Almost Green: How I Saved 1/6 of a Billionth of the Planet
I have trouble making even little decisions about how to help the environment. Say I find a mucked-up glass jar hiding in the back of the refrigerator. Should I rinse it out so that I can recycle it? Or should I toss it in the trash and save the precious fresh water it would take to clean it?
If a small decision like that has me stymied, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to figure out how to build a truly “green” building. James Glave, author of Almost Green: How I Saved 1/6 of a Billionth of the Planet, decided to do just that. His book chronicles an amazing number of decisions he had to make and challenges he faced when trying to build a single, small building he calls an “Eco Shed.” I wasn’t far into the book before realizing I’m a whole lot less green than I thought I was.
In the first chapter, Glave recommends checking out YouTube for a clip posted by a U.K. government agency in December 2005: Tomorrow’s Climate, Today’s Challenge. He recounts that he reflexively clicks his mouse on the You-Tube clip that haunts him and drives him to try to live a greener life:
“It’s a throat-grabbing moment, and in my mind it underscores one of the most inconvenient truths of all: increasing numbers of us connect the dots between SUV tailpipes and the hottest summers on record, but we often overlook a big bad factory right under our noses — home.”
Glave’s saga begins in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a drafty, old house in a freezing, cold winter. He and his wife are struggling with budget considerations and long-distance negotiations to purchase a new home on an island off the western coast of Canada. After making some compromises, they purchase a medium-sized tract home with an upgrade to a larger lot and room for a garden.
While attempting to influence neighbors and friends, and lead their children into green-thinking, they are constantly embarrassed about driving their Lexus SUV, a gift from the author’s father-in-law:
“The truth is, the moment you take your life off autopilot — the moment you begin leading by example — you essentially start to tinker with the social order. First, in a kind of self-defense mechanism, some might begin holding you to a higher moral standard. Once you publicly embrace green, there’s little wiggle room for the occasional Starbucks’ latte, McDonald’s french-fry binge, or, heaven forbid — dollop of Cool Whip. (These occasional nobody’s-perfect indulgences become hypocrisies.)”
Struggling with his green dream, Glave begins to plan a zero-emissions outbuilding on their property, to serve as a writing study and guest room. The plans become complicated when he has to dismantle the carport (also a gift from the well-intentioned in-laws) in order to provide sunlight to heat his “Eco Shed” during the cold, wet Canadian winters.
Glave’s search for recycled and earth-friendly materials to build this single-car-garage-sized building, and the difficulties he faces, defy imagination. Glave takes us along on his search for each eco-friendly building material, never compromising in his determination to purchase each item as locally as possible. Because the Eco Shed is such a small project, Glave has trouble with architects, contractors, schedules, and purchases. Budget overruns, marital stress, job stress, and delays punctuate the pages.
But Glave’s building adventure is not the only issue he chronicles. His burning desire to recycle the Lexis SUV and buy a smaller, more gas-efficient vehicle keeps nagging at the edges of the story:
“Buying a tiny, sporty car would give us the vehicular equivalent of a gastric bypass operation; we’d feel fuller faster, which would naturally help curb our consumer appetites. We wouldn’t buy as much vacuous crap, I reasoned, because we’d have no way of getting it home. But most important, we’d slash that naggingly large transportation footprint.”
By the end of the book, another family member buys the Lexus, and the Glaves are free to purchase the small car. He recounts a conversation with his daughter:
“Along the way, the three of us silently took in the transportation profile of Bowen Island. Though there were a few other pint-sized runabouts on the roads, we passed several contractors’ Ram-tough megapickups, a jacked-up Ford Excursion with monster tires…
‘Hey, Dad,’ asked Sabrina, ‘remember how you said our new car was much nicer to the planet?’
‘That sounds pretty good to me.’
‘It does doesn’t it? I feel much better about our car. Don’t you?’
‘I guess so.’
Then, a beat.
‘But what about all the other cars?’ ”
This book is entertaining, but educational in ways I didn’t expect. Who knew the single-family home was such a blight on the earth? Breaking the cycle of waste and destruction is more complicated, it seems, than just separating cans and bottles from real trash, and using canvas shopping bags at the market:
“Having stubbornly refused to compromise for the better part of a year, I now appreciate that green is more a direction than a destination. It is a relentless and private self-improvement project that will never be concluded….
“Eventually, the acceptable norms will evolve, and every one of us will discover that transformational change isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, but rather a dog’s breakfast of compromises and personal discoveries.”
If you’re serious about living a green life and not making the earth worse than it was when you came here, this book is for you. It’s a good read that allows you to laugh at yourself while you see how far you’ve come, then take a sober look at how far there is yet to go. Unwinding all the damage we’ve done to the earth is impossible, but we must not wait to begin trying.
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Almost Green: How I Saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet
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