Flush with self righteousness

Environmentalist dreams are starting to rub Americans raw. Greenpeace has turned its attention to an issue that invites both the reporter and readers to make them the butt of jokes, but which is no laughing matter in the end. They are dumping on the manufacture of plush toilet paper on the grounds that it helps destroy the environment. 

It's a menace, environmental groups say -- and a dark-comedy example of American excess.

The reason, they say, is that plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old. They want Americans, like Europeans, to wipe with tissue made from recycled paper goods.

It seems to me the best comedic excess here is that of self righteousness by environmentalists, one of whom called soft toilet paper the "Hummer product for the paper industry" before implying it was somehow undignified to use a product made from older trees for the brief act of cleaning one's nether parts. Undignified to whom? Try the trees in Canada's majestic boreal forest.   As far as I can tell there are perhaps three ways sane adults might suffer a wound to their dignity from the use of any version of the product in question in the manner for which it is intended.   One can leave the restroom with a big clump of it stuck to their person.  One can use too little and end up a short time later with the terrible urge to scratch in an unmentionable place. Or one can use too much and find themselves standing amid a flood yelling for someone to get the plunger. 

Those flushed with indignation over this issue admit that paper products used for personal hygiene account for only 5 percent of the U.S. forest-products industry and that far more savings could be found in further increasing the percentage of recycled material in the packaging industry.  Anyone who has to haul their own materials to the landfill knows just how over-packaged some products can be.  The environmentalists also admit that Americans not only like their toilet paper thick, soft and fluffy. They are willing to pay for the privilege of using the very best in their own loo, too.  This is evident by the huge difference in the composition of the product made for the commercial versus that in the home market.

When toilet paper is made for the "away from home" market, the no-choice bathrooms in restaurants, offices and schools, manufacturers use recycled fiber about 75 percent of the time.

But for the "at home" market, the paper customers buy for themselves, 5 percent at most is fully recycled.

The spokesman for a manufacturer paddling upstream in its attempt to sell more than a handful of Americans on the merits of 100% recycled toilet paper argues that the above preference is just another example of a malleable social construct, not an inherent love for comfort. 

"Should I contribute to clear-cutting and deforestation because the big [marketing] machine has told me that softness is important?"

Capitalist construct or not, I know people who will bring their own rather than use the government issue product made from recycled product found at many state-run facilities like parks and campgrounds.  As for the customs of European consumers, Greenpeace fails to note homes in many European nations are equipped with a bidet, an apparatus especially designed for washing one's privates with warm water. While they are said to be increasing in number in America, the only bidet I've ever encountered was in a Manhattan hotel.  Considering that a search for the term bidet on the DYI Network site yielded no results, Canada's trees will continue to meet an ignominious end.  America does not appear to be about to exchange a wipe for a wash any time soon.  I wonder what the environmental trade off is for furnishing maybe 200+ million American bathrooms with a bidet to save a few trees? Remembering, of course, the lifetime costs of heating extra water, the need for either jets of hot air or extra towels to dry, etc. etc. 

So far during their tempest in a toilet bowl, Greenpeace has stuck to seeking concessions from the largest producer, Kimberly Clark. Though many members believe they did not get enough in return for ending an anti Kimberly Clark PR campaign, others believe that Kimberly Clark will set the standard for the rest of the industry for the use of recycled materials and "sustainable" forestry products.  I think it is safe to conclude the ability of members of Greenpeace to grasp the function of a market suffers from occasional irregularity.  Kimberly Clark's executives may certainly pledge to change the composition of their products by 2011, but customers may well blow raspberries at the result.  That in turn will cause competitors to continue the practices Greenpeace seeks to consign to the compost heap of the forest industry.    

Lack of consumer acceptance is certainly is a possibility based on my recent experience.  Last week toilet paper was on my shopping list and Kimberly Clark's "Green Done Right Scott Naturals" made from 40% recycled fiber was on clearance. The store was discontinuing the brand so it was the cheapest product on the aisle. Ingles has been giving the local organic grocery chain a run for its money in carrying products that promise to be earth friendly, but I understand their decision to can this product.  Even at closeout prices it wasn't worth the money compared to my regular non-recycled brand.

What will be Greenpeace's stance if Kimberly Clark's promise doesn't presage a regular movement in consumer preference away from plush toilet paper?  Will they settle for reviving an updated version of the annoying scold Mr. Whipple and showering American consumers with the message to avoid squeezably soft toilet paper?  Or will they attempt by government fiat what they cannot accomplish via the marketplace?  

The federal government already dictates how much water you can use in a single flush. Will they next dictate the fiber content of your toilet paper?  And why stop there?  Corn cobs were good enough for the pioneers and there certainly is an excess supply of those with all the acreage planted for ethanol production of late. Never mind that producing ethanol from corn is an activity that uses massive amounts of water, may actually increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and which doesn't save all that much in fuel engines when one accounts for the amounts used when producing and transporting the corn and finished product. Then there are those higher food prices that impact poor people around the world.  Neither science nor common sense seem to make an impression on those potty with green self righteousness.   

Trees are a completely renewable resource. Some species mature faster than others, especially in favorable climates, but growth and reproduction is something that comes naturally to them all.  The forests lost in the Eastern United States in the 18th and 19th century have grown back and then some.  Genetic manipulation may even help restore the majestic American Chestnut which disappeared due to blight decades ago. The problem is that sustainability has a different meaning all together for the true believer in environmental austerity than it has for those in the agriculture and forestry industry. Economy of scale does not enter into their calculation. Nor does the end cost to consumers. Thus it is not enough for a lumber company or a paper producer like Kimberly Clark to plant an equal or even a greater number of trees of a commercially useful species than what they took in harvest.  An article of faith among the environmental left, sustainability increasingly tends to mean restoring nature as it was in the (undefined, idealized and imagined) pristine past that should remain forever, as if man had never existed. Amen.   

Radical environmentalists often have issues with anthropologists eager to celebrate the latest theories about native American culture.  Buzz words whizz past each other in a vainglorious attempt to establish politically correct superiority. Anthropology tends to underscore that humans have manipulated the environment for their own well being since the Stone Age, and not always in ways that were at one with the environmentalists' conception of life before the corrupting influences of civilization. They even dare to challenge the orthodoxy on  the environmentalists' grail, the Amazon basin.  While both may agree that Europeans were the perhaps unwitting villains, those who see North America circa 1600 as primeval forest tainted forever by European migration cannot be reconciled with those who see North America circa 1600 as a ghost continent after a century long wave of infectious disease from the Old Word eviscerated the vibrant native culture of the New. 

The latter like to point out the crops long cultivated in the Americas -- corn, potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes and pepper plants -- almost immediately improved the diet of Europe, Africa and Asia. That level of agriculture supports the position that the emptiness of much of North America reflected a temporary human depopulation, not the presence of immense stretches of wilderness unmarred by human development until the Old World invaded.  European visitors to North America simply didn't fully comprehend what they saw of the relationship of native humans, flora and fauna.  Whole native cultures had vanished after losing too many members to infectious disease to sustain their settlements.  Wood buildings quickly rotted away.  Forests overran land that had been cleared and productive a generation or two earlier.  Species that were easy prey for humans overpopulated when hunting pressures dropped to almost nothing in areas. The stress of overpopulation left early European settlers with a misunderstanding as to the animals' real behavior and normal distribution. 

Since humans have seldom left fertile land sit idle for long, the anthropologists have a good argument. On the other hand, those who seek to celebrate native culture can get carried away about the extent to which those who lacked a written means of passing on knowledge, the wheel, domestic draft animals larger than a dog, explosives and the ability to smelt hard metals may have made permanent changes in topography. 

When mutually exclusive theories whirl away in the zero intellectual gravity of political correctness, stand back, enjoy the fight and bring the quilted ultra plush three-ply to clean up afterwards.