Women around the world are having fewer babies

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Babies are cute. But given the choice, a lot of people want fewer of them. The University of Washington in Seattle just put out a massive study on global health trends and found that people around the world are having fewer babies.

Since 1950, average births per women have been cut in half (in the U.S., we went from three babies per woman to two). In over 90 countries, the average woman is having fewer than two babies, meaning these populations are set to shrink. This decline is largely going on in European countries.

“These statistics represent both a ‘baby boom’ for some nations and a ‘baby bust’ for others,” explained Christopher Murray, a scientist at the University of Washington. “The lower rates of women’s fertility clearly reflect not only access to and availability of reproductive health services, but also many women choosing to delay or forgo giving birth, as well as having more opportunities for education and employment.”

This is one more study in the increasingly large pool of evidence that fertility rates are going down. One New Atlas article going around calls this trend “disturbing,” and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why. I guess they want our planet to keep collecting humans like Beanie Babies?

Decreasing global fertility is a good thing. It may be the best news for sustainability since … Well, I have nothing to compare it to, since it probably tops the charts. Humans are the things causing all the environmental problems. We’re the ones drilling oil, farming cattle, flying airplanes and all the rest. Fewer humans means more sustainability, period.

Not that populations everywhere are shrinking. Many places still have high fertility rates. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest; the average woman in Niger has seven children, same as in 1950. So there’s still work to be done, like giving women in sub-Saharan Africa access to birth control and education. Still, overall, this sounds like pretty good news.

The pot that’s worth its weight in gold

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No matter what I’m cooking, I always seem to reach for the same pot.

My efforts to declutter my house have prompted some deep thinking about which household items add the most value to my life. Particularly in the kitchen, which has a tendency to build up clutter because so many tools have specialized functions, I’ve been paying closer attention to which items I use most often and which are most versatile.

One item stands out above all else – a Dutch oven made by Le Creuset. It seems that, every single day, no matter what I’m making, this is the pot I reach for. If you’re familiar with the iconic French brand, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about – a round, red, 5.5-liter pot with a nice solid lid and black handle. (I also have an additional stainless handle that can replace the black one if I’m baking at high temperatures.)

My husband purchased the pot shortly after we got married, following a conversation with the staff at The Healthy Butcher in Toronto. At the time I thought it was a rather spontaneous and overly pricey purchase, considering how little money we had, but he was determined to build up our collection of kitchen tools, slowly but surely. It turns out he was right; it quickly became one of my all-time favorite things to use.

That Creuset pot is like the analog equivalent of an Instant Pot. It does everything. In fact, there’s hardly anything it doesn’t do. The thick, heavy bottom makes it good for heat-sensitive sauces like béchamel, vanilla pudding, custard for ice cream, and caramel. The cast iron heats up beautifully to sear vegetables, meats, and to caramelize onions. The enamel interior washes clean and does not retain strong flavors, so I don’t hesitate to use it for spicy curries and dals and long-simmering bolognese sauce.

Thanks to a heavy lid that fits perfectly, there are countless dishes I can start on the stovetop and transfer to the oven, like braises, chili, stew, baked mushroom risotto, and beans. It’s perfect for baking loaves of wet no-knead bread and other slow-rise fermented loaves, giving it a divinely crispy crust, like something straight out of an artisanal bakery.

When I have a heap of dripping greens to sauté, I prefer the Creuset to a frying pan because I can dump everything in and it will fry up in no time, with less spitting oil and a shorter time to cook down. It’s great for large batches of kale, collards, spinach, and rapini.

I’ve used that pot as a cake pan in a pinch, making a blueberry coffee cake, and it has worked well for loaves of cheesy cornbread. It even made an appearance once in the middle of an elegant afternoon tea table, acting as a punch bowl for lemonade.

This video shows what houseplants are doing while we’re away

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A crazy timelapse shows plants waving and dancing like nobody’s business.

I know plants move. They reach for the sun, they open and close their leaves, they respond to moisture … they have all kinds of moves designed to ensure they flourish while rooted to the ground. But until I saw this fabulous timelapse video from the ever-awesome houseplantjournal Instagram account, I really didn’t realize just how much they move.

The video shows two houseplants – an Oxalis and a Marantra – grooving through the course of the day. It’s a marvel. They’re like cute, floppy sea monsters trying to get attention. You can almost hear the noises they would make, squeaks and little sighs.

Plants move at a very different clip than we humans do – but we should never forget that they are very alive things, going through the paces of the day, just like we do. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at plants in the same way again.

Now go to your houseplants and tell them something nice. They’ve been working hard, they deserve it!

6 houseplants to boost well-being

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From improving sleep and indoor air quality to reducing anxiety and fatigue … houseplants are powerful allies.

The state of the world seems a bit wonky lately, and the way I’m feeling, it’s all hands on deck in the “boosting wellness” department. We all have our different approaches for self-care and resiliency, but one way in which everyone can benefit is by accepting an assist from Mother Nature – namely, by having some houseplants.

Now I realize that this may sound a bit like New Age woowoo, but there has been loads of research extolling the health benefits of greenery in the home – more about which you can read here: 5 health benefits of houseplants. Houseplants are little workhorses, doing everything from releasing oxygen, bringing indoor humidity levels up, filtering indoor air contaminants, speeding up healing, and even increasing focus. And that’s just for starters.

So with all of that in mind, here are some of the specific plants called out for their bevy of benefits.

Lavender

Lavender (pictured above) has a long-held reputation as a natural remedy for sleep and relaxation – and it’s got the science to back the claims up. Among a lot of other research, one single-blind randomized study investigating the effectiveness of lavender odor on quality of slumber showed that lavender improved sleep quality in a wide array of study participants. If you’re prone to insomnia, you know how rotten it feels to sleep poorly – it’s hard to feel well when you’re living in a fog of grogginess. A pot of lavender in the bedroom can do wonders.

ZZ plant

A study from the University of British Columbia concluded that if people simply take time to ponder the nature around them, it will increase their general happiness and well-being – and even houseplants can fill that bill. Which is where the superstar ZZ plant steps up to the plate. Why? Because Zamioculcas zamiifolia is super pretty and practically indestructible. It can take all kinds of light situations and can go for long periods of time without water. When I was first learning how not to not kill plants because of being a too-busy working mom, this was my gateway plant – I set a calendar alert to water it once a month … ten years later and my stalwart beauty continues to flourish and make me happy.

Spider plant

Because NASA has a vested interest in improving air-quality in sealed environments, the agency has given a lot of time to studying how houseplants (or spaceship-plants?) can remove indoor air pollution. They have concluded: “Both plant leaves and roots are utilized in removing trace levels of toxic vapors from inside tightly sealed buildings. Low levels of chemicals such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde can be removed from indoor environments by plant leaves alone.”

Spider plants are one of the group that performed especially well in this task – and it gets bonus points from me because it is so easy to grow more from cuttings. Spider plants shoot out little plantlets, which can be snipped off and started as new plants.. Plus, they’re just so cute.

Bromeliad

Bromeliad in bloomGinner_Q / pixabay/Public Domain

In a study working off the NASA findings, researchers set out to compare how various houseplants could remove a number of different types of VOCs from indoor air. They found that of all the plants tested, bromeliads were the most powerful – removing six of the eight VOCs, taking up more than 80 percent of each over a 12-hour sampling period. “Inhaling large amounts of VOCs can lead some people to develop sick building syndrome, which reduces productivity and can even cause dizziness, asthma or allergies,” notes the researchers. It’s hard to feel happy when you’re dizzy and getting asthma from off-gassing in your home.

Orchid

Orchid in bloompixnio/Public Domain

Another plant from the “Fighting Insomnia” file – orchids! Really? Really. Orchids, as well as succulents and bromeliads, improve air quality at night. Photosynthesis stops when the sun goes down, at which point most plants start absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. However, orchids, succulents and bromeliads flip the script here and take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen once the sun goes down. Having them in the bedroom – or anywhere else you spend evening hours – can give you an extra dose of oxygen. And who doesn’t love oxygen?

Jade plant

Plants help improve healing. In fact, so effective are plants in helping surgery patients recover that one study recommends them as a “noninvasive, inexpensive, and effective complementary medicine for surgical patients.” The researchers found that patients with houseplants had lower systolic blood pressure, and lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue as compared to patients without plants in their rooms.

One super great all-around plant is the jade plant. It is generally included with the plants that help clear indoor air pollution, but it’s also just really beautiful with its thick shiny leaves and delicate blooms – I get a boost just from looking at one. But it may have a secret superpower as well. While I can’t cite a study on this one, in the practice of feng shui, jade plant is a good luck charm, symbolic of growth and renewal, and especially for bringing financial wealth. While we all know that money can’t buy happiness (or so they say), a little bump in the income certainly can’t hurt. And if the plant is lowering levels of pain, anxiety, and fatigue at the same time, it’s sure to be adding to one’s wellness, even if it’s not adding to their wallet.

Note: Just a reminder, if you have pets make sure that your houseplants are safe for them. See: 30 garden plants harmful to pets for more.

10 items I’ve bought at a thrift store

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There is great value to be found in second-hand shops.

I am a big fan of second-hand shopping, not only because it saves a lot of money, but also because it gives a new lease on life to older, unwanted items. This keeps resources in the ground and waste out of it, and that’s something we should all be striving to do more of.

So you can imagine my delight when I glimpsed Trent Hamm’s article called “12 things I’ve bought from second-hand stores in the past year” for The Simple Dollar. He, too, is a thrifting champion, and explained his list as a way to “give people the idea of what kind of value I find there.”

I do the same thing, divulging my latest finds with glee to friends and family. Often they’re surprised and doubtful, finding it hard to believe that such great stuff can be found at low prices, but inevitably tell me about their own visits to the thrift shop later on. Usually they’re thrilled by what they find, too.

The point of this is that second-hand stores are a treasure trove and should not be overlooked when you’re in the market for something. Whether you take Hamm’s approach and go only with a specific purpose, or if you’re like me and poke around just to see what’s there, you have nothing to lose by starting at a thrift store.

So, without further ado, here are 10 of the best second-hand items I’ve found in the past year (except for one, which remains my all-time greatest find from several years ago).

1. Bed sheets: Unless you want to spend hundreds of dollars on really nice, brand new bed sheets, a thrift store’s linen section can be surprisingly great. Think of all the linen closets that have to be emptied and donated when people downsize or pass away. You can find great 100 percent cotton sheets in pristine condition very easily.

2. Baking pans: I don’t think I’ve ever bought new baking pans because I can always find what I need at the thrift store. Just today, I picked up a glass pie plate for $1.25. In the past, I’ve found Pampered Chef baking pans and cookie sheets, as well as muffin tins, loaf pans, and glass 9×13 pans, probably for less than $20 in total.

3. Skates: You can’t survive a Canadian winter without skates, and since my kids’ feet grow at a rapid rate, the thrift store is the best place to shop. The hockey skates and figure skates that I find there are sufficient for our recreational purposes and cost under $5 apiece.

4. Down duvets: I have purchased two down-filled duvets in the past year, both immaculately white and unstained, for $15 each. Down duvets are not cheap when purchased new, and come with ethical concerns, so I was very happy to find these.

5. Leather jacket: I’d been looking for a second-hand leather jacket for years, not wanting to buy new for ethical and financial reasons, and suddenly I found it on a rack at Value Village. It fit perfectly and cost only $20. I wear it all the time.

secondhand shoppingUnsplash/Public Domain

Sleep sustainably with fair trade, organic cotton sheets

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Homestead is a California-based company that sells high-end ethical bedding at reasonable prices.

One childhood lesson that has stayed with me was my mother’s admonition only to use cotton bedsheets. This was disappointing when I was young; I didn’t get the Disney princess-themed sheets that my friends had, but instead I got crisp, smooth linens that never felt too hot or too cold. They were just right because, as my mom would say, they didn’t have any polyester in them.

Her rule has stayed with me through adulthood. I still do not buy sheets with polyester because they don’t breathe and they pill over time. My sheet collection is nice, but it’s not fancy, comprised mostly of clean but worn hand-me-downs from friends and second-hand finds.

This fall, however, my collection took a boost with the arrival of a package from Homestead, a company that specializes in gorgeous bedsheets made from fair trade, organic cotton. In one fell swoop, all my boxes were ticked — snowy-white cotton bedding that’s ethically made and as environmentally friendly as it comes.

Those sheets went onto my bed, and they haven’t come off it since, aside from washing. As soon as they’re dry, I put those sheets right back on the bed because I don’t want to use any others. Perhaps I’ve become spoiled, but I prefer to think of it as becoming aware of what a difference high-end, ethical construction can make.

woman with Homestead bedsheets© Jamie Barker for Homestead (used with permission)

15 houseplant looks we’re loving right now

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Find inspiration for adding some beautiful green to your space, and reap the benefits of living with houseplants at the same time.

It really should come as little surprise that houseplants are the workhorses of home decor. Trees basically keep the planet running – so it’s no wonder that their little foot soldiers, the houseplants, do a bang-up job of keeping things in order on the home front. They remove indoor air pollution, help deter illness, can improve sleep, boost your mood, and even help alleviate dry skin. (See more on these talents of theirs in the related stories below.)

Meanwhile, in this wonky modern world we live in … it’s just so nice to have some humble plants in our midst. They offer us city mice a nice connection to nature and provide a place for us to direct some low-maintenance nurturing. Easier than kids! Even easier than cats and dogs, even if houseplants don’t purr of fetch our slippers.

In terms of making them look good at home, it’s almost hard to go wrong. That said, there are a lot of ways to make them look fantastic. We’re finding inspiration from the following scenarios from Instagram, we hope you do as well.

Dream workspace!

Succulent splendor

Delicate greenery

Avocado grove

Elegant cascade

Dog forest

Man with a plan(t)

Pattern play

Magnificent monstera

Cornered

The photobomb

Peewee propigation

Kitty jungle

Lush life

Tiny owl forest

What older generations can teach us about plastic-free living

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The simplest, most effective solutions to the plastic pollution problem may lie in the past.

How are we going to solve the plastic pollution problem? This has become a hot topic in recent years as studies and photographs depict the awful extent to which plastic has saturated our planet. We need solutions, we tell ourselves, better ways of doing things and designing products that don’t generate so much waste. As a result, innovation is flourishing.

Pressure is mounting on companies to come up with greener forms of food packaging, and on cities to improve their recycling infrastructure. Entrepreneurs are implementing drastic measures to collect the waste circulating in the oceans and turn it into new consumer products. Inventors are coming up with ways to catch plastic microfibres in the washing machine. Heck, someone even invented edible water balls.

At first glance, the future looks high-tech and cutting-edge. There’s a sense that we need to move beyond single-use plastics to solutions that only science can give us. But what if we’re heading in the wrong direction? What if the most straightforward answers to our problem lie in the past?

We didn’t always have a plastic pollution problem. Before the mid-20th century, people made do without it and, presumably, as Mark Blackburn put it descriptively in an article for One Brown Planet, they were not lying “in the streets, malnourished and dehydrated, like a scene from some apocalyptic war,” for lack of plastic water bottles. They managed just fine because their lifestyle habits were different.

To gain insight into the past, Blackburn interviewed his mother, who grew up in northern England in the 1950s. After reading their conversation and loving it, I called up my own mother, whose childhood took place in the 1960s. Although that was an era when plastics were just starting to enter the mainstream, she grew up in an extremely frugal Mennonite family in rural Ontario and didn’t even see her first plastic toy until she was 7.

Looking at Blackburn’s and my mother’s memories of how things used to be done, it becomes apparent that we could fix so much of the waste problem by returning to the past. Here’s how we can update old practices to fit our modern lives.

FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

IN THE PAST:

Blackburn’s mother said,

“The majority of the fresh foods such as potatoes, carrots, peas and the like were all grown locally and available seasonally. You could also get bananas and other fruits from overseas for most of the year round too. When a vegetable wasn’t in season we would have to buy it in a tin can or have something else instead. There was also a lot of dried foods available, usually in a big container. Whatever you needed, you weighed out into a brown paper bag. Items from overseas, like rice and pasta, would also be weighed and then packaged in a paper bag.”

My mother said her parents had a huge kitchen garden, where they grew potatoes, corn, tomatoes, beans, onions, and more. These were eaten steadily in summer and fall, to the point of monotony, and preserved for eating throughout the winter.

NOWADAYS:

We can cut down on transport emissions by buying local fresh foods that are in season. Sign up for a CSA share. Attend farmers’ markets on a regular basis. Go to a pick-your-own fruit farm and stock up your freezer. Start your own backyard garden. Look for state- or county-grown produce at the grocery store.

Set time aside each season to preserve the food you buy in bulk. It’s a chore, yes, but it can become fun as you get better at it. Few things are as satisfying as stocking food away for the winter. Freeze fruit and vegetables in jars, metal containers, or even old plastic bags (or milk bags if you’re Canadian) that you’ve washed out. Make relish, pickles, soups, and sauces.

MEAT

IN THE PAST:

My mother said her family used to ‘put up’ one pig each fall for sausage, which was then canned, rather than frozen. The residual lard was used for cooking, as was chicken fat, whenever a chicken was roasted. Blackburn’s mother said, “There was a meat man who would come around with fresh meats, again all wrapped in paper.”

NOWADAYS:

You might not want to keep chickens in your backyard (I learned that the hard way), but I do know that privately-owned butcher shops are very happy to wrap meat in paper or put it in your own containers, if you ask ahead of time. Bones should be put in a freezer bag and, once full, simmered for delicious stock.

SNACKS

IN THE PAST:

Blackburn’s mother said chips and cookies weren’t as widely available as they are now, but they could be purchased in bulk, taken from glass containers and put into paper bags. My mom reiterated that everything went into big brown paper bags, that it was unheard of to use clear plastic to package individual goods.

NOWADAYS:

Have you ever walked into a Bulk Barn store? The place is teeming with snacks, all of which can be put into your own reusable containers, after being tared at the cash. There’s absolutely no need to curtail your snacking habit while trying to avoid plastic packaging. Better yet, make your own. I believe it was Mark Bittman who once said, “Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it from scratch.”

FOOD PACKAGING

IN THE PAST:

In the pre-Ziploc era, sandwiches were wrapped in newspaper, wax paper, or, as my mom said, the wide paper labels taken off a Wonder Bread bag. Everything went into a paper bag. Mom’s family had a large metal can that they took to a nearby farmer to fill with unpasteurized milk. It had a little window in the side that allowed you to see the cream separating from the milk; they skimmed this off to make butter for special occasions. Blackburn’s mother had milk delivered to the house in returnable glass bottles. Her lunches were also wrapped in newspaper.

NOWADAYS:

For those of you who still have newspapers lying around, it can still do the job, as can a roll of wax paper. Get fancy with reusable stainless steel lunch boxes for kids, zippered cloth bags, and glass jars. Read: 7 items for a plastic-free lunch box

EATING OUT

IN THE PAST:

It just wasn’t done the way it is now. My mom says she remembers going out to a Chinese restaurant once a year, with occasional visits to Tastee-Freeze after church on Sunday nights, but other than that they ate everything at home. Blackburn’s mother said the only restaurant they had in town was a fish-and-chips joint.

NOWADAYS:

The culture of eating on the go is a major driver of plastic waste. Our whole approach to food needs to shift if we hope to reduce the amount of trash we generate, and it requires more people to prioritize sitting down for meals in their homes. As you reduce the number of meals eaten in fast-food restaurants or in your car, you’ll also reduce packaging waste considerably (and improve your health, too).

Read more: Straw bans won’t fix the plastic problem, but something else can & Starbucks’ greener stores won’t make much of a difference; the problem is cultural

WASTE

IN THE PAST:

My mother said there was no garbage collection, just a dump heap down the road where they put metal, ceramics, and glass that couldn’t be reused. Paper was burned in the cookstove and food scraps were composted. Old clothes were turned into quilts, many of which my family still has. There was no paper towel or Kleenex; they used cloths instead.

Blackburn’s mother had a similar description:

“Tins and cans were squashed and put in the bin because we couldn’t recycle them. I do remember that the paper that originally wrapped the bread was used saved and used to wrap Grandad’s sandwiches. Once he had finished he brought it home and we burnt it in the fire. But the cinders from the fire we used to make footpaths or in the winter as grit to stop you slipping on the paths.”

My parents did the same thing when I was kid, keeping the fireplace ashes for shoveling on the driveway to add traction for cars.

NOWADAYS:

Start composting (even if you live in an apartment). Get some worms. Support bottle deposit programs in your municipality. Always opt for glass packaging, if given the choice, as it is the most likely material to be recycled. Shop with reusable bags and containers to eliminate waste at the source. Embrace the idea of handkerchiefs and cloth rags and napkins in the kitchen once again.

Kids can’t play in these parks

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In New Jersey, there’s a townhouse with a pristine green lawn that kids can’t enjoy.

“It’s really frustrating. These lawns are useless to me,” a suburban mom in New Jersey told me. She lives in a beautiful community full of lush lawns. It’s the middle of summer, but there are no dandelions in sight. And that’s the problem: the lawns are so green because they’re full of pesticides.

Warning signs urge parents to keep kids off the chemical-laden grass. The mom, who would rather not be named, says that most lawns and parks in her area are like this. There are plenty of them, but her kids can’t play in them.

“I just want to let my baby experience the grass,” she said. “Also, I’m sure it’s not good for animals. The other day, a woman found a dead deer in her backyard.”

In the 40s, people often mixed clover with grass to keep lawns strong. But over the last few decades, pesticides have taken over. In 2012, the world spent $56 billion on pesticides. They go into farms, lawns, parks and just about anywhere that humans grow plants. These chemicals keep parks picture perfect. They just make them useless as actual parks.

That may be more than just annoying. New research has uncovered the obvious: play is good for kids. It helps them discover the world and learn how to get along with other people. But it’s tough to get enough play in when there are so few public spaces where kids can play. And the few that exist are often covered in chemicals that make parents uncomfortable.

There are alternatives to pesticides, like planting a lawn full of clover. Besides, maybe a dandelion here or there isn’t the worst thing.