Commentary

Am I Green?

I suppose when I am ready to look honestly at our lifestyle, I will get greener. I can't get from start to finish in one step, but I have to take those steps.

By Jeff Griffiths
Published March 01, 2012

For some time now, longer than I would like to admit, I have thought of myself and my family as being 'green'. I've done online carbon-footprint surveys and been darn proud of the results. We recycle, compost, re-use when we can, and have one compact car.

I have taken pride in sorting the recyclables, picking tissue and dental floss from the bathroom garbage to put into the green bin, hating myself for accidentally tossing the tiny triangle that I cut from the milk bag into the trash.

I nearly wept at Christmas because the massive plastic moulds on kid's toys aren't recyclable in our area. This is how tremendously green I am.

Then I let myself really consider our lifestyle, look past the comfort zone, and begin to think I'm kind of faking green.

Faking Green?

I suppose that, compared to some Hamiltonians, we are green-ish with one car and all. Yet water comes into our house and out through the sewers at an alarming rate measured in cubic something or others.

We use natural gas to heat our house and water, electricity to run the rest - including laptops, modems, telephones, and every battery operated device that requires a charger, plus all those things that have a little green light that never goes off - all the machines that are never off, waiting for us to need them.

Our house is over 80 years old. The attic room is insulated but the rest of the walls are plaster, lath, an inch of cold air, and two layers of icy brick.

The basement is also insulated and dry-walled; this was done before we bought the house two years ago. The foundation is rubble-stone (another name for giant boulders) and I'm sure is letting moisture create some sort of strange mess behind the vapour barrier. And, it's still cold down there.

Necessities

We live within walking distance of both our children's schools and my wife's office which is good, but I need a car because I carry a trunk full of tools for my business even if I'm working a block from home.

"What would I do without a car?" I have never said that out loud but have definitely thought the words.

Could you imagine me walking to Mohawk College two evenings a week to teach writing classes? I'd miss dinner; I wouldn't get home until eleven.

Sure, the exercise would be good, and walking always clears my head for new writing ideas, but I need the car, really, I do.

I recently installed a low flush toilet; then again I also took a perfectly good toilet to the dump. On that trip to the dump I also took a desk-top computer, monitor, two keyboards, and a vacuum cleaner.

Yes, I was green; all electronics go in a bin to be recycled. Of course that brought to mind the stories about the unfortunate people that disassemble them. But, I still tossed them in and went home to check e-mail on my new laptop.

Comparison

Comparing myself to the average Canadian household is an easy way to verify my efforts. "Look at that guy up the street with two SUV's. We are certainly greener than him."

Maybe we are, or maybe we aren't. Maybe he spent the money to rip out his plaster and lathe and insulate and drywall again. Maybe he spent $12,000 and put solar panels on the back of his house. Maybe he spray foamed his basement.

Would all those updates on a home balance the two SUV vehicles? Oops, I'm comparing again, trying to justify all I have against all I consume.

Talking Green

We talk green but we don't want to lose any of our comforts, our luxuries, our gadgets.

I've often heard comments like, "I know it's not very environmental but we need a van." Or a dishwasher or four cell phones that end up in the garbage (I mean recycling) sooner than later or whatever we think we need but really just want.

Maybe I could tear down my house and build an 'Off the Grid' home. I wonder how many bins of trash I would create in that process. I wonder how much debt I'd be in. I wonder if I could get a permit.

Or we could move to a rural property and build it there, but wait, we'd need at least one car to get to work, school, swimming lessons, soccer lessons, the grocery store...everywhere.

I suppose when I am ready to look honestly at our lifestyle, I will get greener. I can't get from start to finish in one step, but I have to take those steps.

The thoughts of simplifying life are always attractive to me. Answering one mode of communication rather than three would be fabulous. Not paying car insurance is a dream.

So who knows: I may get green before there isn't a choice.

Jeff Griffiths lives in the north end of Hamilton with his wife and two young children. He instructs the Workshops with Local Writers continuing education course at Mohawk College. His short fiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared in Front and Centre, Hammered Out, The Puritan, Qwerty, The Nashwaak Review and various on-line journals. He also received the Arts Hamilton award for short fiction in 2007 and 2008.

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By simonge (registered) | Posted March 01, 2012 at 23:54:22

Great read Jeff - thanks. I grapple with these issues myself and have perhaps given up on finding 'easy answers'. I do believe the comparison/judgement approach (that I find myself taking at times) is negative and unproductive. I also, see it as part of the failing of the green movement. We will never inspire people (or ourselves) to change through judging them or making them wrong. There needs to be a higher calling.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 09:14:11

So who knows: I may get green before there isn't a choice.

Good luck with that!

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2012-03-02 09:19:22

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 09:20:30

Great piece, Jeff. A lot of the same questions roil in my brain too.

I've started to firmly believe that the greenest way a middle-class family can live in this country is for them to plan to retire in their 40s. If you don't waste too much time in school and earn a healthy enough income to sustain it, life-planning this way (voluntarily) forces only essential consumption and living well below means.

It immediately raises the relative cost of conspicuous consumption on non-productive toys and gadgets: every purchase has to either be a necessity or greatly contribute to enhanced standard of living. It means workers only "buy a car to go to work/go to work to pay for a car" for a limited time, and gives people many years to concentrate on socially beneficial (but economically discounted) activities like raising children, community service, and living a healthful lifestyle.

And with the relatively low cost of living in here, it's something that's actually attainable in Hamilton since a dual-income family peaking at $100k/yr could wipe out their $200k mortgage in a decade if they do it right, and still have enough to live a decent life (i.e. a modest one more reminiscent to that of the world's majority, not our elite North American one).

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By arienc (registered) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 10:05:20

Good read, and an interesting dichotomy.

As I experience it, being "green" is a fundamental disconnect from typical human nature, which includes the drive for comfort, fellowship and status.

Most of what is hyped as green is aimed at selling products and services. Hybrid cars, energy-efficient large-screen televisions, eco-friendly holidays, locally sourced artisanal cheeses, etc. It's little wonder the manistream views consumers of these products as being smug and "hipster" for lack of a better term.

But on the other hand, those "green" things do represent a sincere and valid improvement over the non-green versions of the same.

Ergo, it may be better to do without. A true green would take pride in not consuming, knowing that the benefit is that someone else will be able to consume later. But what kind of life is that, and does that truly make one happy?

The key is in being able to fulfill as many needs as possible without the stuff, and preferrably without the cost. And if you have to buy, then choose a low impact source. Don't impost the lofty standard of perfection - it's just not possible. But have standards, and strive every day to improve. In our consumer society, the biggest voting decision we make is the one we make every day, with our wallets.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 02, 2012 at 10:56:50

In my experience, to go "going green" successfully, one needs a few factors. Otherwise it's just not personally sustainable.

a) Cheap: Going green was never supposed to be expensive. Over a generation, the sustainable adobe abodes of back-to-the-landers have been converted into million-dollar monster homes, and "eco-living" has become a rather expensive fashion trend. Many green choices are more expensive at first, but any one worth its salt will save you money in the long run. Borelli's right - retiring early really is probably the best choice listed here. Cutting energy bills, ditching a car or growing your own food can save hundreds or more a month, and that's a lot of reasons to stay green.

b) Easy: if it takes a lot of work, chances are you'll slack off eventually. I've tried hand-washing all my laundry, flushing the toilet with a grey-water bucket from the shower and countless other experiments, but I have a job and a family and they're hard enough to keep up with. The many green actions I've stuck with are often those which are easiest, and which save lots of effort overall.

c) Fun: this stuff has to be enjoyable. Far too many talk of being "green" like some sort of depressing religious penance. It doesn't have to be. Riding a bike is fun, gardening is fun, and when they're not easy, they're rewarding in all kinds of other ways. Be creative and try some new things.

d) Social: "lifestyle" choices can have an enormous impact, but only when they go beyond individuals. When they start becoming a part of local cultural rituals, this brings "change" on a far more basic level than any new law. It starts with friends and neighbours, by simple acts of sharing and favours, or simply setting a good example.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 11:10:58

d) Social: "lifestyle" choices can have an enormous impact, but only when they go beyond individuals. When they start becoming a part of local cultural rituals, this brings "change" on a far more basic level than any new law. It starts with friends and neighbours, by simple acts of sharing and favours, or simply setting a good example.

Love love love this point.

Immediately what comes to mind is neighbours getting to know one another by working and hanging out around community gardens (that also keep them from having to buy so many imported fruits and veggies); neighbours taking turns hosting low-resource potlucks (that put leftovers and garden harvests to good use); building connections with people two blocks away instead so that recreation and socialization is a walk away (instead of a drive up to a movie theatre or bar).

These choices can all be a) cheap b) easy and c) fun, and are resilient, replicable rituals that can be role-modelled to others (adults and children).

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted March 02, 2012 at 12:59:57

There is a great article by Thomas Homer-Dixon in the Globe & Mail which is worth a read: The enticements of green carrots, 2009

"We Canadians like to think we are green, but when it comes to protecting the environment, we are among the world's worst actors. Whether the metric is carbon output per capita, toxic waste emissions or protection of endangered species, Canada regularly ranks near the bottom of the list of similarly wealthy countries."

Here is an even older message from him: Thomas Homer-Dixon: The Ingenuity Gap. And here is Edward O. Wilson on Biodiversity - a concept we need to wrap the Green Movement in, if we are to survive and thrive as a species on this planet.

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2012-03-02 13:11:37

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 02, 2012 at 13:05:53

Apparently there's a second me running around. Yeah, I cringe when I think about how much gas it takes to heat my old Westdale home too.

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By jackson (anonymous) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 13:27:13

lots to think about here. Two more articles providing two contrasting views (and empirical study!):

http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00054?gko=340d6

and http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/briefings/data/000199

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By Jeffrey Griffiths (anonymous) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 14:22:24

It is great to hear that I'm not on my own with these thoughts, struggles, in the North American way. I will check out the suggested reads too (thank you) maybe even before I sort out the waste basket in the bathroom.

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By RB (registered) | Posted March 02, 2012 at 14:55:09

Canada has 30M people... I just wonder how much of a global impact (that is why we want to be greener, right?) that really has?

Don't get me wrong, I do almost all of the things that the author takes part in (I think most of us do, to some extent), but with 7B people in the world, it only seems like a difference could be made if a) much, much more than .429% (and that's the FULL Canadian population) of the world's population chipped in, and b) the major polluters got on board.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cou...

It seems to me (and I could be wrong!) that unless China, USA, EU & India (combined 61.26% of total emissions) get on board in a BIG WAY, our contributions amount to very little other than making ourselves feel better a night. That's not to say that I think it's all pointless, as every little bit helps, but it seems to be a bit of a "drop in the bucket" type situation.

And I totally agree with author about the "tiny steps" thing; I feel like, one way or another, we're all getting greener as time goes one. Which can't be too bad of a thing.

Comment edited by RB on 2012-03-02 14:55:49

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By mereneg (anonymous) | Posted March 03, 2012 at 18:42:10

Lots of positive and intriguing ideas, from the author and commentators alike!

It's nice to see that others grapple with how effective they are. As the saying (Kermit's?) goes, "It's not easy being green."

If only everyone else was as thoughtful, concerned, and involved as this crowd, we'd all be the better off for it!

Let's all keep doing our bit, as seemingly minor as it may be. It all adds up.

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By Jeff_Stock (registered) | Posted March 03, 2012 at 23:41:34

Unfortunately milk bags are not recyclable in Hamilton so don't feel bad about putting the tiny triangles in the trash, just remember to put the entirety of it in: http://www.hamilton.ca/CityServices/Garb...

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By Allen (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2012 at 01:50:00

The human have to realize the importance of going green

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By ddaearegydd (anonymous) | Posted August 25, 2012 at 22:48:18

The biggest step one can make towards being "green" is to reject consumerism. Stop buying shiny shit that you don't even need, and doesn't even actually make you happier in the long run. Do you really need a new smartphone? What's wrong with your current one? Do you know what it's made of and where those materials come from?

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