When Eco Mission Clashes with Eco Reality: The SilverLeaf Chronicles 11 “

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

“I hope you’re getting a fuel efficient car,” says my fourteen year-old when I tell him that the car I’m about to buy the car that will become his when he goes to college. In fact, I bought a hybrid Honda Accord to replace the all-electric SilverLEAF. It meets my son’s criteria. As my ex says, “He’s your son!” It’s a smiling mom moment.

With some remorse, we leave the small but growing “club” of owners of all-electric cars. My regret is that even though I’m deeply committed to living as “green” as possible, I couldn’t make our lives work with a limited battery range. And charge time. For me as a single parent with one car, it was a source of stress that could be eliminated from an impossibly complicated life.

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I live in the vise grip of the sandwich generation. An aging mother for whom I have increasing responsibilities, whose other child lives 2000 miles away. Two “tweens,” both with special needs. I’m a self-employed single mom. I juggle more plates than I can, imperfectly.

I really wanted to make it work with an all-electric car. Before I leased the NissanLEAF, I’d been saying in this blog and elsewhere— “I’m going to get the greenest car I can afford.”

Well, I’ve revised that. Now I’m saying, “I’m getting the greenest car I can afford that fits my overly complicated life.”

The NissanLEAF is really affordable. You can lease one for as little as about $200 a month. It costs next to nothing to charge ($10 per month for us in our geographic location, driving about 8000 miles a year). There’s pretty much no maintenance. It emits no global warming pollution.

But, I had to ask myself “What amount of money would make it worth the stress of worrying about running out of battery charge.” I realized the answer was: “No amount of money.” I had to follow my own advice as a psychologist: “Eliminate the stress you can, so you can better manage the stress that you can’t eliminate.”

I got spoiled by the low cost of the SilverLEAF. It’s going to be an adjustment to think about gas prices, and not-insignificant annual maintenance costs. I will not feel good about burning fossil fuels again, and generating global warming pollution as I drive. I will miss waving to other drivers of the NissanLEAF and enjoying that sense of fellowship.

But… there’s reality. Or what I call “eco reality.” Each of our lives has constraints. When we make decisions about how to balance our various responsibilities and lifestyle choices, we get to factor in the realities of our lives.

I will keep blogging, of course, about the challenges and rewards of living an eco-friendly life— including the decision to buy the specific hybrid we chose— in an era when the policies that have brought us clean air and clean water are in the path of a massive wrecking ball. A reckless wrecking ball.

I’ll continue to share stories of our family’s efforts to live “green” and I’ll keep touting the rewards of speaking out to our elected officials on climate policy, one of the most effective and empowering actions we can take, as I’ve discovered from my own experience.

In the wake of our President’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, you will hear more from me about ways that we can answer the call to local action when our national leadership is failing our children. The SilverLEAF Chronicles blog thread will be no more, but this mother who loves her children fiercely remains fired up. And so this blog will carry on, as I continue to use my spheres of influence, and seek to empower others to reap the rewards of using their spheres of influence to ensure our children a world in which they can thrive.

June 24, 2017 at 10:26 pm Leave a comment

Still I Rise… with my sons

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

Among my favorite signs at the Chicago’s Women’s March were those referring to Maya Angelou’s timeless– and timely– poem, “Still I Rise.”

There was a poster saying “I rise” and the fitting collective variation, “Still we rise.”

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-5-55-29-pmI marched with my two “tween” sons, my ex-husband, and my beau.

My twelve year-old dude estimates that 13% of Chicago’s population marched.  A friend in CA who is very ill with cancer “marched” in the virtual march for the disabled and ill.  We were joined by hundreds of thousands across the U.S., and across the world. Reclaiming. Together.

We walked among a sea of women old enough to be great-grandmothers, and children too young to walk. We walked among women– and many men– of different shades. We walked in a sea of pink, especially pink cat’s ears.img_0106Several days after the election, the most assaultive words that have ever been spoken to me as a woman were yelled at me– in broad daylight. I’ve had lots of crude things said to me by men, since the age of ten.  But this was vile. It was profoundly troubling. It’s part of why I wanted to bring my sons on the march yesterday.

But it wasn’t just about protecting women yesterday. Many of us are under siege.  Much is at stake.

And yes, one of my lenses is that of a mother who was moved to start this blog, and to create the terms “unlikely environmentalist” and “global weirdness,” out of a passionate need to protect the planet for my sons, for all of our children. From that vantage point, frankly there could have been more messages about caring for Mother Earth (a term I’ve actually never used ’til now).  And those of us who care deeply about protecting the natural world need to vote, as a story in Inc. suggests we do not do in sufficient numbers. That’s some of the work we have ahead.

If we don’t make sure our policies protect the natural world on which we depend, all of our efforts to protect the rights of the vulnerable will be for naught.

Still, we walked among many clever, creative and inspired signs. And signs with humor– humor we need to buoy us, individually and collectively for the work ahead.

The work ahead includes living with uncertainty– and not letting our fear and dread convert uncomfortable uncertainty into the certainty of apocalypse.

As Rebecca Solnit, the author of Hope in the Dark says, “The future is yet to be written.”

As a psychologist– another of my lenses– who teaches mindfulness to her clients, one of my favorite posters yesterday was “Be mindful. Take action.”

The mindfulness we need to steady ourselves in this tough moment in history will be the topic of my next blog post.

On the action front, in my view the most important action we can take to protect the people, the services, the natural world, and the rights we care about– whatever they may be– is to speak out to our elected officials. I will blog about that, too– but in the meantime, the more personal the contact, the more effective. Personal visits, personal calls, personal letters.

To learn insider tips on how to be an effective advocate for your cause, check out the Indivisible Guide, compiled by former legislative staffers who share their wisdom on how to make your voice heard.

Onward… With actions grounded in mindfulness. With the spontaneous humor and grace embodied by our outgoing First Lady and President.  With compassion. In community with those who do– and don’t– share our views.

January 23, 2017 at 4:36 am Leave a comment

An Environmentalist Who’s Not Depressed?

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

While many are struggling with post-election blue , there’s an environmental professional who is not depressed. That’s right.

We woke up on November 9th, and the world had changed. Environmental leaders– and Democratic campaign staffers, people whose rights are fragile, concerned citizens, among others–have been reeling. Worried. Depleted. Overwhelmed. Disoriented.

But Brad Warren— my brother, Director of Global Ocean Health, who was featured in the June, 2016 Spheres of Influence Virtual Round Table— is not depressed. Concerned, absolutely. But not depressed.


What’s his secret?

First, he practices meditation. Shortly after the election, he told me that meditation allows him to feel whatever there is to feel. Anxiety. Fear. Dread. Anger. Helplessness. Sadness. Whatever there is to feel. It doesn’t need to be squelched, or drowned, or avoided by leaping into premature action for the sake of action alone in this time of existential crisis.


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“The leader has to recognize when negative emotions like frustration, impatience, anger, lack of self-confidence, jealousy, greed start to influence his thought processes… These negative thoughts and emotions not only can lead to wrong decisions but also waste mind energy.” The Dalai Lama

Brad’s meditation practice allows him to regroup, to restore himself for the work ahead, to reflect on what has happened and why, and to ground his recalibration of his strategy in reflection rather than reaction.

His use of meditation allows him to get out of the reactive mode we’re in when we are driven by fear– when our minds our constricted–, and shift into reflection, which sets the stage for thoughtful analysis and strategic, considered response. Reflection also sets the stage for collaboration, including collaborating with others with whom we may differ.

Second, Brad has found his purpose. His clarity about his direction allows him to harness his emotions, his mind, his energy towards a strategic end. He is very clear about his role as an advocate for the stakeholders whose interests are threatened by of the unregulated waste stream that is CO2 pollution — the largest of any source of pollution, ever. An unregulated waste stream that holds the potential to disrupt every aspect of our lives, from our economy to national security to our health.

And so he continues to work with tribes along the Pacific who rely on fishing for their food and their livelihoods, to serve as a translator of science so that non-scientists can understand what’s at stake for them–especially on the policy front– and to convene seafood industry magnates whose businesses will die without fish to sell — to restaurants, to grocery stores, to us.

Occasionally I speak here as a psychologist.  This is one of those moments. As we prepare for the road ahead, we can all benefit from grounding ourselves before we jump into action. For Brad Warren, his purpose was already clear. For many, that purpose remains unclear, and the process of sorting out how to make a contribution is ongoing. There is much to do, on many fronts. Inner clarity can help wisely discern our course and inform the strategies that we adopt in this unprecedented time.

Zen and the Art of Strategy. How’s that for a book title?



November 28, 2016 at 9:48 pm Leave a comment

Love, Responsibility and Voting

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

Since I realized in the summer of 2006 that global warming posed a threat to my children’s — all childrens’ — health and well-being, one of my most rewarding discoveries has been that our voices and votes really matter to our elected officials. This has been the most transformative aspect of becoming an unlikely environmentalist.



To recycle, or to vote, that is the question

I’d thought that we just needed to make “green” lifestyle changes, like recycling. I’m still a committed recycler, I do buy organic produce, and of course, I drive an all-electric car, AKA TheSilverLEAF, whose adventures are chronicled here.

Over time I came to appreciate that the scale and urgency of the climate crisis is so great that the only way to effectively tackle the problem is to change our polices. Our elected officials make those policies that will make or break the effort to ensure our kids a viable future.

I’ve always voted, but that new-found understanding of the key role of policy reform led me to meet with elected officials, to talk about the urgency of the climate crisis, and its implications for our children.

What I now believe is that it’s far more important to vote (and easier!) than to recycle.

Even one voice counts

Here’s what I’ve discovered about the power of our voices as voters.

For the Spheres of Influence Virtual Roundtable, I interviewed a former legislative assistant to a state Senator who told me that five or six voters speaking out on an issue is often a significant number for many elected officials. Just five or six constituents? That’s you and a few members of your extended family, or a few of your friends, or some moms from your kids’ school. I thought our votes were just grains in the sand.

The former legislative assistant also shared her observation that just one voter’s story— if it’s a compelling story— can tip an elected official’s vote. One person’s story.

My unexpected encounter with then-Senator Obama’s office

Understanding the importance of policy— and advocating for policy change— also led to my most powerful experience on my path as an unlikely environmentalist.

I’d never written a letter to an elected official before. But global warming— and my love for my kids— gave me a reason to write to then-Senator Obama when he represented Illinois.

I got a phone call from his environmental legislative assistant. We had several conversations. I was amazed. It was perhaps the most empowering moment in my life.

To Vote, or not to Vote?

Lots of people aren’t excited about our presidential candidates in this acrimonious election. Some are thinking about sitting this one out.

However, there is a great deal at stake in this particular election. Many climate experts see this election cycle as our last chance to avert the worst possible impacts of unchecked global warming.

If you don’t want your kids and grandkids to be suffering from ravages of wild fires and floods, food shortages, droughts, numerous wars over increasingly scarce survival resources such as water, and new diseases we’ve never heard of… vote your eco conscience. Even if it’s an unenthusiastic vote, it’s a vote that matters to your kids’ future.

Love and responsibility

I’m a self-employed, divorced parent with two special needs kids. I don’t have time to run around being an advocate.

But I’ve made time. Because I love my two tween boys, fiercely.

Talking to our elected officials is an act of parental responsibility. Voting is an act of love.



November 3, 2016 at 2:32 am Leave a comment

Tales from our Chicago Staycation: The SilverLEAF Chronicles 10

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

This year on our family summer vacation, the SilverLEAF got to join us– on our staycation. The SilverLEAF happily brought us to downtown Chicago, to the streets of the south side of Chicago, and to the Skokie Lagoons. Usually the all-electric SilverLEAF gets left behind while we rent a conventional gasoline-powered SUV for a road trip, or take a plane. But the SilverLEAF served us well on this year’s urban adventures.


Our plan this year was that each of us— the two dudes, my mom, and me— would plan a day, including the all-important meals. My 11-year-old dude chose a trip on the Chicago Water Taxi to Chinatown. We’d done the trip some years ago and enjoyed it, so it was time for a reprise. I chose kayaking. My 13-year-old dude chose a history tour.  My mom chose an outing to see the new-ish Stony Island Culture Bank, created by the great designer and urban thinker, Theaster Gates.

Here are some photos from our ride on the Chicago Water Taxi to and from Chinatown. The pagoda that serves as the entrance to the park where you get off the water taxi in Chinatown:IMG_8487

We really enjoyed the dim sum at Three Happiness. We way over-ordered, and ended up bringing home about 10 pounds worth of leftovers. No pics, sorry!

I personally really like this artistic rendering of a map of the Chicago river on the river-facing side of a downtown building as we rode back from Chinatown:


The coolest thing— in my opinion— about the water taxi to Chinatown? You get to see parts of the city that you literally can’t see from anywhere else.


The 11-year-old DudeSter’s assessment: “10 out of 10. Would do it again!” Spoken like the tween he is.

My mom’s pick— a visit to the rundown South Side bank that urban re-designer Theaster Gates’ turned into a lovely cultural center— was preceded by a meandering trip in pursuit of soul food. With Yelp as our guide, we decided to check out Five Loaves.  Our trip was so circuitous that we got there just after it closed. Thanks again to Yelp, we found our way to Daley’s, where the dudes loved the fried chicken and the fries, and my mom enjoyed the chicken noodle soup so much that we took extra home for her.

We then made the short hop over to the fabulous, rustic-yet-classy Stony Island Arts Building.  Very accessible from Lake Shore Drive, not far south of my old stomping ground, the University of Chicago campus.

Take a look at these photos of the current exhibit and the building which convey the roughness of the old structure while capturing its renewed elegance.

For backstory on this exciting urban culture project, see this article in Slate.

In a non-urban vein, my 11-year old and I went kayaking at the Skokie Lagoons, off the North Branch of the Chicago River. We got really up close and personal with a gray heron who was slowly, slowly stalking a fish.

When my 13-year old dude’s day came, instead of touring historic sites in Chicago, like the site of the Haymarket riots— his original idea— he just wanted to hang out with us, and mostly with me, so he said. He can be a little excessively sincere at times— which makes me doubt his sincerity— but I took it at face value. On his day, we did hang out, mostly at home, he rode his bike quite a bit (per usual), and we ate pizza— his pick.

We spent one night at The W Hotel on Lake Shore Drive. The decor was a little too “Las Vegas” for us, but there was a great view from one of our rooms:


We didn’t make it to the National Mexican Museum, which had been on our tentative wish list. Next time!

My take on the staycation concept. This was our first. One challenge was that as a self-employed professional, it was a bit hard to fully disengage from work. The calls and emails kept coming in… However, I really liked not having the stress of hauling ourselves over some long distance. And of course, as a committed eco mom, I loved how low our ecological impact was. Oh yeah, and it’s a lot to cheaper do a staycation. We’d do it again!


August 6, 2016 at 6:16 pm Leave a comment

Protecting Our Hot, Sour, and Lawless Oceans

Contributed by Julia Sanders

A meeting of the minds occurred June 1, 2015 between Ian Urbina and Brad Warren, addressing some of the most serious threats facing the ocean today. In an hour-long discussion moderated by Dr. Sarah Warren, Founder of Spheres of Influence, participants learned about the lawless world on the seas, and were offered a new way to tackle some of the ocean’s biggest threats.

Ian Urbina is an investigative journalist for The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of The New York Times series “The Outlaw Ocean.” In the series, Urbina witnesses and reports on the savage lawlessness of the high seas, where slavery, human trafficking, abuse, murder, deliberate pollution, and many other shocking abuses happen daily — with impunity. He describes the rural men of the Philippines who are drawn in by false marine recruiters promising high wages working on foreign vessels, and instead find themselves facing grueling 20 hour days, constant beatings, and sometimes death. Even when they survive those conditions, and complete a lengthy “contract,” they find themselves unpaid, often deep in debt, and abandoned in a foreign port. Other stories follow stowaways thrown overboard by ruthless captains, scofflaw ships that dump oil slicks 100 miles long, and floating armadas of armed men and weapons caches, ready to come to the aid of ships facing what have become commonplace attacks from pirates, spawning an industry of on-call armed protection.

Urbina’s work paints a picture of a jurisdictional mess, in which a ship buys a country’s flag, and that country is nominally responsible for policing the vessel, while other agencies or countries who may want to investigate criminal activity are legally denied access. Responsibility is handed off in a circle, with each agency (the flag country, Interpol, the International Maritime Organization, etc.) passing responsibility to another — while long-time sources within maritime law enforcement admit that there is no person or agency capable of truly investigating and punishing these often horrific crimes.

On the other side of the discussion was Brad Warren, Executive Director of the National Fisheries Conservation Center, a non-profit devoted to helping people understand, adapt to, and mitigate the changing ocean conditions caused by climate change — especially by man-made carbon emissions. About 25% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, lowering the pH and creating a crisis for many marine animals. This is known as ocean acidification, and it has already had a devastating effect on the West Coast oyster industry, causing wild baby oysters (known as oyster seed) to die in the first 72 hours of life, because the calcium carbonate they rely on to build their shells has become unavailable, transformed by the absorbed carbon emissions into bicarbonate. Since about 2008, Northwest oyster growers, many of them deeply multi-generational family operations, have been unable to rely on wild oyster seed from the ocean, but instead must buy it from hatcheries. And the harm doesn’t stop with oysters: all shelled organisms and many other types of ocean life have proven to be vulnerable to ocean acidification: mussels, shrimp, crab, lobster, coral, finfish, and countless others are under threat. That’s food we eat. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of the ocean has already experienced a 30% change in acidity, at a speed the world has never experienced before.

In addition to this threat, there are several others caused by CO2 emissions. Hypoxia — at lack of oxygen— causes vast “dead zones” such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico where all life dies, and harmful algae blooms (which thrive in today’s higher temperatures) become even more toxic in a high CO2 environment.

In the discussion, Urbina focused on the perilous “blue/green” divide that exists among organizations working to combat environmental human rights problems, while Warren focused on the largest waste stream in human history, and how to tackle it.

Want to learn more? Listen to the archived discussion and see the webinar slides below!

About Julia Sanders
Julia Sanders, Deputy Director of the National Fisheries Conservation Center, also serves as Editor and main author of the Global Ocean Health program’s Ocean Acidification Report, a quarterly email publication of unique Ocean Acidification content which reaches over 7,500 subscribers across the globe.  She also writes on ocean health and seafood sustainability in other outlets.

June 16, 2016 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

Our NissanLEAF has been “tested.” So have we. The SilverLEAF Chronicles 9

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

The SilverLEAF got tested. As did I. As did my kids.

We were displaced from our home for 3-1/12 months by a neighbor’s construction dust. (Yes. It’s true.)

We have an outlet at home that allows me to charge every night when I get home from work. When you have to evacuate your home, you grab a few things and find a place to stay. Fast.

If you’re me, you don’t necessarily think about where you’re going to charge your all-electric car.

The first hotel we checked into didn’t have any charging stations or outlets available.

About a day in, I realized I had to move us. To a place with a swimming pool (for the kids), and access to a charger for The SilverLEAF.

Thankfully, I found a hotel that offered overnight parking in a lot with a charging station. Problem solved.

If the parking lot with charging stations hadn’t been an option, I would’ve had to rent a car. Which have been an additional expense, but would still have been cheaper than owning and operating a gas-fueled car year round. Glad I didn’t have to go the costlier, polluting rental car route…

While in the hotel, we did our best to live green.  IMG_6819-1

We recycled. We didn’t use paper plates or plastic-ware– where is that photo of the pile of dishes I had drying in the bathroom?? We declined to have our sheets and towels changed for as long as possible–there is an outer limit when you’re in cramped quarters with two tween boys.

After three weeks of expensive hotel bills, we moved into an apartment close to our permanent home. This solved the problem of unsustainably high living expenses. It also got my kids out of a cramped hotel room, a way of living that rubbed their nerves raw. It was especially hard on my struggling, introverted 13 year-old. And it solved the problem of being able to charge the car–I could park at home and charge overnight as usual.

After 3-1/2 long months of displacement, sharing a bathroom with two messy boys, and day-to-day creative problem-solving, we finally got back to our permanent home. Our patience and resilience was tested.  My empathy has grown for the many refugees from natural disasters and political unrest. We had it easy by comparison. But it wasn’t easy. Phew. Onward.



May 1, 2016 at 9:31 pm Leave a comment

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