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Sustainability’s Talismans
Chris Turner, 3 Dec 08

837335232_9134cc0a58.jpgRecently, I gave a reading at an eco-themed fundraiser event for a magazine I contribute to frequently. Along with the other presenters, I received a swag bag: a reusable canvas tote containing (along with various coupons and samples) a stainless steel water bottle.

The canvas tote bag and the reusable water bottle – if sustainability can be thought of as a single movement, these appear to be among its primary talismans. At urban planning conferences and green building seminars and climate change confabs, the giveaways are almost always the same. Carry the bag like a banner; hold the bottle aloft like an amulet. Whatever foe we are uniting against, whatever beast we intend to best, it will be defeated, so it would seem, by reusable water bottles and canvas totes.

Since the inverse in both cases is disposable plastic, I guess that’s the name of our foe. Or one of them, anyway – the climate menace is a devil with many faces, and we are only beginning to figure out which ones are ruses and which are the true faces of its evil. Maybe that’s why some less enlightened conferences still give away durable plastic reusable water bottles. One plastic version I received recently at least has an incantation inscribed on its base against the dread Bisphenol A (“GARYLINE / BPA-FREE,” it reads), while another (superficially identical) bottle bears the mark of the beast (a “7” enclosed by recycling’s universal triangular-arrows symbol). Get thee behind me, Polycarbonate!

I don’t mean to mock, or at least not too much. BPA is the very definition of a legitimate toxin, and it’s a scandal that it has been so carelessly smeared around our food. (I was awakened to it earlier than most by my friend Ian Connacher’s documentary Addicted to Plastic, which I highly recommend.) Plus, I do use canvas totes and stainless steel water bottles. I buy one of the former at every farmers’ market I visit, and one of the first things I did after hearing about BPA was turf every Nalgene in the house and buy a couple of brand-new Klean Kanteens.

No, I don’t mean to mock too much, but I do wonder sometimes what the point is. Will the climate beast indeed be vanquished by canvas and steel? Is this a first step toward a much larger and more fundamental society-wide shift, or have we fallen again into the doin’-my-part trap, that blue-box idyll that marked the dead end of the 1980s version of eco-consciousness? Recycle diligently enough, or so the thinking seemed to go, and the ozone layer will heal itself and the rainforests and whales will multiply like post-consumer toilet paper rolls. Haul the blue box to the curb, in any case, and intone the mantra: Doin’ my part!

This might sound sort of straw-mannish, but I canvassed for Greenpeace back in ’93, and bore personal witness to at least a couple of doin’-my-parts each night. These well-meaning homeowners responded to my donation pitch with a sympathetic nod and a wave toward their recycling bins. There were, don’t get me wrong, plenty of legitimate reasons to choose not to dig out the checkbook, but the blue box wasn’t one of them.

So: Is the canvas-tote and water bottle craze more of the same? Have we so eagerly switched to hauling our groceries in canvas sacks and drinking tap water from stainless steel so that we don’t have to address the much deeper problems caused by the hydrocarbons those banished plastic bags and bottles were derived from, or the much larger threats to our water supply?

I recognize that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Fewer plastic bags is great; an end to the mass global con perpetrated by the bottled water industry would be even better. But I can’t help but feel that the mathematics are a bit out of whack here. That my personal impact on the planet has much more to do with what I put into those bags and how I get them home than it does with the materials themselves.

This strain of ethical uncertainty – this confusion over what exactly the right thing even is – seems endemic to this uncertain time, this interregnum between the fossil-fuelled industrial age and a new sustainable world order. Each of us, well-meaning green-minded consumers that we are, comes now to the grocery checkout with this crude homemade mental-slide-rule contraption to calculate the right choices. It’s fashioned out of scrap material, calibrated with some fuzzy math and not much empirical data, designed to measure something that doesn’t even have a definitive name yet, let alone a fixed set of dimensions. It’s so idiosyncratic at this point, so arbitrary and personal. How could it really matter?

Maybe the point’ll be clearer if I put it in highly specific terms. Here’s how my own personal grocery-store calculus goes:

Start with a standard supermarket trip. Subtract a small vegetable garden (but correct for the fact that I don’t plant it as ambitiously as I should, nor tend it as carefully as I’d like). Divide by the sum of the weekly trips to the nearby farmers’ market, where I do as much of my shopping as possible. Now subtract (maybe) the visits to stand-alone stores or regional chains over multinationals (but add on a car trip multiplied many times, because the regional-chain store is a bit further away than the multinational across a six-lane highway with no direct bike access. Divide by the sum of the six canvas totes I bring with me, and maybe subtract as well the plastic produce bags I generally don’t use (I’m not averse to having my apples brush against a canvas tote or a cereal box in transit). Subtract, finally, the two cases of aluminum cans per visit that we no longer buy since we invested in a home carbonation machine to feed our household club soda addiction.

Finally, we arrive at some figure. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say it’s 60 percent of the standard ecological footprint for a North American shopping trip. And now let’s say I’ve got my daughter with me and she’s gotten into the gum at the checkout, and so I’m conducting negotiations down at toddler level for a minute or two. I turn back to pay, and the nice thing about this regional chain is they haul your groceries out to the car for you, and so it’s only when I get home that I realize that before carefully placing my butter and my wife’s moisturizer and even the pre-wrapped chicken breasts (doubly sinful, I realize) into my canvas totes, they’ve tucked each inside its own plastic bag. As is the store policy that I’m always forgetting to say off the top I’d rather they didn’t execute, and that even if I do say so, they often forget halfway through, and in any case treat me like some kinda pedantic pain in the ass for bringing up more than once in a visit.

So a question: do those three accidentally obtained plastic bags in any way negate (or at least cut in half) the efficacy of the whole exercise? Do we now re-add 15 percent onto my footprint? Does it matter that my city accepts plastic bags at the recycling depot? What if I’ve got no idea what they do with them there? How, exactly, can I atone for this accidental sin? And if I don’t need to – if, in fact, a couple more plastic bags is kind of incidental in the grander scheme – then what was the point of the canvas totes in the first place?

And, finally, to the larger point: Isn’t this kind of a ridiculous use of our energies? Do we really want to take all this vigour inside us, all this awareness and concern, all our best intentions and our will to make real change, and direct it at this plastic-bag kabuki theatre thing? And isn’t it sort of strange and potentially counterproductive that these symbols of sustainable living – these canvas totes and steel water bottles – have very little to do, actually, with the greenhouse gas emissions that are the biggest problem created by our unsustainable way of life?

These are open questions, not rhetorical ones. I’d like to think they’re a first-stage consciousness-raising thing, en route to, I dunno, rooftop solar panels all around. But sometimes I wonder whether it would really be the ruin of the whole project if we admitted that very little we do as individuals based on the sums calculated on our homemade slide rules is going to matter much at all if we don’t get the whole human project pointed in a new direction by mid-century at the latest. In other words, sometimes I wonder whether fussing over plastic bags is deterring us from focusing our energies where the macro-scale change needs to happen.

Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.

Photo credit: flickr/skydear, Creative Commons license.

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If you are actually concerned with greenhouse emissions (or topsoil retention, preserving forests and wildlife habitat, solving a global food crisis and not supporting terrible farm subsidies) then I suggest you stop eating meat. Unless you hunt and kill it yourself. Because, really, buying meat is far worse environmentally than basically anything else you can do short of purposefully burning forests (meat is worse than driving gas-powered cars). Also that stuff in the parentheses could probably be classified as "worldchanging." Your conscience would require a lot less neurotic mathematical rationalization too.

Posted by: ph on 3 Dec 08

Sometimes it can be disheartening to consider how outlandish many people consider many of the minor changes you're talking about taking in your life.

But at the same time, they have collateral impacts that reach far beyond the immediate situation.

Public policy, the actions of large businesses, the fields of study our talented people are following, et cetera all depend in part on a clamor from the ground-up.

Directly, no, the extra three bags are not a big deal. But when you continue to ask the employees at a store to keep their bags, eventually they stop giving so many bags to other people. Other people in line see you not taking a bag and maybe they start thinking that its stupid to get 6 bags for 12 grocery items, just so they have to carry more bags and throw them away later.

A million little things like these every day craft a movement that is growing, and continue to grow - because they're making decisions that make sense. Less waste, better health, and lower energy bills – people are realizing there are better ways to live.

It all makes sense. Each person has a part to play, and the 'Doin' My Part' crowd, though frustrating when you're trying to get something big accomplished, really is on your side. They just need to be shown the way.

I don't know if we'll get where we need to be in fifty years, but if the progress we've made over the last 2 years can translate into real changes in the systems and norms of our civilization, then I think it can happen.

(Hopefully it can – I’m not sure. We blew it in the 70’s. We stalled in the early 90’s. Nothing good has happened in Washington in almost a decade. Progress certainly has been made, but just as made damage has been done. But maybe – this time will be different.)

Posted by: Jake on 3 Dec 08

I think the first step in being "green" is having a frugal mentality. I think when you become more sensitive to not wasting in your own home, you become more aware of similar things outside your home - micro to macro. In addition to or rather than carrying a tote or metal water bottle, people should begin by becoming critical of their lifestyles, starting with just a single day of routines.

Posted by: nk on 3 Dec 08

I've been thinking a lot about how to move from a "doin' my part" mentality to a mentality of significant change, both for myself and for society as a whole. I think this holiday season may be a very good time for a lot of people to begin to make the shift.

The holidays are one of the few times during the year that people have the time and inclination to step back from their normal routine and think about what makes them really, truly happy. For a lot of people, the joy of the season comes from three elements: family and friends, a spirit of giving, and, unfortunately, massive amounts of consumption. Maybe this year when people step back, they'll consider focusing on the first two elements and toning down the third. My own family has decided to have a "low-stuff" holiday this year. We are all getting little presents for each other, but the vast majority of our spending will be on donations to non-profit organizations we want to support. We're thinking about it as a gift to our future selves, and our future relatives.

I have the sense that the idea of a "low-stuff" holiday would resonate with a lot of people right now - especially with the "doin' my part" crowd. Maybe it would provide an opportunity to expand the definition of what "doin' my part" entails.

Posted by: Andy Lubershane on 4 Dec 08

I worked for Nalge (Nalgene) plastics manufacturing in the 70's and 80's when there was a virtually non-existent filtration system. I got breast cancer and have always wondered if others who worked there also had breast cancer.

Posted by: Sharon on 16 Dec 08

After reading your article, I wonder why you're buying canvas bags everywhere you go. Why don't you bring one with you or leave them in your car for your next shopping trip? They aren't called reusable bags for nothing. I put them on the front door handle when I'm done with them so I'll remember to bring them with me next time I go out. If we keep buying bags without reusing them, we're simply moving the cycle of buying and disposing from plastic to canvas --and nothing real has changed. It's not just about changing you shopping bags, it's about changing your way of thinking and doing things.

Posted by: angele on 27 Aug 09

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