Saving Our Planet, One Guilt Trip at a Time

Special Earth Day Issue  April 22, 2009

UFOs and AGW

In honor of Earth Day, I decided to finally go green before I get arrested, or have to pay a 1,000% surtax on some of my favorite things to use, such as light bulbs, paper, and oxygen. It figures that in this era where school kids think that greenhouse gases are a greater threat to their safety than Al Queda, this would become a full-time job.

At first, I held out hope that my decades-long commitment to recycling would be enough to give me green cred, but eco-worry is more contagious than the common cold (for which you ought to use tissues made from recycled materials, even if it's a little scratchy). Eventually, I caved under the barrage of green stories in the media.

Look, this season the only Mother's Day gifts I've seen advertised have been lead-free lipsticks, organic gardening supplies, and for those with any disposable income left, "conflict-free" diamonds. (Hint to family: I've never had a conflict with diamonds as a gift, and don't anticipate having any now.) 

Since biosustainability has become my middle name, I've been running around like a maniac (or at least walking, which leaves a lighter carbon footprint  than driving) to recycle antiquated athletic shoes at a "reuse-a-shoe" program and elderly cell phones at Staples. I'm shopping for a low-flow showerhead and reading surveys on the best recycled toilet papers. When they ask me at the supermarket which kind of bags I'd like, I have no choice but to confess that I really did buy those reusable bags for $1.99 each but forgot them at home. Again. And I nearly bought an end table made from bamboo, just because of its biosustainable properties, until I remembered that excess consumerism was bad for the environment, too.

Fatigued from the work of replacing every light bulb in the house with energy-saving, yet dangerous and expensive compact fluorescent bulbs, I went online to test my knowledge of composting. Shockingly, I failed a quiz that posed the question, "What should you put in your compost bin?" I had no idea that you could compost egg shells, as long as you broke them into small pieces, and I guessed wrongly that you could compost chicken bones, which are verboten.

I re-took the quiz until I was an unstumpable font of composting knowledge: old coffee grounds and filters, yes; newspapers, yes, glossy mags and old milk, no. However, I was momentarily repulsed when I read that a healthy compost pile, assiduously worked by unionized bacteria, worms, fungi, and insects, would convert all this refuse into something called "humus," which sounded alarmingly close to the name of chickpea paste that I always keep in my refrigerator and is called "hummus."  Humbled that becoming eco-friendly could expand my vocabulary, I am ordering my composting bin today. I am not ordering a composting toilet, a shocking thing that I had no idea existed and whose purpose I refuse to explain.

I found a web site with politically correct clothing, too, changing the world one biopolymer fabric at a time. They use organic cotton, wool from organic New Zealand sheep, and recycled polyester. I imagined that this meant that the ski vests and jackets were reincarnated from 1970's leisure suits, but I was wrong: an organic customer service guy told me they were probably made from mountains of old plastic soda bottles and other "post-consumer industrial content."

It makes sense that this clothing company, named after a Maori tribe, only makes warm clothing, since the eco-friendly lifestyle means you have turned down your thermostat to the "Siberia in December" setting. These people are deadly serious about their mission: they offer a wool dress called the "regime dress," described online as the thing to wear when you want a cross between "a provocative librarian and a disciplinarian." I am not kidding. It is not advisable to request a "regime change," however, since it is the only dress they offer.

I want to help the environment, I really do. Remember, I've been recycling since before Al Gore invented the Internet. Yet I've discovered a toxic underside to this whole green movement. Not only do I have annoying pangs of jealousy at the neighbor down the block who installed solar panels on her roof, but everything I do makes me feel guilty: turning on a light switch, running a load of laundry (even full loads in cold water), turning the key in my non-hybrid car engine (sorry, but with four kids my family is too big for a Prius), even if I'm on my way to recycle old batteries. I feel guilty that I only have just begun to look for the "fair trade" label on my coffee, and guilty that I just bought raspberries, knowing that they were flown by air, wasting fossil fuel.

I considered doing penance by joining one of those urban foraging outings, where otherwise sane people look for edible castoffs in dumpsters, just like the homeless people do, to prove how much waste there is in our society. However, I held back, probably because I had gotten a whopping headache from the overpowering smell of vinegar I used to clean the house. No more Formula 409 for us!

I am trying not to add to my guilt that the landscaping we put in last year requires the use of various mowers and trimmers, which emit greenhouse gases. I also now realize that our lawn itself, so green and lovely to look at, is a buffer of anti-social no-man's-land, reinforcing the suburban alienation of our sprawling communities. I am sorry that I fell into a trap of this kind of puritanical homogeneity and mindless conformity. So much for my degree from Berkeley.

Fortunately, my Jewish heritage will give me some measure of peace. Because the next time my husband walks in the room and asks, "Don't you want me to turn on the light?" I'll just sigh and say, "No, it's all right, darling. I'll just sit in the dark."

Judy Gruen is the author of The Women's Daily Irony Supplement. Read more of her work on