Friday, April 26, 2013

The cost of convenience

It's time again for one of my favorites... responding to chain emails that don't quite pass muster. Today's concerns it's self with the green movement and previous generations. As before, I'll reply to each quoted section separately:
Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to me the other day, that I should bring my own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment. I apologized and explained, "We didn't have this green thing back in my earlier days." * The clerk responded, "**That's our problem today**. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations."** * She was right -- our generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

This chain email starts out poorly, because it fails to define what generation the older generation is. We can get an idea from the remaining examples. But that still only narrows things to a few generations. Let's move on...

Back then, *we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store*. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over.* **So they really were recycled*. But we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

The initial point here is a good one. When these things all came in glass bottles, and were used again,
and again, the system was more ecologically responsible than today's disposable practices. But is this the fault of following generations? If you want to blame one generation here, you have to blame all involved. That's because the move from glass to plastic and aluminum was a move made by the cola, milk, and beer companies. It was cheaper for them to do away with the traditional glass offering for cola and milk, and beer could also be put in cans instead of exclusively glass bottles. They could make more profit, while offering cheaper prices to the consumer. And what happened next? Every generation, old and new, ate up these more affordable offerings. So if we are going to try and place the blame anywhere, I'd cast it initially on those looking to profit, and then extend it to all of us.

I must say that I find the 'so they really were recycled' line to be curious. Not because I think it's wrong. The statement it's self is factual. But this opening argument seems to be attempting to frame the older generation as the greenest of the green. But there's a problem... When it comes to recycling, my personal experience has shown that the older a person is, the less likely they seem to recycle. Obviously, this isn't a rule written in stone, but that's what my own observations have shown. I know plenty of people from older generations that do recycle, and I'm glad they do. But for some reason, the largest group of people that I know that don't recycle (on purpose) are from older generations. How can this (unspecified) generation be so green, if I know so many that think recycling is a BS waste of time, and refuse to?

Grocery stores bagged our *groceries in brown paper bags*, that we *reused** *for numerous things, most memorable besides household *garbage bags*, was the use of *brown paper bags as book covers *for our school books. This was to ensure that public property, (the books provided for our use by the school) was not defaced by our scribblings. Then we were able to personalize our books. But too bad we didn't do the green thing back then.*

Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate plastic bags. When my wife and I go to the store, we always take our reusable bags with us. But I again, don't see a generational issue here. Again, it's profits that are to prime mover. Stores can get plastic bags cheaper, and they take up less space at the check stand. There is also a second point of consideration... convenience. Plastic bags are light, have a built in handle, and take up next to no space when stored (to use as a trash bag later?). Companies ate up the cost savings, and consumers largely ate up the fact that they are easier to carry than paper bags. Surprisingly, plastic bags do take less energy to produce, but take much longer to break down.

Sure plastic bags don't have as many other uses as paper bags, but recycling them has finally caught on in recent years. One odd thing I've noticed is the people who request paper AND plastic when they are being rung up. A paper bag goes in each plastic bag to create additional waste. And who are the ones that I see making this request? Older generations. Not all of them of course, but that's what my observations have shown. So please, don't tout your use are reuse of paper bags if you're needlessly encasing each one in a redundant layer of plastic.

We walked up stairs*, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. *We walked to the grocery store *and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn't have the green thing in our day.

Elevators and escalators... Again, this is an issue on convenience. When they became commonplace, everyone (young and old) were using them. Personally, I prefer to take the stairs whenever possible, but malls didn't put in escalators because of one generation. They did it because it was a convenience point, and more convenient equated to more sales.

I feel it was an error to bring up cars if you're trying to espouse older generations as being greener. First off, people likely walked more for multiple reasons. Maybe it was for the exercise, maybe it was a nice day, or maybe it's because not everyone had a car back then. But one thing that is certain is that anyone that did have a car, had a less efficient one. How much of a disparity to today's cars will depend on the generation. But a big  heavy car with a huge carbureted engine is going to go through gas. When it comes to walking, I like to walk as long as the weather is good or it's not too late. As for cars, why is it that so many of those 'walkers' don't anymore (aside from age)? Maybe it's convenience again. Also, why is it that these older generations seem to gravitate to the least efficient car offerings available? This gap is reducing as cars get better on gas. But I think it's odd that this generation that is trying to be propped up as 'big mean green' seem to go out of their way to get a car that's not great on gas.

Back then, *we washed the baby's diapers *because we didn't have the throw-away kind. *We dried clothes on a line*, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts -- wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days.*Kids got hand-me-down clothes *from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right; we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

Once again, convenience, convenience, convenience. I hate disposable diapers, but everyone jumped on board because they were a time saver. Same with washing machines and driers. They do the job better and quicker. My generation adopted them, and so did many generations before mine.

Back then, *we had one TV, or radio*, in the house -- not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana . In the kitchen, *we blended and stirred by hand *because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a *fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers *to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. *We used a push mower *that ran on human power. *We exercised by working *so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she's right; we didn't have the green thing back then.

More examples of convenience winning out (except for the TV, that's just excess and personal wants). The older generations started with small TV's, but they were the first to buy the bigger and better ones. They did kitchen work by hand, but were the first to buy up electric kitchen gadgets in droves. They used a reel-type lawn mower,  but were the first to buy gas powered ones when they came out.

Styrofoam... don't get me started on Styrofoam... I fu**ing hate Styrofoam!

As for work being your exercise, for many it still is. Sure, people that work behind a desk aren't getting the workout of old, but some of us are (to varying degrees). But is this a generational fleeing of labor, or a filling of needs in an ever changing world? Information technology wasn't a job not that long ago. In fact, anything related to computers or technology would have been alien concepts of past generations.

We drank from a fountain *when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. *We refilled writing pens *with ink instead of buying a new pen, and *we replaced the razor blades in a razor*instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn't have the green thing back then.

While drinking fountains are good, they aren't as commonplace as they would need to be to fill the hydration needs of our growing world. Remember that when they started bottling water, everyone started buying it out of convenience, not just one generation. Personally, I have reusable bottles that I car refill indefinitely. There is the initial cost of making the bottle, but by using that I can couple convenience and responsibility. 

Refilling pens... most nice pens are still refillable today. The one I carry is. But remember, all generations adopted cheap disposable pens. I don't think any of us want to get into a pissing match over writing utensil responsibility. Before pens, we used pencils that be completely used up. Before that ink quills coupled a feather and ink to draft documents. Go back further and you have berry dyes and paints on cave walls.

On razors, you can still replace the blades only to this very day. And just like so many examples, the first to adopt disposable razors (out of convenience) was the older generations, and the others then followed suit.

Back then, people took the* **streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school *or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. *We had one electrical outlet in a room*, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint.

On the transportation points, I'll refer you to my earlier comments on cars. As for the proliferation of  electric outlets, supply meats demand. All those new gadgets that were being adopted had to be powered one way or another. More outlets didn't make people buy more gadgets. People having more gadgets caused a need for more power sources.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we older folks were just because we didn't have the green thing back then?*

I think it really depends. If you are of the older generation and refuse to recycle out of spite, I think it's criticism well deserved.  Personally, even though the older generations were the first to adopt the conveniences that we now take for granted, I don't hold them responsible lock-stock-and-barrel. As the email stated, some of the practices of old were good practices. But that will not absolve the involvement that they (and all of us) have in effecting the environment. They did some things right, and some things wrong. No generation is perfect. I don't think you can blame any one generation. But one of the generations between the gauge older generation argued and mine would probably be the most entrenched in the disposable and wasteful culture the green movement is trying to counter.

In my opinion, we are all to blame in different ways. Some generations polluted the air and water more, some created the urban plastic bag tumble-weed, some gulp electricity like water. Some people refuse to recycle, and some go out of the way to drive the biggest gas guzzler they can. But we all drank the kool-aid of convenience and cheap prices. While this 'trap' was good for the companies, it wasn't for the planet and the environment. Going green needn't mean new revolutions. Sometimes it will mean returning to the ways of the past. Lets stop pointing fingers at one generation or another and rather judge people on an individual basis, as well as work together toward a common good.

-Brain Hulk


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