Hey Mr. Green,
In your book, you seem to agree with Kermit that "it's hard to be green.” What's so hard about doing nothing? And what could be greener? Aside from exhaling carbon dioxide (more than offset by my trees), I do as little as possible. Some call it laziness but I call it living green.
–Steve in San Rafael, California
Ah yes, my book: A fabulous guide to all aspects of green living, except for its painfully outdated positive rating of BP. To obtain a copy, click on “special sale price” to the right.
As a true genius at doing nothing, I concur with your basic premise. But Steve, please, the culture, economy, and politics in which we are imprisoned does make it hard for many folks to be green in a world that is by its very design miserably, profligately, sinfully un-green.
Consider just one of the many environmental insults—fossil fuels. Our lives today literally depend on fossil fuels, from cradle to grave, from the power in the hospital where you were born to the hearse that will haul you to your final resting place. For this very reason, you’d think we’d do everything possible to conserve such precious resources and to use them as sparingly as possible. But no. The mantra is “Drill baby drill” because, instead of seeing fossil fuels as means to valuable services, the energy industry regards them as mere commodities to be sold in ever greater volumes to ensure greater profits. Hence, even if the threat of climate change didn’t exist, there would be ample reasons to reduce fuel consumption. But politicians bought off by the energy business resist proposals to reduce consumption and to cut the risks that fossil fuels pose. Even after the historic disaster caused by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, they ignore the problems. For more on this unconscionable political torpor, and what you can do about it, click here.
"The economy” as a whole depends on fossil fuels. But it’s not just “the economy” in the abstract. Millions of ordinary people depend directly on fossil fuels for their livelihoods, whether they’re running a drill rig or a power plant driving a truck. We can’t tell them to “do nothing.”
Culturally, we have long idealized a dangerously un-green lifestyle of rampant overconsumption that involves everything from throwaway packaging to junk food to oversize houses. We enable this lifestyle in countless ways, from subsidizing agribusiness to building vast networks of roads to accommodate the cars that run on BP’s fuel simply to commute to work and to haul kids to and from scattered locations. The houses along these roads have grown larger and larger (from an average of 900 square feet 60 years ago to 2,400 now), thanks to pro-development policies and tax breaks that reward us for buying bigger houses that require more resources to build, heat, cool, and fill with gadgetry.
That this sprawling giantism set the stage for the current economic crisis has yet to be properly implicated as an offshoot of the environmental recklessness of housing development. Instead of seeing a house as a dwelling, an abode, a shelter from the storm, millions were persuaded to regard a house more as a commodity, an investment, an instrument of speculation, a source of equity, and, ultimately, profit. Real-estate dealers, banks, and the whole chain of unscrupulous speculators and default swappers catered to this new fantasy of easy money, blowing their real-estate bubble to planetary dimensions until it imploded. Dare we tell the victims of this fantasy to “do nothing”?
Or dare we tell millions of unemployed people who would be grateful for the opportunity to do something, anything, to “do nothing”? Dare we tell people who can barely make the rent or the mortgage each month to “do nothing”?
True, some of us are lucky enough to live in places where we can automatically be greener than others because we don’t need cars or air conditioners or other so-called comforts. We may have also had the opportunity to figure out countless ways to live greener, from recycling to clotheslining to installing low-flow toilets. Scores of such lifestyle strategies are in my book, and I’m happy that some people have put them into practice. But millions of folks still don’t even know what basic actions to take to be greener. Millions of others can’t afford to take the steps.
Unfortunately, as we well know, the economy doesn’t know how to “do nothing.” This is why George W. Bush told us to go shopping to avert an economic slump, and why Obama and Congress bailed out the auto industry. We measure economic health in terms of gross domestic product, and the bigger it is and the more people who are doing something—anything!—the healthier the economy, even if it makes the environment sick. Yes, there are economists and ethicists working on alternative ways of measuring, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare; the Genuine Progress Indicator; the Sustainable Net Benefit Index, and the Human Development Index.
But since the economy we now live in has been about 800 years in the making, I wouldn’t expect any sudden changes that make “doing nothing” a serious option for most people. As environmentalists, we’ll have to keep trying to do the green thing personally, while being as active as we can politically to protect the environment and shape the economy in such a way that it does less damage to the earth.