Friday, November 13, 2009

ECO ACTION: An American Eco-Radical?

Last month, my friend, Catherine, from New Zealand responded to my blog post about my decision to start air drying more of my clothes by saying:
  • "No criticism of you intended, but I'm always amazed at the things we think are normal in New Zealand that seem eco-radical to Americans!"

I don't think I've ever framed my choices as "eco-radical", but perhaps they're coming across that way. It's taken me a month since my last post to find a reasoned way to explain.

Let me clarify.

I realize that most of the world, by choice or circumstance, lives in a way that has far less environmental impact than the "American" lifestyle. We are the world's largest consumers of resources. We have greatest per-capita responsibility for greenhouse gases, pollution, and waste on the planet. And while I'm proud of my country and it's people for many different reasons, THIS is not one of them.

The ECO ACTION blog posts I write here are simply accounts of my efforts to reverse old habits in my own life--habits shared by most Americans--that unnecessarily consume precious resources and adversely impact our environment without, in my opinion, improving anyone's quality of life in a way that justifies the environmental costs.

That's it.

Personal change. Not eco-radicalism, unless you want to call it that.

I visualize an Eco-Radical as someone who lives entirely off the grid AND actively draws attention to themselves in the manner of Green Peace. These are the mavens of the environmental movement. Mavens provide a nexus for change. At one extreme end of the continuum, they showing us what is possible with extreme commitment and effort. Important, but rare.

I'm radical only in the sense that I'm swimming upstream within my own culture, a culture largely shaped by corporate advertising over the past 60-70 years.

Fortunately, the numbers of those swimming in the same contrary direction is steadily increasing.

My parents came of age in Southern California of the 1940's and 50's when science and capitalism (also incorrectly equated with democracy) promised to solve the problems of generations past--disease, poverty, hunger, long work hours, little opportunity, housing insecurity, over population, tyranny, etc.--along with their own.

Advertising in magazines, on TV, billboards, etc. showed smiling families with shiny new washers and dryers, bigger cars, convenience foods, ... and an ever increasing standard of living for them or their children. More free time, large private homes with big green lawns and shady trees, safe streets where children could play, greater health and longer lives...more possessions and more time to enjoy them, that was the promise. Science would solve any unforeseen negative consequences of all this progress, just as it had everything else.

We believed it. And, largely, that promise was delivered for white middle class America. Not without negative consequences. And not fulfilled equally across racial groups, geographical regions, or economic groups.

I'm all for greater food and housing security, living without fear of violence or disease, and having enough free time to fulfill ones intellectual and spiritual potential--but our American consumer culture doesn't focus on these essentials. It's all about a search for happiness in the stuff.

I heard recently that if everyone on the planet lived the American lifestyle, the one we're trying to sell to them, we would need 6 planet earths to support the current population.

We are a country with a frontier mentality. It's an indelible part of our national identity.

During the first 300 years of our history we learned to expand our borders, expand our manufacturing and agricultural production capacity, expand our population and personal wealth. We came to believe that limitless expansion was a divine right, one granted to us by "our" God as a reward for our form of government and our "Christian" society that pleased the Creator.

How often in advertising do we hear phrases reinforcing the "right" to "buy the best" because we "deserve it." The premise is that we "work hard" and we are "good people," so we deserve all the things we can buy.

There are those who continue to believe that science will save us in the end from all the negative consequences of our limitless consumption, that we can continue on this same path without worry.

Or that environmental conditions really aren't so bad; the concept of global warming and irreversible depletion of resources is a conspiracy concocted by a atheistic scientists to frighten us.

Or that this earth is only our temporary home before we're taken up to heaven, so we shouldn't concern ourselves with its problems.

While I don't consider myself an "eco-radical", my experiences of this culture are somewhat that of an outsider.

When I was growing up my parents subscribed to "Organic Gardening" magazine. I read it from cover to cover. They grew and preserved most of the fruits and vegetables we ate in a garden and orchard irrigated in part with "gray water" from the washing machine where my mother used biodegradable soaps, and fertilized with our own composted food scraps and yard waste. They did this not so much for environmental reasons, but because they were both children during the Great Depression. For the same reason they bought nothing on credit including their house and car, they saved a large portion of my father's income for retirement, and most of our clothes were homemade.

But this was far from the norm in suburban Southern California.

My own environmental awareness began when, in 1970's Southern California, there were many days I couldn't go outside to play. The smog generated by suburban sprawl, power plants and manufacturing was so bad that my lungs ached when I did more than sit quietly on the floor. And I was a healthy child, not one with asthma or allergies. I learned from our monthly National Geographic magazines that this sort of thing was happening all around the world, and had been for decades.

I remember when they outlawed leaded gas and worked to make stricter auto emissions standards. And the air began to clear. I remember hearing about "Love Canal", and "Silent Spring", and the clean-up of Boston Harbor. At that time, when the movement to start recycling our bottles and cans was in it's infancy, manufacturers complained that it would cost too much and they'd have to pass the increased costs along to consumers. The usual threat. Voters had the courage to pass the recycling bill in California anyway.

And I remember the first Earth Day. And the hope I felt for the future.

So, yes, our family has a washer and dryer, a dishwasher and other modern "conveniences"; two cars (though both about 10 years old); a house with a big green lawn and shady trees; safe streets where our children played; more free time, better health care and longer lives than my great-grandparents could expect...more possessions and more time to enjoy them.

But what shall I do with all this? Shall I continue to buy and waste and consume because that's what my culture says is OK, because they say it is my "right" to do so? Should I feel guilty about all this.

Or should I begin to change what I can. Use less. Consume less. Buy less. Enjoy the simple things and relationships with people more.

The things things we have are blessings, not rights. When the founders of this country were talking about our rights the pursuit of unlimited consumer goods is not what they meant by "the pursuit of happiness". But that's another discussion.

If this sort of thinking makes me an eco-radical, then go ahead and label me as such. But only within the context of my own culture. A culture that is desperately in need of change, for the good of all.

And to my New Zealand friend, though you "certainly don't worry about whether [your] undergarments are 'suitable' for drying outside", I will continue to hide mine away from view. Would you hang out your undergarments where your boss or customers could see them? This is not only my home, but also my place of business. I'm not eager to subject my students, their parents, or my recording clients to such a sight. And I'm certain they would agree.


  1. Sorry if "eco-radical" wasn't quite the right term. And I do understand about not wanting your boss and clients to see your undergarments, though here in NZ washing lines are always in the backyard and I don't think people worry too much about hanging out undergarments - unless there was a prowler with a fetish, which is pretty rare.
    Interestingly, I was just reading an article in the newspaper about how many Americans live in communities or condominiums where it is against the rules to hang laundry on a line, because it's considered to lower property values. And of course there must be many in cities without such facilities. I do think air dried laundry is much nicer though, as well as being better for the environment.

    I can't help fearing that the time will come sooner than we think that we will all have to take actions that would seem "eco-radical" right now, for the survival of the planet.

  2. Good talk. As an aside, I can not hang my laundry outside due to allergies! The air has too many of the weed spores that make my insides go bonkers. Took me the longest time to figure that out - especially bed clothes and sheets were the nicest things to hang outside - or used to be!

  3. Kay, you have a beautiful blog!

    I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful post and am glad to be a fellow swimmer in the opposite direction, taking baby strokes, but hopefully changing the tide!