The Blog

Green Wars

I wonder, the color wheel notwithstanding, is Green really closer to Pink than Blue?
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Has anyone besides me noticed a difference in the way men and women are approaching this whole green thing? I come from a house of men where my female eco-otherness has been a windy turbine of contention for some time. I pick up clothes and refold them and take them out of the hamper and put them back into the drawers, shut doors and pull blinds to keep the house cool without air conditioning, turn off lights, layer gas consumptive errands on top of work trips and discourage destination-free driving. As they are about asking directions, I have come to find my men seem genetically predisposed to thinking it's girly to recycle, reuse or generally be enviro-thrifty; the words men and disposable may have historical and biological antecedents which are tough to ignore. It's been getting me thinking about the male footprint v the female footprint and I'm not talking about George Bush's big feet stomping all over Iraq v Sarah Jessica Parker's Manolos strutting their way through Manhattan.

Before I get beat up for male bashing, I just want to refer everyone to a recent Gallup poll which indeed confirmed my anecdotal, admittedly small sample (two sons, two stepsons, husband and male dog): women do worry about the environment more than men. But is this just because women tend to worry more in general and that laundry, dry cleaning, grocery shopping and carpooling are already topics traditionally assigned to us?

Take cars for example. Guys and their cars are fundamental to all modern societies. James Bond and his Aston Martin, James Dean and his Porsche, the former Arnold and his Hummer are the cinematic bedrock upon which some of our most potent imagery of hunkiness rests. Although he religiously drove VW Bugs to the train station to catch the 8: 16, even my father eventually capitulated and bought a futuristic looking car that the cadets at the Air Force Academy had crafted as a senior project. Just climbing in the flip top was energy-consumptive. My husband was once kidnapped in a vintage car, shot at mistakenly in another and had a third purchased by nefarious fellows with cash stashed in a paper bag, but even these mishaps did not deter him from old car-love (though since then, he has driven only the latest models). The last time he was poised to buy a new one, I jumped right in there to see if I could convince him to buy a hybrid but Ed Begley Jr. somehow doesn't' have the same resonance as the Jameses and he shot me a don't-make-me-over look that threatened to force any conversation about powertrain synergy, (a Toyota buzzword for their technology) to a marital tie breaker. When queried, Toyota reported that 50% of Prius sales are to men. They didn't quote a female stat, (obviously, it's implied), but is it because they prefer to market to young males a la Hollywood: girls will see guy movies but not the other way around? In the coming clean category, I am still driving the same fourteen year old Volvo that I drove for carpool and I'm loyal to its stained seats and mysterious squeaks though that is a matter of saving the other kind of green. Some of my peers, however, are reportedly buying motorcycles at unprecedented rates: according to the head of Harley Davidson, there is "pent up [female] desire". Despite this sex appeal, dealers are advised to put plants at their entrances to encourage female customers to come on in.

And then there's the latest grope towards green. Once upon a time, Benjamin, the Graduate, was given a one word hot tip on navigating his way to success in the world: plastic. A mere forty years later, people are lining up at the Whole Foods in London and NY to get their ultra- exclusive, limited edition canvas, "I am not a plastic bag" bags. Supplies and tempers are short. Though this makes my motley collection of canvas bags from old PBS pledge drives, my husband's freebies from contractors, the boy's leftover sports carriers, linen sacks from Parisian bakeries, and swag bags from bad movie premieres appear very low rent, and which, when I throw them on the conveyor belt (with all the loose eggplants and apples and onions I refuse to bag in the produce department) utterly demoralizes the youthful checkers who have to wrangle and weigh them, in the spirit of recycling, and possibly supporting your favorite non profit, bag grazing proves you don't need to queue to make a chic statement while you are shopping -- and you can wallow as you wait in line in neo-Proustian experience of smelling the basil that the bags at one time carried.

But this greening comes at a price: I now have two humongo drawers dedicated to recycled plastic bags, a third cabinet of shopping bags and there threatens soon to be a fourth. Even the dog has gotten into the conversation about plastic: though I formerly felt I was doing a good deed when I re-used the plastic baggies the newspapers are delivered in for doggy bags, they are not biodegradable. When you are ready to write a letter to the newspaper companies alerting them to this pending eco-disaster so that you won't feel guilty when you scoop the poop, you know you have entered a world where the management of plastic is beginning to take its emotional toll.

To be fair, I do see lots of guys at the farmers market these days trailing their wives, laden with children and produce, beasts of green burden. To supplement my somewhat raffish collection of canvas, and to encourage the men to take one along, I bought a whole new batch of glazed fabric bags that won't stain, that stand up at the checkstands on their own and are delightfully colorful. (They also cost 1.99, not the 15 bucks that the unplastic bags do, if you can even get one). I left one for each of them in their cars and yet whenever any of them stops to pick something up, it arrives in the bag from the store. Though my new bags do not impress me as being girly, perhaps carrying bags of any kind is just not deemed cool enough -- like the pox on holding a woman's purse as if it were radioactive -- carrying things on one's person, as opposed to hauling them in large vehicles, has traditionally been a female purview. It's also the notion that you must anticipate (put bags in car, carry into store) and this means planning ahead, the two words in the English language most feared by males.

Recently, (and unusually), I invited myself on a shopping expedition to the Gap with my husband. On the way over, I carefully, non-threateningly, laid the groundwork about how we could bring a bag into the store with us for our purchases. He assured me he wouldn't need a bag at all, he could just carry his new jeans straight to the car. (We got a spot right out front) Yet mere minutes later, as he paid, I saw that he was blithely allowing the salesman to put them in a plastic bag! I grabbed the jeans and stuffed them into my purse (which is just another museum bag); maybe it's impossible to unhook the purchase-plus-bag habit; some might consider it anti-capitalistic or worse, unpatriotic.

And don't get me started on Takeout, the new Fast Food and it's not just Starbucks. Despite having a mother who prides herself on her culinary charms, the boys would rather bring it in, in acres and acres of, you guessed it, plastic.

Laundry is another battleground in the green wars. For years I could control use of the dryer because the boys were too young to do their own Now that they are college graduates (ok, I know, but that's the subject of another post) they are stealth launderers, routinely putting in loads at midnight or two am when they know the laundry police (me) aren't going to get on their case about using the dryer, and, they retort, when the rates are lower. During hours of sunlight (in LA, this is most of the time), the dryer is embargoed and said undergarments left to dry in the sun come to have that cardboard feel last experienced in Paris in the seventies when I had to pay two francs for a shower at my student hotel and included in the price was an absolutely cadaver-like towel which Madame handed to us along with a cruddy bar of soap. Suffice it to say they are not pleased with boxers that have that je-ne-sais-quoi crunch.

Look, I know guys aren't going to hand wash their underwear and hang it on a line to dry but that doesn't mean they can't learn to say no at the dry cleaner. I tell them it's ok to ask them to ask for shirts minus cardboards and to remove the plastic bags (so far, I can't figure out how to give them back the hangars too); the French Hand Laundry in Pasadena, drycleaner to the costume department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (they send their most difficult cases to California!), says storing garments in plastic ruins them anyway.

And what about water? Here I hang my head in shame. Though we live in Los Angeles, home of the most forward thinking drought resistant xeriscape landscaping, when we moved in years ago, it was I who insisted we have more lawn to go with our mid-century style house. (Precisely, you are thinking, and rightfully so: a bipolar greenie, the very worst kind.) Now as I watch the sprinklers feebly trying to keep up with the drought (stupidly, we have no water restrictions yet in LA) self-imposition is agony as you see the recently reseeded ($$$) green carpet wilt away.

Ah, but as far as personal water usage, you could waterboard me (torture wasteful as well as illegal) and I would still not confess if I suspected any behaviors like surreptitious removal of water saving shower heads, resetting of pressure or heat settings or topping off of pool; one of the boys did do a report on the history of water in LA (shades of Chinatown) so he knows we are but greedy, common thieves in Southern California and that taking two showers a day is a non-starter. (Oddly enough, everyone is happy to save water if I want them to do the dishes). Memo to my males: if Cameron Diaz can shave her long legs without running water, so can you!

On the subject of buying water, I'm not sure that women aren't the worse offenders. For the past decade, a pink-labeled Evian bottle was the accessory du jour, carefully displayed at yoga or in the front seat of the car. Meanwhile, the boys have long used neoprene for sporting events or camping trips: one, a leftover from a college abstinence program is imprinted with a handy reminder not to drink and drive.

Which brings me to paper. I read with a kind of perverse, voyeuristic, horror the NY Times story about the family that had so wanted to limit their carbon footprint that they had sworn off toilet paper. Ouch: as showers are the male line in the sand, so toilet paper is mine.

The other kind of paper, the newspaper, has also undergone reductive measures but this feels gender non-specific; I know these are purely business decisions. The WSJ is already shrunk, the NYT on its way. The LA Times recently combined its Sunday Opinion section and its Book Section into one, a fairly draconian solution, and here I've spent all these years trying not to LA bash, telling myself and everyone else that people have opinions in LA, and that they read books! Even though the news business can no longer measure value by the amount of hard stuff it's printed on, it is still jarring to have to contort the paper upside down and backwards to have a look at both sections.

Lights. This is simple: I turn them off, the guys turn, and leave, them on. It's so dark outside now that we have to feel our way down the steps to the garage and risk damage to limb and life and sometimes I bang into doorways and screw up my knees but isn't a little less consumption worth a few black and blue marks? They claim that our house is going to be targeted by robbers to try to get me to back off but none of them seem to be concerned about leaving me alone for days on end or locking or alarming the house so there's kind of a mixed message, don't you think? (Originally, I believe, it was God who said "Let there be light" and most people think God has a guy feel about him (all that Creation stuff!) but that doesn't mean there is some kind of excommunication awaiting those who turn lights off, does there?)

One way guys do seem to be getting ahead of the energy curve is by figuring out the yield curve e.g. how to make the other kind of green out of going green. Though the commodities markets are mostly set up to do this in London and the EU, at any moment, corporate carbon offsetting is going to hit big time in the US as well. Already, though, personal offsets are being discussed the way tithing once was; some may think the whole notion of paying somebody to assuage your carbon guilt is a specious thing but the way I figure it, it is just like taxes: you pay in according to your consumption and you generally don't get anything back except the knowledge that you're doing good (theoretically, anyway) somewhere else. I can only say that offsetting is sure to be embraced by the likes of me who are used to operating out of guilt 90% of the time in any case.

Using plastic, buying an SUV or a conventional light bulb, watering the lawn, these things are all of a piece: it's hard to be a greenie whether you're male or female, so I hate to think that going green will become just one more subject for the gender wars, right up there alongside child rearing, the glass ceiling (solar paneled, natch) and athletic parity. One promising sign is that the Gallup poll on green preferences also reported that it's young people who are overwhelmingly concerned about the environment; so that, and Al Gore Jr.'s arrest for speeding and drugs in his Prius may mean that the James Dean bad boy thing can be greened after all, giving the PR folks at Toyota all kinds of new marketing options. Apparently, according to ace lexicographer Erin McKean, pink things are more likely to be called fluffy, and green things, fuzzy, and how we refer to things is almost as important as the thing itself.

But I wonder, the color wheel notwithstanding: is Green really closer to Pink than Blue?