Chasing Carbon: What to do about STUFF?

Written by Guest Blogger on . Posted in Learn

IMG_0600_Jes and kids web crop revised

Did I mention we are moving? And I don’t just mean to Mexico for the summer.

Last month we had to pack up our entire house and put most of our belongings into storage because we are buying a home. (I tried to explain to my husband that the summer you are buying a house is perhaps NOT the ideal summer to take your family abroad on your work trip for two months… but he disagreed.) As an elementary school teacher, I also just spent no less than 18 hours sorting, packing and cleaning up my classroom. It is a painful ritual that is tolerated only for the sense of relief and closure it brings.

So I have been swimming in STUFF. As I cleared out the corners and crevices of both my home and work place I was confronted with unfathomable quantities of – STUFF.  Toys, clothes, writing tools, books, plastic containers, the list goes on. It would have taken me endless hours to properly sort, repair and catalogue each item, so I ended up throwing many things away.

If it wasn’t “like new,” I trashed it. If I hadn’t used it in the past six months, I tossed it. If it wasn’t part of a set, it was headed for the landfill (single marbles, individual Legos, half-sized pencils, single socks (dozens of them!), torn stuffed animals, puzzles with one piece missing, games with no directions, outdated technology (“What the heck is that power chord for?”), reams of paper that would be good if they weren’t faded around the edges and I had somewhere to put them – the list goes on. I cringed with each sacrificial item, feeling as if I were appeasing the God of Capitalism and consumption, and somehow losing my soul in the process.

Every year when I open up my classroom I swear it will be different. Next year I won’t waste so much. Each time we move, we pledge to buy less and reuse more. My husband, The Nature Conservancy Carbon Scientist, is better about this. He lives in his three pairs of pants and four dress shirts that he washes only when I insist, and could fit all of his belongings in two boxes if he had to. But when the rat race gets moving and it’s all I can do to make sure everyone is dressed, fed and at work on time, conservation goes on the back burner. Convenience rules the day.

As I prepared for Mexico, I found myself in the same quandary. On the one hand, I knew we could get by with only the basics – a few clothes in a bag. Patching together the rest there would be part of the adventure. On the other I am worried we won’t have the right stuff. Will they have the right kind of sunscreen? Should I get bug spray with no DEET? Do we have enough books? What if we want to fly a kite? What if the kids get bored and drive me nuts? We’ll need more toys. What if we get sick from the food? Should I bring my own meds? And on and on. Slowly but surely our one bag has ballooned in to three.

IMG_0202_first week in Merida Ellis kids web

So what does this have to do with carbon?

I feel like this summer we are heading to the source. Beyond the shelves of Target, before the factories in Honduras and China, where all the “STUFF” originates, there is a single element: carbon. The building block of all living substance. If we can come to understand all of the things we produce, consume and throw away as more than just clutter and trash, but as pieces of a larger system connected intimately to the very air we breathe, perhaps there is hope. Perhaps there will be change.

For now, I find comfort in that extra bottle of SPF 50 paraben-free sunscreen.

The Ellis Family Arrives in Mexico!

We have been in Merida, Yucatan for a week now. While Peter works at The Nature Conservancy regional headquarters during the day, the kids and I have busied ourselves with ruins, beaches, museums and cenotes. It has been a luxurious week of touring, if not a bit of a challenging week of parenting, in a foreign country.

Our first opportunity to see Peter’s work up close was thwarted by a business engagement which would have us making the return 5 ½ hour trip from the work site back to Merida with our two kids late at night, a plan which I quickly vetoed. Alas, we will remain tourists in Merida while Peter tends to the carbon accounting in the southern Yucatan, where we will return with him at the end of the week. So it proves not so easy to get close to my husband’s work.

At dinner a few nights ago Peter asked our 8-year old son Jasper what his papa does for a living. Jasper replied after a thoughtful pause, “You save the world by making sure there are enough trees for the atmosphere so people can breathe.”

Not so bad for elementary school. And not so far from the truth. But not the whole story.

P1040007_Peter & Jasper

We’ve come to Mexico this summer to see what their father really does for a living. Of course, they see him working all the time. As far as they are concerned their father sits in front of a computer for hours on end looking at numbers and maps while sipping coffee! But then he leaves for days or weeks at a time and comes back with relics from the jungle, pictures of tarantulas, and stories about snakes falling out of trees, and they are sure their dad does something way cooler than looking at numbers on a screen.

My husband is a Carbon Scientist, which is as descriptive a title as any I suppose, but not much help in defining his daily activities or professional purpose. It is a source of great consternation to him that when asked “So what do you do?” at a party, it is usually a matter of seconds before a layperson’s eyes begin to glaze over. “Carbon accounting,” “sequestration,” “degradation and deforestation” just don’t resonate with the average citizen. Least of all with an eight-year-old.

How do you get an eight-year-old (or anyone for that matter) to understand and value the importance of carbon?

Jes Ellis is a teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. This post is part of a series of Planet Change blogs authored by Jes & Peter Ellis, who will spend the summer in Mexico, with their two children, while Peter, a Forest Carbon Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, works to measure the carbon stored and emitted from Mexico’s forests. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Photos courtesy of Jes & Peter Ellis (The Ellis family relaxes during their first week in Mexico.)


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Comments (1)

  • naomi


    Very nicely written but as a participant in the packing process, while Peter may well LIVE in three pairs of pants and four dress shirts, a good share of the stuff in your household seems to be attributable to him — a fairly large amount of clothes (even if he doesn’t live in them), a lot of camping gear, a large computer, books, etc. — even a bike is stuff after all.
    Consumerism run wild is certainly a big part of the problem. However, as long as the public good continues to be sacrificed to the God Private Profit it is unlikely that consumerism will diminish. It has been pointed out that the US, unlike the EU, does not have a VAT (valued added tax), which is a tax on consumption. Maybe it would be better to tax consumption than income.


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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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