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First Person

Once an Eco-Snob, Now a Green Realist

April 21, 1999|DONELLA H. MEADOWS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thursday is the 29th anniversary of Earth Day, which was launched to educate the world about cleaning up our polluted environment and teach us the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Is it working? Any Los Angeles freeway at rush hour symbolizes the enormity of the challenge. But the hundreds of tree plantings, beach cleanups and Earth-themed fairs on this month's calendar suggest the many personal approaches to green behavior. Donella Meadows, a longtime activist and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, reflects on her own journey.

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I'm one of those tedious people who tries to "live green."

I'm no beginner. I've been at it 30 years, since I lived in the toxic air of northeast New Jersey, watched suburbs munch up farmland and traveled to India, where eroded soil blew against my skin and hunger looked me in the face.

When I see change is needed, I move forward into the change. I can't help it. Duty comes easier to me than denial.

Right, tedious.

I'm not as bad as I used to be. For a while I was a self-righteous eco-snob, the kind that gives rise to the stereotype. I banished synthetics and went around in wrinkled cotton clothes. I pointedly passed up the meat at dinner parties. I wasn't kind to people with more than two children.

If you know folks like that, have patience with them. They won't be able to keep it up very long.

Their problem--my problem, our problem--is, there's no way to live an ecologically pure life in an industrial society. Compromises are inevitable. My own contradictions were blatant. I bought a farm to grow organic food and an old farmhouse that was a bottomless energy sink. I drove an efficient car and jetted off to environmental meetings. I had no children, but four cats and two dogs, all of which declined to be vegetarian.

First, I tried to cover over these inconsistencies. Finally, I admitted them. Then I found them hilarious. Once I forgave myself, I could forgive the rest of the human race. I could redefine my mission from holy war to honest experiment, with room for mistakes and learning. I could expand my focus from the details of my life to the driving forces that keep us from living according to our values.

I find those driving forces in two places. One is inside us, our human lacks and longings, our restlessness, our insecurity, our need to be admired and to belong. The other is the consumer culture around us, so skilled at hooking into those lacks and longings. It offers us material pacifiers for nonmaterial needs. It sells gas and oil relatively cheap but makes solar power expensive. It snags us with ways to use money to save time, keeping us slaves to money.

My life is still full of contradictions. I'm far from living in a way that would, if everyone lived that way, stop the degradation of our planetary life-support systems. But you know what? I keep moving in green directions, and as I do, life becomes richer. Conspicuous sainthood is no longer my motivator. Good living is.

Take food, for example. Without taking vows or twisting into costly contortions, my household has gone almost entirely organic. What we don't grow, we buy from a local co-op or farmers market. I haven't had to enter a supermarket for years. Our food is garden-fresh, pesticide-free, spectacularly, crunchingly tasteful.

Our vegetarianism has softened, because animals fit into the cycles of an organic farm. The chickens eat the kitchen scraps, the sheep and cows digest and fertilize the clovers and grasses. We love our animals and take good care of them, but that doesn't mean we can't eat them. If we didn't, we would be overrun with their progeny. We eat them rarely, on special occasions, with gratitude.

We've sealed the cracks, insulated the house, installed a wood-gasifying furnace with an oil backup. Our fuel comes mostly from nearby forests. But if we go away, the oil clicks on and the pipes don't freeze.

I've cut way back on jetting about, but I still do it when I feel it can make a difference or take me to someone I love. I don't have to jet to beautiful places, because I've made the place I live beautiful. There's no place I'd rather be.

I still drive too much. I'm waiting eagerly either for a bus system that connects to my rural town or for a hypercar, which, I'm told, will get 120 miles to the gallon and be as crash-worthy as a Volvo and as capacious and peppy as I want. Transport is one of many aspects of green living an individual can't pull off alone. We need industry and government to help. So I spend time putting pressure on industry and government.

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