Green Planet Blues

Ellen Pearson, second from right, and her family hang themselves out to dry.
Ellen Pearson, second from right, and her family hang themselves out to dry.

“Gripes, kudos, inspired ideas for future stories? Put ’em here,” read the Vanderbilt Magazine voluntary subscription card I received in the mail last year. Having long fancied myself an enlightened environmentalist with a throbbing social consciousness, I wondered whether the Vanderbilt I attended had evolved along with me.

At my Vandy, which wasn’t even integrated when I graduated in 1963, coeds obliged the social standards of the day by wearing raincoats over our Bermuda shorts and disdaining to walk while smoking cigarettes. We stood breathing in Nashville’s coal smog and our friends’ passive smoke, and knew in our hearts that we were upholding the standards of our school.

That in mind, I scribbled something like this on the card:

“Feature articles on efforts by the university to get ‘green.’ Publish personal accounts by alumni about reinventing their previously black and gold lifestyles.

“P.S. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid, use compact fluorescents, and own a tankless hot water system, composting toilets and Energy Star appliances. I raise my own veggies, organic lamb and egg layers. I only purchase organic food and humanely raised meats.”

I posted my suggestion, thinking I had done my part. Apparently not. A few weeks later I got an e-mail from the editor asking me to write about my green life.

This has happened before. When will I learn?

For 35 years in my tiny, hip town of Monterey, Mass., I played the part of Queen of Community Cohesion. My court and I produced annual celebrations, each with a noble theme (energy conservation, world peace, local food, local culture, Mother Nature).

Two years ago I decided to move to North Carolina to be near my grandchildren. As a last hurrah I was asked to co-chair the committee for the 2007 I Love Monterey Day. The theme was “Greening Monterey.” Our kickoff parade forbade all but hybrid vehicles, the bio-diesel town truck, horse or oxen power, and foot travelers (including llamas and dogs). The Center for Ecological Technology, the Community Land Trust, and a nearby bike shop set up booths, and a local farm provided lunch. There were tours of solar-powered homes, and we wrapped up the celebration with contradancing featuring local musicians.

To keep the energy going, I suggested that townsfolk be invited to submit descriptions of their efforts to green their lifestyles to our monthly newspaper. Me and my big, highfalutin’ mouth. Guess who got picked to go first?

I diligently assembled my list: the hybrid car, the Energy Star appliances, on-demand water heater, composting toilets, low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints and varnishes, wood heat backed up with a bio-fuel furnace, an organic food garden tilled with draft horses, egg layers and broilers, a backyard sheep flock, a mountain of compost, and an elaborate recycling system. And, I added, I buy local, eschew “big box” stores, invest in socially responsible companies, use a community-invested bank, volunteer for service vacations addressing environmental concerns—and on and on.

But as I prepared to galvanize my audience, I realized that my lofty practices came with a matching set of glaring contradictions:

Let’s start with the hybrid car. Good enough on its own, but I also own a one-ton truck (that gets 10 mpg) with which I have hauled my horses, taken recyclables to the dump and brought in firewood.

The firewood was cut with a gas-powered chain saw and split with a gas-powered wood splitter. When not on pasture, the horses were fed hay harvested by tractor-driven implements. Oh, yeah—and I also owned a Polish tractor fueled with diesel. And a gas-powered lawn mower to smooth over what the horses and sheep didn’t tidy up in the yard.

© W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

The organic garden: I grew every vegetable the Northeast climate would support, stored root crops in a root cellar, and froze veggies, lamb and chicken for winter use. I canned crabapple jelly and pickles. But freezers are notorious guzzlers of electricity. Canning makes for low-cost storage, but home canning and freezing use outlandish amounts of fuel and water in the processing stage.

Composting toilets: My state-of-the-art toilets spared the water used to flush conventional toilets. They also employed a vent fan and an optional electric heater to speed the composting process. I used the heater only to finish the compost before I removed the residue. The fan ran most of the time. It was not powered by oxen.

Shopping local: Yes, I bought owner memberships in local co-op stores—but much of their high-end, organic food came from far, far away. I gave the horses and sheep wild and domestic apples off my farm, but when supplies ended, I bought organic fruit—shipped from the West Coast—at a chain supermarket.

“Responsible” investing: I invest in Socially Responsible funds with stringent “avoidance” screens against corporations with defense contracts, woeful environmental track records, and records of social injustice. I requested a special screen against pharmaceuticals because I am averse to animal testing.

On the other hand, I take at least three medications that were surely tested on animals. And now my investment counselor’s newsletter informs me that it is probably more effective to put money in best-in-sustainable-class fossil fuel, automotive, mining or chemical companies, thereby providing an incentive to further improve their behavior.

The hard truth is: We are all in some way dependent on fossil fuels. After all, who’s ever going to know that you’re not investing in something?

Service vacations: To avoid exploitive tourism I volunteered for two Earthwatch expeditions, one to study a threatened culture of cave dwellers in China, the other to study the effect of human encroachment on monkeys in Costa Rica.

I flew to each destination in an airplane, leaving big, black carbon wing strokes across the globe. Even using the Earthwatch program to offset carbon input, I can’t erase all the smudges.

So here I am in North Carolina, pondering the many contrapositions inherent in living green. Ever the optimist, and using an “eco-broker,” I bought an impeccable property in the woods near Pittsboro, N.C. My house is owner-built, incorporating timbers sawn on site from trees removed to create the lot.

A 500-gallon rain barrel collects water off the roof. There’s a pond fed by runoff from my neighbor’s and my house, channeled in rock ditches. I can pump from the pond in times of drought to water two gardens, one for food and native plants, the other for fruit trees and berries. The site plan was designed to facilitate a “permaculture” community, and I’m collaborating with my neighbors to share food gardening and egg-laying chickens.

The house is oriented for passive solar gain through south-facing double-glass windows and doors. Roof overhangs minimize solar gain in the summer. Four-inch-thick concrete floors in the living room and master bath contain water tubing for transferring heat to the floor and into the house. These can be enabled by mounting a solar hot water collector on a southern slope at the edge of the woods.

So far, so good.

The house is built with autoclaved aerated concrete block with excellent thermal and acoustic features. The thermal mass moderates temperature swings, both in winter and summer, saving both air conditioning and heating energy.

Too good to be true? Yep. My research on this porous precast block—known in the building trade as “Hebel type”—reveals that it is imported from New Zealand. Transportation costs in carbon currency effectively overwhelm its otherwise splendidly low environmental impact.

Out, out, damned spot! It’s Lady Macbeth here, zealously scrubbing at coaly stains.

I’m selling the truck and the tractor. All incandescent bulbs have been replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs with the lowest percentage of mercury. I’m flushing toilets with bathtub water. I hang out my laundry to dry. The entire TV/DVD/satellite system is off at the power strip, except when I watch a show. I shut down my computer (not just to sleep—all the way down) between every use.

And I found the most beguiling little device, called “Kill-A-Watt,” into which one may plug one electric appliance at a time to determine how many kilowatt-hours each uses. So far, I know that one Energy Star washer load uses .10 kwh. The refrigerator uses .66 kwh per day. Listening to NPR all day uses only .02 kwh! Heating 16 ounces of tea in the microwave is only…

Oh, never mind. My daily average electric usage is now 28 kwh per day. I’m heating my tea on the woodstove. My carbon karma will rise as I “kill the watts”—you wait and see. 

Ellen Pearson, BA’63, used .75 kwh to write this story.

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