Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green, Though It Might Not Be Too Bad

The best subject that I ever taught was part of my first job: Advanced Placement Environmental Science, lovingly called APES by the many outstanding students I met in that assignment. As much as I loved it, I wasn't really very good at it. I was only a few years older than the students themselves, my own background in the subject wasn't that vast, and my classroom skills at that point were pretty weak. (In fact, my adjustment to that first teaching job might make an interesting post. Like the day I found the ten-inch rusted scissors in the front desk looking as dangerous as two daggers held together. The students told me the previous teacher used to threaten them with the scissors. Nobody was sure if he was joking. Then he had a nervous breakdown. But I digress.)

APES is such a fun subject because it requires teachers and students to pull from their entire knowledge base. A working knowledge of all the major sciences--ecology, biology, chemistry and physics--is essential. In addition, a student must be able to take their science knowledge and view it through a lens of both political and social systems in order to see how knowledge applies to actual reality. An empathy for, and willingness to understand, different cultures is helpful. To all this, mathematical models of varying complexity are a large part of the subject, as well as an ability to interpret and understand statistical renderings of data.

One of the chapters in our book was one the three R's. (No, not THOSE three R's, which aren't really R's anyway.) Reducing. Reusing. Recycling. Until I studied environmental science with my students in some detail I had not understood that these R's are not created equal. Instead, the order in which the are presented represents a hierarchy of desirability.

Recycling gets a lot of publicity. Perhaps because the effects of an entire community adopting a broad recycling program are easily and quickly measured. My large recycling bin is picked up every other week and I can clearly see all of the trash that has dodged the landfill to be turned into new, useful consumables. Recycling is a pro-active process that makes me feel good. From a cost-benefit analysis, the recycling of most products represents a large savings in both the short and the long-term. (Glass is a rather glaring exception--it is NOT always cheaper to recycle glass than to create new.) However, when you look at energy inputs and outputs in a system, recycling is only one step away from manufacturing new products from scratch. A rather large step, and an important one, but still not optimal.

Better than recycling is reusing items. A couple of years ago, quite by accident, I found myself looking around the local Goodwill. I found a large variety of nice items, in a clean and bright store, and the prices just couldn't be beat! Though I don't shop there often for my kids--the non-baby clothes are often too worn, and there is no shortage of hand-me-downs here at home--I have been able to satisfy (and justify!) my craving for "new" things to wear on a regular basis, and I get the satisfaction of finding some really awesome deals. My thrift shopping has also encouraged me to contribute at the other end. Our house is pretty small, and so I aggressively clean out closets, bookshelves, kitchen cupboards, etc., taking bags of various sizes for donation monthly. Besides being "green," my purchases provide jobs for adults with mental disabilities and if I designate my donations as being for the local women's shelter, then the group is given in-store credit in the equivalent amount of my donation so that battered women can purchase needed items for themselves and their children. Shopping thrift is obviously not the only way to reuse items, but it is one way.

Of course, the best of these R's, and perhaps the hardest is to "reduce." I'm not even sure that for Americans reducing is a matter of "doing without," but perhaps a re-defining of what our needs are. I'm not talking about legislation here, or curtailing our freedoms (though if America continues on its reckless spending habits, and its subsequent depletion of natural resources, this is exactly what will happen), I'm talking about being honest with ourselves about whether or not we carry attitudes of entitlement that have nothing to do with government assistance. The American lifestyle both sucks global resources while simultaneously, perversely providing jobs all over the world to satisfy our lust for cheap goods.

The further irony is that if Americans become more conservative, careful and cautious in their spending habits, our economy slows. Yet, the question must certainly be asked if the levels of economic growth achieved in the late nineties were ever sustainable. The answer, of course, is no. American economic history over the last century has been dominated by boom and bust cycles--some more dramatic than others. But cautious principles of personal spending, and an adjustment in expectations about what we "deserve" out of life would create an economy of sustainable long-term growth, even if that growth was relatively slow.

The stores are filled lately with kitschy "green" products. Everyone makes their own $1 grocery store bags now (mostly made so cheaply that they can only be called "reusable" for a handful of trips to the store), but the clothing is probably my favorite. Tee-shirts that say things like, "Love Your Mother" or "I (Heart) Boys Who Recycle." The irony is that these tee shirts are manufactured in plants that are thousands of miles away (even China is sub-contracting labor to North Korea) by workers in appalling conditions so that Old Navy or Wal-Mart of whomever can market them for $5 apiece at earth day time. They sell thousands of unneeded products, making money from volume instead of huge mark-ups, exacerbating environmental and social problems so that people can wear items saying how much they hate environmental and social problems.

Before I'm too hard on the big box type stores, however. It is also important to point out that corporations, like Wal-Mart are leading their own "green" revolution, because they have found the great cost savings that comes from conserving. Turning on half as many lights, and converting those lights to more efficient types, saves a single store tens of thousands annually. This translates to tens of millions company-wide. If there is to be any true revolution in America, companies will have to be on board. Companies will not get on board without such commitment making the bottom-line more attractive.

But I'm not pointing my finger at you or anybody else. I think today I am pointing it at me. This fantastic opinion piece by columnist Thomas Friedman appeared in our local paper today. He argues for finding somebody new to blame for the BP Oil spill: The (Wo)Man in the Mirror. If BP cut corners it is because each of us, on some level, wants to constantly find cheaper ways to maintain, or expand, our truly luxuriant lifestyle. Is "luxuriant" going to far? I don't think so--by any comparison to the rest of the world, and especially to history, our lives are filled with leisure and ease. I too often complain about my tiny house, forgetting that my house is still larger than the average house size in 1950, when people had much larger families.

In the last year or two, we have made a couple of adjustments (besides my Goodwill shopping) to the way we do things that haven't been too hard, and have helped us be a little more green and have a little more green. A couple of years ago, Plantboy bought a rather large composting bin, but as he put it in a rather unobtrusive place in our yard, I was okay with it. We keep a small can in the house that I fill with scraps, usually while I make dinner, and we take it out nightly. We layer these green scraps with a brown layer (usually leaves) every so often and each spring he opens the bottom and like MAGIC!* beautiful mounds of rich, dark, nutrient-rich earth come spilling out. Saturday night we enjoyed our first meal filled with garden goodies--baby tri-colored carrots, buttery Yukon Golds, and tender beets. While I know that plenty of people like beet greens, we are not those people, and the 40 days of rain we've had these past weeks made them rather unpalatable-looking. Anyway, I chopped up the stems and greens anyway, marveling at that large pile of organic matter for adding to the compost. Today's unwanted beet greens might be next year's green beans.

What an amazing thing.

Gardening, composting, sewing and reaping, working and observing together as a family has been a huge blessing to us. When I asked Plantboy what he wanted for Father's Day he said, "Is it weird to say that I want a 25 pound bag of organic fertilizer?" Maybe. But no weirder than wanting a $300 stick for hitting a little white ball. And much more useful.

The second change we made was this summer. When we first moved to our city, it was the first time we'd owned a home in a couple of years and we didn't have a lawn mower. A friend from Church loaned us a fixer-upper. Thanks to Plantboy's mad mechanic skills, he has managed to keep this thing running through three summers. This spring however, he confronted the reality: to keep it going now would require some pretty major fixes, starting with new spark plugs and working from there.

Or, he wheedled, we could get one of these instead:

He had mentioned the manual lawn mower before, but I was never sure that he was entirely serious. Still, the $100 price tag was very attractive and I agreed, if somewhat reluctantly.

I love this "machine." The Wall Street Journal earlier this week ran a lengthy article on the new trend in souped up lawn mowers with iPod ports, alternative fuel versions and cushy seats. These models run anywhere from $3,000-$10,000. (You'd have to use a lot of bio-fuel to justify that sucker.)

But if you have a smallish plot of turf (we have systematically been pulling out grass ever since we moved in), this might just be an answer. Saturday I mowed the entire lawn (Plantboy edged) in about 30 minutes. The manual mower seems to work best if you push it fast, so I actually got my heart rate up while mowing. I finished without a pulled rotator cuff from the pull-start, nor the smell of gasoline in my clothes and hair. It is so quiet that listening to my iPod would have been entirely possible. The way it cuts the grass doesn't damage the blades as much, so my shoes and feet weren't grass stained when I finished. The best news is that Jedi Knight and Padawan can push the thing if they work together. Like a team of baby oxen.

Now if we could just stop using disposable diapers . . . .

* Okay, not magic, it is a very natural process of biological decay. But just because a thing can be explained doesn't mean it isn't remarkable.


Z. Marie said...

Before I met Kevin, I had a lawnmower like that for the little patch of lawn in my back yard. I loved it. He wasn't so crazy about it, and we ended up giving it away when we moved to Houston. Sometimes I miss it ...

FoxyJ said...

I grew up in southern CA with semi-hippie parents (home birth, gardening, recycling, etc) who have been 'green' for long before it was cool. It still weirds me out when people are resistant to going green or dismiss it as something political or faddish. Interestingly, my mom credits a lot of her longstanding environmental things, especially gardening and reusing/recycling to her upbringing on a farm in a small Mormon community.

Jenny said...

Great post--so much to say, but I'll just settle for my last question:

Do you rake up the cut grass or leave in on the lawn? Just curious. And sort of jealous... no WAY we could do our lawn with one of those jobbers. It'd take the entire Saturday.

Yankee Girl said...

Love teh lawn mower!

Janssen said...

Really great post; I had never thought that those Rs weren't all equal.

It also makes me want a manual motor next time around. . .

Caitlin said...

We compost too, but we just use some screen to tame our giant pile. We have been thinking about getting a composter so if you don't mind sharing, what kind do you have?

Hooray for removing lawn! Our HOA has certain requirements, but we are slowly taking it to the bare minimum.

I also loved the comparison of your sons to oxen. Awesome.

Vi2139 said...

It is never too late to learn. .................................................................

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

For lack of yard and funds, I compost in some big bins on our apartment complex's back patio. I get decent results, but probably not as good as yours. Not sure whether that is due to substandard equipment or user error.

When I first started, I thought my neighbors would think it was bizarre that I had a hobby centered around decomposing organic matter. To my surprise, virtually everyone who has happened by while I was stirring leaves and veggie scraps into my bins tells me think that's pretty cool.

None have asked me to teach them how, though. :)

Melanie said...

The three Rs are a hierarchy - thanks for that revelation. Constant use of plastic water bottles is something that I really dislike. Sure, you can recycle those water bottles, but why not buy a Brita pitcher or use a Nalgene bottle?

I recently discovered a pair of amazing thrift stores in my area! There are some really wealthy neighborhoods in the area where I live, and some of the clothes even had tags on them still. In fact, today I'm wearing an Ann Taylor Loft shirt that I bought there for $4.