So You Compost, Drive a Hybrid, Wear Recycled Boots and Eat a Lot of Hummus, But Are You Green Enough?

This is a guest post by Aaron Szymanski, President of Evo Design, an award-winning industrial design firm housed in a refurbished water treatment plant in Watertown, CT.

Green questionsThe good thing about the economy sucking cheese right now is that it’s given me some free time to catch up on my reading. I moderate a discussion forum called “The Green Room” and  while catching up on what people are sniping about I came across an interesting thread that included many questions.

The primary question being, What are we really supposed to do to be more green? My contribution to the group was that I believed people wanted to do the right thing but that it was truly unclear to them exactly what is better.

For example, after reading E the Environmental magazine’s recent issue, I felt ultimately that we should all be vegetarians. I’m not a die-hard meat lover but I’ve read enough credible writing that lead me to believe that it’s impossible for the earth to produce enough veggies to do this. Meanwhile, pondering the question, I still eat Slim Jims and summer sausage.

All of this is discouraging and a little embarrassing because I feel, as a moderator, that I’m supposed to be able to answer these simple questions, at the very least, for myself. Not because they’re particularly profound complex questions but because they’re completely the opposite. These are ordinary, everyday, basic sustainability questions like:

•    Why don’t we recycle paper towels?
•    What is better for the planet: high octane or low octane?
•    French press or automatic drip?
•    Would it be more sustainable if I just ate vitamins and no food?
•    Does taking compostable materials out of the landfill really help? Don’t they aid in the decomposition of more difficult materials?
•    What really happens to the economy if we all “reduce” and, for example, live with just one pair of shoes per person?
•    If we are serious about sustainability why don’t we immediately stop recreational fuel consumption, like NASCAR and Indy racing?
•    Isn’t working out a huge waste of energy in that you are consuming calories that you then have to “work-out”?
•    How can the 2008 Olympics call itself green with all of the airfare required to bring athletes together? Can’t they compete virtually in every individual sport?

Then I started thinking about my own questions, applying them to my own life. Maybe I should cancel my trip to the Grand Canyon this summer with my eight-year old to save the jet fuel. And while I’m at it, I’ll cancel the order for the new conference table chairs for the office. I’m sure there’s a National Geographic DVD on the Grand Canyon whose purchase would create a way smaller carbon footprint than driving or flying for a visit.

And, the 10 year old Umbra chairs we have now aren’t broken, they just make my ass fall asleep when I sit in them for too long. So maybe for the benefit of all I should just keep the chairs and get up every 15 minutes and walk around the room. Or maybe we could just all wheel our own office chairs into the conference room when we have a meeting. Would my clients find that weird or inspiring?

As I reread what I wrote, I realize it sounds like I’m being a sarcastic tool but honestly, I am seriously and genuinely perplexed by these questions. Does the fact that I already compost, drive a hybrid, wear recycled boots and eat a lot of hummus mean I have done enough? Can I go ahead and take that drive to the Grand Canyon? Or would it be more sustainable if I took a plane? The plane is going there anyway and I am sure there are empty seats so how much fuel do my 68 pound son and I require? Or is that even the right question?

When I read all the other bloggers’ articles, listen to my peers’ discussions, and hear the presidential candidates debate, I feel like everyone else has the answers but me. Like my eight-year old, I want to be able to shrug my shoulders and say, “whatever”—but I can’t. Instead, I search for more wisdom.

I’m reading a somewhat caustic biography of Thomas Edison called: The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. It’s really an enjoyable book that focuses on the idea that Edison’s primary lasting contribution was the creation of our celebrity icon culture, with him being among the first.

In the same way Edison’s inventions had people wondering about how his new products affected their everyday lives, we are asking similar questions today as to how being green shifts our vision and affects our day-to-day living. Many during his time spoke as though the path was so clear– only to have time show that they were totally wrong. For example, Ford convinced Edison to stop working on his fuel cell electric automobile because they were both so enamored by Ford’s transportation solution, the internal combustion engine. (At the time Edison’s electric prototype could go 70mph with a range of about 80 miles–this was in 1911).

Even so, Ford and Edison made what they thought to be the best decisions based on what they knew at the time, and that’s what I have to do to help untangle myself. In the day when it only takes a few seconds to Google our way to every “fact” it’s normal to think that every answer is out there waiting, as long as we have the proper search words. For now, because it’s all I can do, I’m going to try and search a little more thoroughly for the answers to my questions, but also start acting. Starting with canceling my trip and the order for my conference chairs.

  1. Kristen

    When I read the title of this post, I immediately cringed at the thought of yet another post designed to make me feel like an ass because I’m not vermicomposting the scraps of organic food I rode my bike to purchase.

    Thank you for a sweet and funny post on the sometimes overwhelming choices of being ecologically responsible.

  2. Andrew S.

    You know, it isn’t about are you green enough. It is about are you doing all that you can based on your situation. We can and will never be perfect in every way and we cannot beat ourselves up over it.

    Unless you live off the land and NEVER go anywhere and do anything off of that land, then you cannot be perfect. To be a true localvore, you shouldn’t get anything that you can’t walk to. You also shouldn’t live where the land cannot sustain you fully. If it can’t sustain you, then it was not meant to sustain your species.

    However, if you live where your land can sustain you, you never overpopulate it, you grow everything you need to survive through all the seasons off native only species, then you are perfect. Right? Well, we all fart and farts aren’t good for the environment.

    Hmmmmmm??? The question lingers. Are we green enough?

    Don’t cancel your trip to the Grand Canyon. Take Amtrak to Flagstaff, Winslow, Williams, Salt Lake City, or Las Vegas and then drive the rest of the way or take a bus. Depending on where you get off the train you have a 45 – 300 mile drive/ride ahead of you. If you get off in Williams you can get on a steam train (recycled from a 1800’s train found in a junk yard)for the rest of the ride. What is the carbon footprint of a train?

  3. Smatt

    I like your post, it’s thoughtful.

    A couple of your points made me pause…

    “Would it be more sustainable if I just ate vitamins and no food?”
    Yes, because you would soon die and stop using any resources.

    “What really happens to the economy if we all “reduce” and, for example, live with just one pair of shoes per person?”
    The economy would drastically change, hopefully to a sustainable model. Do you realize that our economy now considers anything less than exponential growth to be failure? It is truly the definition of unsustainability.

    “If we are serious about sustainability why don’t we immediately stop recreational fuel consumption, like NASCAR and Indy racing?”
    I am serious about it. It’s fine with me. Stop NASCAR and F1 racing tomorrow.

    So, you should define “we” and you should define “serious”. It seems that many aspects of modern life (economic and recreational) are indeed unsustainable, and it’s time to start getting used to the idea of drastic changes.

  4. Uncle B

    Stay true to your ‘green’ values – in the long run high energy costs will drive us in this direction anyway. We are being forced back to the country but this time we have modern ideas and technology that will make self-sufficiency and independence from ‘The Man’ a very comfortable option. The last American exodus was from a demeaning and unfriendly country existence to the bright lights of the city and sickening exploitation of the human resource. This society has learned a very painful and expensive lesson. It is time to go back to the country and reclaim it for mother nature. The cities will decay in crime and corruption (Detroit) The countryside will bloom in relative peace. The Great Depression is upon us, the transition is near at hand!

  5. Maria Surma Manka

    Ditto to the commenters and kudos to you Aaron for addressing the typical green challenges frankly and honestly. I think we greens lose a lot of people when we constantly say “you’re not doing enough” or sound self-righteous.

  6. Kim Woodbridge

    Thanks for writing what I frequently think about. I don’t own a car, rarely fly, am a vegetarian, live in a small apartment, use public transportation and bike, recycle, buy used clothing, etc but I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough. Somehow you article makes me think and feel less guilty. I guess what would make the most difference is for people who don’t think about being green at all to start thinking about it and make one change in their lives.

    The point about Nascar is also something I’ve considered. It seems so wasteful. I had the same thoughts about Live Earth last year – how much energy was used to raise awareness of global warming and the environment?


  7. Aaron Szymanski

    Thanks to everyone! I appreciate the feedback! I especially like the suggestion about Amtrak. I am embarrassed to admit I did not think of that option. My plan was going to be to drive to a local gorge or quarry and just tell my 8 year old that it was the grand canyon. I guess that would have been wrong.

  8. emmer

    just a couple thots:
    stuff in landfills doesn’t compost much. too dry, not much air. compostables should be being used to enrich land growing food–complete the cycle as nearly as possible and reduce petroleum inputs.
    guilty meat eaters take heart. some hilly poor soil that is unsuitable for agriculture can support a small animal population. goats, sheep, cattle and other ruminants can turn wild grasses into people food. yes, they give off methane, that eviler-than-CO2 greenhouse gas. but they make less methane on a natural diet than on a feedlot diet and this system would support only a few of them. i also suggest that many people consider keeping a few hens (pretty quiet with no roosters to show off for)and/or rabbits. eggs and meat at home. can’t kill a critter? then really, consider becoming a vegetarian. if you eat meat, creatures die on your behalf. our teeth, intestine structure and digestive enzymes all suggest we are omnivores. michael pollan said it well. eat food. mostly plants. not too much.
    ..and keep it local, as in do as much for yourself as you can. …and involve yourself in education and politics.

  9. Tom Bartels

    Not to be morbid, but the slippery slope of most of these questions boils down to the only way to truly be green is to not live. I don’t think that is an option for you, at least I hope not.

    You can’t stop doing the things you would normally do just to be greener, don’t cancel a vacation because you are afraid of wasting the fuel. Who is to say you won’t gain a much clearer view of the world and be so inspired by your trip to the Grand Canyon that the result solves much larger problems than the little bit of fuel you spent to get there. Showing your 8-year-old son what we are being greener for is probably more valuable as well. 😉

    I guess it all boils down to balance, don’t cancel your life to be “green” but choosing the least of all evils to do the things we want to do is the best option.

  10. Aaron Szymanski

    Tom- That is well said and is sort of what I was thinking too. My son certainly already has a greater appreciation for nature than I did at his age but I imagine a trip like that will be a big benefit for both of us. It is not an easy decision though and it was dauntingly complicated once I started to think about it. (I even had someone email me privately and offer to show me how riding bicycles to the grand canyon actually consumes a lot more resources than one might think. Plus that they have never seen my gut so they have no idea how long that ride might take. Still it was interesting.)

  11. Jennifer

    If part of your goal is to teach your son about the earth that you are trying to save, you should take him to the Grand Canyon… and as many other natural wonders as you can! Yes, ther will be carbon involved, but that is the world we currently live in. If we want the next generation to value the beauty of our planet, they need to experience it for themselves. A video will not give hin the experience of walking out onto the sky bridge and seeing the awesomeness of it all.

    If the carbon is that big of a deal to you, purchase carbon offsets to make up for it… but make sure that your son sees the reality of what we are trying to save… if he never sees it for himself, why should he care enough to take care of it?

  12. John Apanites

    I think this is an issue everyone is struggling with and along with the environmental implications there are also social implications. The more green you can appear or be certified the more hip and cool you are. We struggle with clients wanting everything to be green with an environmental “g” but what many discover is that the capital “G”, as in Mr. Green, money is never in the budget to achieve that ideal.

    This is a product of being on the forefront of a new outlook and my hope is that eventually being green will really be about evaluating the actual need for ownership of “stuff”.

    I look around my home, office, etc. and I realize I have so much stuff. I know George Carlin often spoke about how we all want “a place for our stuff.”, and I’m no different.

    However I realize that if I take a step back there really isn’t all that much that I actually need to live a sustainable life.

    I’ve tried to stop purchasing books and magazines and using the library or Internet as my main source of reading material. That can be tough when you like to read in the “home office” because I question if it’s really ethical to take a library book or magazine into bathroom for what can be some difficult colonic work outs.

    That being said, I’ve thought about my food consumption. Am I eating because I feel like I have to eat or because I am actually hungry? Sometimes I find that I’m eating out of habit or socially and I’m not really satisfying a base need that I have to actually provide my body nutrients.

    For me the concept comes down to my evaluating if I really need more “stuff” in my life. I’m fortunate because I have clothing, I have access to healthy foods, I have the ability to get to work, via car or public transportation when needed, so basically I don’t have any more stuff needs.

    Everything I decide to purchase at this point is really due to something in that stuff category wearing out (ex. Pants ripped. OK for casual jeans, not yet deemed OK for meeting with clients or going to church, although I think Jesus would have worn ripped denim, but I don’t want to start a Dogma war on religious clothing issues).

    To me being green is not about making a big statement to everyone that “I’m Green”, unless it’s green with envy which I could probably state daily. I think it’s more about taking buying and consumption decisions on a daily basis and evaluating if they really are necessary for me to live a lifestyle that is consistent with an ideal of not wanting too much “stuff”.

    A larger issue though is that, while I can have my feeling on stuff, when in a family dynamic you can find that others (partner, children) don’t share your feelings and they feel you may need more stuff. Hence all the pillows you will have to wade through when you come over to our house. I personally need one good pillow, with one, preferably cotton pillow cover and I’m set for life. Not so for my family, as we are continually having pillows appear and seemingly multiply in the various rooms of our house. To me that’s not green. In fact most of them are burgundy and red, quite the opposite of green. However, all I can do is try and stick to using my one pillow, make a statement like “Damn how come we have so many damn pillows in this damn house?” and try and deter the purchase of more pillows.

    Unless you make a ton of money off of somehow compromising resources of our planet, it is my true feeling that the majority of people want to conserve and be green. I think right now it’s hip and cool to tell everyone how green you are, but it can be a lot harder for me to decide not to buy that Starbucks coffee because I can make it at home in my reusable coffee filter and fill my cracked Xbox mug and not buy some container that I’m ultimately going to commit to a trash can. Does my coffee taste as good as Starbucks? No I’m a horrible coffee maker. Does it taste that much worse on a daily basis that I want so spend my economic resources in support of coffee that is probably overpriced. Some days I do and some days I don’t, but it’s a daily decision for me.

  13. Natural Nick

    If you really want to being earth-saving green, become a minimalist, get a substantially smaller house or apartment (think the size of a large shed), and grow mostly all your own. Sustainability is key.

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