Sometimes living a ‘green’ lifestyle can seem difficult if not impossible. Andrew Ladd reviews three recent books that try to figure out why.
The existence of The Good Men Project proves it’s not always easy to work out what being a “good” man means. This is especially true if you’re concerned about being socially and environmentally conscious in addition to looking for your balls.
Perhaps, for example, you’re worried about your carbon footprint, so you decide to buy only locally grown tomatoes. Great. But what if your local tomato growers rely on heated greenhouses, which drive up the carbon footprint, or use artificial fertilizers and pesticides and harm the environment that way? Are they still the “good” choice?
This kind of handwringing can go far beyond the environment, too. Do your local tomato growers treat their workers fairly? Does buying your tomatoes from them disadvantage poorer farmers in the third world? Should you be eating genetically engineered tomatoes or organic ones?
All of a sudden that salad you wanted for dinner is a minefield of ethical dilemmas—and that’s just the tomatoes. So what’s a good man to do?
One solution is to get more specific about what you mean by “good.” That’s the approach favored by Colin Beavan, author of 2009’s No Impact Man (Picador, $15). You may have heard about Beavan when the book first came out—he was that guy in Manhattan who made his family stop using toilet paper for a year.
If you’re curious what he used instead, you’ll find no answers in the book because he hates having his project reduced to poop and is determined not to feed the fire. Instead, he focuses on explaining the philosophy behind his year-long social experiment: not to fix the planet, necessarily, or promote a single “correct” way to live, but to try and simply get through a year without, natch, having any impact on the world or its inhabitants.
For him that meant, among other things, eating only seasonal organic food grown within 250 miles of his home, producing no trash whatsoever, and never taking the elevator. It meant no electricity and no bottled water. And it meant charity work in his community to offset what little impact he couldn’t avoid.
Writing a book about all this might seem preachy, but he’s not out to dictate how other people live. Rather, he wants to draw attention to the real lifestyle changes that are necessary if you want to be good to the planet. Switching to those funny pigtail lightbulbs and driving a Prius are simply not enough.
This is a fairly common realization in the literature of ethical citizenry. For instance, in The Overloaded Liberal (Beacon Press, $24.95), author Fran Hawthorne quickly concludes that being a “good” person takes work. But she also concludes that, as with the quandaries of tomato-buying, there are simply too many variables to make a definitively correct choice 100 percent of the time. All we can do, she says, is be as educated as possible about the issues and make the choices that feel right to us.
Essentially, that’s what Beavan says, too, but Hawthorne’s approach is less satisfying: while Beavan lays out his choices and explains why he thinks they’re right, Hawthorne throws as much information at us as she can, in whole paragraphs made up of nothing but statistics or rhetorical questions, and says: it’s up to you. (Sometimes the research behind those paragraphs is lacking, too; she incredulously mentions a Law & Order episode about a Manhattanite who forces his family to stop using toilet paper, but seems unaware it’s based on a real person.)
What’s more, Overloaded Liberal is a poor title. For a start, such political reductionism does her cause no favors: “conservatives” are either going to be offended at the suggestion they don’t care about ethics, or they’re not going to pick up the book in the first place. Why not the Overloaded Citizen?
Besides, Hawthorne isn’t actually all that liberal. She thinks eating only local, seasonal produce is untenable—she basically says “who wants to eat cabbage all winter?”—and she flatly refuses to give up beef, a relatively uncontroversial “green” choice, because she likes the taste too much. In fact, her message seems to be that ethical “liberals” can do whatever they like as long as they think about it a lot first. Next to the guy who gives up toilet paper—sorry, Colin—that doesn’t seem very progressive.
The bigger problem with Hawthorne’s approach, though—a problem she shares with many others—is that she sees ethical lifestyle changes as chores, as sacrifices. Who’s going to want to give up beef when the debate is framed in terms of how much self-denial one can endure? Or how few hamburgers?
Instead, says Beavan, the question should be: do you need hamburgers to be happy at all? Is there anything you actually need to buy to be happy? Because the more he cuts out of his life, the more he realizes that the overwhelming ethical questions surrounding tomatoes—or whatever—are a prison of our own design. It’s only because we live in a culture that says the path to happiness is buying stuff, whether it’s a big TV or an organic tomato in the middle of winter, that we feel paralyzed by these choices to begin with.
For instance, as part of his no impact project, Beavan is forced to give up trips home at the holidays—there’s too high a carbon footprint. For the same reason, after he finally gets rid of mains electricity, he’s also forced to watch no TV and do no work after sundown.
And the result, he finds, is not a bored, impoverished lifestyle, nor countless evenings sitting around, thinking about how great beef tastes, but more quality time with his daughter, more sex with his wife, more sleep, and a lot less stress.
This, too, is a common realization in the literature of ethical citizenry. Take Amy Minato’s Siesta Lane (Skyhorse Publishing, $22.95), in which the author takes a year to live in a commune in the Oregon woods, with no electricity, no running water, and—yes—no toilet paper.
Minato’s experiment isn’t the same as Beavan’s—she gives up city living altogether instead of trying to make it greener—but, like him, she finds her life relaxing into a more liberating, more natural rhythm. She appreciates other people more, forges deeper friendships, and becomes a healthier person; like Beavan, she comes to understand herself better.
This sort of realization about discovering your true self is easy to write off as stoner artsy-fartsy philosobabble, of course, and with Minato it’s even easier: she’s a poet and her book is peppered with verse she wrote while living in the woods, as well as the sorts of sentences and observations that only poets can really appreciate. (“I wander the earthways near my cabin and instinctively gather mementos to borrow.”)
But that same care with language also gives her an uncanny ability to reduce complex cultural phenomenon to a few pithy sentences. (“The average U.S. family size shrinks while house sizes grow. People then feel compelled to buy more stuff to fill up the space, stuff that requires either time or money to care for and store.”) That makes for an often eye-opening read, more eye-opening in many ways than Beavan’s fussier method of making the same arguments.
And if you’re still tempted to dismiss Minato as a dumb artsy-fartsy hippie, you ought to ask yourself: if a dumb artsy-fartsy hippie can survive in the woods and hold down multiple jobs at the same time, why can’t you?
I don’t mean to tell you how you should live your life any more than these three authors do; ultimately, as they all say, it’s up to you to weigh your priorities and make whatever choices you think you can abide.
But all three of these books also reveal an important factor often overlooked in making such choices: the problem of choice itself. All too often these days we equate happiness with being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want. But what if the availability of so much choice—which is frequently to blame for the social and environmental problems we’re trying to fix—is the only reason we think we need it?
What if, in short, being a good man is as simple as forgetting about your tomato options and instead appreciating the pleasures money can’t buy, with the people we care about the most? To me, that sounds like a relief.