This post is dedicated to Michelle Conlin and Colin Beavan -- my "deep green" friends. Check out Colin's blog -- No Impact Man -- for an ongoing conversation about how to tread more lightly on the planet.
One of the many subtle differences between English-English and American-English is the word “quite.” In fact, the two linguistic cultures use the word in an entirely opposite way: for Americans, “quite” means “very,” while the English use it (with such deftness and occasional cruelty) to mean “not very.” (Believe me, with the right intonation, there is no more cutting indictment than a dry “Quite.”) In England – the “green and pleasant land” -- “green” has become an easy, catch-all term to describe someone who is ecologically concerned, aware, and hopefully, engaged. Therefore, when I describe myself as “quite green” I am admitting – albeit with chagrin – that I am not very green.
I want to be green; I strive to be green; but after reading Paul Waddington’s Shades of Green for the better part of the morning, I have to concede that I am just yellow-green. A cowardly green, really.
Waddington describes his book as “A (Mostly) Practical A-Z for the Reluctant Environmentalist.” So let’s just start with the word “reluctant.” As Waddington admits, the inherent problem to becoming greener is that “the very greenest options involve either maximum privation or maximum expense” (p. 137). He helpfully provides a color-coded sliding scale of greenness – from “deepest green” to “not even a little bit green.” Then in each category – ranging from big choices like Heating and Transportation, to smaller ones like Coffee and Beer – he gives you a range of choices and distinctions, with just enough scientific explanation to make you aware of the complexity of some of the trade-offs. For example, certain foodstuffs – like New Zealand lamb or seasonal apples – are produced in a way that offsets the ecological impact of shipping them. Just considering food miles doesn’t give you the entire picture. As he repeatedly says, the greener choice can sometimes be counterintuitive – or a tradeoff with other factors (e.g., animal welfare, the economical welfare of poorer countries).
Sadly, my “deepest green” choices were few and far between. Basically, I only scored well on organic dried pasta, eggs (from my own chickens), fair-trade bananas (always using the overripe ones for home-baking), and the fact that I breastfed my children. Unfortunately, I cannot even take pride in these good choices – because it would be far greener to avoid eggs (animal products aren’t very green in general), bananas (all imported), and children (huge consumers). I think that the pasta is okay, which is good, because we eat a lot of it. If you live in England, wheat and other grains are generally better than rice – because they are “locally” sourced. If you are going to eat rice, organic risotto is the best choice. I mention the rice because it was one of the few examples of greener eating practices that suited my tastes anyway. (Fair-trade dark chocolate is the other!)
Overall, I did pretty well when it comes to shopping – because I mostly buy organic, fair-trade, and local (if possible). I use very little convenience food – which cuts down on food of dubious provenance and packaging. Although I am simplifying, food choices can more or less be broken down to (1) organic and free trade – green; (2) local and seasonal – greener; and (3) growing your own – greenest.
When it came to transport, though, the rubber hit the road (literally) and I was revealed to be a typically upper-middle-class Western big-time energy waster, despite all of my efforts with recycling and organic food. Even the most energy-efficient cars are only pale green – and we have two. My efforts to “lift-share” (carpool to you Americans) on the school run don’t really make up for the fact that Sigmund has a long work-commute every day. Because transport is the biggest energy user after water- and space- heating (Waddington, p. 54), it actually makes it harder to be green in the countryside than in the city. (Again, that counterintuitive thing!) Public transport is extremely limited, the “amenities” are really spread out, and riding a bike on our narrow lanes is really taking a risk with your life.
The big, old country houses aren’t very green, either. Yes, we use energy-saving light bulbs and we’ve put extra insulation into the attic and we’ve upgraded the heating system, but that still doesn’t excuse the size of our house -- or the fact that it started out life as a barn. Keeping the thermostat lower helps a bit, as does turning off all of the lights and walking around in perpetual dusk, but our house can never be brought up to an energy-efficient standard. (We know, because we had the survey done.) Pale green: just one TV. No shade of green: three computers.
Airplanes, which are “no shade of green,” are one of my most notable violations. Waddington suggests that stopping your air travel altogether is the “single most environmentally positive thing you can do,” (p. 6). I will take three transatlantic flights this year, and probably two or three short-haul ones as well. I dread to think how many flights Sigmund takes in a typical business year. Although I could certainly cut back a bit, the truth is that we have family and friends on several different continents and it would entail considerable emotional hardship – and the twin expenses of time and money – to curtail flying altogether. Even green wannabes struggle with the economic facts of transportation as it is currently cheaper (not to mention faster) to fly than to take a car, train, or ship. Until the train service becomes significantly cheaper than the airlines, I don’t see that much collective progress will be made in this area.
Having a good shower makes you “not even a little green” . . . and this is one of most painful privations for me to contemplate. I could give up holidays with much less regret than it would cost me to give up daily ablutions in hot water. I just don’t have “two day” hair. Waddell suggests that we need to revert to “standards of personal hygiene from a bygone era” (p. 230) . . . and, well, that statement made me feel SO American. I eschew plastic bottled gel for bar soap; I use plant-based cleaning ingredients; but no daily bathing? The mere thought makes me cringe. About the only greenish thing we do when it comes to daily wash-downs is to share the bath water.
On the other hand, it is positively green to wash your clothes, sheets and towels as little as possible. That really appeals to the side of me who prefers the minimum of housework! Again, I am “quite” green in this area – with my Ecover products and my new “A” rated appliances. To be greener I should give up my tumble dryer altogether; but at least I’ve started laundering Sigmund’s shirts myself – as dry cleaning falls into the dreaded “not even a little green” category. (Michelle admitted to me that washing clothes by hand, in a few measly inches of water, was the single worst aspect of the “no impact” year.)
At the renegade far end of greenness, life can be very inexpensive. People who grow their own food, bicycle or walk everywhere, forego electronics, don’t buy consumer goods, and are willing to “shiver and smell” (Waddington, p. 138) can really save a lot of money. But somewhere in the middle of greenness, when you are trying to have it both ways (pleasure and convenience without guilt), the greener choice can be pretty expensive territory. Organic food, although greener, costs more – sometimes significantly more. Carbon offsetting schemes are costly, possibly ineffective and frequently dubious. Green-tariff electricity is both expensive and inefficient. Sigmund, who works for an energy company, claims that the green-tariff electricity which we pay quite (American usage) a bit extra for is statistically irrelevant as a consumer choice . . . accounting for less than one-percent, in fact.
Greener practices also mean swimming against current cultural practices. We just can’t live the FAST, CONVENIENT life and make the greenest choices. Washing your clothes by hand takes time. Growing your own food, and cooking everything from scratch, takes more time. And time is something we almost pride ourselves on not having.
The Financial Times Magazine had a fascinating article this past weekend (April 27/28)on “Plastic: The elephant in the room.” Consumers have waged war on plastic (the water bottle; the plastic bag) as the symbol of our wasteful culture of convenience, but the article suggests that the “plastic” issue has all sorts of complexities which consumers really don’t appreciate. Marks & Spencer have put a lot of research into the issue, as they have worked to green up their credentials. One thing they discovered is that “consumer perceptions of packaging” bears no relation to the reality. Their study was almost laughably ironic in its conclusions: while “we” fret most about organic food, which uses the least packaging, we worry least about wine, which uses the most packaging. As with the energy issue in general, business and the government are flailing around – looking for solutions, and make some things worse along the way. Two examples: customers want “loose” produce, yet it results in more wastage in the store, and faster deterioration at home . . . not to mention that it actually requires MORE packaging to be transported. The other interesting example is biodegradable plastic – which is the new thing for the organic produce that I buy at M & S and Sainsbury’s. It is very “light” (plastic’s great virtue when it comes to transport) and it is supposed to be compostable. The problems? It doesn’t break down easily, unless it is exposed to high heat; and the fact that less than 5% of us have compost heaps; and the unforeseen complication that it actually contaminates the oil-based recyclate. Having been thrilled to toss this “compostable” plastic in with my grass clippings and tea bags, I am now starting to worry that it is more like the “biofuel” problem. We quick-fix one problem only to create another problem in its place.
Some of the most interesting, provocative comments in this article came from Dick Searle, who is one of the foremost packaging gurus in the UK industry. Apparently he regularly does a talk called “The Role of Packaging in Modern Society,” and amongst his many points is that packaging has played an “unacknowledged role” in the “emancipation of women” (p. 17). Here’s a personal example: Friday is “bin day” on our street. (Or garbage cans, for the American readers.) Through my diligent recycling efforts and the fact that we DO have a compost heap, I have been able to reduce our rubbish to one smallish bag a week. It sits, forlornly (but in the nicest possible way), at the bottom of our big gray bin. Our neighbors’ bins, on the other hand, are stuffed to the brim so that the tops don’t close properly. Like our family, our two closest neighbors are families of four with small-to-medium aged children. The big difference, though, is that the other women are both working mothers . . . while I am a stay-at-home obsessive recycler. Their bins are a direct reflection of their eating habits – and lack of recycling habits – and honestly, their overall lack of time. Lots of highly packaged food; lots of convenience food. It is such a clear example of the “modern lifestyle,” and I see it played out every week.
Here’s a worrying statistic: in 2008, the UK will produce TWICE as much waste as it did in the early 1990s (p. 16) – and only about 20% of it is currently being recycled (p. 19).
At the end of the article, Searle makes a direct correlation between the amount of packaging that we use and the life that we WANT to lead. He doesn’t see us making big changes any time soon – (and I infer here), because we are addicted to convenience and having the food we want when we want it.
My next environmental reading choice is going to be Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which describes a year of totally seasonal eating. I’ve read some reviews of this book – enough to know that her experiment is not without its challenges. As with Colin and Michelle’s No Impact Year, getting to a deep green place takes lot more than simple, painless changes. Despite all of my green efforts, reading Shades of Green really did clue me up as to how much more change it will take to move from “quite green” to a recognizably deep green.
Here's my plan: I’m going to tell Simon that I am very willing to move into London into a small flat – so that we can give up the cars. As for my showers? Well, I’m going to try to cut back on the time and the temperature – if not the actual frequency.