Just when you think that everyone has gone “green”, at an upscale uptown-Barcelona party a Canadian expat accompanied by her Spanish-born recycling plant manager mumbles something about eco-Nazis. It wasn’t directed directly at me, but she was responding to a comment I had made about an organic bakery (I just shot a video on one in Barcelona that is not just organic, but rejects industrial yeast for a 15 hour fermentation process).
When I told her that I work on a website focused on sustainability, she blushed a bit and explained that she wasn’t anti-environment- she even scolds her grown son for keeping the heat turned up high all winter-, but for her organic is anti-labor: her brother owns a conventional farm in Bolivia and when his neighbor went organic, she watched families, children included, performing the exceedingly menial labor of picking bugs off crops (or that is what she assumed they were doing).
The validity of her argument aside, her comments made me realize that in all the conversations I’d had with friends about the decision to buy organic or not, we had never discussed labor issues.
My peers and I tended to focus more on issues like the cost of organics and when is it important- for your health- to go pesticide-free.
Was I just a knee-jerk environmentalist? And on a larger scale, how many of us who are buying local or fair trade or who have installed compact florescent lightbulbs or solar panels really understand these topics beyond the headlines? Had we forgotten to question what might be too extreme?
On New Years Eve, my parents and a few of my siblings and I went out to watch fireworks on the Sydney Harbor and along the way my sister stopped to order Thai food. Thinking of all the plastic takeout containers piling up in her cabinet a few blocks away, I suggested running home to bring our own containers for a refill.
I didn’t see the BYOC (bring your own container) concept as anything too extreme since I’d recently learned- from Aseem Das of the compostable container company World Centric– that it is being tried in Germany. I also knew my mother was on-board, as I had just videotaped her attempting to BYOC at a Sydney restaurant.
A road protest by eco-airheads
This week I witnessed what could only be described as eco-airheads: two giggly teenagers on a road in Coogee, Australia- a beach town outside of Sydney- road protesting for nature.
I was walking a few blocks from the beach in Coogee when I heard a honk and laughter up ahead. Two beach bum type girls were holding up a sloppily scrawled sign to uncoming cars reading, “Hug a whale. Save a tree.”
As I passed them, on the other side of the street I heard an older couple shout, “What about your plastic bottle?”. The girls looked down at the plastic water bottle stashed next to their bare feet, giggled- as if unaware of the plastic waste or the air miles involved in shipping water around the world– and held up their sign again.
Julia Robert’s “totally green” mansion
As more join the eco-bandwagon- even in a light green way-, there are more opportunities for personal inconsistencies.
As my name-calling acquaintance at the Barcelona party reminded me- when she heard that I worked on an environment-focused website- my upcoming flight to Australia would cancel out most of my smaller efforts to conserve (As I’ve blogged about in the past, one Europe-Australia flight is about equal to a year’s energy use for at least the average Brit), but I felt obligated to take the journey Down Under to get to know my sister’s new hometown and the family she has married into.
Even celebrity eco-advocates can’t buy their way to perfect environmentalism. The newly-greened-by-motherhood Julia Roberts recently explained to Vanity Fair’s Jane Sarkin and Krista Smith that her new Malibu home is “totally green” with “all recycled wood and solar power”, but these 30 million dollar renovations don’t negate the fact that her new pad is several thousand square feet. Similarly, her biodiesel car doesn’t cancel out her flights in private jets.
My brother-in-law (a bike-commuting-composting-Seattleite) stopped our plans to spend 30 minutes on a trip home with his question to my mother: “Would you rather spend extra time with your grandchilden on their last night in town or run around looking for containers”?
He was right. It was the wrong moment to conserve. Thirty minutes earlier before leaving the house, we could have thrown a few containers in with the picnic supplies, but to spend an extra hour returning home now was extreme.
Rice from Pakistan
A couple days ago at a birthday party here in Sydney, I met Sharon, a more traditional “environmentalist”- politically active for decades, she was jailed for tree hugging in the eighties- and even she isn’t immune to the difficulty of living true to her values.
Every consumption decision requires significant deliberation; before purchasing a washing machine recently, she researched the brands to find one that wasn’t made in China (labor abuses) nor Japan (whaling concerns) and settled on one made in Korea (presumably the South).
Buying rice is even more complicated, especially here in Australia. With the lack of plentiful water, locally-grown isn’t sustainable so Sharon buys from Pakistan, but with the assassination of Bhutto she questions that decision.
I would add that the air miles involved in shipping rice to Australia warrant a reconsideration of the types of foods that are eaten here (I am currently working on a video on kangaroo as a sustainable meat source. Unlike cows, they don’t emit methane gases and they are adapted to Australia’s native vegetation.)
It all sounds a bit overwhelming, after all, most consumption is inherently wasteful- at least the way we currently consume (until our products are Cradle to Cradle)- and these picky deliberations between products with less miles, less cruelty to humans or animals, can seem pointless and confusing, and worthy of name-calling.
Cate Blanchett’s 4 minute showers
When Cate Blanchett- who is taking both her Sydney home and the Sydney Theatre Company off-grid- mentioned to the press that she had installed a shower timer at home for her 4 minute showers (the average for New South Wales is over 7 minutes, or 11 minutes when leg-shaving is involved), she was accused of becoming a “smelly control-freak“, among other unflattering epithets.
Even Cate has heard the criticism: “I heard something silly the other day that I’d stopped washing my hair to cut down on using even more water but that’s not true. I’m just trying to do my bit. I do live in a desert called Australia you know.”
Killing for water in Sydney
Sharon, “the environmentalist” from the birthday party, works for the New South Wales (Sydney’s state) Dept of Environment and Climate Change mapping wetlands in the state. Currently, they are working to prove to
farmers that if they continue to divert large amounts of irrigation
water from wetlands, annual water levels will drop.
I asked Sharon what
will happen if the farmers don’t agree to use less water. Her reply:
“they have to. There just isn’t enough water.”
Now in their sixth year of drought, Australians are being forced to
change their ways: sprinklers are banned and gardens can only be
watered on specific days.
Two months ago, a fight over watering restrictions led to a death in one Sydney suburb. Given that the victim was the one allegedly mis-using water, it could be seen as a case of eco-facism, but mostly it’s a sign of how desperate things have become on this island “desert”.
It’s really no surprise that all the current interest in the environment, and eco-products, is experiencing a backlash. Things are changing quickly. Until quite recently, issues like water rights and where our food comes were unfamiliar territory for most of us. But today, movies like “Who Killed the Electric Car” and books like “An Omnivore’s Dilemma” are mass market stuff.
Last summer I was at my sister’s book club meeting in Seattle (they have read the aforementioned book) when one of the women declared herself “anti-organic”. She was tired of seeing other mothers jump on the pesticide-free bandwagon buying anything with the organic label- including cookies and tv dinners- thinking it is healthier.
It’s easy to see how living in Seattle, she could become anti those who are anti pesticides: the current organic fixation there is beginning to resemble our national obsession with non-fat foods back in the nineties.
This week when my sister and I became engaged in the “organics-are-too-expensive-how-important-to-your-health-are-they” debate (Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group helps clear this up in our Dirty Dozen video), my brother-in-law reminded us that it’s not just about personal health, and that perhaps that bigger effect of buying organic is on the environment.
It’s funny how trends start and you can lose sight of the why. The woman from the Barcelona party helped me re-focus. As did a farmer from New York a couple years ago when I shot a video with him on the land his family had farmed- conventionally- for over three centuries.
In the 1970s they went organic. Neither he nor his family were hippies, nor any type of eco-fascist, but they stopped using pesticides because they had to: their father got spray poison.
As we re-learn to eat, travel and live more sustainably, we will make some mistakes and we will call each other names. But eventually we will change because we have to.