Friday, August 21, 2009

Easy ways to go green - a dangerous oxymoron

If I see many more headlines about easy ways to go green, I'm going to go bananas. I just did a Google search for variants of that pernicious little phrase and came up with 41 million hits. 10 easy ways to go green. 5 cheap and easy ways to green your wardrobe. 8 easy ways to green your reading. 50 easy ways to go green.

Here's the problem: if they are really going to make a difference, they're not easy. And if they're easy, they're probably also pretty inconsequential.

I ought to know: a few years ago I, too, wrote one of these stories, as part of a series I wrote for MSN Money called "Walk the Talk." In the process of researching it (and because they were going to film my house), I decided I really should practice what I preached. So I put up a clothesline (those are my sheets in the video), and searched Home Depot (in vain) for a water heater wrapper, and tried to remember to turn off the power strips.

Here's the brutal fact: saving energy is not convenient. It sounds great to say you're picking the low-hanging fruit, and you are. But harvesting even low-hanging fruit is a lot of work.

Here are just a few of the "easy" suggestions that are a dime a dozen on the internet:

Stop using paper towels (they suggest using any old rags). Right, and wash the rags, dry them, find a place to store them....

Put all your electronic gadgets on power strips. I thought this was easy too, till I tried it. First you have to figure out when you use each gadget and make sure all the gadgets on each power strip really can be turned on and off at the same time. You also have to find a place to put the power strip where you can actually reach that little switch. And you have to remember to flick it.

Line-dry your laundry. Yes, it is rewarding. Sheets dried out of doors smell heavenly, and there's a pleasant contemplativeness to the act of hanging them out in the sun. But easy? Unless you have a clothesline inside as well as out, you can only do the laundry in good weather (which, this summer in the Northeast, where I live, means you could hardly do it at all). And while clothes dried outdoors may smell wonderful, unless the wind is blowing pretty briskly, they come out stiff as a board. (Drying them indoors is even worse; my husband, a patient man, finally put his foot down on my drying his towels indoors. They felt, he said, like sandpaper.)

Start a garden. I wonder what could possibly have made anyone think that was going to be easy.

Recycle everything you can. Yes, it's worth doing - and it's a royal pain. It's not difficult with the things the city picks up weekly, though I will never understand why juice cartons go with the metal and not with the paper. But everything you can? Let's see: compact flourescents (package them properly and take them to a not-easy-to-find recycling site), fabrics (recycled at a few of New York's Greenmarkets), books (there's a store in Manhattan that will take them), electronics (hope you get word of one of the city's infrequent collections). Oh, and remember to rent a Zipcar for all the schlepping.

Let's get real here: this is a country in which, according to a statistic widely cited on the internet (though I've never actually been able to track it to a specific source), up to 70% of the people who buy a programmable thermostat never actually program it. And that really is easy.

But here's the real problem: when we tell people it is easy to go green, one of two things will happen. Either they will put in a compact fluorescent bulb and think they are saving the planet, or they will try to make more dramatic changes and - like the people who buy a programmable thermostat with the best of intentions - give up when they find it's harder than they expected.

We have all - every one of us - grown up in a society that prizes convenience above almost every other value. And going green is not convenient. To stick to it, you have got to be willing to take trouble. Sometimes a lot of trouble.

The issue isn't simply personal. It's global. We can change all the light bulbs in the world, and it won't make a significant dent in climate change. The changes we'll need to make to really make a difference will be uncomfortable and expensive. So much so, that I can't think off the top of my head of a single politician who has actually spoken truthfully about what will be required.

Those changes may - I believe they will - bring us richer lives. But they will not be either convenient or easy.

Telling us that going green is easy isn't just dishonest. It also short-changes us, in the same way we were short-changed after 9/11 when Bush told us to go shopping. As Rebecca Solnit points out in her new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, (reviewed in the New York Times today), human beings faced with disaster are capable of extraordinary creativity and resilience.

So don't tell us it's easy. Do us justice. Tell us the truth.


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