An Artificial Christmas Tree?! You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did We Get Here?

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

We bought an artificial tree. I do ask myself the question posed by the Talking Heads: “How did I get here?”

I bought it with an almost out-out-of-body sense of “this is so not-me.” I’d never, ever imagined we’d own an artificial tree.

But when my fifteen-year-old dude asked that we buy one— for environmental reasons— I had to at least consider it.

I did not buy one of these trees, available at the local hardware store. (See the spindly one in the middle— what is that? A Charlie Brown Christmas tree?)


The argument he made was that fresh trees consume water while being grown that’s effectively wasted when we toss our single use fresh trees after the holidays.

He has a point. There are other points in his favor as well. When a tree is cut down— any tree—as much as 100 pounds of heat-trapping CO2 is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Then when the tree decomposes in the landfill— if it’s not mulched or composted— it releases even more potent, damaging global warming gases into the atmosphere.

However, this point is offset by the fact that fresh Christmas trees are renewable. They can be— and are— replanted every year. Those new trees absorb heat-trapping CO2.

And there are points against artificial trees. They’re made from petroleum. In our household, we try to keep our use of petroleum in any form as low as possible. Also, a plastic will take years to breakdown in the landfill. Then there’s the notable off-gassing of fumes from the tree. The bag it comes in for future storage has that telltale, nostril-flaring “aroma” that cues me to let it air out outside. I’m running the kitchen fan, near the family room where the tree is, 24/7 to try to vent the toxic gases.

As with many environmental decisions, there are trade-offs!

When he first saw the tree, my thirteen-year-old dude said, “What?? I can’t believe you bought an artificial tree!” However, he does get a kick out of the fact that you can make the tree expand and contract with push of a button, which is pretty hilarious. It also looks remarkably real, doesn’t it?


I miss the aroma of a fresh tree.  I miss the idea of a fresh tree. I console myself that the cost of fresh trees is rising– and predicted to rise more in the next few years.  And the artificial tree in our family room is yet another act of parental love.


December 17, 2017 at 10:47 pm Leave a comment

CA Burns…My Sister’s Family Evacuates

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

I’ve been scared this week. Really scared. My sister and her husband along with their two young kids— my sons’ cousins— live near Ventura, California. This week, they evacuated from the home they’d only recently moved to from the east coast.

I’m grateful that my sister is a pretty cautious person. I doubt that she and her family will move back home before the danger from the fires has passed. This time.

But I’m worried for their future. For their safety.


Last night I heard a firefighter on the radio say there doesn’t seem to be a fire “season” anymore in California. Now, any time of year, dangerous fires can rage. What used to apply no longer holds. This is what I call “global weirdness.”

With the changes in our climate— among other factors— fires have been increasing, in California and elsewhere

My sister— and her husband, and my niece and nephew — have been lucky, all things considered. So far. They haven’t lost their house.

Many others have not been so lucky. They’ve lost their baby’s photo albums, their pets, their grandmother’s wedding dress. To say these losses are stressful is an understatement.  Losing a home makes us feel unmoored.

These fires deepen my commitment to do everything I can to minimize the eco impact of our family’s lifestyle, and to keep using my voice as often as I can. I will continue to use my voice as a voter.  And even though the personal and professional demands on my time have been impossible lately, I’ve rededicated to blogging here, using my spheres of influence.

I love my kids fiercely and I want the best possible future for them. For their cousins. For all the kids, near and far, who shouldn’t have to worry that they might lose their homes to floods, or fires. My wish for all children– here and around the world, is for them to have homes where they can feel like they have their mooring spot.

December 10, 2017 at 11:36 pm Leave a comment

“The Reality” Debuts: Eco Reality #1

Contributed by Dr. Sarah

Two months ago, I made the tough decision to give up my very eco-friendly all-electric NissanLEAF– the topic of the now-concluded Spheres of Influence blog series “The SilverLeaf Chronicles.”

Now, the Eco Reality blog series begins. And the Hybrid Honda Accord that I’ve named “The Reality” is introduced. The color I had to settle on because the gorgeous shade of red isn’t available in the hybrid: Modern Metallic Steel. For the first time in my life, I actually wanted a red car. But I’m not unhappy with a charcoal gray car. It’s handsome. So far, I’m happy with this car. I’ve gotten as much as 55 MPG– which exceeds the EPA rating!

Why was the decision to go from an all-electric car tough? Mostly it was difficult because I felt really good about driving a zero-emission car. It was also fun to drive– it was sporty.  And it was nearly free if you consider the monthly payment as being offset by savings on gas. When I see a NissanLEAF now, my heart still skips a beat. I feel like an honorary member of that “club.”

I really wanted to make the electric car “work” in my life. It was a commitment I wanted to sustain. But I couldn’t. As a single parent of two special needs boys and the daughter of an aging mother, my “sandwich generation” brain doesn’t have the bandwidth to constantly think about how to next charge my car, and wondering if I have the battery range to make it to the next destination. In three years, I only ever ran out of battery once– half a block from my house!  But once was enough. With other stresses in my life that I can’t eliminate, I had to lose the stress of worry about battery range.

Hence, the name of the new car: The Reality.  Reality is a constraint on our lives– in the eco realm, and in other realms.  As concerned as I am about the future of the planet for our children, as committed as I am, I believe that we need to allow ourselves to make choices that work for us, without “eco guilt.”

We can challenge ourselves to make environmentally responsible choices in those areas of our lives where we can– and importantly– to write letters and make calls to our elected officials to support them in voting in the strongest possible environmental policies. The policies we put in place locally and regionally can help offset the major losses we’re facing on the Federal level right now. Our voices matter.

And so, we navigate the obstacle course of life, and live with The Reality. Onward.










August 27, 2017 at 3:32 am Leave a comment

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 9.34.39 PM

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.


Shutterstock image

“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

Older Posts

10% of all proceeds are donated to the Academy for Global Citizenship.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. You'll get tips and inspirational stories about "unlikely environmentalists!"

Join 5,595 other followers

Dr. Sarah’s tweets

Follow me on Twitter

Newsletter Signup Form

Sign up for the Spheres of Influence Newsletter! Subscribe to the Newsletter