Monday, April 16, 2007

I'm Green, and I'm Proud

My dad was chagrined to find out on a recent visit to my house that I wash and re-use my plastic bags. “You must have learned that from me,” he said, seemingly embarrassed. He was always the one, when I was growing up, going around shutting off all the lights in the empty rooms and grumbling about wasting energy. Maybe he regrets being that way, but I’ve never regretted it, and in fact, it seems like the only way an intelligent and conscientious person can be.

Ever since I was a kid, I knew in my heart that as humans, we had to live gently on the earth. I don’t know why I learned that; my family was your standard, run-of-the-mill middle class American family. Doctor dad, stay-at-home-mom, two kids, and a dog. My parents weren’t hippies, even though they had first come to the Bay Area when tanks were rolling down Telegraph Ave. and Janis Joplin was giving free concerts in Golden Gate Park. We had a three-story house on a tree-lined Berkeley street. I went to private schools. Nobody cared about wasting resources, except inasmuch as keeping lights burning when you weren’t using them meant a higher electricity bill. We did recycle, as most Berkeley families did, my dad composted the garden scraps, and during the drought we did what we could to conserve water, but we were hardly back-to-the-land granola types.

But now, as a grownup and a homeowner, I’m extremely conscious of how I live on the planet. For some reason, it’s just second nature, something I never consciously decided, and something that I would never consciously give up.

I don’t own a car, I don’t want kids, I compost, I grow my own vegetables, I eat organic and local whenever possible, I shop at independently-owned stores when I can, and I try to support organizations that are doing good work. You know, the standard Berkeley leftist lifestyle. I’m certainly not perfect at it: I fly in airplanes (planes are some of the most wasteful vehicles of the modern age), I bank at Wells Fargo, and I watch TV. But I try, and compared to most people in this country, I’m a veritable hippie communist freak. It's not a difficult way to live, it's just different, and it doesn't take long before thinking about how your choices effect the earth becomes a habit, and even kind of a fun challenge.

In the last few years, of course, the kind of lifestyle I lead has come more and more to the forefront as environmental issues such as global warming, peak oil, and ozone depletion have become more accepted by the mainstream public. Hybrid cars zip everywhere around Berkeley. I even saw one on a trip to Montana last summer. Oakland has instituted a food-scrap composting program, and San Francisco has banned plastic grocery bags.

Still, most people are so oblivious and even hostile to the idea that humans have any responsibility towards the planet and the other creatures on it, and it mystifies me. I remember once reading an article about Ellen deGeneres, and how the people around her joked about how cheap she was because she washed and re-used plastic sandwich bags, and I remember thinking “Maybe it’s not that she’s cheap, maybe she realizes that plastic manufacturing is toxic. Maybe she’s secretly an….oh no, don’t say it! An environmentalist!!” It actually respected her more after I read that.

I don’t want to be one of those self-righteous types who thinks everyone should think like me, live like me, and heck, just be me. But I can’t understand people who don’t get the importance of preserving the health of the planet, both for ourselves, and for future generations. It just seems so obvious, and it did even when I was a kid.

When I asked my friend, a gardener from Arcata who eats organic food and once commented on the fact that I dye my hair, to landscape my lawn, I made it clear that I didn’t want to use any chemicals to kill the grass. He said that other gardeners he knew considered Round-Up, the gardener’s friend, to be “not so bad.” I looked it up online, and within two minutes, found evidence that people who used Round-Up frequently were at a higher risk for cancer, and that it washes into the groundwater. I have a 2-year-old niece, and I do not want to be responsible for Round-Up in her – or anyone else’s - drinking water.

So what gives? Why do people who are otherwise intelligent, morally responsible, and conscientious, not understand that we are stewards of the earth? That in order for the planet to be our amusement park, we have to treat it is as our temple? You can’t have one without the other, anyway – to enjoy the planet’s resources (air, water, food, you know, the basics), we need to make sure the planet still has any resources.

My inability to understand other peoples’ thinking on this is a problem, because I can’t help them understand my viewpoint, if I don’t understand theirs. Is it just plain old denial that we’re endangering ourselves and others by our resource-wasting lifestyles? Is it laziness? Is it fear that admitting the damage we’ve done will make us face the scary questions? Is it arrogance? After all, aren’t humans at the top of the food chain? No planet would be so disrespectful so as to make it difficult for humans to live here, right? Or is it just ignorance, since most of us were never taught how to live in a reasonable way?

Part of it is that our society isn’t set up to conserve and protect the planet, it's set up to devour resources. There’s no money in NOT using resources, after all (that’s the standard thinking, anyway, even though I disagree). There’s no obvious attention paid to how to live a less wasteful lifestyle, even though there are starting to be more public service ads and mainstream news coverage to this effect. There are very few real alternatives to driving cars, flying in planes, and getting food and water in a less harmful way.

But, I do see some small changes.
The popularity of hybrid cars and alternative energies, the growing gardens-in-schools movement, the increasing mainstream news coverage of global warming issues (including the attention paid to Al Gore's movie), the dawning realization that the planet is in distress. Maybe things are changing, ever-so-slowly, and the best thing I can do is just model the kind of lifestyle that will help our planet – and each other- survive. I don’t know, but I do know that I love living on this planet, and I want my niece and my new soon-to-be-delivered niece or nephew, to be able to enjoy it the way I have.

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