Things reached something of a crisis point a few days ago when my wife asked me to read a communique from Greenpeace. (She thought, she told me, that if I read it rather than hearing about it from her, my unhappiness would be directed at the organization.) It said that Kimberly-Clark, the maker of the paper towels, facial tissue and toilet paper we buy, does not use recycled fiber and instead “gets its virgin wood fiber clear-cut from . . . the North American Boreal . . . one of the world’s most important forests.” And that meant, she told me, that we would have to give those items up and go in search of green alternatives. But we had already done that once before when it turned out that the manufacturer of the paper products we used to buy — Procter and Gamble — engaged in research on animals. That’s when we found Kimberly-Clark. So it seems that the pure were not so pure after all, and who’s to say that the next corporation won’t have an ecological skeleton in its closet, too?
What rankled me most was the toilet paper, but when I protested, my wife smiled at me with a mixture of indulgence and contempt. Some years ago, I beat back an attempt to eliminate paper towels altogether and replace them with re-washable rags. But there are too many battles to be fought and I find that I am losing most of them. I did retain the right to have a small supply of paper napkins in an out-of-the-way cupboard. (I hate cloth napkins; you always have to worry about soiling them; paper napkins you just throw away, which is of course the problem.) But my house is now full of environmentally approved lightbulbs. They are dim, ugly and expensive, but I am told that they will last beyond my lifetime. (That’s supposed to be reassuring?) A neighbor told me today that he is planning to stockpile incandescent bulbs in the face of a prediction that they will be phased out by 2012.
Meanwhile, by the weak light shed by the virtuous bulbs, I am eating local meat — meat from cows organically raised and humanely slaughtered (what a phrase!). It is of course expensive, but what is worse, it tastes bad. That is, it tastes like real meat, gamy and lean, rather than like the processed, marbled, frozen, supermarket stuff I had grown up on. I’m sure it is a better quality, and that buying it sustains the local community and strikes a blow against agrabusiness, but I just don’t like it. And since I hate vegetables, becoming a vegetarian is not an option.
And then there’s the kitchen. A few months ago, we decided to renovate a 30-year-old kitchen. The plans were modest; the contractor was engaged; the price was reasonable; I was happy. Then I went on a trip and when I returned, everything had changed. I was informed that the wood we had ordered for the cabinets comes from some far-off place and would have to be stored, transported, stored again and transported again, adding scandalously to the carbon footprint of my poor small kitchen. If we were to avoid being labeled environmental criminals, we would have to de-order the wood (somehow we managed to do this without incurring a restocking fee) and we would have to find a company in a nearby locale that would send us wood from a tree that was not cut down until our order had been received. (How this would be monitored is something I never found out.) The same company would also immediately plant a tree to replace the one we were harvesting, and we would receive a certificate attesting to all this from the Forestry Stewardship Council.
It sounded like a scam to me — anyone can print certificates — but what can you do when faced with the dictates of someone else’s religion? I acquiesced and didn’t even put up a fight when the paint and the glue (also contraband for reasons I forget) had to be re-ordered, too. As a result, both the price of the job and the time it would take to do it have doubled. I am assured that the end product will look as good as it would have looked had we committed the sins we had been contemplating, but I’m not holding my breath.
And, of course, there’s recycling. Recycling has been around for a long time now, and the irritation many people feel toward it has often been expressed. I would only add that the rules and requirements keep changing and becoming more severe. I had just gotten used to separating the mail from the magazines (which had already been separated from the newspapers, which had already been separated from the bottles and the garbage, a category that has survived the revolution) when I was informed that some of the mail had cellophane address windows and that those would have to be ripped out before proceeding to the next stage and the next bin.
Categorization being what it is, there is no end to the subcategories that can be devised, each of them bringing with it a new set of strictures and a new opportunity to be inadequate and delinquent. Michel Foucault made a career of observing that modern techniques of regulation are more far-reaching and consequential than the old way of keeping people in line with guns and clubs, especially when they are imposed for your own good and for the good of society. He would have had a field day with recycling and would no doubt have written a book (maybe he did and I missed it while sorting the garbage), entitled, perhaps, “The Archaeology of Waste.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I am wholly persuaded by the arguments in support of the practices I resist. I believe that recycling is good and that disposable paper products are bad. I believe in global warming. I believe in Al Gore. But it is possible to believe something and still resist taking the actions your belief seems to require. (I believe that seat belts save lives, but I never wear them, even on airplanes.) I know that in the great Book of Environmentalism my name will be on the page reserved for serial polluters. But I just can’t get too worked up about it, even though I began well in the ’60s when I heeded Lyndon Johnson’s plea to turn off lights when you leave a room, something I still do religiously (or is it obsessively?).
Meanwhile, I stand my ground when I can and try to reach compromises when I can’t. We have now instituted (on the model of peace plans for the Middle East) a two-kinds-of-toilet-paper state. A friend tells me it could be worse. His wife makes him unplug an appliance immediately after it has been used. Who knows what’s coming next? So far I have managed to avoid the indignity (for a sports-car lover) of owning a hybrid, but that’s only because we haven’t bought a new car in 20 years. It’s only a matter of time, for, as usual, I am on the losing side of history.Publicado en el New York Times (03/agosto/08)