How Green is Green Enough?

August 12, 2013

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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It ain’t easy bein’ green ~ Kermit the Frog, 1970

Green living, green goods, green buildings, green cars. What does it mean to be green, anyway?

Faced with climate change, species extinction, poisoned air/soil/food/water, pharmaceutical drugs flushed into drinking water, mountains of solid and toxic wastes for disposal, the many people concerned about the negative effects of modern living on our common environment have adopted a broad, complex, and ever-evolving range of strategies to address that concern.

Some plunge into various forms of environmental activism. They commit civil disobedience, advocate through social media, attend rallies, write letters to the editor, stage petition drives and boycotts, and contribute to environmental organizations. These people often hope to recruit others to their cause(s) in hopes of creating mass movements that foster changes in laws, regulations and policies.

Others focus quietly on living as simply as possible, trying to stay outside the frantic imperatives of consumer culture, getting by on “just enough,” whatever that means. These folks often hope to motivate others by setting an example.

Many Americans pay attention to the moral choices at the fork end of the food chain. Who raised the food and how? What non-renewable resources were used in its production? How far did it travel? How much was it processed? How much and what kinds of waste were generated along the chain? Who managed the wastes and how?

And we wonder about more than food. What non-renewable resources do we use and what forms of pollution do we generate in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the ways we communicate, entertain ourselves, rear our young? How do we tend the yard? Clean the house? Manage pests in home and garden?

For decades, I’ve observed and written about food and agriculture, forestry, climate change, ecosystem services, land and water conservation, water, soil and air quality protection. I try to live an environmentally responsible life.

But for almost every seemingly responsible action, there’s a countervailing argument against it, then a counter-countervailing argument against that. Profit-making clearly motivates a lot of the arguments and most cite hard facts and statistics. It makes my head spin.

Off the top of my head, here's a brief sampling of the stuff that gets me spinning:

  • Interested in a hybrid or electric car? I'd love one! While the car may emit less CO2 from the tailpipe, and I may not visit my local gas station as often or at all, some argue my car may create more pollution than my neighbor’s gas-power model.
  • Live comfortably (as I do) in the second-hand economy? Well, someone has to buy the new goods and give them away or make them available for sale in thrift stores, yard sales, or auctions. If we still produced goods intended to last for decades, a lot of us would find ourselves priced out of the market for many useful even energy-saving items.
  • Live in a one-car family? We do. So I’m somewhat taken aback to have to report that we own and use six gasoline-powered machines: two rototillers (one small, one large), a lawn mower, a weed-whacker, a chainsaw, and the water pump that allows us to irrigate our many gardens from our backyard pond. 
  • Fan of increased household-waste recycling? I am. Yet I have trouble imagining that the program in my small town does much to reduce the use of non-renewable resources, not to mention carbon emissions what with every family in town driving individual cars or pickup trucks at least five miles each way to the town dump to deliver those cans, bottles and paper to the recycling bins.From there each separate commodity must travel to some sort of collection and aggregation facility  to be processed for shipment to a far-off factory that can (but may not, depending on contamination of the load and current market forces) turn it into something new.
  • Wind, solar, and water power to replace fossil-fuel electrical generation capacity? Biofuels? Hydrofracturing? New-model nuclear stations? Every mix-and-match scheme for greening the energy supply has ferocious advocates and opponents. You've seen the TV debates and read the op-eds.

I feel confident that adopting a much-less-is-more strategy, individually and on a mass scale, would begin to heal our common environment. But the question always arises: Just how much is enough? And in a consumer-driven economy, how can we distinguish the differences between austerity (harsh deprivation) and frugality (modest, joyous, fruitful)?

In quite another context, Kermit’s melancholy statement holds truer than ever 43 years later:  It ain’t easy being green.
 

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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