Wake Up and Smell the Planet

Categories: Book Talk
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WHAT DO WE DO NOW?

Wake Up and Smell the Planet:
The Non-Pompous, Non-Preachy Grist Guide to Greening Your Day

by Grist.com
Mountaineers Books, 175 pages, $15 (paperback)

Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living
by Graham Hill and Meghan O’Neill
Villard, 240 pages, $15 (paperback)

Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life
by Ed Begley, Jr.
Clarkson Potter, 240 pages, $18 (paperback)

An Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth” and a Nobel Prize are testament to Al Gore’s achievements in increasing our knowledge about the threat of human-driven climate change. But most viewers did not notice the bits of advice flashing across the screen as the lights came on and the movie’s closing credits were rolling. Rather, they were more likely to have looked at one another and asked “What do we do now?” While Gore’s movie may have been lacking in its presentation of practical suggestions, dozens of self-help books that promise to help us make the transition to a cleaner, greener lifestyle have stepped into the void.

Self-help greening books have been around since the advent of Earth Day in 1970 (or a lot earlier, if you count Thoreau’s “Walden”), but they have become increasingly sophisticated of late. Whereas greening used to be associated with isolated acts, like recycling of aluminum cans and organizing beach cleanups, it can now be seen as a way of life, sun-up to sun-down, January to December, relevant everywhere from bathroom to backyard.

Although a great amount of the current greening discussion is focused on reducing our carbon footprint in response to climate change, going green also means cleaning up our air and water, reducing our solid waste, lowering our children’s exposure to toxic chemicals, and generally protecting nature from wanton destruction.

Three books, written by leaders in this field, offer a good taste of the genre. “Wake Up and Smell the Planet” comes to us from the staff of grist.com, a Web site offering news and commentary on all things environmental, with the mantra, “Gloom and Doom with a Sense of Humor.” From Graham Hill and Meghan O’Neill, respectively the founder and contributing writer of a second environmental Web site, treehugger.org, we have “Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living.” Finally, actor and writer Ed Begley, Jr. gives us “Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life,” spawned from his TV show, “Living With Ed.”

All three books are written in easy-to-understand language and broken down into logical thematic chapters. All avoid excessive analysis and intellectual depth, opting instead for a clean how-to format with short vignettes, summary lists, eco-facts and figures, and one-page inserts on specific issues that demand a bit more depth. All of the authors run Web sites that offer loads of additional information, news and greening tips.

Of course, there’s overlap, with much of the same basic information appearing in all three titles.

For instance: Incandescent and halogen light bulbs are out, compact fluorescents are in (the squiggly ones that use a quarter of the energy as incandescents, but yield the same amount of light). Eating less meat – none if possible – is a ubiquitous rule of thumb. Clothes from conventional cotton, which requires a huge amount of water and insecticides to grow, are out. Organic cotton, hemp, flax, bamboo (especially for linens – it’s not just for pandas anymore), and second-hand clothes are in. Synthetic chemical-based home cleaning products are out. Vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda are in. Driving and flying, out. Walking, biking and busing, in.

Conveniently, some of our trusty conventional habits turn out to be okay. An energy-efficient dishwasher running at full capacity beats out hand washing (yeah!). The microwave beats out the oven, stove or electric tea kettle for energy efficiency. Disposable diapers (especially the biodegradable ones) don’t score badly over cloth diapers (double yeah!). Of course, letting your baby go au natural is the greenest option (hmmm…).

Hip, funny and environmental

The Grist and Treehugger books reflect the ethos of an environmental movement that has undergone profound changes since its inception in the 1970s. Their authors take the cause seriously – as if the future of our lives on the planet depended on them – but they’ve swapped self-righteousness for self-mockery, and radicalism for professionalism. “Let’s face it,” as one author puts it, “tree-spiking and roadblocks are so 1987.”

Grist’s “Wake Up and Smell the Planet” is so thick with jokes, pop-references, sarcasm and puns, that it’s difficult to dig out the advice. Whereas the parent Web site is full of in-depth analysis of environmental dilemmas, the book generally lacks explanation for why we should follow its advice. But it is very, very funny and – somewhere between the puns – it does contain a lot of advice. So, this book is best read by the already environmentally converted who want to cut straight to what they should be doing. It features a consumption centerfold, advice on what to do with animal poop (Israelis should first remove it from the sidewalk, and then consider the other options), and an answer to whether a slice of lime in your beer bottle threatens its recyclability (it doesn’t). Overall, Grist’s focus gives the impression that, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead, we may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least we can enjoy the ride.

In contrast to Grist’s humor, Treehugger’s “Ready, Set, Green” aims for hip and fashionable. It is more straightforward than “Smell the Planet” and its eco-advice is supported by background material focusing on why we should be taking its advice (protecting our health, cleaning our environment, saving money). This makes “Ready, Set, Green” more appropriate for those who need to be convinced to do the green thing. Incidentally, Treehugger.com has excellent coverage of Israel, with two local correspondents who also write for the useful (and, yes, hip) Israeli environmental blog in English greenprophet.com.

“Ready, Set, Green,” is best read by members of the 20s and 30s set with an interest in dressing in an environmentally conscious manner, choosing the greenest entertainment systems, and what eco-beer to drink. Among the factoids: Many of our household electronics (televisions, DVD players, computers) are on stand-by mode when not in use, which is 75 percent of the time. We use more energy powering them, then, when they are not being used. What to do? Plug everything into a power strip and turn it off when the devices are not in use — thus eliminating “phantom load” electricity demand. When not actually working on your computer, send it directly into sleep mode without a screen saver (you can do without floating pictures of your children), something that can reduce computer energy use by 70 percent. Treehugger tells us that if everyone in the U.S. did this, it would cut electricity costs by $2 billion! A pop-up blocker also reduces a little bit of energy use – talk about win-win.

Compared with the folks at Grist and Treehugger, Ed Begley, Jr.’s book may be a bit dryer, but he is a man who walks the walk. Or if he doesn’t walk, he rides a bike. And anyone who bikes through the Santa MonicaMountains, from the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood, to get to work in the morning, deserves our respect.

Moreover, unlike Al Gore, who has angered many by living in a palatial Tennessee estate, Begley resides in a small house surrounded by a recycled-plastic white picket fence and an organic garden, where he produces his own electricity and 25 percent of his own food.

Begley’s guide takes us through the house to examine each aspect of our consumption needs – meals, clothes, transportation – discussing in a straightforward manner the environmental impact of each, and presenting environment-friendly alternatives. He has tested almost everything he recommends and rates his suggestions according to the ease of implementation and cost. Further, he allows his fashion-conscious wife, Rachelle, the opportunity to comment throughout the book. She provides a compass for regular folks regarding what types of greening activities are compatible with a “normal” lifestyle that values good food, good fashion and physical comfort.

The ‘word’ in Israel
The books are geared toward American readers. Relative to Israel, electric companies, government and community groups in the U.S. are all actively involved in providing incentives and infrastructure to allow people to do the green thing. What can we do in the absence of such help?
To be green in Israel, we should first look to our natural advantages. For example, we do a good job of subsisting on locally grown foods (with the exception of grains). The preference for fresh, local food lends itself to two environmental advantages.

First, whereas most components of the American diet are transported thousands of miles to assure that consumers in every state can have everything they want, all year long, most of the foods we eat need travel only a few dozen kilometers. This reduces the energy and material needed for transportation, storage and packaging. If you want to do the truly green thing – go to the supermarket, or better yet, your local shuk (where the food tends to be fresher and there are likely fewer energy costs associated with food storage), with cloth bags (now heavily marketed by the major grocery chains) and buy blue-and-white fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Our diet gives us potential to reduce our solid waste, too. If homes, apartments and institutions were to initiate composting of their organic waste (no animal or dairy products in the compost, please), they could lower by up to 40 percent the amount of solid waste trucked to Be’er Sheva for burial. Commercially made composting bins run around NIS 400, but several cities and regional councils offer them to residents at subsidized prices.

We should press our public servants – local and national – to redouble their efforts to help us create our own rich topsoil and reduce our garbage glut. Much of the rest – bottles, paper, plastics, construction waste – could be recycled if we invested in the proper infrastructure for their collection and treatment.

Another Isra-advantage in promoting greening is a good public transportation system, which is complemented by high residential densities. Most of us live in cities, in close proximity to bus lines and with access to cabs and mini-buses.

Over the past decade, ridership on Israel‘s trains has increased, and trains are serving an ever-increasing number of urban hubs. Of course, the last two decades also witnessed the explosion of private car use, which, fortunately for the environment and our household budget, is a reversible trend.

About 12 percent of the average Israeli family’s budget goes to private transportation, so we could save a decent amount on insurance, repairs and rising fuel costs by getting out of our cars. Reduction of air pollution, traffic jams and demand for more land for roads are additional benefits. So, when possible, as far as transport goes – if you want to do the green thing, get out of your car and rediscover Israel‘s decent public transportation network.
Our propensity for high-density multi-family apartment buildings gives us a number of other environmental advantages too, by introducing economies of scale – saving space and infrastructure costs. Living in an apartment, however, also limits the amount of environmental improvements we can make to our buildings and gardens, as every decision depends on the collective approval of the neighbors.

Urban greens, municipal governments and organizations like the Housing Culture Association could make a tremendous impact if they would get apartments in Israel composting, creating green roofs, working with residents on water and energy efficiency, training gardeners to plant gardens with local species adapted to our semi-arid environment.

Another bit of local environmental wisdom: Look to the ultra-Orthodox community and their gemachs, or lending organizations, for inspiration. Young couples starting a family have no need to hit the mall to buy all new furniture, toys and clothes for the kids.

This community incorporates an excellent network of outlets offering second-hand, renewed products. This exchange also serves to reduce the amount of material prematurely entering the waste stream. Certainly, most of the families turning to gemachs do so for economic reasons and not out of environmental ideology, but they get green credit and respect from this reviewer, nonetheless. For a Web-based, secular version, check out www.agora.co.il, where Israelis offer their used things for free.

All three books build on the assumption that many small, bottom-up changes are effective responses to our environmental challenges. While there is much to admire in their sense of optimism – our individual efforts may be too little, too late. Many experts now fear that ever-increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, let alone the familiar rogue’s gallery of other environmental problems, including loss of biodiversity, dwindling fresh water supplies, accumulation of plastic and toxins in the environment, among others, may have already reached a point beyond repair.

Greening guides, quipped New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently to a Technion – Israel Institute of Technology audience, promote an environmental party, with everyone doing enough to feel good, but not enough to make the needed changes. Friedman is convinced that a serious response to global warming demands an environmental revolution.

That revolution will come in the form of policies, like slapping a heavy carbon tax on our energy supplies so that burning fossil fuel will become so expensive that the market will accelerate its search for cleaner alternatives. The revolution will hurt, but it will also bring about the changes on a massive scale that are really needed – like those changes suggested in our greening guides.

In Israel, too, we need both individual efforts and big policy changes if we are to get tangible results. We now seem to be on our way to enacting a “clean air act” that will set legal limits for air pollutants and a framework to enforce them We need a greenhouse gas policy that will seriously consider our contribution to anthropogenic climate change and put in place a set of disincentives (read: new taxes) to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and incentives (read: subsidies and tax breaks) to encourage alternative energy research, development and application. We need to develop a serious infrastructure for separating, recycling and composting our solid waste.

An overriding problem in greening, with particular relevance to Israel, is that there is somewhat justified feeling among many that environmentalism is for the affluent. The discussion of greening is assumed to lean toward those with the time and financial wherewithal to invest in change. After all, individuals with financial pressures face up-front costs and demands on time that prohibit a green investment even if it might pay off in the long term.

Greening should be a project we can all engage in. For this to be the case, we need legislation that will place the proper incentives on environmentally sound decisions, help people pay for the high up-front costs of energy efficiency, and make polluters pay for environmentally damaging activities. And for that, we need an abundance of genuine environmental advocates sitting in Knesset whose concerns are for the long-term well-being of the land and people of Israel.

Daniel Orenstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Technion Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning and a faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

About Daniel Orenstein

Daniel Orenstein, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies and Ameinu representative on the Jewish National Fund USA Board of Trustees.
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