex is. As the government merged with religion and took up its control agenda, the anti-sex campaign became a multi-billion-dollar industry. Have you ever wondered why? The answer is that sex is a powerful vehicle for self-awareness, growth, bonding and mutual understanding. That is bad for those whose agenda is sell, sell, sell.
Notably, sex is also subject to abuse, misuse, and it fails miserably when simple integrity (which in part means honoring one another’s mutual health and emotional needs) is not present. We all know what we need to know to have a reasonably safe and fun experience of sex. Let’s assume we have the integrity to put that information to use. Let’s suppose we want a clear experience. If so, we have available one of the most potent, fun, cosmic gifts for raising awareness, opening up creativity and igniting liberty. Yet part of that integrity means honoring the relationships wherein the sexual experiences occur. That would be a relationship revolution. Most of why people avoid sex is that the relationships are too inconvenient. Yoga and porno are not substitutes.
Masturbation is not a substitute — it’s a sexual journey of its own, and we can learn a lot about someone by sharing masturbation with them a few times before having any kind of penetrative sex. Indeed, you can learn almost as much as you need to know about a potential lover by having an honest conversation about masturbation with them. If the conversation can happen, that’s a great sign. Here is an article I wrote a year ago called Toward a Sexual Revolution.