Greening Ally: Back in the day

In the last few weeks I have found myself thinking, and starting to do, a lot of things to live my life more sustainably. (I wish “sustainable” wasn’t such a buzzword right now, then maybe I wouldn’t sound so precious saying that.) As I thought about sharing my experiments and experiences in this forum, I found the well-trained (semi-) journalist in me wondering why. Why have I been thinking so much about what I consume (edibles and non-edibles) and the waste that’s generated by consuming it? How much influence is the media having on me as I think about these issues and make these new choices? Why am I so much more focused on this now, nearly 5 years after leaving a job at what was, at its core, an environmental advocacy group*?  This couldn’t have come out of nowhere, so when were the seeds planted? What’s the context?

That brought me back to the beginning. So, travel in space and time with me to idyllic Douglas, Massachusetts, in the 80s and 90s. Check out the satellite and take a gander at how green it is. (Wait, Google street view has been to my tiny little hometown? What?) That’s where I grew up, in a house with a few acres encompassing a huge backyard, a front yard that could fit at least three Baltimore rowhomes, and a patch of woods leading back toward the Mumford River.

Looking back at it now, my family did a lot of things that would be considered “green” today. But the reasons why we did them were driven by frugality and a DIY ethos (one that my Dad and grandad would probably never in a million years refer to in that way). After all, it’s cheaper to fix and make things yourself, and to not buy a lot of expensive stuff when something cheaper will do the job just the same.

A few examples: My grandfather literally built the house I grew up in, down to laying the fieldstone foundation (which my dad has patched and waterproofed himself). Our primary source of heat in the winter was a wood stove (oil heat as a supplement and for the furnace, etc.). My father never bought a cord of wood, at least to my knowledge — it was all carefully picked out and cut down, by him, in the woods behind our house; then it was stacked up in the backyard to be cured, and split. (A few years ago, the wood stove was replaced by a pellet stove.) Dad started buying CFLs for the basement lights pretty early on; speaking of lights they are always turned off in an empty room, as past roommates of mine can attest.

We also carefully recycled everything we could. I’m not sure exactly when the town dump was covered over and a transfer station replaced it, but I remember going to the transfer station with my Dad, and carefully tossing our recyclables directly into the containers that they were hauled off in. (This was way before the days of single-stream recycling, which in Baltimore is only about a year old, if you can believe it.)

None of this is unusual — they’re the kind of things that your parents just keep telling you to do until you get the idea (“oh, I should turn off this light and maybe Dad won’t grouse at me”), or that you start doing because that’s just how things are done in your family. I never thought twice about any of these things until now. I don’t do them to be green, I do them because they’ve been a completely natural part of my life. (As a side note, people who know me in Baltimore would probably point to my choice to not get a car as a green decision. For me, this is more of a financial and lifestyle choice [walking 3 miles round trip to work = eat cookies without going to the gym] than an environmental statement. That’s just a nice side effect.)

So, if you’re already doing all the basic things because that’s just what you do, when you start actually thinking “what can I do to be a more responsible steward of the planet” you quickly find yourself exploring organic cleaning products and cosmetics, pondering vegetarianism (or at least being a more vegetarian flexitarian, if that makes any sense), and looking at products and wondering if there are alternatives that come with less packaging. Those are some of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, and will elaborate on in the next few weeks.

*My former boss would disagree with me on that statement, but when it comes down to it the environmental advocacy is what brings in the money, not the other work that the group does. And that’s what was primarily emphasized in all the publications.