With the economy in upheaval, Congress visioning and re-visioning industry bailouts and abandoning clean-energy tax credits, the health care debate tug-of-warring this way and that, and the environment under continuing assault, it’s sometimes tempting to question – how much good can living green really do?
The luxuries of enviro-heedless daily American living surround us on all sides…high-tech petro-based cosmetics…sweatshop-manufactured designer clothing…toxin-emitting furniture, carpets, cabinets… mountaintops being exploded into rubble to keep our lights on and our computers running.
Even if you’re committed to a green lifestyle, the relentless din of this consumerist world view can get wearing. In the midst of a hectic day, does it really matter that much to the planet if you drive to the 7-11 to pick up a pack of Clorox wipes instead of cycling to the health food store for white vinegar to use with your reusable cloth towels?
But there’s a deeper question here – it’s not a matter of harshly enforcing green discipline. Somewhere over the last sixty years or so, our culture has lost the skills…and joy…and value…of living simply, lightly, in balance with the natural world.
I took my 86-year-old father to Baltimore’s Fair Trade coffeehouse and housewares shop, BlueHouse, awhile back. He browsed through the reclaimed-wood furniture, clay-based paints, flip-flop floor mats, recycled-metal utensils, and bamboo salad bowls with wonder.
As we sat with our cups of coffee, he told me, “This reminds me of what we used to do in the Depression, making everything count, not letting anything go to waste. Thing was, then we were all doing it in any way we could, to survive…here it’s big business.”
I thought of the way that experience shaped his adult life – planting a garden and putting up vegetables in the summer, repairing instead of buying new, sharing tools and odd jobs with neighbors, differentiating sharply between “want” and “need.”
And I’ve come back to his comment again and again as the economic and environmental situations get increasingly dicey.
For decades now, most Americans have not felt a need to look at the world in that way, the way of “waste not, want not.” Haven’t felt a need to rely on practical ingenuity to make or fix or grow or share what we and our neighbors have or need.
Thanks to a global economy, we’ve had the products of the world at our fingertips. We’ve known we can find a dozen brands of whatever we need off the shelf at the grocery or housewares or convenience stores, or at the mall. And if it breaks, popular wisdom says, “Throw it out and get a new one!”
Yes, gurus of green living and simplicity remind us of age-old, earth-friendly ways to live…but let’s face it, living green has been a choice, a counter-culture choice, always with the awareness that most of the population was doing it the easy, heedless way. Much as we may believe that the survival of the planet depends on our responsible choices, much as we buy with care and with an eye to the future, our immediate personal and family survival has not depended on our buying green.
More than that: we’ve had the option of buying wonderful, upscale, green alternative products. Not to denigrate these in any way! They set standards for environmentally responsible manufacturing at home and abroad, they reduce environmental exploitation, carbon and pollutant emissions, they support Fair Trade crafters in Third World cultures, they do (to borrow EBay’s phrase) a world of good.
And – that said – how many of them are designed for a boutique economy of high incomes and higher expectations? I am writing with caution here – many of my clients are just such entrepreneurs, offering just such products, banking on the affluence of their clients to drive those products to success. Passionately promoting their healthiness and durability to convince upscale non-green prospects to buy not just a product but a principle.
But while this has contributed to a greater green awareness in upscale circles, it’s also contributed to a popular impression that “green” means “trendy alternative” means “expensive” and “optional.” Things you purchase to demonstrate your care for the planet and concern for your and your family’s optimum health, not necessarily out of immediate need but as preventative medicine – “because you can.” In a market of endless options, they have become yet another option, another niche.
How many people within this niche, however, are greening for the same reason that drove my father’s generation – survival? Not just their personal physical survival, but for that of the planet and for the coming generations? And how many would feel impoverished if the endless product options now available suddenly…weren’t?
What we’re missing is the deeper cultural message – the message my father’s generation lived, one of saving and sharing and pulling together. Looking past the “alternative” aspect of green products to the deeper principles behind them. Building community spirit to pull everyone through the tough times.
This is the underlying meaning of greening. We talk about the triple bottom line of green business, valuing People, Planet and Profit…we practice it as part of our business model. And I believe that as global fortunes shift, it’s time to take it a step deeper. “Green” is not a niche of products or services, it’s a way of seeing the world.
This ripples out especially to less-privileged individuals and families – those who are using toxic mainstream products because they are cheap and easily available, not knowing that simple, old-fashioned, non-upscale, non-boutique green options exist. If cultural greening is ever to be accomplished, these are the people to reach – the ones who will tip the balance not necessarily for the market but for the larger goal: the planet.
It’s time to green our lives and expectations the old-fashioned way, by joyfully embracing earlier generations’ values and life skills of simplicity, sharing and community. Reclaiming the values of ingenuity and creative survival, connection and cohesiveness.
As Sheryl Crow sang, “It’s not having what you want, It’s wanting what you’ve got. ”
It’s time to redefine “Because we can” from a statement of entitlement to a statement of empowerment…and discover a whole new level of meaning for greening.