Assigning colors to decades is an interesting exercise. The 1930s, dominated by the Great Depression, might rate a label of black. The 1940s, when WWII created widespread patriotic fervor, could be considered red, white and blue, while the 50s, with anti-Communism at its peak, was probably just red. The 60s were tie-dyed, of course. And so it goes.
There’s little question that the current decade is green. Although ecological awareness did not suddenly dawn with the new millennium, the amount of attention given to environmental concerns in recent years is unprecedented. These days, only the most determined misanthrope or self-styled curmudgeon cultivates an anti-green persona.
A good indication of the extent to which an issue has pervaded public consciousness is its presence in advertising. We Americans are what we buy, and if the marketers latch onto something, it must be important. Light bulbs, laundry soap, toilet paper, coffee, even water — a bewildering variety of products can be judged not only by price and quality but also by their effect on the earth, sea and sky.
Today, almost no decision facing the American consumer falls outside the green shadow. From what we drive to what we wear to where we live to what we eat — everything, we’re now given to understand, has environmental consequences. Every breath we take is fraught and every move we make leaves a carbon footprint.
When Kermit the Frog sang “It’s not easy being green,” he was making an implicit observation about self-concept, perhaps metaphorically about racial identity. Today the same lament reflects a realization of the inherent complexity attending any attempt to live an environmentally responsible life.
In short, it’s hard to know whether we’re doing the right thing. We dutifully put out our recyclables every week or two, but the sense of accomplishment that accompanies sorting glass from paper from plastic may inure us to difficult and far-reaching questions about the consequences of depending on others to get rid of all the stuff we discard.
Worse, a painfully heightened consciousness of how difficult it is to live consistently can lead to despair. How much difference can one person make, after all? If we’re only buying a little time, maybe it’s not worth it. Plus, what about all the big polluters over in ______? Why should we make sacrifices if they’re not going to?
Of course, part of our problem is seeing green choices as necessitating sacrifice. A better approach might be to think of trade-offs. Riding mass transit might take longer, but it could reduce stress and create more time for reading. Adding insulation results in an immediate expense but will pay for itself over time. Buying more locally grown food reduces the variety in your grocery bag but may inspire greater creativity in the kitchen.
Being able to see trade-offs is also a corrective to over-simplification. Nuclear energy is cheaper than some alternatives, but its waste creates storage problems. Burning biomass does not deplete a finite resource but may result in more pollutants than burning natural gas. Designating state funds for mass transit might advantage urban dwellers over their rural counterparts.
But although seeing choices as trade-offs means complicating one’s world view, it’s also an antidote to cynicism, despair and unproductive guilt. You can’t do everything, but you can do something, and that something can make a difference.
Kermit was right: It’s not easy being green. But his song ends optimistically, and ours can too: “I think it’s what I want to be.”