How Green Was My Upper Middle Class

When I was a child in the 1970s, there was something called The Ecology.

During the 1960s, some of the grownups had noticed that there was a lot of pollution, too much garbage, and a possibility that we might run out of things completely. They set out to reduce industrial and personal pollution, manage garbage better, and use things more efficiently.

“The Ecology,” as presented to us kids, was a thing that had to be preserved and kept clean. We were shown pictures and films of littered beaches, sad birds with trash on them, disgusting goop in bodies of water, and huge ugly smokestack factories spewing poison. What was to be done?

Two things: we were not to litter, and we were to pick up litter. The Ecology would stay dirty and get dirtier if we failed at these tasks. It was implied that the sad birds would still be covered with garbage and that things would get dirtier and dirtier forever.

There wasn’t much said about the smokestacks, the goop in the water, or any of the more complicated things the grownups had to work on. It was generally admitted that people had to change things around and stop treating the world as a wastebasket, and the grownups said they’d do that.

When I was a young adult in the 1980s, there was something called The Environment.

Despite putting filters on the smokestacks, stopping the goo from getting into the water, making cars a less dirty, and picking up a lot of litter, the grownups still had problems. Poisons were seeping into the groundwater, spray cans were carving up the atmosphere, fish populations were diving, and rainforests were being chopped up.

The Environment needed protection. Stopping litter and toning down the industrial pollution was fine, but now we needed other things. As young adults, we were asked to stop using spray cans and styrofoam. Additionally we were asked to recycle some things, to protest some of the more egregious industrial practices, and to purchase items that were good for the rainforest in some way. Particular companies were held up as examples of evil for turning rainforest into cheeseburgers or dumping crude oil on penguins; we were to boycott them. Finally, we were supposed to give cash or time to organizations that stopped bad behavior by companies or tried to preserve bits of natural beauty.

It was generally admitted that people had to change things around and stop grinding everything up into consumer products, that we should use things more than once, and that we should change our consumer behavior to reward or punish those who were selling us things.

Starting in the 1990s, a concept arrived called Green. It’s still with us.

Green is an adjective instead of a noun. If something is green, it is helpful to the environment or the ecology, or something like it. A policy can be green. An organization can be green. A person or a technology or a restaurant or even a web page can be green. There’s a lot of good done with this adjective: efficient technologies and alternative power sources, for example. But most importantly, a lifestyle can be green. As with other American lifestyles, green comprises magazines, television, social networks, and products. Lots and lots of products. Food, packaging, clothing, cars, appliances, services, and entire brands are green.

It is generally assumed that people need to take on a green lifestyle and purchase products that are labeled as such. The best demonstration of the lifestyle is to purchase as many products and services offered by lifestyle publications and media and show them to others as a demonstration of green lifestyle.





Fish list: what happened?

The Fish List is gone. Or at least its home page is, and points back to the Seafood Choices site. The list itself remains, but I don’t know when it was last updated.

This is weird and sort of disturbing. The Fish List was a project among the various organizations who had been keeping lists of environmentally less stupid fish to buy and eat. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a couple of environmental groups, and a seafood industry group had managed to cooperate enough to make a good list of which fish were more reasonable to eat and healthier. I can only assume the alliance collapsed for some reason. So now we have competing fish lists. The ones I’d seen recommended as pretty authoritative before have differing objectives.

For now I’d recommend the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch which has lots of good info and also little downloadable cards in .pdf so that you can know what you’re doing when buying and eating.

Green Auto Primer for the Confused

  1. Hybrid cars are not intended to save fuel, and do so poorly. They are intended to reduce emissions. The reason they exist is that auto makers are required to reduce their overall emissions and to provide some zero emissions vehicle by law. In order to continue producing luxury trucks with inefficient pushrod V-8 engines, they must produce a token amount of the hybrids, on which they lose money. When you purchase one you are personally producing less pollution as you drive, but the overall problem is not solved, nor are these vehicles a solution of any kind to the problem of the car.
  2. Biodiesel requires more petroleum to produce than ordinary petroleum-based fuels, according to recent studies. This is because industrial agriculture in the United States requires so much energy, from the nitrogen fixation to the machinery used, that the fuel oil produced from crops is basically inefficiently converted oil. Biodiesel is a great idea if you already have a source of free biomass around, and it is a great idea for a small number of vehicles that can live off the waste biomass others discard. The overall problem is not solved, nor are these vehicles a solution of any kind to the problem of the car.
  3. Ethanol and ethanol-gasoline mixes do not reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Ethanol is made almost entirely from corn. The corn is indeed domestically grown in huge quantities and not imported. However, the corn yields depend absolutely on high-powered artificial fertilizers which require so much energy to produce that they are basically congealed electricity. Unless the plants that produce these fertilizers are somehow powered by some unknown renewable or domestic energy source, this country is still absolutely dependent on oil to make the fertilizer so that the corn can be grown and converted into ethanol. When there is a surplus of corn and a temporary shortage of petroleum, ethanol is a fine idea, because it reduces the consumption of gasoline in the short term. The overall problem is not solved, nor are ethanol-based fuels a solution of any kind to the problem of the car.
  4. Great strides have been made in improving the passenger car. If the current technology was appropriately used to its maximum, pollution and fuel consumption from cars could be reduced tremendously. However, almost everything in this country is distributed by truck. It would be difficult to change this, because the country is very spread out. Commercial trucks predominantly use older diesel engines which are inefficient and dirty. Even if every new truck sold was required to be much, much more efficient and clean, the current trucks would be on the road for a long time. Trucks are rarely replaced; they are repaired. It’s very expensive to replace them. Any large-scale change in the trucking industry would require a tremendous amount of government subsidy to compensate the small companies and individual contractors who own these trucks, because they can’t afford to upgrade. A sharp increase in the cost of trucking would be felt throughout the entire company. There is currently no good solution to the problem of the truck.

Have a nice auto-doom!


I’ve been thinking about social responsibility a lot this week. This is partly because I’ve been reading Michael Pollard’s excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma which is about the consequences of food. Also, causes and activisms get discussed a lot in the LJ space, so whenever I read through my list I encounter the question: how shall I live in light of this information, this opinion, or this cause?

In the LJ environment, social responsibility and activism is focused on speech and symbol. What can you do with an online forum? You can join a campaign, display a banner, pass on some outrage or joy at events. But for most of the people who participate, these things stay in the world of a relatively small social network: Livejournal and similar internet phenomena. It’s important in that community but doesn’t loom too large elsewhere. A good example is the issue of the breastfeeding icons. It’s deadly important to people inside the LJ bubble, and hard even to explain to people dealing with issues in the broader community.

The daily world is different. In the last decade, quite a few friends of mine have gone to work for military, defense, security, and “homeland security.” The pay is good and the work is often interesting. People deal with this in different ways. My friend A., an avowed conservative and hawk, jokes about the things he builds, but there’s an ironic edge to the jokes. At some level he knows there’s a problem and he makes a great show of not caring, indicating that, well, he does, and he’s worried. Other people make a huge wall between their personal lives and the workplace. Some people I know have a huge dissonance between their source of income and their values, and I don’t know how they deal with it.

I myself work for a company whose values in some areas I find disgusting, and some of whose operations are to me actively dangerous. I tell myself that I’m not directly involved in the “bad guy” part of my job, but there I am with an email address at the same place, and an income.

My father the pacifist veteran wrote an essay once about connecting to evil. He served in the Pacific war on a tanker. He was therefore exposed to danger but not to fighting. One day, however, his ship was anchorerd in a harbor that contained a small island. Someone had reported an enemy sniper on the island. A boat was dispatched to deal with this, and my father was in charge of the boat. They circled the island for a couple of hours machinegunning into the brush. No one shot back. It’s not clear that anyone was on the island at all, or whether they hit anyone. That was the only time he experienced fighting in more than a spectator way, and it was still ambiguous.

It’s a more direct connection to violence than most of us have now, but the point of his essay was that it didn’t matter. Whether you’re the person shooting the gun, the one steering the boat, the one who fueled the boat, the person who built the boat, the person who delivered donuts to the factory that built the boat, someone who paid taxes that paid for the boat and the donuts, or just a functioning part of the economy in that nation, you have your hand on the trigger. You can’t opt out without totally dropping out and leaving, in which case it could be argued that you had just switched sides.

I mostly agree with this. I could of course quit my job at the somewhat evil company and work bagging at an organic grocery. But this would, I think, mostly just satisfy my personal desire to feel pure. The somewhat evil company would not suffer from my departure; my expertise is a commodity and they’re huge. I would then be bagging heirloom tomatoes for the local defense engineers.

And it’s hard for me, in this position, to be too critical of the people who are actually building the technology that kills and oppresses, or putting on the uniform and killing and oppressing. I’m a few degrees further out than they are, but there’s no clear line I can draw and say: on my side is good, on yours is bad.

My current approach is to trim down consumption and change my habits of consumption. If I use less gasoline and electricity, eat less meat and more vegetables, spend less in general, give more money to people who are doing good things, there are benefits. Not only is it personally satisfying to reduce my contribution to the ridiculous mess of our petroleum economy, but as I reduce my debt and my expenditures I’ll find it easier to make better decisions about employment. If I spend less and do more with less, maybe I won’t need the salary I get from working for QuestionableCo, and I can opt out further.

I’m not brave enough to say “I’ll right now give up my comfortable salary and my necessary benefits because the system is wrong and I’m too damned close to why it’s wrong.” So I’m going to chip away with it. Maybe I can get my hand off the machine gun, get out of the boat, go back home to the farm, get more self-sufficient over the next few years and be more of a contributor than a destroyer. Maybe.