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Donna Henes Headshot

Mother Earth: What Have You Done For Me Lately?

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I've seen several outrageous television commercials recently that blithely extol the benefits of throwaway dust rags and floor mops and disposable baby bibs, of all things. Apparently the landfills are not yet filled to over-flowing capacity with Pampers as I had assumed.

Knowing myself to be a concerned citizen and certified Queen of reducing, re-using and recycling, I feel morally indignant in the face of such crass waste. The mere sight of The New York Times Sunday Edition stacked in high piles at the newsstand fills me with queasy guilt. Heaven forbid I should buy one. Recycling a single run of the Sunday New York Times would save 75,000 trees. Times 52. Yikes!

As it is, every American uses an average of 749 pounds of paper every year, which adds up to a whopping 187 billion pounds per year for the entire population, by far the largest per capita consumption rate of paper for any country in the world. That translates to 7 trees per person a year on paper goods, wood products and newsprint.

I take my own bags to the grocery store. I use cloth napkins and hankies and refuse to use paper towels, opting instead for sponges and rags. I print out proof sheets from my computer on the backside of discarded paper. When I used to drink coffee, I used the same paper bag day in and day out for café con leches-to-go, my record being 65 days worth of caffeine-carrying with one single bag.

All of this conservation is well and good, but what have I done lately? What did I do today? This is an important distinction: what did I do versus what did I not do. The issue is not how many trees did I save, but how many trees did I plant? I am 64 years old. That means that I should have planted 448 trees by now to replace those that I have used. While I have conducted quite a few tree-planting ceremonies over the years, I still owe Mother Earth a new orchard or two.

Maybe it is self-defeating to think that we should be giving up comforts and luxuries in order to be more environmentally correct and connected. Such negative terminology doesn't make acting conscientiously seem like a very attractive prospect, but rather like some sort of deprivation that would appeal only to martyrs. That's just bad psychology -- completely unproductive, if you ask me. The medicine does not have to taste bad in order for it to work well.

Perhaps it is more fruitful to think not of giving something up, but rather of giving something back. It is the most elemental and universal rule of etiquette that if you take something, you put it back; if you use something, you replace it -- plus some. While saving and conserving are admirable virtues to be commended and encouraged, being generous and proactively responsive is equally crucial to our survival, body and soul. Take less. Give more.

It is pay back time!

So, let's plant trees everywhere -- in our gardens, on our terraces and roofs, inside our houses, throughout our parks and schoolyards. Even those of us who live in the most crowded cement cities can join a community garden or participate in a park clean-up and planting day.

We can "buy" acres of rainforest to give as gifts or have trees planted in honor of all the special occasions celebrated by friends and family. We could adopt a neighborhood or a stretch of highway and help take care of it.

We could take a page from Lady Bird Johnson, and like a brigade of green guerillas, spread out and scatter wildflower seeds in every vacant lot, strip mall and avenue median.

I hereby pledge to plant as many trees as I can this spring. Won't you join me?

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