Friday, 2 May 2008

"Quite" Green

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.


JaneyV said...

I'm noticeably pale green too. Like you I recycle like a maniac but I'm always tripped up with what to do with packaging. The plastic packaging on food is ridiculous. I use as many environmentally neutral cleaning products that I can. I try to buy organic and fairtrade and generally shop ethically. I shower every two days, standing at the wash basin with a flannel gets me by and I certainly don't change the bed sheets as often as I should. And yet I know that this isn't even putting a dent in things. But I have a conscience and I have to do my bit. If the only thing I manage to do is reduce the amount of rubbish in the landfill sites then at least it's something.
I'll check out your friend's website over the weekend. It sounds fascinating and I so admire their dedication.

Alyson said...

The whole environmental issue is so complicated. It's become so political and you're never sure who to believe. There's also a lot of companies who use this enviromental awareness we now have to market products and make money, and, of course, that serves to confuse us even more.

No matter what the truth of the matter is, I want to become more green too. As soon as my car is paid off, I want to get a hybrid. Maybe it won't make a huge impact, but it's better than nothing and it saves me money. I also want to learn more about recycling. I do some now, but I'm sure there's more I could do. I just need to make small changes here and there, especially with my house. We need more energy-efficient windows and we've got to get rid of our electric heat. Not only is the electric heat not good for the environment, it also costs a fortune to run. Yikes!

I must admit that we're big on convenience foods - typical Americans, I guess. I'm just so tired out with raising 4 little ones that anything that is conveinent, I tend to seek out. Perhaps as my youngest gets older, I won't have to rely on those things any longer. That brings up another issue - I can't imagine how many diapers my 4 kids have filled the land fills with!! :-0

Thanks for all the info! And let us know what you find out in your next read!

Bee said...


It sounds like we are pretty much doing the same stuff . . . except you get more points for less water wastage! (I know many, many Texans who shower twice a day! But of course it is a far "sweatier" place.)

One thing that was interesting about the plastic article is it made me realize that lemmings we all are about jumping on various eco-bandwagon issues -- that may or may not be helpful.

You are so right about the landfill issue, but this book made me realize that when it comes to the carbon biggies (heat, water, transport), my family isn't do well at all. My husband lived in Holland for a while and I was absolutely fascinated by the bicycle culture there. I actually LIKE to walk everywhere, but it would be impossible where we live to do your shopping or the school run without a car.

Yes, "carbon offsetting" is the big thing here -- especially for air flight -- and I think that it is mostly either ineffective or a ripoff.

We're going to get some of our windows replaced this year, too. That is actually a pretty helpful one.

Find out if you there is a place you can take your cardboard packaging and plastic bottles (milk,etc.) When I started recyclying those, our garbage halved.

I've never had 4 kids, but what mother hasn't experienced dinner fatigue . . . as in, what am I going to make for dinner (and I don't feel like cooking!)!!?? I've never used convenience foods much, but we used to eat out a lot more in Houston. Cooking is more or less a necessity where I live -- at least if you want to eat well.

The diaper issue: Colin and Michelle actually had a toddler when they started their no impact year. I can't wait to find out how they dealt with that one! (He's writing a book about the experience.)

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee -

What an in-depth and informative review, thanks!

“the very greenest options involve either maximum privation or maximum expense”

Boy, that sums it up, doesn’t it? I could be very happy living on a few secluded acres, with solar panels and wind generators keeping me off the grid, growing my own food. The truth is, that will never be a feasible option for the vast majority of us.

When you speak of the difference between your bin and your neighbors’, you truly hit on the crux of the issue for many of us, certainly for many Americans.


Everything is connected.


The fact that real wages have remained stagnant while fuel and food prices rise means that people must work more hours to maintain their standard of living.

More working moms and longer hours for Dads begat convenience foods and packaging.

I’m so glad you made the point about the counter intuitive nature of some of our choices. Nothing is free, everything is a trade off. The old law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

I know I’m not nearly as green as I should be, and my daily life is a trade off between what I consider the lesser of two evils. Hey, we all make choices. The carbon footprint of my cooling bills alone must be a fearsome thing. But, I keep my thermostat a tad higher than I’d like in summer, and I open up the house on the rare, rare pleasant dry day, but I can’t see giving up my AC. Likewise, daily showering isn’t going away anytime soon.

I carry my own bags to the grocery store and I drive a relatively fuel efficient car. I try to make good choices, but as you pointed out, that is trickier than one would imagine.

As always, you’ve given me something to ponder on, what I wouldn’t give to sit down and discus it with you over a pot of tea. I think I’d like to read this book. I’d like to think even small lifestyle changes can make a difference, if a large number of people are doing them,

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Bee, yes, yes yes! How can I add anything to that? I'm a pale yellow green (how's that for being cowardly and not very eco-minded?) but becoming greener the longer I'm in England. We, too, have cut down on pre-packaged foods and eating out. I never had time to cook in America--too busy with my fast-paced, over-scheduled life. But for the most part, I am enjoying the slower pace here. Since I have the time, I am enjoying cooking again.

I am so impressed with your one small trashbag a week. I am at the half-bin point myself. Plus I'm not driving right now, so I suppose my carbon footprint is looking pretty good!

Bee said...


I do think that small changes can add up, especially if there is a collective force behind them, but both Colin and the packaging expert make pretty much the same point, which is: the way we live now would have to undergo a profound change to really make a difference in the energy we use and the waste we produce.

I was listening to a Radio 4 program this morning, and an American ecology expert was talking about the total lack of US governmental commitment to researching eco-alternatives. (He mentioned that 700 billion was being spent on the Iraq war each year, and that an investment of about 3 billion was needed to really get some energy research off the ground.)

The truth is -- most of us will have to be coerced into changing the way we consume resources; OR, better alternatives will need to be put into place by the governing authority (acknowledging that most people are just focused on getting food on the table, etc -- as you point out).

One little example: in Holland, you are charged for plastic bags in the store . . . so guess what? Almost everyone brings in their own bags.


Just like you, I have become a lot greener since living in England. Part of that is time, and part of it is the greater emphasis on (anxiety about?) the environment here. England is so far behind most of Europe, though, in dealing with recycling issues and renewable energy.

maurinsky said...

I have noticed some encouraging changes, on the green front, in my own neck of the woods. When I go to the grocery store now, about half of the shoppers have brought reusable bags with them. I used to be one of only a few.

I buy local and seasonal when it's available, but in my part of the country, that makes for an extremely limited diet over the winter, so I buy fruits & veggies that have traveled a bit when our growing season has ended. I also grow some veggies at my parents house - they have 2.5 acres and two retired people in the house. I don't have the time or the know-how to do the same in my tiny little yard. I just buy the seeds and/or the seedlings and pass them on to my father.

I drive a fair amount, although I do carpool to my rehearsals. I haven't been on a plane in 2 years, but if I could afford travel, I would like to do more of it. We keep our heat low during the winter, but we are still wasteful because we need new windows (and I don't see that being in the budget until older D has graduated from college).

I try to combine trips, to buy items with less packaging, but I like my daily shower and the best I can offer at this point is to keep it short. I've got it down to 4 minutes, unless I am shaving my legs and my armpits, which I do about once/twice a month or so in the summer.

Bee said...


It is really interesting to me to hear what other people are doing -- especially since we live all over the place.

We are planting our FIRST veggie garden next week . . . although I've been doing herbs for awhile now.

Anonymous said...

I love to compost. I recycle by fits and starts as there is not free curbside pick up in my town. The older I get the more I cook from scratch. But I have to make an effort not to buy into the guilt trippy aspect of going green. It's not useful for me to be paralyzed by concern. I understand that I am a lucky first worlder.

I think we are living in very interesting times. I wonder if air travel will become prohibitively expensive in the next ten years. It makes sense to me that it would. It certainly would change our far-flung plans. I am a little scared but very intrigued to find out what happens next. --Jenine

chiefbiscuit said...

Thanks for your visit to my blog and youe kind comments.
This is an exhaustive post on greenness. I must say i don't score very high - and I do like my daily showers.

Bee said...


Sigmund predicts that this era of cheap air travel WILL come to an end . . . in seven years or so, he thinks. So try to get to England before that happens! Although I've always fancied a long sea journey, minus the iceberg of course.

I bought some organic apples from New Zealand today and thought of you! "Shades of Green" says that New Zealand apples in season are greener than UK apples (out of season) that have been kept in a chiller of some sort! Who knew?

This is from my email -- "DC," one of my funniest friends.
"Does traveling by train (carbon printing) to Wholefoods (which includes pretty much only food flown from all over the world (mega carbon print) constitute being 'green'. I suspect the only green involved would be the currency charged ... but what do I know ?"

As DC points out, buying organic and being green are not always the same thing!

Anne said...

A bit late to this post, but better late than never, I suppose. I am adding Shades of Green to my book list. I am probably, like you, yellowish green (if that). I am trying to bike to work more often. I recycle, and I am trying to be more attentive to what can be recycled or otherwise reused. I buy organic, locally grown produce as much as possible and almost never buy convenience food (having only myself and occasionally the Suitor to feed, this is much easier for me than it is for a family with kids). I bring my own bags to the grocery store, and at other stores I try not to use bags at all. I line-dry most of my clothes. We use CFL bulbs.

But these small efforts are more than outweighed by the not-at-all-green things that I do. I drive to Big Sur every few weekends, and drive to run errands--and my car, while not a gas-guzzler, is no hybrid (I eagerly await the day that Volvo comes out with their C30 hybrid). I fly to Europe every couple of years. I buy cosmetics and electronics and other things that have a ridiculous amount of packaging. I machine-dry my towels and sheets. I acquiesce to the Suitor's desire to run the air conditioning at night, even though opening the windows makes the house at least as comfortably cool. I shower once a day, and then going running, biking, or swimming means I need another shower (especially if I go during the work day).

I would like to compost, but my compost options are severely limited at the moment. Being a renter without a backyard, I can't compost at home; my city doesn't do curb-side compost pick-up; and while I could take my kitchen scraps to my parents' to compost, I suspect that my driving the scraps there would negate any good I was doing with the composting in the first place.

I could be very happy living on a few secluded acres, with solar panels and wind generators keeping me off the grid, growing my own food.

Agreed! But until then, we educate ourselves and try make whatever responsible choices we think we can.

Bitty said...

I don't know what to add to this discussion -- you've all covered it so thoroughly!

What's encouraging is how many of us are consciously thinking about it and trying to do something.

For instance, I'm going to buy an EnergyStar refrigerator this summer.

I recycle like mad.

I give away any unwanted household goods that aren't extremely shabby, but that's not news.

All my light bulbs (except in those fixtures on dimmers) are now CFLs (guess we'll worry about the mercury later...)

And I hope to buy a Prius or Civic hybrid soonish, but I'm also trying to hold out as long as I can because I fear that the the really swell technology will come available the year after I buy! I also hope our next Presidential administration has a real environmental policy. (I read somewhere that Tesla will have a "family" electric car by 2010, but I suspect it won't be in my price range.)

We have the technology; we just don't have the political will to make big changes.

I know I've said this on someone else's blog recently! Enough rambling; I'm done.

Bee said...

Anne and Bitty,

Thanks so much for joining in! As I've said before, it is fascinating to me to hear what other people are doing.

As for taking your clothes (and other things) to the charity shop, I just assumed that pretty much EVERYONE did this -- but I read a shocking statistic about how much clothing is in the landfill . . . so I guess not. BUT WHY NOT? I can't bear throwing things away.

Anne, is there any train system left in California?

Bitty, I am desperately hoping that the next president is going to prioritize this issue.

Anne said...

Bitty - the mother of a good friend of mine is a venture capitalist whose firm has been investing in a lot of green technology, and according to her, your instinct to hold off on the hybrid is sound. Her thinking is that the really great technology will come into its own fairly soon--not one or two years soon, but maybe 5-10 years soon. And as someone who likes to hold onto cars for a while, that strengthens my resolve to wait.

Bee - we have several train or train-like systems: Amtrak for statewide travel, CalTrain for Bay Area commuting between SF and San Jose, BART for wider Bay Area commuting (mostly SF and East Bay), and light rail for Silicon Valley commuting. But that's part of the problem: many systems, with some overlap, but no real coherence. If I want to take public transport to the airport in SF, I have to ride both CalTrain and BART. There are a lot of good-faith efforts to provide public transportation, but none really seems to be well thought-out. And options are certainly limited outside of the major metropolitan areas, despite the fact that train service to the Tahoe area (for example) could potentially see a lot of use.

Bee said...


I hope you see this . . .
your comments about the CA train system remind me so much of ours.

To wit: yesterday Simon left his car in Windsor -- because he had to go up to London for an afternoon meeting and an evening cocktail party. He had to take a car home -- because the trains don't run late. Now his car is in Windsor and I have to drive him there to get it because it would take two different trains plus a short taxi ride to otherwise deliver him. Again, much as we want to avoid the car, it just ends up being hugely more convenient (and cheaper, by the way). Even though the UK has a train system, it is really expensive to use: so hardly an incentive for most folks.