I encountered the basic principle young. Clean up after yourself. No fair making your neighbor put your fingerpaints away. Don’t waste things, time, effort. Not right losing Dad’s favorite flashlight after he lent it to keep the bogeyman away. It was the golden rule: do as you would be done by. Connecting this elementary idea to a larger world view took . . . years, took growing up; but there were mile posts along the way.
A photo from an educational magazine – distributed to the entire fifth grade of Montgomery County – remains vivid in my memory. It depicted a family picnicking on a slope. But the hillside of scruffy grass overlooked a six-lane highway, and the sky was brown with smog. Turn the page and the family had been transplanted to a parkland paradise: lush green hills, a clear stream, shy wildlife, and blue sky. Which would you prefer?
Yes, this was 1970, when environmental concern grew apace. I was an impressionable ten-year-old and wanted to do my part, but it wasn’t clear what part was mine. “Don’t litter” was a big campaign at the time. It seemed overly basic.
My next milestone came in college. The desire to recycle gripped me. Newsprint and glass jars were the only candidates, and there was no curbside recycling. Oh, did I ever want to participate! But how? I didn’t own a car, and the recycling center was decidedly beyond walking distance. I never did figure out a way, but I made a vow: once I had wheels, I’d be driving to that center as often as I had a bin full.
I kept that vow, but feel some irony looking back: the exhaust coming out my car’s tailpipe probably did far more harm than would a small collection of glass and newsprint in a landfill. And humans have since devised more dangerous substances with which to strew our earth home. What happens to the nano particles created in the manufacture of computer hard drives? What about the discontinued GMO corn that made volunteer eaters so sick? It’s easy to become discouraged. It’s easy to focus on smaller areas where we have some power – I can recycle, after all – and lose sight of larger problems in need of complex, cooperative solutions.
And, yet, I always come back to: it’s important to me that I do what I can do, mistakes and all. Perhaps I should have stuck with bicycling (and not worried about recycling) after I graduated with my architecture degree. But the recycling was still worthwhile, and I still do it. And don’t litter – be it apple cores and household cleaners or nanoparticles and modified genes – still seems a motto to live by.
Since then I’ve made other changes. I eat local veggies and grass-fed meat. I clean with vinegar, peroxide, castile soap, and micro-fiber rags. I use soap nuts for my laundry and a drying rack. I’ve switched out my incandescent lightbulbs for CFL’s. I group errands so I can take the car out less. My kitchen is stocked with reusable containers, so that bag lunches and food storage need not involve disposables. Our mower is muscle-powered. Is all this trivial? Misguided? Perhaps. But surely profligate driving, reckless chemical use, and relentless disposing of disposables would be worse.
I’ve even set my sights on further changes. No surprise there, given my proclivity for shaking my life up from time to time! I hope my next car will be a hybrid. (And that one in the further future will be wholly electric! How to place a charging station when we have no garage?) My push toward more bicycle riding resulted in a broken foot, but I haven’t renounced that dream wholly. (The peddling and gliding are too much fun!) I want to weatherproof my home, so I can be one of those folk whose winter needs are solved with the equivalent of a space heater. Perhaps I might even manage solar panels on the roof!
I talk about the solutions I’m trying. I ask what others are doing. I read to learn more. Am I naïve? Almost certainly, yes. But cynicism and pessimism seem a waste of the life and breath I’ve been given. I’ve chosen effort and hope. What about you?