Whew, another Earth Day has come and gone, and I, for one, am relieved. Now I can go back to the humdrum dragging of my blue recycling bin to the curb, minus the pomp and circumstance. I can poke around town in my sporty new silver Prius feeling a little less pious. I can go grocery shopping without having to dodge the upfront display of pricey “all natural” cleaning potions pointing their little spray nozzles right at my dirty conscience. I can quit catching myself being all eco-smug and smarty-pants, like I was when I came home last Thursday from our “Green” evening at book club.
As usual, book club discussion was thoughtful and inspiring. We mused on the enduring relevance of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, touched on the heady arguments in Bill McKibbon’s Deep Economy and salivated at Barbara Kingsolver’s delightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And as usual, we digressed, swerving into a lively debate over watts vs. lumens and the problems of CFLs being donated to households in neighboring rural areas, where there is no recycling center for the toxic little mercury bombs once they’re burned out. Lucille, our passionate green discussion leader, shared tidbits on becoming a locavore and “How to Lose 142 Pounds (of CO2).” And best of all, we each got a goodie bag: a reusable canvas grocery bag filled with a small (recycled) glass bottle of homemade scouring powder (1 part Borax to 4 parts baking soda), and some hand-outs–including four pages of helpful information on making your home carbon neutral, a list of chemicals to avoid, and helpful websites for weeding out sub-par green organizations. Terrific stuff, but it was on four Xeroxed pages. One sided. Oh my. Oh no!
What were my well-meaning book club gals thinking?
And what was I thinking? When I caught myself tssk-tssking and shaking my head at this glaring ungreen oversight, I began shaking my head at me shaking my head, and I was getting dizzy. I am dizzy. And maybe that’s the trouble with the environmental movement today. Earth Day, founded on April 22, 1970, turned 39 last week, and that’s a long time to be shaking heads and wagging fingers. Thirty-nine: no wonder we’ve got global warming. The Mother Earth movement is having hot flashes. The environmental crisis meets its midlife crisis. Thirty-nine is a long time to be saying “No, no!” Don’t pollute, don’t waste, don’t eat farm-raised fish, don’t use chlorine bleach, and please, for the last time, don’t forget to turn off the lights.
Why is it that at age 39, all grown up and fully ingrained in American culture, right up there with Valentine’s Day and Groundhog Day, Earth Day feels almost as artificial? As if it is a mere appeasement to tree huggers, a one-day orgy of all things organic, and borderline tacky with all that green, like St. Patty’s without the parades and beer? As if one day is enough to pay our respects to creation? Why is it that despite 39 years of an environmental movement, most Americans still don’t know biofuels from biodegradables? How can it be that the most recent Pew Research Center survey (January 2009) finds that only 30 percent of Americans list global warming as a top policy priority. Yep, the inconvenient truth these days is that global warming is at the bottom of the list, at priority number 20, below “moral decline,” below lobbyists, below trade policy.
As a mom and as a forty-something mid-lifer, maybe I can add some insight here. I see the problem as too much No and not enough Yes. When I seek to change my kids’ behavior, for instance, my teenaged daughter’s proclivity for 15-minute showers or my youngest child’s habit of leaving her pink Crocs in the middle of the kitchen floor, I don’t get far with nagging and carping, though god knows I’ve tried. To date the predominant messaging of the environmental movement has been about the need to unplug, refrain, curtail. Maybe we need to change that climate. As parents know, positive reinforcement is always more effective than the blame-shame game or the guilt trip. Every elementary school teacher understands the Skittle Principle: the sweet power of rewarding good behavior. Perhaps the environmental movement would do well with a dose of Dr. Spock and Mr. Rogers, with a little cognitive behavioral therapy thrown in for good measure.
And as one on the downward slope of midlife, I can fully attest that nay-saying gets old. We middle-agers know all too well about the wasted water under the bridge. This is the time to jazz life up, be daring and a bit indulgent, enough doom and gloom scenarios! Can’t we talk about getting turned on rather than what we need to turn off? Reducing our carbon footprint may be crucial, but it sounds too much like wearing sensible shoes when at this stage of life what I want is to have the gumption, finally, to strap on something gorgeous and sexy.
So what does it take to get turned on about being planet conscious? How can we shift the mindset from guilt and shame, from pointing out the didn’t-do’s (a là the one-sided copies), to one of affirmation and empowerment? I think Mr. Rogers would very gently suggest that we look on the sunny side. And hell, on the cusp of pushing 40, why not be a little hedonistic?
Here’s my subversive take on going green: reusable grocery bags from Whole Foods? It’s all about fashion. They’re so much snazzier, stylish and more comfortable to carry than those hideous tan plastic things that dig into the palm of your hand, cutting off the circulation in your fingers. And, you can hold more groceries, which means fewer trips schlepping groceries. Cloth napkins vs. paper ones? My brightly colored cloth ones feel better and look better than the dinky paper ones that shred in my lap. Riding my bike to work? Instead of a chore, it’s pure sensory indulgence, my favorite part of my workday. I feel like a kid with the wind in my hair, smelling the coffee as I pass the coffee shop, hearing kids giggle as I pass school bus stops, saying hello to people along the way, none of which I get to do when I drive (and have to pay for parking).
I may have begun these practices out of a do-good environmental impulse, but I continue them because they truly feel good. They give me real physical and aesthetic pleasure. And before it sinks into midlife despair, I think environmentalism could use a little “if it feels good do it” boost. When I caught myself snarling at the one-sided copies from book club, I realized that the problem with being eco-conscious with a “should, ought, don’t” mentality is that you can never win. There’s always some other big or little step to take to use less, emit less, impact less.
So in the aftermath of Earth Day #39, I’m saying no to the “No’s,” and thinking more about Yes. Yes to what feels good, to what I’m turning on rather than turning off, to what the earth and I are gaining rather than what I’m giving up. I’m thinking less in terms of deprivation, and more in terms of humility. After all, it’s not about being holier than thou or greener than thou. It’s about the thou. About being connected to, respectful of, and thankful for each other and creation. Even those of us who make one-sided copies.