Green: It's The New Green

With this past week's celebration of Earth Day on the 22nd, I felt compelled to write a little something on the event(that, and the Tyra videos were scaring people). It finally dawned on me what a big deal Earth Day has become when I took notice of constant advertising promoting everything green from recycled consumer goods to the bountiful harvest of my own nostrils. It seems like I couldn't turn on my flat screen without some massive corporation attempting to convince me, with the sincerity of a death-row inmate who recently found Jesus, that they are committed to protecting our environment. After showing a few shots of a deer and her baby fawn grazing at the base of an oil rig or a cute little bird building its nest in the rusting pipes of a chemical processing plant, the company's spokesperson then reminds me that I should turn off lights when I leave the room as if I were personally responsible for melting the polar ice caps and plunging Manhattan into the ocean. Since when did all of this become so important to everyone?

To answer my question, I did a little digging and discovered that in 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson announced a grass-roots movement with the purpose of bringing national awareness to environmental issues. From this act, a day was designated as the focal point and in the Spring of the next year "Earth Day" was born, and subsequently celebrated every April 22. I was a little surprised to learn that the unofficial holiday had existed for so long. I was born shortly after the first celebration of tree-hugging (and in April no less), and I don't recall ever hearing the day mentioned, yet today it carries a frenzied excitement nearly equal to a Scottish soccer riot. It far exceeds the prestige of President's Day or the importance of Groundhog day, holidays for which no time is given off (unless you work for the government); however, when Earth Day rolls around children and adults everywhere are given the opportunity to take a little time off (maybe not the whole day) to go plant stuff, or better yet to take advantage of the associated sales events.

Now, with an increasingly commercial feel rivaling at least that of Thanksgiving, Earth Day preaches that being green and environmental conformity is the "in thing." Place your empty Starbucks cup in the non-recyclable trash, and it's more than likely someone will spit on you and scream "Baby Killer" in your face. Fill up the tank of your SUV with any gas without ethanol and prepare to have a bucket of red paint splattered on your windshield. To be anything but "Green" can only make you, well, not green.

If it's hip to be green, then my family was the environmental equivalent of the Rat Pack. My sisters and I grew up through the spam of 70's, 80's and 90's in the same rural Pennsylvanian home that our parents still live in today. We were far removed from gridlock traffic, city smog and industrial pollution, as we grew our own vegetables, butchered our own meat and canned our own fruit. In the fall we cut and split mountains of logs to heat our home with a wood-burning stove rather than use the electric system already installed, and throughout the year our garbage would be either dumped on the garden directly to decompose or burned into ashes and then spread to naturally enrich the soil.

As the "Sinatra-figure" of this eco-hipster clan, our father avoided the use of large, gas-guzzling machinery to maintain his 3-acre lawn and 2-acre garden. To him, the organic off-spring of his loins were not only eco-friendly, but they were also more cost effective than desperate migrant workers. Each summer my task was to cut the grass with a push mower that was only a half a step better than a one-eyed billy goat, while my sisters were given an 87-task list detailing which vegetables in the garden needed to be weeded, hoed, or fertilized. If there was anything cool about environmental responsibility, to us kids this sure wasn't it.

Despite being convinced on several occasions that I had developed skin cancer from the many days spent in the summer sun, kicking a near-sited goat in the arse, along with the many threats my sisters made that they would birth their children in the fields and then let them die because there would be no time to suckle a child with the amount of garden work demanded of them, it actually was a simple life. One teaching us to appreciate the world around us and the need to preserve it. On the other hand, my sisters and I shouldn't be thought of as martyrs for the cause either, considering that the amount of Aquanet hairspray we used in 1987 alone was likely responsible for depleting at least 10% of the ozone that year if not more (the evidence is inconclusive).

Now as adult, the whole world is completely backward as my parents eat only processed food, and large corporations claim to be the earth friendly ones. Automotive companies churn out newer and larger versions of hybrid vehicles. Manufacturers unveil their latest "innovative solutions" and "smart technologies" that make the world a healthier place. Heck, even the television networks are adding little logos with leaves and twigs at the bottom of the programing screen as a declaration of their solidarity with Mother Nature. I suppose these are all good things, but experience has left me skeptical when a 9 bazillion-dollar company that, by virtue of the process required to make their product, shoots stuff in the air, dumps it in the water or buries it in the ground, suddenly starts stringing daisies together into little crowns for everyone to wear as they dance around the maypole.

Before doing, whatever it is I do now, I worked in quite a few different positions within the homebuilding business so I'm naturally tuned in to everything I hear from that industry. Just like cars, appliances and everyone else, builders everywhere are equally vocal about their unity with Mother Earth. To be fair, there are a number of builders, particularly in the Northwest, West Coast and Rocky Mountain Regions that have been true green builders constructing homes with a sincere respect for the environment well before it was all the rage. Since then, it seems everyone in residential construction is touting their green initiatives, not wanting to be upstaged by their competition.

But I will say for a fact that this is less about their sincere concern for conservation, and more about marketing strategy. I could go on to provide more than a few instances to prove my point, but I have one which illustrates this the best. Several months ago I consulted for a builder who's owner talked emphatically in a staff meeting about the need to be recognized as a green builder. "It's the current direction of the industry," he said, "And this is free exposure we don't want to miss out on." Then he asked what it would take to qualify for inclusion on the list of other Green Builders. The Marketing Director piped up that the only requirement was to fill out the form she had sitting in front of her and submit it to the appropriate officials.
"That's it?" the owner asked looking at the Construction and Purchasing Directors for verification that no specification and product changes were needed or that there was no independent inspections needed to verify their status.
"That's it." Marketing replied, and with the stroke of a pen the builder was listed as an Official Green Builder in that market by the next month. I thought of that story as I drove the girls to school the other day and counted no less than three billboards from another homebuilder, showing a leaf on one side and a dollar bill on the other, flanking the slogan, "Green is Good!"
"Good for who?" I wondered, and then the irony of it hit me. Green really is the new green in the context of a company's push to be recognized by consumers as environmentally sensitive translating into increased profits for them.

Before I end my impressions of Earth Week, it would be wrong on my part to indite only big business when the opposite extreme is equally guilty. Burning down housing developments and sinking whaling ships isn't exactly my idea of making a positive impact. Eco terrorists who risk the safety of others in the name of their cause are what I call "Nature's Attention Whores." No one's going to start recycling their Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans just because you drove a hybrid full of organic TNT at its max speed of 43mph into the front lobby of Shell Oil's headquarters. And on a smaller scale, you're not fooling anyone by wearing only clothing made from hemp and accessorizing with Birkenstock as you drive your Hummer down Rodeo Drive. Ultimately the point I'm attempting to make is that, to me, concern for the environment comes down to sincere action from a balanced point of view.

I myself, try to be conscious of the ways I can contribute, but I'm not perfect and could always do more. Lately, however, I've started to realize the importance of living a simpler lifestyle that reduces consumerism to that of necessity rather than that of desire. The idea behind the concept is that buying what you don't need only leads to unnecessary waste, and reducing waste is just as much a part of being a good steward of the earth as turning off lights and recycling newspapers. From a faith standpoint, the idea of being a "steward" of the earth got mangled in the ultra-fundamentalist education I received as a kid. Somehow God's commandment to Adam to have dominion over the earth was taught in the same tone as the Scripture's claim that men should rule their submissive wives, thus giving me the image of a fat, hairy man in a wife-beater slapping Mother Earth around for not bringing him a beer quick enough. It wasn't until I read The Tao of Enron, which covers the idea of a simpler lifestyle in the second part of the book that I gained a more accurate perspective on what role I am to play.

And so, with Earth Week winding down, we should all return to work and school with a sense of satisfaction over what was accomplished for the earth in just seven days of public service announcements and retail sales events. We should take an added comfort in our trust that ultimately, the federal government can fix anything that's broken, even the earth. Why we as a country think that when all else fails, the final solution is to place our most serious problems at the mercy of bi-partisan politics so they can make an "intelligent" decision for us, is a mystery to me. Don't we realize that this only gives Michael Moore the opportunity to make one more fact-less documentary, forcing me to question how someone with enough hygienic shortcomings to warrant a major EPA violation, can roam freely without repercussion. I guess in any case that is the easiest solution. But why shouldn't we trust the government to protect the environment for us? Check out these two videos, one from President Bush on global warming and another interview a panel of congressmen on climate control.

Triumph on Global Warming

Enough said.

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