Trying to Be Green is Making Me Blue

By Jason Menard

I recently signed up for the One-Tonne Challenge, but now I’m feeling like the weight’s all on my shoulders, and there’s no way to get it off.

Simply put, trying to be an environmentalist in this area (and this era) is making me blue. And with the appearance that doing the right thing and trying to be green costs too much green may result in our environmental efforts failing before they’ve even had a chance to get off the ground.

For years, we’ve been bombarded by environmental doomsday prophets (Hello, Mr. Suzuki) who have waxed poetic about the declining state of our Earth. Everything we do is bad, and there’s no hope for our poor planet. Wow, there’s a way to rally the troops and move forward.

What environmentalist have ignored for too long in the fight is that the very armies they’re trying to conscript are lazy. We have grown accustomed to a lifestyle and we’re consumed by pursuit of the pocketbook. We’re not going to revert to an agrarian, self-sufficient lifestyle, without the modern comforts and amenities, so stop asking. We’re not going to give up our cars and walk to work unless it makes sense to do so.

So, the true challenge of the One-Tonne Challenge, and of similar environmental activities, is to make it make sense.

Instead of dreaming of Utopia, environmental activists have to exist in reality. Tugging at our heart strings hasn’t worked so far – so make a play for the pocketbook. The green army may be lazy, but it is easily roused when it’s time to fight for its own interests.

The city in which I currently live, London, ON, is plagued by an ineffective and impractical public transportation system. Even if I wanted to take the bus, it’s not feasible for me to do so. But, instead of focusing on improving the quality and level of service, the City prefers to focus its efforts on marketing. What the City appears to be forgetting, and to keep in the environmental vein, is that no matter how pretty the marketing package is, when you’re promoting compost it’s still compost.

I have been a vehicle owner for well over a decade. Yet, when I was living in Montreal I was an avowed proponent (and rider) of the city’s public transportation. Why? Because it made sense. A trip across the island to where I worked took 15 minutes. A trip by car, down the Expressway and through downtown traffic, could take upwards of an hour and a half. For the cost of a metro pass, roughly $50, I could get anywhere I wanted, unimpeded by traffic. When compared to the amount I’d have to pay in fuel costs, parking fees, and wear and tear, the decision was a no-brainer.

The economics made sense, the environmental benefits were secondary. But now, the tables are turned. A 10-minute car ride (roughly eight kilometers) would take me well over an hour by bus. No matter how much I want to help the environment, it’d be nice to see my family once in a while too.

If we’re to make a change, we need to change the economics of environmentalism. It shouldn’t cost more for my wife and daughter to travel to Ottawa by train than by car, but it does. A round-trip for two on our nation’s rail carrier set us back about $400. That same trip, along with the ability to travel around, visit the city, and even head to Montreal, would cost us under $200 in gas by car – and my son and I would be able to come along.

Is there any sense in advocating for the use of a service when the service inconveniences us? We need to stop thinking that people are going to choose what’s best for the environment over what’s apparently best for themselves. As a society we’re willing to sacrifice some comforts in the name of altruism, but our environmental benevolence only goes so far.

So how can this work? How can we leverage economics to benefit the environment? Take the example of energy efficient light bulbs. At first, we can look at their price and suffer some sticker shock as they’re so much more expensive than their incandescent cousins. But a $5 energy-efficient bulb, which could last up to seven years, turns out to be much cheaper over the long run than the department-store standards, costing $2 a pack, but needed to be replaced anywhere from seven to 15 times over that same time frame.

There are very real cost advantages immediately displayed – not to mention the reduction that comes from lowered electricity usage and hydro bills.

Don’t tell me how much greenhouse gas we’re emitting by idling for over 20 seconds – tell us how much gas and money we save. Don’t tell us how bad pesticides and chemical fertilizers are for the environment, show us how much cheaper it is to go natural with mulching and compost – and how our lawns can look just as good.

For us to succeed at the One-Tonne Challenge the burden of environmentalism has to be taken off of our hearts and placed squarely where it will have the most impact – in our pocketbooks.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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