Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

The doublethink of ‘green living’

with 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I visited Washington, D.C. and stayed with my friend Johnny. On Johnny and I’s walk to check out Glover Park’s brand new “social Safeway” (in D.C., each of the Safeway grocery chains are precluded by some alliterative adjective, like “social,” or “scary” or “sexy”), I mentioned that his roommate looked like he’d put on weight. This launched Johnny into a minor diatribe about said roommate’s eating habits. Even when he did eat vegetables, said Johnny, he slathered them in salt- and chemical-laden condiments.

I turned to Johnny — who grew up in the same redneck, lower-middle-class (and I say that fondly; I’ve been known to drunkenly challenge Midwestern strangers at bars to hillbilly roots contests) inner-ring suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, that I did—and asked him how and when we’d gotten like this. Just the week before, I’d found myself in prolonged deliberation in the sunscreen aisle of a New Paltz mom-&-pop pharmacy, perturbed by the lack of natural sunscreen options. Nevermind that I hardly even wore sunscreen until a few years ago; I was now filled with dread at the prospect of sunscreen containing p-aminobenzoic acid and ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB.

Johnny may be a vegetarian who buys organic and disapproves of his roommate’s soy sauce choices, but he still washes his hair with Pert Plus and pops Excedrin almost daily. I make sure my shampoo is paraben free and clean my house with Dr. Bronner’s, eschew packaged foods and fret about whether I should really be eating soy — but I only recently quit smoking, I love $1.25 Polish beer from the corner store, and I reach for some sort of over-the-counter medicine at the slightest sign of minor ailment.

Clearly, in mentioning all this, I’m ruling out the possibility of ignorance (or, at least, of complete ignorance). But it’s not hypocrisy, either; giving up diet Pepsi was far harder than giving up cold medicine would be). I’m a true believer. But my mom’s always been a true believer in Catholicism, and she took the pill to keep her number of offspring at two. My roommate was a true believer in vegetarianism until all her friends started eating good meat; and aren’t there all those stories about evangelical teens having anal so they can remain “virgins?” Belief – and the behavior resultant from that belief – is sometimes conditional, flexible and incremental.

In trying to live well, to live right (whatever you think that means), there are always trade offs, idiosyncrasies and downright delusions. There’s a doublethink quality to the whole business. Will I be less likely to get cancer if I drink from non-plastic bottles? Possibly, but it’s probably canceled out by the fact that I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn right now, one of the most toxic places in America. Do I think our government is really possible of providing for a sustainable future? Of course not. But I believe maybe we can.

Three years ago, I thought anyone who cared about environmental issues was a bore or a wacko. I lived on pizza lunchables and cheese-its and red bull. I had no idea it was possible for just anyone to grow an eggplant. I can’t speak for Johnny, but I know his habits have changed a lot in the past few years as well. Building sustainable habits — not in a wide, global sense, but in a personal sense; habits that become ingrained in you and aren’t just fads — takes time. I think that’s okay.

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Written by Elizabeth

May 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm

2 Responses

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  1. It’s nice to know that everyone makes these trade-offs. I bought one of those reusable shopping bags at Duane Reade, but I never actually use it. Instead, I recycle plastic shopping bags to store recyclable bottles, cans, etc.

    Question: just how toxic is Greenpoint, anyway?

    The Truffle

    May 27, 2010 at 10:58 pm


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