Good is Good: Is Recycling for Girly Men?
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The Range Rover was filled with kids of various ages and both genders bellowing “Defying Gravity,” from the Broadway show Wicked at the top of their lungs (really not sure why, one of those don’t ask, don’t tell kind of parenting things). I was happy to get out and fill that massive gas tank at an Irving station in the middle of nowhere Maine. Just as the machine flipped over $10 on the way to the cut-off of $75, I noticed the gentleman just the other side of the pump, filling up a 70′s-era Ford pick up truck that looked like it must have a couple hundred grand on it. And its owner took note of me, too. He had on a green John Deere hat with mud splattered all over it, and he smiled through a toothless grin like he was hiding something pretty damn funny.
“$4 a gallon,” he started up. “Can you believe it?” I tried to make out his age, but given his beat-up face and poor dental work, it was really hard to tell. I nodded in agreement and commented that I, too, found it ridiculous—just in hopes this guy wasn’t carrying a shotgun.
“You hear about those boys over Portland way?” he continued in a conspiratorial tone. I shook my head no, but he barely noticed. He had clearly had a story to tell. “A fuel truck pulled up for his first stop. Went in to take a leak and left the diesel engine running. Came out and the truck was gone. And they never did find that rig…”
Now I was laughing. “How many gallons on that thing?”
“Ten thousand. I bet they had a big hole already dug for the thing back on the farm and just buried it with a pump. Lifetime supply. Forty grand worth.”
“Now that’s an environmental program I could really get behind,” I told him as I replaced my pump. He laughed and drove off.
When I got home, I searched the web and called the Portland police. There was no record of a missing fuel truck. Either the guy in the pick-up was pulling my leg, or perhaps he had a lifetime supply of fuel tucked away in some big hole somewhere in the Maine woods.
Either way it got me thinking about what men really think about the attempt to recycle our way to a greener world.
A recent Michigan State study found that more women than men believe global warming is real. I am not so sure that acknowledgement of the problem is different between genders, but perhaps how we think about solving it. There’s a whole school of thought that only women can save Mother Earth. I’m not buying it.
And then, Jennifer Grayson points out that there are gender differences in who cares about WHAT related to the environment, and at least historically, women are more concerned about the household effects and men about global level issues.
Running off with ten thousand gallons of fuel might be one manly solution to global warming, (or, more likely, a cowardly one), but as I thought about it more I realized that some of the most macho guys I know have become focused on starting companies that are attempting to conserve energy and provide new energy sources.
When I met Jack Roberts two decades ago, he told me that he started out buying and selling boxcars in Georgia. Or it’s possible I only dreamt that since he has grown to such a mythic figure in my mind. When I think of a good old boy in the best sense of the word, I think of my mentor Jack.
Jack was my investment banker throughout countless very tight spots. He was always someone on whom I could rely for quiet strength, a quick wit, and negotiating strategy. He’s the kind of guy’s guy that will never retire because he enjoys work too much. He would see the humor in the story about the guy who stole the fuel truck, for sure.
He’d always been an expert in media and telecom, so frankly I was shocked to hear that Jack had embraced the green movement; founding a company called Consert that has become the leader in consumer load management. Consert converts electric consumption in homes and small businesses into cost-effective, clean sources of capacity and energy reserves for utilities. But after getting over that shock, I wasn’t surprised at all that Jack’s company has jumped to the forefront of how to convert monitor homes and save energy through remote control. They’ve also named the city of San Antonio, a green hotbed, as their new headquarters.
Consert’s agreement with CPS Energy will result in the reduction of 250 megawatts of peak demand over the next four years using Consert’s Virtual Peak Plant software and will create more than 150 new jobs in San Antonio over the next few years.
“San Antonio has become a leader in clean tech initiatives,” Jack told me. “City leaders share our vision and are committed to a new energy economy, so this move was a perfect fit for us.
Susan Hunt Stevens is quickly becoming one of the leading voices on green issues. She has been asked to chair the interactive technology panel at the South by Southwest Eco Conference. She founded www.practicallygreen.com to build an online community of people striving to bring green actions into their daily life. The community started out for green moms but has morphed into a licensed model for male-dominated businesses such as Major League Baseball. I recently sat down with Susan to talk about gender and the environmental movement.
What the hell does taking your shoes off do for the environment?
What often gets overlooked in conversation about “the environment” is the effect that environment has on human health. In this case, removing your shoes is the personal health equivalent of washing your hands. It’s about ridding your indoor air, which is already way more polluted than outdoor air, of toxins (lead, cadmium, pesticides, etc) that come in on the bottom of your shoes and get into your carpets and floors. These toxins can particular affect little ones in your life who spend time on the floor—pets, babies, kids—who then put their hands or paws in their mouths. The EPA says that the simple act of removing your shoes and using a doormat can reduce contaminants in your home by nearly 60%.
I now recycle. But it’s more about being worn down than any belief that it will do any good. Please enlighten me, and all the other guys, why personal recycling will have any impact on the global environment.
From an environmental perspective, recycling hits on just about every “type” of eco-benefit. First, it reduces the demand for natural, and often finite, resources like petroleum and metals and keeps forests from being destroyed. Second, it reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Third, it saves energy and water. Let’s use plastic bottles as an example. Why does it matter if you recycle it? According to Earth911, producing new plastic products from recycled materials uses two-thirds less energy than making products from raw (virgin) materials, and it reduces the demand for fossil fuels (about 70% of plastic is domestic natural gas). But even if you don’t care about “the environment,” keep in mind that every time you put something in the garbage you are paying for it to be hauled to a landfill and stored. It’s becoming increasingly harder (and more expensive) to find places to put all that garbage. Recycled material not only avoids landfill costs in your town budget, but it also can be a source of revenue for your town.
But true recycling is more than just sticking your cans and newspapers in the bin. Most environmental impact occurs before we ever open that aluminum can, so buying products made from recycled materials is just as important as sorting. That’s why the mantra Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle is in that order. First use less. Then reuse what you have. Then recycle.
Much of the literature about the gender difference in the green approach points to the fact that men want to work from the top down and women think from the bottom up. Why do you think this is the case, and will the bottom up mentality ever really make a meaningful impact?
You are right that women tend to focus more on the daily environmental issues in home and community. We’ve also found at Practically Green that they focus, at least initially, a lot more on the environmental health actions. My personal opinion is that’s driven by our core role as caretaker with responsibility for family health and safety. The minute you realize that something you are putting on your kids has a concerning chemical in it, you want to switch. Fast. Look at how quickly BPA came into broad awareness—and I’m starting to feel the same thing is happening with flame retardants and some skincare ingredients like triclosan and phthalates. Even my friends who aren’t really that green are thinking differently about sunscreen.
Will it have an impact? Women make about 80% of the purchase decisions in the household, and if all that purchasing—food, personal care, cleaning products, furniture and soft goods, cars, travel, etc.—were to “go green,” it would have an enormous impact on the economy, manufacturers, and the market. It would also drop the price of green products, and we know that is one of the perceived, and at times real, barriers to switching habits.
For us big-picture guys, what do you think are the most important things we can focus on to make a difference for the environment?
In terms of personal actions? Eat less meat and when you do eat it, choose meat that was raised sustainably instead of in a factory farm. If you want to know why that matters, watch Food Inc. or read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you need a new car, choose one with gas mileage over 40 mpg. Switch over to green power with your utility (it’s a pain to figure out how to do it, but it doesn’t cost a lot more), and get an energy audit of your home. Or if you are into being an early adopter, consider solar, geo-thermal, micro-cogen, or another renewable energy option.
But more macro? Find an eco-issue you care about, educate yourself, and get involved. It’s impossible to keep track of every topic in great detail. Water is increasingly becoming a huge topic of concern—and that one alone will make your head swim. Toxic chemical reform is an entirely different set of issues. I know preservation of open space, forests, and trees is something that appeals to a lot of people because they can grasp what it means to clear cut a forest, whether in Washington State or the Amazon. But the point is to educate yourself. One of the best places to start, in my opinion, is Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded.
One thing that I have noticed is that while men seem to be slower to embrace micro-green behavior, they do tend to be naturalists. In other words, guys love to go out in nature, whether our natural parks, or hunting or fishing. Is there an angle there to engage men?
Totally. I also have a son and have read a lot about the positive effect on children, particularly boys, of spending time in nature. Nature is also on the frontline of resource scarcity. Outdoor enthusiasts see and feel that something is fundamentally changing—and that, in general, it’s not good. Just ask a fisherman in his 50′s what the differences in fish stocks are between now and when he was a kid. I think one of the most impressive eco-organizations is the Sierra Club, which believes that enjoying and exploring nature leads to a natural inclination to protect it. Their local chapters have some really fun activities and events.
One of the little things we’ve done that has engaged everyone in the family well, both male and female, is joining a local CSA (farm) and planting a garden. Just those steps have been huge for getting my kids to realize that carrots don’t come cut up in plastic bags, that bees are critical for food (and that they are dying in disturbing numbers), why composting matters and what you use it for, what fertilizer does and why we choose organic, and it has reduced our “food impact” significantly.
What do you say to men who say that this is just another Ice Age, a natural ebb and flow that will be a good thing in the end?
I don’t think any of the data about rising temperatures and climate change, irrespective of cause, suggests it will be a good thing for humans and our current population. We are on the cusp, and some would say we are already deep into, some serious, serious breakdowns in the natural systems that we rely on for food, clean water, energy, and our current quality of life. Humans have not existed on this planet with carbon levels in the atmosphere at the level they are at—and if you want a quick synopsis of what scientists believe will happen as temperatures rise, I would encourage your readers to skim this page. What I like to emphasize to people is that this isn’t about saving the planet. This is about saving our own ability to live and thrive here.
Do you buy the argument that men are still primarily in charge of the big companies that are driving the destruction of the world, and, therefore, men are to blame for global warming?
As tempting as it would be to turn this into a gender issue, there are powerful women running companies that contribute to issues like global warming, obesity, toxins in our homes, and who fight against forces of change. There are amazing men, like Bill McKibben, Stephen McDonnell and Jeffrey Hollender, who are leading forces for change. I think the issue is one of powerfully entrenched interests who know that transitioning to a cleaner, greener, less toxic economy will hurt their profits, their power and their influence. I see it more as a power struggle between entrenched interests who fear change and those who know that change is essential to the quality of life as we know it.
As a woman do you think that there are national policies around personal and corporate pollution and green policies that are perhaps even more important than whether or not you or I drive an electric car?
I often wish I had a magic wand. What would I pick? I would give organic food and farming the similar playing field as big agribusiness. Pass toxic chemical reform so our products and services don’t have some really nasty things in them. Fund more, and better, research on the human and animal health impact of genetic modifications to food. Tax oil and natural gas, similar to how Europe does, to capture the real cost of pollution and the fact it’s a finite resource. Upgrade our public transportation systems. I also believe we need a strong federal climate policy that addresses the issue of carbon emissions.
With massive economic dislocation in our country because of structural unemployment and income inequality, how do you prioritize the need to save the planet with the need to save our people in the short term?
Thomas Friedman’s argument in Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that a green revolution would be the key to renewing America: our jobs, our health, and our leadership at a global level. I think it’s important to remember that the planet was here well before the humans and will likely be here well after the humans. So, the green movement IS about saving people, our health, and our quality of life.
If there is one thing that most guys don’t understand about the green movement that we really should, what would it be?
When I first started learning more, I thought this was an issue for my kid’s generation or their kid’s generation. I saw that our lifestyle changes might help them avoid some cancers or reproductive issues, but would more likely benefit future generations. I had no idea how fast resources were running out, how fast the ice is melting, and the sheer urgency of the situation. Things are happening even faster than the climate models expected, and the results are even more extreme than predicted. I heard the other day that without major changes, downtown Boston could be underwater by 2030. This is OUR generation’s issue to take seriously, whether we want to or not.
For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.
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