Quarterly review: FY16Q2

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

This month I technically completed my 2016 Goodreads Challenge — 16 books ahead of schedule. It is a little misleading, since of the 14 books I read this quarter 6 were graphic novels. This year I decided to try and read more comics at the long-time encouragement of The Incomparable, one of my all-time favourite podcasts. Hence why I set my Goodreads challenge so low. However, most of the graphic novels are on GR, so I am racking up points!

Also, I have been much better of making at least a note once I finish a book. Thus follows a list of everything I read this quarter, for probably the first time ever. Looking back, I would say that Debt, the First 5,000 Years is a must-read that I will recommend to everyone, and Alif the Unseen, though not perfect, certainly had me thinking and talking about it for days after reading it.

Graphic Novels

★★★★★ Astonishing X-Men, Vol. 1: Gifted

★★☆☆☆ Power Man and Iron Fist: The Comedy of Death

★★★★☆ Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu

★★★★☆ Batman: The Long Halloween

★★★★☆ Batman: The Killing Joke

★★★☆☆ Superman: Earth One, Vol. 1

“Real” Books

★★★★★ Debt: The First 5,000 Years

★★★☆☆ The Sword of Shannara

★★★☆☆ Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

★★★★☆ Devil You Know

★★★★☆ The Grace of Kings

★★★★☆ The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

★★★★☆ Mindfulness in Plain English (my 500th Goodreads book!)

★★★★☆ Alif the Unseen

Film

Pretty light on film this quarter. I was catching up a lot on TV, and found that graphic novels (as seen above) became my go to evening entertainment when I didn’t have the bandwidth to read a tract on Buddhism or debt.

★★½☆☆ The Good, The Bad, The Weird

★★★½☆ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

6 months meat-free

On December 28th 2015 — about to consume yet another holiday family dinner of turkey and ham with all the trimmings — I decided to stop eating meat.

It has been six months and I have kept to that promise. It has not been very difficult actually, but I should be sure to give full credit to my wife for her great recipes… otherwise I would be doomed to canned veggie soup and frozen fish and chips forever.

Since that holiday meal of mashed potatoes, corn and salad, I have not eaten the flesh of any animal that casts a shadow upon land. I still do consume fish and other seafood, plus eggs and some milk. My diet is ovo-lacto pescatarian, but I self-categorize as an environmental vegetarian.

The reason I stopped eating meet is to fight climate change.

Feed production and livestock production account for 14.5% of global carbon emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Beef produces the most carbon.

chart from UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Producing corn for feed, hauling it to the cows, watering them, feeding them, hauling them from one location to another, dealing with their “methane” production, then slaughtering and shipping the beef to parts around the world… now when I look at the label on a pack of steaks in the supermarket and see “Product of New Zealand” I just shake my head. And with the post-war advanced consumer culture we have, more meat is being consumed making things even worse.

So I removed myself from the system.

Is this a real solution? Should I be comfortable and complacent while riding gallantly on my moral high horse? Well, no, not really. Although we grow some of our vegetables, and frequent farmer’s markets and the like, much of the fruit and veggies we get in western Canada come from Washington, California or Mexico, especially in the winter months. And the shrimp I still eat has many other ethical problems. But like all things, you have to take it one step at a time. And this certainly has been a good talking point over the past half-year. I think I have been able to contribute a little to awareness of the problem, and I see no reason to stop now.

Photo: Some recent food pics from my Flickr.

Questioning “normal consumption” — find out what you actually need!

One of the first things we did when starting our downsizing program was stopped using our credit cards. We had to figure out what our real expenses were each month to get our spending under control, and the cards did not help. In fact, they were a hindrance. Take a look at some stats from a recent Neal Gabler piece in The Atlantic:

  • “only 38 percent of Americans would cover a $1,000 emergency-room visit or $500 car repair with money they’d saved”
  • “55 percent of households didn’t have enough liquid savings to replace a month’s worth of lost income”
  • “38 percent of households carried some debt, according to the analysis, and among those, the average was more than $15,000”
  • “Thirty-two percent of the survey respondents said they couldn’t afford to live a healthy lifestyle”
  • “21 percent said they were so financially strapped that they had forgone a doctor’s visit, or considered doing so, in the previous year”

The point of Gabler’s piece (entitled “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans“) is that it is not simply the poor that are being affected by this phenomenon (though they certainly are the hardest hit). Again, from the article:

“…in 2013, prime-working-age families in the bottom two income quintiles had no net worth at all and thus nothing to spend. A family in the middle quintile, with an average income of roughly $50,000, could continue its spending for … six days.”

We as North Americans have an addiction to debt, and an aversion to saving and living within our means. The reason for this is hidden in this one sentence:

“Even in the second-highest quintile, a family could maintain its normal consumption for only 5.3 months.”

Emphasis added.

Abnormal consumption

What is your “normal consumption”? One of the major points in downsizing is find the answer to that question. What is the baseline — what do you actually need — every month. You need to put your consumerism on a leash.

To get there you need to do the simple things:

  • track your expenses
  • cut back to just essentials for a period of time
  • have a dedicated savings account where you put a small amount no matter what
  • keep things simple, for example:

Every payday I take out $100 in cash and put it in my wallet. That is my budget. I pay for everything (I can) in cash. Any day of the week I can take stock on where I am at in my budget by simply looking in my wallet. Every penny is tracked in Toshl. Any day I can get a sense of the bigger picture.

Taking stock of what you spend money on helps. For example, here is a week’s worth of groceries in our house:

grocs_for_a_week

Just seeing it as tangible goods on the table — not abstract future derivatives — makes it a lot easier to deal with mentally.

There is a great pull quote from the Atlantic piece:

In the 1950s and ’60s, American economic growth democratized prosperity. In the 2010s, we have managed to democratize financial insecurity.

Consumer debt is out of control in North America. If you want a (funny) taste of how messed up the system is, check out John Oliver’s segment from last week on Debt Buyers:

In our house, we have removed ourselves from the system and gained back a measure of financial security. Two years ago I could not answer “Yes” to any of the “surprise expense” questions posed above. Now I can, and I live in a single-income household of four, carrying over $40K (down from $60K jsut a few years ago) in student loans. We are not totally free yet, but in just a year or two of minimalist thinking, we have gained back a measure of economic freedom, and gotten rid of a whole lot more financial distress. I recommend it.