Getting Green Done

With Earth Hour behind us and Earth Day on the way, we thought April would be a good month for Lifehack.org to think Green. In the weeks ahead, you can expect to see posts reflecting all manner of perspectives on how to “Green up” your work and life.

Nowadays, you can hardly swing a free-range cat without hitting someone making Green claims. Products tout their 35% post-consumer-waste packaging and their eco-friendly ingredients. Companies like Wal-Mart make public pronouncements about their commitment to the environment, and every political speech at least pays lip-service to global warming.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it was all a bunch of hooey, just so much greenwashing by companies eager to capitalize on the issue-of-the-week, without too much serious content. You might remember your recent history, the strong public commitments our auto manufacturers made in the ’80s to more fuel-efficient cars and alternative sources of energy — until economizing fell out of style, the Yuppie era rushed in, and car companies started producing gas-guzzling behemoths for the new, trendy, conspicuous consumption lifestyles.

I think there’s something to be said for striving to live a Green life, that in fact ultimately living by Green principles can be far more satisfying than grabbing whatever you can while the getting’s good. But the answers to the problems we face today aren’t going to be found on a bottle of faux-Green dish soap or in the annual reports of a Green-for-now corporation. They’re not going to be found in the things we buy and use at all, since buying and using are part of the problem.

In fact, a better guide to Green living might well be David Allen’s Getting Things Done and the rest of the personal productivity literature, since the principles of Green living are not all that different from the principles we use to help us be more productive. Here are my thoughts on what real Green principles are; they should sound familiar to anyone who takes personal productivity at all seriously.

6 Principles of Green Living

Simplicity

6 Principles of Green Living

It’s pretty clear that the central environmental issue facing humanity is the availability of resources. Oil is an obvious one, but we’re facing shortages of food (as food crops are replaced with “biomass” crops to make ethanol to replace oil) and clean water, too.

Most experts agree that the Earth could easily sustain the current population comfortably, and even twice the current population, if resources were distributed equitably. But they aren’t, and one reason is that the most powerful societies on the planet are more than a little wasteful; we use resources we don’t need, because we can.

Surely you’ve encountered this scenario: You take the shrink-wrap off a package, open the box, pop the inner plastic seal, and take out your individually-wrapped goody. Or this one: after struggling with the 9″ x 12″ plastic blister-pack, slicing open a few fingers in the process, and pulling out the cardboard insert, you proudly display your 1/2″ x 2″ thumb drive. All that packaging goes straight into the trash — my family of five fills a 60+ gallon garbage can (kind of like this one) twice a week — and we’re pretty frugal.

Marketers love all that packaging because they can put fancy graphics and selling points on it. Retailers love it because it makes products harder to steal. But the bottom line is, even when we don’t buy much, we consume a lot. And few of us “don’t buy much” — we buy all sorts of things we don’t need, from new jeans because the old ones are out of style to new toaster ovens because they now have integrated webcams to detect when our toast is exactly the right shade of beige to new cars because the old one is too “soccer mom” and not enough “rad chick”. We let our buying choices be dictated by advertisers and marketers who have convinced us that there’s a huge, yawning gap between who we are and who we should be — and that we can fill it up if we buy enough stuff.

In reality, more stuff means more complexity — more upkeep, more keeping track, more things to do. In global terms, it means more wasted resources. Some people try to atone for buying more stuff by buying “Green” stuff — bamboo potholders, handmade mail sorters, recycled project folders. But that’s a lie: to get that hand-woven hemp grocery bag from Bolivia to Wichita takes oil, to run the lights in the store takes oil, to feed the Bolivian granny who wove it takes oil, to grow the hemp takes oil, and so on. You’re putting a few cents into the Bolivian granny’s pockets, and that’s honorable, but it’s not saving the Earth.

Fairness

And frankly, the Bolivian granny might be better off if she had a nice piece of land where her and her family could grow what they needed, instead of working for some eco-supplier and buying corn grown in Kansas — if they can get corn, since the ethanol producers pay better than Bolivian grannies, these days.

Much of our consumption-driven market is based on unfairness. If the Bolivian granny were paid what you would expect to get for making that bag, if the people who collected her handicrafts and transported them to a port were paid what you’d expect to be paid for transporting them, if the people who loaded the shipping containers and ran the ship that brought the bags to the US were paid what you’d expect to be paid for doing that kind of work, if the people who unloaded the ships and drove the trucks and stocked the shelves at Wal-Mart were paid what you’d expect — well, that bag would be quickly priced out of your or anyone else’s range. Paris Hilton would tout a handmade Bolivian hemp grocery bag, not web designers in Kansas.

Like I said, we consume so much because we can — and we can because we don’t deal fairly with everyone involved. It’s hard to be unfair to the people close around us — the people we live and work with on a day to day basis — because there are consequences, but there are few immediate consequences when dealing with people halfway around the world who we will never see, never meet, never know anything about, whose lives we can only imagine (and even that we rarely bother to do).

Which leads to my next principle:

Community

Too much of our world market is out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Since we don’t see the lives of the Bolivian granny who makes our chic shopping bags, or the Indonesian teenager who makes our shoes, or the Chinese mother who assembles our iPods,we don’t think about it. And we don’t think about the tremendous amount of resources it takes to get raw materials from Africa, North America, Asia, and somewhere in the Pacific to some factory in China to put together an mp3 player which will then be shipped (using resources again from all over the world) to some store in Oregon (that is again assembled using materials from all over the world) and into our pocket (of pants made in the next town over from the iPod factory, using cotton grown in Africa and rivets made of steel from Japan on machines made in Europe from materials mined in…).

On the other hand, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of attending a local farmer’s market, you’ve experienced something few of us do these days: an encounter with a part of your community, an actual living and breathing person, who made something for you to eat. There were some global resources used (even organic farmers use tractors, and they needed a truck to bring their stuff to market) but most of the labor and material involved came out of your local area — the soil you’re standing on, the person in front of you. You have a relationship with this person, and with their land. Your land.

Your local farmer selling to a local market — that’s sustainable. The relationship you have with that person — that’s sustainable, too.

Sustainability

A system is sustainable when the negative outputs of that system are accommodated and turned into positive outputs. Think about your working life — if you weren’t getting paid, would you work so hard? Your hard work — a negative thing — is converted into something positive — a paycheck. Your employer turns the negative output — paying more money — into a positive input — increased revenue. The system sustains itself — or it collapses. If you aren’t getting paid enough, you quit working hard, revenues shrink, the employer goes out of business. Or they start putting in more and more inputs; using military forces to compel labor is not unheard of. Eventually those systems collapse too, when the cost of maintaining them outweighs the benefits produced by them. And they often collapse violently.

Most of our global production is not sustainable. Waste products are dumped wherever space can be found — with no regard for the consequences on local resources or populations (see “impending shortage of fresh water”, above). Workers are treated unfairly: they are exposed to noxious substances and dangerous working conditions, and they are not compensated enough to feed themselves, let alone build a thriving economy (some aren’t paid at all: there are some 30 million enslaved workers in the world today, more than at any time in human history) — again, with no regard for the consequences (see “violent revolution”, above).

Planning

Creating sustainability requires planning. Fairness requires planning. Building community requires planning. No GTD’er would ever claim that their perfect outcome will come about without any plan at all. Yet all too often we accept that planning at the global economic level would be a Bad Thing.

Ironically, we accept this argument from people, organizations, and governments that are, of course, planning extensively. Organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and so on are, of course, planning. But their goals are far from Green. And their plans aren’t exactly common knowledge.

Planning means looking ahead towards a desired outcome; it also means thinking a little bit about the community that isn’t here yet and dealing fairly with them. The last century ran its course largely unplanned — something that today’s young adults are being forced to come to grips with! The decisions we make now will create the conditions our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have to deal with.

And you thought planning your bathroom remodel was hard!

Transparency

Planning, community, fairness, and ultimately sustainability require transparency. Most decisions these days are made behind closed doors. I’m not talking about governments here, though they too hide their actions, whether by refusing to detail their decisions (I’m talking to you, Dick Cheney) or by burying them in language so obtuse even lawmakers rarely know what they’re voting on.

But most of the decisions that affect us are not made by governments, they’re made by corporations and other actors in the global market, whose decisions are protected as “intellectual property” and hidden by obscurity and distance — is there a single product in your home that you know the conditions under which it was made? Do you even know the name of the company that made most of the stuff in your house?

Here’s an example: many of my students are fans of the Dove Evolution commercial, which shows the way that makeup, lighting, and computer retouching are used to manipulate the images that advertisers use to promote their products. Dove must be a pretty enlightened company, right? Well, Dove isn’t a company. It’s a division of Unilever — which also makes Slim-Fast dieting products, skin lightening creams it sells to dark-skinned women, and, of course, Axe body spray, which doesn’t exactly promote healthy images of women.

A Green society requires the active involvement of all its participants, and we can’t be actively involved if we don’t have access to all the information in play. What’s more, given the global magnitude of the world economy, we can’t ever be fully informed — which is why simplicity and community are so important. You can know quite a bit about the farmer at the farmer’s market who raised the chicken you’re about to eat.

Getting Green Done

Good gravy, I’ve written a manifesto!

This is not a call to revolution. (Yet.) This is a call to take these matters seriously, to put some real thought into what living Green might actually look like, stripped of fashion and marketing pretense. Over the next month, our contributors will put forth ideas about how to put these principles into action. Some of their ideas will be big ones, and others will be smaller. They might or might not use the same language I’ve used here, but we’re talking about the same thing: how can we do our part to make sure that the system as a whole works for everyone?

But we can’t do all the work. We can’t even do a tiny fraction of the work. We can suggest, prod, provide tricks and hacks, but in the end, you’re going to have to make some decisions, to think about how your actions fit in with you values, whatever they are. As bleak as all this talk of scarce resources and environmental destruction might seem, I think it’s ultimately hopeful, because it gives us an opportunity to decide what kind of people we are, together and individually — and to take action to become the kind of people we want to be, both together and individually.

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