Posted by: bkivey | 18 October 2010

“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”

I was in elementary school when the environmental movement was starting to move into mainstream American consciousness and my first experience with the movements ideology was in the fourth grade. This is not to say that I was unaware of environmental stewardship: as a member of the Boy Scouts I had already been taught to respect the natural world and to minimize my footprint while enjoying God’s creation. At the time even the state-sponsored message was one of cleaning up the mess caused by unfettered industrial development rather than browbeating people into conforming to a pagan religion. As anyone who remembers the appearance of nearly any major American city at the time knows, there was a lot of work to be done, and a national will to do the work necessary. After all, no one wanted to see the air they breathed or watch a river of sludge flowing through their town.

Forty years on the war against pollution has largely been won in the West; you’d have to go a far piece, say, to China or Eastern Europe, to see the worst examples of industrial malfeasance. Leaving aside the attitude that it’s apparently OK for the Chinese to breathe dirty air so Westerners can enjoy cheap consumer goods, we are approaching two generations in the Western world that have been vilified for wanting nothing more than a better life for themselves and their children. While it is incumbent on those with the means to do so to reduce the amount of resources they consume, there has been an increasingly vehement condemnation of those folks from those who conflate resource management with moral superiority. To my mind this creates a lot of unnecessary stress.

Joyce Wadlen of The New York Times wrote a story illustrating some of the conflicts people have between the desire to reduce their resource use and the necessities and vagaries of modern life. Some of her examples include:

  • Josh Dorfman and Stephanie Holzen, who use disposable diapers because, by their own admission, the performance is superior to cloth diapers. Mr. Dorfman goes so far as to call cloth diapers “… totally unrealistic.” I’m sure these folks are aware that parents, including my own with five kids, muddled through for thousands of years with cloth diapers. They’re also correct about disposable diapers being the superior product. But they feel really guilty.
  • Danny Seo, whose business sometimes requires him to rent an SUV to haul things around. He mentions that he finds himself hauling things for a day and then driving the same vehicle for a few more days while he attends meetings. Asked why he didn’t trade the larger vehicle in for a smaller one when it had served his purpose, he says that he “… can’t spend that kind of time.” What, you’ve written seven books on eco-living and you can’t find a couple of hours to trade for the appropriate car? I personally don’t care what Mr. Seo drives, and I don’t judge a person’s worth by their car, but a lot of busybodies do, and they’ll try and make you feel guilty about your choices.
  • Eric Feed, who bought a toilet with a sink in the top so you can wash your hands with the water that’s used to fill the tank. Given the splash patterns of toilet bowl use I have some serious concerns about how sanitary this is, and Mr. Feed admits that the toilet-cum-sink is awkward to use.
  • My favorite quote from the ‘green’ side comes from Jeffrey Hollender, who says: “”A friend of mine challenged me to go for 30 days without buying anything new. I said, ‘That’s a great challenge, I’ll take you on. But I’m going to start next month, because the new MacBook Air is coming out.” I rather suspect that if Mr. Hollender had taken up the challenge, the MacBook Air would have still been available.

The running theme seems to be that so-called ‘green’ products are in many cases inferior to or much less convenient to use than the evil, wasteful, non-green counterparts, yet people feel compelled to use them or make choices that may not be the optimum solution for the job at hand. A significant part of their self-worth seems to be tied up in what other people think they should be doing and not in what they know to be the better product for the situation. And when they do make choices based on practicality, they feel needlessly guilty about their choices, because someone else says they should.

For myself, I don’t happen to own a car, not because that choice makes me a better person, but because I live in a place with a reasonably good transit system and I don’t need one. My TV was bought used 15 years go and my stereo is 20 years old, and they work great. I don’t buy anything unless what I’m using dies or completely wears out, and even then I’ll look into fixing it before buying, usually used if I can get it. Things are routinely repurposed and recycled. Dead electronics, for instance, go to the target box, where they become, if only briefly, ‘live’ targets. Old clothes become shop rags, plastic bags become trash can liners. My personal aesthetic is guided by practicality and the working of solution optimization: what’s the least amount of resources I can expend to achieve a desired result? In no way do any of these choices make me a better person than the individual who drives the Hummer, nor do I in any way feel inferior to the Prius driver. My choices work for me; they may well not work for someone else, and I respect that.

Ultimately it seems that a lot of ‘green guilt’ is really guilt over having a fairly comfortable life when there are a lot of people who would love to have the problems that most Westerner’s have. Toward the end of the story a Mr. Frank Sliney sums this up:

”You know what I think? If you wake up in the morning and your biggest concern is trash cans or what kind of window sprays you’re using, you are having it good. There are people who wake up and their biggest concern is getting fed.”

I think that people should make choices based on efficacy. If a ‘green’ product does the job at least as well as the alternative and the cost-benefit ratio is favorable, then go with that, but don’t let other people with personal agendas decide how you should live.

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