Thursday, April 22, 2010

How Green Was My Alley?

If you've been comatose for the past few weeks and this is the first thing you read upon awakening, you might not be aware that today is the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. Otherwise, I should suspect at some point you've been reminded.
As a born, bred and raised New Yorker, environmental issues are second nature to me. You don't live five people in a four room apartment without developing a sense of how quickly trash can build up, how even the tiniest pollutant in one room can affect the entire apartment, and how hard it is to balance supplies with available space to put things in.
I am proud that I was among the many who participated in environmental issues from the get-go. My Boy Scout troop helped developed and run one of the first recycling programs in America, for which we were designated what would now be called "Green Troop". I still have my green ecology flag patch with green and white stripes and the Greek letter theta in place of the stars. We wore those proudly to Jamborees.
The lessons of those days as a Scout-- see, it's not all about barring homosexuals and promoting Christianity. Most of my troop was Jewish and about half of the patrol I led ended up being gay-- are not lost on me to this day: it's still annoys me when I see litter, and I still advocate for the environment, ecology and on a limited basis, for animal rights. We are all part of a bigger picture, and we cannot afford to think small.
I say all that as background to this post: It's important to remember that we can all do more. 
But, it's also important to remember that we can only do so much. As with many things in life, it's a delicate balance. We have choices to make, even the most militant tree-huggers among us. 
In tough economic times, it becomes even harder to make those choices, but it also becomes more critical. We have to remain acutely aware that there are many well-intentioned people out there who will take the easy way out because they can justify it. They'll drop that wrapper because someone else can get a job picking it up, for example. They'll buy a dollar menu meal at McDonald's because for 99 cents, they can't afford a head of broccoli much less a salad. 
Even the easiest choices, like buying CFC bulbs instead of incandescent because they're more economical, become convulted as those savings come over time, and I have to pay out money right now for the hall light. It's hard, I know, and we who can have to forgive those who cannot make the "right" choice, and try somehow to make up for it until those folks can get their feet back under them.
There's a real simple rule of thumb to help you decide if you're living your life more or less green: physical effort. The more of you that you put into a process or product, the greener it likely is. 
Think about it: you buy a salad at the local grocer, or you can buy the salad makings and toss them yourself after washing and peeling and cutting them up. Which is greener? Likely, the home made salad. 
Or you need to go to the corner store: you hop in the car or you ride a bike. Greener? The bike, of course. The balance between what you can do and what you cannot do becomes clearer. If by putting a little bit of you into it you can help make things a little better in your environment, then it's a good thing. And if getting involved means doing more than is practicable and sensible, then you're trying too hard to do too much. 
You call the pizzeria: should you walk over and pick it up or have them drive it over? Walk, of course. Not only is the car going to pump out more carbon, but the driver is focused on getting your pizza to you as fast as possible for the bigger tip and to get to the next delivery. Hell, even if you drive to pick it up, you'll have done an incremental good if you watch your speed and take the shortest possible route.
In other words, flying cross-country to enter a bike race is not a good thing for Mother Earth. But picking up that wrapper that you're standing over is. 
The little bits add up, as New Yorkers are painfully aware. When you have eight to ten million people wandering your streets, if everyone picked up one piece of garbage, the streets would practically police themselves. 
And if eight to ten million people each littered, we'd need five times as many sanitation workers. The cumulative effect of many people doing one thing is staggeringly large.
Also, the benefits of paying it forward are quite high. If one other person sees you care enough to pick up a piece of paper, they may not pick one up too, but they might think twice about not carrying their wrapper to the trash can. That can make a difference. Leading by example does not have to mean imitation, but emulation.