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.