Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vanquishing My Inner Cowboy

We Americans pride ourselves on our individuality and our do-it-yourself mentality. In many nations, a middle-class family might lie and claim to hire a maid even when they actually clean the house themselves. In America, the opposite is true. Because you see, to an American, the fact that you are upper-class and still clean your toilet makes you down to earth and more personable. Citizens of other nations might wonder why our President takes such pride in cutting the brush at his ranch. Doesn't he have better things to do with his time? Isn't it unbecoming for the leader of the free world to be so publicly engaged in "menial labor?" But in fact, it is this aspect of Bush's character that makes him so likable to so many. Because he cuts his own brush, we sympathize with him. We see him as "one of us."

Of course, America's individualistic streak is responsible for many of the best things about America: from our rigid separation of church and state to our entrepreneurial spirit. But it also creates problems. Our social safety net isn't as strong as that of many European countries precisely because we believe fervently in individual responsibility. Don't have a job? You're probably just being lazy. It is the "American" in me who feels like a failure when I can't do it all all by myself. But after reading all your wonderful comments, I realize I'm not alone in feeling like it's impossible for one person to do it all.

And here's the thing. You shouldn't have to do it all alone.

I know there are many eco-conscious folk whose idea would be to live off the grid in a house in the middle of nowhere. If that's your dream, or your life, I get it, and I respect it. To you I say, "Rock on with your bad self!" However, if that's not your dream, or if it sounds good in theory, but seems unachievable for you and your family in practice, read on.

See, personally, I have no desire to live off the grid, ever, ever, ever. I love the grid. The grid is my friend. Do you know how many villagers in China and India would kill for our grid? I don't want to do away with the grid, I just want a grid powered by solar and wind instead of coal and oil. So, I reduced my electric usage to 11% of the average American's, largely by never turning on the heater or air conditioner. And then I stopped worrying about my electricity usage. Oh, I thought about unplugging the fridge in passing. It's my only remaining power-suck, and because I have a fridge at work, and am home so seldom, I think I could actually do just fine without a fridge in the apartment. But having a fridge makes my life easier, and frankly, I see that 11% usage as a badge of honor. I'm a green power user, and every time DWP bills me, they see that I'm a paying customer willing to pay more to invest in alternate energy. And in its own way, that's just as important as being able to live off the grid.

Because what would happen if every eco-conscious person decided to get off the grid? It's possible that energy companies would notice they were losing customers, and would start investing in alternate technology in an attempt to woo those customers back. But I think it's more likely that the grid would still continue to serve the majority of Americans, but now, the people willing to invest in alternative energy would no longer be paying into the grid. And if no one was interested in green power, energy companies would stop offering them and would stick to coal and oil. When you're outside of a system, it's easy for a company to shrug its shoulders and ignore you. When you're invested in the system, the company has to pay at least some attention to you.

Similarly, home-schooling is often touted as much more eco-friendly than classroom schooling, and I've seen many a green mom express guilt that they weren't "green enough" to home-school. But when we say that home-schooling is the more eco-conscious option, we're ignoring the very real, albeit immeasurable ways, that the children of "green" parents affect their teachers and peers. This is not to say that parents shouldn't home-school, but simply to remind us that opting IN is just as valid a choice as opting OUT.

In the comments for my "Good, Not Perfect" post, Beany suggested that if I'm having difficulty finding time to cook, I eat at restaurants that serve local food. It's telling how deeply our "do-it-yourself" attitude is ingrained, but I was surprised to see Beany suggest eating at restaurants. I eat at restaurants a lot, and they frequently serve locally-grown food, but eating at restaurants always seemed a little bit like cheating. Aren't I supposed to be able to cook for myself?

Well, yes and no. Cooking is an important skill, and everyone should know a little about it. But, it's not necessary for me to cook every meal for myself. Beany further mentioned that she was considering starting a meal-delivery service. First of all, I think this is an awesome idea, and if and when she moves to LA, I think she should definitely pursue it. Second of all, this is the exact kind of "green" career that we should all be promoting. It would provide a job for Beany, and because she only uses local and organic ingredients, it's good for the environment. Thirdly, um, have you seen the ridiculously delicious meals she cooks up? If I could afford it (which I probably couldn't, but let's pretend), I would ABSOLUTELY hire her, self-sufficiency be damned. Because I know the road of self-sufficiency and it frequently involves coming home late, and having nothing but strawberries for dinner.

The point is, it is not a sign of weakness or human frailty if you rely on others. Sure, I may not want to rely on conventional produce shipped from Chile, but I am happy to rely on the farmers at the farmers' market. I'd rather pay these farmers than grow my own food, and really, that's okay. Because by opting in to the farmers' market, I am creating a demand for small, local farms. I may not have much desire to grow food, but by buying a small farmers' produce, I'm making his or her dream come true. We aren't weaker or food insecure when we rely on eco-conscious systems like farmers' markets and CSAs. In fact, we are building a more secure and happier future.

It's all a question of time and money. Which can you more easily afford? I'll continue to cook my meals, because I can't afford (yet) to pay for organic, local meal delivery. But I'll get my pants hemmed by a tailor, because I can afford that, and I'd rather have someone else do it. I'll buy at the farmers' market, because I can more easily afford the money than the time to grow my own produce. And while I might dabble in making jam this summer, in January, I will happily plunk down the money for someone else's homemade jam.

We don't have to do it all ourselves. In fact, relying on others might make us happier, more relaxed, and more focused. I can't do it all, but I get by with a little help from my friends.


Anonymous said...

Rock on. :)

Re: homeschooling - I never thought of it as a "green" option. We do it because our kids do better in an unstructured environment rather than a structured one. I think that should be a parents' primary consideration, and not whether homeschooling makes them Greener Than Thou.

Going green is about creating sustainable culture for the planet and our fellow humans. Unfortunately, there's a very human tendency to view it as some sort of competition, and to become "Greener" than the Joneses.

Joyce said...

I'm glad to hear some one else loves the grid. I'm fine with being off the grid when we go camping; That's the whole fun of camping. But electricity is wonderful! Refrigerators and freezers are wonderful! I'm with you-let's just think of a different way to produce power.

EcoBurban said...

This is where we are alike, even though I have 4 kids. There are times when I HAVE to cheat in order to get things done or because I can't afford one option or another. I signed up for a food club with home delivery to get my local foods. Oh, I still get out to a farmer's market, when I can between work, kids, school, baseball, band, track - you name it! There are days when good IS perfect! In order to afford the food club, I cut back somewhere else, eating out every friday night for example, and then there are things I just can't and won't give up. Like my mini-van with the DVD player. Sooooo not giving that up! Internet service. Cable TV. My dishwasher. My TiVo. I am on the grid and loving it! :o)

hmd said...

Awesome post! I've been struggling with the whole eating-out thing too. I'm trying to eat all local foods, but I do like to go out with my husband on weekend or go out and do stuff with friends and family that includes a restaurant. I always feel like I am cheating, but it's not about withdrawing from society - it's about becoming more in touch with the world around us. It's about finding that happy medium instead of just going to the opposite extreme. But staying in that happy medium can be hard sometimes. At least it is for me. I've always been an overboard kind of girl, but I'm getting better.

Anonymous said...

I live off-grid, I make my own food, I scrub my own bathroom, I home-school my children.

Fine, none of the above was true.

Honestly, if I had to do any of the above (other than scrubbing my own toilet), I'd die and drag my family with me.

Same with you, I pay a bit more for green power. I buy food from farmer's market and make my husband cook :) I participate in my kids' school to make it greener.

In fact, I am a believer of the 90/10 better than 10/90 rule - It's more effective to get 90% of the people to change 10% of their lives than to get 10% of the people to change 90% of their lives. Me love doing it together.

crstn85 said...

I have been grappling with exactly the same issues. Recently my dishwasher has been kind of iffy, and I was wondering if thats a sign I should switch to hand washing dishes. I know I could do it, but I really don't want to! Since 100% of my electricity comes from renewable resources and I hear the dishwasher uses less water than I would (I lack one of those nifty divided sinks), I'm getting it repaired if it does decide to die on me. Thanks for helping me confirm that decision!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think I'd like to home school, but to be honest, I'm not up to the challenge. And thats fine, because we have professionals out there trained for the task, and I'll leave it up to them just the same as I leave the firefighting up to the firefighters. Would I like to see things change about public education? Sure! But I don't have much of a say in how its run if I don't participate.
Thats the whole point of living in a society, isn't it? We all participate and contribute our personal strengths and draw upon the personal strengths of others. Its one thing to have a "do it yourself" attitude, but it has gone too far, I think, if you're not willing to contribute to or draw from society. If you don't want to contribute to or draw from the society in which you live, why bother living in it?
Great post!

ruchi said...

JAA- You make a great point about trying to be "greener" than the Joneses. It's really not a competition, even though we sometimes view it as such.

Joyce & EBM- Oh good! I'm glad other people love the grid!!

Heather- yes, it is about achieving a happy medium. As Jay points out, it's very human to try and become "Greener" than the Joneses, but ultimately, we have to focus on what's right for us. And because there's no one-size fits all solution, what's right for one person isn't right for another.

Cindy W- the 90/10 solution is a great one!! That would be a great environmental campaign, too.

Crstn85- some people are able to keep their water usage down when they handwash. I am not one of them. I wash big pots by hand because they can take up too much room in the dishwasher, but everything else goes in the dishwasher for washing.

Jessica, you hit the nail on the head when you said you don't get a say when you don't participate. Sometimes it is just easier to solve problems from within the system!

Sam said...

Awww...I am so touched you thought my food looked delicious. Let it be known that the taste is orgasmic!

This post came at a really good time when I was thinking about similar issues. I read the section in "Rubbish" about disposable diapers. Back when I thought I wanted to have kids I had high plans to use cloth diapers, homeschool the kids, grow most of our food, ride bikes everywhere, cook all meals from scratch, etc, etc, etc. But now I wonder...what the hell was I thinking?

Disposable diapers have a rep of composing a huge percentage of a landfill, but its really demolition/construction debris that is the real culprit. And when disposable diapers are compared with cloth diapers, an equal comparison ought to be made: so for example, if disposable diapers use up a lot of energy in production, how much water is used in washing cloth diapers. Basically the question that struck me was: what is the end goal? Why do I want to eat locally grown foods? One reason is to reduce food miles and thus oil usage, another is to expose myself to a variety of newer foods and the third is for this hazy notion that its better for my health. So in that case, does it matter if its home cooked vs. cooked by a restaurant chef?

I am not sure if I want to be off the grid. The strong draw for me is not the planet, but the financial freedom. I want to spend my time lounging around and if that means composting my own poop and living in a cave, I am quite motivated to move in that direction.

Sam said...

Okay my comment reads poorly, but I think the general idea can be gleaned.

Green Bean said...

Fantastic post! Let's remember that a big part of the "going green" movement is to build community, to share the burden, to work together, help each other out, rely on other folks skills. I so often forget that so thank you for reminding me. Have Beany start a home-delivery business is a prime example of the new economy we should be moving toward. There are opportunities out there. We don't have to have an economy fall down around our ears - just think of different ways to meet our needs.

Anonymous said...

I was dreaming of going off the grid one day but now you've got me doing a total 180. Why should I have to do everything? It's not practical. Another great post!

ruchi said...

Beany I have to admit, that it wasn't until reading "Rubbish" that I myself started questioning the reasoning behind cloth diapers. I think I will still try to do cloth, but I would definitely use a cloth diapering service! I'm not going to do that all myself!!

GB, exactly! If we're not spending our money on crap, we might be more willing to spend it hiring someone to cook us delicious, local, organic meals! This is where I think the new economy is headed. And I think it's a win/win scenario.

SDG, I wrote the post mostly to provide people with an alternate viewpoint. I completely applaud and respect people who decide to go off the grid, and if that's what you end up doing, I will applaud you as well. But, for me personally, and I suspect, for many other people, that ISN'T practical. And that's okay. There are a lot of really good, solid reasons to stay on the grid.

Natalie said...

I just saw the movie "Into the Wild" over the weekend - finally. And this was one of the more moving themes for me. The main character pits his vision of society (parental issues, consumerism, impersonal relationships, etc.) with living alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

Of couse it's a false dichotomy. Just as feeling like, as I did for years, you have to choose between living a "normal" lifestyle and being green. As though the only true green lifestyle is living in a yurt in the woods with a composting toilet. There isn't only one. true. answer.

And, there is a reason why humans have been organizing themselves into clans and tribes and villages and towns since time immemorial. That's just how we function best - with others, in groups, simultaneously bound and buoyed by community.

There is a pride in self-sufficiency. And a danger in expedience. Rarely are *convenient* and *sustainable* synonymous. But, as the hero of the movie finds out, the image of the survivalist is heavily romanticized, too. Very few moms I know could pull off Beany's list and live to tell about it. Any parent would do all of that and more if it were necessary. But even in dire situations, I think most people would opt to coalesce into groups and divvy up responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I eat out all the time and have never felt guilty about it or worried that I shouldn't do it. I do eat in local, mostly organic restaurants. And I'm fortunate that I live in an area (North Oakland) that has great choices. In fact, I have this idea that eating in restaurants generates less waste than eating at home, since restaurants buy large quantities in bulk and thereby reduce packaging waste.

We are about to try growing some tomatoes in our yard, just because a friend gave us some, but otherwise, I have no problem letting the local farmer's market farmers take care of the growing of the food.

Rock on, Civilization, that's our motto here.


ruchi said...

Natalie, I agree with you completely. There is a pride in self-sufficiency. That's why I like to cook my own meals sometimes and try my hand at making my own jam. But just because I am able to make my own jam doesn't mean I always want to do it.

ruchi said...

Hmmm. That comment got posted before I was finished. Anyway, Natalie, I think you are right. From time immemorial, humans have always split up jobs. So maybe it's one person's job to cook. Maybe it's another person's job to take care of the kids. And another person's job to teach or to be the doctor. Etc. Specialization is nothing new.

Beth, I think you're right especially if you are just one person or two people. Eating at a restaurant can be much less wasteful. Also, think of the energy required to cook a meal for one person, and all the water to wash up.

Anonymous said...

you're being sarcastic when you say that america is fervent about its seperation between church and state, right? because i laughed when i read that... that would be the day.
there are endless examples... i.e. abortion, stem cell research and queer rights being debated from a christian perspective. or the sermon-like tone of the president during his war speeches.

ruchi said...

Anonymous, I'm not being sarcastic. It can seem like we're a nation of religious evangelists, but unlike England, we don't have a state church. Unlike France, we cannot enact a law disallowing women from wearing head scarves. Unlike in Germany where abortion is basically illegal, abortion is legal in the US. I'm not one of those Americans who think that America is better than everyone else, but we do have a more rigid separation of church and state than most countries. And for that, I am thankful.