Everyone can turn a deeper shade of green

This blog is dedicated to all those looking to deepen their green--whether you are making a commitment to a greener lifestyle and need help taking the first steps or whether you're already a practicing tree hugger who is looking for practical advice on what steps to take next. Over the years, I've heard all the good intentions and all the excuses. I've also seen my fellow environmentalists sabotage the good intentions of others. I am making a commitment to you, dear reader, wherever you fall on the spectrum, to help you take the next steps to fulfilling your commitment to the earth, to your health, and to your well-being. Stay tuned for articles and interviews.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Uncompromisingly green

You might have seen the Washington Post article, “Why going green won't make you better or save you money,” over the summer. In the article, Michael Rosenwald calls us out on our *$%!@. Even if you didn’t read it, you know exactly what I’m talking about—driving your SUV to the natural foods store, turning up the heat after installing a more efficient furnace, even the quintessential diet soda and a burger. We keep a tally of all our “good” behaviors and use them as an excuse for indulging in our vices. In the end, we may be no better off (our weight, our pocketbooks, our planet)!

None of us are perfect. I drive my car to the gym that’s a mere 15 minute bike ride from my house, rationalizing that it’s too dangerous for me to bike after dark. After reading Rosenwald’s article I committed to riding my bike for daytime trips under 15 minutes from my house. Of course that was in July in the South in one of the hottest summers on record so after 3 trips on the bike, I postponed my commitment until the fall. This was also our first summer with AC throughout the house and our electric bill tripled, not because we kept the thermostat ridiculously low (though it did take about two months for us to agree to temperature settings we could both live with). It turns out that even with an efficient system, cooling a whole house is still much more of an energy suck than using one relatively efficient and one horribly inefficient window unit.

So why is it that we rationalize and bargain away from what we know, or think we know, are the better choices? I don’t have THE answer, but I am starting to develop a version of an answer, with a little help from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. His basic premise is that we have a seemingly endless range of options, which makes us UNhappy. Why? Because there’s always something out there that’s better than what we chose. Because we don’t/can’t have what our neighbors have. He says we are maximizers—we our out to make the best choice possible from amongst the full array of choices available. Problem is, we lack complete information about what choices exist. He suggests that we become satisficers—that we settle for “good enough.”

“Going green” can be discouraging when you feel like you aren’t doing it “right.” “You mean your local beets aren’t organic and you dare to call yourself an environmentalist?” We’ve all met that person.

There are so many great green options out there and I think the only “right” way to go green is to find strategies that you can incorporate into your lifestyle permanently. To that end, I like Schwartz’s advice that we might be better off if our decisions were irreversible. He also recommends setting up some “voluntary constraints” on our choices, which in this case could be: “it has to be greener than what we’re doing now.” What comes to mind for me is the insulation in our attic and the CFL bulbs in our fixtures. Both were inexpensive and easy. Once you make the commitment, it’s done. The indoor temperature, on the other hand, is much easier to mess with when one member of the household is too hot or too cold. A backyard garden requires labor and planning, but scheduling a weekly trip to the local farmer’s market with $20 to spend on groceries for the week is a commitment you can be more consistent with, circulating more money within your local economy and getting fresher produce packed with solar powered nutrients.

Let go of the idea that every decision has to be perfect and set some boundaries around your choices so that all the options meet a minimum “green” standard. Then commit. You’ll know your commitment has crossed into unconscious habit when it is no longer up for negotiation.


  1. Amen to that! Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perfection is nearly unattainable, but many people can strive for excellent or at least a bit better.

  2. I thought there were some good points in Paradox of Choice (even if he did talk down to his readers). Being paralyzed with choice is not a good feeling.

    We try to do what we can at my house, and we consume a lot less than most Americans. Being a packrat doesn't hurt, either.


    P.S. I had to log in with my livejournal account because name/url was not an option. Any way to fix this?

  3. Rose--I'll look into log in options.