Greener than you, greener than me

The New York Times posts on “greenarexics,” people who are taking an extreme approach to improving the environment by going without proper heating for their homes or reliable transportation, often imposing their spartan lifestyles on family and friends.

Simon Woods, who is 6, would like to play on a baseball team. His mother, Sharon Astyk, is sympathetic, but is also heavily committed to shrinking her family’s carbon footprint. “We haven’t been able to find a league that doesn’t involve a long drive,” she said. “I say that it isn’t good for the planet, so we play catch in the yard.”

That is one way that Ms. Astyk, a mother of four, expresses her concern for the environment. She has unplugged the family refrigerator, using it as an icebox during warmer months by putting in frozen jugs of water as the coolant (in colder weather, she stores milk and butter outdoors). Her farmhouse in Knox, N.Y., has a homemade composting toilet and gets its heat from a wood stove; the average indoor winter temperature is 52 degrees.

The article also profiles David Chameides, who is collecting a year’s worth of wasteful garbage in his basement (to no one’s surprise he keeps a blog about it, undoubtedly with a book deal in mind), Anita Lavine, a mother of two who has been using the same Ziploc bag over and over for a whole year and Jay Matsueda, who broke up with a girlfriend when she refused to give up her gas-guzzling truck and only gives friends “environmentally conscious” gifts, such as a copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth or reusable eating utensils.  He also happily admits to urinating on his lawn in order to save water.

The article is less congratulatory than head-shaking, though I would have liked to have seen the writer make more than just a passing reference to the fact that Ms. Astyk considers herself a pioneer in saving the planet despite having four children.  The hypocrisy of the media bombarding us with the message that America is mostly to blame for the current state of the environment due to our wasteful overconsumption while applauding multiple child households like the Duggars and the Gosselins for their “old-fashioned family values” is so thick you could cut it with a knife.  Not a plastic knife, though, those aren’t biodegradable.

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s feeling superior to each other.  If there’s one thing Americans love even more than that, it’s finding opportunities to point out how superior we are to each other.  I do it, you do it, we all do it.  As the world seems to verge ever closer to falling apart at the seams, we need the comfort of knowing we’re in control of something in our lives, and the best way to achieve that is by always trying to outdo someone else.  We one-up each other in any way possible, relishing the occasion to emphasize how much better or more dedicated we are than others, even moreso if we can make them feel self-conscious about it.  Here’s a perfect example: most of my generation was formula-fed as infants.  At some point during the birth of the next generation, the proven health benefits of breastfeeding were reemphasized and formula feeding, at least for the first few months after birth, decreased.  Then, sometime at the beginning of the 21st century, suddenly a few hysterical mothers began comparing feeding your newborn formula with putting a loaded pistol in its mouth, and the “breastfeeding” vs. “formula feeding” debate began.  That in turn resulted in one-upmanship with the breastfeeding community itself: it wasn’t enough to nurse your child for just the first few months, a “real mother” kept at it until the baby turned a year old.  That soon turned into two years old, then three years old, and now you hear about mothers who are still breastfeeding their children at age five, with the reasoning that they won’t stop until the child wants to stop.  The message is clear, along with a distinct swipe at working mothers who may not have the facilities available to pump their milk: breastfeeding mothers aren’t necessarily better mothers, they simply care more.

There’s also the great “public school vs. homeschooling” conflict.  Within the last twenty years, public schools, regardless of where they’re located, became perceived as miserable dungeons of conformity and inadequate education, staffed by incompetent, uncaring teachers not fit to train dogs, let alone teach our children.  All the mommies and daddies who really cared about their children declared that public school wasn’t fit for their little Madison or Cameron, and decided to teach them themselves, through “homeschooling.”  “Homeschooling” has now been one-upped by “unschooling,” raising children without any structured education whatsoever.  Learning how to follow rules and interact with other children, it just stifles their creativity. 

It’s not just in parenting circles that this constant competition occurs (though it is the most prevalent there), look at vegetarianism.  Vegetarians begat vegans, which further begat freegans, people who furnish their homes and feed themselves with items taken from the garbage.  And, thus, this appears to be the route that environmental consciousness is taking.  Most people these days at the very least make some rudimentary attempt at recycling.  Many folks, Yr. Correspondent included, have replaced the light bulbs in their homes with energy efficient fluorescents, rely on public transportation to get around, and try to use cloth bags in place of plastic at the grocery store when possible.  The point is, America is well aware that we’ve made a mess of things, and most of us are making some effort to improve things.  However, the guy who pisses on his lawn wants you to know that that’s not good enough.  If you really cared about the environment, you’d be freezing your ass off in your house all winter long, and expecting your family to do the same.  You’d be tending your own corn and raising chickens.  You’d be using every opportunity to lecture friends and co-workers about what they could be doing to save the environment, like a Jesus freak with a bit more self-righteousness.

Ironically, the most often touted methods of being more environmentally conscious, other than recycling, aren’t always simple for everyone.  Buying organic foods and household goods is a neat idea, if only organic food was available for the same price as regular food.  “Organic” has long been synonymous with “expensive,” available only to those who can afford to do their regular grocery shopping at Whole Foods, and there doesn’t seem to be a huge effort to reduce costs for the average consumer.  Growing your own vegetables and raising chickens for eggs and to provide fertilizer for composting is great, if you have the skills, environment and space available.  Most people do not.  People like Sharon Astyk, profiled in the article, extol the virtues of withdrawing from the rat race and settling down into a “simpler life,” which seems to mean quitting your job and buying a farm in the country, an option most people do not have.  And yet, whether we are unable to do these things because we don’t want to or because we can’t, we’re made to feel as if we care a little less about our world.  A lot of people really do need to drive their cars everywhere, if they live somewhere where public transportation is either limited or nonexistent.  You’d be amazed at how many major cities view reliable, adequate mass transit as a novel idea rather than a concrete reality.  A lot of people don’t want to go without a flushing toilet in their homes.  Since we’re also constantly being warned about the dangers of germs and bacteria, it seems kind of incongruous that we’re also told that one of the answers to saving the environment is shitting in a bucket and dumping it in the trash.  The days of being more willing to soil yourself than use a port-a-john are over, my friends, that’s apparently the wave of the future.

Undoubtedly the “greenarexics” will soon be bested by a new wave of people living in yurts and drinking their own urine, it’s only a matter of time.  I wonder how much of all this competition is really based in a genuine need to help, do better, make a difference, whatever you want to call it, rather than our own insecurities.  They say the only truly good deeds we perform, without any degree of self-serving to them, are those which are performed anonymously.  Then again, there’s no greater motivator to do anything than guilt.

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2 Responses to “Greener than you, greener than me”

  1. “And yet, whether we are unable to do these things because we don’t want to or because we can’t, we’re made to feel as if we care a little less about our world. ”

    I’ve felt this a lot lately. Especially since I moved to NM. I find that many people who are down on people for certain things have no clue what it’s like to not have a choice. I live in a tiny city where there are two big stores. They are a grocery store and a Wal Mart. If I want to go to a store that is not either of those I must drive approx. 75 miles. So I shop at Wal Mart sometimes. Not everything I want to buy is available at the grocery store.

    Also it’s really, really hard to eat local where I live. Just like going to a good farmer’s market means driving far away. It’s just not worth it to me so I eat produce from the grocery store. I don’t care that it’s from CA (oh how I miss living in CA sometimes) or Chile, at this point I am just happy to be able to have a place to buy it.

  2. jaymatsueda Says:

    I was one of the unfortunate souls who contributed to the NYT piece mentioned above, and I regret having spoken with them for many reasons: 1) The piece defies the reason I volunteered information, meaning that it certainly does not champion the environmental cause or inspire anyone to be green; 2) If it seems to either distance others from being environmental or if it is perceived to be judging people who are not, then it is not productive, and it certainly was not my intention to contribute to anything of the sort; 3) it misquoted me as having said anything about urinating on MY OWN lawn. This is false. I did mention that I occasionally may do that on “the” lawn, but I don’t do it at home and not regularly. Besides, I mentioned that off the cuff to them and asked they not mention it in the written piece; 4) When specifically asked about my green habits affecting relationships, I mentioned that my ex-girlfriend had a Ford F150 truck that I didn’t appreciate, but that this was not why we broke up. To me, her commuter truck was a symbol of our misaligned value system, and that was the essence of my mentioning it. — So sum total, this article to me showed the writer acting out an unethical stereotype about reporters whereby she interviewed me and others based on the false assumption of positivity, and made an inaccurate statement about something that I mentioned not to say in the first place– and then it was paraphrased and re-posted numerable times over the web, including here, with distortions to the meaning that made it further inaccurate. — — For the record, my initiative is to do things that are green and inspiring for other people to follow if they so choose. I never preach it. I may think less of people who do not act responsibly, but that goes for more than people who are irresponsible about green things… that could easily be a general statement: that irresponsible people do not get my respect. It is everyone’s personal choice, though to be green, despite that choice affecting the public in aggregate. There is no preaching going on, but success in combating the global climate crisis cannot be solved individually, so hopefully you opt to voluntarily do the right thing wherever possible.

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