Thursday, November 8, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Slacking Off and Love Being Green

Going green is all the rage now. But not just as a mere fad. No indeed. This shift in societal habits goes far beyond choosing bell bottoms versus straight legs --this is downright serious. There's an urgency here and almost everybody (at least in my own social circles) can feel it. We have been inwardly gripped by the severity of the matter in such a way as to change our lives forever.

So what took us so long?

It's not like we didn't KNOW that pollution was a bad thing. From high brow intelectuals who read Scientific American, down to blue collar teens who watch a steady diet of nature-fights-back creature features on the Sci-Fi Cnhanel, we've all known pretty much since the 1970's that permanent and irreversible damage was in store for the whole planet if we didn't cease and desist our reckless mucking up of things. Yet we still thoughtlessly tossed candy wrappers on the ground and drove gas guzzlers.

I can't speak for everyone else. So I'll just limit all the flagellation and brow-beating to myself for the ramainder of this essay.

Basically, I have always vascilated back and forth all throughout my adult life between being very very organized and moderately chaotic. My spurts and blurts of hummingly impressive efficiency can get easilly undermined by a cross-country move (I have endured more than one such move) or an onset of sickness (I have definitely suffered from ill-health many times in my life, especially accute respiratory distress that's kept me in bed for a week or more). So, I have repeatedly prioritized speed, efficiency, and household cleanliness over and above Mother Earth.

Ziplock plastic baggies were perhaps my most heinous sin: I would endlessly utilize ziplock baggies when storing food in the fridge or packing for a bag lunch. I always had no less than four types of ziplocks in my kitchen drawer at all times: gallon-sized, quart-sized, "snack-sized," and sandwich-sized. Ziplock baggies were SOOOOO easy and SOOOOO sanitary and SOOOOO conveneint. And whenever I was done using a baggie, did I recycle it and use it again? Not on your life! STRAIGHT into the trash with it! I always used a fresh clean one every single time.

I remember my old college friend Paula. I spent a summer living with her and her husband about fifteen years ago in between semesters, and she was a VERY green person all the way back then, well before it was "in" to be green. She was quite adamant that ALL plastic baggies in the house needed to be re-washed and re-used. That really skeeved me out! --Especailly when I realized she was re-washing the same gallon-sized freezer baggies that she had used to store the raw chicken parts she'd cooked up for our dinner the night before. I could feel the lingering film of grease on the inside of the baggie as I lifted it out of the dish strainer. Sorry, Paula, call me selfish but in my take on things, risking salmonella is NOT an acceptable trade-off in exchange for saving a few drops of petroleum at the plastics factory or a few milimeters of space in the landfill. So while I begrudgingly adhered to her baggie-washing ways while living under her roof, I did NOT carry that habit with me later in life. I alone probably singlehandedly raised the stock price for the Glad corporatrion by a few eighths of a point for a solid ten years there.

Look. Life is busy. Germs are a concern. The chaos of inefficiency is always a threat. Whenever I set out to get things clean and orderly I really do my very best to get them whipped into shape. In fact, I went to my Mom's house last month to help her with her bills (her eyes are failing and she can't write the checks any longer). And when I walked into her home office I saw that it had become overrun with years of bills that she had given up properly filing anymore. So I spent a week going through and tidying up, reorganizing her filing system and getting her bills up to date. When I was done I had stuffed SEVEN black drawstring trash bags full of needless paper and nonsense--the stuff she thought she needed to hang onto like the outer envelopes of the bills, and the high-gloss inserts that come with those bills. This unsettling experience of seeing what my mother had allowed to happen to her home office kind of reminded me of my first semester in college back in the late-1980's. My dorm room was choked by stacks and stacks of all the paper and documents that were constantly flooding into my life via classroom requirements and my campous mailbox. I was so overwhelmed by the unending flow of paper into my tiny little dormitory living space that I imagined doing a satirical student film about the experience. In my mind --in this film that I sadly never made-- I envisioned a Freshman in his nice tidy dormroom, standing up from his nice tidy bed, going to the closed door of his room, opening the closed door of his room, and then a massive tsunami of millions of tons of paper exploding into his dorm room in an endless deluge (I envisioned this storm-surge of paper lasting a solid six or seven seconds), sweeping him off his feet, and filling the room to capacity in mere seconds. After my freshman year was done I eventually got a handle on how to keep those mountains of paper under control, and at that point the priority in my life was NOT being green, just being organized. I was actually living in constant fear of NOT being organized from that time forward. Afterall, the IRS doesn't audit you for failing to recycle, nor do they give you special consideration for having a small carbon footprint. I was an adult now. So being accountable to my professors and their deadlines, and accountable to the Registry of Motor Vehicles and their deadlines, and being accountable to the IRS and their dealines just seized me with a terror that drove me toward keeping track of absolutely everything. So having my personal filing systems up to date and keeping entropy at bay became my ongoing mission in life. That and having lots of nice clean ziplock baggies with which to store my chicken parts and pack my lunches.

One of the things my Mom does that really drives me crazy is she eats frozen dinners and leaves the empty boxes and plastic trays hanging around. I often walk into the kitchen and find two or three such discarded boxes and two or three empty plastic food trays left on the countertop. "Mom," I ask, "why don't you ever throw them away?" She explains that she sometimes forgets because she ALWAYS intends --when she's done-- to re-insert the plastic tray back into the cardboard box, and then throw them both away into the trash can in that fashion "because it saves space in the landfill when you compress them back together like that rather than throwing them away as two separate entities." But for some reason she just hasn't ingrained that entire stuff-the-tray-back-into-the-box ritual into her daily lifestyle yet. (I am already in communication with my older brothers at this time to have my mother placed in an assisted living facility. She is truly getting beyond the ability to care for herself.) My reaction to that save-the-landfil philosophy is: I believe a person needs to get their HOME environment under control before trying to do anything on behalf of the REST of the environment. And thus do I now confess why I have failed to be CONSISTENTLY green over the years.

Every time I move, things can get way out of hand as far as the organization in my personal living space. I can't be worried about the landfills and the ozone when I have to be at work for a 7:30 AM meeting and yet simultaneously get my latest Mastercard payment into the mail. Rushing and striving and fighting against the chaos prompts one to take shortcuts like skipping that morning shower and swinging into the drive-through at McDonald's. We are indeed a throw-away society, stressed for time, and not only are our bodies paying for it, but --so it would seem-- the planet is as well. Yes, I have known since I was a kid about the evils of pollution and the "duty" we each have to lighten the load on the environment. But when the number of items on my plate every day are piled so high and spilling over so gratuitously that I can't even see the corners of the placemat anymore, something has to be compromised. So I have spent almost all of my frenetic adut life operating with a somewhat guilt-ridden disregard for the eco-system, comforted by the assurance of non-contaminated food afforded by my copious stores of ziplock baggies.

And then along came the too-good-for-the-Sci-Fi-Channel "The Day After Tomorrow," followed a few years later by the Scientific American-ish "An Inconvenient Truth." And so my baggies suddenly became a capital crime, a mortal sin of which I have heartily repented. The paradigm shift has indeed taken hold. I am now green, and much to my surprise I don't mind it at all. Paula was cool long before I ever was, but at least I'm finally keeping up with the Jones'.

I am still somewhat annoyed and saddened by my mother's backward priority to (try to) keep the planet clean when she can't even keep her own house clean. And I constantly struggle with the daily pile on my plate, although I'm happy to report that I can at least consistently see the place setting now adays, and even the little flowers that border the rim of the china. Were it that there was enough time on my hands and enough money in my account, I would surely be the model of greenenization. For now I merely do what I can, including washing out SOME of my ziplock baggies (although if raw chicken was ever involved, that baggie goes straight into the trash, no hesitation whatsoever).

My own wish-fantasy is that a huge push toward geo-thermal power would happen right now. To me geo-thermal is the way to go. The molten magma in the Earth can supply a literally endless resource of heat for steam-driven power plants, and the beauty of it is that it would all be neatly tucked underground. Unlike wind farms and solar collection facilities, geo-thermal plants are hidden beneath our feet. The only drawback to geo-thermal that my couch potato education on the topic points toward is that maybe there could be times when we might not be able to control the lava. While I haven't been reading up in Scientific American about it, my Sci-Fi Channel opinion is that maybe pricking a few too many shafts deep into the Earth's crust could perhaps trigger an unintended lava flow or two, making Three Mile Island look as insignificant as a busted fire hydrant.

So yes, I'm green and it's not as painful as I imagied it might be. And when I'm not guilt-tripping myself over all those years of being a Mother Earth slacker I look eagerly toward science as they strive for alternate energy sources. Meanwhile, maybe I can come up with the chemical formulation of a new cleaning product that would guarantee a ziplock baggie to come out of the wash as sanitary as before it was ever used. After developing that product, I'd then need to then find a way to package it.

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