My Green Is Greener Than Yours


We’ve all been rumbling here lately about what is happening to the word "green." It’s becoming one of those culturally loaded words that carries a truck-full of assumptions with it. The problem is, the assumptions are drastically different if you are an activist trying to protect salmon spawning grounds, or if you are a suburbanite living in a McMansion who is suddenly looking askance at that giant Lincoln Navigator, or if you are a Domino magazine editor trying to push a lot of burlap-bag looking clothes for spring.

Those assumptions might have come into explosive conflict early yesterday, when a new "green" development in the Seattle suburbs was burned down, with a sign at the site claiming this as the work of ecoterrorists. If so, the activist’s definition of "green" met the suburbanite’s definition met the marketer’s–and the contested ground went up in flames.  Not "green"; "red."

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I grew up in a suburb and spent the tedious years of my childhood marking down the hours until I could escape that witless, brutal, ugly, oppressive, culture-free place that I was forced to call home.  As a result, I’ve got an anti-suburban blind spot so big, I can hardly drive a car in some states.  No way would I ever spend $2 million for a cookie-cutter house on an asphalt cul-de-sac, as the owners of these charred homes were preparing to do. And if I were queen, there would be an inviolable greenbelt around every American city, so developments like the development in question would never be built.

But I’m sorry, ecoterrorists scare me–as does the entire anti-human branch of the "green" movement.  For example, last week, I ran across the National Audubon Society’s fact-sheet on declining bird habitats and was shocked by a certain deep-dyed nuttiness in it, which suggested that the best way to help the songbirds is to get rid of the people.

If ecoterrorists started the Seattle house fires, they clearly agree–burn the people out, and it will be better for the beavers.

I have a theory as to why the word "green" is in such scorching dispute. We all know that the way we’re living is coming to an end. We cannot go on being such profligate drivers, consumers of plastic bags, users of lawn chemicals, builders of two-story "great" rooms, and electricity wasters–or we’ll choke out the planet in the process. We have to change and to sacrifice.

What’s not yet clear is the degree of sacrifice that is going to be required. On the one hand, there are those people who think that famine and disease and resource wars–and a much smaller human population at the end of it–are the only way the earth will get back in balance. And on the other hand, there are those people who feel virtuous because they now recycle the plastic tubs their mesclun salads from California are packed in.

I have no idea which group has the more accurate grasp of the word "green." Or maybe I do have an idea, but am hoping not to admit it.  I’m just praying that whichever definition proves correct, I don’t have to sacrifice my weekend house in the country–and that it turns out that the key to saving the planet is growing a lot of very nice vegetables in the backyard.


  1. I think burning down houses promotes global warming and CO2 increases, doesn’t it? Abominable.

    That said, this connects with a big debate in green building circles – can a large single-family home be a green building? Already homes get extra points for being “right-sized”, but it is a sad fact that the people who can afford LEED certification for their homes are also the same people who have enough money for a McMansion.

  2. Nancy–we may eventually see that “green” really means “simple.” And simple is not very American, is it?

  3. “I grew up in a suburb and spent the tedious years of my childhood marking down the hours until I could escape that witless, brutal, ugly, oppressive, culture-free place that I was forced to call home.”

    Yikes. I hope my kids, cruelly raised in the suburbs, don’t end up feeling so abused.

  4. I grew up and live in a suburb. I grew up and live in a democracy, in the U.S., in a nearly post industrial age. I grew up having my happiness marketed to me. The issue, it seems to me, has little to do with politics, definitions, polemics or anything else along those lines–instead, I feel it has much to do with the issue of happiness, of spiritual fulfillment. I teach poetry to undergrads, I told them today that the reason we read poetry is to find balance, peace, joy, to come to grips with those things as well as our pain and sorrow that we share with everyone and everything, to see and know ourselves better through things not of us. I’m rambling now, but our country is in a spiritual crisis on the individual and group level. We feel directionless. Disconnected. But we are spoiled in our distant solipsism. People have felt disconnected and alone forever. Green means hunger and aloneness and a wish to instantly be what we feel we could be, but aren’t patient or quiet enough to be.

  5. Oh, Pam J., I’m sure your kids are having wonderful childhoods. I can’t justify the way I felt about suburban New Jersey as a kid–or the way I feel about it today when family obligations force me to visit. It was just not for me, and I knew it early.

  6. Benjamin Vogt, this is something that separates gardeners from many other people–we don’t have our happiness “marketed” to us–as you wittily put it. We find it in the ground.

    Patience and quiet may be forced upon us by the end of the fossil fuel era.

  7. A mighty fine rant Michele. Sadly the choice may be between more people or more stuff and the planet is headed towards more of both. The eco-terrorists cause far more harm than any point they think they are making. Someone needs to slap them upside the head hard.

    I am used to my conveniences and addictions. I have never been a big stuff person, but somehow it accumulates anyway. Unless forced I am not likely to do with out. I do know I can live just fine without television saving $75 a month. I’ll be ready to give up the cell phone when the cabin is built and the contract expires, useless piece of crap.

    The big news though is my first real vegetable garden in fifteen years. I’ll be ready when the time comes.

  8. How dumb are these “Eco Terrorists”? Burn down the houses, putting more CO2 and othe noxious gasses into the air, then the builders will just re-build when the insurance money comes in, thereby using twice the amount of resources to build the same amount of Mc Mansion. Duh! Nice one!
    Why not spend all that free time and work WITH contractors to build really green homes?

  9. Senseless, pointless, and wasteful. Anarchy and chaos. That’s what terrorism is: Acts of violence meant to produce anxiety, fear, and intimidation, not to encourage discussions, compromises, and progress. Eco-terrorists are criminals but they aren’t dumb criminals, they know exactly what they are doing.

    Discussions about living “green,” who is better at it, what’s the right way, and other futile comparisons, aren’t all that different from the recent discussion about the use of natives in garden. We humans are surprisingly – or perhaps not so surprisingly – stubborn and insistent on making our own choices about how we live. I think a range of options, not a one-size-fits-all format, would better serve us all. And we need to keep holier-than-thou attitudes out of it. That has never promoted anything but divisive posturing.

    Great rant and discussion.

  10. This is not “green” any more than murdering gay people is “Christian”. Whether you are a religious extremist, an environmental extremist, a political extremist, a nationalist extremist, etc., the operative word is extremist. The point is no longer the interest or belief you started from, it is the unnatural degree to which you judge and punish those who are not as “pure” in it as you.

  11. I’d like to add the word “inexpensive” to my “range of options” statement made above. I’ve looked into green alternatives, such as solar panels, but the upfront investment required stops me dead, as it would most people. Lack of funds limits my options to generally less green choices.

    Well said, Karen.

  12. I think ecoterrorists do more harm than just the CO2 they put in the atmosphere when they burn down homes. The worst thing they do is give their opposition reason to believe that environmentalism is a concern of the lunatic fringe, and not something that ordinary people are deeply concerned about. Not to mention the fact that fanatics of all stripes are really just a huge pain in the ass. I agree with you Michele that as we go forward simplicity is going to be the key. And in spite of all the best-selling books on how to simplify our lives, Americans still seem to consider simplicity a net loss.

  13. Well, hasn’t the word “simple” already becoming as loaded with marketability as the word “green?” I think there’s already a magazine for it.

  14. I have always thought that ‘ecoterrorist’ was the wrong term to use for this type of person. When I think of an ‘ecoterrorist’ I think of the guy that drives the Hummer, has acres of turf grass, and whose idea of a good time is to spend fuel to go somewhere and spend more fuel. “Hey dude let’s load up the Ski Doos and hit the lake!” So it is unfortunate that the mainstream media has coined this term and it is now common parlance.
    Toasting these green Mcmansions is no more of an act of environmental protest as an act of economic protest. Ah yes good ol’ class warfare. The last seven years have not helped that situation. Now I don’t agree with the actions, but there is a deep seated anger out there. So how can there be healing when there is so much damned greed out there?
    Sure there is a problem with LEED certification, and builders should be more concerned with the spirit of the program rather than the letter of the program. So what can we do. I continue to garden and inform, and I do it in an ecologically responsible fashion. I ramble too, let us use a different term for these pyros, because many of the true terrorists are among us.

  15. What evidence is there that ecoterroriststs are responsible for this other than a board spray-painted with “E.L.F.” and a slogan? MOST arsons are done to defraud insurance companies. Centex, the builder of these homes, is sitting on unsold inventory nationwide, inventory that keeps slipping in value. Unless there’s something more concrete than a board with a slogan that could just as easily have been painted by a corporate arsonist-for-hire, I don’t think it’s in any way justified to assume that this was done by ecoterrorists.

    I detest McMansions and the self-satisfied, overconsuming suburban lifestyle as much as the next radical, but I don’t jump to conclusions based on flimsy evidence.

  16. The last bit of news I heard this evening, on NPR, intimated that the powers that be are also interested in the insurance angle, and that these multi-million-dollar homes have been on the market for months while the housing market melts down around them.

    But, to jump back to your original entry, Michelle, I’m not sure I agree that “We all know that the way we’re living is coming to an end.” There’s a pretty intense effort out there by some to convince themselves and others that not only can we have everything we want, but so can everyone else.

    This self-centeredness makes me maddest when it masquerades as generosity, which is what I feel is going on in the case of the much-touted “Secret” (as seen on the Oprah Winfrey show): all you need to do to become a millionaire is to believe that it’s possible. Not only does it become your fault if you remain poor, but any ecological or environmental (or even economic!) consequences of this sudden proliferation of millionaires is simply beside the point. This sort of thinking is a long long way from recognizing that our way of life is coming to an end.

    You could argue that such insistence proves profound insecurity, and that many who insist that the American way of life shall go on forever know in their hearts that it won’t. Maybe. But if so, I just hope they start wearing their hearts on their sleeves, because as long as this knowledge is locked away and denied, it’s not going to help the earth and its denizens.

    Phew. Talk about rants. Sorry, all.

  17. I suppose I should add that I’m not consciously, intentionally green. I’m just tight with my money. It costs less to live in a well-built, well-maintained, well-insulated, well-sited 1400 sq foot ranch house built in the 1970’s. It costs less to use compact fluorescent light bulbs AND I don’t have to change them nearly as often as incandescent bulbs. It costs less to have a rain barrel than to pay for water I could get for free when it pours off my roof. It costs less to save the two gallons of water that come out of the tap until the water is warm enough to shower–I drag it outside to water plants or use it inside the house to…water plants. I like having compost heaps because it’s cheaper than buying compost. I like wearing the same old clothes until they aren’t even fit for donation because they are comfortable. Same with shoes–no 10 pairs of black pumps for me! I eat very little meat because I don’t much care for it. I eat no beef because I’m allergic to it. I don’t own a car because a monthly unlimited bus pass is cheaper than just the gas for the car would be, and the bus runs past my house every 30 minutes 24/7. I don’t consume as much as most other people (in terms of shopping consumption) because I prefer to dump my money into savings.

    The funniest thing was at my previous job–one of the Chinese graduate students noticed that I had turned the lights off in my office (there’s a perfectly lovely window in that room and decent natural light), so she peered in and asked: “Are you an environmentalist?”. I asked her why the question, and she told me that I was saving energy by keeping the lights off, and she knew I rode the bus, so I must be an environmentalist. She was a little surprised whe I explained that the lights were off because I had a migraine that morning and I rode the bus because I’m just plain tight with my money. I guess I am an accidental environmentalist.

  18. Oh, thank you for writing about the anti-human bias in some of the publications right now. I think we’d be better off to educate people about wildlife habitats than to get rid of our species. That’s what I’m doing with my children.~~Dee

  19. I imagine that some of my neighbors in their huge houses make fun of my little home. I chose to live here because the five acres of land on a hill which it sits on is awesome. I’m 3 miles from work which I can walk to if I want.
    The newbies to the neighborhood are building 5,000 sq ft houses. Most have kids that are gone so why they need such a big place is beyond me.
    Some even travel to work 90 miles away. The land is cheaper here than the big city but what about commuter costs?
    The eco terrorist’s are nuts.

  20. Kim, this is not to excuse so much as to possibly explain why your empty-nester neighbors have 5000 sq ft homes. Capital Gains taxes. When my folks moved from Illinois to Florida, they moved into a 3200 sq ft home for the two of them. When I asked why (“are you crazy?”) they said that if they had bought a smaller, less expensive home, it would have cost them big bucks in capital gains, which would have eaten into their nest egg that would support them in retirement. That was almost 30 years ago but I don’t think the tax system has changed much (this is not meant to be commentary about our tax system).

    So here’s a question that I can’t answer: if the movement is towards downsizing in an effort to be more green, what do we do with today’s big houses? Bulldoze them? That doesn’t seem very green. Take them apart and re-use the materials? Would that be more green than fitting the houses with solar panels and rain-water cisterns?

  21. I agree with you on the ‘deep-dyed nuttiness’ of the anti-human angle of the green movement. The site you linked to in your post proudly proclaimed that it’s mission was to ‘creat a culture of conservation by connecting people with nature’; but clearly, they meant only certain people, not all the “extra” people who were out there somewhere, ‘over’-populating the planet.

  22. Well, Lisa Albert, if you’ve been to Detroit, you know how easily whole neighborhoods can be erased. It’s so American–to build all this domestic architecture that works for a moment, and then just to bulldoze it when it doesn’t. Hopefully, there will be enough oil left to run the bulldozers.

  23. Bulldozed?!?! No, no, no, then nothing can be reused. That doesn’t seem very green to me.

    btw, haven’t been to Detroit but have been to Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Greenfield Village (years and years ago).

  24. I read a report that previous ELF burnings have used a certain type of incendiary device that was not found in any of the homes burned in this instance. Insurance fraud is looking more likely.

  25. Wow, what a dynamic discussion. The thing that interests me most about Michele’s comments is that question about the word “Green” and how much sacrefice are people willing to make. It seems to me that even if many suburbanites (I am one) don’t feel they have much opportunity to make green changes, they now would like to if they could see they are making a difference. While it’s easy to blame McMansioneers (I usually do myself because it’s easy and my house is one of the smallest on my street), still it’s just as likely that I’m to blame for past waste and chemical use. (I’m a landscape designer and I use spray-fix, what can I say?).

    So what can I do? At this point, I do try to encourage my clients to use permiable paving, but there will still be paving. I’m glad my neighbors are open to it, but it expensive and not everyone has the cash flow. That kind of sacrifice is a good sign. When we redo our own driveway, we’ll use permiable paving. I feel good about this, but am I helping to save the planet, really? I don’t know. I just know I have to be creative and considerate when I am making changes for my home and personal environment. That’s the best I can do. I would be happy if McMansioneers would get a clue. Talk to your neighbors. Maybe that’s something else I can do, too.

  26. “I just know I have to be creative and considerate when I am making changes for my home and personal environment. That’s the best I can do.”

    That’s all most of us can do. I just wish our governments – at all levels – would foster individual efforts. I think there’s too much emphasis on large scale energy production in particular. Imagine what we could accomplish if every home in America could produce some portion of the energy it consumed by a method compatible with its location!

    I have done, and will continue to do, what I can to use organic methods, plant native species, and save energy. But, I’m in my mid-60’s and have no children. If those younger than I, with children, can’t be bothered to do something about the future, then why should I worry?

    (Is that incendiary enough?)

  27. I really don’t think the Audubohn fact sheet you linked to was promoted “getting rid” of people. Population growth has been an issue for ages. The problem is that class, ethnicity, lower and higher birth rates gets all tangled up in the debate. Those of us who garden in the states tend to do it in luxury, meaning in recreation. If we chop down a tree, we can say its for the flowers, its an aesthetic decision more often than not-if someone in the amazonian basin chops down a tree, its to grow life-sustaining food and agriculture. The loss of bird habitat is a loss of human habitat, its a loss for the humans who made the hard choice to cut it and burn it. Green is a pat on the back in our luxurious life. Green is the color of marketing. Green used to be euphemism for cash, now its euphemism for marketing to overworked, under-informed, wealthy first worlders. I’m beginning to hate green, getting green in the face, so sick of green as a marketing tool. As for ecoterrorists- sick as any one else who destroys for a living, pathological beings with a witch hunting puritanical streak.

  28. Further, if I may…Just think how much we could save if we lived in smaller dwellings. The people who do it first will save enormously on labor, materials, then efficiency in heating, electricity and so on. Take that savings and put it into education or retirement or health care and prevention. Put it into wind or solar or whatever. If you cannot live small, keep the big house and take your grandma out of that damn expensive nursing home, maybe share your house because the nuclear family idea will be short-lived here as pay dwindles and we cannot afford to live alone. Think of all those extra gardening hands on deck, all the help to cook or clean one house, the shared car rides into town-living together is efficient in a big house.

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