Fran Hawthorne is the author of The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting,and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. Hawthorne has been a writer or editor at Fortune, BusinessWeek, Institutional Investor, and other publications. She is the author of three books on health care and investing, including Inside the FDA and the award-winning Pension Dumping.
It's bad enough to walk into a library or bookstore and confront shelf after shelf of books with titles like True Green: 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet. And The Little Green Book of Shopping: 250 Tips for an Eco Lifestyle. And 1001 Ways to Save the Earth.
I am immediately consumed with guilt. How can I possibly manage to do ONE HUNDRED things every day for the environment – let alone TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY or ONE THOUSAND AND ONE? My God, I'd better start immediately.
Still, I assume that each of those 100 or 250 or 1001 things are actions that a reasonable person could do one by one, if not en masse. Then I start reading the lists.
And I have to start wondering if the people who write these books actually live on the planet they claim to be saving.
For instance, A Good Life (edited by Leo Hickman, Transworld Publishers, 2005) sniffs that "In reality, computers should not be in the home at all; as a PC warms up it gives off potentially harmful, volatile organic compounds that later cool and find their way into household dust." Of course, the authors of this piece wrote their manuscript with a quill pen.
Ah, but computers are not the only destroyers of A Good Life's planet. On page after page, the book asks: "Is it OK ….to dry-clean your clothes?" "Is it OK ….to have a lawn?" "Is it OK ….to use tampons?" (Tampons? Sure, no problem if you're male.)
Another book, Llewellyn's 2009 Green Living Guide (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2008), briefly acknowledges a hint of reality. After urging people to buy only items that are certified as fair trade, Llewellyn's concedes that it's hard to discern whether a certification is legit. "The certification industry is fairly young in the garment sector and sadly full of 'freeloaders' who have seen the opportunity and deliberately try to deceive the consumer," the book warns. But then it veers into outer space, as it continues: "When buying a garment, take a look at the certification mark, which should have a web address. Make a note of it and then go home and do some research. If you are satisfied, then go back and buy it." Right. If no one else has grabbed the only one in your size during the interim, and if you have the time to make two trips to the store – and by the way, how much gas are you wasting by repeating your trip?
Child-raising brings out some of the most ridiculous advice. True Green (Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin, National Geographic, 2006) tells readers to use cloth diapers and then save water and electricity "by washing in bulk and line drying." Well, as a mother of two, I have tried cloth diapers and line drying. Line-dried diapers are rougher than machine-dried, which will make your baby miserable and lead to rashes. And what new parent has time to wring out all those wet diapers, pin them up one by one on the clothes line, and run around pulling them down before it rains? (Anyway, the eco-Website Grist.org says that disposable diapers are just as ecological as cloth.)
For parents with slightly older children, Llewellyn's suggests growing your own organic vegetables. As the book says enthusiastically, "Gardening is a great way to teach your toddler about nutrition and get them to eat healthy food." Also to eat dirt, rocks, bugs, and inedible plants as the toddlers wander around that lovely garden while you water and pull weeds. (Give the book credit, at least, for trying to save harried parents the cost of buying the veggies.)
My favorite advice, though, comes from The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience (Duncan Clark and Richie Unterberger, Rough Guides Ltd., 2007). This book offers two full pages of what it calls "high-profile boycotts under way at the time of writing." In 2007, the list included companies doing business in Myanmar, China, and the U.S.
It's a bit tough to follow that last boycott if you actually live in the U.S.