Monday, May 05, 2008

Green guilt

I've come to the conclusion that "being green" comes pretty naturally to: a) children of the depression, and b) people who tend to be anxious and guilt-ridden, especially those who were nervous kids. Not that I have anyone particular in mind.

I'M NOT TALKING ABOUT ME.

Okay, maybe I am talking about me.

No, I'm exaggerating. I wasn't actually a Nervous Nelly as a child, but I did have the tendency to fret sometimes. Like, in high school, when I got a 6 CD changer (the cutting edge-ness of this technology was almost unfathomable at the time), I used to get up in the middle of the night to make sure it was turned off, because there was something about that little red light being on, unblinking throughout the night, that made me think bad things would happen. What bad things? I don't know -- but think of all that wasted energy! Planes could crash! Worlds could collide! I had to turn it off!*

Now that the green movement is here, I have even more reasons to get up in the middle of the night. Now I have to unplug my desk fan if I'm not using it, my computer charger, my speakers, my cell phone. If you leave those things plugged in at night, you're singlehandedly contributing to the rapid destruction of the planet. If you don't unplug that lamp, the green people say, our beloved Mother Earth will silently scream in pain as you drain her life force, just because you're too f-ing lazy to pull the plug. I think now there might be a special circle of Hell reserved for those who fall asleep in front of the TV.

This is why I think that the green movement goes hand in hand with the American (upper) middle class's latent guilt and anxiety about being the American upper middle class. Now, this particular brand of guilt clearly does not affect everyone in that particular stratum of society (you know who you are, Lincoln Navigator owners). But there's a certain subset of people out there who feel crippling guilt about their own privilege, wealth, and success, and attempt to compensate for it through environmental self-flagellation.

There's a strong undercurrent of self-deprivation and punishment involved in "going green." Remember when Sheryl Crow said each person should only use one square of toilet paper when going to the bathroom? ONE SQUARE! That's just one example of the environmental asceticism that more and more wealthy people are embracing. Consciously going green, it seems to me, replicates a certain type of religious experience, one in which believers are expected to deny themselves earthly (i.e. non-green) pleasures. Green products, after all, are less pleasant and cushy than their polluting counterparts. Green toilet paper scratches your butt. Green toothpaste tastes weird and doesn't clean your teeth. Green clothing gives you rashes. Green food is expensive. The fading away of rigorous religious practice in this country has been replaced by an adherence to greenness and a concomitant heaping of guilt. On the other side of the coin, rigidly adhering to a green lifestyle allows one to feel superior to environmental sinners.

Now, maybe my perspective on the green movement is influenced by the fact that I was raised Catholic, and no matter how “relaxed” one's religious upbringing may be, a certain dose of daily guilt is inescapable for every Catholic. Now that I don’t go to church very often anymore, I find it comforting to at least partly replace the rigors of mass and penance with environmental conscientiousness. I am vigilant about unplugging things. I recycle every scrap of paper, every plastic bottle, every tin can. I switch off lights and appliances every chance I get. I re-use plastic baggies and rubber bands. I write on the backs of pieces of paper. I buy organic spinach. I use a Nalgene bottle so I won’t go through so many plastic water bottles. Oh, and did I mention I don’t have a car and walk everywhere?

Don’t get me wrong, all of this is GOOD (maybe even great) AND it’s easy. It’s not like it’s a huge sacrifice to throw my Diet Coke bottle into the recycling bin instead of the trashcan, right? I just think it’s interesting to note the compulsive, quasi-religious rituals that accompany greenness. An awareness of the value that the green movement places on self-denial isn’t a reason to abandon environmentalism, however, any more than it’s a reason to abandon religion. After all, a little self-denial is good, especially in these times of overindulgence and hyper-consumption.

So, those are my thoughts -- thanks for listening. Oh, and please remember to unplug your computer when you’re done reading this, and to say 40 Hail Marys before bed. Have a lovely day.

*I realize that I'm making myself sound like a serious sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder. Um, I guess I should probably say something to redeem myself now, but as the wise Popeye once said, I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam.

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