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Green Me

America's infatuation with self-help gets eco-conscious

As a child I would sometimes find my father in his study on weekend afternoons, studying his patients' files or flipping through lecture slides, the voice of Norman Vincent Peale humming in the background. He liked to listen to The Power of Positive Thinking on audiocassette while he worked. I found the sound of Peale's droning voice oddly soothing, and when I heard it I'd wander down the hall to his study and sprawl out on the carpet with a book. The books I read on the floor in there almost certainly included Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, one of my all-time childhood favorites and also the closest thing to a self-help book I'd ever read. Until this year, that is.

I'm still not the kind of girl who embraces self-help books, and most women's magazines that espouse "new" ways to rev up your sex life and look better in a bikini give me anxiety. I tend to think that whatever ails my psyche, my backside, or my wallet has more to do with a lack of will than a lack of know-how. Yet as the editor of OnEarth's book review section, I've watched my office become overrun with piles of environmental how-to tomes. They come in all shapes and sizes, marketed to appeal to every shade of would-be green, and their titles are predictably lame: Hey Mr. Green, Big Green Purse, True Green @ Work (perhaps using the word green in your title is a prerequisite for publication). When the magazine decided that it was finally time to round up these books and tell you something about them, I volunteered my services, thinking I'd have a good laugh and end up advising you to forget the books and use the Internet to find your answers, like the savvy person I trust you to be. I lugged them to the gym and on planes and trains, consuming all the eco self-help one human can stand. But after all that reading, I felt much as I did listening to Dr. Peale drone on: people might actually need some of this stuff.

Among these many volumes, the best manage to keep the proselytizing to a minimum. They may espouse the planetary benefits of each act of do-goodism, but they're also about what's in it for you. The books that rise to the top are those that have married the environmental benefits of efficiency, reduced consumption, and recycling with the American ideal of perpetual self-improvement. Get healthy and thin! Get happy! Get rich! All in seven days! You say you want all of those things? Well, my friend, just go green.

First, a quick tip on what to skip: anything that is a page-a-day calendar. How stupid this is. If you're looking to save the world, buying an item that can be used only once is precisely what all of the other books will tell you not to do. The one that landed on my desk was shrink-wrapped, packed in a box, and had a green plastic base stamped with the words "Please Recycle This Backer." So I checked the little number printed inside the recycling symbol: the base is made of plastic #5. Not even in my office, in the headquarters of one of the largest environmental advocacy groups on the planet, are you able to recycle #5.

Ready, Set, Green, by contrast, rises above its Romper Room title with great success. This book, by Graham Hill and Meaghan O'Neill of, is one of the gems of the lot. The subtitle is Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living, but you can read it in one sitting, thus reinventing yourself much more quickly than even the authors claim. Or, you can read one chapter a week: reduce, reuse, recycle; food and drink; cleaning and home decor; transportation; clothing and personal care; and so on.

The authors have put together this smart little volume using a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure approach. There is actual prose here, so you can dig in and read more deeply about, for example, the environmental benefits of public service systems like the New York City subways or shared services such as Zipcar and the Laundromat. If bite-size info nuggets are more your speed, flip to the charts filled with tips for eco-improvements you can make in "30 minutes or less." Note the little dollar signs and lightbulb symbols printed next to various actions: they tell you that doing those things will save both money and energy.

One caveat: Ready, Set, Green slips up in a fairly big way when the authors tout coal's "upside" as a "fairly flexible fuel" that can be converted into a gas and then "reconstituted into various different liquid fuels…for home heating or in vehicles." Producing liquid fuel from solid coal emits far more global warming pollution than producing conventional oil. Combine that with the emissions generated when you burn the stuff and it's pretty clear that liquid coal has nothing to do with going green. Even Congress knows this: the 2007 energy bill prohibits federal agencies from buying fuel that emits more greenhouse gas pollution over its life cycle than conventional oil. So if the Pentagon isn't allowed to sign a contract to purchase liquid coal, you should rule out putting it in your car.

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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >

It is frequently said out here in the hinterlands of western Massachusetts that people in Washington have no idea of how the rest of the country lives. Laura Wright's column in the Summer 2008 issue of "onearth" proves that the disconnect is not just with Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court.

In her "Green Me" review Ms. Wright states: "So I checked the little number printed inside the recycling symbol: the base is made of plastic #5. Not even in my office, in the headquarters of one of the largest environmental advocacy groups on the planet, are you able to recycle #5."

Number 5, as it states under the little triangle, is PP or polypropylene, a most versatile plastic used to package medicines and food among other things. It is one of the least toxic plastics around and food containers can be washed in the dishwasher and reused. Here in the wilds of Massachusetts, our town actually collects it (along with other recyclable plastics) every other week. The town even supplies free containers for its residents to use for the recyclables. Also, when the town decided to charge extra for people with more than 20 gallons of trash per week, the amount of paper and plastic recyclables rose substantially.

I suggest, therefore, that "the headquarters of one of the largest environmental advocacy groups on the planet" hold a seminar for its employees and apprise them of some of the green actions that are going on out here in the wilderness.

While I have your attention, I might also suggest that you work to improve the B- rating you get from AIP (American Institute of Philanthropy, I normally do not like to give to organizations with a rating lower than A- but you do accomplish things than no other organization does so I keep you on my list.

Oliver Deex
Longmeadow, MA 01106

Thank you for sorting through all the "How To Go Green" offerings and giving us your recommendations. I found the David Bach summary particularly helpful - saving money by going green. Bach makes a compelling case that a few environmental benefits here and there adds up to a large savings later.

Sustainability colleagues agonize over the possibility that "green" is just a fad right now and the public's attention will soon turn elsewhere. It won't be a fad as long as there is some direct utility to people by living their lives in a greener way: save money, improved health for family and enhanced happiness overall.

Thanks for your comment, Oliver. Perhaps I should have been clearer in describing the reason why I wasn't able to recycle #5 plastic in our office: New York City will not accept it. You can read why that is here:

I sort every bit of trash I produce every day, as does every member of OnEarth's staff and the NRDC staff at large. We even compost our food scraps and take turns bringing those scraps to the greenmarket in Union Square where there's a collection booth operated by the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Each NRDC office also has an eco-committee that educates NRDC employees on proper recycling practices and conducts annual audits to make sure employees both understand and are following office recycling rules. Recently the New York eco-committee brought in a representative from the Lower East Side Ecology Center to teach employees how to set up worm composting boxes at home. So you see we do practice what we preach, and the point I was making is that the publisher who produced that eco-calendar should have realized that #5 plastic cannot be recycled in many municipalities and was therefore a poor choice for an eco-themed product. Yes, #5 can be reused, if it's in a reusable form (a plastic calendar holder can not be reused for anything I can think of), can be recycled into new products, but only if you live in a place that collects it! New York City is not one of those places.

Thank you for your mention of Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World. However, I must ask: Did you actually read the book? You dismiss it as something designed to "instruct shopaholic moms on how to buy their way green." Nothing is farther from the truth. Every chapter of the book strongly urges readers to, first and foremost, reduce consumption as much as possible. Every chapter also reminds readers of the value of reusing and recyling. There is also abundant information on the economic value of making smart environmental choices, along with suggestions for reasonable ways people can shift their spending without breaking their personal bank. The point of Big Green Purse is to remind people that their marketplace choices make a significant difference; hence the book's subtitle, Use Your Spending POWER to Create a Cleaner, Greener World. In many cases, consumer demand for greener goods is transforming manufacturing. In other cases, a consumer's choices (for nontoxic cleaning products, safer cosmetics, home energy saving devices) are the only recourse she has to protect herself or reduce her energy costs. Groups like NRDC are doing their best to educate consumers about the need to act. It seems irresponsible not to give them solid suggestions that begin with "Reduce, reuse, recycle" and continue through a spectrum of ways they can wield their marketplace clout -- especially since no environmental laws are getting passed and few are being effectively enforced. You seem to imply that you would rather NOT provide marketplace guidance to one of the most powerful forces for environmental protection that we have available. People are concerned, they're asking questions, and they're ready to act. If you think that group of people is restricted only to "shopaholics," I believe you are sorely mistaken.