Sunday, January 12, 2014

Andy Kessler Recast: Living the Green Purpose-Driven Life

Andy Kessler wrote an Opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal’s December 28-29, 2013, Saturday-Sunday edition "Living the California Nanny State Life".  There was a lot of attitude about attitude in his piece, so here's a more positive recast. If you rescue your version from the recycling bin and follow along, you can make comparisons and choose which attitude works best for you. Mr. Kessler’s words are in quotes.

Mr. Kessler began his piece by commenting on how the recycling instructions at the frozen yogurt store were so complex as to be undecipherable by average humans. Mr. Kessler left his frozen yogurt cup on the table for someone else to deal with.  In contrast, my  20-year-old recently identified a Soda Stream machine, like the one our hosts had, for his Christmas list next year, nimbly pointing out that it requires fewer bottles to manufacture and recycle, and fewer shipping miles for delivery. Then he washed his own glass. 
“I’m unqualified for today’s sanitation edicts”, Mr. Kessler writes; such edicts are why “living in California has become nearly impossible”.  Hmm, I am not sure qualifications necessary for learning new habits?  My sons and I believe we are all qualified for changing environmental behaviors. Mr. Kessler's description of “nearly impossible” to live by does, of course, stretch the point, but he willingly confuses edicts and growing social norms, and chooses the attitude that being environmentally-conscious is a burden.  Surely for one of his position it is perhaps annoying, but not extreme.  For the less-advantaged often it is. Environmentally-conscious rules, opportunities, and practices are unevenly achievable, applied, and understood throughout the world, yet I believe that embracing them whenever possible, and often when difficult, significantly increases the chances of a comfortable, healthy, and prosperous future possible for generations to come – not just for my generation and Mr. Kessler’s.

Mr. Kessler took on plastic bags, electrical wiring, coffee, dogs, and food, with an exasperated attitude.  “So far, 88 cities and counties in [California] have banned plastic bags”, Mr. Kessler wrote. “Most stores are now required by law to charge 10 cents for a paper bag, which so annoyed an elderly man in San Carlos this summer that he took a swing at the cashier.” Really? If that puts the man over the edge, then he was looking for a reason.  “Many shoppers have resorted to re-usable bags – never mind that a 2011 study by the University of Arizona found E. coli bacteria in 8% of reusable bags, and lots of salmonella too. Perhaps California should pass ordinances requiring bag-washing; a survey of people who shop with reusable bags found that only 3% ever do.”  “Perhaps California should pass ordinances requiring bag-washing….”
Well, we wash our reusable bags. It makes sense and it’s our choice.  California’s eco-laws are focused on protecting the environment for the good of all, less so on individuals’ details. To me, Mr. Kessler’s willing disbelief that any good comes of sustainability rules, messages, or habits, wears poorly especially the parts that are tongue-in-cheek.   
Palo Alto, he writes, “requires all new homes to be wired for an electric-car charging station, even if you drive a ’69 Mustang. And ...half of the lighting in new kitchens is required to be ‘high efficiency luminaires,’ which usually means glaring fluorescents. These are hard-wired, since the state doesn’t trust its citizens not to swap them out with old-school bulbs”.  There’s a lot less glare in fluorescents these days and, because of comments such as his (some delivered more appropriately), there is likely to be even less glare in future versions. As for the hard-wiring bit, I have similar attitude issues but have chosen to see the value in creating conditions that encourage energy-efficiency in structures expected to last decades. Many would say they should require 100% of the new kitchen to be hard-wired.  Quit your grumbling.

Mr. Kessler also complains about “the nannyish mentality extend[ing] well beyond government, seeming to reach into life’s every cranny.” He takes on coffee - the label of “fair trade” feels like a lecture – and peoples’ descriptions of their dogs – feeling that “rescue dog” is a fashion. Recast, both of these can be interpreted as truth in labeling and/or a statement of value. Really? How many rescue dogs have certain breeding anyway?
Mr. Kessler’s trip to the farmer’s market highlights the tensions in organic food production – a real issue. It is expensive and difficult to be certified organic (and certified sustainable in building, products, and manufacturing) if you measure value only by the initial currency exchange.

Buyers make choices about organic produce and food based on personal values as well as preference and cost. As we change our food system we will all make different choices and get better at making them; mocking mine won’t change my mind. Denigration is implied only if one wishes it to be.

Mr. Kessler recounts how he “side-stepped” the “organic, vegan, gluten-free, Soy Beanery” and indulged himself in “$13 air-chilled, free-range rotisserie chickens” and did so without anyone telling him he couldn’t. I am glad he was happy and I am glad he enjoys “free-range.”  Perhaps he chose not to see attitude in that particular label.
Few can go all-green, and few go green all at once, but I have the attitude that our very best effort is important: I proudly admit to being “eco-OCD.”
We know Mr. Kessler isn’t an environmentalist, and is unlikely to plant his own vegetable garden or fruit tree, but the environment is an ecosystem and helping to balance it is a shared responsibility and a shared attitude.  If we don’t share responsibility we will all be short of resources, including plants for food.  Mr. Kessler won’t mind; he eats people.
 Mr. Kessler is author, most recently, of “Eat People” (Portfolio, 2011).



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