Being Green . . . or not

Think you’re Green? Think again.

You may well have some low energy light bulbs, and use your dishwasher on the ‘eco’ setting. And drive at 60 in the slow lane on the motorway, and walk to the shops and the school sometimes to pick up the kids when it’s not raining. You might use eco-washing powder and only fly away on holiday once a year. You may recycle and you may have chosen a ‘green’ electricity tariff. You might even have some solar panels, or a wood burning stove. You may be vegetarian, or even vegan, and you may grow veg in your back garden, you might even have a greenhouse.

Now think about your parents, or your grandparents, and how they lived when they were young. They would never have heard of the concept of ‘being green’, and yet compared to any of us living in a rich Western society these days they were positively photosynthesising. If they were really lucky they might have had a car, and sure they burned coal in open fires to keep warm. But they would have had no TV, maybe a radio, and although they would have had electric light, they wouldn’t have had a fridge or a freezer, just a cold pantry. Chances are they wouldn’t have gone abroad on holiday, and if they had wanted to go abroad they would have had to go on a boat. They would have grown their own food and kept chickens, or maybe even pigs if they had a decent amount of land, but not because they wanted to look after the environment, but because it was cheap and gave a ready supply of food.

And even with that relatively spartan lifestyle, industrial society still consumed a lot of coal, and oil, and still produced enough pollution to turn buildings black and kill rivers. Things don’t seem quite as bad these days – well, not here in the West anyway. We have managed to export all the bad stuff to places where they can make the things we want to buy really cheaply.

Maybe there are some ‘green’ people still left in the West – people who have given up the creature comforts of the Western lifestyle to live on the land, farming organically, burning wood to keep themselves warm and with maybe a couple of solar panels running a few LED lights or compact fluorescents. But their lifestyle is not replicable – we can’t all do it, can we. And most of us are a million miles away from that level of ‘greenness’. Our circumstances dictate that, through no fault of our own, it seems.

But for some people, ‘being green’ has become a kind of game that they play with themselves, a kind of binge-purge fetish of abstinence and reward. Vegan recyclers who take several long-haul flights a year. Organic eaters who go shopping for it in the 4×4. Gardeners who think their solar garden lights are helping the environment. How about not buying any garden lights at all?

‘Being green’ has become such a cliche that it probably deserves to be ditched as any kind of valid term. Green consumerism is the order of the day – greenness is just a consumer choice, a flavour of living, a style to be worn to parties. Fly abroad on holiday? No problem, just pay to get some trees planted. Like a steak? No problem, just make sure it’s organic and grass-fed. New 4×4? It’s OK, you can pour cooking oil into the fuel tank.

Don’t get me wrong – I do it, you do it, we all do it. And surely making these kind of choices is better than not making them. Isn’t it?

Well yes, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are actually ‘being green’. We are just being ‘less bad’. We will never be green, not unless we sell our cars, stop going on holiday, dig up the local park and turn it into allotments, get rid of all of our electrical appliances, computers, mobile ‘phones, videogames, TVs, music systems, and start wearing jumpers instead of turning on the central heating. And honestly, who really wants to do that? Not me, and not you. And not most people, to be blunt. And if being green is not something that most people want to do, then what hope is there? Not much, to be honest.

But maybe there is a way . . . because every little thing does help. Every ‘green’ consumer choice is better than the alternative, because it funnels money into the development of new ingenious ‘green’ ways to be. Buying solar panels, although they don’t really produce very much electricity compared to what most of us use, will help to fund the development of better solar panels, and the money spent cannot now be spent on things which might harm the environment, such as holidays. In fact, you could argue that being a consumer – sorry, citizen – in a rich Western economy actually brings with it a responsibility to direct the way the world is going by being very careful about what every penny is spent on.

Ultimately the only way to be really green is abstinence from consumerism altogether. But what to do with all that money?

If you’ve bought yourself some solar panels, don’t reward yourself with a holiday abroad. And if you don’t eat meat, don’t reward yourself with a new HD plasma-screen. If you need to reward yourself in this way for ‘good deeds’, the chance is that you have missed the reward which is intrinsic in actually doing the ‘good deed’ in the first place.

Go out and buy the carbon offsets for your honeymoon in the Maldives, and then go to Scotland instead. Go out and buy all the ingredients for your chicken carbonara, but forget to get the chicken. Go out and buy the most energy efficient tumble dryer you can find, and then dry your washing by putting it out on the washing line. Light bulb gone? Don’t replace it, just use a desk lamp instead, or a little LED on the wall.

We’re not green, but it’s fun trying to be. Dare to be different – think out of the box. Nobody will thank you for it, nobody will give you anything that will make up for that lost holiday abroad, or that nice big comfy 4×4, or that fillet steak. But YOU will know what you have done. And who knows, maybe it will make a little difference which turns out to be all the difference for someone, some creature, some civilisation, somewhere.

And who knows – as fossil energy supplies decline, and energy and food prices rise, maybe those skills which you acquired whilst you were ‘trying to be green’ will make the adjustment to an energy poor way of life that much less painful, and easier to bear. Being happy with little is a sublime skill which we in the rich West have all but lost. And just maybe, friends, family and community are more important and satisfying than all the labour-saving and entertainment gadgets we have put together.

We can’t drop out, but we can live on the edge. 😉