The weighing of the green

            As I have mentioned before, we only turn on the air conditioning when people are sleeping around here, as there are both security and a noise issues with having the windows open.  One of the perks of the west side of Los Angeles is that the weather is cool enough and certainly dry enough to make it feasible to take this step towards energy conservation.

            So, you can imagine my anxiety when I realized that the mother dropping her son off to play with Zachary would be arriving during Benjamin’s nap time.  When the air conditioning is on.  What would she think of me?  Would it be like the dirty looks people give to the other shoppers who fail to bring canvas bags to the grocery store?

            Don’t get me wrong.  I know plenty of people around here use their air conditioners.  But this particular mother is also the author of this book.  I kind of figured she probably was not cranking up the A/C on a regular basis.

            So, when she sat down on the couch and said, “Oh, that air conditioning feels nice,” I hung my head in shame.

            “I was so anxious about having you over,” I admitted.  “Really, we don’t usually use the air conditioner.”

            “But you’re pregnant,” she said, rather charitably.  “You need to be comfortable.”

            I rushed to explain about only using it when people are sleeping, sounding, I fear, a bit defensive.  She assured me she was just enjoying it because they don’t usually use theirs (huge shock), but I was mortified just the same.

            “We all do what we can,” she said, again being diplomatic in my 73 degree house.  Of course, that is untrue.  Some people do not do what they can.  There are people who drive giant vehicles they do not need; there are people who fly in private jets; there are people in certain large white houses on Pennsylvania Avenue who spit on the environment every day.

            But there are others of us.  Those of us who realize that our ecological footprint is not going to disappear in its entirety but try our best to minimize our negative impact on the planet.  People who think about purchases not just in terms of dollars but in terms of landfills.  Legions of Prius drivers out to lower greenhouse gases, one mile at a time.

            We strive to be better, but we also need to recognize that there are limits on how much we can accomplish.  Many of those limits are geographical.  Here in L.A., I hang out my laundry instead of using a drier.  This is not much of a hardship (beyond the time it takes to hang all those tiny socks) because I live in a desert.  Once upon a time, however, I lived in a swamp.

            I am here to tell you that hanging out laundry to dry in Washington, D.C. is pretty much an exercise in futility.  In fact, hanging laundry outside during the summer is more likely to result in considerably wetter clothing than just throwing them in a sopping wet heap into your drawer.  The nation’s capital does, however, have an excellent public transportation system.

            Each locale has its own compromises.  Here in L.A., I drive more than I have anywhere else (except when I commuted between two states – long story).  Yet, I can count on ocean breezes to cool my house, a desert sun to dry my clothes, and fresh, local produce to feed my family. 

In Philadelphia, I could walk to buy my groceries and train into work, but we used a hell of a lot of gas to heat our house each winter.

            The best we can do is accept the limitations of our geography and then try to avail ourselves of environmental advantages when we can.  Sure, I can try to limit how much I drive, but in L.A., my energies are much better spent hanging little socks in the sun.

            And then there are those whack jobs who bike all winter long in Madison, WI.  Bless their hearts – someone’s gotta get frostbite for the environment.


And, my question is this — what are the ecological pros and cons of where you live?  I’d like to invite all those who haven’t commented before to comment today (if you are so inclined).  I just don’t want anyone feeling unwelcome to comment here.

28 responses to “The weighing of the green

  1. If more of us did a little bit more, then the benefit would be great – I so undertand your comment on how some people do not do their share. When will they understand that every little thng helps.

    I have recently started gardening – we did a little veggie garden in the back. Well, my effort has snow balled and that has lead to plans for a bigger garden, but also a commitment to composting and cutting down on watering by using a rain barrel…well, in our city they charge for these items – it costs me $$ to get a composter or barrel…in other cities they are free to encourage their use…

    On the up side, we did buy a composter and it is unbelievable how much less garbage we have now!

  2. I have to say we’re pretty lucky where we live. There are year round farmer’s markets, 4 large natural food stores, the emphasis around here is fresh and local. The public transit system isn’t great but there are buses and honestly our town is small enough to bike or even walk around. It is definitely waaaay too damp and rainy to hang clothes out to dry. But we never have to run an a/c here b/c the temp rarely goes above 70. In the winter it gets a bit damp and chilly but we have a woodstove so we never need to run the heater. Recycling pick up is a bit expensive here but luckily it’s not that far away so we just make a run a couple of times a month. The local recycling center takes EVERYTHING though….even electronics, batteries and paint/oil, etc.

  3. I commute or walk everywhere. I can probably count in single digits how many times I’ve taken a taxi here. And almost all the produce and meat is local (as long as you buy from the markets instead of the Western grocery stores). But, I run my a/c like its going out of style (window units) whenever I’m home. I’m as close as one can get to the tropics without the benefit of the sandy beaches and fun drinks with the little umbrellas in them. I know I’ve mentioned many times how HORRID the air quailty is here, so I just cannot bear to leave my windows open. Sometimes I dont know which is worse – the air or the noise pollution.

  4. I live in a city with a lot of “Green” awareness, so there are a lot of opportunities to get organic, fresh, and/or local produce. It’s also a small, compact enough city-center that you can park on the fringe and leave the car there all day while you walk about. Unfortunately, recycling is almost non-existent here (welcome to the South). There’s one drop-off location on the outskirts of the bad side of town but they keep strange, limited hours and only take paper, plastic and bottles.

    I am one of those people who has to struggle TOWARD a greener way of living, not away from it. So I can tell you, from the masses, we’re waking up a little at a time. Reasonable, logical thoughts like the ones in this post are a great help to bridging the gap between “Green” people and those of us still stuck in “The American Way of Life”. Thanks for building the bridge, friend. I learned some valuable lessons here.

  5. Let’s see – pros are excellent composting (although you do need to add water now and then which in a desert is something to think on); long growing season; reasonably low food miles for some products; fairly good support for recycling; desert sun for clothes-drying; growing efforts at eco-education and support

    cons – iffy public transport (quite good for one or two arteries but terrible for much of the rest); longish commute to work and to essential places like Costco (yes, essential – I have 3 teens), grocery stores and farmer’s markets; community tendency to drive high gas-usage vehicles (enormous number of large trucks and SUV’s which many people need – farmers and ranchers, but many don’t)

    I’m finding that one of my big struggles is learning the difference between green-seeming and actual green. I want to find a good, reliable resource for counting the ACTUAL cost of things, comparisons between different choices etc (food miles vs organic for example).

  6. I agree with Larien; It’s hard for me to be green. There is practically no public transportation where I live, at least none which would get me anywhere close to work, and there’s no recycling here (I didn’t realize that was all of the South) And, unfortunately, we also use air conditioning constantly. Enter the struggle to be green when it’s 95F and 100% humidity. Luckily, our electricity bill is ridiculously low in the winter because we never run heat. 🙂 However, we do try. It’s small, but we’ve recently switched to completely using reusable bags at the grocery store, buying as much organic and local produce as possible, and carpooling as much as possible. Someday, I tell my self, we will live in an area where I can walk everywhere and I don’t have to use air conditioning and there will be a market that is just local and organic food and life will be perfect. Until then…..

  7. you’re friends with HIS wife? lucky you! have you met him?

  8. totally off-topic, i know.

  9. I got lost when you said West LA as we just moved from there last fall. Oh how I miss it. Esp. the ocean and the Farmer’s Market on San Vicente and Sunset. Oh and sushi, how I miss good sushi. I don’t miss the crime, traffic or the attitudes of so many people.

    Denver is green in a lot of ways and they are working on the public transportation system to make it better. but there isn’t recycling with the trash like in LA and I find it kind of appalling.

  10. I would dearly love to live in a walking neighborhood! But we are in a small subdivision just thisclose to the city. And Nashville does not have mass transit; it would be very difficult for us to not drive. We also both have “dress up jobs” so there can’t be any arriving with helmet head and sweat from the mornings bike ride.
    Sigh. But we use all eco bulbs (even though I hate them) and often hang laundry to dry and we are cautious with heat and air conditioning. We do little things.

  11. Easy…Laundry out to dry. Composting. Cloth bags. One small car (35mpg)

    Hard…commuting. Getting rid of SUV. It’s hubby’s and I car pool for sports all year round. Other than that I do what I can. I fear though it’s not enough.

  12. The best “pro” of my area (the Deep South) are the great farmers markets. And, in a surprisingly socially aware step, our city has extensions of the farmers’ market in several neighborhoods, so that people can walk to their local markets. There is absolutely no reason to buy tomatoes from Mexico when Alabama grows them so well.

    The con is that it is a city built along interstates. It’s not an area where I can walk to shop (other than the farmers’ market) or take care of other errands, so we’re in the car more than I would like.

  13. Cons: walking distance to nothing but farms, humidity in the summer forces us to use the AC often (although this summer, we probably used it a lot less), have to use the heat in the winter, which is LONG, this is not optional, although we have lowered the temp at which we keep the thermostat, area seems to be on the tail end of most things, including environmentalism.

    Pros: lots of farmers markets in the summer. Many places to buy meat and produce locally (although it can be more expensive), lake and dunes are causing more people to think about saving natural spaces, recycling is included in our trash prices, good area for growing own summer crops.

  14. Ecological Pro: I live in Florida, the “Sunshine State”, solar power should be the norm and not a rarity.

    Con: I live in Florida, the heat-humidity combination make it nearly unbearable to drive with car windows down or to open windows at home.

    Pro: The hot Florida sun can dry clothes quickly

    Con: Florida rain showers are sporadic, you have to keep an eye out or your drying clothes will get soaked… and the spiders (darn brown widows) may try to make a home on them as well.

    On a further note, I have been lurking through my feed reader, for that, I apologize. I really do mean to comment… really. 🙂

  15. Terrific post – I agree with what you have written.

    We are currently in Sydney, Australia. We don’t have a car – we use a pretty good public transit system or walk. Occasionally we rent a car, if we want to do a little sightseeing. I think giving up a car has been our greatest contribution. We could do a little more by hanging out the wash – old habits die hard (I like to do laundrey at odd hours – end of the day etc.), and I’m a little discouraged by the large cockatoos and kookaburras that hang out on our line, and the threat of redback spiders.

    Cons in Sydney – No curbside pick-up of compostable waste, which is done in our home Canadian city. In Toronto, you can throw paper products (diapers etc.), meat products, etc. into the green bins, along with vegetable matter. I feel guilty every time I scrape a plate into the garbage in Sydney, and know that it is headed off to landfill.

    Home heating AND cooling – Sydney houses are drafty, with large gaps around doors and windows, no double-glazed windows, no insulation. I can almost visualize the heat and the airconditioning pouring out of the house. The fuel waste must be astronomical. We try to keep the temp. low in winter (15 deg. Cel. at night), and huddle in fleece sweaters, socks and under quilts, and like you, turn the air-conditioning off in the summer.

  16. Great public transportation here. Local produce available, but at a price. Good recycling, great dump in my town. Climate is four season – so we tend to need a little A/C in the summer, and heat in the winter.

  17. Pingback: Things a four-year-old doesn’t need to know « Wheels on the bus

  18. I’m sad to say that it’s only been really recently that I even started to think about this stuff. I’m paying a lot more attention to what we buy, how we use it and what happens to it after we’re done with it. Reduce, recycle, reuse has become the mantra around here.

    We visit a farmers market for a lot of our produce but next year we’re going to be taking part in a crop share. It’s one benefit to living smack dab in the middle of farmland. Next year, once a week (for 20 weeks) we’ll get farm fresh veggies delivered to our door and I just can’t wait.

    Oh, and our new house will have a clothesline and I am way more excited about that than I can explain.

  19. I have to add….I have a stick shift car and half the time I’m in neutral. Love it!

    Oh and my husband works in the solar power industry.

  20. Great post.

    Okay, here’s what my geographical region is allowing me to do:

    I chose a smallish downtown apartment instead of a large suburban house with a yard so that I save on electricity and water and can walk almost everywhere (work, library, shops). My city is northern so I use the A/C only on rare occasions. I have a little clothesline (but it’s urban and shared) and clothesracks all over the house. I recycle and the municipality will start picking up compost soon. With a bit of hunting, I have access to stores that sell well-made, durable, and non-trendy furniture that I plan never to throw out, but instead to refinish and re-upholster periodically (we’ll see how that pans out!). We can eat local produce . . . for about two months a year.

    But, eek, the heating and lighting in the never-ending winter when it’s dark at 4:30pm and minus a million outside. I wear sweaters and use a lot of blankets to try to keep things reasonable. And one can only eat so much cabbage and squash from November to April before cracking and picking up produce from California or Holland or Peru.

  21. Our neighborhood is pretty urban, with grocery stores, restaurants, gyms, hardware stores, hair salons, toystores, bookstores, furniture stores, drug stores, coffee shops (basically whatever you want) all within a block or two.

    There’s a subway at the end of our street that takes you pretty much anywhere in the metro area. We almost never use the car for errands.

    But I have to say that my main contribution to making our household green-ish is having a 16-year-old who’s incredibly ecologically aware.

    He researches and (on his own) makes regular trips to buy produce at local farmers’ markets, walks to the supermarket with me and helps carry the stuff home in his backpack (no plastic bags), limits our electricity and heating use to a minimum, has changed our lightbulbs and cleaning supplies to more ecologically acceptable ones and makes sure that everything recyclable goes into the recycling bin.

    My major non-green choice: I drive five miles to work almost every weekday instead of taking the subway. But I feel guilty about it. That has to count for something.

  22. We grow vegetables and use organic fertilizer and natural insect control.

    We have an energy-efficient front loading washer & dryer.

    We use eco-friendly cleaning, personal care and household products as much as possible. About 80% of the stuff I use is now “green”.

    We use solar power to heat our pool (Ok, typing it out that sounds so stupid, but hey, the pool is always cold due to evaporation and it needs to be heated to be used).

    We’re starting to compost.

    We buy organic and local whenever possible, using the Orchard up the street from us to supplement what we grow.

    We’ve switched to compact energy saving light bulbs.

    We rely on reusable grocery bags.

    We have xeriscape in 90% of our yard.

    The limits in our area are frustrating, though. The public transportation system is erratic, inconvenient and poorly planned.

    Though we sort and put out or recyclables dutifully, recycling is a joke; our state just stopped recycling GLASS. What kind of logic is that? I am baffled.

    The hot summers mean we have to use the A/C. Meaning that if we don’t, the indoor and auto temperatures can get dangerous FAST, especially for the very young and the elderly. So that’s one area I can’t compromise.

    On the bright side, we have more than enough sunshine to dry clothes in the open air, and that’s one area you’ve inspired me in, Em. I rely on the dryer too much. Hub will be installing a clothesline for me this weekend.

  23. Things I do here in SW Pennsylvania: Line dry most clothes when weather permits (but not towels, socks and undies), our community collects glass and aluminum and I take my newspapers to our local VFD so they can earn extra funds, Big Daddy composts which does wonders for our little garden, I turn off lights whenever I can, we have a set back thermostat which we program for conservation, tried to carpool when the kids were in activities.

    Things we don’t do well: We do drive to most places and my husband needs to use the car a lot for work–but it is a fuel-efficient Toyota, my guys are always hot and they do keep the AC way TOO cold for my taste.

  24. I also live in Los Angeles, so I’ll echo most of the things you’ve mentioned. I do use a dryer, though: I live in an apartment, so no line-drying for me.

    The change that seemed the hardest was actually one of the easiest: I got rid of 90% of my paper-towel/paper-napkin usage by switching to cloth EVERYTHING. It washes just fine. (Although I guess that means I’m using more water. *sigh* Sometimes you’re d*mned if you do, d*mned if you don’t. ;D)

  25. ah… the heat and humidity make us rather dependent on the AC, as opposed to when we lived in LA and didn’t even own an air conditioner, and used the heater appx. 3 days a year. There is nothing I can walk to (except the house next door and a teeny tiny park), and to get into the city where culture, music and THEATER are I must drive at least 45 minutes. And the good???? um…. I can’t think of any at the moment

  26. so as I started reading this I RAN over and turned my a/c OFF and started feeling guilty. I WANT to be green, I ADMIRE people who are green, but I am just a bitch when I am hot. a real bitch.

  27. I live in rural Maine, an hour and a half north of the nearest “urban” area (approx. pop = 50,000).

    Pros – enough small farms to supply even very rural areas with fresh, local products at least part of the year; lots of high ridges available for wind power; pristine lakes, rivers, and wilderness means tourist dollars, which in turn means there’s a general tendency to support ecology; lots of trees to absorb the pollution that blows in from other states (OH & PA, I’m talking to you)

    Cons – MUST travel for shopping, culture, kids’ sports events; long winters = high consumption of heating oil; a man is not truly a man unless he drives a pickup, and a woman is not truly a woman unless she has an SUV (or so it seems to me); many people do not have the money to properly weatherize their homes or upgrade their appliances; developers swoon and drool over large tracts of pristine wilderness, and sometimes ill-conceived developments mar the land (not saying all development is bad, however)

  28. I think a more interesting question is what are the unintended consequences of trying to be so ‘green?’