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Wednesday, February 20, 2008


For some time I’ve been meaning to blog about trying to be an environmentally-conscious family, so I was pleased when The New York Times published “For EcoMoms, Saving Earth Begins at Home.” In many ways, the article itself points to the contradictions and challenges of trying to live simply in the United States.

First, the good news: an increasing number of mothers (as well as fathers and non-parents, in my observation) are talking with each other about how to reduce their impact on the environment. I was heartened to read that in California, mothers are doing this in groups—and not just Quaker committees. The article describes the EcoMom party as the new Tupperware party, a chance for women to gather and talk over a glass of wine. The fact that they are encouraging and challenging each other to make more environmentally friendly choices is great. Any difficult change is easier with peer support, and countering the consumer orientation of our culture is certainly difficult.

The difficulty is reflected in what seems to me a slightly snide tone on the part of the article’s author, Patricia Leigh Brown. Maybe I’m over sensitive, but I hear a hint of mockery in this and other sentences:

Perhaps not since the days of “dishpan hands” has the household been so all-consuming. But instead of gleaming floors and sparkling dishes, the obsession is on installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying in bulk and using “smart” power strips that shut off electricity to the espresso machine, microwave, X-Box, VCR, coffee grinder, television and laptop when not in use.
Perhaps Brown is simply worried that changing all the light bulbs is going to fall on the mothers, and she doesn’t want women burdened with any more to feel guilty about. But even more than the reference to “dishpan hands” it is the use of the word “obsession” that feels dismissive. Surely we have moved past the time when environmental activists were seen as hysterics, obsessed with irrational fears. Or maybe this is a stereotype about women. My friend Laura Levitt, a well-respected feminist scholar, just arrived in the coffee shop where I am writing and affirmed my suspicions. “The Times is always dismissive of groups of women,” says Laura. “If a bunch of men were doing it, they would think it was great.”

Of course, it’s possible that the author’s tone isn’t directed at the women at all, but at the lavish consumerism they are attempting to moderate. In the sentence quoted above, there are seven gadgets hooked up to the smart power strip, which is a subtle way of pointing to the contradiction posed by the affluent EcoMoms profiled in the article. The picture of the gathering makes the point as well. These are rich White women in big luxurious houses. Brown explains, “One of the country’s wealthiest places, Marin County, is hardly a hub of voluntary simplicity; its global footprint, according to county statistics, is 27 acres per person, a measure of the estimated amount of land it takes to support each person’s lifestyle (24 is the American average).”

What Brown leaves out are the global statistics that show that most of us are more like the Marin County mothers than we’d like to admit. To put this in a little perspective, here is a graph that shows ecological footprints around the world, in hectares, rather than acres:

The average American footprint is nearly nine times as large as the average African. Given the earth’s limited resources, limiting our consumption can be seen as a matter of justice, as well as survival.

Although this bigger global perspective is missing from the Times piece, and by implication from the Marin County EcoMom meetings, I still think mothers talking about how to reduce their carbon emissions is a good thing, even if it does cause a little "ecoanxiety." (I hadn’t even thought about the dry-erase markers emitting toxins before reading this article, but I don’t feel up to convincing our school to replace the dry-erase markers that every child uses for math.) Instead of the "ecotherapists" referred to in the piece, we need communities where we can challenge and support each other, not in the bitchy way Brown hints at in her article, but in the way John Woolman encouraged his fellow Quakers to give up their slaves, with love. By working together, we can also challenge our politicians to make the policy decisions that will have an even greater impact than any of us can acting alone.

It's the prospect of supportive community that I took out of this article. It's been pretty lonely being the only family on the block that composts, yet in my Quaker meeting I compare myself to some of the single people who live much less wasteful lives than mine, and I am hit with that "ecoanxiety" syndrom. Talking with other parents about what we can reasonably do seems like a good next step. Maybe we can start in the blogosphere so none of us has to drive to another meeting.


Blogger MartinK said...

It's so much easier to do this kind of work in community. Back when I was in the thick of lefty West Philly and got most of my food from the local coop I could relax because I didn't have to organize everything myself. Do I want fair trade organic coffee? Well so does B., who spent three months getting samples from dozens of distributors, taste testing them and researching their governing structure--all I have to do is pick it up. Do I want to hook up with a Community Support Agriculture farmers? Well so does P., who's made innumerable phone calls and has set up a local pick-up location--all I have to do is fill in a sheet and cough up some money in winter. In addition to everything else, Friends Meetings are part of the ecosystem of semi-organized civil society and can help make these concerns easier for both their members and neighbors to act on.

Blogs also help us connect this way of course!
Martin @ Quaker Ranter

4:15 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Good points, Martin. We've recently rejoined the local food co-op, where organic milk is much cheaper than the regular supermarket. I also find that supportive community is even more necessary when you are trying to cut back on consumption. We still have not achieved the carbon-free birthday party, for example, because it is hard to totally buck the culture and keep your kids speaking to you. I'd like to organize all the parents in Philadelphia to agree that none of us are going to hand out party favors.

5:52 PM  
Blogger MartinK said...

Carbon-free?! We're still trying to educate the families on battery-free: if it lights up or beeps we probably don't want it. But yes, even things like birthday parties can be opportunities to educate. This week we had to banish 2/3rds of the kids toys to the basement because our crazy 2yo topples everything in the kids room over after lights out. Do you think they miss all those toys? How many things do kids need and how much do they care after that initial present opening?

4:49 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

All I know is that I am an evil person. I shudder when I look around me - paper towels, single serving applesauce containers, driving across TX all the time...I'm going to hell.

I'm not being snide - I'm just overwhelmed. We do not eat meat, so that definitely helps lighten our consumption ratio but STILL. Our lives our so razy already that our steps have to be so small...

7:14 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

I'm uncertain at what point consumption becomes "evil," which feels like a word that doesn't leave room for grey. I sense a lot of grey in this realm of environmental responsiblity, especially since some decisions that shape our choices are made by our society, rather than by us as individuals. (When I lived in Botswana in the Peace Corps, my footprint was much smaller due to factors I can't control here.) Still, I feel it is a moral issue, and I struggle with how much is enough. I'm pretty sure I'm falling short in the effort department, but I aslo know that guilt doesn't tend to be the best motivator. To make matters more compicated, there is this new article that someone tried to post here, but couldn't. Here is his message:

I tried to leave a comment, but it doesn't seem to have "taken." I wanted to point you to the article by Michael Specter in the current New Yorker ( about different ways of looking at carbon footprints on the personal and global levels.

(Back to Eileen:) I haven't read the whole thing yet, but listening to the author yesterday on the radio, I felt even less empowered. It turns out that buying local isn't always best for the environment, depending on the circumstances, which just makes my head swim. I think the challenge for me is to not let the complexities let me off the hook for the simple things I know I could do. It also brings me back to discernment and the need to listen for God's guidance about how we are supposed to live. And P.S. to Martin--yes, we are very far from carbon-free birthday parties. Aiming for not to much junk is more where we are at.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

It's super hard. To fight my overwhelmed-ness, I am going to set a few small goals - starting with getting on schedule with our City's recycling program and looking into greener cleaning products like dishwashing detergent. We buy green household cleaners but haven't really done anything about detergents. It will be a long time before I'm worrying about birthday parties, probably.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The testimony of simplicity is the testimony that I have identified with since my convincement. I don't know what the family foot print is, only that I challenge each and every energy consuming product we've considered purchasing for the last 23 years. Is it simple? does it meet our needs? I regret having to pass on a Prius 7 years ago, when they first came out. However the orginal Prius was only equipped with 4 seatbelts, and there were 5 of us.
I try and use canvas shopping bags when grocery shopping and re-use most of the plastic bags that come in the house. I recycle every thing I can, and buy as much as I can from the Habitat store, Goodwill and similar places. I also pick over the neighborhood trash, what I find usable I will take to Goodwill or Habitat if I can't use it myself.
My quilting friends give me the pieces of fabric left over from their projects and I make my art from thier scraps.
Yet I know we could still do better.
I don't fret though, as what I do I don't hide, as this is an example for others.


10:07 PM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post (as usual), Eileen.

Robin just got the worm bin she ordered from the County. We have a source for free worms, so we hope to set that up in the next week or so. We're not sure where we'll put the compost -- we live in a condo with a small concrete balcony.

Speaking of Marin County, I can't help but link to a USA Today story about the community opposition to Habitat for Humanity there.

(Rant: If that's ecofriendly liberalism, give me conversative Christian creation care any day!! End of Rant.)

I just feel snarky seeing the list of appliances plugged into the strip. Affluenza. Not that I'm really much better; we don't have a TV or a coffee maker, but we have a computer and boil water for tea & coffee using gas.

I think seeking community involvement toward repentance (turning around -- actually doing something different) is a better response than guilt. Anyway, hang in there, and keep writing about it!

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Joy said...

Great post. I like how you have thoughtfully dissected the NYTimes piece. The tone *is* snide and you have some good thoughts on why. I live in Sonoma County, which is beside Marin County, and it is fair to criticize these women because Marin has many many very very rich people who go far above and beyond most Americans when it comes to consumption. But on the other hand, should they continue to do nothing and consume or should they make some efforts to cut back? The answer is pretty clear, obviously.

12:13 PM  

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