Monday, October 17, 2011

The Phone Booth Leaves a Voicemail for the NYT

Jenn the Greenmom addresses the New York Times Eco-Economy article

A few weeks ago, the Green Phone Booth's bloggers were happy and encouraged to have been invited to be interviewed by a New York Times writer for an article about being green and sustainable in the current fairly stinky economy. We thought (or at least, I thought—I can't speak for everyone) “Hey, cool! At last someone is catching on to how being green and living sustainably are about much more than buying cool eco-gadgets, that there's this whole world of people out there really embracing the 'reduce' part of 'reduce, reuse, recycle' and discovering that green living doesn't necessarily mean getting rid of everything we have and buying 'greener' versions of same!”

Unfortunately, after several of us spoke to the reporter, it seemed that his goal was to write an article about how it's too bad the currently fairly stinky economy means that people can no longer afford to buy cool eco-gadgets or get rid of everything they have and buy “greener” versions of same.

Our knee-jerk response (mine. I really shouldn't say I speak for everyone!), honestly, was to kind of snort and go, “hah! Clearly he is Part Of The Problem! The enemy! A complete and total jerk! He just doesn't get it!” None of which is probably accurate. (Especially the jerk part; he seemed actually like a very nice guy.)

Except the last part. He just doesn't get it. Like so many other people just don't get it.

Because let's face it, for an awful lot of us, the main way we learn about what's going on in our little corner of the universe is –you guessed it—public media. Newspapers, TV, and marketing, marketing, marketing. No one is out there marketing one part white vinegar to three parts water with a few drops of essential oil as a better and safer household cleaner than anything you can buy from any company anywhere. No one is marketing that riding your bike or walking or even moving to a home within walking distance of practically anything you need is more sustainable than buying a Nissan Leaf or Prius. That shift of perspective really only comes from living it, and from dialoguing with people who have been there and are working through some of this stuff themselves.

So several of us, independently of one another, proceeded to dialogue poor Steve into probably near catatonia. And once the final article came out, he had clearly begun—just begun—to move beyond his original perspective and way of thinking.

But we still kind of agree that he doesn't really get it.

So the three of us on the Booth who spoke to him would like to take this opportunity, on this forum of ours, to put out there some of what we said that didn't make it into the article. We especially welcome the perspective of retired Boother Erin the Conscious Shopper, whose lovely face and wise words actually did make it into the article, though she's less than thrilled with the way they were presented and the spin they gave:

The Conscious Shopper:

My big pet peeve with this article is the ending, so let me start there. I want it known for the record that I am not now nor have I ever been in a good enough financial position to be able to run out and buy a new car just because I felt like it. That quote had nothing to do with cars but was about shopping in general, and the whole quote went something like this: “Like most Americans, I had the mind-set that if I wanted something new, I could run out and get it. But I've since learned to make do with what I have, to make things last as long as I can, and to buy quality products so they will last a long time.”

The other really important part of our conversation that Kurutz left out was our discussion about the question “What does it mean to be green?” Is green living all about buying green products and supporting green companies, or is there more to it? Perhaps making your own cleaners and shopping at the thrift store can be just as green as, or even more green than, buying bamboo sandals. (The bamboo sandal thing cracks me up because he made reference to it in the article and a couple times when we talked, as if bamboo sandals are symbolic of green living.)

I feel like Kurutz spun the quotes from me and the other people he interviewed to make it seem like we were giving up something or being less green when we started focusing on DIY or driving less or shopping at the thrift store or gardening. But in my case at least, discovering the frugal side of green living was an epiphany. Green living does not have to be expensive – that's a myth. You can be green without spending a lot of money. And often the green products that cost more upfront will pay you back in the long run.

Jenn the Greenmom:

Seriously, he's not a jerk at all. Very pleasant. And I was very pleased that he initially was able to shift his thinking even a little to include in the article the whole DIY side of sustainability, though I still get the feeling he thinks living green is mostly about buying green. I did say two things in my interview, though, that I wish had gotten in at least in concept if not as actual quotes.

Both grew out of my own story of cutting back and being more sustainable in the process: he was talking about people not being able to afford to make the big pricey sustainable choices, and I related my own recent situation: I just started school a good 35 mile commute each way from my home. My immediate thought was, “hey! I would save a ton of money if I bought a Prius!” (I have total Prius envy, I do not deny it.) I did the math, and calculated that a Prius would get double the mpg of my current beloved 12 year old Subaru, and exactly how much money I would save on gas over the next couple of years if I had the Prius instead. But then I also started thinking...what if I took the train. Way more sustainable, and cheaper as well, even not factoring in the cost of actually buying a Prius. (Used. I would get it used. I love Priuses...) So I'm now taking public transit back and forth. My Subaru gets filled up maybe once a month, and I make sure I drive it at least once a week so the battery doesn't die.

The two points I tried to make with this story: First, I think we in our current culture are programmed by marketing and media to want the Next New Shiny Thing. Oh look! There's a new model whatever, and here are all the reasons I need to get rid of what I have and get something new. It often takes a really deliberate and conscious decision to break out of that mindset and ask what we really want or need, and what would really bring us a better life. Second, just up and getting rid of the old to buy the new doesn't necessarily mean a more sustainable choice, even if it's a new sustainable thing you're buying. My lovely little Subaru is already built, it already has its own carbon footprint, and that's on me and here in the world whatever I do with it; buying a Prius won't erase it, it will only save in terms of the gasoline I won't buy in the future. And that Prius has its own footprint as well—its building, its parts, its design, the shipping of various pieces hither and yon. It's not as simple as just Buying Something Green. Life is complicated, and shifting to lighter living is no less so.


I appreciated being invited by the NY Times writer to share my thoughts on this topic. Unfortunately, I had no time for a phone interview. I mulled over the topic at midnight and put together an email. I'm not surprised that I didn't make the final cut since I was not able to do an interview, but I would like to share the two important points that came out of my late-night email.

1 - One point I wanted to make (though I'm not sure I made it well) is that I do spend extra on some stuff because I have realized that the cheap stuff is dangerous. For example, I can't buy cheap sunscreen after reading the EWG Skindeep site {}. That isn't so much "green" in terms of eco-friendly as it is concerned for the health of our families, so it didn't really fit his article. However if you're going to look at the cost of greening our lives, I'd say these decisions to keep our children safe are the places we parents do spend more as we green our lives.

2- I think research time slows down the greening process as much as budgetary constraints. When I first started my green journey, I had no idea how many aspects of my home would be touched by green decisions. Once I began to realize it, I accepted that I couldn't make all the changes at once. Even without the recession, I couldn't afford to install extensive edible landscaping and a mini orchard. And even if I could afford to make all the green changes at once, I needed time to do the research to make the best decisions. It is a process. When times are lean, we should focus on the green changes that save us money, whether it be light bulbs or growing our own food. When/If our bank balances are more robust, we can invest in the bigger changes, whether it be an eco-friendly car or solar panels. It takes me a while to choose light bulbs — I can't imagine when I start researching a new car....


Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

I also find that the need to do the research slows me down a lot.

If there is anything I think we all should have learned from this recent economic downturn, it's that our consumerism was NOT sustainable, in either the financial or environmental sense. It is interesting how much we have been programmed to buy our way to our goals, even our green goals. My children help me in that regard -- no time for TV or magazines (so very little exposure to ads), and no patience for shopping with kids. When you honestly NEED to buy something, it's great to support greener businesses if you can. But I would think it would be common sense to acknowledge that NOT BUYING is almost always the greenest choice of all.

Alice said...

Great points, all, ladies! I am thrilled, though, that there was a somewhat positive spin to DIY'ing but the bamboo sandal thing really cracks me up.

I especially have to agree with Jaime's point about the time and money element. We do not have time and/or money to do every eco change so we do what we can afford and find time to and make more and more changes every day.

Both Erin and Jenn make great points about "green" items not being as green as keeping what you've got in many situations.

Eco Yogini said...

ahhh- i didn't read the article (although there are canadians who read the NYT of course), but i see your points. It's frustrating when people take interviews out of context.
I really like your responses, and hopefully- as you said, this very nice reporter man will think on it some more. Perhaps you've planted little seeds and when he's ready to get it, he will.


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