The Accidental Environmentalist

I never really set out to be environmentally conscious–not that I don’t like the idea, of course, just that other priorities . . . well, took priority.

(In fact, I griped in a previous post about the intersection of environmentalism and feminism.)

But I was reflecting on our household this morning, and realized that if you aggregated all of the data, I would imagine that our family’s environmental impact is probably in the very lowest strata (for Americans, anyway, but that’s another post) of energy and resource use.

We have two cars, yes, but my husband works from home and I try to spend as little time in the car as possible. (Not for environmental reasons, but mostly because I think the other half of that lovely little Mormon phrase about home being a heaven on earth should be about car trips with kids giving you a preview of . . . a different kingdom.) So we average less than three tanks of gas per month between the two of us.

I bought a bunch of those re-usable grocery bags. Not to save the planet, but to save my children from the spray of profanity that accompanies the spray of pickle juice when those wafer-thin plastic bags break over the wood floor. (The plastic bags that do make it into this house are re-used as trash bags.)

We don’t buy many processed foods. (I’m too cheap. And lots of sodium makes me feel oogy.)

We don’t eat a lot of meat. (Although there’s usually a little in each meal. That’s just a personal preference thing.)

We’ve filmed our windows and are replacing the roof in a color so light that we had to plead with the HOA to permit it . . . not to save the whales, but because we’ve already had over a month of +/-100 degree days this year. (If I knew what the emoticon for “ugh” was, I’d use it here. That, or despair.)

We buy lots of things used (books, a washing machine, homeschooling materials, a rug for the living room, yet another bookcase) because I’m cheap and craigslist is fun.

And while I was tinkering around online, exploring the wonders of deregulated energy, I discovered that we could have 100% renewable energy for a whopping extra 10$/month. So that was the one environmentally correct decision that I made at personal expense but, good grief, it’s only 10 dollars. It felt churlish to go with coal when given that option.

So here’s the punchline: I’m guessing we use fewer resources than 80-90% of Americans, despite our larger-than-average house, family, and financial resources. And it isn’t because of an ideological commitment. So what does this imply for efforts to protect our natural resources?

40 comments for “The Accidental Environmentalist

  1. It suggests to me that maybe there’s hope for environmentalism. I mean, ideally making choices to reduce our environmental impact is supposed to pay off in terms of better quality of life long term and collectively. But if making those choices also pays off in the shorter term and for smaller groups (families) then there should be a lot more move to make such decisions. If it pays off in the short term in ways everyone can see, then there will be less cajoling about it and more of all of us doing it because it’s in our own immediate best interest.

  2. What does it imply? You are good stewards.
    I believe the gospel encourages a reverence for the earth. I also believe the charge to live providently requires thoughtful practices, rather than simply doing what is easiest, in our day-to-day life.
    I try to be very mindful of how much garbage our household creates. We are faithful recyclers and luckily our community requires it. I also use, when necessary, the local “toxic materials recycling” drop off site which is located very inconveniently, but I think it is what I should do.
    I’ve also learned to love composting! Composting is EASY and so good for Mother Earth.

  3. I think your experience suggests that the standard complaint that people with large families are using up more than their fair share of the environment have things backward. A working mom of only one or two kids has to use up lot more resources to make up for the time she lacks to care for her own children and prepare meals and other necessities at home, keep a kitchen garden, or shop for bargains.

    My daughter has 5 kids. When they drive everybody they take their Suburban, but it isn’t being used for a daily commute, and it is transporting 6 or 7 people each time, so the effective miles per gallon, divided by 6, makes it way more efficient than my 25 mile per gallon Nissan Maxima driving just me to work and back. Her husband’s work is only a mile away.

    There are lots of people advocating that we change our lifestyles to have less environmental impact, but they don’t seem to realize that the single thing they could do that would have the largest effect would be having Mom stay home to care for the kids and household.

  4. Raymond,
    Um, no. Probably the single biggest thing most people could do would be to eat less meat or to unplug their appliances when not using them. And to move to mid-rise or high-rise buildings in densely-populated urban areas. A stay-at-home parent (the gender of which wouldn’t matter for environmental purposes) taking care of the kids, while absolutely laudable, has no environmental impact by itself. That is, if both mom and dad can commute to work using public transportation that would be running anyways, and the nanny walks to get to their house (or lives with them), I don’t see the environmental advantages to a stay-at-home parent. (Again, I’m not talking about other pluses or minuses.)

    And Dan, although I agree that it doesn’t take a ton of effort to maintain an environmentally-conscious lifestyle, there is an initialy barrier that has to be overcome—for example, I don’t like processed foods either, and we tend to eat few, but by not eating processed foods, I have to actually plan a menu and cook it. It’s only marginally more difficult, and only takes a marginal amount of effort, but that’s because my wife and I have been eating like this for seven years. I think that, once you make the initial outlay, it is relatively easy to be environmentally conscious, but there is an initial barrier—you have to pay $15 (or whatever) for the reusable bags, you have to pay for the new roof and the window filming, you have to learn how to cook and build up you pantry of staples. And then, yes, it’s fairly easy.

  5. During the first interview I had for an environmental law job, the interviewer asked whether I considered myself an active environmentalist or an environmental activist.

    Julie, in spite of yourself, you seem to have become one of the former. They don’t get the same amount of press, but generally are more effective.

  6. There are more pessimistic possible interpretations (and that’s were I come in). If Mrs. Smith’s environmental impact is lower than 90% of Americans despite not explicitly setting out to have a low impact, and if a large portion of those with a higher impact than her want to have a low impact, then what we are trying to do or say we want to do is irrelevant in this matter. We go about living our lives, either driving to work or having other means available, either using air conditioning all summer or living somewhere where that isn’t needed, and our environmental impact just is what it is without much that will change it.

  7. Your perception of the way “80-90% of Americans” live is quite alarming. I would imagine that significantly more than 10% of Americans use NO tanks of gas in a month and probably easily 20% use fewer than 3. If your house is “larger-than average,” I imagine that about 75% of the nation’s population use markedly less electricity/gas to heat and cool their homes, especially given your admission that people are almost always there (curse usapartment-dwellers and our low utility bills and lack of square-footage).

    I’m not trying to imply that you’re wantonly wasteful or anything. You clearly are not. I just believe that pretty much everyone could easily justify their environmental impact as rather minimal and go about their lives. I certainly have tried to do just that as I throw an aluminum can in a waste bin before (well, I haven’t driven in three days so I don’t need to recycle this). Much more admirable than actually having a small carbon footprint/using few natural resources/ etc… is doing something to actively decrease your negative effect on the environment. Someone who walks or bikes everywhere doesn’t deserve a badge from Greenpeace just for doing that, but they might deserve some praise if they start recycling a few things more than they used to. Using only three tanks of gas in a month might be great, but if that’s what you were already doing by habit, pushing yourself to only use two-and-a-half is what makes a difference.

    That’s what everyone needs to do — make a little sacrifice instead of pointing fingers at others. Urban liberals like myself love to point fingers at people in “the suburbs” (as if that’s a meaningful term) in their “McMansions” who drive Tahoes for destroying the environment. And there’s some merit to that, but I’m a huge hypocrite if I criticize “them” but not myself. I need to consolidate my errands when I do drive somewhere to run errands (a couple times a week), recycle more, cut meat out of a couple meals, etc…

    It’s not unlike our own spiritual progression. God’s joy is greater for one sinner who repents than for 99 who have no need of repentance. The earth is more pleased with one person who recycles more than he did last week than with 99 who have no need of more recycling.

  8. Don’t everyone get too excited. Most people aren’t nearly conscious (I don’t mean environmentally conscious, I just mean conscious) enough to do even simple things like this if the TV or habit tells them otherwise. Suggest someone use their car less and most people will look at you like you’re speaking a foreign language. It’s all got to come down to cost: money talks. If bad things are more expensive, people will do them less. There is no other way to move the masses.

  9. “And while I was tinkering around online, exploring the wonders of deregulated energy, I discovered that we could have 100% renewable energy for a whopping extra 10$/month.”

    Boy, the electric deregulation people have some people really suckered:

    The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Energy Development Task Force did nothing to step in. The “Governator” Pledge to get more money back from this, but he never did.

    And, are people willing to put up with more expensive & detailed smog checks for their vehicles? Are they will to haul household chemicals to recycling places instead of putting them down the drain, or in the trash?

    Some of the thing you do are good, like film on the windows. But, used appliances can use much more electricity than new energy star models.

    There’s also compact fluorescent lamps. We’ve gone to them everywhere we can (not recommended in ovens or outdoors), not just for the environment, but also due to the electrical market gaming, and they do pay for themselves.

    “Your perception of the way “80-90% of Americans” live is quite alarming.”

    Agreed. Some people still use clotheslines. Some walk or bike to work almost all the time.

  10. Re: #6: The benefit of a parent not commuting to work is more than gasoline emissions foregone. It includes the ability to make for your family things that two working parents have to buy, including clothing and prepared foods. And it includes the ancillary impacts of the occupation that the state-at-home parent would be causing if at work.

    Re: #7: That’s an interesting question; in practicing environmental law for 25 years, and occasionally going through job interviews, I can’t say I’ve ever been asked that.

    Let me make one observation: There are certain things people do at home that have a direct negative effect on the environment, such as pouring used engine oil down a storm drain, or burning tires. Those activities are regulated, and rightly so.

    On the other hand, most of the things we do are much more uncertain in their net effect on the environment. The level of uncertainty is such that it is improper and unjust to compel people to act in certain ways in their own homes. Even projecting righteous indignation toward other people over their family’s environmental impact is not justified.

  11. This thread is young and it already highlights what I love about these conversations. There is virtually nothing you can do which will be agreed upon as being good for the environment. If you buy a new appliance, you are filling up the landfills. If you keep your old one, you are using the old model that is much worse in its energy use. If you use a washer and dryer you should remember that you suck because there are people washing by hand and using a clothesline. But, keep in mind that automating daily chores is one of the important ways this country got rich, and being rich is what allowed us to focus on environmentalism and drastically improve our environmental impact. There really is no winning in this contest.

  12. “And while I was tinkering around online, exploring the wonders of deregulated energy, I discovered that we could have 100% renewable energy for a whopping extra 10$/month.”

    I’d like to hear more about this. How does this work?

  13. To answer your question, Julie, I’d say that it implies that my parents have always been environmentalists and never knew it. In fact, most thrifty people could be put in that category, couldn’t they? And if that’s the case, then much more of our population is much more environmentally-friendly (though not necessarily more environmentally-conscious) than you’re giving them credit for.

    GST, see here for an example.

  14. Zack, do you have any statistics on gasoline use? I admit I was just guessing. But a quick google reveals that the average American uses 500/gallons/year. That means our 5-person household would be expected to average 208/gallons/month, or (roughly) 13 fill-ups. I have no idea what the spread of usage looks like, but if we’re using 23% of the average, I’m guessing we’re in the lowest strata of users. I’d be happy for better data, however.

    gst, I have no clue. Ugly Mahana may be right. All I know is that there was less than 1cent/KWH difference in the “reg” and the “100% renewable” energy options.

    To those who have criticized my choices: good job missing the point of the post. The point wasn’t that I’m an Environmental Super-Hero; the point is that we’re using amazingly few resources for people who don’t make decisions based on how many resources they use, and posing the question as to what the implications of that are for thinking about environmental issues.

  15. Quick Googling reveals that 89% of American households own one or more cars.

    I’m not trying to say that I think you’re horrible polluters or anything. But I imagine that people who live in the 11% of households nationwide without automobiles use substantially less gas than you or I do.

    National averages tend high, because the outliers who use a lot of gas USE A LOT OF GAS. Obviously, the outliers toward the “nuke the whales”/”pillage the rain forests”/”burn all the oil we can” are the greater contributors to damage done to the environment. My only point is that we should all (those who are doing less harm and those doing the most) try to do a little better rather than patting ourselves on the back.

  16. To those who have criticized my choices: good job missing the point of the post. The point wasn’t that I’m an Environmental Super-Hero; the point is that we’re using amazingly few resources for people who don’t make decisions based on how many resources they use, and posing the question as to what the implications of that are for thinking about environmental issues.

    Julie, I don’t know if you were talking to me there, but if you were then good job missing the point of my comment because that was my whole point. And that because there are so many people who live similarly out there that you probably aren’t the minority you seem to be suggesting you are. If you include all the people in the US who live frugally among environmentalists, then you have increased the number of environmentalists by an enormous number.

  17. The level of uncertainty is such that it is improper and unjust to compel people to act in certain ways in their own homes.

    I never thought I’d see the day that a resident of the American West would say such a thing.

  18. Nope, Rusty, definitely not you. In fact, you’re comment was one of the few that I thought really got where I wanted to go with the post.

    LOL, Lupita, I think that must be it!

  19. posing the question as to what the implications of that are for thinking about environmental issues

    That if your assumptions are accurate — and I don’t have any particular reason to question them — actively thinking about environmental issues and implementing a few actions on top of what you’re “accidentally” doing could possibly result in an even greater lessening of your use of resources with very little pain (compared to the effort, I mean, required for somebody who uses a greater than average share of resources to cut back to the same level).

    Also, that if you’re using 3 of your 13 monthly tanks, and I’m using 0 of mine, somebody else is using quite a bit more than his share. Just as somebody is getting the lion’s share of my average yearly quota of ice cream, distilled spirits, and French perfume … but that’s a different post.

  20. It suggests to me that the sorts of things our culture has designated as ‘environmentally conscious’ are, by accident or design, the sorts of things that aren’t going to require any real sacrifice from anyone.

  21. Julie–I think you’re doing great, no matter how unintentionally.

    I wonder how much our perceptions are colored by our locations. For example, I have lived in east coast states that mandate recycling for half my life (15 years or so), so recycling is a no-brainer–it would be hard NOT to.

    However, when I visited UT 2 years ago, recycling was not the norm where I was (it may be in bigger cities in the state), and people clearly don’t think twice about throwing away recyclable material. It pained me so much, that I kept my recyclable material and drove it home with me to recycle 2000 miles away.

    I also have the (completely uninformed) impression that people in TX “live big.” I picture you living in a modern neighborhood where it would not be feasible to do anything other than drive everywhere, and perhaps drive in a big car or truck.

    When comparing yourself to neighbors, you may well be consuming less. When comparing yourself to people who live in big cities, though, you might not fare so well. Which is fine–what you do is great.

  22. ESO, interesting. When we lived in the city of Austin, we had curbside recycling and dutifully separated and set out everything possible.

    Then my husband went with the boys on a tour with scouts of the city’s recycling center . . . where they saw warehouse-fulls of stuff for which it was not feasible (economically? technically? I don’t know) to recycle. So when we moved a few miles north to a ‘burb where we have to pay for recycling, we stopped. (Except batteries and the like.)

    I think people in TX do tend to live big because property values are so low that it is feasible for more people to have huge houses.

    Ardis, I’m eating your ice cream. I have no idea who is drinking our booze, except that I just read that a spray bottle of half vodka half water will kill sandal stink (big issue in TX in the summer), so I may have to use some of my allotment after all.

    Yes, Adam. No one makes more money off of me using *less*, they just make money if I pick *their* junk. A recent report in Mother Jones found that 98% of green claims on packages were not accurate.

  23. It’s so refreshing to see an ‘environmental’ internet discussion that omits the foolishness that is global warming/climate change. Times and Seasons rocks!

    Recycling, prudence, buying quality things that last a long time, etc. are things that thrifty people have been doing for a long time now.

    One of the things I dislike most about the environmental fascist/alarmist movement is that it is essentially another outlet for Satan to deny the Second Coming. Al Gore’s movie may full of lies, but even worse is the new moral code that is replacing the original. Nothing you do is wrong or right anymore, UNLESS you drive an SUV or use lots of electricity…

    In the Second Coming, all things will be restored to their proper order. That includes the entropy of our planet and the celestial systems it belongs to.

    On a side note, has anyone read the study that suggests oil is also produced abiotically in the Earth’s Mantle? Maybe God has planned things better than we realize, eh?

  24. Speaking of the Second Coming, I have a complaint about the way the church teaches us to love each other, care for our families, exercise charity, and all that. I learned in Gospel Doctrine that before the Second Coming, the love of many will wax cold, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, and all manner of trials and tribulations.

    Church teachings interfere with the Second Coming!! Since we know all these terrible things must happen first, why are we preaching love and peace? If anybody listens, that will only HINDER the, uh, coming of the Second Coming. Don’t you know that in the Second Coming, all things will be restored to their proper order? Why shouldn’t we hasten that day by enjoying a little bloodshed — no, a LOT of bloodshed — we KNOW that’s the fate of this world anyway.

    I think that elders quorums should engage in mass murder, and Relief Societies could drown babies. The YM and YW are usually pretty creative and could probably help hasten the collapse of society, if we’d just stop teaching them chastity and kindness.

    What do you say, folks? Are you with me?

  25. I think you’ve got the right idea about environmentalism. Often what I do to be frugal is environmentally friends. Often what makes sense for my family is healthier and family friendly and ends up being environmentally friendly too (lower down on my priority list).
    I can’t help, though, but quibble with the actual numbers. I think that you might be doing better than average, but not better than 80-90% of households. I think there are a lot of people in smaller houses and apartments who don’t drive a lot and have a smaller footprint than you.
    I think the way you are considering your gas usage needs to be re-thought…that “the average American uses 500/gallons/year. That means our 5-person household would be expected to average 208/gallons/month, or (roughly) 13 fill-ups” The average American probably does not include children, just adults. My family of six typically has used about 750 gallons per year, but that has been while my husband took the bus (for 10 years). Now that he has to drive it is probably double that. But I just cannot see the average family of six using 3000 gallons year.

  26. jks, keep in mind that my 80-90% number (which I admit is a guess) wasn’t just about gasoline, but rather total resources. I think we’re so incredibly low in other areas (i.e., electricity, packaging, new durable goods) that we make up for using more gas.

  27. I am with Julie on this one. If you live frugally by definition are being more environmentally responsible.

    I think my families total gas intake is about 1000 gallons a year. We have 7 here under this roof.

    I find a lot of PC environmentalism to be silly though. Its no longer a way of being responsible. Its now a belief system that borders on a religion for many. Carrying your waste around because you want to recycle it is a good example of this.

    Here where I live in TX we have 2 garbage bins. One for Recycling and the other for regular garbage. I participate but I wonder about the energy and cost it requires to actually recycle. I guess I would like to see a study if it is really of benefit to recycle a lot of the stuff that is recycled. Think of all the costs involved in shipping, processing, shipping again, remanufacturing, shipping again and then repackaging etc.

  28. Ardis, you are awesome. I enjoyed the post and I think there are a lot of little things we can do that will help us wisely use our resources. I’m glad the author has been successful in her efforts. Does anyone have their own data on savings from painting a roof?

  29. #30 – Julie, I was being serious. I’m curious what part of my post you were rolling your eyes at, though. Or was is the whole thing…?


    My wife was telling me about these. It’s kind of fun. It asks some questions about your lifestyle and tells you how many “earths” it would take to sustain the world’s population if everyone had the same habits as you. Obviously the thing is kind of silly and it asks questions like “do you do X more than the average person?” without telling you what the average is.

    It’s a pretty fun way to put consumption into perspective. I took one a while back that graded much more harshly than this one.

  31. Cameron, I apologize for being so dismissive. I’m not sure where to even begin with your comment. I don’t agree with any of it, and I think your theology is dangerously wrong-headed.

  32. No offense taken, Julie. I may not have worded my thoughts well originally, but I don’t think these points are incorrect:

    1 – The causal relationship of C02 to temperature is unproven.

    2 – ‘Inconvenient Truth’ is full of exaggerations and myths.

    3 – We can’t ‘save’ the planet, even if we needed to. It will be saved when it is baptized of fire, renewed and receives its paradisiacal glory. We can be good, frugal stewards, though.

    4 – Environment-friendliness is the new moral code in the current status quo of moral relativism. Like all good things, the adversary distorts it to extremes to impede our agency.

    I do not see how these points are dangerous theology. I do apologize for being a little off-topic. I appreciate and agree with your OP – I have had the exact same thoughts you have shared in your post here. I appreciate your thriftiness. It’s something my wife and I strive for as well.

  33. Cameron,

    1-no, it isn’t.

    2-yes, it is. What would you expect?

    3-we were given a mandate at the beginning to exercise good stewardship over the earth. To the extent that we haven’t done that, we should make reasonable efforts to correct the damage. Moving forward, we should do it as much as we reasonably can.

    4-OK, maybe this is true in some situations. So what? You and I each have stewardship obligations regardless of what extremes (on either side) people go to.

    It is a dangerous theology (particularly #3) to think that we can make a mess of the earth and wait for Jesus to clean it up. We’re not toddlers and He isn’t our mother. We were given an obligation to take care of the place, and I expect people who chose greed or laziness or ignorance over good stewardship to have to pay a price for that. (And I am somewhat worried that I might be in that group.)

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