Being green – an over length facebook response

I recently came across this facebook post*, which has been passed on and discussed by thousands of people:

Being green

Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the older woman, that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.” The young clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”
She was right — our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were truely recycled.
But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

Grocery stores bagged our groceries in brown paper bags, that we reused for numerous things, most memorable besides household garbage bags, was the use of brown paper bags as book covers for our schoolbooks. This was to ensure that public property, (the books provided for our use by the school) was not defaced by our scribblings. Then we were able to personalize our books on the brown paper bags.
But too bad we didn’t do the green thing back then.

We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.
But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throwaway kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.
But that young lady is right; we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.
But she’s right; we didn’t have the green thing back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.
But we didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint.
But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?

Please forward this on to another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smartass young person.

Thousands of people responded, either by plainly agreeing to the texts morale (“so true!”) or objecting to the depiction of old generations as being green, just because they acted green (“you let it happen!”).
Descriptively – though not morally – I tend to agree with the latter assessment, as it was only the old generations’ de facto lifestyle, not their philosophy, that was “green”. Lack of technology forced them to act green, while developing technologies and practices for the future that were not.

However, my biggest concern is not whether or not old generations hold responsibility for the hinted at environmental problems (which are not explained further). My point goes deeper than that: I do not agree in the first place with the underlying assumption of both sides that more consumerism, more fuel usage and more electricity usage are necessarily bad “for our planet” (whatever that means – planets normally don’t care much, it is us who care for practical reasons). The automatic link between technological development and “evil” is usually the undercurrent in this kind of discussion and clearly a result of green zeitgeist, but never really questioned or analyzed. What is it based on?

1. Consumption of products:

Green opinion: Because not all components can be recycled, the growing garbage dumps contaminate our planet more and more. Garbage incineration is even worse. So, we should avoid garbage in the first place and not buy so much stuff.

My opinion: Apart from recycling, garbage can be incinerated, put in landfills or converted into energy. When done correctly like in most Western countries, none of these methods contaminates the environment to a significant extent*. Materials that take hundreds, thousands or millions of years to decompose are mostly being recycled in developed countries (the worst being glass, by the way).* Whether the CO2, which is produced during decomposition or incineration, contributes to global warming, is controversial, to say the least (I will discuss this point in a different article).

Thus, the problem is not contamination, but rather questions like “Do we find enough land for landfills?”, “How can waste-to-energy, recycling and incineration be developed further so as to avoid landfills?” and “How do we make recycling more efficient (automatic sorting, disassembling of complex products such as TVs)”? Rather than having emotional discussions on the evil of consumption, we should focus rationally on answering these questions.

But why go through all the trouble of waste management if we can just avoid the garbage? When it comes to unnecessary waste like plastic bags etc., I believe that avoiding waste makes sense out of practical considerations (less taxes for waste management costs, no unnecessary waste of land for landfills). However, I am not willing to give up my comfort of life (air conditioning with 40 degrees outside, flat screen TV, computer etc.) for unsubstantiated “moral” reasons. Go ahead and avoid it, nobody is stopping you. Just don’t force it on me or anyone else, I do not have an open debt – because I am already paying for the costs of recycling by buying the product (which includes sourcing costs) and paying taxes. More importantly, such limitations will actually hurt our current and future standard of life.

2. Consumption of fuel:

Green opinion: Oil is limited, so we should not be using as much. In the end, we will be left with nothing. Also, car emissions are full of harmful CO2.

My opinion: If oil is indeed limited (which I am not 100% sure of), then simply driving our cars less is not a sufficient response – we would just be postponing the end of the oil era a bit. Instead, we should focus on developing new technologies (which we are already doing). Worst case is: oil comes to an end and new technologies have not been fully developed yet. Accordingly, we should spend more on research and development. At some point, when oil has actually become rare, it will be much more expensive – too expensive to burn in motors – and be used primarily for plastic products and other meaningful purposes.

Regarding CO2, you know my view – it is a non-issue. And even if you believe that CO2 is evil you should know that personal consumption of fuel contributes to global CO2 emissions to a tiny degree only.

3. Consumption of electricity:

Green opinion: Electricity is primarily generated through coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy. Coal, gas and oil are limited and, again, they have CO2 emissions, and nuclear energy is dangerous. So by cutting on electricity, in addition to switching to renewable energies, we will help save the planet. Overall, just to be sure, humans should learn to limit themselves.

My opinion: If we assume that coal, gas and oil are limited, this primarily implies that we should be developing new energy options. It makes sense to make energy usage more efficient, but cutting on it and thus limiting private households and industries, it not a sustainable option. Nuclear energy is not dangerous if handled properly. If I learned something from Fukushima, then it is the fact how safe modern nuclear plants are. Nuclear waste storage is much debated and presented in a way that makes people believe they will all turn into zombies if there is a small leak in the disposal site. Again, this is a topic that requires a separate article. Let me just say here that this is not the fact, and let me also add that there are many more toxic chemicals which also require final storage, that nobody talks about.
Natural reactors like Oklo show that the worst case of uninhibited radiation is not such a big deal* and the area of Chernobyl shows how fast contaminated areas recover. (By the way, Chernobyl was primarily an industrial disaster due to human error, not a nuclear disaster. At about the same time, another industrial distaster happened in Bhopal, India, with many more victims, and nobody cared – just because it did not carry the label “nuclear”.)

Renewable energies make sense, but only if they are efficient at the same time. In this context, I consider nuclear technology to be most sustainable, as its potential efficiency is by gazillions more efficient than any of the conventional renewable energies, which are fed from the symptoms of energy (irradiation, wind etc.) rather than its physical core.

Further to the above reasoning, some of the points made in the text are simply made up, such as the link between recycling brown bags and protecting public property (book covers are still used, they are just made from different materials). The same applies to the mentioning of satellite beams having to travel so and so many miles (so what?).

Overall, its logic is an example of plain anti-modernism of today’s zeitgeist, and its related moral philosophy of self-restriction and stagnation due to mankind’s decadence. In substantiating its points, it merely gives examples of the supposed environmental decadence of today, hoping to draw on the moral consensus of its audience (which worked, if you look at the comments). No reference to facts or a clear definition of “the problem” that the clerk refers to in the beginning. Of course, the text is not a scientific essay on environmental pollution and protectionism, but a moral story; yet, it is a good example of how greens argue – with little facts, and a load full of morality.

1 Comment on Being green – an over length facebook response

  1. Anna Klissouras // 30/11/2012 at 02:30 // Reply

    Zum Thema: “Das neue Öko-Bürgertum”, erschienen bei Cicero online am 29. November 2012:

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