April 22, 2005

Earth to You

Earth Day -- April 22nd

Finding yourself at a loss about how best to celebrate Earth Day? If you’re not much for rallies and agit-prop theater, but you’ve got a gnawing worry that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, here are practically pain-free ways to become part of the solution.

Cancel those catalogues You thought you might start knitting during your downtime, bought some needles and a skein of yarn, but your scarf is six inches long and holding, and you’re inundated with catalogs and offers for knitting tchotchkas. Take a half-hour on a rainy evening and call the 800 ordering number listed in each catalogue. Ask them to remove you from their list, and to cease and desist from selling your information to other marketers. Voila, less junk mail, less temptation, and less landfill. Plus, you can work on your scarf while you’re on hold.

Opt out Yes, Earth Day was born in 1970 when everyone was tuning in and dropping out, but opting out is contemporary marketing lingo. Time was, you could “opt-in,” as in choose whether to request more information, services, or promotional junk. Now the onus is on you to just try and stop them. Marketers make megabucks selling and repurposing your personal information in their quest for “synergy.” Just say no. Your financial institutions are required to send you their privacy policy. Call the number listed, and opt out so they can’t share your data with anyone. Repeat with your credit card companies. Don’t sign paperwork that requires you to release your data in order to receive discounts or prizes. You’ll be amazed how the deluge of snail-mail spam slows to a trickle. While on hold, work on your scarf.

Freecycle A combination of recycling and Christmas, local Freecycle groups nationwide hook up people who want with people who have. Google “Freecycle” to find your local chapter. You’ll join an e-mail list where people are posting all sorts of junk, and other people are snapping it up. Seen this afternoon alone on the New York City Freecycle list: A 10-speed bike, a cordless phone, one of those thingies for your car that holds cups and change, some tarnished silverware, and the January issue of Playboy. The list moderator stepped in at that point to admonish all members that items must be legal and appropriate for all ages. Freecycling is the apotheosis of guilt-free decluttering. Freecycle those needles and yarn at this point.

Eschew packaging In recovery circles, it’s common parlance to vow to stop your vice “Just for today.” Today is manageable, and today is now. So, “just for today,” don’t buy anything with excess packaging. That means nothing encased in form-fitted plastic shells or boxes inside of boxes wrapped in cellophane, nothing shrink-wrapped for your protection or individually wrapped for your convenience or discreetly wrapped for your privacy. Make a game of finding what you want in the most minimal packaging possible. Older hardware stores sell hinges and bolts from bins. Produce stands sell fruits and vegetables naked as the day they were picked. This game can be eye opening. You’ll be forced to really see the amount of packaging you discard daily without a thought. And you’ll be cast upon your own resources. You might even step out of your comfort zone and buy some cocoa or lentils in bulk. Of course, there’s a catch. When you wake up the next day, that will be a new today, and “just for today” you’re cold-turkey on the packaging thing.

Eat a peach Yes, you dare. Fresh foods are best for your body. No additives, no preservatives, no packaging (see above), no guilt. Just for Earth Day, eat only fresh, unprocessed foods. Have a piece of in-season fruit, try an organic tomato, thin-sliced dressed with olive oil and a shake of salt. Then invite some friends over for dinner, cook something hearty and simple from scratch, and rent “Oil on Ice,” a documentary about the impact of drilling for oil in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge. Discuss.

Free of junk mail, junk food, and massive amounts of paper waste, not to mention a hobby that had become unmanageable, and fueled by fresh foods and a soupcon of outrage, you’ll be in great shape to save the world from this day forward, one day at a time.

I wrote the above for an assignment in a magazine-writing class. The teacher's critique was that many of the tips seemed to be more about personal guilt over overconsumption rather than ecological. She also seemed to think I was talking about fears of *identity theft.* I'm not, although one could delineate a connection. She seemed to see shunning excess packaging and direct marketing as more of a "simple living"/decluttering exercise.

I disagree. In Switzerland, there's an astonishing economy of packaging. That's because the ecological impact is reinforced with an economic penalty. Citizens pay for trash removal by *buying* the official trash bags. This means you want to generate less trash, because you'll pay for everything you throw out. You might think twice before printing out your document multiple times. You'll look for minimal packaging and durable goods. Manufacturers and retailers thus both create and stock for this preference. People bring their own bags (nice net or canvas shopping bags). Less landfill, less waste, less pollution created by the manufacture of superfluous packaging and cheap, disposable goods. Switzerland is *clean.*

Here in the US, where excess manufacturing and gratuitous waste is rather *rewarded* by tax breaks and government subsidies in the name of "production," it falls to us, the citizens, to apply pressure from the other side. Companies are not going to continue to produce things that people don't buy. They're going to discontinue direct-mail campaigns that don't work. So we, singly and in the aggregate, have the power to effect global change by small refusals, by becoming first *conscious* of our choices in consumption of both goods and information, and second *habitually proactive* and *selective* in our participation.

The American consumer has a vague sense of powerlessness, even as they seem personally catered to; something for every taste and lifestyle. But it's like a deluge, a natural, unstoppable force. it is *amazingly empowering* to exercise choice, to sidestep, opt out. When you take the steps to stop direct mail, it works. It frees up your time and space and removes the responsibility of sorting, de-infomizing (cutting off your personal data), and recycling or throwing out massive amounts of paper. It frees up your mind from a measure of unsolicited claims on your attention, allowing you to direct your energy on your best path. When you bring your own bag, you don't end up with those unsighly and guilt-inducing piles of plastic bags. When you stop buying processed, brightly packaged foods, you have more space and less clamour in the larder, and you discover a whole, and wholly more nourishing way of eating. In our efficient, market-driven feedback-loop economy, stores and companies respond by offering more of what people want: things in bulk, organic and locally grown produce, simply packaged, actually durable durables.

You get (that we know of) one lifetime. Don't let yourself be buffeted around and passively receptive to the incessant pressure to become a marketing profile, a consumer from cradle to grave. Fill your head, heart, body, and home only with what serves and nourishes you. As you do this, you'll get a truer sense of what this really is; what you can happily do without. You'll have time for your own thoughts and projects, space to breathe. And you will leave the earth a bit better than you found it.

Marketing and data opt-out How-to

PBS's Frontline "The Persuaders": *Fantastic* look into marketing/ad tactics and crafting political messages. The most compelling aspect for me was the glimpse into the Republican message-making machine; Frank Luntz, a linguist, is their guy who reframes issues in a way that then becomes the standard idiom, with profound effect. He changed "global warming" into "climate change" (sounds benign and natural); "tax breaks" into "tax relief," "estate tax" into "death tax" (Who isn't against a death tax? This week a New York Press columnist tracked citizen outrage on the net about the "death tax" despite the fact that these ordinary Joes will foot the bill for the lost revenue of the very rich, the only group to benefit from this repealed tax.) Probably more dangerous than Karl Rove; making destroying this country linguistically palatable, conceptually tasty.