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Eco Etiquette: A Year Without BlackBerry

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BLACKBERRY EARTH DAY 2011
AP File

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I've received a lot of questions about how to go green this Earth Day. Here, a follow-up to the somewhat unusual choice I made in honor of Earth Day last year.

This time last year, I was damaging my most essential relationship, and I didn't even realize it. I was easily distracted; days seemed to whoosh by without connecting. Somehow, I had let go of the bond we had shared.

The breaking point, for me, happened on a beautiful spring day in Los Angeles, at the end of a pastoral hike that had always been one I savored. On that day, I didn't take pleasure in it. In fact, even now I can't recall a single second of what transpired there, on the canyon trail.

That's because I had been checking my BlackBerry the whole time.

The relationship, you see, is my irreplaceable connection with Mother Earth, and it had suffered greatly since I started paying more attention to the little blinking red light on my smartphone, than to the world I actually lived in.

So I made a decision then and there: I would give up my BlackBerry in honor of Earth Day.

Lest you think I'm going granola on you, let me explain: A great deal has been written about how BlackBerrys and other smartphones are negatively impacting personal relationships. In fact, a recent Stanford University study found that near half of all respondents were addicted to their iPhones. The problem is worldwide: In Tajikistan, for instance, marital reconciliation has given way to the triple talaq (aka divorce) via text message, so effectively unraveling the social code that the government is now stepping in to ban the practice.

But I believe these technologies aren't only threatening our connection to one another; they're also destroying our connection to the world around us.

Have you walked down a city street lately? People are so engrossed in their devices that they barely notice their fellow man (Watch out, buddy!), let alone the grass or a chirping bird.

How can we convince people to care about something as important as preserving funding for our national parks, if the closest they ever come to one is a YouTube video on their iPad?

The sad truth is, more than 1 in 7 children don't even know what an endangered species is, according to the 2010 United Nations-commissioned Bio-Index report. This isn't surprising, given that (according to the same study), playing computer games trumped playing outdoors as the more enjoyable pastime.

University of Washington psychologist Peter Kahn calls this phenomenon environmental generational amnesia, and says it could have profound implications not just for the world, but also for our own unique experiences as human beings.

Which brings me to my own experience. My own sans-BlackBerry experience, that is.

Rather than go cold turkey, I decided to shut off my data plan and use my BlackBerry only as a phone. That way, I could turn it back on when I traveled for work or encountered an emergency that might require internet access. (I was, after all, five months' pregnant at the time.)

Admittedly, the first few days of device withdrawal were difficult. I experienced a vague sense of panic; what's known in the digital era as FOMO, or "fear of missing out." But once I realized I wasn't missing out on anything -- mostly a steady stream of work-related emails that could easily be tackled from the computer in my home office -- I started to see that it was nice to have a little human control back in my life; it was a relief to not feel like I was at the beck and call of everyone who demanded my attention for any purpose, however small.

All at once, I found myself carrying an impotent device: Friends looked at me curiously as I placed my "phone" on the table at lunch but never stole a glance at it. Only after explaining that I had "unplugged" did the questions start pouring in: Wasn't I bored when I got stuck somewhere with nothing to do? What if I did miss something important?

Those were the risks I took. Some may become bored without the constant lure of an electronic device. But I reacted differently: I started paying attention to the world around me. If I was meeting someone for coffee and got there early, I people-watched and admired the bougainvillea lining the sidewalk. I checked out a squirrel scaling a palm tree while I was waiting in line at the ATM, and wondered at his remarkable dexterity.

Of course, I live in urban Los Angeles, not Los Padres National Forest. But even in the midst of a city, these little glimpses of nature made me happy. I felt real again.

As for missed opportunities: In an entire year, there wasn't a one. I booked cable news spots. I landed the cover of a national magazine. I even made it to my cousin's last-minute surprise 30th birthday party, despite the fact that I had been out and about all day and the invite was sent via email.

I can tell you, however, what I would have missed had I still been glued to my BlackBerry: The sparkling blue Pacific as my husband and I drove up the California coast for one last getaway before we became parents. Those first few days after giving birth, marveling over every inch of the tiny human life we had created. (You'd be surprised how many of my new-parent friends texted like crazy from their own delivery rooms.)

Today, snuggling our daughter close in her baby carrier as we stroll through the farmers market, we hold up fresh-picked fruits and veggies for her to grasp and sniff, and rejoice in all the varied and wonderful sounds of life around us -- uninterrupted by those constant email beeps.

This is the world -- the natural world -- I want to savor with my daughter; the one I want her to fully grasp and feel the urge to be a part of; the world I hope she will want to take care of. What a difference a year makes. And we've experienced every second of it.

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